Feel free to read, to laugh with me, to cry when appropriate, and to, as Lil’ Abner (whom I quote often) says “angrify” if it fits.
Men for My Rivers – Part Two
By Homer Hirt
The first cargo to be shipped out of the new Jackson County Port near Sneads, Florida, was a barge-load of crushed automobiles. Full sized autos were flattened in a hydraulic machine and were stacked by the large American crane into the open hopper barges. The stacks were well above the gunwales of the barges, towering another six to eight feet, and secured with steel cables. 0ne day we stood on the pier and watched as from downstream a push boat, propelled by a huge stern wheel and seemingly from out of the past, slowly made the turn at the Gulf Power plant, and then turned again and approached the pier from upstream. The deckhand scrambled to rig wires to the first barge, and to tighten them with winches so that the boat and the barge was as one. Then up the ladder came the Captain.
First a well-worn cap with an anchor insignia appeared, firmly seated on the head that showed next. The face was dark and weathered, and it was obvious that the owner was of deep American Indian blood. The body was lean and lank. A dark hand was extended: “Tom Corley” came the introduction. I shook hands and told him my name. There was no banter, no “weather talk”, just “Tom Corley” and “Homer Hirt”. Captain Tom Corley thus came into my life and my life was richer for it. Corley had an affinity for sternwheelers, and usually built them himself in a nearby Panama City boatyard.
He was qualified in other craft: “all ships, all tonnages, all seas” was the way he put it, and he was right. He had served during World War II on merchant ships, was a certified and licensed ship’s surveyor, and owned up to having moved almost every kind of cargo that ever transited the Tri Rivers system. “Even shine whiskey?” I asked, with a smile. He smiled back. “Yes, and I even ran rum from Cuba up here during Prohibition,” he admitted. “We had to do that in the dark of the night, and keep a weather eye out out for the revenue cutters” he said. I picked up bits and pieces about Tom Corley’s life. He enjoyed talking about the past happenings. He was born into a farm family that lived near Columbus, Georgia. His father was white, his mother American Indian. She never came to town for fear of being shipped out to the Midwest, joining those who still made the “Trail of Tears” trek. Tom stayed home and worked, milking cows, tossing hay, doing whatever jobs came assigned him by a hardworking father.
One day he got into town and went down to the river. A W. C. Bradley boat was moored there and he found that it was captained by his father’s brother. He got aboard, and the captain took him downstream. At the age of nine years, he worked a trip as a cabin boy. He stayed with the boat until his father found out what had happened.
He sat his wayward son down, talked with him, probably about the importance of book learning and how much his mother missed him. The boy, reluctantly, agreed to return to the farm if he could rejoin the sternwheeler in the summer. “But I ain’t going to pull no teats”, he told his father. So he returned home and worked, and in the summers became a cabin boy and eventually a deckhand, and then a cub pilot and, finally, as he had dreamed, a full-fledged and skilled river boat pilot.
His career launched, Tom Corley went up and down the Tri-Rivers system, piloting, learning, venturing out into other waters and calling at other ports, serving his country in wartime, moving cargo in peace. But his heart was always with the sternwheelers that gave him his start. Those stalwart craft were becoming scarce, though, so, in between trips and voyages he would make plans and construct his own.
In actuality the sternwheeler was the proper boat for the vagaries of the Tri-Rivers. They were difficult to operate in the spring floods, but when summer came and droughts upstream lessened the flow from Jim Woodruff Dam, the sternwheeler, able to run in shallow water, made sense. A few survived: The Big Wheel, The Seminole Queen. It was then that Tom Corley picked up another trade and skill: boat construction.
Usually in a Panama City boatyard Tom Corley would lay down the keel of a workboat, and in his spare time he would bring to life another of his beloved craft. When last I saw him he was in his eighties and was showing off his last. “I worked twenty-five youngsters down”, he laughed, and he probably did, for few could match the drive of the man who began his career as a cabin boy, so long ago, so that he would no longer “have to pull teats” on a dairy farm near Columbus, Georgia.