A River Cruise
I often think if I had a time machine, the dial would be set first to the mid 1890s, location Dublin, Georgia, at the wharves along the banks of the Oconee River. The intention of my adventure would be a ride down the Oconee and Altamaha Rivers to Darien on the Atlantic coast. A warm winter's day, or perhaps a crisp autumn one when the crimson and gold leaves of the sweet gum and the oak would adorn my prolonged trek to the sea, would be my first choices.
I stepped inside the strange contraption and set the dial for November 13, 1893. All of a sudden, the cylindrical sphere began to wildly rotate. The centrifugal force flung me against the wall. When the spinning subsided, the time dial indicated May 15, 1894. It was a typical mid spring day, kind of warm, but at least it wasn't raining. Though the number of houses and buildings were scant, I did manage to recognize the lay of the land. Toward the east, I spotted what appeared to be the heart of the town, glowing in the rays of the setting sun. A place to sleep and a good meal were the first order of my itinerary.
Upon the crest of a small hill I saw what I believed to be "Liberty Hall," the residence of Col. John M. Stubbs. Stubbs was a well known and highly skilled attorney, but was also known as one of the men who brought river boating and the railroads to Dublin some dozen or fifteen years prior. Col. Stubbs, as I surmised he would be, was in his study going over plans for his gardens and orchards, another of the things he was most famous for. I introduced myself as a fellow Maconite, who was looking to chronicle a ride on a river boat down to Darien. He smiled and said, "son, you are in luck. There's a boat leaving before sunup in the morning. I am supposed to be aboard, but I have a trial in Eastman in two days and the judge refuses to grant me a continuance. Go up to the hotel across from the courthouse and Mr. Hooks will take care of you."
All around me were new residences going up. When I reached the bottom of the hill, I could see the main business district. Off to my left was a new brick church for the Methodists coming up from the sandy ground. As the sun sank behind the trees, Jackson Street fell into near complete darkness. I forgot, the electric light bulb hadn't come to Dublin yet. Everyone I met was friendly, overly friendly. It seemed as if they were having a contest to see who could be the friendliest to the new stranger in town.
As I approached the center of town, I could make out the outline of a two-story wooden structure on what I knew to have been on the courthouse square. Though I had seen photographs of it after it had been removed to another location, it seemed smaller than I thought it was. Across the street was a handsome hotel building, not the typical home modified to accommodate itinerant travelers, but a substantial two-story brick structure with towers on each side of its front edifice. I walked in and found Mr. Gabriel S. Hooks, the innkeeper, behind the desk, just where the Colonel told me he would be. I told the affable young gentleman that Col. Stubbs had sent me to his establishment. Mr. Hooks replied, "yes, I know, Mr. Stubbs sent his servant the back way and your accommodations are ready for you."
At Mr. Hooks insistence, I sat down at a large table in a much brighter adjoining room. Before I knew it, Mrs. Hooks was bringing out a large blue plate. More like a platter, there were several meats and a half-dozen servings of vegetables heaped on it. The charming lady brought out a tray with a large piping hot loaf of bread wrapped inside a red and white checkered cloth. I ate what I could and just a bite or two more.
Not wanting to miss a chance on getting in on a little history research, I began to interrogate Mr. Hooks on the doings in Dublin. He told me that there were plans to build a new courthouse, a large brick one, sometime next year. Hooks and all of Dublin were extremely proud of the new artesian well on the courthouse square.
We discussed river boats. He said, "young man, Dublin's got three boats in service now and we're going to have two fine new ones very soon." "We've got three railroads in town and more on the way," the innkeeper added. Hooks told me that I would be riding with members of the Forest and Stream Club. This group of forty-five men formed a club to hunt and fish along the shores and swamps of the Oconee, Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers.
The group hired Capt. J.W. Miller of Dublin to supervise the construction of the Gypsy, a river boat with forty state rooms and pilot the boat down the river from the club's headquarters in Dublin to Darien on the Georgia coast. Each of the Gypsy's state rooms were outfitted with all of the necessary appurtenances and accouterments for the hunter and the fisherman. Among the club's charter members from Dublin were Col. John M. Stubbs, Blanton Nance, J.T. Wright and E.M. Whitehead. Judge Emory Speer of Macon, Dudley Hughes of Danville and E.L. Dennard of Houston County were among the most erudite members of the club. The group's membership extended to members as far away as Birmingham, Chicago, Kansas City and Topeka.
The Gypsy was constructed in Savannah under the careful scrutinizing eye of Capt. Miller. The captain hired his old friend W.T. Walton to serve as the boat's engineer. J.W. Grantham, the Gypsy's master machinist, was the best of his kind in the state. Norman McCall, an experienced river pilot and an African Baptist minister, took the helm. McCall, a man of enormous proportions, once saved his cargo by swimming with fifty-pound sacks of fertilizer under his arms and carrying them to the river banks.
The hour was late and I was desperately trying to memorize every utterance I could remember. "You better go on to bed. You'll need to be down at the river by four o'clock in the morning," Mr. Hooks warned me. Despite the comfortable bed, solemn slumber was not in order that night. Just in case I did fall asleep, I asked for a early morning "wake up knock" on my door.
And though my room was more like a Pullman railroad compartment, I didn't mind it all. The brilliance of a waxing gibbous moon illuminated my room through a small, yet well placed, window overlooking the quiescent courthouse square. I thought I saw an army of apparitions drifting across the lawn. “Old Bill, a kind black man who came in earlier to clean up my room, told me the place was haunted. “Yas, sir!. This place is got ghosts. There’s folks buried under the north tower of this here hotel,” he said as he shook and studdered to get out his words. I questioned Bill if he seen any ghosts. “I’s afraid of ghosts sir. I once saw two of them in front of Mr. Maddox’s hardware store over yonder. It must be old man Sam Coleman’s grand daddy. He’s buried right under the store,” the old servant added. I scanned the landscape and saw no ghosts that night, but I did see nine gaping holes in the ground where “Old Bill” said some important rich folks were buried.
Beside my somewhat comfortable bed, I found the most recent issue of the "Dublin Post," edited by Lucien Quincy Stubbs, a brilliant man of many talents and a credit to his father, and my new friend, Col. J.M. Stubbs. I tried to read the news of the town with the additional aid of an oil burning lamp, but decided to pack it away to analyze every word during the quiet moments of the ride down the river.
Right on schedule at four o'clock on the dot, "Big Norman" tugged the whistle of the "Gypsy" and interrupted a most tranquil morning. Fireman Hardy Perry stoked the boiler. I purchased my ticket for a three quarters of a dollar and walked timidly along a wobbling plank to the safety of the floor of the river steamer. Despite the early hour, the boat was filled with passengers, all seeking a pleasureful cruise down the river.
Around daylight we reached Berryhill's Bluff in what we know now as Treutlen County. That's when it happened again. Dutiful black servants began to bring out the bounty of the land, the best that farms, forests and streams could render. I met Capt. Isaac Hardeman and Joseph Miller, who was headed toward his home in Montgomery County. Sam Yopp, E.J. Willingham and E.J. Dupree boarded the boat after a more than successful hunting trip. The morning air was delightfully cool and made the breakfast one of the most satisfactory I have ever experienced. Some of the passengers expressed a desire to have delayed their feast until the fresh game could be added to the serving table.
The day passed pleasantly, but all too quickly. The few women on the boat congregated in the stern area as far away from the bow, where the men were comparing their marksmanship skills. Any bird, whether perched or airborne, was marked for instant death. All eyes scanned the banks for a the glimpse of the prize victim of the day, the villainous alligator.
The crew dropped the Gypsy's anchor at the Devil's Elbow, a bend in the river which was hailed as the best resort for hunting and fishing anywhere on the Oconee River and situated just three miles above the confluence of the Oconee and the Ocmulgee and a mere ten crow-fly miles from Lumber City. The lakes there were the most beautiful I had ever seen. My yells echoed throughout the lush forest. The bream and trout jumped so freely and often, I thought they were going to jump into my hands.
After a fulfilling feast of the hunter's bounty, we enjoyed an convivial evening of vocal entertainment and several games of whist and euchre. Around 11:00 o'clock, the sound of a small gong reverberated throughout the boat. It was time to retire to our staterooms.
The enticing aroma of coffee and biscuits holding real cow butter inside them brought me springing out of my bed. While the men alighted from the boat for more hunting thrills, I remained behind and partook of another half dozen or so of the best biscuits I ever ate. Remember, I am still unborn and calories don't count yet. The hunters returned around nine for the real breakfast of the morning replete with fish and game. They had to eat their meats alone, because the biscuits were gone. I did manage to part with a few of them, dividing them among seven starving servants. I also shared a couple of them and a day- long delightful conversation with Mrs. Mary and Miss Hennilu Hughes, the wife and daughter of Dudley M Hughes. He doesn't know it yet, but in twenty years, Col. Hughes will become one of Georgia's leading congressmen and co-author a bill to establish vocational education in public schools of the United States.
Some time later, Capt. Miller hoisted a forty-four star flag and ordered the anchor raised. As pilot McCall began to guide the boat downstream, some of the hunters appeared to be missing. But, the Gypsy kept on gliding through the smooth as silk waters. Coming to a stop in a grove of willows, the Captain patiently waited for the exasperated malingerers to catch up in their rowboats. Everyone laughed at the men, tired and exhausted from their trip, everyone except me. If there hadn't been any biscuits left, I would have gone along on the hunt, just to see what the fuss was all about.
On the 18th of May at high noon, the Gypsy reached it first milestone destination, the confluence of the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers, which is the beginning of the Altamaha River. Though we had heard the boasts before, "The Forks" had boundless numbers of turkey and deer, just waiting for the hunters to come and place them on their dinner tables. The boat headed to Bell's Ferry, one of the first ferries ever established in that part of Georgia. William Chambers, who was about to enter his twenty fourth year as the ferryman, kindled a fire and began to fry a fine mess of fish. I took a small bream and a bowl full of hushpuppies over by a cool spring shaded by a virescent canopy of virgin pines. I sat there and soaked in the aura of the ancient landmark. By seven o'clock in the evening, we had arrived at White Bluff near the confluence of the Altamaha and the Great Ohoopee River, some one hundred miles distant from our departure point in Dublin.
After a brief pause, the Gypsy moved down river to the Seven Sisters, a series of bluffs crowned by large magnolia trees in full bloom. With nothing alive to shoot, the itchy trigger fingered riflemen began firing at the fragrant blossoms, which exploded upon contact with their bullets. The evening cruise continued until we reached Gypsy Lake. Named by the club members in honor of their club boat, the six-mile-long lake was teeming with wild game. Some of the men managed to capture two broods of young turkeys, but decided to release them hoping that soon they would be hefty toms and hens. Here we spent three days of feasting and more feasting, interspersed with hunting and merrymaking. The camp ground was enveloped by a rim of oak, ash and elm carpeted with a blanket of snowy white sand.
We traveled a half day until we reached London Bluff, where Col. Dudley M. Hughes, his wife and his daughter, along with Messers Dupree, Oliphant, Budd, Yopp and Shannon left our company for a rail trip back to their homes. A trip of five more miles down the rapidly rising river found us at Doctor Town. For the first time I observed the magnificent 800 yard long iron bridge, one of a few of its kind over the Altamaha. Fifteen miles from Darien, we found another one where the Florida Central trains crossed the mighty river on their route from Florida to the land where the Yankees used to live nearly year round. Once again the Winchesters were pulled from their cases, much to the dismay of the gators along the banks.
Captain Miller slowed the pace as the water was wide, but way too shallow to allow rapid passage. On the 29th of May, some thirteen days after we left the docks in Dublin, the Gypsy pulled into Darien. One of Georgia's most ancient towns, Darien was populated by some four thousand people; three-fourths of them were black, descendants of an honorable people who farmed the coastal granges for more than a quarter of a millennium. I saw one large live oak which, I was told, shaded an entire acre of the sandy ground.
After all the passengers debarked, Capt. Miller and his crew turned the boat around for the return trip to Dublin. Many of the party lingered along the coast for a few more weeks of relaxation and revelry. Captain Miller invited me to return the following October for another trip. Hospitably acknowledging my thanks for a wonderful trip, but owing to the fact that I had other places to visit, I politely declined his offer. T.C. Keenan, Isaac Hardeman, E.J. Willingham and I were driven through the countryside to Barington, where we boarded a Florida Central northbound train. On the last day of the month in the mid afternoon I returned to Macon, ready for another adventure. While there I decided I might as well hang around for a year or so to see my great grandparents meet, fall in love and get married.
Note: This is the first column written in a new style. The story which you have just read is nearly all true. Of course, I didn't really get in a time machine, but I certainly would if I could. In future columns I hope to inform and entertain you with first person eyewitness accounts of more pieces of our past.