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Ask Rufus: Some stories need to be told

 

The James T. Staples (left) exploded and sank under strange circumstances on the lower Tombigbee River on Jan. 9, 1913. The John Quill (right) which had been in the Columbus-Mobile trade rescued the survivors and carried them to Mobile. The photo was taken in 1909 or 1910 at the Mobile Docks.

The James T. Staples (left) exploded and sank under strange circumstances on the lower Tombigbee River on Jan. 9, 1913. The John Quill (right) which had been in the Columbus-Mobile trade rescued the survivors and carried them to Mobile. The photo was taken in 1909 or 1910 at the Mobile Docks. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

The story of the steamboat James T. Staples, which exploded and sank on the lower Tombigbee River in 1913, is that of a ghost story with a historical basis.

The story of the steamboat James T. Staples, which exploded and sank on the lower Tombigbee River in 1913, is that of a ghost story with a historical basis.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

After having decided to end my column in protest to possible legislation that could kill the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau and cripple tourism in Columbus, I have had to reconsider. My point was that if officials did not care about promoting the history of our region, why should I write about it?  

 

And besides, I thought the investment was just good business. The restaurant tax that funded CVB raised about $2 million a year and resulted in $118 million being spent by tourists in Columbus in 2016. That is a return of about $59 for every $1 spent. Of course, some people would come to Columbus whether or not tourism was promoted, but based on state economic data even as small as a 30 percent decrease in tourism could cost city businesses about $35 million. 

 

Since my column stopped, I have received an unexpected response -- from people writing me that no matter what happens stories of our history still need to be told to having a finger shaken in my face when at Kroger one day. Their point was well made, and I am resuming my column. 

 

In my Dec. 17 column, I mentioned but did not go into detail of the ghost story of the Tombigbee steamboat the James T Staples. I have had several people ask me to tell that story. It is a story that began in 1908 when Norman Stales decided to construct the most palatial boat built on the Tombigbee since the Civil War, and he named the boat the after his father. 

 

By late 1912, Norman Staples was having severe financial problems, and in December he lost his steamboat to creditors. Staples could not accept the loss of his steamboat, and in early January 1913 took his own life with a shotgun. The boat's new owners directed that her captain ignore the former owner's funeral and proceed up river from Mobile on the boat's regular run. Rather than be disrespectful, the captain declined and told the owner to find a new captain for the trip as he was going to the funeral. After several unusual occurrences, including Staples' ghost being reported on board, most of the crew also quit.  

 

With a new captain and crew, the Staples steamed out from the Mobile Wharf and headed up the Tombigbee. Norman Staples had just been buried at Bladon Springs Cemetery near the river. It was Jan. 9, exactly a week since his death when the James T. Staples reached the place on the river described in the Jan. 13, 1913, Columbus Commercial "as near to the grave as it was possible for the boat to go." At that point its boilers exploded, killing 26 people and sinking the boat. 

 

Among those killed was the new captain hired for the trip as the boat's regular captain refused to travel on the day of Staples funeral. The cause of the explosion was questioned in an Associated Press dispatch as the boat's boilers had just been inspected the previous month and found "passing (inspection) with a high standard." The boat's engineer, Green Verneuille, even commented that "the explosion sounded like dynamite exploded under water."  

 

Those who were rescued were taken to Mobile by the John Quill, a Columbus-Mobile river trade packet boat. 

 

Unlike most ghost stories, the unusual circumstances surrounding the Staples' loss were picked up by news media, including the AP. The Columbus Commercial had a front-page account of the loss of the James T. Staples, which actually commented that "rivermen regard with awe" some of the circumstance surrounding the disaster. History can be interesting and some ghost stories have a very real basis. The best ghost story account of the James T Staples can be found in Kathryn Tucker Windham's book, "Jeffrey's Latest 13: More Alabama Ghosts."

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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