Ask Rufus: Tombigbee sharks and Mississippi volcanoes

January 23, 2016 10:31:00 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Last week I saw an article about finding a shark on the Tombigbee River in Alabama. I immediately thought of all the fossil shark's teeth I have found along the river. The Tombigbee River Valley is full of chalk and sand outcroppings that contain many different kinds of fossils. Throughout the area are found the teeth of sharks, giant fish, sea going reptiles and even an occasional dinosaur. 


Those fossils are from the Cretaceous period of 70 to 80 million years ago when north Mississippi was covered by a great inland sea. What is now Jackson and part of the Delta, around southern Humphreys County, were volcanic islands. The Delta volcano is known as the Midnight Volcano for the sleepy community of Midnight under which it lies. The Jackson Volcano was actually a 420-square-mile volcanic island on which Jackson now sits. The remains of the Jackson Volcano's main vent still exist a half a mile beneath the city whose name it bares.  


It's always interesting when there is a new find in our area of the fossil bones of some ancient creature. Last week, though, fossils first came to mind when I saw the headline, the shark that was found was not a fossil. A fisherman near McIntosh on the lower Tombigbee caught a live bull shark. Although the one he caught was a smaller juvenile one, adult bull sharks can grow to a length of over 13 feet. They are considered one of the most dangerous sharks and, unlike other sharks, they can survive in the fresh water of rivers. 


I had heard of bull sharks being, on occasion, found in the Mississippi River but had never considered they might at times show up in the Tombigbee. Checking the historic record shows last week's catch was not the first time a shark had been reported caught in the Alabama or Tombigbee Rivers of the Mobile River system. 


In August 1857, newspapers reported that a 160 pound "real ... pure salt-water shark" was caught by a Mr. Everett on the Alabama River one mile above Benton, Alabama, which is between Selma and Montgomery. People were so amazed that a shark was found in the river that the sharks mouth was preserved and put on display. Then, in August 1877, another shark was reported caught in the Alabama River, also near Selma. 


The most interesting press account of a shark in the Tombigbee that I found was from Demopolis in 1907. Newspapers across the country picked up the story of a huge shark being caught with the headlines reading "Locomotive Lands Fish." 


Jack Phillips, the "bridge keeper" of the Tombigbee River bridge at Demopolis, Alabama, enjoyed being on the river and fishing. In late August of 1907 Phillips found that something was breaking the fishing lines that he was putting out. Thinking it must be something big, he attached a large baited iron hook to a trace chain and secured the chain to a tree on the river bank. The next morning Phillips found the chain pulled tight as though he had caught something. 


Try as he could, Phillips could not pull whatever it was out of the river and at first thought it was just some kind of large object. He got several people to help pull and was able to get the object close enough to the bank to see it was a fish but all of the men pulling together still could not get it out of the water. Then he had an idea. 


Stopped not far away was a freight train. Phillips convinced the engineer and conductor to hook a long chain from the locomotive to the chain the fish was on. At a signal the engine started and pulled the huge fish out of the Tombigbee. It was a shark that measured eight feet, eight inches long and weighed 330 pounds. The story of the locomotive that landed the huge fish spread across the country. 


I have not seen an account of a shark in the Tombigbee north of Demopolis and only rarely below there. Then again, I would not be surprised if someone read this and said, "Well old so and so once caught one." 


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