Veteran Recalls Days When Steam Ruled the River
Captain Howard Tells of
Captain J. Hatten Howard, pro-
prietor of the Howard Boat Works in
Daytona Beach, in a recent exclusive
interview with the Observer of that city recalls the old Florida steamboat days.
In an interview with Maxwell C.
Wheat Howard related happenings
on the East Coast waterways and winds up with the following.
"Those East Coast steamboat days were picturesque and exciting, but when I sit in a comfortable chair with a good cigar my thoughts invariably wander to the St. Johns and to its wild tributary, the Ocklawaha. Even today that river, which runs in a
crazy pattern of curves from Silver Springs to join the St. Johns near Welaka, is probably the most beauti- ful and the most deserted ribbon of
water in the entire state of Florida.
It was on it that I spent the first
and most exciting years of my steam- boat career.
"The Ocklawaha is so narrow that the tree branches link above it, form- ing a jungle corridor. The course of the river is as crooked as a tangled fishline. The swampy area, through
which it flows is a tangled mass of
lush, tropical growth. There are towering palms and ages-old cypress and live oak all enmeshed and woven
together by weeds and vines and thickly cobwebbed with gray spanish moss. In places the long streamers of moss brushed the water's surface.
"Unlike the muddy rivers of Florida the water of the Ocklawaha is as clear as a spyglass lens, and it runs with the speed of a mill stream. From
high on a steamer's deck one could look far into its depth and see brightly hued fish and strange submarine gardens.
"At the turn of the century my father operated a steamer on the Ocklawaha, but his death occured shortly after I was graduated from Georgia Tech. As I always was fond of boats, I purchased the steamer from his estate and continued to keep her moving.
"This 85-foot boat was named the William Howard and she was a triple
decked stern-wheeler painted white.
Though primarily a freighter, there were accomodations for 18 passengers, and she always carried a capacity load. The ship's run was from Silver Springs to Palatka, a St. Johns river port about 15 miles north of the St. Johns-Ocklawaha junction. Silver Springs is only about 40 miles from Palatka in a pigeon's flight but 125 miles via the looping river. Two days was required for the downstream trip; while it took three days to push back against the current.
"The fare for either the two or three day trip was the same. Five dollars included stateroom and all you could eat. And such meals! For dinner and supper the meat course was usually wild turkey, venison,
quail or chicken. Such delicacies were really the cheapest food to serve for we made numerous stops and always farmers and hunters were waiting with birds and game to sell.
"Turkey gobblers could be bought for $1., turkey hens for 75 cents. Spring chicken sold for a dime and fowl for a quarter. Vension was so plentiful it brought only a few cents
a pound. The average price of eggs was seven cents a dozen.
"Every moment the passengers were
not eating they spent on deck fairly pop-eyed with excitement at the changing panorama of jungle and of wild life. Alligators by the hundreds sunned themselves on the river bank. They were so tame that once we even picked up a huge one on our sternwheel and jammed it into the paddle box. It never even hurt the 'gator but the ship was out of commission for five hours.
"Bobcat, panther, bear and deer peered at the boat through the leafy shrubbery. Huge snakes slithered from logs and could be watched
long distances in the clear water. Dazzlingly white egrets polkadotted the river's edge, while cranes stood about solemly on their stiltlike legs.
"To maintain our schedule when upbound we kept the wheel turning
until 10 or 11 p. m. Enough light, so that I could pick out my tree land-
marks, was obtained from a roaring fire of pine faggots, that a negro sailor kept blazing on top of the pilot
house. The fire was in a square steel pan that was housed in a larger pan filled with water. The flickering yellow light gave an eerie appearance
to the river and to the black swampy jungle; an eriness enhanced by the mournful cries of hoot owls and the screams of bobcats. The light drew inquisitive wild creatures to the water's edge, and their eyes glowed in the darkness like red hot coals."When the day's run was completed we eased the boat to the jungle's edge and made fast to the palms. With the engine stopped and the vessel idle beneath the heavy foliage the silence seemed like something tangible that had plummetted from the sky. It was broken only by the weird night noises, the far off call of some animal, a fish splashing, the cawing of a night bird. The silence seemed to affect the passengers for they would talk in whispers or sing songs in softly modulated voices. Suddenly the stillness might be ripped wide open by the booming roar of battling bull alligators.
"Today solitude has swept over the whole Ocklawaha area, and now the 'gators, deer and prowling wildcats are disturbed only be a few wandering hunters and fishermen.
"The river trade died when the Ocklawaha Valley Railroad was built. It connected Palatka and Silver Springs and its track was laid by the E. P Rantz Lumber Company. The railroad spelled doom for the steamers, and not many years later smooth highways and fast motor trucks doomed it. Like the docks and villages along the Ocklawaha River, the rialroad bed long ago disappeared under the lush growth of the jungle.
Palatka Paper pre- Aug 2, 1942
The Shamrock was the home of Fred Herbert Wilson and family. In 1914 their oldest child was born at the foot of Roselle St. in Jacksonville. What a house call for a doctor.
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