The Unsinkable "Cahaba"

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On April 28, 1979 a small tugboat called the Cahaba, captained by one Jimmy Wilkerson, was working coal barges on one of the many small rivers east of Demopolis, Alabama. A local photographer happened to be standing on the main span of Rooster Bridge when Wilkerson happened along. For some reason he decided to take pictures. It turned out to be an amazing sequence of photos.

As the series begins, Wilkerson gives a coal barge a shove and lets it travel alone through the eastern bridge span (to the photographer’s right). Next he hustles around to the other end of the bridge (the photographer’s left), where a lift span will raise and let him pass through.

Unfortunately for Wilkerson, the water was running hard that day, the current unusually fast, and before he knew it he found himself unable to stop. Within a moment, instead of parking and waiting in front of the lift span, he ran smack into it and became wedged tight by the water.

What happened next is what you see here: the Cahaba comes around sideways-on to the river ... and then is dragged, lock stock & barrel, right under the bridge!!

Incredibly, it pops up again a few moments later on the far side!

"The boat was like a little yellow rubber ducky, and came back up like a ducky oughta do. The boat suffered major cosmetic damages, but little flooding because of water tight doors, except in the pilothouse. Notice the picture where the boat is not quite righted and you can see water pouring out of the wheelhouse door. The chair washes out, and Jimmie told me he was holding on to the controls with all his might to keep from going out the drain and into the river.

“Everything was washed out of the bridge except for the Captain and one life preserver.

“He was very shook up and you can see him approach the tow of barges downriver. Well he didn't get it together quite soon enough and he smashed into the barges, causing further damage. Shortly thereafter, the Motor Vessel Cahaba was laid up in storage where it remained until purchased by Madison Coal, re-powered, refurbished and re-named the Capt. Ed Harris.

"I next saw Jimmie about a month after this and we had a cup of coffee together and talked about the incident. He was smoking a Camel Non-filter but didn't even need an ashtray because his hands were still shaking too much for the ash to build up to any degree.

"How do I know all this? I was on the boat that went through the bridge immediately before the Cahaba. The Motor Vessel James E. Philpott made the bridge and was headed south at close to 15 MPH. For all you who don't understand, that is very fast on a commercial towboat with that much tonnage. Glad to pass this on to everybody...

"Captain Michael L. Smith"

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