The white-haired old man lay dying. He had exhorted his friends to “meet him in Heaven.” And just after midnight on a Sunday morning, he made his last trip.
The man was “Old Uncle Davy” Foster, the ferryman at a crossing of the Black Warrior River, about six miles southwest of Tuscaloosa. He was born a “free person of color” in Norfolk, Virginia, but as a youth was kidnapped by a slave trader, sold to Col. James Foster, and brought to Tuscaloosa County in about 1822. For 45 years, he worked at the ferry that bore the family name.
Davy Foster was described as “austere, taciturn, and imperturbable…gruff as a polar bear,” but “exceedingly kindhearted and gentle.” He was said to have never denied a poor man free passage. Editor John F. Warren wrote in the March 2, 1879 issue of the The Tuscaloosa Times that, “the old man has now crossed the ‘shining river,’ and landed his life-boat on the shores of eternity.” Warren added, “we never saw him without thinking of Charon,* and the River Styx.” He was a fearless man of great endurance and was attacked several times in the course of his duties. Once, he was cut and stabbed 11 times, but he refused to drink the whiskey prescribed by a doctor. Instead, he was dosed with turpentine, and recovered.
To some, he was known as “Preacher Davy.” Early in life, he was a Methodist minister. In 1837, he joined Grant’s Creek Baptist Church. As a preacher, he was regarded by those who knew him as “an honest man and an upright Christian.”
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to travel in Tuscaloosa County and much of the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries was something to which 21st century travelers seldom give a second thought—how to cross a river or other large body of water when there was no bridge. Ferries are an ancient invention in use in much of the world for thousands of years. Some were propelled by oars or push poles while others might have utilized cables or ropes secured on both sides of a stream. Modern ferries in developed countries are typically motorized.
In early Alabama, ferries were privately owned. Most operated 24 hours a day in all but the most extreme weather. They transported people, livestock, produce and all types of goods. These flatboats or barges also carried wagons and carriages, along with their horses and oxen, across the state’s numerous rivers and other bodies of water. Some of those in Tuscaloosa County included the Sharpes, Sanders, Dunlaps, Newtown, Wallace, McWrights, Cleveland, Hollis and Fosters Ferries. The Newtown Ferry crossed the Black Warrior River in downtown Tuscaloosa near the old state capitol. All have disappeared, but some of the names (Fosters, McWrights and Sanders) survive to describe the roads that once led to them.
Foster’s Ferry has been gone for over a century, having been replaced by a succession of bridges. The road served by Davy Foster and his boat became an integral part of America’s transportation network. In future years, it became U.S. Route 11, one of the world’s first transcontinental highways and, later, Interstates 20 and 59.
*Note: In classical Greek mythology, the River Styx separated the land of the living from Hades—the land of the dead. Departed souls were transported across by the ferryman Charon. Upon reaching Hades the souls of the heroic or virtuous went to the Elysian Fields paradise while the wicked were condemned to the Tatarean hell. Those who could not pay or died unburied were said to roam the shores of the river for a hundred years. In ancient times people were often buried with a small coin in or on their mouths to pay Charon’s toll.