Jim Ezell

Jim Ezell

Local author and historian Jim Ezell is busily writing a collection of historical stories about the Druid City and surrounding areas, in hopes of publishing a book ahead of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial celebration in 2019. What began as genealogy search in 1992 quickly turned into a much larger project. As Ezell searched through over a century of newspapers on microfilm at the University of Alabama’s Hoole Special Collections Library, he became fascinated by other articles about Tuscaloosa’s rich history.

Ezell was recently named Writer of the Year for 2015 by the Tuscaloosa Writers and Illustrators Guild. 

If 19th century Tuscaloosans could be transported through time to a modern drug store, they might be disoriented. But after scanning the shelves of their new environment, some familiar names would appear—Vicks VapoRub, Milk of Magnesia, Geritol, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, and others. All are survivors from the flamboyant, and unregulated, age of patent medicines. 

It was a late spring Saturday of fine weather and with topgallants flying, the Ship Tuscaloosa left the Pacific Ocean. She was sailing east, thirty nautical miles* beyond Cape Horn as she cleared the dangerous Drake Passage between the tip of South America and Antarctica. Soon, Captain James Goodrich would steer her north into the South Atlantic, bound for their home port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Captain Goodrich recorded the date—November 8, 1834.

The Tuscaloosa was a wooden sailing vessel, rated for 284 tons of cargo. During her 1834-35 voyage, she plied the California coastal trade and returned with 220 tons (4400 quintals or hundredweights) of pearl shells, almost 13 tons of copper, cow hides and horns, and silver and gold bullion. These items would provide raw materials for the industries of New England and other areas. The shells could become mother-of-pearl buttons, inlay, jewelry, dinnerware handles, and firearm grips. The hides were destined to become shoes and countless other leather items. The horns could also be fashioned into buttons or used as containers for gunpowder. The copper might become cookware, and the precious metals used for plating and jewelry, or exchanged at the US Mint for coinage.

When manned by an experienced crew, vessels such as the Tuscaloosa were capable of long duration voyages to almost any of the world’s seas and oceans. In early January 1835, two months after rounding Cape Horn, Tuscaloosa was about 400 miles south of Bermuda where she was hailed by Captain Elihu Coffin of the whaler Mary Mitchell.  Coffin was steering her for Nantucket after a 43-month cruise that began in 1831.

A sample of Capt. Goodrich’s handwriting from an unpublished report summarizing the 1834-35 voyage of the Ship Tuscaloosa. From the author’s collection.

Initially, the Tuscaloosa was part of a large fleet of cargo, passenger, and whaling vessels operated by Grinnell, Minturn & Co. In later years, this company’s fleet would include the famous Flying Cloud and other clipper ships that offered passage and cargo service to Europe, the California Gold Rush, and the Orient.

On subsequent voyages, the Tuscaloosa was operated by Howland & Hussey Co. as a whaler in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In 1840, she returned with 1868 barrels of whale oil, and in 1844, she landed 1663 barrels of sperm whale oil. Both oils were burned for illumination. Whale oil was smoky and gave off an odor, but the more valuable sperm oil (from cavities in the heads of sperm whales) burned cleaner. It was used as a fine lubricant (especially for clocks and watches) and was made into cosmetics and other products. If commodity prices and shipbuilding costs are adjusted for inflation to the 21st century, Tuscaloosa’s cargoes would have fetched almost $500,000 in 1840 and nearly $1.3 million in 1844—quite good returns from a vessel that likely cost less than $500,000 to build. 

During her years of service, the Tuscaloosa sailed vast distances over the world’s oceans. Why she was named for a relatively small inland city, county, or river far from her home port is a mystery. Perhaps the name was noticed on early maps or there were family connections, since a number of early Tuscaloosans came from New England. Whatever the case, it is possible that some of the products made from the raw materials transported by the Ship Tuscaloosa eventually found their way to her namesake city.

Suggested additional reading and viewing: 

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. 

Two Years Before the Mast (film), directed by John Farrow (1946). 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

*A nautical mile is a unit of distance used by navigators. It represents the distance between minutes of latitude. One nautical mile equals about 1.15 statute or land miles. Thirty nautical miles is approximately 34.5 statute miles. 

A group of Spaniards were led before the great Chief Tascalusa (Tuscaloosa) at an Indian town somewhere in what is now central Alabama. He sat on cushions, while nearby stood an elite warrior “holding a sort of fan of deerskin which kept the sun from him, round and the size of a shield, quartered with black and white, with a cross made in the middle ... It was set on a small and very long staff. This was the device he bore in his wars.” This scene was described by a DeSoto Expedition chronicler known as “A Gentleman of Elvas.” It was Sunday, October 10, 1540.

Tuscaloosa is one of America’s most unique names. Except for an east Texas ghost town, no other city, town, or county bears the name of the famous chief. However, it does show up in widely scattered parts of the country as a street name. Streets named for Tuscaloosa have various designations. Some are thoroughfares such as roads, streets, or avenues. Others may be short and local such as ways, traces, or lanes.

It was Friday, August 14, 1936. Photographer Alex Bush motioned for a young man in overalls to stand next to the door of a dilapidated brick cottage behind an old house in Tuscaloosa. Bush released the shudder of his 5x7 inch sheet film camera* and recorded for the Library of Congress the image of a building that is no longer standing.

Thomas Maxwell entered the Independent Monitor office and revealed a “stone idol” to publisher Marmaduke Slade. The representation of a human with a flattened head stood 10-inches tall. Slade described this object in the July 13, 1842, issue of his early Tuscaloosa newspaper and expressed doubt about their use by “the red men of our forest.” Four years later, he reported a large “curiously wrought earthen vase” containing bones and a human skull. These artifacts came from the nearby village of Carthage. 

It was March 1851. A mustachioed Frenchman lit a candle in the still air beneath the dome of the Pantheon, a former cathedral that was being used as a mausoleum in Paris. A polished brass sphere tethered by a 220-foot steel wire had been pulled to one side of its resting point and was released, as the flame severed a single silk thread. Every 16 seconds, the shining orb swung back and forth above the marble floor. But it was apparent something was different. With each completed oscillation, the pendulum’s path moved slightly to the left of the original release point. 

About 50 miles northeast of Tuscaloosa lies Jones Valley in Jefferson County. In Alabama’s early days it was one of the most isolated parts of the state and wild animals such as bears, wolves, and mountain lions still roamed. Hemmed in by rugged mountain ridges and lacking river access, the valley was sparsely populated. But in the last half of the 19th century, a tidal wave of change swept all before it. Where there once had been brilliant night skies, the hillsides and heavens were bathed in an unearthly red and orange glow, and the air hung heavy with fumes and acrid smoke. To some, it was as if the very gates of the underworld had flung open.

A raging torrent of muddy water swept past Tuscaloosa, completely submerging three closely spaced locks and dams. In the previous 32 hours, eight inches of rain had fallen and added to the already swollen river. University of Alabama President W. S. Wyman wrote that, “On April 16 there occurred the highest and most violent flood on the Black Warrior River ever known.” Fortunately, most of the city at that time sat safely above the water, and no lives were lost. There were other great floods, such as those of 1874, 1892, and 1979, but the spring flood of 1900 topped them all. 


The Black Warrior is a major river in Central and West Alabama. It flows into the Tombigbee at Demopolis and extends through Tuscaloosa and into Jefferson County, where it branches into the Sipsey, Mulberry, and Locust Forks. It is 169 river miles in length, with a drainage basin that includes parts of 15 counties. In the Tuscaloosa area, North River and Hurricane Creek are major tributaries. 


In the past, some considered it to be two separate rivers—the Black Warrior upstream from Tuscaloosa and the Warrior downstream. It has been said this was an attempt to increase spending for improvements, since Congress once appropriated funds on a per river basis. However, from the point of view of “fluvial geomorphology,” the science of how streams shape and are shaped by their surroundings, it could indeed be considered two rivers. 


Above Tuscaloosa, the Black Warrior flows through the Appalachian Plateau. For countless millennia, the river has slowly cut through layers of bedrock to create a stable channel with a relatively narrow floodplain. In many areas, it is lined with cliffs and bluffs. Before navigation locks were built, there were numerous shoals and waterfalls. 


Below Tuscaloosa lies the Coastal Plain, an area of little if any erosion resistant bedrock. There the river has created a broad flat floodplain. Like a slow-moving snake, the channel constantly changes position or meanders, eroding the outside of bends, while on the inside depositing sandbars that eventually become riverbanks. When bends expand too far, the river reroutes on a shorter path leaving channel remnants that become oxbow lakes and, eventually, swamps. Locally some of these include Snag, Moon, and Big Lakes near Fosters and Touson, Keaton, and Hull Lakes near Moundville. As oxbows slowly silt up they support cypress, tupelo gum, and other rooted vegetation, creating features such as Moody and Englewood Swamps. 


For most of the 19th century, Tuscaloosa was the head of navigation. Beginning in the 1890s, 11 locks were eventually built, making the entire Black Warrior navigable. All but one were built with locally quarried Pottsville sandstone. These structures were known as Locks 7 through 17. By the second half of the 20th century, the original locks were replaced with four high-lift locks, three located in Tuscaloosa County. 


Despite extensive modification, the Black Warrior and its tributaries are still home to a great variety of aquatic life. Recently, at least 130 species of fish have been documented, as well as 36 species of freshwater mussels (three times that found in all of Europe). It has been conjectured that these large numbers are due to a variety of habitats, long term geological stability, and a lack of glaciers during the Ice Ages. 


Central and West Alabama receive about 50 inches of rainfall annually, resulting in an average runoff of about a million gallons per day per square mile of watershed.  As a result, the average flow in the Black Warrior at Tuscaloosa is almost 8000 cubic feet per second, or about five billion gallons per day, more than enough for operating the locks and dams, generating power at three hydroelectric plants, and a number of other uses. 


For thousands of years, people from ancient Native Americans to today’s population have utilized the Black Warrior River. The river and its tributaries continue to serve as wildlife habitat while providing water, transportation, food, recreation, and power for more than a million people—almost a quarter of all Alabamians.  


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.

Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.


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