Pensacola Sea Stories

A Story of Pensacola's Maritime History

The following was a talk given to the Gulf Breeze, FL Historical Society in 1997 by Shirley J. Brown. Mr. Brown is Chairman and CEO of Brown Marine Service, Inc. in Pensacola, Florida........

I'd like to thank Ed Lang for inviting me here to talk about my favorite subjects: ships, boats, barges and the waterfronts of Pensacola Bay and Gulf Breeze, Florida.

My qualifications in this matter aren't academic, instead it's a family affair. My Grand-parents, Uncles, Aunts, and numerous other relatives have been connected with Pensacola Bay, Santa Rosa Sound, Gulf Breeze, and even as far as the Escambia River, where my Great Grandfather owned the first ferry crossing the Escambia River to Florida Town.

My Grandfather ran a timber brokerage business at the mouth of the Escambia River. That's where my Dad met my Mother, who was a secretary in the timber business located there. Dad towed logs out of the Escambia River down to load on the ships waiting in Pensacola Bay. Dad told me there were so many ships in Pensacola Bay at that time that he could have walked across the bay on the ships, if they were placed end to end.

There were about thirty-one steam powered tug boats in Pensacola Bay to handle all the ships. Most all were sailing ships. Very few steam tankers or freighters back one hundred to one hundred fifty years ago.

My Father was born in Gulf Breeze one hundred twenty five years ago on the bluffs two miles east of the Pensacola Bay Bridge on the bay side, the site of an ancient Indian burial ground. My Grandfather started a shipyard at a location known as "Deadman's Island". In maritime language the term "Deadman" isn't reference to a departed soul, but rather to a device used to restore life to wooden sailing ships at the turn of the century. Long before dry docks were in use, hauling large vessels out of the water in order to make repairs to the keel involved a bit of ingenuity and muscle.

Mother Nature provided a natural dry dock of sorts at Deadman's Island. Deep water (fifteen to twenty feet deep) just off shore made it possible for the large ships of that day to move in close where a thick cable was anchored to the deadman. This was usually a large tree or a huge block of concrete with the bulk of it buried deep in the sand. The free end of the cable was looped around a stout mast on the ship then brought back to the deadman where a winch was attached. This enabled the workers to slowly pull the ship over to one side exposing the underside so necessary repairs could be made. When the holes in the wooden ship's bottom were plugged a thick coating of pitch was applied thus adding life to the ship.

The Brown Family also welcomed new life at this location. My Great Grandparents homesteaded this place years ago. In 1992 my Aunt Lena Hendricks passed away two months shy of her one hundred eighth birthday. I remember her telling me once, as she pointed to a high cliff overlooking the area, how all the mon's to be in the family returned to this place to give birth. Dan and his brothers were all born here.

There were several other pioneer businesses located there other than the maritime type. Matter of fact there was a fertilizer plant and a glue factory that used fish hauled over from the E.E. Saunders Fish Company as part of the glue's ingredients.

The Brown Family roots extend to other names: the Johnsons, Wentworths, and the Abercrombies. I don't know if anyone here remember the Abercrombies. There are few around today, but one was my uncle, Captain Eddie Abercrombie, at one time the highest paid politician in the State of Florida. He made more money than the Governor.

Some historians remember Lela Abercrombie was one of the most popular women of her day in the Gulf Coast area. Captain Eddie Abercrombie's daughter was occupied in just about every community project in Pensacola.

I've always held a great deal of respect for and a sense of pride in those work horses of the Maritime Industry - the tug boats. I was but three years old when Dad gave me a tour of one of his boats. One was named "The Simpson", named in honor of the founder of the E.E. Simpson Bank here in Pensacola. In addition to being a Harbor Pilot in Pensacola, Dad was also a Pilot Commissioner with the State of Florida.

In 1917 World War One had just started. The government requested Aiken Towing Company (with which Dad was associated) to move several barges from Pensacola to Panama City. The three tugs involved in moving the barges were like all the other tugs of the day - coal burning, steam tugs. There was no coal anywhere east of Pensacola except Tampa, Florida so Dad had to round up extra barges to hold the needed supply of coal. The boats and barges would stay in Panama City for about two years before returning home to Pensacola, but before I tell you about that amazing trip let me briefly describe the maritime trade taking place at that point in time.

Apalachicola, Port Saint Joe and Panama City were, like Pensacola, important ports. Apalachicola had a lot of cotton being shipped out and also there was a healthy ship building trade. With a shortage of metal due to the war, the shipbuilders returned to wood. Building wooden schooners to aid in shipping needed supplies overseas. Tugs were a vital too in assisting the ships on their way.

Dad broke the news to Mom concerning the up-coming transfer of tugs and barges to Panama City at home on our dairy farm, a small eight cow farm located on what is now Bayview Park on Bayou Texar in Pensacola. I was born there and introduced to the beauty of boats and waterways at an early age. Mom protested the proposed move, but made one concession - the cows must come along!

The average crew on a tug back then numbered from nine to twelve. Now this may not seem like a crowd today, but the operation soon took on the appearance of Noah's Ark. The families of the crew members were being transported to the new temporary base in Panama City and, back in those days, each family had at least one cow, some chickens and maybe a horse. It took two barges to house the livestock, while the crew and their families bunked down on the three boats.

When finally loaded, the strange fleet sailed out of Pensacola Bay. In my child's eye I thought of myself as a crew member, but my imagination was kept on an even keel by the presence of my mother, sister Gladys, plus my older brothers, two of my cousins and all our livestock sailing off to Panama City.

The tug Nellie

The "Nellie", "Simpson", and the "Dixie", Dad's little armada of tugs and barges were not exactly the "Nina", "Pinta" and the "Santa Maria", but I felt like Columbus searching for a new world. We finally arrived in Panama City. Our strange flotilla of boats and barges loaded with furniture, men, women, children and all those animals must have appeared, to the citizens of Panama City, as some low cost invasion of their fair city by some poor backward country.

We landed at what was called "the Old Tarpon Dock, named for the old steam ship resting on the other side of the dock from our boats and barges.

The "Tarpon" would figure in our future and the future of many here, but at that time we only viewed the old boat as a means of transportation. The"Tarpon" ran from Panama City to Apalachicola and Pensacola. My family and friends traveled on the boat, mater of fact I have a sister I believe might be here who's a veteran passenger of the "Tarpon".

My sister and the rest of us traveled back to our home in Pensacola frequently and then returned to our temporary home in Panama City on that old ship. Back in 1916 - 1917 sometimes we made the trip by automobile driving a 1916 Hudson that looked for all the world like an old carriage with a motor on top. It took us three days to drive from Pensacola to Panama City, but when aboard the "Tarpon" we'd leave Panama City at three in the afternoon and arrive in Pensacola in time for breakfast. Equally important - the rates on the boat were low due in part to Captain Barrow being an old friend of Dad. When the war ended we brought everything back to Pensacola.

The Aiken Towing Company was owned by several people including the Boids, Simpsons, and the Reeves. In the early days tug boats were owned in part or whole by the captains. In addition to being a Master Mariner, the skippers also had to be businessmen as well. One good example of this type of sea going merchant was Captain Ben Roachbaugh, who was employed by the Aiken Towing Company. He also owned several tug boats, a model of which is on display at the T.T. Wentworth Museum. Mister Wentworth, the founder of the museum, was a relative of mine. Sometimes I feel as if I'm related to everyone in this area.

The old "Tarpon" had to operate out in the gulf because back then there were no canals between Pensacola and Panama City. If you traveled anywhere east of Pensacola in a ship of "Tarpon's" size you had to go out by way of the Pensacola Pass into the gulf. It took a ship of pretty good size to ply the waters of the gulf in all kinds of weather.

I hope I haven't given the impression that the "Tarpon" was the only boat that I've encountered. Permit me to introduce you to a few others before I relate the fate of the "Tarpon". Please those of you familiar with the "Tarpon" don't give away the ending until I do.

The Cessna was a boat I never saw, but I've heard tales of when she ran between Pensacola and Valparazo (now Eglin). The Cessna was owned by a family, I believed named Cessna, from up north. They were pioneers starting a subdivision in Valparazo and Niceville or known as Val-P, way ahead of it's time. Today it's one of the most beautiful spots in the country.

There were quite a few saw mills operating in those days and one boat that figured prominently in that industry was the boat "Grand Rapids". Several people owned a share of this boat. Captain Jerrel, the skipper, was one and I believe there's a gentleman here in the audience that was also a partner in the "Grand Rapids". I hope he won't mind me telling you that when I arrived here he greeted me with, "Hello Sonny". I guess he had the right. I respect my seniors. Captain Lawrence Jones , one of the original owners of the "Rapids and member of the crew, is now 95 years young and is always ready to ship out on a good boat.

I joined that honorable band of "Grand Rapid's" owners when I, my brother Ham, a brother in law, and my Dad purchased the ole boat some sixty years ago. We converted the boat into a tug, pushing-pulling barges loaded with wood to the Newport plant where the wood was used in the production of turpentine and resin products.

I have to go back for a moment. I left out one very important thing. In the years before we bought the "Rapids", back when she was still a passenger ship, one regular stop on her route was at a place close to Fort Walton, a place known as Buck's Landing, where they would load and off load passengers an supplies. Now that I had converted her into a tug I had no need to stop at the landing. The first day operating the boat as a tug I sailed right past Buck's Landing a few miles up stream my usually reliable engines underwent mechanical difficulties causing me to stop and make repairs.

Working late into the night I managed to get the power plants running once more. I made good time the next day when after sailing past Buck's Landing once again as if on cue the engines went on strike a little ways past Fort Walton. Once more I spent my evening in the engine room and had the stubborn ole boat chugging away the next morning.

This ritual continued for at least three more trips, always in the same place, a little ways past the landing. I was at my wit's end loosing sleep and patience. Finally I consulted with Mister Prewit, who at the age of forty something could not be considered an "Old Salt", but he knew his engines and also felt that boats had souls like the men who served aboard. "I been riding this ole ship for many years," he said, then continued, "We never went past Buck's Landing without stopping, even those times when we had no passengers or supplies to drop off. We still tied up there for a spell. Just like us who gets set in our ways, so too this ole gal. She's not gonna let you pass by the landing without stopping. She's been doing it for so long now she figures it's part of her duty. The only solution to your problem is to pull in to the landing even if only for a wee bit. You'll see, she will behave for the rest of the tour."

Now I'm not superstitious. Well I mean not too much from the ordinary seaman, after all, most sea faring men have some superstitions. I never take a black bag aboard ship and I most certainly would never whistle in the ship's wheel house. That's all common knowledge among mariners, but the wild tale Mister Prewit was telling me went way beyond the area of custom and habit. It was plain silly!!!

It was a hot day, so the soda I was drinking the next afternoon tasted especially good. "Watcha doing here Cap?" said a familiar voice behind me in the wheel house. "Well right now", I told him, "I'm enjoying a nice cold drink". "No", he says with a little smile crossing his face, "I mean what's the boat doing tied up here at Buck's Landing? It's not on the scheduled route. Could it be you believe what I told you?" "Of course not." I replied in my most-in-command voice. "I don't follow with that notion of a ship having a mind of it's own. I just stopped off for this cold drink and that's the truth of it!"

For the remainder of the time I owned the ship I made it a point to stop at Buck's Landing for a soda even in the cold of winter. By some strange coincidence, the ole ship never broke down again in that area, but sometimes I would get annoyed, not at the engines for acting up, but at Mister Prewit down on the deck. Everytime we tied up at the landing he would turn in the direction of the wheel house and give me two thumbs up.

The ole boat was highly reliable after that. We did a lot of business until Newport discontinued its stump wood operation. Eventually I took the "Rapids" to Houston, Texas to work for the Shell Oil Company. When I sold that boat to the company, I felt as if I had just sold a member of my family.

I'd like to reminisce for a moment about a well known man in Gulf Breeze. I feel a bond with this gentleman because he was also a previous owner of the "Grand Rapids". Mr. Douglas Walker, a true entrepreneur in this part of the country and in addition to the bond I claim with him over the "Rapids", I also claim kinship. He's my cousin. Douglas owned Shady Shores Cottages, one of the first businesses in Gulf Breeze. He also owned that point at Mell's Marina. Later on he built one of the nicest homes in Gulf Breeze facing the Naval Air Station.

Pensacola had one of the largest shipyards in the south at one time located on Bayou Chico during World War One, practically where my marina sits today. Back then they built submarine chasers, small vessels that could run up in shallow water, drop depth charges and fire torpedoes from the stern and destroy subs thinking themselves safely hid. The sub chasers weren't the only craft constructed here. Large freighters also made the journey unbelievably from Bayou Chico out to join the War effort.

Another famous tug boat was the "Alley All". She towed water barges and wood barges from Milton, which by the way also had a busy port and ship building concerns. Sawmills were also numerous.

The Okaloosa was still another well known tug. It was owned by the Nobles Family. Seems most of the doctors in Pensacola back then were named Nobles. Part of the family owned Moulton Drugs in Pensacola for many years. One member of the Nobles Family that also owned boats operated one of the largest haberdashery concerns in this area the L.E. Nobles and Company.

The "Florence" was a tug of some acclaim towing lumber from the mills in Bagdad, Florida down to Pensacola Bay where the lumber was loaded on the ships in Pensacola Bay.

Hard working ships, boats and men - this area has been home to all three. One of the most respected of the hard working men was Captain Crobuck. I believe he was a native of Norway. He spoke in broken English, but his appearance always spoke of dignity. He was one of the best dressed men around. He had a large moustache, carried a fashionable cane, wore spats and a vest that sported a gold watch and chain. The entire outfit was topped off with a derby hat.

At the conclusion of World War One seems the government didn't know what to do with excess tankers and other ships so they brought them to Pensacola Bay. My Dad owned several tugs then and furnished the ships with water and other needs.

The "Bronx" was a large passenger ship. Dad employed a man named Butterworth to help him sail this ship from New York to Pensacola. Later they would become fast friends and face a near disaster.

This brings me back to the fate of the old "Tarpon. Dad hired Mr. Butterworth on as Chief Engineer. Actually by this time Mr. Butterworth was wearing many hats. He was a member of the Maritime Commission and was also an official with the Texas Oil Company, but he couldn't turn down a chance to sail with Dad one more time aboard the "Tarpon". It almost figured to be the last voyage of both men.

My brother Tom was also aboard the "Tarpon" that fateful day when they set out for New Orleans and he later related the events that took place. Tom told us of that most feared foe of sailors - the temperamental side of Mother Nature. The hurricane slapped the "Tarpon" spreading water into holds and compartments and finally breaking the back of the old ship sending her down to the bottom of the Gulf some miles off New Orleans. The crew boarded a huge life boat in which they spent seven days bobbing along at the mercy of still angry tides.

Finally the tired men landed safely near the mouth of the Mississippi River on a small island. A large ocean going tug came to their rescue. All survived. One of those survivors, Mr. Butterworth, went on to win acclaim and recognition in the maritime trade for his invention of the "Butterworth Valve".

The Navy also had tug boats in Pensacola many years ago. The U.S.S. Langley was one of the Navy's very first aircraft carriers. At the age of fifteen I was a combination deckhand and fireman on the tug "Richmond", assigned to dock the "Langley". The ship's two propellers protruded out quite a bit to the ship's side. The Navy tug, "Allegancy" moved in too close to the props resulting in the tug being cut clean in half by one of the props spinning wildly like some gigantic buzz saw. The "Alleganey" sank in minutes. I was a witness.

We hear so much these days of how the Port of Pensacola has slipped and is loosing money, but we have to realize that the ships now visiting here are ten times larger than the old ships some sixty years ago. Timber and cotton was our chief export at that time. These years later you can still find Pensacola timber in homes all over the world.

Wooden ships - iron men and women - God bless all who sail the seas and you my friends - Thank you.

I hope you enjoyed the story.... I enjoyed living it! Shirley J. Brown - 1997

Return to Pensacola Sea Stories Page

Return to Maritime History Main Page