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Hidden History of North Alabama

Hidden History of North Alabama

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Hidden History of North Alabama

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Lançado em:
May 6, 2010


The tranquil waters of the Tennessee River hide a horrible tragedy that took place one steamy July day when co-workers took an excursion aboard the SCItanic. Lawrence County resident Jenny Brooks used the skull of one of her victims to wash her hands, but her forty-year quest for revenge cost more than she bargained for. Granville Garth jumped to his watery grave with a pocketful of secrets--did anyone collect the $10,000 reward for the return of the papers he took with him? Historian Jacquelyn Procter Reeves transports readers deep into the shadows of the past to learn about the secret of George Steele's will, the truth behind the night the "Stars Fell on Alabama" and the story of the Lawrence County boys who died in the Goliad Massacre. Learn these secrets--and many more--in Hidden History of North Alabama.
Lançado em:
May 6, 2010

Sobre o autor

Jacquelyn Procter Reeves is a native of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and a graduate of New Mexico Highlands University. She is the editor of North Alabama's Valley Leaves and associate editor of Old Tennessee Valley Magazine in Decatur. Jacque is the curator of the historic Donnell House in Athens and owner of Avalon Tours in Huntsville. She conducts ghost walks, cemetery tours and historic tours and has served on Huntsville's Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll committee for some fourteen years. She teaches history to students all over the United States via distance learning through Early Works Museum in Huntsville. In her spare time, she has written scores of short stories and nine books and has served as contributing writer to many others. Jacque lives in Huntsville.

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Hidden History of North Alabama - Jacquelyn Procter Reeves



It is difficult to write a book about history that is unbiased. Readers are left to wonder what is true and what isn’t and, most likely, make their own judgments in the end. The best way to make a decision is to be informed of all facts and temper them with common sense. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t even matter. Some of us study history for entertainment. But we also realize that what we learn in school is rarely the whole story. Schoolbooks tend to hit the highlights, important facts, and quickly move on. A scratch beneath the surface reveals the story behind the story, and those are the facts we are most likely to remember. Those are the stories I share with you.

There are many people who have helped me tremendously. I can always count on the people at the Archives Department at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library: Raneé Pruitt, Thomas Hutchens and Susanna Leberman. The service they provide to patrons of the library cannot be measured, and their willingness to share their extensive knowledge with anyone and everyone is much appreciated.

I would also like to thank Patrick Hood for allowing me to use his fabulous photograph of the Forks of Cypress. His other pictures, masterpieces all, are on his website:

I am also forever indebted to Chuck and Jo Shaffer, owners of Old Tennessee Valley Magazine, whose generosity is beyond measure. I would also like to thank Robert Gamble, senior architectural historian with the Alabama Historical Commission, for his help and expertise. His knowledge never ceases to amaze me! My thanks to friends Jim and Linda Maples, who support all my endeavors, sound and otherwise, and also to my husband, Robert, who plays devil’s advocate in order to make me try harder.

Thanks, too, to the many people at The History Press who have become friends in the process of giving birth to a new book. I’m glad we met!

Finally, I would like to thank the ladies of the Mooresville Brick Church Choir for much-needed comic relief!


On the morning of Saturday, July 7, 1984, the heat from the Alabama sun was already oppressive as it made its way up into the sky. The morning dew turned to a blanket of steam, drawing the very breath from one’s lungs. It seemed to be a perfect day to head to the Tennessee River for a boat ride, catch a cooling breeze and enjoy the company of friends and co-workers. That was exactly what second-shift employees of the South Parkway branch of SCI, an electronics manufacturing company in Huntsville, planned to do that day.

Employees of the Products Division Plant #2 and their families were invited for a leisurely excursion on the company boat, a one-hundred-foot paddle-wheeler given the tongue-in-cheek name SCItanic in a contest held to name the boat—an eerie referral to the passenger ship that had perished in the icy Atlantic waters earlier in the century. Another SCI department was originally assigned use of the SCItanic on that day but had traded with members of the Products Division, whose workers had more kids and were eager to take the ride in the daytime as opposed to the more romantic evening cruise scheduled for that night. Although eighty-two people were expected that day, only fifteen showed up, plus a crew of three, including the captain, Frank May, who had a commercial ship pilot’s license. They would leave from Ditto Landing.

Ditto Landing took the name from a white settler from North Carolina, John Ditto, who arrived in the early 1800s and operated a ferry across the Tennessee River, a 652-mile-long tributary of the Ohio River. John Ditto played an active role in the American Revolution; however, he supported the British. As a result, he left his home state after a number of disputes with his neighbors ended in lawsuits. He came into the territory that would later become Alabama and coexisted peacefully with local Chickasaw Indians as he established his trading post and ferry business.

The Tennessee River, once known as the Cherokee River, dips deeply into northern Alabama, providing fertile soil for the many cotton farmers and recreational opportunities for boaters and fishermen. Hobbs Island skirts the outermost edge of the river near Ditto Landing. The riverbank at Ditto Landing was, and is, a scenic location for picnics, cookouts and camping. The sparkling waters of the river, framed by hardwoods and evergreens against a backdrop of the Appalachian foothills, promised to provide, on July 7, 1984, a pleasant setting for a cruise.

Captain May checked the weather forecast early that morning and confirmed what he thought would be a good day for an outing on the six-year-old boat, originally named Dixie Darling. At 5:30 a.m., the forecast predicted a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms with northerly winds at ten miles per hour and a high of ninety degrees. By 9:30 a.m., when the passengers were beginning to assemble at Ditto Landing to board the SCItanic, the forecast had changed slightly. The radar indicated a band of storms moving from the southeast into North Alabama.

All was well. Guests eagerly anticipated the trip, and there were smiles all around when the boat was launched at about 10:20 a.m. Soon, clouds began to gather in the sky. Captain May spotted a lightning strike in the distance. It was just after 11:00 a.m., and the captain turned up the volume on the NOAA weather radio in time to hear that there was a severe thunderstorm warning issued for Madison and Morgan Counties. May turned the boat around and announced that they would be returning to Ditto Landing. Suddenly the rains came, carried by seventy-mile-per-hour winds, and began to fall in torrents. The passengers rushed into the cover of the salon as the visibility through the curtain of rain dropped from seven miles down to three miles. Only three minutes had passed since the warning on the weather station.

Crew member Marliana Cressey asked if any of the passengers wanted a life preserver; some said they did and quickly strapped them on. The sky darkened ominously, and within only a few minutes, the visibility dropped again to three-quarters of a mile. Still, the captain and crew remained calm. The boat was made to withstand one-hundred-mile-per-hour winds and had made excursions nearly every day since it was purchased by SCI eighteen months earlier.

The SCItanic was now headed into the wind. The sky was black, and the noise from the driving wind was deafening. Captain May had the boat less than one mile away from the marina when he felt something slam into the side. He was knocked violently to the floor but managed to grab the radio microphone and key it. Mayday! he shouted, and suddenly he was under water.

The passengers lost their footing as the ship began to topple over. Crew members shouted, Grab a life jacket! Come to the high side! in an effort to redistribute the weight and keep the ship afloat. Marliana Cressey didn’t have time to shout the orders again. She wondered for a split second if she should jump into the water. The rail of the ship was coming fast over her head as if the whole ship was spinning around her. She struggled to open the salon door, but it was sealed shut by the relentless wind. There was no way to get to the high side. Everyone around her was screaming; one woman reached for her husband as he was pulled away, downward into the rushing water.

A man in a small boat had passed the SCItanic just a few minutes before. He, too, was caught by surprise in the thunderstorm. His boat was tossed about like a toy and slammed into the trees lining the shore. As he struggled to gain control, he managed to look over his left shoulder as the SCItanic rose up in the water, paused for only a moment and rolled to starboard. In just a second, it was completely capsized.

There was chaos and confusion as the passengers, now trapped in the salon under water, tried to get out. Some people tried to break the windows with chairs, but their struggles were useless. Captain May swam to the surface and reached for survivors as they clawed their way above water. He pulled them onto the bottom of the pontoons, now above the swirling water. One woman struggled as the water filled her lungs. She heard a voice telling her to open her eyes. When she did, she saw light above her, and the voice told her to follow it. The voice had led her to safety. The time was 11:25 a.m., only fifteen minutes after the captain heard the thunderstorm warning on his radio and twelve minutes after the rain first began to fall.

Rescuers rushed to the scene of the accident. Units from the Huntsville police department, the Madison County sheriff’s department, the army, the Coast Guard, marine police and various civilians quickly worked together to assess the scene. About fifteen divers dove time and time again into the murky waters with flashlights, struggling to see past the churned-up river soil in search of possible victims. Police had roped off the walkway to the marina to make way for the bodies that were being recovered and to keep away the distraught family members and gawkers.

By 12:30 p.m., five bodies had been recovered, but there were more to come. One woman was told not to give up hope that her husband had survived, but she had seen a stretcher with a body on it, partially covered with a sheet. She recognized her husband’s boot. She knew.

The weather continued to hamper recovery efforts. More than one inch of rain fell over the course of a few hours, and marble-sized hail was reported in Toney, Alabama, at 2:15 p.m. Lightning strikes blew out transformers and knocked down power lines, leaving many homes without power for some time. Two storms moved through quickly, followed by two more.

Only four passengers and the three members of the crew survived the accident. Finally, the bodies of the eleven remaining passengers were recovered. All had been trapped in the salon. The leisurely two-hour excursion had turned into the deadliest boating accident in the recorded history of Alabama’s inland waterways.

Days later, the crew of a helicopter flying over the area reviewed the extensive damage the weather had caused to the area near Ditto Landing. Trees were gnarled, twisted and snapped; buildings were destroyed, and several around the area had burned to the ground, possibly due to lightning strikes. The storms had left their mark on Huntsville and Madison County, but it was nothing like the tolls taken from the families of the victims of the SCItanic. Their lives would never be the same. Four members of one family had died, leaving a fifteen-year-old as the sole survivor because he had been out of the country. Another family lost three members; their enormous grief was shared by the entire city of Huntsville. But along with the grief came the questions of how and why. It wasn’t long until people began to point fingers of blame, and within days, the litigators and lawsuits began to line up.

The overturned SCItanic was pulled from its watery grave and taken to Florence by a salvage company. An investigation was launched to determine the cause of the accident and assign blame. Tests were made to determine the center of gravity and any other possible causes of the capsizing. The immediate explanation seemed to be the freakish weather. It was not a tornado, as some had suggested, although the winds were measured at seventy-one miles per hour. (Hurricane winds are defined as seventy-four miles per hour and higher.) But soon, another explanation

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