Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Frozen River Stops the Ferry but not the Mail

The Cumberland River gathers its water from the Cumberland Plateau of southeastern Kentucky and eastern Middle Tennessee. It slants out of Kentucky and follows a serpentine course westward across Middle Tennessee; eventually it turns north and re-enters Kentucky, in the western tip of that state, and there joins the Ohio River fifteen miles upstream from Paducah. Along its route it touches the Tennessee towns of Celina, Carthage, Nashville, and Clarksville—and the little-known historical site of Fort Blount. The fort guarded the river crossing and the main road west during the western expansion of  the late 1700s and early 1800s. Adjacent to the fort spread the town of Williamsburg, then the county seat of Jackson County. The fort and town have vanished; a remaining graveyard is the sole reminder.
The river is known to have frozen over five times—in 1779, 1876, 1893, 1905, and for the last time in 1940. An inaccurate newspaper report about an incident at Fort Blount Ferry during the last freezing created a myth which grew to folklore still told seventy-five years later. But the true story is richer than the folklore.

The ferry boat in 1971 as it approaches the east side of the Cumberland River, the side of the ferryman’s shack. Two years later the ferry was discontinued. Fort Blount Ferry was established 180 years earlier, in 1791, by Sampson Williams, owner of Fort Blount. Photo by the author.

The river had frozen over at Fort Blount Ferry. When mail carrier Silas Williams arrived at the ferryman’s shack that January day he saw a slab of ice stretching across the Cumberland. It was rare for the river to freeze. But cold air had come to Jackson County and a week later it was still hanging around.
The Putnam County Herald of January 25, 1940 reported that the temperature in Cookeville had hit eleven below zero on January 18. Putnam County borders Jackson County to the south and Cookeville, its county seat, is only eighteen miles from Fort Blount. The river froze on January 25 and stayed frozen through January 29.  
The ferry boat couldn’t operate, even if its Model-A Ford engine would crank. It was locked in ice. That was a problem for Williams. He needed to cross the river to deliver the mail to Smith Bend and points beyond on the other side.
When the ferry was not operating, he knew what to do. It was a tiresome routine, one the cranky old ferry boat forced on him too much. He had to backtrack to Flynn’s Lick and on to Gainesboro, the county seat where he’d started his route; then continue north on Highway 56 to cross the only bridge over the Cumberland River in Jackson County, and drive nearly to Whitleyville; from there, catch Highway 85, a narrow, steep, curvy road, to Gladdice, the entry to Smith Bend. From there he’d still have to drive all the way to the bottom of Smith Bend, to the Fox Farm, location of the vanished Fort Blount and vanished town of Williamsburg, the land just across the river from where he now sat in his truck gazing at the awful span of ice. He dreaded the extra hour of driving. At best, an extra hour, the icy conditions would make the hills risky and the drive could take much longer.
Williams sat looking. The icy dirt road sloped down to the frozen river before him. One can imagine his impulse.
Several days later the Nashville paper arrived in Smith Bend—Silas Williams himself brought it along with the rest of the mail—with its story of what happened next. It included a photo of Williams standing beside his truck. The caption told how when Williams found the river frozen he was undaunted. He headed his truck across the ice and continued on his route delivering the mail as usual. It evoked devotion to duty, casual courage, and ingenuity. It even uncorked the old cliché, “Neither rain nor sleet nor snow…,” just what you’d expect such a story to say.
The incident wasn’t all happy though. In good time a rumor reached Smith Bend about how the caper had nearly cost Silas Williams his job, presumably for putting the mail at risk in the icy river (likely not for putting his own life at risk). The irony of the secret he couldn’t tell must have been bitter indeed:
He didn’t drive the truck across.
Thus the real story begins. When Williams drove up to the ferryman’s shack that day, old man Les Lynch the ferryman was likely inside, for the reason that he nearly always was inside, and was supposed to be there. And anyway, Lynch lived only half a mile away, toward Flynn’s Lick. A small wood-burning stove kept his ferry shack cozy. The little building was where he sat and watched the river and waited for the occasional car to show, either in front of his shack or across the river on the Smith Bend side. He had another reason to be there, too. The Jackson County Highway Department required him to operate the ferry from sunup to sundown. He needed to be there to earn his pay whether the ferry boat actually ran or not.
It happened that another man was also there that morning, twenty-three-year-old Glen Smith. He lived two miles away on the Smith Bend side. Why he was there is lost to history. He had left his twenty-year-old wife Margaret at home. They had been married two years. Pregnant, she would give birth to their first child five months later, in June, a boy.
A country man, perhaps Smith was out that morning to simply see the effects of the cold weather on the countryside. Maybe he thought Lynch would have some whisky, not an unusual condition. Or maybe he was hoping to find a checkers game in the warm shack. I can only speculate now. While he could have told me these things, he did not.
But I know he was there alright. He was the one who drove Silas William’s truck across the river. The mail itself was never at risk; Williams carried it in a pouch and walked across. He did tell me that.
Why the incident happened at all is a mystery. What did Smith say to Williams, a man thirty-five years older, or Williams to Smith?  Why was Williams willing to risk his truck? The questions spin out. One question roars: What compelled Smith, a man with a young wife and a child on the way, to take such an insane chance, to risk death in the icy water over little more than creating a stunt? Over the years, he never told me. And it’s too late to know now. We can only examine Smith’s life for clues.
He was a strong swimmer and he knew the river well. He swam and fished in it, hunted beside it and plowed fields on its banks. He could swim across the river with ease. He would brag about once swimming the river on his back while holding a pile of fourteen mussel shells on his chest. He needed the mussels for fish bait.
So he had no fear of the river. But swimming ability aside, if the truck had broken through the ice, he would have had scant chance to escape. Had he succeeded in exiting the truck cab, the current might have pulled him downstream beneath the ice where there was no opening overhead. Even if he reached the opening, he could not have climbed out without help. And of course a person dies of hypothermia quickly in such cold water.
When Smith drove onto the frozen river the ice began to crack. He could hear the crack running down the river and around the bend. He told me that part.

Glen Smith at the age of eighteen photographed with his basketball teammates at Granville Junior High School during the 1934-35 season. Photo reprinted by Jackson County Sentinel, November 13, 1991.
Smith was a natural country athlete. He could ride standing on the back of a running horse. He had played basketball at Granville Junior High School. He had also played for Cohn High School in Nashville, until he was kicked out of school for threatening to throw a teacher out an upper-story window. In his telling, the dispute was over an answer he’d given to a question in science, a subject he liked. The teacher claimed his answer was wrong. Other family members candidly claim the dispute was actually over smoking. Perhaps both issues contributed. In any case, he was dismissed from school. That ended his education and his basketball career. While his family lived in Nashville for only two years, he logged other scrapes there and was once arrested for illegally seining a creek for fish.
Not to be denied, he took up baseball, developed a mean curve and pitched in community-league ball for Gladdice, a team that played Defeated Creek, Rock City and so on. He was back in the Gladdice and Smith Bend area now, where he lived the rest of his life.
So fear likely wasn’t the factor when he drove onto the ice that day. Confidence was. He never doubted his own judgment and ability—like the player who knows he’s going to make the shot. Hearing the ice crack didn’t faze him.
Fear wasn’t the factor. Throughout his life, in dangerous situations he always remained calm. Two cases well observed:
He was welding with an acetylene torch in his Smith Bend shop while a neighborhood man Billy James Hackett looked on. The acetylene tank erupted, spewing fire from its top like a blowtorch, and flame quickly ran up the wooden wall. Acetylene is bottled in a heavy high-pressure tank with explosive potential. Hackett ran hard 100 yards across a tobacco field before he stopped to look back. He saw Smith take a log chain, throw a loop over the flaming tank and pull it out of the building and then go to work putting out the fire in the shop.
Another time Smith was sitting on the Gladdice store porch with several other men. His daughter-in-law suddenly burst from the trailer across the road where her family lived, screaming “Gina’s choking! Gina’s choking!” Gina was Smith’s beloved granddaughter. He rushed over. The child was already lifeless. Smith lifted her up; her limp body arched back across his upturned palm. He thought for a moment. We watched. Suddenly, almost violently, he compressed her chest between his hands. The food popped out of her throat and she began breathing again, scared but unharmed. This happened before the Heimlich maneuver was widely known. Nor did Smith know it. He analyzed and solved the problem in the moment. We saw it happen.
His tolerance for risk was abnormal. He had once put his whole family in a scalding pan and paddled across a quarter-mile of backwater. The family had been visiting in Nashville when the Cumberland River flooded, backed up Salt Lick Creek and put a section of Smith Bend Road under several feet of water. The scalding pan was a homemade rectangular vessel big enough to put a hog in. It was used to heat water into which the hog carcass would be immersed to soften its coarse hair for scraping. Smith borrowed the scalding pan to use as a makeshift boat from a man named Ruff Butler who lived where the floodwater started. It was a way to get back home. The pan was made of steel. If capsized or swamped, it would sink immediately. There were three kids in the family then, ranging from six years old to a baby in it mother’s arms. All five souls huddled in the tiny vessel as it inched across the wide expanse of brown water. Smith paddled. The two older kids bailed water from the leaky contraption with tin cans, an episode they recalled later in life with wonder. The father was the only one who knew how to swim.
He was known as a marksman, an important skill in country society. Again, action started on the store porch, where several men were passing the time: Landon Holland, Jr. who lived next door, brought his .22 caliber rifle over for Smith to look at. He had lost the front sight and hoped to talk Smith into making one. Maybe he knew Smith owned a rifle with a homemade sight. Always confident, Smith took the rifle, examined it a minute and then stepped off the porch. He fished around in his pocket and pulled out a live cartridge, worn and dull from being carried there. The porch audience looked on. He dropped the round into the chamber, picked up a small lump of coal and tossed it into the air. Raising the rifle he blew the coal to bits in mid-air. Fragments rained down on rusty pickups and the tin store roof. “That rifle doesn’t need a sight,” he kidded as he handed it back to Holland.
Neighbors remember Smith as a generous man who helped others. He could repair almost anything. Throughout his working life he repaired vehicles and farm equipment for neighborhood farmers, working in the heat and cold, usually charging only enough to pay the cost of welding rods, acetylene and such.
But there was another side. He had what you might call a hyper-sense of justice and would accept no insult. That got him into fights. He once knocked a man cold over a checker game. From the distance of time passed, I can question whether the grievances he held were justified to the extent he believed or if an exaggerated sense of honor common to Southern men of that era was in play. Regardless, he was not to be messed with.
Not a big man, photographs show a lean, muscular man standing about six feet tall, weighing maybe 155 pounds. One time he fought two men at once, jumped off his tractor and flattened them both, got astraddle the stronger one and had to be pulled off. I happened to witness that fight myself from the Smith Bend schoolhouse window. I was a young child, but the memory lingers.
Generally, he ignored authority. He treated other people with respect and expected the same from them. Inconvenient laws, he ignored. Although he owned and flew light planes throughout his life, he never bothered to earn a private pilot license. He flew in and out of a hayfield 1,100 feet long, so short it made most pilots skittish. Hauling passengers and giving instructions without a license was illegal, but he did it. The Frank G. Clement Bridge was the second bridge built over the Cumberland in Jackson County. He flew his plane under it, also illegal, of course.
Smith founded an excavation company and accumulated several units of heavy excavation equipment. He exhibited fearless skill in operating a bulldozer, even in tight and dangerous places.
The qualities Smith evinced throughout his life, in some combination, were those the twenty-three-year-old Glen Smith apparently brought to the frozen ferry the day he drove Silas William’s truck across the ice. That doesn’t explain why he did it, but at the very least, the act seems in perfect keeping with how he lived his life. And that, I think, is as close as we are going to come to an explanation of the event.

Glen Smith in Colorado with a ten-point buck he had killed, circa 1954

Mail carrier Silas Williams continued his service without any further incident, carrying the mail on Route 4 with dedication for ten more years, until his retirement in 1950. His legacy is secure, embedded in the folklore as the man who bravely and dutifully drove across the frozen river to deliver the mail. Whether he or a lazy newspaper writer, or even some other person, invented the fiction that he drove the truck over the ice will likely never be answered.
The river, it rolled on and never froze again, at least not up until this past January, the seventy-fifth anniversary of that 1940 freezing. And the Corp of Engineers has stated that the river will never freeze again due to the dams and locks that have since been constructed on it. The 1940 freezing ended that part of the river’s story.
The ferry died. It was the last of four ferries over the Cumberland in Jackson County. Throughout its life, reliability of the ferryboat had been a problem. It consisted of two boats abreast connected by nothing more than a chain: A shallow barge floored with wood was long enough for two cars. The motorboat, a much smaller vessel, was an open steel rectangle with an engine in the middle and a tiller at the back. It connected to the downstream side of the barge by a chain. The setup was like a motorcycle equipped with an over-sized side car.
The ferry continued its sometimes derelict operation until 1973, when the new Cordell Hull Dam, some twenty-seven miles downstream, quickly raised the water level at Fort Blount. The ferry boat promptly sank at its mooring. It was pulled out, used a while longer, then dragged a quarter-mile up the road and left there. It rests beside the road there yet, rusting in the blackberries and honeysuckle, the sole shabby monument to its decades of service.
    Glen Smith lived to the mature age of eighty, dying in 1996 of COPD, after nearly a lifetime of smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes; in later years he switched to Winston filter tips. Oddly, he always went by his middle name. His first name was Dallas, the same as mine. He and Margaret Smith went on to raise three boys and one girl. Had he been wrong about the strength of the ice on that cold day back in 1940, he would have left behind only one son, a son born five months later, a son his widow would have raised, a son he never would have known.
I was that son.