The sale the other day of the steamer “City of Fayetteville,” for $11,750—costing $30,000 to build, exclusive of its expensive wharfs, automatic freight and passenger lifts, and bonded for $125,000—set me to thinking of old flush times on the Cape Fear river, when the steamers plied the waters, loaded with goods to the gunwale, and the saloons and staterooms were full of passengers. There was nothing of any exciting interest about the journey between Wilmington and Fayetteville, but the trip was always pleasant. The captain walked his quarterdeck “monarch of all he surveyed, but he was a kindly autocrat, and his passengers were his well cared for family.
Captain S. W. Skinner, now a citizen of Wilmington, was for many years a steamboat captain on the Cape Fear, and no man was more cordially liked and more highly esteemed than he throughout Fayetteville and from one end of the river to the other.
One night, many years ago, when Captain Skinner was commanding the steamer Hurt or Governor Worth, he was on one of his up trips from Wilmington to Fayetteville. It was cold, sleety weather, and the mate, wrapped up to his ears, slipped and slided on the decks as he made his rounds. The sparks rushed out from smoke stack in angry battle array against the deepening gloom, and the laboring craft churned the black, cold waters in impatience of her dreary task. The interior of the saloon was cosy and comfortable, with a good fire in the great box stove, but it was almost deserted, for the passengers going all the way through, after the evening spent in talk and cards, had retired to their berths.
A long awkward looking, typical backwoodsman, in a saffron jeans suit and sandy chin whiskers, was alone awake and restless—sitting on a rocking chair near the stove, spitting tobacco juice now into the spittoon on the left and then on the right, and peering anxiously through the cabin windows. Finally a pine torch was seen waving on the river bank a few hundred yards ahead, the whistle blew frantically the deck hands were heard stamping about, and the passenger rose to his six lank feet of stature, and gathered up his bundles.
The boat rounded to, the captain gave his quick, sharp commands, the engine puffed and groaned in discordant protests at being stopped in such weather, then egro roustabonts jumped out on the bank, and carried a rope around a big juniper tree, the gangplank was put out—and then there was a pause. “Where in thunder is the passenger to get off here?” demanded Captain Skinner. “Hasn’t come down from the upper deck, sir.” “Go after him, and bring him down, we can’t stop here all night!” The mate found the dilatory passenger marching deliberately up and down the saloon, turning over chairs, ransacking cushions, looking behind doors, etc.”
“Come get out of here man; you are keeping the boat waiting.” “Well mister, I carried down four pounds of lard to sell in Wilmington, and I can’t find the empty tin bucket, high ner low!” There was no further parly. The mate marched him out of the cabin by the shoulders, and he and the captain had him over the gangplank in a jiffy.
The passenger stood on the bank in the glare of the pine torch in the hands of his son, who had come down to wait for him. He watched the rope and the plank pulled aboard, the bow of the steamer swing out to the middle of the stream, and the sheet of sparks lengthen out to a broad sparkling ribbon on the curtain of the night, as the boat passed on its way. He was silent, but he was thinking about something—and what he was thinking about will develop presently.
Two or three trips after this the Hurt going to Wilmington, was very late having been delayed several hours at Fayetteville by an unusually heavy freight, and was putting forth every effort to make up for lost time. About 10 o’clock Captain Skinner, passing through the cabin, stopped to look over the shoulder of one of a quartette at whist, when there was a quick, sharp blow of the whistle; and, with an impatient, exclamation at the stoppage when he was in such a hurry he went out on the deck, to see a torch waving on the river bank below—it was the lard bucket man’s landing.
There he stood, looking on with languid interest while the steamer was put in to the bank and the gangplank thrown out, down to the end of which he strode, and hailed: “Is that the steamer Hurt?” “Why, blame your fool soul, you know it’s the Hurt!” “Is that Captain Skinner?” “Confound your picture, come aboard, if you are coming!” “I don’t want to git aboard, but if that’s the Hurt and that’s Captain Skinner, I jist wanted ter know if he had found my lard bucket yit.”
Words were inadequate to that situation. The captain gave just one wild sweeping gesture of arms and hands to signify to the pilot to go ahead, and dived into his stateroom. I cannot give the thoughts of the backwoodsman as he tossed his torch into the river and ascended the bank, because I do not know what those thoughts were—as Dickens said about Job Trotter, when he outwitted Mr. Samuel Weller.
J. H. M.
Fayetteville, May 9.
[Wilmington Messenger – May 14, 1905]
The Cape Fear River Steamers