Friday, August 29, 2008

Piggy the Sailor Man: the story of Popeye, Piggy and the last steamboat on the Coosa

My grandfather was a boat racer, aviator and steamboat operator. His name was Hugh E. Green, but everybody called him Piggy. According to his obituary, he died when I was four years old, but that doesn't seem possible for someone I remember so well. Fortunately, there are a few faded clippings, some old black and white photos and a handful of people still around who knew him; otherwise, no one would believe the stories my father had to tell.

Aside from his wife, my sweet, yet spirited grandmother, Dorothy "Dot" Camp Green and his two sons, Hugh, and Ben, the baby who is my daddy, Piggy loved the river. The muddy water of the River seemed to flow through his veins.

And that's where we shall start...

My grandfather, whom his six granddaughters called Big Daddy, owned the last steamboat on the Coosa. The steam stern wheel tugboat was built in 1888 and later abandoned before being purchased by the government, who used it to dredge the river channels clear of snags and sediment. Its original cost was about $40,000.

Piggy bought the boat, named Leota, from the federal government in the 1930’s. He remodeled her and moved the pilothouse from middle to the front and shortened her stacks, so she could fit under the 2nd and 5th Ave. bridges of Rome, Georgia. He also changed the boat's name from Leota back to her original one, Annie M.

Piggy gave sightseeing tours or excursions, as he called them, down the river from Rome to Gadsden. A spacious dance floor was provided for dancing and games, according to a 1936 news article. The boat had 10-12 staterooms, one of which was used as a brigade for unruly passengers, with Big Daddy acting as the long arm of the law, or "the short arm of Piggy," as my father said. On Sundays, Piggy would take church groups up river to Whitmore and Ship Island.

Mayo’s Lock and Dam below Rome had been put in working condition for the Annie M. and was kept open just so excursions could be made beyond that point at will. Piggy was quoted in an article in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine in 1961 as saying:

"The river was still navigable from Rome to Gadsden then. It's 129 miles by river between the two towns. I used to go down the river in 13 hours in that old steamboat, but it took two to four days to come back upstream. It took longer when the river was high. I could take about 200 passengers on the Annie M., which had two decks. It was 147 feet long, 33 feet wide and had a 122-ton displacement."

Now Piggy was about 5' 9" and round in the middle. He had long, strong forearms and short legs. He had a great laugh and always had a small cigar stuck out of the corner of his mouth. His wife, Dot, or Mama Dot, as we called her, was tall and thin, a beauty, who fretted and worried about the wild man she married.

Kind of like Popeye and Olive Oil, which is quite ironic, considering the Annie M., or Leota, as she was called at the time, was once owned by a Captain Sims. It seems his son, Tom, used to work aboard the vessel as a boy.

So what you say?

Well, Tom later became the creator of the comic strip, "Popeye the Sailor." Tom was quoted by several sources as saying, "Fantastic as Popeye is, the whole story is based on fact. I was born on the Coosa River and worked with the crew of the Leota. So I transformed her into a ship and made the Coosa a salty sea, with part of that crew as characters for my strip."

On the 4th of July and New Year, couples would dance to the music of an "orchestra," (or band) on a barge decorated by lanterns, recalled Dot. The Annie M. would travel down river under the bridges and back. The Annie M. was eventually sold after a female passenger fell overboard during an excursion and drowned. Her husband said it was an accident but a cloud of suspicion surrounded him, with some saying the couple had argued that night.

The boat was purchased by Gadsden investors, who turned her into a casino. It was later sold to Mrs. H.B. Vinyard, an author who wrote short stories and poetry under the name of Mary Elizabeth Counselman. She lived on the vessel until it sank on Mother's Day 1945 and was dismantled, according to Roger Aycock's All Roads Lead to Rome.

Piggy kept Annie M. docked outside of his business, the Rome Welding Shop, which was located on the banks of the Oostanaula River. The property is now the site of the parking lot for The Forum, Rome’s Civic Center complex. Piggy described the steamer as "an awful lot of work," as the boat was big and clumsy and would not rise and fall with the river.

Boats over 65 or 70 ft. required a special license, so Capt. Walter F. Gray served as Leota's pilot, with Piggy as Skipper. Gray later became lockmaster at Mayo's Lock and Dam on the Coosa River, managing the locks for 35 years until their closing. In addition to Gray and Piggy, the crew consisted of one engineer and a couple of deckhands.


Angela McRae said...

What a wonderful family story! So glad you are preserving these memories, and the memorabilia you've shared is just terrific!

Vivi said...

How cool! Popeye is from Georgia.
I forwarded this to my mom. She said she remembered the steamboat and seeing it docked in Gadsden every now and then.

Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms said...

This is a wonderful story that I am so glad you have recorded for your family and us. Ellen