Saturday, October 1, 2016

George Singleton recounts the day that an elephant waded the Alabama River at Claiborne

George Buster Singleton
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “A forgotten event in Claiborne town” was originally published in the Oct. 1, 1998 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

As I wander down the deserted back roads of Monroe County, many stories told to me over the years come to mind. Since I first came to this area, I have heard many tales and stories from people I was fortunate to meet. Many of these dear friends have since departed this life, but the many hours of listening to these wonderful stories come to mind as I pass these places that now lay almost forgotten.

A few days back I wandered down to the old landing where, before the first bridge was built across the mighty river, all traffic crossed the river by ferry. I had the honor of being friends with an old man who lived in Claiborne and witnessed many goings on along the river and the then fading town on the high bluff. Shortly before my dear friend’s death, he asked me to take him to the river to relive old memories and view for probably a last time the place of his early childhood. As we sat there on the high bank overlooking the flowing river, this dear friend told me a story.

It was in the fall of 1908, before the first bridge was built at Claiborne. Just below where the upper boat landing is now located was the ferry landing.

On this fall day, the ferry was very busy because a circus was coming to Claiborne. The circus would be coming down the Gosport road from the town of Grove Hill where it had held its last performance a few days past.

The wagons and equipment were strung out for several hundred yards along the road that led to the ferry. The wild animals’ cages were mounted on wagons drawn by one or two teams of horses. There was shouting and loud instruction as circus laborers circled the wagons for the river crossing. Last in line was the huge circus elephant, walking at a slow swinging gait, bringing up the rear of the column.

For the next few hours the ferry made several hurried trips across the river. At the top of the high bluff work began for that night’s showing.

The bank on the Claiborne side of the river was lined with the local population, waiting and watching for the big event. Slowly, the big wagons eased onto the flat boat which was to take them across the river.

The deep sand on the west bank was a problem for the heavy wagons as they moved down to the water’s edge. The huge elephant helped push the heavy wagons through the sand. He placed his huge head against the rear of the wagon and gently pushed it through the deep sand and onto the ferry. The elephant would be the last to cross the river.

Finally, after much shouting and sweating, the last wagon was loaded on the ferry for the trip across the river. All that remained on the west bank was the elephant and its trainer. At last, the slow ferry returned to the west bank for its final cargo of bone and muscle. After the flatboat was secured for loading, the elephant was walked down to the water to board the ferry.

My friend who told the story was a small boy during the time of the circus crossing. He sat wide-eyed and almost breathless as he watched the elephant slowly place one of his front feet on the ferry. As the ferry settled in the water under his great weight, the elephant slowly backed away, refusing to walk on the boat. Three times the large beast refused to walk on the boat. Three times the large elephant refused to trust the ferry with his weight.

Time was growing short, performance was only a few hours away and the main attraction was refusing to get on the ferry. Finally, a long rope was placed around the neck of the huge beast by its trainer. As the ferry backed away from the bank, the large elephant gracefully eased himself into the water.

He waded out into the river until the water covered his entire body. Then he submerged and continued to slowly walk along the river bottom with only the tip of his long trunk visible above the water. As the ferry approached the east bank, the huge mammoth slowly emerged from the river, walking slowly and carefully up on the east bank, seeming to enjoy every minute of it.

Today, no thought would be given to the crossing of a river by an elephant. A huge enclosed van would speed across the modern bridge and no one would be the wiser. But, in 1908, it was a day to be remembered. After all, it wasn’t every day that one witnessed an elephant wade the mighty Alabama River.

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County, graduated from Sweet Water High School, served in the Korean War, lived for a time among Apache Indians, moved to Monroe County in June 1964 (some sources say 1961) and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. For years, Singleton’s column “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. Some of his earlier columns also appeared under the heading of “Monroe County History: Did You Know?” He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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