Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Sunny South, Alabama was named after steamboat that sank in 1867

The "third" Sunny South in 1914.
Many in the reading audience will know Jamestican Parham, a native of Sunny South who now teaches Vocational Agriculture at Hillcrest High School in Evergreen. I ran into him last Thursday afternoon outside a hardware store in Evergreen, and we struck up a conversation about his days growing up in Wilcox County.

Our talk eventually turned to the subject of the history of the Sunny South area and how that community got its name. He said that he’d heard several stories about how the name came about, and one of the most commonly told stories was that the community was named after an old steamboat that caught fire and sank a long time ago.

I told him that I’d look into it, and when I got back to the house I checked my dogeared copy of “Place Names in Alabama” by Virginia O. Foscue. When I looked up the entry for Sunny South, it confirmed that the community was “named for the Sunny South, a steamboat destroyed by fire in 1867 at Portland, a dead town once located on the banks of the Alabama River in Dallas County.”

I dug a little deeper and learned that there were at least three steamboats named the Sunny South. The first was built in 1847 and sank after hitting a snag near Mobile in 1855. The second Sunny South, the one that the Sunny South community is named after, was built in 1860. Supposedly, after catching fire it drifted from Portland to the McMillan Plantation landing, where it eventually sank. In fact, some sources say that the remains of the Sunny South still rest there today at the bottom of the river.

The third ship to bear the name Sunny South was built in 1897 and was originally called the “Electra,” a reference to the mythical Greek daughter of old King Agamemnon. This steamboat plied the waters of the Tombigbee River from Mobile to Columbus, Miss. and was renamed the Sunny South in 1914, two years before it capsized about 25 miles from Mobile during a hurricane that struck on April 20, 1916.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to find more details about the fire that sank the Sunny South in 1867. Unlike the more famous Orline St. John steamboat disaster of 1850, there is little information about the Sunny South sinking. The exact date that it occurred, the cause of the fire and details about the loss of life and property associated with the incident may be lost to history.

According to “Place Names in Alabama,” the Sunny South post office was established in 1888, and it remained open for a century before closing in 1988. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that the name Sunny South was applied to the community when the post office first opened, which likely came about when the railroad was set down through the middle of town.

In the end, I’d like to hear from any readers who know more about the Sunny South’s sinking and the early history of the community that now bears its name. When the did sinking take place? What caused the fire? Was anyone killed? Was there valuable cargo aboard? Maybe someone out there knows because, if not, I’m afraid that those answers may have been lost to history.

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