OPERATION TIME: 1908 to 1913
The James T. Staples riverboat (which is officially registered as the Jas. T. Staples and is also known as the Big Jim) was a Tombigbee River sternwheel paddle steamer that belonged to Captain Norman Staples, the boat’s designer who named it after his father. It was first used in 1908. Captain Staples experienced difficulties in owning the boat thanks to a steamboat company that wanted to have a monopoly over the Alabaman boats on the river.
In 1912, Staples suffered financial problems, leading creditors to take control of the boat in December. It was turned over to the captain’s competition.
On January 2, 1913, Captain Norman Staples committed suicide via shotgun to the chest following what had happened with his riverboat. He was buried three days later on January 5.
The crew members of the steamboat reported seeing the shadowy figure of Staples walking in the boat’s hold and near the boilers below deck. The men were so scared that they all quit and were replaced by a new crew with no information of the ghost. One day, all of the rats onboard the James T. Staples riverboat swam ashore with no apparent reason.
On January 13, 1913, the boat was docked at Powe’s Landing to intake wood. One of the boilers blew up at the exact hour of Staples’ suicide, scalding the new captain and twenty-five others to death. The twenty-one crew members and passengers who made it out alive were severely injured by the blast. Survivors were rescued by the crew of another large sternwheeler in the area, the John Quill. The explosion was speculated to have been caused by either human error or sabotage, though neither suggestion was ever proven.
The remains of the riverboat floated down the river, eventually sinking near the shore of the Bladon Springs Cemetery, where Captain Norman Staples was buried. The hull, engines, and two of the boilers were salvaged and used to build the Peerless, completed in 1914.
Many believe that his spirit blew up the ship in anger from beyond the grave, as some of the crewmen claimed to have abandoned the engine room after seeing Staples’ apparition beneath the boilers. There is also a tale of an old man who claimed to be a prophet foretold the disaster.
In Popular Culture
- The story was featured in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s Jeffrey’s Latest 13 More Alabama Ghosts in the short story, “The James T. Staples, Doomed Steamboat of the Tombigbee.”
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