OPERATION TIME: 1908 to 1913
The James T. Staples riverboat (officially registered as the Jas. T. Staples, also known as the Big Jim) was a Tombigbee River stern-wheel paddle steamer belonging to Captain Norman Staples, the boat’s designer who named it after his father. Her maiden voyage was in 1908. She was considered to be the “most elegant vessel on Alabama’s rivers.”
Unfortunately, Captain Norman Staples experienced hardships brought on by a large steamboat company’s unethical practices and desire to establish a monopoly over all boats on the Alabama rivers. In 1912, Staples suffered financial difficulties, leading creditors to seize control of the riverboat in December and turn it over to his competition. On January 2, 1913, the destitute Captain Norman Staples placed a shotgun to his chest and ended his life. He was buried on January 5 in the Bladon Springs Cemetery.
Crew members of the James T. Staples reported seeing the shadowy figure of Captain Staples walking in the boat’s hold and near the boilers below deck. The men, frightened out of their wits, subsequently quit. They were promptly replaced by a new crew with no prior knowledge of the supposed ghost. One day, all of the rats onboard the riverboat swam ashore without any 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 crew members the John Quill, another large stern-wheeler in the area, rescued the twenty-one survivors, who were severely injured by the blast. 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 Pop 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.”
- Wikipedia. “James T. Staples,” www.Wikipedia.org
- Hauck, Dennis William. Haunted Places: The National Directory