Friends still mourn loss of river crossing, while kinfolk recollect pilot Ike Napier and his beloved boat, the ‘Jere Mitchell’
STORY l PHOTOS by KEN BECK
ROME, TENN. — For close to two centuries a Cumberland River ferry transported passengers, vehicles, livestock and supplies between the Smith County communities of Rome and Riddleton. That day in 1992 when the Jere Mitchell was permanently grounded not only left a melancholy pang in the hearts of its regular riders, but severed strong bonds between neighbors, put a dent in small businesses, reduced church membership rolls and robbed travelers of a precious shortcut.
“It’s been said all roads lead to Rome except for ours,” said George W. Draper, 90, who lives on his family farm on Rome Road in Beasleys Bend, north of the river.
Before the ferry ceased running, Draper was but a 4-minute drive and a breezy 3-minute river crossing from Rome. Today, it’s a 21-mile, 40-minute meandering trip by car to reach the far side of the river.
“Terrible, terrible” is how Bettye Richardson, who with Draper and Linda Hensley founded Friends of the Rome Ferry in 2001, describes her feelings of the day the ferry died. “We needed it. We always went that way to Lebanon, and if you needed to go to Nashville, it cut off all kinds of miles and all kinds of time. Besides that, it had been promised to us,” said Richardson, whose grandfather, Comer Haley, the last private owner of the ferry, sold his interests to Smith County in 1929.
“My grandfather sold it to the county for $1 and consideration that there be a free ferry sunup to sundown or until a bridge was built,” said Richardson, who grew up in Lebanon but has been a resident of Beasleys Bend, where her grandparents farmed, for decades.
Draper also bemoans the loss of the ferry but puts things into perspective, saying, “The ferry was facing enormous problems, governmental among them.. It got to the point where you considered what the transport of each person was costing with two men and all expenses. It was not really practical anymore to operate the ferry.”
Old Rome Ferry sits 2½ miles past the Wilson County line into Smith County, where Round Lick Creek flows into the Cumberland River at mile 292.5. About 75 yards south, Highway 70 crosses above the creek on James L. Fisher Bridge.
Today, the 64-year-old hulk of the Jere Mitchell continues its lazy slumber to a rusty death less than 25 yards from the shore of the river. Poison ivy and other vines creep up along its edges. Spray-painted graffiti mars the front of the pilothouse, and the lichen-covered wooden landing aprons show decay and rot. Worse than Mother Nature, thieves have ripped away metal pieces of the historic boat, a war memorial, and likely peddled them as scrap to salvage yards.
“The bell that was on there was a big dinner bell from our house,” said Richardson. “Sam [Andrews, her late first husband] took it and put in on that ferry and it was stolen off. It’s just been cannibalized, that’s all you can say.”
The disregard shown to the ferryboat, named in memory of Jere B. (Bowen) Mitchell, a graduate of Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon who gave hislife in World War II, proves most regrettable to Draper, a first cousin.
“Jere was like a brother to me. He died when he was 22. He was killed in France on the streets of Cherbourg on June 26, 1944, the very same day that the city of Cherbourg was taken by the Allied Forces. His body is in our family plot at a cemetery in Dixon Springs,” said Draper, whose memories are not all melancholy.
When the steel-hulled, sternwheel paddleboat launched in 1949, Draper and 100 or so other locals, highway officials and politicians took the first joy ride.
Built by Rogers Manufacturing Company in Nashville, the Jere Mitchell cost Smith County $11,000 and could carry four cars, whereas the previous wooden ferryboat, Rome’s Friend, took on but three vehicles.
With its six-cylinder, 235-horsepower engine, the Jere Mitchell had a capacity for 50 tons. Weighing 27½ tons, stretching 60 feet long by 20 feet wide and 3 feet deep, it had a draught of 10 inches.
“It was a festive occasion, and the people of the territory all got on the boat, and we rode up the river and down the river and back,” reminisced Draper of the inaugural cruise. “Everyone in the area here was on the boat.”
That was over 60 years ago when 33 ferries plowed Volunteer State waters. (There were hundreds of ferries in Tennessee in the 1800s.) Today the state operates but two: The Benton-Houston ferry runs across the Tennessee River between Benton and Houston Counties, and the Cumberland City Ferry operates across the Cumberland River in Stewart County. Like the river it crossed, the 200-year history of Rome Ferry flows long and runs deep with rich stories too numerous to document.
“In 1798, I took a lease on both banks of the Cumberland River. … Here I erected a small cabin, constructed a flatboat and began to keep a ferry at a point on the river,” wrote Joseph Bishop, perhaps the original Rome ferryman, in his biography.
Major A. Beasley, son of Isham Beasley, from whom Beasleys Bend derived its name, operated a ferry here in the 1830s, and in 1862, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan ferried the river near here in flight from Union soldiers after the Battle of Lebanon.
In the early 1920s, when a blind mule or horse named John powered the ferryboat by walking in circles and turning a gear box that churned the paddle, fees ran $1 for a round trip for a car, 20 cents for a horse and buggy, 10 cents for a horse and rider and 5 cents for a person on foot. It was about 1919 when the Napier family became associated with Rome Ferry, and for the next 70-plus years only a Napier would serve as pilot. From Dec.13, 1924, until January 1972, “Uncle” Ike Napier stood his ground as Rome Ferry’s “Iron Man.”
Ike literally grew up on the Cumberland River. His father ran a ferry in Celina for 14 years, and Ike’s brother Frank ran the Rome Ferry five years before he took the helm. As a youth, Ike rafted logs from Celina to Nashville. “The river was just a highway back then,” he told reporters decades ago. He came to Rome around 1913 when it was a vibrant river town that supported three doctors, a bank, hotel and several stores.
“The first four years I hauled for pay. The ferry was privately owned, first by Dora Rutland and then by Comer Haley. There was a lot of traffic back then, but there was only three automobiles in the area,” said Ike.
“It cost 40 cents each way for an automobile. It was 40 cents round trip for a horse and buggy. It was a dime round trip on foot. Sheep and hogs could cross for 3 cents. Cattle were 5 cents,” said the pilot, who for many years lived in a “ferry house” furnished by the county.
“The river would get in the house every winter back before the dams. Chickens, dogs, everything would be floating round. I remember once we put everything on the table. It still floated off. We would put the chickens, dog and everything on the ferry, and we would take it up the creek to wait for the river to go down. We lived on the boat for two weeks. That included six children (sons Joe, Bill and Baxter and daughters Margie, Gladys and Annie) my wife and myself along with a number of chickens, cats and dogs.”
One day in the 1930s, Ike ferried a traveling circus across the river, pachyderms and all. “I was a little apprehensive about the elephants, but they made it fine,” he recalled.
Over the years, 11 drownings were recorded at the river crossing, including a horrific accident in 1963 that took the lives of six members of one family whentheir car rushed down the road to the river and crashed through a steel cable. Only one woman escaped death, plucked from the water by Ike from his canoe. Afterward, the Coast Guard reportedly pressed for more stringent safety precautions although the calamity had no connection to the ferryboat or its skipper.
For most of his tenure, Ike labored from sunup to sundown seven days a week and rarely took a vacation. “I bet I have missed less than three months work,” said the pilot, who was making $60 a week when he retired in 1972. “It was just a job. I had to take them from one side to the other.”
Upon yielding the helm to his son Joe and nephew Carl Napier, Ike bought a house on a bluff above the river, so he could keep an eye on his beloved ferryboat.
“If the weather was becoming bad, he didn’t worry about that house, he worried about that boat. He loved the Jere Mitchell. He loved that boat and wanted to make sure it wouldn’t sink,” said Ike’s grandson, John Whitehead of Watertown.
The grandson recollected that Ike was a lifelong fisherman who always wore overalls and chewed King Bee or Hornet chewing tobacco, and adds the fact that “Grandpa never drove an automobile in his life.”
Another grandchild, Raylene Napier King, who grew up in Rome and now lives in Bardstown, Ky., remembers, “When I was little girl on Sunday afternoons, my daddy took me down by the ferry, and we would ride back and forth as the cars came. I was always amazed by it. Grandpa would go back into the little wheelhouse. He didn’t really talk a whole lot.
Bill Napier, 83, a nephew, recalled, “Uncle Ike was a fine old gentleman. A friendly person, friends with anybody and everybody. If you asked him how long he was a pilot, he would always say, ‘Son, I run her 47 years and 20 days.’”
Of the forlorn state of the Jere Mitchell, Bill, who lives less than a quarter mile away, says, “They just drug it up with a bulldozer. It’s a shame. They could have done something with it. That boat was never supposed to have been shut down.
“They asked me to be the pilot (in the 1990s after Joe Napier died). I had a house beside the river. They assumed I had a license. I had a pilot’s license but not for boats,” said Bill Napier, who flew planes.
Carol Andrews, Bettye Richardson’s daughter, was raised in Beasleys Bend and holds to fond memories of the late riverboat pilot. Ike Napier died July 17, 1989, at 91 years of age and was laid to rest in Lebanon’s Wilson County Memorial Garden.
“I spent a lot of time with Ike on that ferry, especially in the summer when I would ride my bike down there and ride back and forth for a while. Sometimes he shared his snacks with me,” Andrews said.
“I stayed with a friend in Rome a lot and sometimes missed the boat. It was closed. So Ike would kindly just take me over in the canoe. Or maybe the river was too high from the rains for the ferry, but he would take me over, dodging debris. I don’t think we even wore life jackets or worried about it. He knew that river and her nuances. There were no problems. . . .
“When traffic was slow, he sat on a large rock beneath a tree on the Rome side. Sometimes I sat with him and listened to his stories if he chose to share. When he laughed, the twinkle in his eye was priceless.
After he retired, he attended Rome Church of Christ with us. My dad tried to fix him up with some of the widows. He never took the bait,” reminisced Andrews.
Her mother reflects that some commuters were scared to ride the ferry, but she had complete faith in Ike, who at times used his canoe as a river taxi. She recalls when a flood rose almost up to Highway 70, leaving her stranded at her grandparents’ in Beasleys Bend.
“My sister and I were homesick. My daddy got Ike, and they got in a canoe over at end of the Fisher Bridge, and they came over by Paul Caplenor’s barn. We walked through that barn, got in that canoe, and my sister, father and I and Ike and went across that river, and there were things floating all in that river. We got across and got on that highway and went home. It never did enter my mind that anything could happen. Ike would take care of it,” said Richardson.
After Ike retired, his nephew Carl ran the ferry a bit, but his son Joe, who had been a deckhand for Ike for 17 years, became the main pilot for the next 20 years. Between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., Joe made 10 or 12 crossings a day, carrying a maximum of six passengers because that was how many lifejackets were aboard the boat.
After Joe’s death in 1992, the ferry closed with the reason being given that they could not find a pilot. Friends of the Rome Ferry put up a good fight for years to have the county and state renovate the Jere Mitchell and get the ferry back on the river. Cost estimates to make that happen in the early 1990s totaled $300,000. Thus the ferry loyalists have given up hope but cling to one final dream.
“We know that it’s not gonna run, but the county mayor asked me what could be done down there, and I suggested a little park with picnic benches and that we clean up and paint the ferry and put it on a pedestal with a ramp so that tourists could walk up safely and enjoy it,” said Richardson. John Whitehead remembers how hard it was for his grandfather to say goodbye to the calling he clung to from age 27 to 74.
“You could see the sadness in Grandpa. Seven days a week from daylight to dark that was his entire life,” said Whitehead.
“He loved that boat I’d say more than he loved his family. He thought the world of it. When a man leaves his own home because of storms, to protect that boat, shows how much he loved that boat. He would have died behind that steering wheel (had he not had to retire).
“All during the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the generations that farmed over there, they depended on that ferry. When their generation is gone, just word of mouth is gonna exist for those who hear the stories. For those people the stories are being told to, they will never realize the importance the Jere Mitchell was to their families. It’s just gonna be a piece of iron. That’s what’s sitting over there now.”