Demopolis – should we stay or should we go

We arrived in Demopolis after 3 days of more or less continuous rain, which was not really what we had envisaged when we were happily anticipating this trip.

Demopolis stands at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers, and our plan was to travel a further 200 miles down the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile on the Gulf Coast, and leave Carina there for the winter.

There are no marinas between Demopolis and Mobile, and not many places, apart from Bobby’s Fish Shack, where you can anchor or tie up. It was going to take us four days to do the whole journey, so we needed two or three days to re-provision, get the laundry done and have a look round Demopolis.

On Saturday we got the bikes out for the first time on this trip. Since getting them in 2015, we’ve acquired some proper bikes at home, and in comparison our $130 folding jobs from Walmart seemed clunky and inefficient. But we needed the exercise after sitting on the flybridge all day for 3 days.

It’s not far to Demopolis downtown from Kingfisher Marina and we passed  Bluff Hall, which dates back to 1832.

_MG_0001 (2)Bluff Hall

Bluff Hall

 

_MG_0003 (2)Rooster Hall

Rooster Hall

Rooster Hall is on Demopolis Public Square and was built in 1843 by the Presbyterians of Demopolis. After the Civil War, it became a courthouse. It then became an Opera House, sometimes featuring performers from New York or New Orleans. It has since been the city hall, a fire station, a meeting house and auditorium, voting station, and an office building.

_MG_0002 (2)N Walnut Avenue, Demopolis

Walnut Avenue, Demopolis

We stopped at the Mustard Seed Gift Shop, on the corner of the square, where Ian noticed that coffee was served. Coffee shops seem to be rather few and far between, and after 20 minutes’ cycling, we needed coffee.

We went on to Gaineswood, a plantation house on the south side of the town. It was designed and built by General Nathan Bryan Whitfield, using slave labour, with construction starting in 1843 and taking nearly 20 years to complete. It’s now operated by the Alabama Historical Commission as a historic house museum. Paige, the director, greeted us and was interested to hear we were from Northumberland. It transpired that General Whitfield was a third-generation immigrant, from the beautiful Whitfield estate in Northumberland, about 30 miles away from where we live. He wasn’t actually a general, but had inherited the title from his father. Paige told us that one of the general’s descendants had gone to Northumberland hoping to visit  Whitfield Hall, and was disappointed to find that it is still a private residence and not open to the public. He was talking about this in the village pub and was overheard by the present owner, who gave him a conducted tour of the estate.

 

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The back door, Gaineswood

Dining room

General Whitfield appeared to be the sort of man who could turn his hand to anything, and he not only designed and made the silver epergne for his dining table, but made it specially high so that his guests could converse with each other across the table and still see each other easily. He then went on to make the special cabinet with the rounded front, on the left of the photo, to store the epergne in when it wasn’t in use.

Music room

He also made the pianola-type instrument on the left of the photo.

Front entrance hall

The slave quarters

Sunday was fine too, so we took the bikes out again and rather overstretched ourselves with a 14-mile ride out to Foscue Creek Park and the Spillway at Demopolis Lock, on the Black Warrior River. It was particularly arduous for me, since after wondering for some time why I didn’t seem able to keep up with Ian, we realised that one of the brakes on my bike was locked on.

Black Warrior River at Foscue Creek Park

Taking a break

You know you’re in the southern States when you see the Spanish Moss hanging from the trees.

More Fall colours

The Spillway Falls, Demopolis Lock

Swamp Cypress roots

We knew the weather was going to change again and that the earliest we’d be able to leave Demopolis would be Thursday. We were in for 3 more days of rain and a spell of very cold weather, with temperatures barely above freezing. On Monday, heavy rain fell continuously. Anna-marie, the Dockmaster at Kingfisher Bay, asked us when we planned to leave and looked at us in a concerned way when we said Thursday. She said the river level was going to rise by 20’, and would carry on rising because of all the rain that was falling upriver. The river would be full of logs and debris. And if we got stuck, because a log had damaged the propellor, TowBoat US wouldn’t come out and rescue us until the river had returned to normal levels, because it would be too dangerous. And that could take days.

That did it, really. The prospect of inviting more damage to the boat, and more expense, and possibly being stranded in a dangerously flowing river was enough to stimulate some lateral thinking.

Kingfisher Marina has a sister establishment at Demopolis Yacht Basin.  They are adjacent to each other on the river. Ian investigated the possibility of leaving Carina there for the winter. It turned out that we could have Carina hauled out, and stay on the boat while working on her, for what seemed like very reasonable charges compared with the marinas in Mobile.

Carina is an old boat, and if we’re being honest, she is really a fixer-upper. In the five years we’ve owned her, Ian has dutifully kept up with all the maintenance jobs on the engine, and the rest of the mechanics. But there’s lots about the fabric and fittings that could be improved. Our problem has been that we’ve never seemed to be anywhere where doing much fixing up seemed a possibility, and all our time has been spent either on the water, or exploring the surroundings.

Ian had long wanted to build a new door for the port side, ever since we had visited Jim Zevalkink in Michigan and seen his amazing workshop. The old door had obviously suffered from water getting in long ago, and was rotten and badly stained. Ian had variously patched it up but it looked a mess. So here in Demopolis Yacht Basin was a perfect opportunity and we had time to use it. But we still felt sad that boating was effectively over for this year.  It felt as though we had hardly got going.

But our decision seemed vindicated on Tuesday, when an experienced boater addressed a gathering of Loopers in the marina lounge and said that the river was too dangerous, and  that it would remain so for a week. It was also very cold. The temperature hardly rose above freezing, and the small fan heater which we have on the boat, which is great for taking the chill off the air when it’s a bit cold, was no match for the wintry conditions.

The marina had a courtesy car and the local shuttle bus would also come and pick people up at certain times. So we went out to the big local hardware store for materials and Ian ventured into a barber shop for a long overdue haircut.

In the barber shop, Demopolis

On Thursday morning at 7.30, with frost on Carina’s railings. two lads came over from the Yacht Basin to help us get the boat taken out of the water. They were encased in thick padded body suits, wellingtons and balaclavas. We were rather less well protected from the cold, and I was glad that at the last minute before leaving home, I had packed some cashmere fingerless gloves and a fleece beanie. We crossed the river and Carina was carefully lifted out of the water in the big  travel hoist. We were welcomed to the yacht basin by Kim and Trenella and plied with coffee and cookies in the office while we waited for Carina to be taken to her place on the hard standing.

We got a hire car the next day, which made life a little easier. We tried a couple of the local restaurants, Foscue House and the Red Barn, which were both good, and discovered Simply Delicious, a local bakery where we indulged ourselves with coffee and cinnamon rolls. They had managed to transform the interior of a modern, plain brick building in a shopping mall into somewhere with a downhome, country-style atmosphere.

Simply Delicious Bakery, Demopolis

We had a stroll along the Bigbee Bottom Trail, near Demopolis Lock.

Bigbee Bottom Trail

The new door took a few days to complete, and wasn’t without setbacks. But it’s now in place and looks really good.

Work in progress

Carina and her new door

We’re leaving tomorrow for two nights in Natchez, the oldest town in Mississippi, and then on to New Orleans before flying home.

We’ll be back in the spring with the aim of crossing our wake in Clearwater, FL and acquiring the prized Gold Looper flag for Carina.

 

 

 

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The Tenn-Tom Waterway: Aqua Yacht Harbor to Columbus and on to Demopolis

Second time around, our departure from Aqua Yacht Harbor was uneventful, and we managed the 54 miles to our next stop at Midway Marina, without mishap. We slipped quietly away from the dock early in the morning, and were off down the Divide Cut, the first section of the Tenn-Tom. This is a 25-mile, man-made, long straight section of the waterway which links Pickwick Lake and Bay Springs Lake.

The Divide Cut

Bay Springs Lake

 

Below Bay Springs Lake, a series of 10 Locks takes the Waterway down to Demopolis.

 

The first six locks, which are fairly close together, comprise the Canal Section.

The first Lock is the deepest. Jamie Whitten Lock, named for a local politician, is 84’ deep.

Jamie Whitten Lock

Jamie Whitten Lock

Midway Marina is halfway down the first flight of six locks.

Tree stumps at Midway Marina

Assistant dockhand at Midway Marina

As we left Midway, it was a beautiful day with the Fall tints lighting up the river banks.

Fulton Lock

Coming up to Glover Wilkins Lock

After Amory Lock you come into the River section. Here, the waterway broadens out and the remaining four locks are more spaced out. There are lots of oxbow lakes where the waterway has been cut through, and in some of them you can anchor. We stopped at Acker Lake and the next day went on to Columbus.

near Acker Lake

Fall colours near Acker Lake

Coming up to Aberdeen Lock

We intended to have two nights at Columbus, and leave early the next morning with a group of Loopers to get through the nearby John Stennis Lock all together. But on the second night we ventured into the town centre to eat at Huck’s Place, generally acknowledged to be the best restaurant in town. It was certainly very good. The town centre looked interesting, and on the way back to the marina, our Uber driver recommended a visit to Waverley Mansion, an antebellum house a few miles out of town.

So we decided to stay another day.

The journey to Waverley wasn’t without incident. What our Uber driver hadn’t told us was that the mansion was some distance away along narrow, country roads. It should have taken about 20 minutes, and after driving for half an hour through forest interspersed with the odd tract of farmland, we suspected that the satnav might have led us astray. Google maps confirmed this, but even when we were on the correct narrow country road, we still couldn’t see anything resembling an antebellum mansion.

Things were getting a bit tense. We had to get the car back to the marina by 12, and if we didn’t find the house soon, we wouldn’t have enough time to see it properly. It wasn’t quite a disaster in the making, but there was certainly the potential for a minor domestic, with unspoken blame being cast equally on the one who had programmed the satnav, versus the one who had insisted on the expedition in the first place. Eventually, we came to a country park and just before a dead end at the water’s edge, I caught a glimpse of white down a rough track through the trees. There had been no sign indicating the house’s location.

A young man was sweeping leaves in front of an imposing house. It turned out he was the guide, and we had just enough time for a tour.

Waverley Mansion

Jimmy told us he was a history graduate and he was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the house and its history. He had worked for the owners for 10 years.

The house was unusual. Two wings led off a central octagonal entrance hall, topped with a cupola. The upper storeys had balconies overlooking the hall.

Waverley was built in 1852 by Colonel Hampton Young. He named it because Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels were his favourite books. He and his large family came from Philadelphia MS and lived in a log cabin nearby, while the house was being built. In the Civil War, the Union armies didn’t get as far as Columbus, so there are a number of antebellum houses in the area which escaped destruction.

After Billy Hampton Young, the last surviving son, died in 1913, the house was effectively abandoned, the heirs being unable to agree about what to do with it. It became derelict and a favourite haunt of high school and college students.

In 1962 it was bought by Mr and Mrs Robert Snow. They did much of the restoration and repair work themselves and furnished the house with beautiful antiques.

 

Central Hall, Waverley Mansion

Library

Dining room, with a portrait of Mrs Snow above the fireplace

Bedroom,  bedspread knitted by Mrs Snow

Drawing room

Mr Snow died aged 91 in 2017 and the house and contents are now for sale. It is registered as an historic building and the hope is that an organisation will buy it and preserve it for future generations.

Front driveway and garden

In the afternoon we went into the town. It was a bit disappointing. It wasn’t as lively as it had been the night before, and sadly, a number of businesses seemed to be closed down. We did have a look in the Arts Centre though, where an impressive photography exhibition was being staged. We wandered round the tree lined streets looking at the lovely old houses.

House on 3rd Avenue

3rd St S

On 3rd St, as we walked past, a lady opened her front door and called to us. Apparently it is obvious that we aren’t Americans, and she wanted to know where we were from. It turned out that she was a British exile, having moved to Columbus from Birkenhead in 1979. We had a long chat on her doorstep. She hadn’t been back to the U.K. for a few years and she said talking to us had made her day.

3rd St S

Tennessee Williams’ childhood home

Scarecrow on 5th St – a local custom

Main St

5th St

Columbus Marina at dusk

We left Columbus the next day. We knew that the weather forecast for the next few days was miserable, but we needed to get going. There were only two locks to go through, and it wasn’t raining very hard at that point, so we didn’t get too wet. But it was a pity that we only saw this beautiful stretch of river in cloud and rain.

We anchored at Windham Landing, and the following day at Sumpter Recreation Area.

Tom Bevill Lock, with an egret looking for something to eat

Leaving Windham Landing

Mile 272

There are some quite sharp bends on the River Section, and a couple of times large tows took us a bit by surprise.

Crimson White appearing round a bend

Sumpter Anchorage

There was another thunderstorm in the night and we were woken by brilliant flashes of lightning, claps of thunder and heavy, lashing rain. The last stretch to Demopolis was over 50 miles and as it’s now dark by 5.30 (November seems nearly as miserable in Alabama as it is in England) we got an early start and were away by 6.45. But it was bad timing.

Howell Heflin Lock was 3 miles away. Ian hailed them when we got within a couple of miles, only to find that a tow was just about to lock down in front of us. This meant waiting, ie hovering about in the channel, while the lock emptied and then filled up again, so we lost about 40 minutes.

At Epes and at Mile 234, 18 miles from Demopolis, we passed spectacular white cliffs.

The geology of Alabama is complex and the white rocks along the Tenn-Tom are fossiliferous, clayey, sandy glauconitic limestones laid down around the  Eocene Period around 50 million years ago, in warm, shallow seas. Thanks to my friend Elizabeth Capewell for this information.

By the time we got to Kingfisher Bay Marina at Demopolis, it was raining hard again and we were grateful to Anna-Marie, the dockmaster, for finding a covered slip for us. Demopolis is the last marina before Mobile, more than 200 miles away, so we planned to have a few days stocking up and having a bit of a rest before tackling the last, difficult stage of this year’s trip. What we didn’t realise at that point was that once more, Fate and the weather had decided to overturn our plans and that Carina would be staying in Demopolis for rather longer than we had anticipated.

 

 

 

The Tenn-Tom Waterway: Aqua Yacht Harbor and Back

I didn’t mean this blog to be a long, introspective, self-pitying catalogue of all the mishaps that have befallen us on this part of the trip. Really.

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Leaving Aqua Yacht Harbor #1

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Flying the flag of the American Great Loop Cruisers’ Association on the Tenn-Tom

But when we realised, two hours out of Aqua Yacht Harbor down the Tenn-Tom Waterway, that hydraulic fluid was leaking from the lower steering helm and that we would have to turn around, go back, and get it fixed with no small loss of time and money, it felt as though we had reached a very low ebb.

Coming on top of everything else that has gone wrong on this trip, I felt that things were out of control, and that shrugging it off, going with the flow, and accepting that stuff happens, no longer seemed an appropriate response. Wallowing in gloom was much more comforting, even for an innate optimist with a belief that most things usually happen for the best.

It was Saturday, so no one could come out till Monday, to see if it was just a leaking seal or something more serious.

It was. Dave came and said we needed a new helm to stop the leaking, and we would have to source one for him to fit. This comes under the costing-an-arm-and-a-leg category of expenditure, but, ever resourceful, Ian went on the Internet and managed to find a reconditioned one at considerably less expense than a new one would have been. We paid for expedited shipping so it arrived the next day for Dave to fit on Wednesday.

In the meantime, the hours hung rather heavily. My usual method of working off frustration is vigorous polishing of the brasses, but Ellen McArthur-style, I had run out of Brasso. Mopping the floors and polishing all the woodwork had to suffice. The WiFi wasn’t that good so checking social media was rather tedious, having to wait longer than five seconds for posts to appear. I was reduced to staring at the laptop, deleting most of the 1500 emails that had somehow accumulated in my inbox.

The marina had a courtesy car which we could use for two hours at a time. So we could go out, but not very far. We went to Corinth, 15 miles away across rural Mississippi, to the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center. This was a purpose-built facility and very well done, focusing on Corinth’s strategic importance in the war, and the battles of Shiloh and Corinth, in which many thousands of men on both sides were killed in action. Outside, there was a water feature with engraved stones, commemorating events in American history.  It was moving, and saddening.

Annoyingly, the weather was bright and sunny and would have been perfect for boating. Instead,we drove out to Pickwick Lake State Park, near the lock, but it’s mainly for boating and picnicking, with no walking trails, so we sat and watched a flock of geese on the water.

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Pickwick Lake State Park

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Pickwick Lake State Park

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Pickwick Lake State Park

Opposite the marina, a little further along the main road, a narrow road led up a hill through the woods, so we went for a walk up there instead. Scattered among the trees were a few houses, some modern and well-looked after, and others more modest. We attracted the attention of a gentleman busy sweeping the fallen leaves from his front drive, who came out and chatted to us. We got the impression that not many people here wander about in the woods for the fun of it.

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Little house in the woods, Iuka

Dave came back and fitted the new helm on Wednesday, so we were good to go. But the next stage involved a 25-mile journey down the  ‘Divide Cut’,  a long straight passage where the waterway was carved out of the rock and where you can’t anchor. We didn’t want to be doing that in the heavy rain and winds which were forecast for the next day, so we decided to stay at Aqua Harbor till Friday and enjoy the journey in better weather.

We went to the small town of Iuka, where the old Tishomingo County Courthouse is now a small museum. On a wet Thursday morning, we were the only visitors and Jeff, the director, gave us a guided tour.  His knowledge and insight gave us a much better picture of the history of the area than we would have gleaned if we’d just gone round by ourselves.

IMG_4226 (3)TishomingoCouthouse Museum

Tishomingo Courthouse Museum

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S Fulton St, Iuka

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The Old Tishomingo Courthouse, Iuka

The restaurant at the marina was open on Thursday evening and we deserved a treat. This time it took the form of Cajun-spiced red fish, followed by Mississippi Mud Pie.

That night, it poured down and Carina rocked on the waves washing against the dock. The extra day at the marina was a price worth paying for the knowledge that we were safely secured in the storm.

We had a very early start on Friday morning, because as well as the long passage through the cut, there would be locks to go through too.

The sky was grey and overcast, but this time the cloud had a silver lining.

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Leaving Aqua Yacht Harbor #2