Tuesday, August 4, 2009 — Deluges from the foothills of the mountains after several days of steady downpour had transformed the Pee Dee River in Stanly County into a swirling muddy monster which reached far beyond its banks and swept over lowland fields of corn and cotton. Un-impeded by dams or bridges, and fed by many rushing tributaries in the uplands, the mighty river thundered its way through the gap of the narrows at Badin and roared on southward where it spread like a many-fingered giant over the fields and woodlands above and below Norwood. Out in the swift current in the main channel, uprooted trees, parts of fences and other debris rode along on the crest of the restless water.
Many people were marooned that day by the barrier of the river. Boats and ferries were grounded or had been washed away. It would appear that it would be nothing but folly to attempt a ferry crossing of the river at this flooded stage. Nothing but grave emergency could conceivably drive a man to challenge the rampaging river.
Yet, a crossing was being arranged at this very moment.
It was early afternoon on Aug. 3, 1909. Col. Henry G. Myers of Memphis, Tenn., and Abbie J. Little of Little Mills, were traveling by hack and team from Richmond County and were at the Blalock Ferry Landing on the Montgomery shore. They were anxious to cross the river so as to catch the northbound train at Norwood.
Jule Snuggs, a colored ferryman, was manifestly reluctant and dubious, but at the persistence of the two white men he agreed to attempt the crossing against his better judgment. After all, he was thinking, crossings could be effected here at the Blalock Ferry when it was considered too dangerous at other points along the river. But he wondered as his eyes flicked across the choppy, jostling water to the distant shore, if the frail old ferrycraft was shipshape enough to take the beating of the angry currents. The ferry had made risky crossings before, but this was a high-water mark seldom reached by the river.
The team which drew the hack aboard the flat was unhitched as a precaution usually taken in such crossings. Col. Myers and Little stood by calmly. Two colored helpers on the ferry, Frank Snuggs, brother of the ferryman, and Oscar Colson made the craft ready and everything secure, the five men and hack and team set out for the Stanly shore.
Exactly what happened out in the swift current about midstream is not definitely known. Those who remember the tragedy say that the stay chain, suspended from the roller on the cable above, slipped at the point where it was hitched on the forward end of the ferry. The front end of the craft was angled into the current so that the force of the current striking the rear of the craft would drive it forward along the cable. When the stay chain slipped, the front end of the ferry drifted downstream placing the craft broadside to the strong current and water began pouring over the side. The strain on the cable anchor posts on either side of the river was too great and they gave way. Men and animals were swept into the river and the ferry straightway sank.
Myers, Little and Frank Snuggs were seemingly lost in the wild river.
Jule Snuggs drowned near his sunken ferry.
Oscar Colson had somehow managed to grasp the end of a rope that dangled upward from the submerged flat and he struggled to keep his head above the surface.
People on the Stanly shore who had come to view the flooded river were watching the ferry and had witnessed the plight of the men. They heard Colson’s faint cries for help as the rough water alternately slapped him under the surface. Among them were middle-aged Frank Forrest, an experienced river man, and another colored man, Harley Tomlinson. At once they set out in a small boat to rescue Colson.
About the time they reached Colson’s position, their boat capsized. Both Colson and Tomlinson drowned with terrible swiftness. Frank Forrest, the rescuer, managed to scramble atop the bottom of the overturned boat which began an hazardous journey downstream.
Also watching from shore was Greeley Forrest, son of Frank. He saw what had happened and knowing that his father could not control or guide the overturned boat he was riding, he immediately took possession of another small boat, the last in the vicinity, and set out to bring his father to safety. In his haste he failed to draw in the tie chain with which the boat had been fastened and it trailed in the water and hindered his progress.
Frank, from his helpless position on the boat bottom, saw what hindered Greeley’s progress and though he shouted and motioned with all his might, he could not make his son understand.
At last Greeley brought his boat close enough for his father to clamber aboard and Frank promptly hoisted the chain. Knowing the futility of bucking the current back upstream, they worked their way to the shore and found they were a mile below the ill-fated ferry site. And the nearest boat with which they could go back out into the river would be at the Parker mill one mile upstream above the ferry site.
Went For Boat
Already tired from their struggle with the river, father and son set out on the arduous two miles to get the boat. They knew not what had happened to the other men who had been on the luckless ferry other than they might still be alive somewhere downstream in the river and needing help.
Skirting the inundated lowlands, they made their way back upstream often plunging through waist-deep water and tearing their clothes and flesh over unseen obstacles. The boat at the Parker mill was locked. They smashed the lock and found paddles and set out through the bushes and low-hanging tree foliage for the main channel. The stiff current from the mill race literally shot them across the broad expanse of open water to near the Montgomery shore. Alert with eyes scanning the debris-filled water, they sought survivors of the ferry accident.
Some distance below the ferry site, they heard a faint human cry coming from a little island partially covered with low growth and a few small trees. Nearing the spot, they saw a man with one hand frantically clutching a branch of a slender poplar sapling which intermittently caused him to sink beneath the surface as it bent low in the wind. The man was Col. Myers.
Carefully working their way around to the lee side of the island, the men edged the boat up to the near-drowned man and finally pulled him aboard. The elder Forrest, wise to the condition of drowning men, held the water-logged Myers’ head down and a great quantity of river water ran out of him.
Greeley Forrest, who is still alive today, remembers that moment. “Water gurgled out of him just like running out of a jug,” he says.
They headed for the Montgomery shore and got the unconscious Myers to bed in the home of a Mr. Coble. In his wet clothes they found a large roll of soaked bills of large denominations which they spread out to dry. They folded the dried money and gave it to Myers when he came to his senses. Myers called Greeley to the bedside where he could get a good look at the tall angular young man. He called Greeley a Good Samaritan.
Frank and Greeley soon rowed back to the Stanly shore and brought Dr. Campbell from Norwood over to treat the sick man. Then the doctor sent them back to bring over a quart of whiskey that he had ordered by telephone from Albemarle. They returned with the whiskey which the doctor administered to the sick man. Afterward, they rowed Dr. Campbell back to the Stanly shore. Even then, one other trip was necessary across the dangerous river before the two enervated men could relax their vigil for the night.
As to the other men on the flat, they learned that Little had fought his way to the Montgomery shore after a frenzied battle with the river during which time he clung to a floating piece of timber. Frank Snuggs, the other colored man, had been carried more than a mile downstream by the current before he got his feet on firm ground.
For the following three days an extensive search was carried on in the subsiding water for the bodies of the three drowned men. An award of five dollars had been promised to the finder of each of the bodies. Frank Forrest found one of them. Greeley Forrest found another. The body of Jule Snuggs, the third man, was found in the proximity of the spot where he went down near the ferry.
The swollen bodies of Oscar Colson and Jule Snuggs were buried in wooden boxes just a few steps from the edge of the present-day Fork road where it leaves highway 52 below Norwood. The graves are still visible and the inscriptions on the markers are fairly legible. Harley Tomlinson was buried a short distance away in the graveyard on the hillside.
In the days that followed, Rev. W.T. Chambliss brought the drowning and the heroic rescue work to the attention of the Carnegie Hero Fund commission. A representative of the commission came to Norwood and talked to many people and made a full investigation of the tragic accident which had taken three lives. Then he made a full report to the Carnegie Foundation in Pittsburgh.
Early in May of the year following the drowning, awards were made in connection with the heroism displayed at the ferry tragedy.
Award number 352 in Carnegie Hero Fund Commission pamphlet reads as follows: “Harley Tomlinson (colored) aged 34, farmer, died assisting in an attempt to save Oscar Colson (colored), aged 27, farmer, from drowning, Norwood, N.C., August 3, 1909. During a flood of the Yadkin River, Tomlinson and another man, in a bateau, paddled 400 feet from shore to Colson, who was clinging to a wrecked flatboat, and had gotten Colson aboard, when the bateau capsized. Tomlinson and Colson were drowned.”
A shiny Carnegie medal was awarded to the family of Harley Tomlinson and $15 a month for the support of his widow during her life or until she remarried, with $2 a month additional for each of three children until each reached the age of 16.
Award number 353 of the Carnegie Foundation describes the act of heroism as follows: “Frank Forrest (colored), aged 53, farmer, assisted in an attempt to save Oscar Colson and helped to save Henry C. Myers, aged 62, insurance agent, from drowning, Norwood, N.C., August 3, 1909. When the bateau capsized, Forrest swam downstream 500 feet and was rescued by his son in a boat; then running along the bank a mile and a quarter upstream to get to Myers, who was in a clump of trees 400 feet from shore, he secured another boat, and, accompanied by his son, rescued Myers.”
Frank Forrest was awarded a Bronze Carnegie Medal and $500 cash to liquidate an existing debt and for other worthy purposes as needed.
Greeley Forrest, though he played an important role in the rescue, did not receive any award or recognition from the Carnegie institute.
Col. Myers told Frank and Greeley that as long as he lived they would not want for anything. And he befriended them in many ways. But through the succeeding years he might have forgotten about the welfare of his benefactors and they probably lacked for substance.
Up until his death in 1933 at the age of 79, “Uncle Cuffie”, as Frank Forrest was affectionately known by his many white friends, kept the bronze medal as his most cherished possession. Tarnished with age, the medal and the accompanying papers are now in the hands of his children at Norwood.
Greeley Forrest is, today, the only survivor connected with the fateful river tragedy of 1909. He will be 72 years of age in April. Although burdened with sickness and physical handicaps, he can still laugh and talk with cheerfulness about his condition. But when he talks of that day in 1909 and the ordeal he went through, his voice grows husky and tears well up in his eyes.
A few of his white friends still remember him with occasional visits and gifts. When he feels well enough to walk up on the streets of Norwood, many of the older residents of the area address him respectfully and call him “Uncle Cuffie” after his father whose brave deeds are remembered by many.