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Friday, August 23, 2002

A Time Of Year Too Hot To Paddle:
DOWN THE LAZY FISH RIVER
___________________________________________________________________

A new friend of mine with an intense interest in Civil War history, has
asked me to show him several of the Civil War sites along Fish River which I
have been researching and doing field work on for the past thirty years. He
is about to return to his home in St. Paul, MN so I consent to violate my
better judgment and get out on the open water on a July day. It is hot, very
hot.
So because of this state of affairs, we meet at the corner of highways 48
and 33 at 6:00 a. m. to head south, past Clay City, over Cow Pen Creek to the
end of Highway 33 where it meets Fish River. The area from just north of the
Clay City Road all the way to South River Park was a staging point for Union
armies just before they marched on to take Spanish Fort and Blakely in March
of 1865. The entire area was surrounded by an earth work that closed on Fish
River on the north and south. The base of operations was at what is now the
marina, erroneously named Farragut's Basin by tradition. It is unlikely that
Farragut ever came near this place, for the taking of Fort Morgan by the Navy
under Farragut, occurred in August of 1864, long before this event. This was
mainly an army operation with boats being used merely as transports.
We launch our boats at the end of Highway 33 behind the barricade there.
The tide is low so we have ample room on the white-sanded beach to place his
canoe and my small Neckie kayak. We paddle up river first, passing the old
Marlow ferry crossing, then slightly further north to see the Marina basin.
Somewhere near the Marlow crossing, the Federals installed a pontoon
bridge to cross the bulk of its force marching from Fort Morgan. They had
spent a harrowing set of days on the march through terrible rains on a route
that took them east along the peninsula all the way to Helton's place near
present day Orange Beach, then back east to cross the Magnolia River with a
pontoon bridge, headed for what is now Marlow.
The basin has changed but little in over fifty years save for the large
docks for yachts and some residential development south of the marina. In
1865 the south end of the basin was the log holding pond for Danly's
(Dannely's) Mill. The basin was used by the Federals to turn around their
large transports that brought men and supplies from the Fort Morgan and Cedar
Point. The troops camped for a week here, but much higher on the hill near
Highway 33.
We make a rest stop at the marina store and then head back down the river
past our original launch point. Just below our launch on the same side of he
river is another Civil War site called Smith's Mill. Even earlier in August
of 1864 a flotilla of "tin clad" ships and transports brought troops to make
a raid on the mill as it had been furnishing lumber for the Confederate
military in Mobile.
This contingent of Michigan and Wisconsin troops had just come from a
raid on the Bon Secour salt works where they had destroyed the furnaces and a
number of military buildings farther up the Bon Secour River. From this
raid, they headed directly over to the mouth of Fish River at Weeks Bay.
At the mill, they found fresh cut lumber and the steam engine, ditched in
the water in an attempt to hide it. Smith is in Mobile at the time of the
raid. They load the lumber on the transports and head back down the river.
From the high cliffs on the east side of the river they are bushwhacked by a
contingent of Confederate cavalry. The bow cannon throwing out grape shot
scares them off as the other troops take shots from behind the load of
lumber. Around the next bend in the river, they are ambushed again. The
boats eventually throw up sufficient lead shot into the woods to scare off
the Confederates. The prize of lumber is taken on to Fort Morgan.
The three of us paddlers pass on down river past this mill site. We are
in the midst of much residential development occuring on the east side of the
river. However, there are numerous stretches of river on the west side that
have been spared development to the water, due to the swampy nature of the
river banks. Here we find many osprey and hawks perching on naked cypress
dead heads. Brown pelicans are diving for fish. At the water in many of the
little tight bayous and creeks, is blooming a lavender colored morning glory.
It is conspicuous by its blooming in this hot time of the year. Yet it is
still early morning. They will soon close for this day to awake early
tomorrow.
Just before we get to the mouth of Water Hole Creek, we turn around to
paddle back up river, making comparisons between the character of Fish River
and the lakes and rivers of Minnesota. There is practically no current in
Fish River this far down stream so the paddle back up stream is easy. As the
morning awakes, we begin to encounter motorized boat traffic. We paddle near
the sides of the river and thereby find many residents awakening to "the good
life" on Fish River. It is beginning to get "July-hot" though, so we decide
to call it a day. We have our boats out of the water by 10:00 a. m. and head
home. This is an area of Fish River still worthy of paddling but in cooler
weather or in the evening. It is very hot in Alabama this time of the year
and no time to be out in open water!

FRANK LARAWAY