October 10, 2005 Florence to Joe Wheeler State Park
We took our time leaving, since we had so little distance to go today. Our first lock was only about
20 minutes upriver, so we called before we left to be sure we wouldn't arrive behind a queue of barges. We got the go-ahead
from the lock master, and when we arrrived shortly before noon, the doors were open and waiting for us.
The Wilson Lock, named for President Woodrow Wilson, was our highest single lift lock of the entire
Loop voyage. It took us up 93 feet in just 31 minutes. When it was built in the 1950s, Wilson Lock was the world's
highest lift lock, but today there are five higher ones.
The dam adjacent to the lock was completed in 1925 (four years after Woodrow Wilson left office), and
was the world's largest dam at that time. Its spillways look like Roman aquaducts, and are quite a classical contrast
to the power towers, heavy steel gates and other modern industrial architectural details all around them.
We emerged from the lock into beautiful Wilson Lake, its shores lined with palatial retreats, with a few
homes of more modest proportions thrown in. We were hard pressed to find a place that we would call a "cottage."
The lake is about fourteen miles long, with Wilson Lock and Dam at one end and Wheeler Lock and Dam at
We rose 48 feet in Wheeler Lock. In just fourteen miles we had risen 141 feet, which made us think
that before the dams were built, this section of the river must have had some wild rapids.
Joe Wheeler State Park wasn't far from the lock. Frank and Rona from Crazy Horse grabbed
our lines as we docked. We met them in Trenton at the start of the Trent-Severn Waterway, and last saw them at the Rondezvous
in Penetanguishene, so we were glad to catch up on their news, including the fact that they had just bought a bigger boat
from other Loopers. They are still aboard Crazy Horse for a while, until the other Loopers get to their home
port. Shortly after we last saw Frank and Rona, we heard that their boat and a couple others we knew were
tied up near a boat that caught fire in a Marina in Little Current in the North Channel. As Frank said, after
the fire their boats "looked like charcoal briquets." Fortunately the damage was only on the surface,
but it took a long time to get the black soot cleaned off, and the only thing that worked was bleach, so they lost all
their wax finish in the cleaning, and had to redo that, too. All the hard work paid off, and Crazy Horse looks
good as new.
Docked right next to us were our birding friend, Carol, and her husband Chuck, aboard Vagabond.
Carol has been calling and e-mailing me with tips on spots she has had great bird sightings traveling a week or so ahead of
us along the river. Unfortunately, my luck hasn't been as good as hers (or perhaps my eyes haven't been as sharp), and
I haven't found the unusual birds she has. But, my luck was better than hers in the dental department -- while I got
a clean bill of dental health when we went home a couple weeks ago, she is holed up at Joe Wheeler Park for a month for dental
surgery and follow-up appointments.
It is a beautiful place to be stuck for a while. Dick and I took our dinghy out for a ride along the
shore before dinner, and thought we would enjoy stopping here again to hike around a bit on our way back downriver.
A Looper Rondezvous at the park had ended just a few days earlier, but lots of Loopers were still hanging
around. We hadn't met most of them, but had a chance to get to know them at a Pizza Party that night. About ten
boats ordered pizzas to be delivered from town, and we all ate them together on the poolside patio.
A few words about Joe Wheeler are in order before we leave the Park, and the Lock and Dam named for
him. Joe Wheeler graduated from West Point in 1859, and served valiantly in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
He was small in stature, which earned him the nickname "Little Joe." His success in battle was legendary, and he rose
in rank rapidly as reward for his victories.
He was not without detractors, however. In 1863, General Nathan Bedford Forrest (remember him from
near Johnsonville -- the only General in history to defeat a naval force with a cavalry force) was assigned to reinforce
Wheeler's command in a battle against Union Troops at Fort Donelson. The small Union Force succeessfully defended their
garrison against the combined troops of Forrest and Wheeler, and Forrest told Wheeler, "There is one thing I want you to put
in that report to Bragg. Tell him I will be in my coffin before I will fight again under your command."
Later as he sought futilely to halt Sherman's March to the Sea, many Confederates complained bitterly of
his behavior and that of the soldiers under his command. A letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis called the
cavalry "Wheeler's Robbers," and claimed "the people of our state had reached the point where they did not care which army
won, as Sherman was not making the war any harder on them than our cavalry."
After the war, Wheeler moved to the Tennessee Valley of Alabama, where he raised cotton and practiced law.
In 1880 he was elected to Congress. When he ran for reelection, he was unseated by an opponent who died before he could
complete his term, and Wheeler was elected to fill the vacancy. He went on to serve from 1885-1900, when he resigned.
He couldn't keep off the battlefield, though. When the United States declared war against Spain in
1898, Wheeler, at the age of 63, was commissioned major general of volunteers, commanded a cavalry division in the fighting,
and was a ranking member of the commission that negotiated the surrender of Santiago.
After he retired at age 64, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he lived until he died, and was buried
in Arlington National Cemetery.
October 11, 2005 Joe Wheeler State Park to Huntsville (Ditto Landing Marina)
We convened with Geminelli and Main Course for breakfast at the Joe Wheeler Lodge.
We sat near windows with a panoramic view of the water, but could scarcely see past the end of the boat docks through
the thick fog.
By 9:15 we figured we had close to half a mile visibility, so we decided to go. We turned on our radar
and operated from the lower helm station for about an hour and a half, until we could see for about a mile, and the fog had
stopped condensing on our windshield. Soon after we climbed to the flybridge, we were rewarded with a view of cotton
fields through a break in the trees along the shore.
At midday, we had to idle around waiting for a railraod bridge to open in Decatur, Alabama. The bridge
was built on the site where the Union Army burned a Memphis and Charleston Railroad Bridge on April 2, 1862. The Tennessee
River is lined with Civil War historic sites. There is a story around every bend , it seems.
The dominant feature of the Decatur waterfront is a vast complex of grain elevators in many shapes and sizes.
We read in our cruising guide that grain for North Alabama's poultry industry and soybeans are major commodities flowing through
this port. We read on the side of one of the silos that Decatur is the home of Meow Mix Cat Food. That pretty much
summarizes all we know about Decatur.
After we passed Decatur, the river flowed through a wildlife refuge that stretched for about 15 miles
on both sides of the river. We enjoyed the untouched landscape through the haze that still lingered, but it was too
early to see the ducks that migrate here to spend the winter.
We reached Ditto Landing Marina in Huntsville at a little after 4 p.m. The marina is about four miles
from town, and it doesn't offer a courtesy car, so we didn't have an opportunity to explore. We thought that perhaps
on the way back we might have time to ride our bikes or get a taxi into town to check out the Space and Rocket Center, the
world's largest space museum.
Huntsville has played a crucial role in our country's space program for nearly half a century. It
is home to the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, dedicated as a field office of NASA in 1960, just two years after
the Agency was created. The Marshall Space Center provided the rockets that launched the first satellite into space,
the first astronaut into suborbital flight, and the first man on the moon. The power of the rockets being testing in
Huntsville was phenomenal -- the noise could sometimes be heard up to 50 miles away, leading one reporter to call Huntsville
the "Land of the Earth Shakers."
In contrast, our time in Hunstville was most sedate. We joined our cruising friends aboard Geminelli
for dinner. When we arrived, the boat was filled with the aromas of fresh baked bread and French onion soup. Ellie even
made us a pumpkin pie for dessert.
We feel lucky to have found such a convivial group of cruising companions for this leg of our journey.
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