Dogwood Ghost: Part Three of Three
The Rose of Virginia made good time to Wheeling, where the dock’s roustabouts then unloaded her cargo.
The Captain always felt some amazement at the great suspension bridge that crossed the Ohio River. Huge stones supported the engineering marvel of cables and steel girders that stretched from bank to bank. He knew this was the way that many had headed, toward the setting sun, to find new land of promised dreams after the war.
No time for idyllic thoughts, he must pick up his load from the steel mill and move it quickly north. The water had been rising the further he traveled up the river on his northern mission. He knew there must have been heavy rains in Pennsylvania that was now feeding the steadily rising waters.
Black steel rail, nearly forty feet long and weighting more than a thousand pounds each, was loaded onto the lower deck at the steel mill. His boat had been loaded with as much steel as the Rose dared to carry up the river to the yard above Pittsburgh.
As he left the mill with his heavy load, he realized his boat was low in the water that now had become increasingly muddy brown in color. Laboring hard under the heavy load and ever increasing current of the river, the once proud boat moved north one more time.
The Rose’s churning paddlewheel had been slowly pushing her north on the Ohio River, and now she was making the turn to the east at the top of the panhandle of the new state of West Virginia, heading toward Pittsburgh.
The river channel at this point narrowed as the waters increased in current and speed. Hidden sandbar moved the current in unpredictable directions as the captain struggled to hold her in the deep of the channel. The captain realized he was in a losing battle with the river and he must do something, or risk losing his boat. If the river would push his boat onto a sandbar or a tree snag, with the great weight of the steel rail, it would break the back of the Rose and she would be lost.
The captain knew there was only one thing he could do to save his crew and the boat: Tie down the safetys on the boilers. The safetys on the boilers are like corks in a bottle, held down with heavy weights.
When the pressure in the boilers become too great the safetys would lift and release some of the boilers’ steam pressure that drove the pistons, that propelled the boat massive paddle.
The order was given: “Tie down the safetys!” The Captain had done this before, during the war, to increase speed to avoid enemies’ cannon fire along the lower river. He had a good crew, and they could be trusted to watch the gauges and not let anything go wrong. A lot of water and hard times had passed under the deck of the Rose since she was last asked to make this kind of an effort on the river. The average life of a paddle wheeler was seven or eight years; the Rose was well beyond that.
As the steam pressure increased the boat in the muddy water, the Rose started to handle with a little more ease on the swift dark water. The Captain began to feel more at ease as he remembered the picture in his vest pocket and, once again, patted it for good luck.
The night sky was clear, and the moon shown bright on the waters of the river, as the boat now made it way toward its final destination. Just south of Pittsburgh, a brakeman riding on the last car in a coal train heading north stood on the rear deck of the cabooses looking toward the moonlit river. He could see in the distance, the fire coming from the stacks of a steamboat as it was coming north on the river. He had never seen sparks and fire before, rising that far out of a boats stacks.
It was a few minutes before three in the morning when, in the distance, he saw a huge explosion where the boat had been a moment before. In a few seconds he could hear the explosion he had witnessed.
The fire and sparks only seemed to last a few minutes before they dimmed into the dark of the night, and now only the moon’s refection illuminated the rivers water. The brakemen knew he witnessed a river steamer and her crews’ last few moments of life.
It was a few days before the Pittsburgh papers ran the story of a riverboat sinking just south of the city. The papers description: “So complete was the destruction of the boat when the boilers blew apart no salvage is possible in the deep river channel.
The swift water carried all floating signs of the lost riverboat in the darkness of night. Two badly burned crew members were found downriver early the next morning. Both of the men died from the injuries. The name of the boat has not yet been determined. No other survivors were found.”
After two weeks, the last blooms had fallen to the ground beneath the dogwood tree. Elizabeth had waited everyday to hear the sound of Rose’s horn, announcing the Captain’s promised return. Boat after boat passed by, as she waited beneath the, now dark green, dogwood tree.
At night she would slip out of her home to go to the river edge, to make sure the lantern still burned bright and the ribbons, still, were in place.
The long hot summer came and went; still she waited for his return down the river, to keep his promise.
It was early October, and the dogwood leaves had now turned deep red with the slow loss of daylight.
The early night sky was clear, with thousand of stars looking down, as the first season frost was sitting in on the land. The last warmth of the river’s water was rising, as a light mist, when Elizabeth came for her nightly check of the ever-burning lantern.
In the morning, Elizabeth’s parents discovered she had not returned from the river edge the previous night.
When they arrived at the dogwood, the lantern that hung in its branches was blackened with soot from the wick burning afowl. But nowhere on this frosty morning could Elizabeth be found.
A night watchman at the stockyard swore he had heard a boat’s horn in the night, blowing one long and two short signals in the deep hours of the night.
He knew it was unusual for boats’ captains to sound their horn, unless they had a good reason when passing in the night.
As the sun came up to warm the morning air and better light the river’s banks, a discovery was made that, to this day, has not been solved. The small picture Elizabeth had given the captain was found near the river’s edge in the soft mud.
Had the Captain came back to find Elizabeth and taken her with him, to places she had dreamed about?
Perhaps she had slipped on the frosty grass and fell into the cold October waters and was lost? But what of the picture, and the sound of the boats horn – were they things that the ghost of the captain had left behind when Elizabeth joined him for one last trip on the Rose of Virginia… in the dark waters of the Ohio River?
In the flood of 1912, the dogwood tree that had stood on the banks of the river for over seventy years, was carried away by the spring river’s floodwaters. So when the dogwood blooms, and you look into the night across the dark water, perhaps you can see the reflection of a lantern, with a scarlet ribbon burning. And if you look real hard at the edge of the light’s reflection, you can see Elizabeth and the Captain… as you look Thruough The Lens.