Regional Sea Stories - "Captain Willis Greene Barrow and The Steamship Tarpon"

A Story of Gulf Coast Maritime History

By John Appleyard, assisted by Braden Ball & Dr. Louis Barrow

The following story appeared as a chapter entitled "The Tarpon's Adventures" in the book "Captain Willis Greene Barrow and The Steamship Tarpon" which was published in 1998. This Chapter is presented by permission of Mr. Appleyard who has produced many historical books and articles concerning maritime Pensacola.


The TARPON had outrun the great hurricane of 1906, and the vessel was riding east of the area when an even greater storm struck Pensacola and Santa Rosa County ten years later. However, in 1923 there had been an event in which the ship was not so fortunate. The vessel was taking on cargo in Panama City when fire of undetermined origin broke out below decks. The ship was severely damaged and when the blaze was finally extinguished Barrow had her towed to a shipyard in nearby Millville where extensive repairs were made. When TARPON emerged from that effort she appeared to be better and more handsome than ever.

In September, 1926, came still another wild adventure, The hurricane of that September was severe. Many credited the newly opened radio station WCOA with saving many lives in Pensacola, for, while there was no national storm warning service as yet, WCOA's management had received telephone reports from the Southeast and the station's urgent broadcasts had been heard by many in low lying areas. [ Editor's note: This is particularly impressive because of course, this was before mobile phones and sim cards - today's digital standards - people were tied to home phones...before call waiting and the end of the 'busy signal'. ] These people retreated to safety. However, the waterfront area was forced under water and there was extensive property damage.

Barrow and TARPON were riding in Pensacola Bay when the storm's fury struck. His anchors gave way but his seamnan's instinct told him what to do. Rather than risk being driven against the docks, Barrow turned TARPON'S helm to the south, and as the high winds and rising surf followed, he and his crew beached the craft, bow to the south, on to Santa Rosa Island. This saved the ship, and despite serious buffeting the vessel was not seriously damaged. However, getting her off the sands was something else. Barrow engaged a dredge. With that and the efforts of crewmen the ship was floated free. At length TARPON was floated into the bay, and after minor repairs was ready to go once more.

When the hurricane of 1926 broke, TARPON was in Pensacola Bay and Capt. Barrow proposed to ride out the storm there. But when his anchors parted, he drove the vessel bow-forward onto the sound sands. the ship was saved, but the 'digging out effort' required substantial manpower.

Three years passed. In the late summer of 1929 still another great storm swept into the Gulf, this time farther to the east. Once again Barrow and the TARPON were caught unawares, and once again the vessel was washed ashore, this time near West Pass in Apalachicola. One more time the ship survived, and after minor repairs she was placed back in service.

As the 1930's began TARPON was still master of the Gulf route. One might have expected competition to emerge, but it didn't. One vessel, THE GRAND RAPIDS, ran between Pensacola and New Orleans and brought some transferable cargo. The ALTHA plied between Pensacola, Camp Walton and Valparaiso. Limited water depth kept TARPON from those sites. TARPON continued her weekly runs and Barrow, now well into his seventies, was as forbidding as ever on the bridge. Despite frequent suggestions and warnings, no modern warning gear had been added. Capt. W. G. Barrow trusted his instincts and the invulnerability of his ship. He was extremely proud of TARPON and would go to great lengths to avoid any action which might decrease public confidence. On one occasion (the date is uncertain) the vessel was struck by heavy seas and some of the woodwork was damaged. This occurred on the side usually placed next to the wharf when she docked at Pensacola. On this occasion the captain carefully docked so that the problem faced into the bay and the damage was repaired quickly before it could become a subject of gossip.

By now the small towns along the rail line were growing; Pensacola had passed the 30,000 mark in population and Panama City was emerging a modem city, too. Camp Walton was becoming a more populous fishing village. The Depression, which by 1931 was impacting the entire nation, was being felt along the Gulf Coast. However, the fundamental role of the TARPON did not change . The cargo carried was different than it had been in 1903. The large tonnages of animal feeds were no longer carried, but automobiles and trucks were frequently loaded. One observer noted that..."there was no Hudson Essex dealer in Panama City, but the West-Barnes dealership in Mobile made good contacts to the east and Captain Barrow often carried their vehicles to customers along his route." Other makes and models were shipped also.

Early in this decade, with the opening of the Spearman Brewery in Pensacola, Guy Spearman contracted with Captain Barrow to carry beer by the case to the taverns and bars which opened with the repeal of Prohibition. For ten years TARPON also carded the United States mail. And so the years passed.

With the deepening of the Depression some of Capt. Barrow's traditional shippers and goods recipients along the coast ceased operating. However, almost every sailing saw TARPON well loaded. As the summer of 1937 reached its midpoint the entire region was clouded by the misfortunes which affected so many. Franklin Roosevelt had won a second term as President the prior fall, but the reforms of the New Deal had not brought economic pain to an end. Federal Relief Commissions were at work in most counties, dealing out federal dollars. Some of the cargo which TARPON carried from week to week could well have included food supplies provided by that program. But the industrial turndown nationwide had crippled the turpentine and rosin markets and lumbering all along the coast had all but ceased. (The next year the Simpson Lumber Company, one of the area's largest and oldest, would close forever.) The fishing fleets of A. F. Warren and E. E. Saunders were still operating, but their catches brought so little profit that owners considered halting operations. Wholesalers like the Lewis Bear Company battled the problem of bankruptcies, for some of the small 'mom and pop' stores were dependent on employees in the small towns for their cash flow, and employers there were forced to pay people in script which the wholesaler could not accept.

TARPON Itself was showing the ravages of time. Now fifty years old, the ship had been patched and refitted time after time in local yards. Her plates and rivets were no longer fast and tight, and her engine, though still thoroughly functional, was old, too. And even to that season her captain still refused to install a radio service, or to put the protective Plimsole markings on the ship's sides. Somehow, even with the Depression and its problems, Barrow managed to sustain cargo. In fact, some of the professional port people, like Benny Edmundson in Pensacola and several of the bar pilots, would remark that Barrow was pushing his luck. They noted that on some trips to the east TARPON was loaded beyond safe limits, her hold full and cargo stowed all about the dock.

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