The popular column, Tales from the Altamaha, authored by T. Ross Sharpe and published several years ago in the Lyons Progress, has been brought to life in recent years by the talented playwright and actress Laurie Jo Upchurch, an endowed cast of gifted actors, and the outstanding River Rat Revue Band. The increasingly popular production begins April 4 and runs through April 13 at the Blue Marquee Theater in Lyons.
My dad spent many of his youthful years on and around the Altamaha. I was born and raised about ten miles from the Altamaha River Swamp. Even though, B. J. and I reside on St. Simons Island, we return to the swamp occasionally just to reminisce.
Many years ago, in the days of steamboats and timber rafting, the Altamaha was the center of civilization. I remember my dad and my grandfather telling about hearing the big whistle of the steamboats miles away while working in their fields.
I grew up listening to tales of the Altamaha told by my dad and others whose ancestral roots went deep in the sinister swamp.
Timber rafters were a breed apart. They had their own association and experiences.
Rafting timber was a dangerous job. Timber rafters like to float their logs down the river to the sawmills along the coast when the moon was full. Since they would be on the river at night, the full moon would help them to navigate the treacherous river better.
A legend that was often told by the old timers and was passed along to me by my dad was the story of the “river lights.” It was told that some rafters were floating a big raft of logs through “Jacks Suck” one night about three miles downriver from the U. S. 1 bridge. Things were progressing normally when suddenly an alarm was sounded from a lookout stationed on the front of the raft, “Hey, yall, come here and look at this!” he said excitedly pointing frantically down towards the river.
Momentarily some of the others joined him and were shocked at what they saw. There, just below the surface of the river, were several bright lights moving slowly ahead of the raft.
The story goes that the lights about a half dozen in number were “flat and about as big around as a No. 3 washtub.” They would stay close to the raft in some kind of formation for a little while and then they would move farther ahead almost out of sight and then come closer. Then they would move behind and follow the raft for a while and then “dart this way and that in the river.” The rafters were amazed and frightened at what they saw. The spectacle lasted for about an hour and then suddenly, as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished leaving the awestruck river men to try to collect their wits and enter into a frantic discussion as to what it was they saw.
The full moon shone brightly over the Altamaha. I have seen the full moon over the river and it is indeed a breathtaking even eerie sight.
Some of the rafters wanted to believe that is was the moon playing tricks on them. At least one of the crew suggested that the large portions of salt pork that they had consumed for supper was causing them to “imagine things.” However, after much debate, the men concluded that it was neither their imagination running wild nor moon tricks. “There was really something down there in the water.”
Most of the tales of the Altamaha of that day had to do with giant alligators swimming beside the raft, huge fish with gaping mouths following the raft, loud splashes in the water, and big hairy human-like creatures watching them from the riverbank.
This tale was unique in that it had to do with strange lights in the water. Time passed and a number of other rafters reported seeing the lights and then, no more.
My dad had his own judgment of the “lights.” He thought that the very uniqueness of the story gave it a measure of credibility. The men had actually seen something strange in the river.
That generation is gone now and probably no one, except maybe an occasional fisher, travels that perilous stretch of the Altamaha in the moonlight. Who will ever know for sure about the bizarre lights?
I wonder why this story didn’t get into the Tales from the Altamaha.