The ferry Thomas Pickles at its New Orleans landing. (Keith Norrington collection)
Old Boat Column

The Thomas Pickles

In 1892, the Howard Shipyard & Dock Company at Jeffersonville, Ind., received a contract for the construction of a centerwheel ferry boat for the Union Ferry Company of New Orleans. The steamboat was named for Thomas Pickles, who headed the New Orleans-Algiers ferry operations, assisted by his son-in-law, Capt. Alexander M. Halliday, a native of Gallipolis, Ohio.

Built on a catamaran-style steel hull that measured 125 feet in length by 53 feet in width, the boat had engines containing 17-inch cylinders with a 6-foot stroke. Two boilers supplied the steam. Originally coal-burning, the boilers later were converted to fuel oil. The vessel handled 50 cars and 250 passengers.

Looking back 127 years, Capt. Clyde Howard’s log book for the shipyard noted on March 21, 1893, that “Capt. Halliday arrived here to take the Str. Thos. Pickles to New Orleans.” An entry made on March 26 states that the new boat made its trial trip, everything worked fine, and it was fast. The log book entries for March 30 note that it was a bright, warm day with a rising river for the departure of the Pickles at 6 p.m. The shipyard launched the railroad towboat City of Huntsville earlier that day. The cost of building the Pickles is listed as $29,000.

Among the many treasures in the collections of the Howard Steamboat Museum is a framed portrait of Capt. Sebastian Smith Rhodes, a New Orleans ferry pilot for 14 years, who dropped dead of apoplexy at the wheel of the Thos. Pickles in 1893. Born August 6, 1851, at Baton Rouge, La., he spent many years as a resident of Algiers. Capt. Rhodes also was associated with the steamboats Laura Lee, Ouachita and Bart Able. The portrait came to the museum from the great grandson of Capt. Rhodes.

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The Thos. Pickles faithfully served the harbor at New Orleans for 72 years until Hurricane Betsy struck the city on September 9, 1965; the boat by then was owned by Jackson Avenue-Gretna Ferry Inc.

This writer recalls the late Capt. Sam Centanni, pilot on the excursion steamer Natchez, recounting the loss of the faithful ferry. Capt. Sam, who always referred to the boat simply as “the Pickle,” dramatically recalled that the steamer was moored at the Jackson Avenue ferry landing in Gretna, opposite New Orleans, when the brunt of the storm struck. All of the crew jumped ashore with the exception of the chief engineer, Ferdinand Weber, who remained aboard as the badly damaged boat was blown into the middle of the storm-ravaged river. As the swiftly sinking riverboat was driven by the ferocious winds and drifting upriver near Napoleon Avenue, a barge that had broken loose came alongside the doomed boat; Weber jumped onto the barge, climbing into the rake.

The barge later landed atop the levee at Westwego. Weber was reported missing, presumed drowned and his family duly notified by authorities. In the meantime, the hardy engineer had climbed out of the barge and walked the six miles from Westwego to his home at Harvey, La. Weber’s wife couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw him walking up the street to the house!

As late as 1978, Weber was serving one day per week on the excursion sternwheeler Cotton Blossom. The wreck of the Thos. Pickles lies at the bottom of the Mississippi River, some 100 miles above the Head of Passes.

Caption for photo:The ferry Thomas Pickles at its New Orleans landing. (Keith Norrington collection)