This post is part of the This Town is Myth Project which looks to examine a lost town named Pemberton Ferry, Florida, that history has all but forgotten. Most of the material is my way of wiggling out the different aspects of the unexplained, the deep history, and several conspiracies and theories related to the town. As such, there will be mistakes, misidentifications, and misunderstandings. This has always been a part of Tripping on Legends as we know we are not always getting the best information when it comes to folklore and legends, but it is even more so with this. I am an outsider to the area in many respects, and my information comes from different sources and is the best information I have at the time. Mistakes come from a genuine place and not from a desire to be a poor researcher.
Please contact me with any corrections, additions, or clarifications. This project begs for it…
It takes a moment to realize it, but the birds never feed in the middle of the water. You can see them dipping into the little puddles made where it has receded and circling in the sky above as if hunting fish they’ll never chase. They seem to know something outsiders don’t about what lies below the surface. They have some hint of the history and the mysteries that the local people whisper and nod to each other about, something they have shared for as long as anyone around can remember. There are some plain truths like this in most small towns, known by citizens of the zip code and hidden, maybe even unreasonable to visitors. All along the Withlacoochee River people talk about the oddness in the water, and in what was once Pemberton Ferry, everyone knows you try to swim near Iron Bridge.
The Withlacoochee River, or Crooked River, is a bit of an oddity even without the deaths that are drawn to it. The 70-mile waterway starts in the Green Swamp, an area well known for its own creepy legends, and then travels north instead of south, like it’s larger brother the St. John’s, to the Gulf of Mexico. The water levels are fickle and shifting, sometimes overflowing and causing damage to the surrounding areas and other times being reduced to nothing more than a swamp. The development of the river directly mirrors the growth of Florida. A natural waterway, over the years people have moved its natural path, damned off parts to develop, and changed the depth as the transportation of the time needed. These changes beg for folklore to be born about them. In fact, in other parts of the country changes like this are almost always associated with starting curses or angering the forces that call for balance, like disturbing some Feng Shui which demands to be corrected.
Maybe that explains why so many of the towns that pop up along the banks fail. From the perspective of history, there is nothing unusual about this. They are places born of boom and easily depleted natural resources such as phosphate, turpentine, and produce crop where a freeze can mean a town goes under. They rely on river travel and trains which have been replaced by highways and developed backroads. But other towns with a similar history find a way to adapt and strive. While people live all along it, many of the existing names have changed over the years as town were born, failed, and were paved over for new ones. The New Deal and U.S. Land Resettlement Administration days allowed for the federal government to take control of many of the land and ghost towns, and with each new owner and each new mini-boom, the past was carefully forgotten, and the weirdness reduced to whispers. It was all just something that happened everywhere sometimes.
Many of the places it traverses through are areas of known weirdness. Towns like Dunnellon and Brooksville and Dade city tend to appear on every Web site dedicated to ghosts. The Withlacoochee State Park State Forest, like its brother the Ocala State Forest just an hour away, is home to its own haunted legends, most notably the story of the Swamp Witch of Hog Island. The odd thing is, however, that the stories are contained to the areas around the water while the river, known to have taken hundreds of lives over the years, inspires almost none.
According to Best Backroads of Florida: Volume One, the river has long been a dumping ground for the misdeeds of the people who live near it. One of the spots author Douglas Waitley refers to is the town of Dunnellon. The town was the very definition of frontier life, at one time having 16 saloons in the small, somewhat isolated municipality. Patrons were often killed in these violent establishments, and their bodies were thrown into the Withlacoochee. The worst incident, however, occurred in November of 1895. Two white shopkeepers were killed and two black suspects were hung on the spot. A third was caught and jailed, but when the mob arrived at the jail that night to exact justice, Sheriff Bill Stephens, a mammoth of a man and a confirmed racist, allowed them to take the accused without a fight. The suspect was hanged, stuffed in a sack, and thrown in the river. The miners who worked the town, all of them black, stormed the town but were beaten back by Stephens and his men. However, they did not let the insurrection go unpunished. They stormed the miner camp and killed many of the people there, throwing their bodies into the Withlacoochee as a warning to others who doubted who was in control of the area. Later, when some of the people asked for a different lawman to Stephens due to his methods and possible retribution for the massacre, he pistol whipped his replacement until he was near death and maintained control of the town.
All along the river are spots where similar deaths have occurred, but one spot more than the others has been the direct source of tragedy and ask anyone about the area and they will immediately cite Iron Bridge in Bushnell as a place where you just don’t go in the water. Originally the site of a bridge between Croom and Pemberton Ferry, as well as a bridge connecting the two counties, it acted as one of the main roads between Sumter County and Brooksville. The original road designation was Road 214. Early on the site, which serviced foot traffic, ferries, and other vehicles became known for having things go wrong. Later deaths became common and the reputation of the crossing grew in the minds of both towns. Eventually, as each town failed, the bridge was torn down so that only a few rusted pilings remain, but the idea that you do not swim in that part of the river was forever cemented in the minds of the locals, something that continues to be reinforced every time a new fatality is reported there.
Thumbing through old editions of the Savannah Morning News, one of the only sources for information on Pemberton Ferry, is like a catalogue of the strange on the banks of the Withlacoochee. It reported of a mysterious death in September of 1879. A man named Henry Keller drowned as he was working the area near Iron Bridge. A chain across the river had become loose and he and a coworker entered the water to free it and reset it using a series of jerks. Keller, who was known to be a fair swimmer, slipped and fell in the water, but his companion did not immediately respond because he felt Keller was not in jeopardy. He never came out of the water, a few furious bubbles rushing to the surface the only sign there was anything wrong. He was never seen alive again. People searched for the body, but nothing was found until 2 days later when the body was discovered minus a head. Some locals accused the coworker, or at least questioned how the man could have died and lost his head, but someone else had threatened him before the accident and then bragged about it after. There is no evidence anyone was ever brought to trial or convicted of the crime.
The reports do not end there. The same paper reported a series of incidents only a few months later. The April 29, 1890, edition talks about how four people had mysteriously drown in the previous few weeks. This included a man identified only as Abrams. He and some others were treasure hunting for phosphate and other underwater riches. He dove down as he had many times before, but this time he did not come back up. After recovering the body it was found that, “he had struck head first a huge elephant’s tusk that was standing on the riverbed in an upright position. It had pierced his brain causing instant death.” It was later revealed the tusk in fact belonged to a mastodon and not an elephant.
Tragedy struck again that September. Tom Brown and Maggie Roundtree were sailing on the Withlacoochee with a third friend. As a joke and knowing their unidentified friend was a good swimmer, they threw him overboard. He heard their laughs as he made his way back to the shore, but when he arrived he looked back to find the boat had capsized. By the time he made his way back to help them, they were dead.
These historical reports are not just a snapshot of something that only happened back in the day. Ask citizens in Bushnell about it and their response is immediate. You don’t swim at Iron Bridge. Most can cite a person they know who suffered an accident there. Either that or they know a friend who had someone they know die, and this continues as you ask people from the surrounding towns. Ask someone in Webster or St Catherine and the trend is the same. No one knows how many people have actually drowned in the river there, but the reports of dozens of victims in modern times is not hyperbole. This is the single most deadly spot in Florida, and when someone challenges it, which they do from time to time on a dare or in a moment of bravado, the results can still be fatal.
The idea of unsafe bodies of water isn’t new. There are places throughout the world that seem to have more deaths related to them than the others around them, and there tends to be legends that develop around them due to a simple misunderstanding of how currents actually work. Most beaches, especially in Florida, have signs posted about the hazards of riptides and how to react when you’re caught in one, but most unsuspecting swimmer don’t think these can happen in smaller sources of water.
These, however, do not account for all of the deaths. A few hours across the state Lake Istokpoga was considered cursed by the Seminoles. Even its name, which means “place where people die” relates the history of losing people inexplicably while crossing. Horn Pond in Woburn, Massachusetts, more a water reserve than an actual pond, and Assawompset Pond in Lakeville both associate the missing and drowned people there to evil spirits trapped in the water after a long battle. There’s also Lake Ronkonkoma in Long Island, New York, and its long history of unsolved murders and unexplained deaths blamed on something dark and cursed in the water.
One of the most intriguing water legends might be in Ormond Beach, Florida. Among the odd lights and reports of mysterious death is a lesser known tale known and spread by old timers. Back in the day when slavery helped to build that area of the state, an overseer was killed by those he looked over. There are variations that he drowned and they refused to help or that they had intentionally gotten him drunk and threw him in, but the dead man is said to return to the place of his death to replay his last moments. People in the location have even reported feeling lightheaded and even intoxicated when visiting that part of the park.
The odd thing about the Withlacoochee is that there are no legends to explain what happens there. Like so many things associated with Pemberton Ferry, the past is known but not spoken of. It is as if people need to be warned about the danger and people nod their heads in agreement whenever Iron Bridge and the river is brought up in conversation, but no stories are told. When they are, they are contained to the reality of the danger rather than trying to provide a rationalization for the mystery. It is just accepted. No water monster or angry ghosts. No revenge from beyond the grave or disturbed spirit unable to find peace.
Instead, totally in character of Pemberton Ferry, there is just a shrug of the shoulders.
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