The last ferries to navigate Franklin County waters were ferries to the barrier islands. The Spica and Sirius, named for two of the brightest stars in the heavens, allowed development of St. George and Dog Islands.
In 1951, Franklin County voted 1,120 to 34 to build a bridge to St. George Island, facilitating its development as a vacation destination.
From 1951 to 1953, the county negotiated with the state road department to develop ferry service to St. George and, around the same time, landowners on Dog Island were trying to establish a ferry service there.
In 1953, County Commissioner C.T. Miller traveled with state road officials traveled to York, Virginia on an expedition to shop for ferry boats. He returned and announced the purchase of the Spica, a 40” by 65” boat with a 165-horsepower engine and a propeller at each end.
The Spica and her sister craft, the Sirius, which was purchased later, were built to run across Hudson River in New York, an eight-minute straight shot. The much longer run between Franklin County’s barrier islands and the mainland required the operator to steer around obstacles like oyster bars so the ferries were not ideal for the task, but the expertise of local boatmen overcame the difficulties.
“You had to lock off the front rudder and that made it hell to steer. You were pushing that front propeller through the water which made the boat zigzag,” said Joe Barber who piloted both the Spica and the Sirius,. “Most overwork the wheel when they steer a boat; you couldn’t do that to the ferry. Some of the boat men from Apalachicola would come over on the ferry and we’d let them in the boat house. They’d tell us what an easy job they had so we’d let them hold the wheel. They stopped talking after that.”
At first, the Spica served both Dog and St. George Islands. She would run to Dog Island for two days, then take a day to travel west, and run to St. George for two days. The boatman got one day off a week.
Initially, the Spica was piloted by Marion Wing, son of Capt. Andy Wing, and Buddy Robinson. Later, Joe Barber took over Robinson’s job. When Wing left the ferry, Barber became captain.
When the Sirius was purchased, the Spica remained at Dog Island fulltime, and the new boat took over the service to St. George Island.
Carol McLeod captained the Sirius, with David Marchant as engineer. When Marchant left, Barber took his place and worked with McLeod for a number of years.
In 1960, the cost of a ferry crossing was 75 cents, according to Barber, but it later went up to $1 per car and driver, and 25 cents for each additional passenger. When you returned to the mainland, you paid again. The ferries were bigger than Captain Wing’s but so were the cars. Each boat was designed to hold nine vehicles but Barber said he squeezed on as many as 12. Lots of people drove Volkswagens in the early Sixties.
Most travelers on the ferry were tourists, landowners and, on the weekends, Tallahassee realtors and prospective clients. Waterfront lots on St. George were $2,500.
By this time, Milton Kelly and his brother were running the Spica. Both were uncles to Barber’s wife Erma, and Barber sometimes relieved one or the other and helped with the Dog Island run. Because there were now two crews on the Sirius, each got three days on and three days off. In the winter the Sirius made four trips a day, but in the summer, that swelled to six or more.
The ferrymen often shopped or ran errands for islanders and sometimes made special runs with freight. Barber remembers transporting a house that had been cut in two with a chainsaw.
Because it was the main route on and off the island, the ferry crews knew a great deal about what went on there. Delores Cassel wrote a society/gossip column about island goings on called “I’m Sirius.”
There were a number of adventures during the thousands of crossings made by the Sirius and Spica. On one occasion, Barber remembers he was standing in the cabin of the Sirius when he heard someone shouting for help. He looked around but saw nobody until he looked over the side and found an oysterman who had gone overboard after suffering a heart attack. Barber got him aboard and took him to the ferry’s truck at the Eastpoint dock and on to Weems. Later, the man’s entire family came and thanked the ferryman.
On a run to Dog Island, Barber watched an airplane hit a power line near the ferry dock when trying to land. When the pilot attempted to launch again, the wire again caught him and stood the plane on its nose. The pilot and his 9 year old son were hanging in the cockpit by seatbelts, with gasoline pouring over the smoldering engine of the plane directly below them.
Barber and his engineer dragged them free. “I was just sure it was going to burst into flames,” he said. “And there wouldn’t have been anything we could do.”
Later the Spica ferried the airplane with its wings removed back to the mainland.
People appreciated the ferry crews, and return customers often brought a bushel of apples or potatoes or some other gift. In the lull between passages, Barber said he often harvested some oysters and from time to time shared these with a passenger. He also fished with a cast net during his breaks.
In 1965, four months before the completion of the Bryant Patton Bridge, McLeod was offered a job with an electronics job on Eglin Air Force Base. Barber took over as captain for the remaining months.
“The islanders greeted me with a big banner on my first trip that said, ‘Welcome Captain Barber.’” he said.
The story of the island ferries is not all sunshine and roses.
In January 1983, the Spica, by now controlled by the county, was sold to a Massachusetts firm that converted it to a tour boat offering supper cruises in Boston Harbor. The boat fetched $44,000 which was placed into a fund to provide a new ferry for Dog Island. In the interim, Raymond Williams, captained the Spica in her last days, offered a taxi service at a cost of $10 round trip or $6 one way. He also offered $50 charters to the island for up to six passengers.
On Aug. 31, 1983, Dog Islanders filed suit against the county charging that the lack of ferry service devalued their land.
The Dog Island Conservation District used the money from the sale of the Spica to buy a surplus Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) dubbed the “Elsie M” by islanders. Williams operated this boat too, which he described as a freight boat.
The Elsie M was used to transport garbage off the island for disposal at no charge, under the settlement with the county. Cars and trucks could be transported to Dog Island as well but generally, a used vehicle was carried across and left in place for the use of a landowner and only returned to the mainland when it could no longer be repaired.
Passengers, except for a single driver, were forbidden on the Elsie M. Williams ran a six-person passenger boat, the Ruby B, to transport people to Dog Island.
Williams said the largest loads he carried to the island were Florida Power trucks to install or repair power lines. He remembers parking four trucks along the outside of the landing craft, and one truck with a trailer loaded with poles in the center. The poles extended far beyond the stern.
Williams said he never lost a load off his vessel, but dogs, especially retrievers, had to be carefully monitored during the crossing.