Location: Delta Cultural Center Depot
One of the most unique exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center is a large bell that came from the Transfer Ship Pelican that transported railroad cars from Helena to Trotter’s Point across the Mississippi river for about thirty years. The bell would be rung to let the deck hands know it was time to go. On guided tours, we actually get a chance to ring it for our visitors and it is always a favorite with the kids.
Background on the Pelican
The Pelican was built at the Iowa Iron Works in Dubuque, Iowa around 1902 for a cost of $230,000. Specifics of the boat: The Pelican was 308 feet long, 53.8 feet wide with a draft of 7 feet 6 inches and powered by six boilers. It was a sidewheeler. The superstructure and hull were built of steel with a framed pilot house and a smoke stack set wide apart, one from each battery of boilers. There was a 16- freight car capacity and could run up to 30 miles an hour. The Pelican also had a sister ship named the Albatross that looked the same and was constructed in 1907 at a cost of $225,000.
The ship was called a monument to Carl Robinson. Don Carlos B. Robinson was born in 1848 and was one of the most noted men on the Mississippi River. He was superintendent of construction of the Mississippi River commission fleet at Greenville, MS for the Southern Railway. He was hired by the Greenville Mail Line to make plans and superintend the construction of the steamer Belle of the Bends which was one of the best ever built on the river. In 1901 he was hired to build a new transfer steamer in Iowa. As always, he put his full effort into this endeavor, but passed away from pneumonia in 1902 as the project was nearing its end.
In late December 1902 the Pelican began its downriver voyage toward Vicksburg, Mississippi where the mighty ship would begin ferry operations between that city and Louisiana. Since the ship was not yet finished, it carried 45 mechanics, carpenters, painters and other workers along with the crew to complete the dream of Carl Robinson. It arrived December 19, 1902 at Vicksburg where these men worked hard to complete her. By February 1903 the Pelican was ready to start work at Vicksburg ferrying rail cars across the river. The bell which was constructed in 1903 was added and its first captain, Tom Flanagan, took the wheel. She replaced the ferry Delta Queen and Crescent.
The Pelican at Vicksburg
In August 1907 the Pelican was joined by her sister ship Albatross. The Albatross took up the work of ferrying while the Pelican was put into drydock by the Mississippi and Louisiana Transfer company. The ship was repainted and new sidewheels were added.
These two ships would ferry railroad cars and passengers for the next twenty years between the two states. After a new bridge was added at Vicksburg in 1930 the Pelican was sent north to operate between Helena and Trotters Landing, Mississippi. The Albatross was actually sold and converted into an excursion boat at St. Louis.
The Pelican replaced the steam ferry W.B. Duncan. The W.B. Duncan crew became the new masters of the Pelican effective May 15, 1930. Increase in business at this place made it desirable for a large transfer boat and the Pelican was twice the size of the W.B. Duncan. The Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad started handling 125 cars daily at Helena. There was an incline located on each side of the river and the ship could make it across in 10 to 14 minutes as compared to 25 minutes by the W.B. Duncan. Passenger trains leaving the Mississippi shore arrived at the station on the other side in Helena in about 18 minutes. Eight to ten minutes was required on the down river trip back to Mississippi. The Duncan was sent down to Vicksburg.
Pelican at Helena
Eventually the Illinois Central Railway Company purchased the railroad and line running from Mississippi to Helena. A new station was constructed on Cherry Street and trains usually arrived and departed twice a day between Helena and Memphis. Although a major asset to the people at Helena and Lula, Mississippi profits began to decline as new bridges across the river were constructed.
Pelican and train
The state of Arkansas began construction of a new highway bridge running across the river from Helena. Mississippi added a new highway and secondary bridges on the eastern shore. In 1960 a railroad bridge on the Mississippi side burned that same year and the Illinois Central decided to end rail service across the river. In 1961 the new bridge opened and soon people forgot about the ferries that used to run across the river. The Pelican was stripped down and used as a transfer barge towed by a towboat for a few years before finally being done away with.
Today the bell along with old pictures are all that remain of the once famous Pelican. It was known and respected up and down the river and had a faithful fifty- year history. Please come by and visit the Delta Cultural Center when it reopens once this event has ended.
“The Vicksburg American” Vicksburg, MS. 20 December 1902, Saturday. Page 1
“The Vicksburg Herald” Vicksburg, MS. 20 December 1902, Saturday. Page 1
“The Vicksburg Herald” Vicksburg, MS. 14 February 1903, Saturday. Page 5
“The Vicksburg Herald” Vicksburg, MS. 19 February 1903, Thursday. Page 6
“Vicksburg Evening Post” Vicksburg, MS. 22, August 1907, Thursday. Page 8
“Vicksburg Evening Post” Vicksburg, MS 25 July 1907, Thursday. Page 8
“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS 11 June 1930, Wednesday. Page 2
“The Greenwood Commonwealth” Greenwood, MS 24 April 1930, Thursday. Page 5
“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS 19 June 1930, Thursday. Page 8
“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS 25 July 1961, Tuesday. Page 12