My dear friend Betty Motes recently told me a story that I better write down or I will forget it. The story concerns a flotilla of boatmen and their families that used to come from the shipyards of Camden, New Jersey, and spend their winters on Clubfoot Creek.
Clubfoot Creek is on the central part of the North Carolina coast. A tributary of the Neuse River, the creek opens onto the river 14 miles north of Beaufort, the seat of Carteret County. At that spot, the Neuse is a broad estuary formed by the intermingling of its waters with those of the Pamlico Sound.
My mother’s family is from a rural community next to Clubfoot Creek. That rural community is called Harlowe. If I take a boat to the south end of Clubfoot Creek, I can enter a canal that enslaved laborers built in the early 1800s and be at my family’s homeplace in just a few minutes.
Betty is from there, too. My mother is gone now, but she and Betty grew up in Harlowe together and were lifelong friends.
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Betty told me that the boat crews and their families used to visit Clubfoot Creek every winter. She is 93 years old now and she told me that they spent their winters there long before she was born, so I assume that they came south in the late 1800s and possibly into the early 1900s.
According to what the old people told Betty, the men and their families lived on boats called lighters that were moored on Clubfoot Creek.
Betty said that the boatmen worked for a shipyard that was in Philadelphia or Camden, New Jersey, which are located across from one another on the Delaware River. She said the shipyard was owned by a man named James Rickenbach.
She recalled that Rickenbach lived in Camden, but she was not sure if his shipyard was in Camden or Philadelphia.
Besides being the home of Walt Whitman, Camden was a growing center of shipbuilding and maritime commerce in those days.
Betty told me that, when they were living on the lighters at Clubfoot Creek, the men worked in the local piney woods, gathering lumber, turpentine and probably tar too for use at Rickenbach’s shipyard.
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After I talked with Betty, I wanted to know more about James Rickenbach so I did a little research. I discovered that Rickenbach’s career as a boatman and boat builder began before the Civil War in Berks County, Pennsylvania, 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Born in 1830 in a farm community called Rickenbach Station, he grew up among a large population of Pennsylvania Germans.
The construction of the Schuylkill Canal transformed the community in the 1820s. The canal carried anthracite coal and other freight to Philadelphia, but also fed into other canals and waterways that connected that rural corner of Pennsylvania to seaports as far away as Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay.
From a young age, James Rickenbach’s life centered on the Schuylkill Canal. At first, he worked as a boatman on the canal. He built a house on the canal in 1859. Then, after the Civil War, he leased several acres of land adjacent to one of the canal’s locks and built a shipyard.
At the shipyard, he and his sons turned out boats designed for hauling freight on the canal. In his daughter Rebecca’s Memoirs of James Rickenbach, she called them “canal boats and Junkers.”
Both were long, heavy, barge-like watercraft that were pulled along canals by mules or horses. They typically had a stable for the mules or horses on their deck, and cabins for the boatmen and often their families, too.
Over the years, Rickenbach’s reputation for doing high quality boat work spread as far away as Philadelphia and he began accepting jobs from the big seaport’s shipyards. In most cases, he was repairing or refitting barges, lighters and tugboats.
According to his daughter’s account, Rickenbach and his sons also had a freight hauling business for which they built a fleet of approximately 50 canal boats. Rebecca Rickenbach grew up hearing their stories about piloting the boats to cities as far away as Buffalo, Hartford and Baltimore.
During those years, the Rickenbachs may also have begun coming to Clubfoot Creek to get the lumber and other naval stores necessary to build those vessels.
Clubfoot Creek was 500 miles from Rickenbach’s boatyard, but that remote corner of the North Carolina coast was already on the map of Philadelphia’s shipwrights. Long before the Civil War, they had been sending schooners south to purchase lumber and other naval stores in New Bern, N.C., a seaport 20 miles farther up the Neuse River from Clubfoot Creek.
Most of those Philadelphia schooners ran directly to and from New Bern without making other stops along the Neuse River. Now and then, however, I did find references to those schooners coming to Clubfoot Creek.
There was no wharf at Clubfoot Creek, and a seagoing lumber schooner drew far too much water to anchor there anyway. Most likely the schooner captains anchored in the Neuse River’s ship channel and smaller, shallow draft vessels—the lighters in Betty’s story— ferried the lumber and other naval stores from the shores of Clubfoot Creek out to them.
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After James Rickenbach died in 1891, most of his sons gradually migrated toward the shipyards of Philadelphia and Camden. By then railroads had taken over the bulk of the freight business and the region’s canals were falling into disuse and disrepair.
Rickenbach’s eldest son, Wilson, moved to Camden and got a job in Philadelphia’s shipyards in 1897. According to a later article in The Reading Times (April 19, 1939), he dismantled his home near Leesport, Penn. and loaded every last stone and plank onto a scow and floated the house and his family down the Schuylkill Canal and up the Delaware River to Camden.
Around the same time, another of James Rickenbach’s sons, James, named after his father, left Rickenbach Station and got a job on canal boats that worked on the Delaware River.
In 1905 three of the Rickenbach brothers and two other relatives established their own shipyard in Camden. Located in the city’s Kramer Hill section, the Noecker, Rickenbach & Ake Shipbuilding Co. specialized in building barges, lighters and other wooden freight vessels.
The Rickenbach brothers divested from that partnership after only a few years, but their in-laws and the descendants of their in-laws went on without them, continuing to operate the shipyard into the 1950s.
While they were no longer part of the shipyard, the Rickenbach brothers remained active on the Camden and Philadelphia waterfronts for some time to come. According to a Congressional survey of the Delaware River maritime trade that was published in 1916, Wilson had another shipyard by then “in which lighters, etc., are built [and] uses 600,000 to 750,000 board feet of lumber a year.”
At the same time, his brother James leased land at Wilson’s shipyard and had his own business building lighters and scows. (See U.S. Congressional Serial Set, vol. 7147) Another brother, Curtin Rickenbach, operated a tugboat company across the river in Philadelphia.
All told, the Rickenbachs built wooden freight boats over a period of 50 years or more. I do not know, however, when they first came down to Clubfoot Creek or how long they continued to make the journey south.
All I know for sure is that the Rickenbach shipyard’s workers came to Clubfoot Creek often enough that a deep and abiding bond formed between them and some of the families that lived in Harlowe.
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My friend Betty knows this story so well because in a way it is the story of her family. Her husband, a wonderful man named William “Bill” Motes, passed away at the age of 96 last year. Betty tells me that she still thanks God every day for the time they had together.
Betty knows though that she would never have met Bill if those shipyard workers up north had never come to Clubfoot Creek, because that is what eventually brought them together.
Bill’s great-grandfather was James Rickenbach. “Jim Rickenbach,” Bill’s family always called him.
The relationship between the Rickenbachs and Betty’s family unfolded over generations. However, Betty told me that the relationship got its start when her mother’s brother Cecil in Harlowe fell in love with a young woman whose family was living on one of those lighters moored in Clubfoot Creek.
The couple eventually got married and moved back to the young woman’s home in Camden. Before long though, everybody in Betty’s family in Harlowe seemed to be visiting Camden and Philadelphia.
Her aunt Lizette, for instance, went up to Camden to visit her brother, fell in love with a young man up there and married him. Betty’s mother’s younger brothers, Clyde and Guy, went up there, too.
While in Camden, her uncle Clyde fell in love with Bill’s aunt Esther, which eventually brought Betty and Bill together. Clyde and Esther married and lived many years in Camden, but they retired in Harlowe. When Bill got out of the Navy in 1945, he came to see them there. Betty lived next door and the rest, as they say, is history.
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In the weeks since Betty first told me this story, I have begun to look at Clubfoot Creek a little differently. As I mentioned earlier, my family’s homeplace is located on the old slave-dug canal that flows into Clubfoot Creek. I can put a boat into the canal and go up into the creek in just a few minutes.
When I make that little trip, I’m always thinking of the old stories that people have told me about Clubfoot Creek. There are tales of long-gone lumber mill villages, moonshine smugglers and a hundred others.
But now, when I come out of the canal at dusk and the creek’s waters open up before me, I think also of those lighters and what the creek must have looked like at night, lit by the oil lamps on all those boats.
I think too about the soft murmur of voices that the local people must have heard out there in the creek at night: so much life out there in the dark, so much love waiting to be born.