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A final tribute to ‘Miss Florence’

The charred hull of “Miss Florence” was floated from the White Stone side of the Rappahannock River to Walden’s Marina in Deltaville on October 15 by David Bushey of Commonwealth Pro Dive of Deltaville. The 54-year-old wooden charter fishing boat caught fire in the river on October 4 and the seven people onboard were rescued by fishermen in nearby boats. Above, the charred remains of “Miss Florence” sits on the rails at Walden’s Marina as Bushey releases an airbag that was keeping the boat afloat. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry S. Chowning

Charter boat captain John Holmes of Locust Hill left Locklies Creek on Saturday, October 4, with a party of six for a day of bottom fishing off Tabb Beach, just east of the Robert O. Norris Jr. Bridge.

For the past 54 years, he’d made similar trips aboard his wooden hull “Miss Florence.” He loved his old boat. He’d had her built in 1954 by the Walden Brothers—Raymond, Alvin and Moody. The Walden Brothers ran a marina, railway and built boats on Broad Creek in Deltaville from the late 1940s to the early 1980s.

About 10 a.m. on October 4, Captain Holmes’ boat caught fire. Holmes very quickly got lifejackets on all six passengers. “Everyone remained calm and we were able to get our lifejackets on before help came,” he said.

The river was crowded with boats fishing the Rappahannock on that pretty October day. Several nearby small boats responded to help get the passengers off the burning Miss Florence. “I don’t know who they were, but they were there quick in outboard boats,” said Holmes. “They took us back to Locklies Creek.

“I can’t thank those people enough,” he said. “If they hadn’t been out there we would have had to have gone in the water, and who knows what would have happened.”

Miss Florence had burned nearly to the waterline when a private boat arrived and extinguished the blaze, said Holmes. The charred hull drifted toward shore and landed on a bar off Tabb Beach near White Stone. 

On October 15, David Bushey of Commonwealth Pro Dive of Deltaville used airbags to get the charred hull afloat, and then towed the remains of Miss Florence to Walden’s Marina on Broad Creek.

Bushey said he felt it was only appropriate to bring Miss Florence back to the same railway that built her. “It started out here 54 years ago and now it’s ended its life right here,” he said.

The hull was hauled onto the railway and later demolished, said Bushey.

On Saturday, October 11, Doris Llewellyn of Topping sponsored a memorial ceremony for Captain John Holmes and Miss Florence at the public landing on Locklies Creek, not far from where the vessel had been moored for decades.

“The true heroes are those fishermen who flocked to the burning vessel,” said Llewellyn. “The Holmes family sincerely thanks all those brave people.”

Llewellyn said “Captain John” shared a wonderful story with her that she felt was appropriate for the memorial service. “Years ago, Mr. Holmes was on his way back from the bay with a fishing party from Petersburg when he saw an older gentleman and a boy waving their arms for help,” said Llewellyn. “Their skiff had broken down and they were stranded on the bay. Captain John and Miss Florence went to them and brought them aboard. The little boy never said a word. He moved over to Captain John, stood beside him, and laid his small hand into his as a way of saying thanks.

“As Captain John was telling me this story, he showed me his hand, almost as if he could feel that little hand,” said Llewellyn. “We thank those who extended their hands to help Mr. Holmes and his passengers.”

This week Captain Holmes, who is in his 80s, was asked if he planned to give up the charter boat fishing business. “Well, I’m not going to say I am, and I am not going to say I won’t,” he answered. “I’m right old now, but I think maybe I’ve got a few more years in me.”

Holmes began working the water as an oyster culling boy in the Rappahannock River with his late brother Josh and his late father Zachary, in the days of log canoes.

posted 10.22.2008

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