A typical Point Clear morning in October finds light, cool east breezes filtering through the pine trees, brushing Mobile Bay into a glassy calm. Occasionally, the breezes will gust in small patches and ripple the surface. Seagulls glide overhead and pelicans float as if they’ve slept on the water all night. It is still and quiet. It was on such a morning in 1938 that 79-year-old Augustus Stile was found in his rowboat at the foot of Zundel’s wharf. His wooden skiff gently bumped against the shore. He was speechless and his hair had turned white from terror.
Until the 1930s, there was no practical means of getting from Mobile to Point Clear by automobile. Everyone traveled by steamboat to Zundel’s wharf, a landing long enough to access deep water several hundred yards out and substantial enough to support railcars for offloading supplies. At the base of Zundel’s was a general store and post office. These buildings were the small community’s hub of commerce and transportation.
The wharf was constructed from giant creosote pilings and heavy timbers. In the days of steam, such heavy construction was dangerous business, especially when done over the water from rocking barges. This work was typically performed by black day laborers. There were many deaths during the building of these wharves, some from crushing injuries and others from drowning.
It is not clear exactly what Augustus saw the night before he was found. It is generally believed that he had an encounter with the restless soul of a long-dead construction worker, but we’ll never know. He was only able to tell pieces of the story before a strange death overtook him.
A Ghostly Encounter
Augustus was a descendant of an old Mobile Bay family that had lived near the landing for several generations. The Hurricane of 1916 destroyed the original wharf, leaving a long line of black, stripped pilings stretching far out into the Bay. To this day, those pilings are still a landmark and haven for trout and redfish. Seagulls and pelicans use them as a convenient resting spot when their stomachs are full from the small fish that school around them.
Augustus’ custom was to row his boat, not long after sunset, to the end of the pilings and fish for trout. He usually returned by nine or 10 o’clock in the evening. One night, he didn’t return. The next morning, when he was found sitting motionless in his rowboat, Augustus’ family was unable to draw him from his deep state of shock. They took him to the house of a local physician who advised rest. Several days later, Augustus lost the glaze in his eyes and turned to his family.
“I saw something out there, ” he said.
The family leaned close.
“What do you mean?” they asked.
Augustus told them he had anchored near the end of the pilings. The moonlight came silver across the top of the water. It was so calm and still, the Bay seemed a pool of oil. A few pelicans slept on the tops of the pilings, and you could hear their talons scratch the wood as they shifted and preened. Occasionally, he heard a screen door slam or a dog bark from the shore.
“He climbed out of the water, ” Augustus began. “He was wet and slick like a newborn baby. Like a shadow. Barely a ripple. But he was a man. A tall, thin man as black as ink. He climbed up the piling closest to me. Maybe 10 yards away. He climbed fast, more like a scramble. He perched upon it like a child – sitting on his heels with his knees hugged to his chest. He watched me. I heard the water dripping off him.”
“Who? How?” they asked.
Augustus shook his head.
“How could a man swim that far? What was he doing out there?” they asked.
“That was no man, ” Stile replied. “No man could do that. But I heard the water dripping off him.”
“Augustus, ” they said.
The old man turned his head away, stared at the ceiling, and the dull glaze fell over his eyes once again. For a week, his family tried to get him to speak or respond to them in any way. Augustus remained silent and still and alone with the horror that had poisoned his mind.
At the end of the week, he suddenly turned his head and looked at his wife. His eyes had grown wide and clear. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it.
In a dry, raspy voice, he said, “He’s out there.”
“Who?” she said, leaning close, putting her ear to his mouth.
Augustus’ breathing grew heavy. It seemed he was about to say something else. He never did. Finally, his wife backed away and studied his face. His eyes were wide and clear again. She squeezed his hand, and he slowly shook his head. Then he stopped breathing and slipped into death, his eyes still open and full of terror.
Through the years, people have occasionally related their own stories of seeing something perched on a piling at the end of Zundel’s wharf. Something too large to be a pelican, yet in a place and posture impossible for a man. Certainly for a living man.
Text by Watt Key