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Goodnight lost his life to the currents of Bay Charles, when Bay Island was still and island

The rock dam that stops the flow of Charles Bay from direct entry into the Mississippi River has protected the prime farmland of the bay area since 1904. It is near this spot that Thomas Jefferson (Norm) Goodnight drowned while crossing the bay on a cable hand-operated ferry in 1903. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY


Also published in the Hannibal Courier-Post

During the early years of the 20th Century, a waterway cutting a path through northern Marion County left prime farm acreage a virtual island. Known as Bay Island, it was surrounded on the east by the Mississippi River, and on the west by Bay of Charles.

In 1904, the government aided owners of the acreage in the northern Marion County bottoms by constructing two rock dams – one at the northern entrance of this waterway (known as Bay of Charles) and the other at the southern end, where the water flow once again headed toward the Mississippi River.

The dams, combined with a locally funded extensive levee and drainage system, connected Bay Island with the mainland. The Dec. 12, 1904 edition of the Quincy Daily Journal reported that work was nearly complete: “There is no longer any ‘bay island’ for the area of land is now part of the main body.”

This news, however, came too late for Thomas Jefferson (Norm) Goodnight.

A year prior, at the end of May 1903, Mr. Goodnight drowned while crossing the Bay of Charles on a raft which was used as a ferry to the island. It was guided by a cable across the waterway, and the ferry was maneuvered by hand.

David Bleigh, a member of the South River Drainage District, said it is his belief that the ferry was located close to where the pump house is now located, on County Road 413. The Bay Charles used to flow out to the Mississippi River near Scipio, he said.

Jean Moore of Pennsylvania, a Hannibal-area native, shares the story as told to her by her grandmother, Maggie (Mrs. Joseph C.) Thomas

“My grandfather was loading onto the raft with a team and wagon. Mr. Goodnight came along and asked my grandfather to pull up a little so he could pull on also. He was in a buggy. My grandfather said he would hurry along, because the raft might not take the load. Mr. Goodnight decided to take the risk. Sure enough, the raft tipped him and his buggy with horse at midstream.”

The Monroe City Democrat of May 28, 1903 ( offered particulars of the accident.

“Saturday afternoon (Mr. Goodnight) in a buggy and with two wagons, was crossing the Bay in a hand ferry boat. The bay was running full of water from the river and when (the ferry was) in midstream the beam holding the pulley through which the rope ran, broke and the boat drifting rapidly down stream began to sink.”

Mr. Goodnight, his horse and buggy, disappeared over the side of the boat.

The other man unhitched his team and drove them overboard, thereby saving the lives of the horses, as well as his own. It lightened the boat so that when it drifted near a willow tree, he caught hold of it and succeeded in holding the boat until he was rescued.

Locals arrived at the scene and attempted to dredge the bay in search of Mr. Goodnight’s body. Initial attempts were fruitless. His body was later found downstream about four miles, near the Hannibal railroad bridge.

Moved to Bay

From Monroe City

Norm (Thomas Jefferson) Goodnight was born Nov. 26, 1855, the son of Ann Elzea and William D. Goodnight. He married Willie Ann Jones, the daughter of William Jones of Monroe City. As of the 1900 census, Norm and Willie Goodnight had four children at home, Alva C. Goodnight, 19, Hattie L. Goodnight, 9, Mattie M. Goodnight, 5, and Ollie O. Goodnight, 3. They also had a son, who was attending the Hannibal Commercial College at the time of his father’s death.

As a young man, Norm Goodnight owned a farm south of Monroe City. On April 18, 1901, he moved his family to one of Capt. Bowles’ farms near the Hannibal bay. After the accident, his widow and children continued to live near the bay at least until 1910.

One of Norm Goodnight’s daughters, Hattie, became fast friends with one of Joseph and Maggie Thomas’ daughters, Ussie. The two remained friends throughout their lifetimes.

Norm Goodnight and his wife, Willie Ann Jones Goodnight, are buried at DeMoss Chapel Cemetery, Hassard, Ralls County, Mo.

Ussie and Franklin Otten

Ussie Thomas married Benjamin Franklin Otten, and by 1920 they were farming on Bay Mill Road. Neighbors in 1920 were Ed and Henry Sharkey, Tom and Francis Redick, Frank Swan, Frank Willing, Moss Luguna, William Bowen, Fred Jones, Mike Long, John Neff, Irvan Anick and Enes Nokes.

“You had to ford Clear Creek to get to our house,” Jean said. “Clear Creek was a series of flat clear runs that spread out all over the place. We had a dairy there – it was a showplace,” she said. But when the Depression hit, nobody had money to buy milk. “My father tried to give milk to people with babies,” but ultimately they had to leave the farm. “We left there when I was 5 or 6. I went to second grade at Providence School” at Withers Mill, Jean said.

As a side note, during his years farming the Bay area land, Franklin Otten plowed up a number of Indian arrowheads, which are now in the possession of Jean Moore’s great-granddaughter.

This 1875 Marion County, Mo., atlas, shows how “Bay Charles” cut a path inland, dividing Bay Island from the mainland. In 1904, the government installed two rock dams, one roughly at the mouth of Bay Charles, and the other as it readied to reunite with the Mississippi River. The island is now a part of the Bay Island drainage district.

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