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Ferryman logged 52,300 trips before bridge arrived

(ran South, West, Beach editions)

A man who disliked travel made the equivalent of 32 trips around the world before the Sunshine Skyway moved in in 1954.

After a life of navigation, Early Jackson McMullen Sr. had a deathbed question.

"Grandaddy wanted to know where north was," said Gary McMullen, 44. "He was a down-to-earth kinda fella."

Before the Sunshine Skyway, the elder McMullen crossed the bay on the Bee Line Ferry 52,285 times. He logged 803,760 miles carrying passengers between here and Bradenton, tantamount to 32 trips around the world.

Not bad for a man who disliked travel. "He liked to sleep in his own bed," recalled the ferryman's daughter, Barbara Sartor.

Named after Civil War Gens. Jubal A. Early and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, McMullen was born in 1893 in his grandfather's log cabin. The James Paramore McMullen cabin stands today at Heritage Village.

After attending Southern College in Palm Harbor, McMullen operated the freighter Alhambra in 1913, earning $600 a year. He served on other boats for the next 13 years.

Then the father of two sold cars. "My mother could have killed him," said Sartor, 75. "He was much too honest to be a salesman."

McMullen joined the Bee Line Ferry 19 months after its launch on Feb. 24, 1926.

"Prior to the opening of the Sunshine Skyway in 1954, the Bee Line Ferry was the main connection between St. Petersburg and the Sarasota-Bradenton area," historian Raymond Arsenault wrote.

Officials on the ferry's first voyage held ceremonies at 11 a.m. and lunched in Bradenton two hours later. The trip then was 49 miles shorter by water than by land, Karl H. Grismer wrote.

As a Bee Line deck hand, McMullen worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week for $95 a month (today about $871 monthly). "It was the Depression," Sartor said.

McMullen became a captain in 1928. "He was proud of that job," Sartor said. "He used to let me and my girlfriends into the pilot house."

Gulls and porpoises entertained the skipper and his passengers on the excursions, which took 45 minutes one way. The fare was 25 cents a person.

During tourist season, McMullen and other Bee Line captains hauled more than 1,600 cars and trucks daily. The toll, based on vehicle size, was 25 cents a foot.

"(We) saved lives, too," Early Jr., also a Bee Line captain, said in 1954. He recalled the cocky airplane pilot they rescued after he buzzed the ferry and then crashed. "That ol' boy was drunk in the cockpit. He was plenty repentant, too, so my daddy didn't turn him over to the law."

Once a Model T experienced a rough unboarding, and McMullen's "decks ran with moonshine," the St. Petersburg Times wrote. When the captain ferried a circus, elephants smashed every ceiling lightbulb.

The Army Air Corps ran the ferry during World War II, when McMullen carried passengers from Tampa to MacDill Army Air Base. St. Petersburg's Port Authority assumed the ferry after the war, and McMullen stayed on.

Then came the Sunshine Skyway and the Bee Line's demise. "It's like cutting off an arm," the Times wrote when the skipper left with his son.

McMullen continued as a ferryman after moving to Mayport and navigating the St. John's River in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Sales of property gave McMullen a modest retirement in Clearwater. He lived at 517 Bayview Ave. "He had fishing and his garden," Sartor said. "His needs were very small."

The skipper grew fruit trees, sugar cane, collard greens and black-eyed peas. Gary McMullen remembered his grandfather weaving casting nets on the front porch.

The upbeat captain enjoyed music, telling stories and visiting with his family. "He loved to play the guitar," Sartor recalled. "He would get up and dance a jig."

Religion was important, too. Every morning McMullen and his wife, Mary, read the Bible. "I remember suffering through a few hours," said Gary, 44.

Toward the end, the silver-haired skipper endured glaucoma. "That's about the only fear he had," Gary recalled, "losing his eyesight."

While working his garden and burning leaves, McMullen suffered a heart attack. "He was still a pioneer, brought up on the farm," said Early McMullen Sorenson, another of the captain's grandsons.

The skipper survived that first attack on Sept. 5, 1981. "I had a chance to visit with him," Sartor said. A second heart attack later that night killed him. McMullen was 88.

"Like the stagecoach drivers and Pony Express riders," the Times said, "Capt. McMullen can feel proud that he was a vital link in progress."