Editor's note: Longtime Haverhill columnist Barney Gallagher has been on medical leave. His column returns today to the Sunday Eagle-Tribune and will appear occasionally.
Every river needs a legend.
In this case one has been developing for years. This should be the time to open it up. I'm taking it upon myself to nominate William J. "Captain Red" Slavit. For years, he was the most colorful character to be found along the river. He patrolled the river from the Methuen line to the ocean and knew every rock and every current. He also purchased on his own much equipment used for air and water rescue and repair.
Slavit was both the official and unofficial harbormaster for the city of Haverhill and answered every call for help on the water, whether in the river or the many lakes and ponds and waterways in the area.
I still vividly remember Red with his big propeller fan boat speeding toward Crystal Lake in response to calls that help was needed there. The propeller boat became something everybody counted on. In addition to his skills in the water, he was also an expert pilot of planes and helicopters. In fact, part of his legend was that he helped Igor Sikorsky develop helicopters. He used them and airplanes to help the Army Corps of Engineers develop the flood control system which may have saved millions in taxes and business incomes in recent years.
Red was not just an engineer and pilot. He was a great storyteller and missionary for Haverhill. He brought to the city owners of motor homes from around the country, including some worth half a million dollars, to take trips on the Merrimack on his own riverboat. During those trips, Red told tales of pirates who came up the river and sailors who were attracted by the stories about the beautiful women of Haverhill.