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.
Red also brought Haverhill to the attention of radio listeners from all over the eastern part of the country (as far as Chicago) by his guest appearances with Larry Glick and other late night radio hosts. He was the spreader of tales about the city and the river. And he was chosen, with my help, as one of four regional characters in the television viewing area for Channel 4 in Boston.
One of the incidents, and this is true, that helped make Red one of the four colorful characters was the story of him helping to rescue a horse from a tree by using a boat and a chainsaw! It was his skill as a rescuer which he developed at his own beach on the river and his own airport behind it, and about which he advised five police departments with his record of unusual happenings.
As he was talking to firemen and police, a corpse came floating down the river and was brought to shore by Red and his equipment. There are those to this day who believe he set it all up, but a man did fall from the dock at the Crescent Yacht Club just up the river. There were those at the Yacht Club and the Police Department who scoffed at Red's stories and expertise, but he bought all his own equipment and used it to answer calls any time of the day or night. What Red called a rescue was thought by many boat owners to be a helping hand, but that didn't faze him.
In another aspect of his colorful career, Red decided to get into politics, including a run for mayor. His campaign material included a pledge to remove all the beds from the fire stations and he put an old rowboat on the lawn of City Hall to show the condition of the equipment the Fire Department had to work with.
All in all from pretty girls to pirates to rescues on the rocks of the river, Red Slavit has been one of the most colorful characters in this region. And his escapades would almost match those of Mike Fink who cajoled the rivers of the west and became a legend himself through books, movies, TV and other media. If anyone ever deserved recognition or the status of river legend, it is Red Slavit. It's my hope he gets the recognition he deserves if there is a river festival this year — and I hope there will be.
Every day seems to bring new stories about the river, the docks and the surrounding area.
Red provided pure well water to anyone who wanted or needed it from wells on his property right along the river, for anyone wondering about whether the water from the river can be used for drinking. If the Queen of England is going to have a boat parade this year to celebrate her 60th anniversary, it might not be a bad idea for users to do the same on our own river! After all, Red's river boat was called the Merrimack Queen!
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Barney Gallagher has covered Haverhill since 1936 as a reporter, editor and columnist.