The natural wonders and talented people associated with Silver Springs are unique in many ways. The boat captains who have worked at the springs and on the Silver River over the decades are no exception.
During the peak of racial segregation in the deep south, steamboat companies such as the Hart Daily Line hired African American captains and crew to run their boats. In 1924, when Carl Ray and Shorty Davidson purchased Silver Springs and began promoting the now world-famous glass-bottom boats, they primarily hired local Black men as well. This tradition carried on into the mid-20th century, when Oscar Collins of Fort McCoy began to work as a glass-bottom boat captain at Silver Springs.
At 54 years of service, Capt. Collins, who started in 1969, is not the longest-serving captain at the springs: Captains Roosevelt Faison, David Faison and Leon Cheatom all worked longer than Collins and collectively had 170 years of service by the time they retired. Collins, however, is the last of his generation to step off the boat and, in a way, his recent retirement marks the end of an era. He truly has been a mainstay at the springs for decades and has introduced countless visitors to the natural beauty of Marion County.
In April, Collins was honored by a gathering of friends, family, co-workers, working and retired boat captains, and state park staff during a special ceremony in the park’s Paradise Ballroom, which, fittingly, looks out over the glass-bottom boat docks. The evening included a DJ, plenty of refreshments and some of Collins’ favorite foods, with lots of fried shrimp, meatballs, crab cakes and barbecued chicken.
The retirement gifts for Collins included a commemorative plaque from the state park and a ship’s wheel signed by past and current captains. A vintage model of the Charlie Cypress glass-bottom boat, which was Collins’ assigned vessel for many years, was presented to him by Cape Leisure, the concession that currently operates the boats.
Park Manager Sally Lieb noted that when the state took over Silver Springs in 2013, she was relieved to learn that Collins would stay on to help ensure the boat tours would continue running with experienced and professional captains. She was not disappointed, as he logged another 10 years at the helm before he retired.
Marion County and Silver Springs have grown and changed dramatically since 1969. In 1970, for example, there were 3.7 million people in Florida and now there are 21.7 million. Some of the changes were good, and some not so good, Collins maintains. All the while, the affable Collins has warmly welcomed guests. With his contagious smile, quick wit and trademark two-finger “peace” sign, he became part of the landscape of the springs.
Although Oscar Collins is no longer at the helm of a glass-bottom boat, he will continue to welcome visitors and share his deep knowledge of the springs. Several days each week, he can now be found in his new role at the state park’s “Discovery Room,” which is located along the promenade. If you haven’t met him yet, consider stopping by Silver Springs State Park some day and introduce yourself to the last of the original glass bottom-boat captains—one who helped make our beloved Silver Springs truly world famous. OS
Scott Mitchell is a field archaeologist, scientific illustrator and director of the Silver River Museum & Environmental Education Center, located at 1445 NE 58th Ave., Ocala, inside the Silver River State Park. Museum hours are 10am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission to the park is $2 per person; free ages 6 and younger. To learn more, go to silverrivermuseum.com.