The legendary exploits of an Eastern Shore strongman.
The Salem Times-Register and Sentinel’s full-column coverage of the death of Captain John Haff on August 7, 1909, attests to the man’s state-wide renown. Haff was “well known by stories of his bravery and dangerous exploits,” ran the headline. Salem is 226 miles from Haff’s hometown of Cape Charles. Haff for years had been the “patient day watchman” for the terminus of the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad, from which freight and passengers were steamed across the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk. But Haff was anything but a sedentary man, which explains his fame in far-away towns.
In 1867, Haff, just 18, was on a ship out of New York bound for Savannah. All was well till the ship encountered a horrific gale—and then hit shoals eight miles off Hog Island, a then inhabited barrier island on the Atlantic face of Northampton County. The vessel broke up, and all passengers went overboard. Haff made the swim to shore—and carried a shipmate with him. Unfortunately, the mate died during the ordeal. Haff stayed on the Eastern Shore from that day forward.
If Haff had made a splash on his entry into Virginia, he didn’t stop there. A man of formidable strength, he swam from Cape Charles to Hampton’s Old Point Comfort several times, leading a sporting publisher to offer $5,000 to any long-distance swimmer who could best Haff. He had no takers. One time, when a boat was in trouble in a storm, its captain called on Haff specifically for help. According to legend, Haff dove in, slipped into a rope rig and, swimming, towed the vessel to safety. And “there was not a clam in the waters of the Chesapeake or the Atlantic that could withstand the mighty grip of John Haff’s hands,” read the Salem paper’s story. “He could take a clam in each hand and smash them into atoms, as one would an egg.”
Haff didn’t make any clams for his prowess, but there were chances aplenty. The seas were in his blood. He was the nephew of famed yachtsman Henry Coleman “Hank” Haff, who in 2004 was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. Hank Haff is the oldest winning skipper in America’s Cup history, taking the race in 1895 at age 58.
Hank tried repeatedly to persuade his nephew to move to New York, “where a fortune awaited him in the sporting world.” A.J. Cassatt, president of the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad, befriended John Haff, knowing he could be independently wealthy as a sports figure. Haff was apparently unmoved by the entreaties, though he knew famed boxer John L. Sullivan and even “had the mitts on with that pugilist.” Sullivan said that the hardest blow he had ever taken came from John Haff.
Self-promotion was not Haff’s thing. He had a family, had lived “an honest, upright life,” and was happy in Virginia. At age 60, he died of lung disease. “It is doubtful if there has lived in this or the preceding generation a more powerful man from a physical standpoint than the meek-eyed, even-tempered John Haff,” read the Salem Times-Register and Sentinel announcement. The “Hercules of the Peninsula” may not have been an Eastern Shore native, but once he came ashore, he stayed.