The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Clarence H. White
It was early morning. We had just left the St. Clair River and were shaping a course eastward toward the Canadian shore, thence northward to Goderich, Kincardine, and the North Channel to Sault St. Marie. It was a halcyon morning. Far to the west could be seen the never-ending procession of large freighters diverging from our course to follow the Michigan shore of Lake Huron. The downbound boats lay low in the water, their holds weighted with heavy cargoes of iron ore: those upbound light ship, towering high above the Lake. They would call at the iron ore ports—Escanaba on lake Michigan; Marquette, Allouez, Ashland, Superior and Duluth on Lake Superior. There they would take on their heavy return cargoes and return to the Lower Lakes ports.
Our little ship, the Huron, skipped lightly over shining small waves with an almost imperceptible motion. The seas seemed to laugh as they played about the ship’s hull. It recalls to me now something out of the Iliad; Thetis herding her Nereides eastward in the light northwest breeze. All the Nereides were there including Glaucus, Thalia, and Menelaus. (Limnorea, the wave that runs along the shore, give her a wide berth, for we are coasting a lee shore.) The woodwork of the cabins sang the song of the cricket as the ship danced lightly through the laughing waves.
We had come up the St. Clair River the night before, having left Detroit in the evening. Our ship had been scheduled to leave Cleveland that morning, but repairs to one of her paddle wheels, damaged in an encounter with a floating log resulted in her laying over for the day at Detroit, where we boarded her at the foot of DuBois Street. So we were off at last! Leaving the shore and casting off has always carried with it a sense of release from the land and all its cares.
There were five of us in our party—my parents, my young sister, my older brother and myself. I was twelve and the year was 1910. Cruising up the river we were enthralled by the continuous parade of shipping. Most were ore boats—red ore boats, black ore boats, and the odd-shaped “whaleback”, looking for all the world like gigantic submarines. The long ships disappeared in the growing darkness, and became fantastic displays of lights—masthead lights, green and red running lights, and lighted cabin ports as they glided slowly by.
Now we were on the open lake. I was aroused from this reverie by the realization that a sinister change was taking place. Thetis had fled with her brood of Nereides and was racing for the Canadian shore, thereto be swallowed up by the breakers that were soon to form. Poseidon was approaching us in pursuit. No longer did our little steamer skip gaily over the laughing waves. She plunged, she wallowed, then rolled alarmingly in the ever increasing seas which rushed at her from the northwest and crashed against her iron hull with a hollow boom like the sound of a great bass drum. The wind blew fresh from the northwest. The sky, still clear, took on a harsh, hard blue shade. The seas, dotted with white-caps, was of a deep green-blue color.
We met a few downbound vessels making heavy weather of it as they stumbled along before a following sea. They were not the large ore carriers we had left making their way up the west shore— miscellaneous vessels of a type no longer seen on the Lakes. There were little wooden lumber hookers, their decks piled perilously high with sawn products of the northern forests, deep-laden lumber schooners, trim little package freighters, known as “rabbit steamers,” a type once ubiquitous along the St. Clair River— trim little vessels, with all their cabins aft, “stumbling” along before seas breaking against their starboard quarters. We met the Wexford, a fair sized oceangoing tramp that had been brought into the Lakes some years before, and which traded frequently out of Goderich. Some three years later this same ship disappeared in this same locality in the notorious November storm of 1913.
Endlessly the seas buffeted us. It was inexorable, it was relentless, it was ruthless. We despaired of relief from the monotony of ceaseless turmoil. Then, at last, Goderich sensed our discomfort, and came slowly to relieve us, stretching out her jetties like arms to draw us into her haven. Thankfully we watched her shore installations as we glided into the harbor. We passed a grain elevator; a large grain ship was tied up alongside. We passed some fishing boats, a lumber hooker and a schooner. A trim little package freighter was there also, loading produce. At last we tied up at a dock and disembarked. As we did so, we became aware that there was something not quite right about the terra firma, for which we had so recently yearned— it was not always where we expected it to be! Sometimes it was too close, and again it would be too far away. We stumbled and flopped our way up the road to town like a flock of penguins.
Goderick was not a north country town. Rather it was more like a small Western Reserve community, with its quaint village square and variety stores. At length it was time that we return, not unwillingly, to our ship. For the ship was our home, we belonged to her and the land burned our feet. It was back to the restless seas outside.
Soon it was time for lunch. Refreshed by our stay in town, we attacked our repast with zeal. But not for long. I made a dash topside and to the loading port in the lobby. “Avast there,” called the mate, “lee side sonny!” So I rushed across the port away from the wind. And thus did I receive my first lesson in practical seamanship.
All that afternoon the seas continued to throw us around. Late in the day we made the tranquility of Kincardine. This was more a north country town. Lumber shipping was in evidence. Mud streets prevailed, improved only by wooden board walks.
After leaving Kincardine it was apparent that the seas were lessening a little. We were approaching the lee of Manitoulin Island, which stretches across the north end of Lake Huron. After a relatively restful night we arrived at Killarny, situated at the eastern end of the North Channel and the entrance to Georgian Bay. It was a typical north country town, with its unpaved streets and wooden sidewalks, and an occasional Indian plodding along its street.
A few hours passage brought us to Little Current, on the north shore of Manitoulin Island, and its main port. Here again were the unpaved streets, boardwalks and false store fronts. At that time it resembled a setting for a Western. One could visualize the sure-shooting marshall, the Indians and bad hombres. It was a busy little place though, and I believe it now has an ore loading installation, although I do not recall seeing any such facility at that time.
The rest of the afternoon we cruised westward on the North Channel. It was a beautiful day—sparkling blue atmosphere, under clear blue skies. To the north stretched the granite mountains of the Canadian Shield. We met a few vessels that day, a lumber hooker, several schooners plodding leisurely along, a large grain carrier, and a graceful passenger liner out of Port Arthur headed for some Georgian Bay port.
The next morning found us in the St. Mary’s River as we joined the procession of large freighters bound for the iron ore loading ports of Lake Superior. There were other vessels too. The trim package freighters of the Anchor Line, out of Buffalo, were there, with their bright green hulls, white upper works and red stacks. They all bore the names of Pennsylvania rivers. I recall the name of one, Wissahickon. Later we met the passenger liner Tionesta, also an Anchor Line ship, as she glided majestically by. Perhaps the most impressive sight was the lordly Northwest, all in dazzling white, a true replica of an oceangoing passenger liner.
A few more hours brought us to the Soo, where all passengers disembarked and made their way to the famous locks, there to watch the large freighters being raised or lowered to the level of the lakes of their destination. I still remember the name of one ore boat, the Alexis W. Thompson.
That evening we cast off, retracing our steps back to Cleveland. The following evening we touched at Little Current, tying up across the slip from a magnificent steam yacht, the Capitola, out of Chicago. She was resplendent in her gleaming white hull trimmed in gold, her brightly varnished cabins and upper works. Music issued from the cabins, and elegantly dressed women escorted by men in yachting attire strolled her decks. She was the envy of all the Huron’s passengers. A day-and-a-half later we arrived early in the morning at Detroit, then left for Cleveland, after a stop at Toledo. It was an interesting and delightful cruise. We saw a variety of vessels, many of a type no longer to be found on the Lakes. No more do opportunities for cruising exist on the Lakes except for those offered by an occasional excursion, or a crossing of Lake Michigan on one of the splendid large railroad-operated car ferries. Perhaps that is why these experiences aboard the Huron in 1910 are so well remembered today.
About the Author: Born in Brooklyn, New York, Clarence H. White moved with his family to Warren, Ohio, in 1900, and to Youngstown in 1902. Disclaiming any valid reason for his “predilection for things nautical, ” he simply states “it is there and has been” as far back as he can remember. However, he did serve in the U.S. Navy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1918, and his “favorite loafing place” in Cleveland, when he attended Adelbert College of Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology (now combined as Case Western Reserve University) was the waterfront, where he strolled along the shores of Lake Erie.
After becoming an engineer in Youngstown, he was transferred to Cleveland in 1929. In 1934 he filled a position in Warren, later transferring to Salem, Ohio, where he currently resides in the Salem Convalescent Center. A devoted member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, this is his first contribution to Inland Seas.