Buck Mullin – Summer 2014

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Brian Johnson

 “That young Mullin deserves a medal… taking me across the ice under impossible conditions…”
Dr. Kenneth J. Regan; Kingston Whig Standard, March 16, 1951

It was just past midnight. The year was 1955.

Wisps of thick, bluish grey clouds fill the night sky northward over the lake toward the city. Pale patches of moonlight, combined with the city lights, reveal a dark, foreboding late March sky.

Off in the distance, out past the point at the edge of the ice field, the frigid, dark water was quickly coming alive as small ripples turned into short, steep waves. A warm front is moving in fast from the south bringing with it a hint of rain with steadily increasing wind.

A husband helps his anxious, expectant wife into the car, which will take them to the dock. There is no doctor on Wolfe Island and the baby is coming. Fast. There is no ferry boat running to Kingston yet. It tied up shortly after Christmas. Already in great pain, she holds her stomach as if to will the baby to stay put just a little longer. “Oh, if only you could wait just another month,” she thought.

They drove the short distance from their house in the village down to the waterfront. A small laneway led down to the ice. It seemed only minutes ago they were safe in their home when the labour pains started. Then it was a quick telephone call to the island switchboard operator.

“Hello Mabel… yeah, we gotta go… can you ring Buck’s house?”
“One moment, Bill.”

Each step from the car made the woman’s eyes water. Last month the ice would have been safe enough for their car or a team of horses and sleigh to get them over to the city and the hospital. Now she is scared to death as they step over a snow bank leading to the ice. At the edge, the surface is hard but then it gets mushy. In only a minute her feet are wet from walking on the slushy surface of the ice which is already starting to “wet up.”

A small, motor iceboat is sitting just ahead, a few feet off shore and pointing in the direction of the city. The boat’s operator is pulling out the dipstick from the oil pan of the engine. Striking a match along the wooden side of the boat he holds the small flame in his left hand as he looks carefully at the oil level. Satisfied, he climbs up the boat’s side where the elevated engine sits on a sturdy metal frame and returns the stick into its well.

The two passengers, standing patiently by the side of the boat, walk carefully to the forward end. The man lifts her over the thick, plywood side of the boat. Then he climbs in, covering them both with a well-worn horse blanket he finds on the floor. They both look toward Kingston, so far away in the distance.

The woman strains her eyes. She sees the moving clouds between patches of bright moonlight yet everything is so dark. Then again, the searing pain. Her eyes cloud up as she tries to stretch her legs out straight… then the pain subsides… a little. It’s a relief and she starts to breathe, slowly, but with one hand gripping the wooden seat and the other firmly holding the side of the boat with the sharp, pungent smell of high octane gasoline, she snaps back to reality. Both she and her husband know the seasons well; they know that out there, past the safety of the village bay, the ice is moving. Large, heavy ice cakes are ploughing over each other with terrific force in the increasing wind. Without a doubt, this is the most dangerous time of the year to be an Islander — mainland bound!

Buck, with passengers, on Saucy Sally.

No longer feeling the cold, she lets go of the seat with one hand and hangs on tight to her husband’s arm as the operator, young Buck Mullin, standing behind the boat, reaches up and pulls down hard on the long, wooden airplane propeller located high up on the back, just behind the engine. It sputters once, coughs then dies. Reaching up, he tries it again, pulling down hard. This time it sputters twice, coughs once, then catches. The sound is deafening in their ears as the six-cylinder Studebaker engine comes to life. The whole boat is shaking… threatening, she is certain, to come apart.

Using his teeth to pull on his gloves, Buck checks the throttle linkage then turns and climbs in front, just behind the wind screen and steering wheel. He grins at her, telling them both to hang on. She smiles back, relieved, noting that there isn’t a hint of worry or fear in his eyes. With his left hand, he pushes the throttle all the way forward. Engine roaring even louder, the small craft groans, then jerks ahead, breaking the small film of ice that had formed around her steel runners, firmly attached to the boat’s hull on either side. They start off slowly, gradually gaining speed. At first, it’s quite rough as the runners bounce over chips of ice. Another bout of searing pain hits her. She could scream now and nobody would hear.

They’re skimming along the ice surface when, to her horror, the young woman sees black, turbulent water just ahead. She looks quickly at Buck.

“Hold on!” he yells. She grabs the rail and the edge of the seat and shuts her eyes, biting her lip as they plunge forward, spray flying as the bow dips down, down into the darkness…

“The ice has claimed seven lives since the end of the war and countless cars and trucks lie at the bottom of the river…”
Kingston Whig Standard, January 25, 1963

Every year, at spring break-up time, when the St. Lawrence River awakens after its winter sabbatical, most senior citizens on Wolfe Island remember crossing dangerous ice with certain ice specialists. These island men could read ice. And weather. Certain animals could too, like ‘Minnie the Mare’ and her owner, Orval ‘Tricky’ McDermott from many years ago. And… oh yes, the young couple with the baby coming? It was a boy. They got across OK.

Of course they did. That was Buck Mullin at the wheel!

It will be eighteen years this spring since Wolfe Island ferry Captain Elwyn Hinckley “Buck” Mullin — ice specialist, fire chief, water taxi operator and ferry captain — passed away. It was an end of an era; with him went many thrilling tales of daring adventures during an earlier period. When crossing the river under dangerous conditions was an Islander’s way of life. Buck had been part of it in all seasons since he was old enough to walk.

The son of marine engineer Rollie Mullin and Ola Hinckley, Buck, as he came to be known, was born and raised with his sister Reba in the house by the ferry landing in the village of Marysville, Wolfe Island, where he would live all of his life. A direct descendant of pioneer Loyalist ferryman Sam Hinckley on his mother’s side, Buck grew up with a natural affinity to the St. Lawrence River. Wolfe Island, Ontario, lies at the junction where the river and Lake Ontario meet. Just outside their back door the ferry paddle-wheel steamer SS Wolfe Islander made her daily landings with supplies and passengers. Later in the early evening, she tied up, her boilers cooling down while young Mullin and his father ferried Islanders across in their own motorboat named Ol’ Sadie.

The Sadie was a single prop wooden boat about 24 by 8 feet. She was ideal for carrying young islanders to town in the evening and returning them later. She also carried freight on occasion on her partially covered deck and wooden benches. Rumored to be originally built as a Lake Ontario prohibition rumrunner, the boat was very seaworthy and had a good reputation — this time around — with many islanders. And then World War II erupted.

Joining the Royal Canadian Air force “Crash Boat Service” in Halifax, young Mullin’s skills as a motorboat mechanic and boat handler served him well as he rode the dangerous motor torpedo boats in terrible Atlantic storms searching for downed aircraft and pilots in trouble. At war’s end, when he returned home, his father had retired from the Great Lakes but had already planned for a larger, sturdier craft to add to their ferry “fleet.” Riding home on the sidewheel ferry, especially after Halifax, he was amazed at how old and outdated the ol’ girl actually was.

Brand new cruiser, Rebola, built by Gordon Roney.

The following spring, at Gordon Roney’s boat building yard just east of Marysville, a sleek, powerful looking cruiser was rolled out of the building shop. Thirty-two feet long and ten feet wide she was painted white with a mahogany cabin and upperworks. Powered by a Chrysler Crown V-8 engine, the brand new Rebola, named for Buck’s sister and mother, went into service immediately. And just in time too.

On Dominion Day, July 1, 1946, the SS Wolfe Islander was condemned from service. A boiler accident which cost an engineer and oiler their lives the previous season was the last straw. The Department of Transport tied her up. No ferry. Wolfe Island had the Rebola, ’Ol Sadie and on occasion when available, Kingston pilot boat operator’s Lawrence D, operated by Captain Lyall Dougan.

Running night and day, the Mullin’s ferry service was finally supplemented by two motor landing barges provided by the Wolfe Island Township to handle the heavier stuff about mid-summer. That didn’t stop the people traffic. By season’s end, Rebola’s engine had simply burned itself out and would need to be replaced the following spring. “It never cooled off,” said Darrel Mullin, Buck’s son. “It was replaced with a marine Hercules engine with a 3:1 reduction. It was around then, Dad continued spring-time service with a motor iceboat, the Saucy Sally, also built by Gordon Roney,” he said. The Mullins, Audrey and Buck, also had a daughter, Debbie who lives with her husband Bob VanNiedek and family in Kingston today. Both Debbie and Darrel remember the many, many calls to their home as they were growing up.

“I think we had as many as 60 or 65 calls from the telephone operator in one night,” recalled Mrs. Audrey Mullin recently. “I believe the ice was moving, and people wanted to know what we could do about it.”

Young Buck Mullin was interested in joining the Wolfe Island township ferry service now that he was married with two small children. Once aboard the MS Wolfe Islander (II) he wasted no time writing examinations for his mate certificate. Soon after, he qualified for his master’s. Captain John Ferguson quietly asked his mate one evening if he was interested in becoming captain soon. “He was quietly lying back on the settee in the wheelhouse,” he told me. “Well, I replied that I certainly was. ‘Okay’, he said. ‘I’ll hand in my notice at the end of the season.’”

The Wolfe Islander boasts a new captain on one shift. Elwyn ‘Buck’ Mullin, after two years as first mate, is the new skipper. His familiarity with the river is not limited to the ferry as his own boat, the Rebola, carried hundreds of passengers for some years, including many trips for  a doctor or to take patients to hospital. Joining him as mate is Elwood Woodman.
Kingston Whig Standard, April 21, 1959

Mate Elwood Woodman and Buck in wheelhouse, Wolfe Islander, 1959.

The ferry Wolfe Islander started her season with Captain R.F. Fawcett and mate Frank Mason on one shift and Captain Buck Mullin with mate Elwood Woodman on the other. If someone needed a day off, the other captain worked around the clock. And winters continued to be harsh, unpredictable and long…

With sleepy eyed Captain E.H. Buck Mullin at the helm, the Islander eased alongside the Brock St. Dock at two o’ clock this morning completing a voyage which began from the island dock at 6:45 Friday evening…
Kingston Whig Standard, Wednesday, January 10, 1962

After the Department of Highways took over the ferry service in 1964, making it free of charge, Mullin ceased his water taxi service as the hours of the ferry increased. Another ferry, the Upper Canada ran with the Wolfe Islander at this time, too. Rebola now joined the ranks of fishing guide boats that operated out of the Hitchcock House resort in Maryville. I can well remember Captain Mullin coming alongside and Rebola ‘sitting patiently’ while he tied her to the mooring posts. Two snaps of his wrist… instant clove hitch!

Buck Mullin retired from the Wolfe Islander III at the end of May 1987. While he looked cheerful on the outside, inside his emotions had to be in turmoil. Much the same I’m sure, as the day he watched his Wolfe Islander take her final plunge to the bottom as a dive site on September 21, 1985, just off Dawson point, Wolfe Island. Standing on the back deck of Rebola, a million memories of countless trips must have skimmed through his mind. For a fact, there was only one number different in the official registry of the two vessels. A few years later, as the river awakened once more, Captain Mullin died quietly on March 31, 1996. Spring break-up time. He was 74.

Darrel Mullin joined the Wolfe Island Ferry service in May 1989. Following a family tradition, he soon received his mate’s followed by his master’s certificate. Three years ago, a captain’s competition opened at the Wolfe Island Ferry. At the same time, the weekly edition of Kingston This Week ran a photo on January 6, 2011, in their ‘Snapshot of History’ column from the files of Kingston photographer, the late George Lilley. Untitled, it was a black and white picture of a man sitting in an iceboat, engine roaring in Kingston harbour back in the fifties. “My wife Wendy showed me the picture that morning,” Darrel said. “I don’t believe it! It’s Dad.” He had never seen the picture before.

“Two hours later I was told I got the captain’s job on the Wolfe Islander III !”

Coincidence? Not really. There wasn’t a hint of worry or fear on his Dad’s face.

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About the Author: Brian Johnson, captain of Wolfe Islander III, well remembers being allowed to steer the big Wolfe Islander at five years of age. “Thanks, Buck!”

FYI: The couple in the story are the late Bill and Rosemary Hawkins. The babyboy was named Michael. He became Chief Engineer of the Wolfe Islander III.

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