Bumboats – Spring 1978

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

By Theodore N. Ferris

When sailors couldn’t get ashore for weeks at a time, how did they buy the things the needed “from the store”? Their most urgent needs were met by the bumboat – a floating general store that tied up alongside incoming freighters, raised a ladder to the ship’s rail, and was open for business when the sailors came down the ladder. A wide variety of items was for sale at prices comparable to those in stores ashore. Sailors could buy boots, shoes, and work clothing, drugstore items, novelties, souvenirs, soft drinks, snacks, newspapers, magazines, and books. They could even leave such things as radios for repair, to be returned to them by mail.

Bumboat HENRY L. Image from Bowling Green State University Archives.

Bumboats, like heroes, are made, not born-usually being converted from vessels that were originally built for some other kind of service. The Reliance, that plied the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland, Ohio, from 1948 to 1957, had been converted from a World War II Coast Guard fireboat. She was 52 feet long, with 15-foot beam, and was powered by a 225-horsepower marine engine. Shirts, toothpaste, cigarettes, and suspenders were displayed with the other items, on shelves along the sides of the boat and in display cases in the center of the deck. As many as twenty sailors might be aboard at once, and business was always brisk as the boat sometimes serviced eleven ships in fifteen hours.

Another bumboat, the Henry L., came to the river in 1957-a lady with a lively past. She had started life routinely enough as a fishing tug at Lorain, but had an errant eye, and, during prohibition days, took to rum running between Canada and Cleveland for her keep. But the Coast Guard finally caught up with her in a rain of tracer bullets. Eventually, she changed her name and settled down to a more respectable career as a bumboat on the Cuyahoga.

However, there was still excitement ahead for the Henry L., despite her merchantile career. One December night in 1960, a ruptured pipeline between the seacock and engine let water into the hold, and she sank at her dock. The next day, two hoisting cranes raised her enough that she could be pumped out and floated again. Fortunately, her goods had been stored ashore for the winter before she sank, and the Henry L. was able to resume her duties on the Cuyahoga the following season without delay.

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About the Author: Mr. Theodore N. Ferris is a resident of Lakewood, Ohio, and Chief Editor for the Educational Research Council of America. He is a member of the Great Lakes Historical Society and has written before for INLAND SEAS.

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