The Loss of Lightship No. 82 – Spring 1975

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

By Patrick Murphy

The autumn of 1913 had been a good year for Great Lakes shipping. Owing to the unusually high temperatures, ice in rivers and harbors was found only in inconsequent amounts in the extreme northern portions of the Lake Region and there was practically none reported at any port at the close of the period. Because of the favorable weather conditions the Great Lakes fleets were still in operation on November 10, 1913, when a monstrous storm struck the Lakes, first on Lake Superior and then gradually working eastward by the 13th. When the storm had passed, twelve ships had been lost along with their crews which totaled over two hundred men.

Lightship No. 82. Image from Wikipedia.

The ships, had the masters of them taken heed of the approaching storm and the storm warning flags that were flying, should not have been taken out into the waters of the Lakes with eighty-mile-an-hour, wind-whipped waves which at times reached the height of thirty-five feet. However, many vessels were caught in open waters and they simply did not have many alternatives open to them. About all that they could do was to ride out the storm as best they could and try to reach a protected bay or harbor. There was one ship without anywhere to go in the storm. This was the U.S. Government Lightship No. 82. The captain and crew were duty bound to remain on station during the storm to warn others of impending dangers off Abino Point, Ontario, in eastern Lake Erie, across from Point Sturgeon, New York, thirteen miles from Buffalo Harbor.

Lightship No. 82, was built in Muskegon, Michigan, by the Racine-Truscott Shell Lake Boat Company in 1912, a modern vessel in all respects and quite comfortable for its master and crew of five. Lighthouse Service records show that she was eighty feet in length, twenty-one feet in the beam, had a steam fired coal boiler, a thirty-foot tall beacon mast and was painted bright “English vermilion.” Creature comforts such as leather upholstered oak chairs, French plate glass mirrors, and a small book collection were also on board. The total cost of construction and outfitting the vessel was somewhere near forty-five thousand dollars.

Capt. Hugh H. Williams of Manistee, Michigan, was given command of the ship. Andrew Lehy of Elyria, Ohio, was the mate. Charles Butler of Buffalo, New York, was chief engineer and Cornelius Lehy of Elyria was his assistant. Peter Mackey of Buffalo, was the cook and the sixth member of the crew was seaman William Jensen of Muskegon, Michigan. Little did these men realize that when they went out on board Lightship No. 82, to take up their position guarding Waverly Shoal, that their sailing days would end forever, sometime during the day of November 10, 1913.

Lightship No. 82. Image scanned from INLAND SEAS 1975 issue.

A lightship, since it is rather permanently moored to the bottom, poses some rather unique problems to marine architects. It is most difficult to keep a permanently moored ship stable in variable weather and water conditions. Secondly, there is the problem of locating hawespipes in the proper position on the vessel. Hawespipes are for the mooring cable and the anchor chain. If placed in the wrong position, a simple swell could easily swamp a light vessel. For example, Arthur D. Stevens, naval architect, states in his book Evolution of a Lightship, “I have had the privilege of visiting Lightship No. 4 (off Handkerchief Shoal, Nantucket Island, Mass.) last year, and one of the strong criticisms made was that when she would list very seriously, she would layover and be a long time recovering. I simply mention this as a criticism the men of the boat made. . . they criticised it as giving her a serious list when she sheered in the current.” If Lightship No. 4 did this action in a simple current, think what it must have been like for the forty-eight hour period aboard Lightship 82, with thundering “greybeards” breaking over her.

The lightship had two auxiliary boats aboard in which a possible escape attempt might have been made. However, the boats would no doubt have disintegrated as the great waves dashed them against the sides of the ship. In all probability, no attempt was ever made to leave the vessel since the captain and crew were dutybound to stay on station during all storms. This, after all, was part of their job. Like it or not, this is what it came down to. When the captain’s wife, Anna Marie Williams, of Manistee, Michigan, was asked if “the captain pulled up his anchors and sought shelter,” she replied, “Certainly not. Captain Williams and his crew were guardians and they would remain at their station until blown away or ordered to move. I know this because I know the caliber of my husband and the men who served him on the lightship.”

The first indication of trouble at Lightship 82’s station was received by Roscoe House, Lighthouse Inspector, 10th District, Buffalo, New York, at his home Tuesday morning, November 11, about 8:15 A. M., in a telephone message from the Buffalo Evening News to the effect that a life buoy bearing the lightvessel’s marks and other small bits of wreckage had been picked up on the beach inside the Buffalo breakwater. As soon as communication could be made with the lightship tender Crocus she was ordered to proceed at once to the lightvessels station to investigate and report back to Mr. House.

The finding of the life buoy and other articles, although very alarming, was not considered conclusive evidence that the ship herself was disabled, as these articles might have been washed off her deck. No whistles, distress bombs or rocket flares had been seen or heard in the vicinity of the vessel and all of these safety devices were on board. It was soon learned, however, by inquiries made of other captains of several incoming steamers, and from reports to the Buffalo Evening News from a resident on Point Abino, Ontario, that the lightvessel was not on her station.

Before the Crocus returned, the tug Yale was chartered and sent out under the assistant superintendent to make such a search “as practicable” and the Buffalo Life Saving Service was helping by patrolling the beach. Every effort humanly possible in that day was made in an attempt to locate and rescue the men and save the ship.

Lightship CROCUS. Image from Bowling Green State University archives.

The Crocus returned at 1:45 P.M. and reported finding no trace of the ship or her crew and the tug Yale returned shortly after from an unsuccessful search. During the afternoon a drawer, evidently from the ship’s galley, was brought to Mr. House’s office, having been picked up in the vicinity of the South Buffalo, South Side Light. The launch of the Crocus with a patrolling party was sent to this locality. There in the water they found Lightship 82’s small wooden sailboat, upside down, without a mast. Darkness set in and the men returned to the lighthouse boat basin.

On Wednesday, November 12th, the work of patrolling the beach, breakwater and the vicinity around the South Entrance was resumed. The waves were too high to attempt any work at the station of Light Vessel 82. The most important development this day was the discovery of a board from the ship’s power boat containing the brass cover to the gasoline tank. Thus, both small boats on board the vessel were shown to have been destroyed in the storm.

A fisherman walking on the beach found perhaps the most bizarre artifact of the stricken ship. This was a wooden hatch cover bearing the message: “Good bye Nellie – Ship is breaking up fast – Williams”

During the summer of 1912, the Williams’ family had stayed at the home of Thomas Joseph, keeper of the Government lighthouse at Horseshoe Reef near Buffalo. Mrs. Joseph stated emphatically that during their stay at her house, Captain Williams had addressed his wife as “Nellie.” When Mrs. Williams, herself, arrived in Buffalo with her brother, to personally aid in the search for her husband she, too, said that it was a message indeed from her husband but not in his handwriting. Further investigation in the comparison of Captain Williams’ signature on the board and on a receipt for lumber he had purchased just five days before he disappeared proved beyond a doubt (as stated by a reporter for the Buffalo Evening News) that the sad message which washed up on the beach was from the captain. It was decided that in so serious a matter no one would have lowered himself to have attempted a hoax as the message on the board was first believed to be. Mrs. Williams believed that while the message was from her husband, it probably had been written by Mate Jensen. Mate Jensen had misunderstood in the storm what the captain had said. Mrs. Williams said, “the Captain never called me Nellie, Mr. Jensen simply made a mistake under those cruel circumstances.” Maybe so. If not, who was “Nellie?” This is one of the many mysteries surrounding the 82 that have never been solved and probably never will be.

Mrs. Williams herself was a very good sailor and believed in the many tales of the sea. She felt that if she went out onto the angry Lake Erie that perhaps she might be able to find her husband. Standing upon the pitching deck of the tender Crocus for two days must have presented the classic image of the sailor’s wife, with skirts billowing in the breeze, her hand shielding her eyes as she searched the cold raging waters for a sign of her husband. Unfortunately, Captain Williams and his crew were never found.

On Thursday, November 13th, Capt. E. M. Trott, General Inspector of the Light House Service, arrived from Washington, D. C., to take over the search. After putting aboard the Crocus the largest acetylene gas light buoy and hooks for grappling the bottom in hope of snagging the ship, Trott and Inspector House proceeded to the lightship station. When they arrived the seas were too high and they were prevented from doing any kind of work. Still there was no sign of the lightship or her crew.

By Friday, November 14th, the seas had calmed so that the gas buoy could be placed to mark the light vessel station, but a careful search operation by the crew of the Crocus failed again to locate any trace of the missing vessel or her moorings at the site.

Further investigation pointed out that the light vessel’s beacon was observed burning brightly at 7:00 P.M. Sunday evening, November 9th; that it was also seen at about 4:45 A.M. Monday morning, November 10th. The fact that the vessel disappeared between 4:45 A.M. Monday, and 4:50 A.M. Tuesday, the 11th, seems to be clearly established. And so, as near can be judged, it must have been during Monday, when the storm was at its height, that Lightship No. 82, with her steadfast crew, disappeared into the snow-shrouded waters of Lake Erie.

On November 21, 1913, Inspector House, in accordance with Light House Service regulations, recommended that the positions comprising the crew of six of Light Vessel No. 82 be discon

Lightship No. 82 raised and dragged to shallow water by the MANISTIQUE and the S.M. FISCHER. Image from

tinued effective at the close of November 10, 1913, due to the loss of the ship. Oddly enough, in his letter to the Secretary of Commerce, House listed the salaries which Williams and his men were paid:

Captain Williams $900 per year; Mate Lehy $660 per year; Engineer Butler $840 per year; Asst. Engineer Lehy $660 per year; Cook Mackey $40 per month; Seaman Jensen $37.50 per month

By today’s standards these wages were not very high when one considers the risk involved in protecting fellow sailors on the Great Lakes.

The saga of Lightship No. 82 does not end here. For in September 1915, she was brought up from the depths of Lake Erie. This was accomplished only after two salvage companies had quit the task of bringing her up, the fact that she was filled with sand and very heavy and finally the war in Europe tended to slow down efforts to salvage because the money was needed for war materials. The 32 ship was finally beached at Buffalo and then towed to Detroit, Michigan, where she was refitted. Now as a lightship tender, she spent her final days as an auxiliary lightship at duty stations in Lake Michigan, at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and North Manitou Island, and in Lake Huron at Port Huron, Michigan.

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About the Author: Mr. Patrick Murphy, is a resident of Howell, Michigan, where he teaches in the Public Schools system. He is currently engaged in teaching a course termed “American Heritage” which he designed as an alternative to regular high school history classes. Twenty-five students spend their days on a 265-acre farm for a ten-week period, participating in various activities such as survival camping native crafts, archaeological surveys, oral history, marshland biology, and design and construction of traveling mini-museums for elementary schools. 

Mr. Murphy’s interest in historical artifacts and museum projects was aroused by a course at University of Michigan in Museum Methods, and his master’s program at Goddard College included an innovative project “Museum Without Walls,” in which he and his students travelled over 16,000 miles using North America as a “teaching tool. ” Last July they took part in an archeological dig at Castle Hill, Charlottesville, Virginia, in connection with the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. 

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Peter White – Winter 1974

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

By Ernest H. Rankin, Sr.

I note, with considerable interest and pride, the selection of Peter White, (1830-1908) for inclusion in the Marine Hall of Fame, as announced in the Fall 1974 issue of INLAND SEAS, which was granted to him at the Great Lakes Annual Award Dinner. He was honored as being “an American of the 19th century” and for his “leadership, energy and courage” in the development of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He is well worthy of this honor—and of much more.

It was my pleasure and privilege to know him in my youth—at the turn of the century. I knew him, not as being among the principal developers of the Upper Peninsula, but as a citizen of Marquette who did so much as one of the founders and developers of the city. So many good deeds could be placed on his doorstep that a book-length opus would be required to expose them all.

He lived in a palatial Victorian mansion, built in 1869, which was located on the brow of a high bluff towards the east end of Ridge street. The house was on the south side of the street, the rear and side windows overlooked the lower harbor, docks, breakwater and Lighthouse Point. The movement of vessels in and out of the harbor was always within his view. This house was razed some years ago.

My home was on the north side of Ridge, a couple blocks to the west of his residence. He passed our far less pretentious dwelling frequently on his way as he walked to and from work. It was not unusual for him, seeing Mother1 in her front garden, to cross the street and discuss with her the cultivation of flowers, especially roses. As gardeners they had much in common. They were on a first name basis—Carrie and Peter.

My immediate and close association with Mr. White was of short duration—he was some fifty-eight years my senior. As I mentioned, it would have been around the turn of the century, when I was twelve years old, that the Young Ladies Guild of St. Paul’s Episcopal church put on a kermess to raise funds. Mr. White, who had considerable knowledge of Indian lore, was delegated to organize and direct an Indian war dance.2 Some thirty lads of my age were rounded up, bathed, and under his direction were instructed in the technique of the dance. At the only rehearsal he took off his coat and pranced and jumped around on the stage as might become a savage preparing to go on the war path! Then one by one he took each boy in turn, prodding him on to whoop, yell, leap and dance with violent body contortions. It took very little training and in a very short time some thirty “wild Indians” were cavorting in a circle around a nonexistent campfire, their shrill voices echoing to the far corners of the empty theater! Properly costumed with feathered headdress and daubed with war paint (rouge) their act brought down the house at the formal performance.

Portrait of Peter White. Image from Library of Congress.

This event occurred in the old Marquette Opera House which was built in the early 1890s. It was completely destroyed by a midwinter fire late in the 1930s. Mr. White, with assistance from others, had caused this theater to be built, so that the residents of the area might enjoy the culture of the theatrical arts. The stage was of a size that it could accommodate the largest and best of the road shows. Many of the greatest actors and actresses of the era were welcomed by crowded houses.

Mr. White brought culture with him when he arrived in Marquette during July 1849; the location was then known as Carp River. In the 1850s it was a frontier hamlet of log houses and hastily constructed shacks of pine boards and tar paper. But through his efforts a very small public library was organized. Where and how he obtained books is not a matter of record. It was because of Peter White3, who traveled the 200 miles through the snow to Green Bay, Wisconsin, with dog team, that the hardy pioneers would get their mail and newspapers which enabled them to keep in touch with the outside world. During the long winter months this was a land of almost complete isolation.

His efforts provided the pioneer settlers with something to read while they rested by the fireside after spending most of the day waist-deep in a snowdrift cutting wood to keep warm during the cold nights. As a matter of fact, most of Marquette’s early settlers were people of courage, culture and learning.

As the town grew, so did its public libraries. An early one was established in a small brick building on Spring Street behind the Mather Block. Peter White’s First National Bank (1864) was on the first floor of this three-story, stone and brick building. Later on, the library, which had become known for all time as the Peter White Public Library, was located on the second floor of a business building on Washington Street. It was here that the writer was exposed to the works of such authors as Horatio Alger, Rev. Elijah Kellogg (Elm Island series), G. A. Henty, Oliver Optic, Mark Twain and other writers of that time.

As with many libraries its collection outgrew its quarters, and in 1903 a new structure was built at the corner of North Front and West Ridge Streets. This new Peter White Public Library is an impressive building, originally designed to contain some 25,000 volumes—quite sufficient for a town with a population of approximately eight to ten thousand. In financing the new building, Peter White was assisted by some of the more affluent citizens of the town, but his name headed the list.

By the 1940s, with the growth of the city and library, the book collection had more than doubled, which necessitated the need for more space, some 50,000 or more volumes overflowing the shelves. In the mid-1950s, through donations and a bond issue a large addition was built on the rear end of the original building. The library now contains a collection of about 100,000 volumes, serving the community with a population which has increased to around 21,000. Peter White might well be designated as the “Father of the Marquette Libraries.”

But the library is not the only “monument” which perpetuates his memory as a civic benefactor. In July 1886, he secured from the United States Government the property known as Presque Isle4 for use as a public park. This peninsula, better known to the townsfolk as “The Island,” consists of some 200 heavily wooded acres and is located about two miles north of the center of the city. It had been set aside by the Government for lighthouse purposes, but was never used as such.

That all might enjoy this beautiful park a street car company was organized, its tracks reaching the Island June 25, 1891. The tracks not only reached the Island, but served the city as well, connecting the residential areas with the downtown business section. He also, with the assistance of another public spirited citizen, caused a road to be built to the Island which enabled those who could afford a carriage to enjoy the drive, much of it along the lakeshore. In recent years the improved road which skirts the perimeter of the Island has been designated the “Peter White Drive.”

Some years ago Mr. White’s daughter provided the funds to cover the construction of a large, natural swimming pool with bathhouse at the neck of the peninsula for the use of the public. Also through a foundation which she established, funds are available for the operation of a summer zoo on the Island, as well as for other civic and educational purposes.

In the late 1850s Marquette was selected as the seat of the Catholic Diocese for the Upper Peninsula. The Catholic congregation at that time was composed largely of Irish and German laborers, all too poor to construct a cathedral church. Peter White, along with others, many well-to-do Protestants, raised some $6,000 for the foundation of the cathedral. In the early days of the struggling Catholics he presented their church with a reed organ that they might enjoy music at their services. Mr. White was a very close friend of the noted Frederic Baraga, Indian Missionary, who became the first Catholic bishop of the Upper Peninsula.

Of course he was no less generous to his own church, St. Paul’s, and quite possibly so to other congregations of all faiths. At St. Paul’s he took part in all of its activities, and served as a vestryman for many years. The writer, when a choir boy, and later, organ pumper, saw Peter White in his long, dark gray frock coat on most Sundays when he passed the collection plate at the morning service. He possessed a great sense of dignity, his ever well-groomed white beard lending to his appearance as a man of distinction.

One of his notable gifts to St. Paul’s is the Morgan Memorial Chapel, a general-purpose building which provides space for the Sunday school, midweek services, choir room, meetings, church dinners and oyster suppers. He always attended the latter two when in town. This chapel was named for his son, Morgan Lewis White, who died in infancy. It is noted for its large, stained glass, Gothic window, executed by Tiffany, London, England. Presumably, the son was named for Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881)5 a famous ethnologist and anthropologist, who not only studied Indian culture in New York State, but made an extensive study of the beaver6 and its habits in the Marquette area. Morgan also built two blast furnaces in the vicinity of Marquette, they being among the few which were successful in producing iron at a profit. He made his first visit to Marquette in 1855, and apparently a very close friendship was established between him and Peter White which lasted for many years. These are but a few instances of Peter White’s contributions to his city and the area. How extensive his private charities were over the years is not a matter of record, but he gave generously as occasion necessitated. His philanthropies, however, did not end with his death in 1908, for they were carried on by his only living daughter, his grandchildren, and by his great-grandchildren to this day.

  1. Carroll Watson Rankin (1864-1945), a lifelong resident of Marquette, Michigan. Author of children’s books, short stories, etc.
  2. Ernest H. Rankin, “Indian War Dance,” INLAND SEAS, IX (1953), 67-68.
  3. Ralph D. Williams, The Honorable Peter White. Cleveland: Penton Publishing Co., 1905. Also Herbert Brinks, Peter White. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970.
  4. French for “almost an island.” Isle is pronounced “eel.”
  5. Dictionary of American Biography, XIII. New York, Charles Scribners Sons, 1934.
  6. Lewis Henry Morgan, American Beaver and His Works. Phila: J. B. Lippincott & CO., 1868.

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About the Author: Mr. Ernest H. Rankin, Sr., now residing in Novato, California, was Executive Vice President of the Marquette County Historical Society, and Editor of Harlow’s Wooden Man, its quarterly Journal, until his resignation in October 1969. He has contributed many articles, also letters and book reviews to past issues of INLAND SEAS, and to Michigan journals and other publications in the Great Lakes area.

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A Great Lakes Cruise – Greek Style – Fall 1974

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

By Alexander B. Cook

Caspian Sea Caviar, American Dressing – Toast Melba, Consommé’ Celestine with Madeira Wine, Grilled Shrimp Brochette of Hesiod – Tartar Sauce, Chateaubriand Marquise, Sauce Bearnaise, Peas a la Parisienne, Buttered White Asparagus, Noisette Potatoes, Salad with Taragon Dressing Flaming Baked Alaska, Assorted Petits Fours and Coffee, Dessert Wine: Blanc de Blancs, Brut Nature – this was the menu for the gala dinner on the MV Stella Maris II! Every meal was no less sumptuous. How the chef, Dionisios Antipas, managed in the ship’s small galley is a miracle. And happily for those who like to eat but are prone to seasickness, this floating gourmet’s paradise was kept from galloping over the waves with special Vesper fin stabilizers. But I didn’t take the trip to eat, I took it for the simple pleasure of an old-fashioned boat ride on our wonderful Inland Seas. I got it too—all 1,241 miles from Chicago to Montreal and back again. In fact, there was so much to see I felt guilty taking the time for food and sleep!

The STELLA MARIS II. Image from Alpena Public Library.

Midwest Cruises and Tours, a division of Grueninger Travel Service of Indianapolis, organized the cruise which lasts seven days. It began on June 1 and is slated to end on October 19. The Stella Maris (Greek for “Star of the Sea”) is owned by Marriott Hotels and operated by Oceanic-Sun Line Special Shipping Co., Inc., in Athens. She is under Greek registry. Built as a ferryboat in Germany in 1960 and converted for cruise service in Trieste, Italy, in 1966, she measures 290 feet in length, 44 feet in beam and is 3,500 gross tons. Her twin screws drive her along at a service speed of about 15 knots. She has steel, fin-like fenders added to her hull to protect her from scraping the lock walls in the Welland Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway. Until this year, the Stella has been operating only in the Caribbean and Greek Isles. She carries 182 passengers. Seven-day lake cruise prices, which include seaway transportation, staterooms, meals and services, range from $330 to $665 per person. Liquor, shore excursions, laundry and hairdressing services are optional extras. Not cheap— but it’s a bargain compared with any of the few ocean cruises remaining today. One of the first thrills of the trip was in leaving Chicago at dusk on Saturday, July 13. The skyline of the city with its new 110-story Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world, and other structures—several, more than a thousand feet high—stayed in view long after we departed. Evening, and the ship seemed to settle down—all except for the lounge where there was nightly entertainment. But I stayed on deck to watch for the lights of passing boats and to enjoy the stars.

The next morning the Stella neared the western shore of Michigan. Ludington came into sight through the haze of the new day and suddenly the car ferry Spartan appeared to our left, a mile or so away. She glided sweetly across our wake—on her way to Ludington from Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Next, it was the lighthouses at Big Sable Point, Manistee, Frankfort and Point Betsie against the soft background of the dunes and hills. And then as our “Star of the Sea” headed on northward, the majesty of Sleeping Bear Point came into view. Beyond were the South and North Manitous and while we bore west of those lovely green islands, we could see two steamers, upbound and light, ahead of us and going through the east channel. Soon it was dusk again and the Stella continued north and west into the night. By midnight we swung east toward the Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Island for our first stop. The lights of Manistique on the south shore of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan came into sight on our left.

Bird-eye view of Mackinac Island.

Monday, the next day, it was Mackinac Island, but not without first passing under the famous Mackinac Bridge over the Straits just seven miles west and shrouded in the gray of early morning. A few hours on the island—optional shore excursions were planned for here and our other ports of call at Windsor, Port Colborne, Toronto and Montreal—and we were on our way again. After passing to the north of Round and Bois Blanc Islands, the Stella pointed her bow into Lake Huron. As she set out for Port Huron and the St. Clair River, 243 miles to the south, it seemed as though a gentle swell pushed her along. Later that afternoon, about five miles away, and to our right, a strange shape— like the bright white upperworks of a freighter—appeared. It was the remains of the West German MV Nordmeer which stranded on Thunder Bay Island Shoal in November 1966. She had been on her way from Hamburg to Chicago with a cargo of coiled steel. Several days later during a violent storm, the 600-foot steamer Daniel J Morrell was less fortunate when she sank with twenty-eight lives lost just one hundred miles to the south—a sobering reminder that the swells on the Great Lakes aren’t always gentle.

As we cruised down the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and Detroit River the next day, it didn’t take long for the Stella’s passengers to learn the “ship talk” of passing vessels—one long blast and we were directing our course to starboard (right) and two long blasts meant we were going to port (left). It meant, too, the anticipation and excitement of passing within only a hundred feet or so of a “laker” or a “salty.” This brought even the most aloof of passengers on the run from the lounge or their cabins below! Our ship, she of course being a salty, was in the constant care of American and Canadian pilots who exchanged master salutes (one long and two short blasts) with acquaintances on passing boats. It is such a kindred spirit that has drawn generations of young men from Midwest cities and farms to be lake men. And with no more cruise ships on the Lakes, it was a special thrill too, for the crews of passing freighters to see the trim Stella. Cooks in aprons, deckhands, engineroom oilers and even captains came on deck to wave to us as we passed!

During our stop at Windsor—where we docked by the lovely Dieppe Gardens directly across the river from Detroit—many passengers went on a shore excursion to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. By midafternoon our boat was on her way again down the Detroit River, through Livingstone Channel, by Detroit River Light, past the steamers Mercury, Thomas Wilson and Harry L. Allen and into Lake Erie. Buffeted by a warm breeze from the south, we swung east toward Pelee Passage. The top of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial National Monument ap appeared faintly on the horizon about fifteen miles to our right. (A good pair of binoculars is recommended for a trip like this.) My fellow passengers were fascinated to learn that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had won his famous victory during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 just a few miles to the south of us. Soon after passing Colchester Reef, we brought up Pelee Passage Light and Pelee Island to our right. And then it was Southeast Shoal Light on our left as the steamer William Clay Ford lumbered by several hundred yards away.

Lake Erie, it soon became apparent to all the passengers, many of whom had come from such faraway places as Texas and California, was not dead! Commercial fishermen were out in their boats and seagulls glided about us – and the Lake was beautiful under the bright summer sky. Later that afternoon, I noticed a tiny spike-like object breaking the straight line of the horizon amidships to our right. A look through my binoculars—it was the upper part of Terminal Tower in Cleveland, twenty-five miles or so away – unbelieveable! In several hours the sky turned from blue to orange as the sun called it quits for the day and disappeared behind a bank of clouds. Before going to sleep that night, I looked out my window to see the flashing white light on Long Point.

We awoke the next morning, Wednesday, to find ourselves at Port Colborne and in Control Lock No. 8 of the Welland Canal. The longest lock in the world, it is 1,380 feet. But it wasn’t until we went into the next lock, No. 7, that the Stella began a series of descents to the level of Lake Ontario, a total of 326 feet. The next shore excursion was organized—this time to Niagara Falls. Meanwhile, the protective fin-like fenders on our boat, damaged by lockings during her previous trip from Montreal to Chicago, were repaired. The trip through the Welland locks was like going down a giant stairway. The Stella bobbed and jostled as she was lowered in each lock, keeping our crew busy with wire mooring lines and winches. Once underway in the canal itself, it seemed as though we could reach out and touch every passing ship. By dusk we were passing the lighthouse at Port Weller and heading into Lake Ontario. Toronto, our next port of call, sparkled on the dark horizon twenty-eight miles away, her tall buildings brightly lit as if to welcome us.

The following day, Thursday, after landing in Toronto, I took a cab to make a surprise visit to my friend Alan Howard, Curator of the Marine Museum of Upper Canada. The Museum, with its old steamer whistles which actually work, navigating island from the Cayuga, ship models and other nautical treasures, occupies the last remaining building of Stanley Barracks, built in 1841. The 80-foot steam tug Ned Hanlan is outside.

Later in the day, our trim cruise ship was on her way out of Toronto Harbor and headed down Lake Ontario toward Cape Vincent and the St. Lawrence River. The Lake was stormy that evening, a light sea running out of the southwest and on our starboard quarter. The Stella’s stabilizers really did their job as we moved into the black pocket of night. Few of the passengers below realized the tempests were raging outside. Early the next morning, Friday, found us sailing serenely down the St. Lawrence and through the Thousand Islands, delightful and green. We were now about 150 miles from Montreal and our boat continued her descent in a misty rain through the Iroquois, Eisenhower, Snell, Beauharnois, Cote Ste. Catherine, and St. Lambert Locks—truly among the great engineering marvels of all time.

Several small yachts accompanied us through the locks with plenty of room to spare—almost like children with their mother on an escalator in a department store. And while each lock is 766 feet long, 80 feet wide and 30 feet in depth over the sills, the Stella was unable to avoid an occasional bump and scrape on the concrete walls—providing an opportunity for her fin-like fenders to prove their mettle. The only real incident while going through the Seaway was a jammed gate in the Snell Lock. Though it delayed the boat only briefly, we dubbed that lock “The Bad Snell!”

By midnight everyone was on deck to see the lights of Montreal. We passed the site of Expo 67, now “Man and His World,” and swung around into our berth. The next morning, Saturday, July 20, most of the passengers disembarked from the Stella but not without looking up at the hammer and sickle on the bow of the big Russian cruise ship Alexander Pushkin, a regular caller to Montreal, which had docked directly astern of us during the night. Those of us who remained aboard for the return trip to Chicago bade farewell to our new friends who got off and returned to their homes by jet plane—a marked contrast to the seven days of relaxing on a cruise ship where nobody is ever in a hurry.

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About the Author: Readers of INLAND SEAS are familiar with Mr. Alexander B. Cook’s pen and-ink sketches and his section in the journal concerning the Great Lakes Historical Society Museum in Vemilion, Ohio. He has been a member of the Advisory Committee of INLAND SEAS since 1957, and is currently a Vice President and Trustee of the Society, and a member of the Executive and Museum Committees. He also served as Executive Vice President from 1959 to 1964. Mr. Cook has been a special art teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools for the last ten years and in 1969 he completed a twenty-foot, panoramic mural for the Museum depicting Great Lakes Shipping. At the Society’s Spring Meeting in 1973 he received a Special Resolution of Appreciation for his “untiring devotion, perseverance and dedication” to the ideals of the Society. 

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Architectural Accuracy and the Artists – Summer 1974

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

By C. Thomas Sibert

An Introductory Study of Great Lakes Ship Portraiture

Student of Great Lakes history often have enhanced their knowledge of lake boats by studying ship portraits from the nineteenth century. The main thrust of their study has been toward the distinguishing characteristics of the vessels. Only minimal research has gone into documenting the lives of the artists who painted them. Still less work has been done to judge the artistic merit of the paintings. Specifics such as rigging and fleet colors have gained more attention than artistic composition and technique. the history of a ship has overshadowed the biography of the artist who painted it. A reversal of priorities in viewing these nineteenth century paintings has two advantages. For the student of lake history, research on the lives of artists helps determine the factual reliability of ship portraits. A wealth of knowledge is needed concerning the specifics of ship design and function before an artist can accurately reproduce a Great Lakes ship. For the art critic, inquiry in the field of nineteenth century Great Lakes ship portraiture opens a new field untouched by previous research and analysis.

An introductory analysis of Great Lakes ship portrait art of the final third of the nineteenth century is the study of four individuals: C. W. Norton, V. D. Nickerson, H. F. Sprague, and S. A. Whipple. These men sometimes worked for money and at other times merely for pleasure. Their range of ability and execution was from part-time artist to skilled professional. They were unified, however, by their location on the periphery of the Great Lakes. The men all shared a familiarity and love of the boats and a common desire to portray them. They were brought together finally by like subject matter—the pictorial history of sail and steam on the Great Lakes from 1865 to 1900.

Charles Wardlow Norton

Charles Wardlow Norton was chronologically the first ship portrayer of the period considered. Although his work was quite primitive in style, he set standards by which other artists may be compared.

Born in Detroit in 1848, the son of a tugboat captain, Norton’s affinity to the Lakes and lake shipping began at an early age. Although his public education in the schools of Detroit offered no evidence of formal artistic training.1 A listing in the Detroit city directory for 1863-64 cites an artistic vocation for Norton.2 In this first appearance, when he could not have been more than seventeen years old, the young man’s occupation was listed as marine artist. It was a remote possibility that a man of Norton’s limited ability could have earned a living by painting ship portraits. Learning telegraphy and working as a newspaper marine reporter brought him the money necessary to make ends meet.3 In these capacities Norton began his professional life near the waterfront. Here he gained a close technical association with the lake boats passing through Detroit. On the docks, the young artist was exposed to many facets of the shipping business. Here he had the opportunity to acquire the great store of knowledge required to paint a factually accurate ship portrait.

It was not until the 1873-74 issue of the Detroit directory that Norton’s lifetime work, that of a vessel agent, was listed as his occupation.4 After beginning this new job, however, he still found time to paint. Evidence of Norton’s continuing art professionalism was found in Detroit newspapers of 1875 with reference to his paintings of the R. N. Rice5 and the Dove.6  These articles discussed some of the artist’s technique of painting ships. One report stated that the Dove had been drawn from the actual ship measurements. The scale used to reduce the statistics to fit his canvas was one inch equal to eleven feet. Norton’s use of exact scaling supports the accuracy of his reproductions. Some pains must have been taken in acquiring ship statistics. Specific measurements, either calculated by Norton or lifted from ship plans, would have been necessary. Drawing exactly to scale explained the poor perspective of Norton’s work. No concessions were ever made to depth or distance. His paintings appeared as what they were simply scale drawings.

Also of interest in these articles was the contemporary writer’s opinion of Norton’s work. A favorable outlook was generally expressed by calling the artist’s productions the finest in their field this side of New York City.7 The criterion for this judgment was that a photographic view could not have been more factually accurate. Such a statement graphically displayed the standards used by Norton’s contemporaries for rating a ship portrait. Of utmost importance was the painting’s closeness to real life. The patrons of Great Lakes artists often came from the ranks of the steamboat owners. A clientele of this class demanded accuracy above aesthetics in the artistic reproduction of their ships.

Both portraits mentioned in the Detroit newspaper were originals from which the Calvert Lithograph Company had made a number of prints. During the second half of the nineteenth century much of the advertising of shipping lines was done in the form of posters and broadsides. The Calvert Company often produced such advertisements for shipping firms in the Detroit area. No doubt Norton had gained much respect as a painter of ships if the Calvert Company contracted him to do some of their work. Pictorial advertising continued throughout the nineteenth century and was a constant source of contracts for ship portrait artists along the Great Lakes.

Norton’s continued success as a vessel agent probably drew him away from painting. His regular job progressively occupied more of his time and in return lessened his need for a second income. Upon his death in 1901 no mention was made of the man’s ventures as an artist. Apparently success in later life had blotted out his earlier, less prosperous, artistic career.

Norton’s work was the most primitive of any artist reviewed in this period. A number of characteristics are traceable in each of his known paintings. Each drawing depicted only one ship. The view which Norton chose was the broadside. Every known instance also was portrayed from the port side. A view from this angle was best suited to what seemed to be Norton’s purpose. From the side a ship was most readily recognizable, if not from the name on the paddlebox, in the case of side-wheelers, then from the flags on the masts, as with schooners. Norton used only the barest essentials to place his ships in a realistic setting. Crew members, when present, were not much more than bumps on the deck. Atmosphere, sky and the effects of light were nonexistent in all of the artist’s work. Water was mechanically painted, representing nature only in color. Characteristic of his art was the “whisk broom effect”8 which the bow of Norton’s ships generated as they passed through the water.

A unique painting done by Norton was of the brigantine Sovereign of the Lakes. Artistically the work was typical of all of the artist’s portraits. Historically, however, it was of much greater importance. Norton’s painting was the only visual depiction of the Sovereign, of any type, which has survived to the present. Here is a fine example of nineteenth century ship portrait art in terms of its value to Great Lakes historians.

Norton usually painted on paper with water color and tempera. His failure to use high quality materials has caused fading and yellowing in those works which still exist. It was also unfortunate that Norton seldom dated his works. This makes it difficult to document any trends in his painting technique and style.

As should be the case with a man of Norton’s background, his paintings were generally factually accurate. The jobs of marine reporter and vessel agent led to a vast knowledge of the boats, which was reflected in his artistic work. As suggested above, an accurate factual reproduction of the ships he painted was probably the artist’s main concern. In this respect, he was successful.

Norton’s efforts were the first of their type in the final third of the nineteenth century. His limited ability allowed him only to set the ground work for later artists. One such man in the Lake Erie area represented an advancement in the art beyond the first steps completed by Norton.

Vincent Douglas Nickerson

A number of late nineteenth century vessel portraits in the Cleveland area were done by Vincent Douglas Nickerson. Born in 1844, the son of a vessel agent and captain, Nickerson was deeply involved in the shipping trade during his entire life. His marriage to Mary E. LaFrinier of the Cleveland shipbuilding family reinforced his involvement.9 Working in the 1870s and early 1880s at various jobs, Nickerson never seemed close to an artistic career. At one point he earned his livelihood as a bookkeeper for the LaFrinier firm. He also worked as a machinist and a laborer.10 No evidence of any formal or informal artistic training was present in his early years.

In 1882 Nickerson suddenly claimed his vocation to be that of an artist. In this capacity, from 1884 to 1887, he worked in a studio at the Central Tug office near the Main Street Bridge in Cleveland.11 This convenient location, on the waterfront, gave him ready access to the docks where his clients and subjects were available.

the JOHN B. LYON painted by Nickerson. Image from the collection of the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

It is obvious, however, that not all of Nickerson’s time during the 1880s was spent in his studio in Cleveland. Two existing portraits document his presence in the Superior-Duluth area with the American Steel Barge Company and Alexander McDougall. The earlier painting, dated 1882, pictured the Minnehaha and the Hiawatha. It was an interesting visual presentation of the origin of the revolutionary whaleback design. On the horizon was pictured the steamer Hiawatha towing the schooner Minnehaha. McDougall stated in his autobiography that while piloting such a tow he conceived the plan for his whaleback vessels.12 In the foreground of Nickerson’s work is a “pigboat” identified only by the number one on its flag. A second picture of a whaleback delineated by Nickerson speaks more of his draughting ability than his artistic skill. Painted in 1885, the work depicted the steel barge America which was never built. The picture resembled more a mechanical drawing than an artistic reproduction as it showed the ship both above and below the waterline. Its purpose, obviously, was more technical than artistic.

Nickerson’s work was apparently quite prolific. At the time of his death, in 1910, the Cleveland Plain Dealer stated that he had devoted the last thirty years of his life exclusively to painting.13 The fruits of this period must have been extensive. Only a small percentage of the paintings, however, have survived. These are now in the hands of marine museums and private owners. Unlike Norton and late Great Lakes ship portrayers, none of Nickerson’s works were known to have been reproduced as lithographs. His long career, however, seemed to signify approval of his work by his contemporaries. A number of repeated contracts with satisfied customers would have been required to support Nickerson for so long a period.

Further comment in Nickerson’s obituary mentioned that much of his work adorned the offices of marine companies. Ship masters and ship owners probably were a demanding group of customers for a marine artist such as Nickerson. They would have required accuracy instead of art in the reproduction of their life’s work. Their continuing business speaks highly of Nickerson’s ability to satisfy the wants of his patronage. Clients of this type also explain the format of many of Nickerson’s paintings. The majority were broadside views, as in the work of Norton. Once again this perspective was used to produce a ship portrait which was quickly identifiable. The painting of the William H. Barrett was a good example of a side-wheeler where the name was most prominent in the picture. Nickerson, however, did make at least two diversions from his usual composition. One, mentioned above, was the painting of the Hiawatha and the Minnehaha. Another was his 1884 painting of the schooner Thomas Gawn in a storm scene. The ship was painted looking down on the deck as it was raised at an angle by the waves of the storm. In this one exception, some attention was paid by the artist to atmosphere and water. In most other instances, however, the effects of light on water, and the ship itself, were completely absent from the artist’s work. Reflections on the water or in the rigging were always minimal. The pattern for all of Nickerson’s painting was attention to accuracy and detail in the ship alone, as was likely the wish of his clients.

Working with pastels and tempera, Nickerson was never able to break away from the overall look of an academic drawing. He made an initial effort toward painting a ship in relationship to real life situations and other influences, but was unable to follow through on his first step. The Cleveland painter still holds an important spot in documenting the history of lake shipping in his portrayal of the boats which took part in the commerce of the Lakes. Although he was somewhat lacking in artistry, Nickerson has left to modern observers a factually accurate and fascinating collection of paintings. The Lake Erie area which supported him also fostered the growth of a young artist of much promise in the field of ship portrait painting.

Howard Freeman Sprague

Howard Freeman Sprague, born in 1871, was by far the youngest of the artists considered in this period. By the time he began painting seriously, Norton and Nickerson had been working for at least fifteen years. Sprague never lived to enjoy a long career as did these other artists, but in his relatively short life he made a substantial contribution to ship portraiture on the Great Lakes. Sprague’s academic career began on a sour note. He first did poorly in public school in Huron, Ohio. He soon was sent to an art school, but failed to remain long in this setting.14  The young man’s short stay at art school, however, was unique among Great Lakes ship painters of the period. No other artist was exposed even temporarily to formal artistic training. Also, unlike Norton and Nickerson, who had close technical association with the boats, Sprague’s background was free from artistically limiting experiences. Some time in his late teens Sprague left the Lake Erie area to join Alexander McDougall in Superior-Duluth. In this locale he took a job as an illustrator for the American Steel Barge Company.15 From this time on, little evidence remains of Sprague’s personal or professional activities. His paintings were almost the only record of his life’s work.

Sprague followed no specific pattern in his art. His short career was not divided into definite periods. He was not, however, in the singular mold of Norton or Nickerson. His paintings ranged artistically from very good to mediocre. Factually, all of Sprague’s paintings ware accurately drawn with much attention to detail. In this respect he closely compared to his contemporaries. It was strange that a man of Sprague’s background so rapidly fell into the established pattern of painting Great Lakes ships. He seemed to have the initial qualifications for rising above the photographic reproduction mold of his contemporaries. The job market, however, was probably the major reason for Sprague’s failure to alter the traditional format of ship portraiture on the Great Lakes. Contracts for painting ships were mostly concerned with pragmatic ends. Advertisements needed identifiable ships, not works of art. A ship owner who commissioned a painting for his home or office was concerned with his ship, not the art of painting ships.

The QUEEN CITY painted by Sprague. Image from the collection of the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

Exemplary of one facet of Sprague’s work was his painting of the steamer Mohawk. Done for publication in Around the Lakes in 1894,16 the Mohawk was comparable to the work done by Nickerson. The ship itself was almost the only concern of the artist. In this side view, sky and water were added as necessary factors without much attention given to them. The Mohawk painting provided exactly what Sprague’s clients in this instance must have wanted; a simple factual painting, for advertisement purposes, of one of their boats. A second aspect of Sprague’s work was his nighttime depictions. These often were used in magazines. A good example of this group was Sprague’s painting of the City of Alpena and City of Detroit passing at night. Along with the usual factual accuracy and attention to detail, this work required handling the effect of spotlights on the water. The painting was an interesting study, as every detail of reflection was carefully worked out and displayed. Also of this group were a number of paintings which Sprague did for the St. Nicholas Magazine. These, however, were not ship portraits but mostly scenes from along the shores of the Lakes.

Two of Sprague’s works were particularly unique. The first of these was his oil painting of the whaleback passenger steamer Christopher Columbus. Probably painted about 1894, the portrait, in style and composition, was much like many of Sprague’s other works. It was a simple side view with no back ground or additional surroundings. The most unique facet of the painting was its physical size. At a time when most Great Lakes ship portraits were about thirty by fourty inches, the Columbus was six feet, three inches by three feet, two inches. The painting might have been a reflection of the relative importance of the ship in the passenger trade on the Lakes. Working around the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the Christopher Columbus carried a larger number of passengers than any other ship in the history of the Great Lakes.

A second unique painting done by Sprague was of the La Grande Duchesse. Once again the painting was not singled out by the artist’s use of a new technique or different perspective. In this instance, the notability of the painting came from the subject itself. The La Grande Duchesse was a salt water boat. It was the only instance, during the period considered, of a Great Lakes artist painting a ship on the east coast. Although some east coast painters had been commissioned to do work on the Lakes, only Sprague reversed the trend. The Duchesse was probably painted about 1898, shortly after Sprague had left the Great Lakes area.

Sprague’s career, unfortunately, was cut short. In 1899, after a trip to Puerto Rico as a marine illustrator for a New York magazine, he died of tuberculosis in New York City at the age of 28.17 Sprague had brought a new degree of professionalism to the painting of Great Lakes ship portraits. His efforts in this direction were surpassed by only one man.

Seth Arca Whipple

Perhaps the most artistically gifted of his class, much of Seth Arca Whipple’s talent was wasted in the last years of his life. Born in 1855 near New Baltimore, Michigan, Whipple, like Norton and Sprague, began his art career at an early age. The first evidence of his painting was found in 1876. In this year the M. S. Smith and Company of Detroit had on display in its window a Whipple painting of the steamer Northwest.19 In the latter third of the nineteenth century, advertising by ship lines became an increasing part of the Great Lakes scene. One type of advertisement used by boat owners, as mentioned above, was posters and broadsides. Another device employed to increase business was the placement of attractive vessel portraits in the windows of prominent retail stores. Whipple’s Northwest was such a painting. The portrait was representative of the work done by the artist in the 1870s. Exact drawing and scaling made the painting an accurate factual presentation of the vessel. The ship, however, lacked any relationship to its surroundings. Like much of Nickerson’s work, it was a broadside view in which the vessel was not shown in a realistic setting. The sky and water were painted mechanically, and there was no evidence of the effect of sunlight in the scene. Contemporary criticism was limited at this point in Whipple’s career. The only comment on the Northwest was that it was a decidedly creditable production for a man only eighteen years old.

In Whipple’s paintings of the 1880s much of his earlier primitiveness disappeared. His work no longer included only ship portraits but Whipple now was able to sell other types of paintings for profit. In addition to boats, he began painting landscapes, seascapes and pictures of dogs.20   During the decade his ship portraits vastly improved. The ships were no longer portrayed only from the side, as some were seen from the stern and at quarter views. Whipple’s painting of the schooner John Wesley was a fine example of his best work. The angle of the ship was handled well and presented in proper perspective. The land to the right of the ship balanced the composition of the picture. Sensitivity to the effects of sunlight was seen in the sky, the water, and, to a certain extent, in the sails. This handling of the effects of light, although it does not match that of the luminists who painted clipper ships on the east coast, was definitely a step forward in the art of painting Great Lakes vessels.

Tug CHAMPION under tow painted by Whipple. Image from the collection of the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

During the 1880s, the period of Whipple’s best work, some criticism of his style was voiced. Complaint was made by an art magazine that his painting contained too much attention to meticulous detail.21 Grounds for this comment were visible in all of the work Whipple did at this time. Three conditions accounted for this trait. The first was his background along the Detroit River. Here he learned the ships which he painted. Whipple knew what distinguished one boat from another and what function each mechanism had on the ship. Violation or misrepresentation of the factual aspects of one of the vessels, for the sake of art, would have been unthinkable. Another facet of the artist’s background was a long career as a professional sailor. Beginning in 1885, Whipple held a ship master’s license for fourteen years.22 Such a rank was a high recommendation for a painter’s ability to reproduce a factually accurate ship portrait. A deep understanding of the technical aspects of sailing and boats was required of a captain. Whipple was the only individual, of the artists under consideration, with much sailing know-how and the attendant technical knowledge of ships. A third aspect of Whipple’s career which called for strict attention to detail also influenced his painting. As a designer with the Bradwell Photo Company in 1878-79,23 Whipple learned an acute appreciation for detail accuracy. Photo engraving was an exacting job which required the type of factual reproduction which this engraver displayed in his paintings.

An interesting aspect of Whipple’s accent on detail in this period was the way in which he painted his sailors. Unlike those of Norton and Nickerson, Whipple’s figures were detailed and in the proper perspective. They were also in more natural poses, as in the case of the sailor on the rigging of the John Wesley. 

In 1890 Whipple left Detroit for Bay City, Michigan. There he assumed a new job with the Davidson Ship Yard where he supervised the draughting department.24 After this venture, Whipple’s painting began a sharp decline in artistic beauty. A combination of further draughting experience and more notoriety seemed to combine to bring about this effect. The draughting experience appeared to lead to a more refined type of paintings in the 1870s.

Once again most of Whipple’s work was more like an academic drawing than a work of art. The change was evident in his painting of the side-wheeler Frank E. Kirby. In this work the artist presented a side view with little sensitivity to light and atmosphere. Whipple in the 1890s was also filling more contracts. As with the Frank E. Kirby, firms such as the D. & C. Line were building vessels which they wanted to advertise. Paintings for this purpose required and wanted little artistic content, but merely needed qualities readily reproduceable. An increase in the number of works Whipple produced must have shortened the length of time he could spend on each individual piece. He therefore had to sacrifice many of the good qualities of his 1880s portraits for the sake of a larger output. Less time was spent on background, composition and achieving the proper perspective. What little time was available had to be used on the ship itself. Any slighting of the boat for artistic purposes was probably frowned upon by ship portrait patrons.

One area Whipple entered, along with Sprague, was illustrating for magazines. In many of these works he depicted night scenes on the Lakes. Here was a new twist to ship portraiture with many possibilities. Whipple only scratched the surface in this respect, but he did help make an important first step. The night scenes were not a departure from the main purpose of Great Lakes ship painting for the period considered. Whipple’s work was instead a new means of achieving an old end. Paintings such as the steamer City of Mackinac were still concerned primarily with the identification of a specific ship. They did require, however, the skillful handling of the amount of light that was available. In most cases this problem was minimized by limiting light sources in the painting to spotlights and cabin lights on board the ships.

Painting mostly in oils, many of Whipple’s works have survived to the present day. They make it possible to study his career in great depth. By scrutinizing these paintings, certain conclusions may be drawn about this final artist’s place among nineteenth century Great Lakes ship portrait painters. At the time of his death in 1901, Whipple had become well known around the Lakes. His work in the 1890s brought about his present-day recognition, but his true contribution to the art of painting Great Lakes ships was made in the earlier years of his career.24

Preceding Whipple in death was Sprague, in 1899. Norton died in 1901 and Nickerson in 1910. The aesthetic value of the work of these men is undetermined at present. Regardless of future judgments passed by art critics, however, the contribution which they made to Great Lakes history was definitely an extensive one. For the marine enthusiast, these four men did produce a colorful, informative, and intriguing portfolio of ship portraits which pictured an exciting era in the history of the Great Lakes.




Abbreviations used in repository listings:

Detroit—Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan

Dossin—Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan

Fairport—Fairport Harbor Museum, Fairport Harbor, Ohio

Ford—Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan

Great Lakes—Great Lakes Historical Society Museum, Vermilion, Ohio Mariners’—Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia

Milan—Milan Historical Museum, Milan, Ohio


Name of Vessel Repository

Benton Dossin

Hyphen Milan

P. Minch Dossin

Neptune Dossin

R.N. Rice Detroit

Sovereign of the Lakes Mariners’

Stalker Milan

Winona Milan


American (1882) Mariners’

American (1884) Mariners’

Zack Chandler (1882) Great Lakes

Zack Chandler (1883) Great Lakes

Columbia Milan

Thomas Gawn Great Lakes

Germanic Great Lakes

S. Hubbell Great Lakes

John B. Lyon Great Lakes

Henry C. Richards Great Lakes

Rube Richards Great Lakes

J. Tilden Great Lakes

M. Wilson Great Lakes

Annie Ash 


F. Bielman (1893)

F. Bielman (n.d.)

City of Alpena and City of Detroit 

Christopher Columbus 

City of Buffalo 

La Grande Duchesse 



John V. Moran 


Queen City 


H. Wade 




City of Alpena I 

City of Detroit II 

City of Mackinac (1893) 

City of Mackinac (1896) 

Reuben Dowd 

Chas. Kellogg 

Frank E. Kirby 

U.S. S. Michigan 


A. Parker 

State of Michigan 



John Wesley 





Great Lakes Mariners’




Great Lakes Great Lakes Dossin


















Listed below are additional ship portraits not housed in museums and believed to have been painted by the four artists discussed in this paper. Some are verifiable works in the hands of private collectors. Many others, however, are only found as photographs and often without signatures. The origin of such paintings has been assigned only by artistic technique. Any information readers may have concerning these paintings, or others not listed here, would be deeply appreciated. Facts such as date of the painting, artistic medium, size, location, and other pertinent information would be very useful in completing this list and ultimately judging the artistic and historic value of the work of these artists. Readers are encouraged to send such information to the Northwest Ohio—Great Lakes Research Center, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, 43403. At the Center, a master list is being compiled with all pertinent information. The list will be made available to future researchers upon request.

“Ship portraits,” as described in this study, are paintings which have no more than two ships prominent in the work. This limitation, however, does not apply to the master list being compiled in Bowling Green, and information on composite pictures will also be welcomed.


Amaranth Mineral Rock 

Jane Bell Mocking Bird 

George E. Brockway Morning Star 

B. Castle New London 

Asa Childs Northern Light 

Cleveland Oak Leaf 

Jay Cooke Philo Parsons 

Erastus Corning E. M. Peck 

Dove Pewabic 

James F. Joy Tanner 

Lac La Belle Verona

U. Masters Grace Whitney 

General McClellan O. Wilcox 


P. Barkalow Egyptian 

Wm. H. Barrett Onoko 

Corona John M. Osborn 


Centurion Samuel Mitchell 

Chicora Mohawk 

Choctaw Northland 

Christopher Columbus North West 

City of Alpena II Olive Jeanette 

City of Detroit and Thomas W. Palmer 

City of Cleveland Pontiac 

John C. Fitzpatrick Rappahannock 

Florence B. Sainte Marie 

Wm. H. Gratwick Gov. Smith 

Harlem Sweepstakes 

Helena Tuscarora 

Manitou Virginia 

Matoa Mabel Wilson 

Wm. H. Wolf 


Boscobel Hudson 

City of Cleveland I Princess 

Columbian Gov. Smith

  1. Paul Leake, History of Detroit, Chronicle of its Progress, its Industries, its Institutions, and the People of the Fair City of the Straits (Chicago and New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1912), III, p. 938-939.
  2. Charles F. Clark, Annual Directory of the Inhabitants, Incorporated Companies, Business Firms, & etc. of the City of Detroit, for 1863-64 (Detroit: Charles F. Clark, 1864), p. 194.
  3. Leake, History of Detroit, p. 938. 
  4. Annual Directory of the Inhabitants, Business Firms, Incorporated Companies, Etc., of Detroit (Detroit: J. W. Weeks and Co., 1873), p. 424.
  5. Detroit Free Press, June 4, 1875, p. 1.
  6. Detroit Daily Post, June 4, 1875, p. 4.
  7. Ibid.,
  8. Phrase coined by Rev. Edward J. Dowling, S. J., of the University of Detroit.
  9. Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 15, 1910, p. 8.
  10. Cleveland City Directories for 1874, 1880, and 1881. At the time of Norton’s death, he was often referred to as a captain. No evidence of his sailing career, however, could be found.
  11. Cleveland City Directories for 1882, 1884, 1885, 1886, and 1887.
  12. Janet Coe Sanborn, (ed.), The Autobiography of Captain Alexander McDougall (Cleveland: The Great Lakes Historical Society, 1968), p. 32.
  13. Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 15, 1910, p. 8.
  14. John Rhinemiller, “Letter to the Editor,” Inland Seas, XIV (Spring 1958), p. 72.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Around the Lakes (Detroit: Detroit Dry Dock Co., 1894), p. 131.
  17. “Death of Howard Sprague,” Erie County Reporter, (Huron, Ohio), May 18, 1899, p. 8.
  18. Detroit Free Press, Oct. 11, 1901, p. 5.
  19. Ibid., May 24,-1876, p. 1.
  20. Ibid., April 17, 1879, p. 1.
  21. The Dilettant, May, 1885, p. 24.
  22. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Board of Supervising Inspectors of Steam Vessels held at Washington, D. C., 1884-1892. List of Masters, Mates, Pilots, and Engineers of Merchant Steam Vessels, 1895-1898. 
  23. Detroit City Directory for 1878-79 (Detroit: J. W. Weeks and Co., 1878), p. 753.
  24. Detroit Free Press, Feb. 2, 1890, p. 18.
  25. Robert E. Lee, (ed.), “Seth Arca Whipple, Lakes Marine Artist, 1855-1901,” supplement to Telescope (Detroit, 1973, n.p.). This detailed report of the life and work of Whipple should be consulted by those interested in his paintings.


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About the Author: The author, a resident of Hamilton, Ohio, before attending Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, acquired his master’s degree in history, on graduation in December 1973. The project presented here was first under taken at the suggestion of Dr. Richard J Wright, Director of the Northwest Ohio—Great Lakes Research Center at the University, under whom Mr. Sibert worked as a Graduate Assistant. Mr. Sibert is very interested in hearing from others who may have additional information to add to this introductory study of Great Lakes ship paintings. His paper was begun through research for an American Art course under the late Mrs. Barbara Anderson of the Toledo Museum of Art. 

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Rescue in ’86 – Spring 1974

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

By Capt. Adrian L. Lonsdale

The expression “Great Lakes sailor” I soften used by “salties” in disdain for men who they feel are not competent to sail the rough seas of the ocean. Little do these old salts realize that some of the fiercest storms in America’s history have occurred over the Great Lakes. One such storm began howling out of the northeast over Lake Superior on November 16, 1886. Before it was over, there were thirty shipwrecks reported with damage amounting to millions. More than forty lives were lost.

Tug GILLETTE. Image from Alpena Public Library.

By the 18th, at Marquette, Michigan, Captain John Frink, of the tug Gillette, had already braved the storm’s fury to save one schooner from destruction and rescue the crew of another which was smashed to pieces against the docks. Through the heavy veil of snow, the Lake looked like a blanket of white waste. The breakwater lay stripped of her planking under a storm of spray forty feet high. Water submerged the rolling mill dock, filling the harbor with lumber, shingles, and lathing. Two spectral shapes appeared intermittently six miles to the east. Townspeople began filling the piers as news spread that two ships were aground.

At 11:00 A.M. a group of hardier souls put a yawl boat on a wagon and hauled it toward the wrecks. They found the steamship Robert Wallace, and her consort, the four-masted schooner David Wallace, aground 400 yards offshore near the Chocolay River.

The two vessels from Lorain, Ohio, were bound for Buffalo, New York, from Duluth, Minnesota, with cargoes of wheat. They had lost their bearings in near zero visibility the night before and were driven aground by the wind at 1:00 A. M.. The Robert Wallace had a crew of fifteen, the David Wallace, nine.

The Robert Wallace hit first. Shocks of immense seas broke over the aftercabin. Water poured down the companionways into the engineroom. Huge clouds of steam poured out as the boilers were deluged by icy cold water. The schooner, which was being towed, careened crazily toward the steam vessel’s stern. At the last minute the schooner veered to the side, just missing the vessel ahead. She grounded. A wave lifted her bow: she swung off and headed for shore.

“Cut the tow line—cut the tow line!” the captain of the Robert Wallace screamed.

The crew chopped the line just in time to prevent dragging the steam vessel around into the troughs. The crew of the Robert Wallace fled forward to the captain’s cabin. The seas began to demolish the ship’s stern, and surges swept the deck from stern to stem. The aftercabin crumbled into pieces and washed over the side!

In an effort to wake someone on shore, the sailors blew the steam whistle continuously for as long as the steam lasted. Although loud, the sound couldn’t be heard above the deafening wind on the neighboring schooner. By morning the hulls of the two ships sagged so badly that they looked as if they would break in two.

The ROBERT & DAVID WALLACE WRECKED near the shore of the Pointe aux Barques Lifeboat Station. Image from Alpena Public Library.

To the men with the yawl, the steamer looked like a complete ruin. Her deck was nearly level with the water: white streaks of water flew completely over it. Her crew peered out of ports in the wheelhouse and the captain’s cabin. The schooner looked better. She lay well imbedded in the sand nearer the beach. Less water poured over her and she was only damaged a little forward.

Five men manned the yawl and headed out into the plunging breakers. They towed a line held by comrades on the beach. The wind and waves spun them about and hurled the small craft back onto the beach. Undaunted, they bailed out the boat and launched again into the fury of the storm.

This time they passed through the furrows of water breaking along the shore, half the distance to the ships. A huge sea crashed down upon them filling the boat to the gunnels. It was impossible to continue—they signalled their mates on shore to haul them back. They concluded that a boat rescue was impossible. The Gillette attempted to steam to the wrecks but couldn’t get near enough.

The throng on the beach continued to swell. By 1:00 P.M. most of the townspeople were there. Some walked, others arrived in a stream of horses and buggies. The old hands milled around discussing how the sailors off-shore could be rescued. The conversation ran something like this:

“I remember when I was a kid in Frankfort in ‘78’. A ship was wrecked in a storm there. The men from the Pointe aux Barques Lifeboat Station came down to the beach with a small cannon. They fired a line out to the ship and brought the men ashore that way. ” “Yea, but we haven’t got a gun.”

“How about the old mortar stowed down at the powder mill. Why can’t we use it?” “Why not? let’s get it!”

Pointe aux Barques Lifeboat Station. Image from Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy.

A team of men left to bring back the old gun which had not been fired for years. Others set out again in a small skiff for the ships. Their efforts were thwarted by a powerful wind-driven current running along the shore. It pushed them down the beach faster than they could row.

Darkness approached. The crowd shuffled about restlessly waiting for the arrival of the old mortar—their only hope to establish communications with the stricken ships.

When the men arrived at the powder mill they found that the old gun had been spiked. It was extremely heavy-designed to fire a 24-pound ball. They tugged and hauled it up on a cart and pulled it off to a distant iron shop. There the bore was drilled out.

On the beach the crowds busied themselves coiling lines to get them just right to pay out to the ships after the missile from the mortar was fired. They built huge bonfires to keep warm and to show the sailors on the ships that they had not been abandoned. Through the swirl of snow the sailors could see human outlines of all shapes and sizes shuffling past the flare of the flames.

At 6:00 P. M., what they had all been waiting for arrived. The old piece of ordnance was received with a resounding cheer! Now the action would begin. The antiquated gun was quickly hauled into position. A line was attached to the 24-pound shot. Everyone stood back except one man who lit the fuze. Then there was a sickly “bloop.” The ball rolled out of the muzzle and landed in the water fifty feet away!

“Here, let an artillery man show you how to do that,” one account states, as a grisly-looking veteran of the civil war stepped up to the gun. “Haul that ball back here,” he barked. His orders were dutifully obeyed.

He threw several handfuls of black powder in the barrel of the gun: he tamped the powder down. He threw in some more. He tamped again. He repeated the process several times. The ball was shoved in and the fuze set.

“Okay, stand back everybody! Come on, get way back,” he shouted. The spectators, with their fingers in their ears, looked on in admiration. They were rewarded with an ear-shattering, “V-A-R-O-O-M!” The gun flew asunder and scattered over the beach in a hundred pieces! Luckily no one was hurt. The hero of the moment before slinked off into the darkness.

Even the sailors on the ships heard the explosion, muffled by the roar of the wind. They did not know what was happening, but their spirits lifted. At least the people on the beach were doing something.

Luckily, Captain John Frink of the Gillette had the foresight earlier in the day to send a telegram to the Ship Canal Lifeboat Station near Houghton, 110 miles away. The message was taken by the tug James W. Croze from Houghton, six miles down the canal to Albert Ocha, captain of the station. He received it at 4:00 P.M. and ordered his men into action. They quickly got the lifeboat, the beach cart, the Lyle gun and a myriad of other equipment on board the tug which headed back to Houghton.

In Houghton, a fuming engine coupled to a passenger car and two flatcars awaited them. It had been especially made up by the managers of the railroad. Volunteers poured in from the town to help transfer the lifesavers’ equipment to the train. With so many willing hands, the job was completed in a few minutes. The lifeboat station crew were bundled into the passenger car. The engine puffed and clanked off into the darkness amidst cheers of onlookers. It was 7:45 P. M.. The firemen shovelled in coal furiously and the speed increased until the engine’s boiler was straining at the seams. They plunged pellmell into the gale over tracks clogged with snow.

Eventually, the engineer had his small train going nearly 60 miles an hour. The rattle and roar of the wheels was muffled by the snow burying the tracks. Huge rolls of smoke volleyed from the funnel and were torn to pieces by the wind. The lights of the train beamed out into a livid whirlwind of sleet and snow. In the dimly-lighted car, the surfmen lolled about, seeming oblivious to the ordeal that faced them.

With several stops, the train covered the 110 miles in record time. They arrived at Marquette at 11:30 P.M. The beach crowd was at the train station awaiting the next development. They watched the white snorting train pull into the station. The lifeboatmen in storm clothes poured out of the passenger car. They were excited and eager to go.

During a train stop at Michigamme, Ocha had telegraphed Frink to have teams of horses ready to haul the boat and beach cart from the train to the Lake. Frink had everything waiting. In addition, Frink had visited the town merchants and collected generous contributions of bread, meat, coffee, butter, and cheese in order to feed any survivors brought ashore.

The lifesaving apparatus was loaded onto wagons and sleighs. The entourage began working its way along the lakeshore toward the wrecks. The beach was a corduroy of driftwood and traveling was hard and slow. They arrived opposite the wrecks at 1:00 A. M., the morning of the 19th. Hardly any of the townsfolk had left and bonfires still lighted the wild scene. The gale blew furiously, but the snow had stopped.

Sketch of a Lyle Gun.

When the boat was lifted off the carriage, it was discovered that the rudder had been seriously damaged. Ocha’s decision had been made for him. He would have to use the lines to make the rescue. The Lyle gun was put in place and a shot line fired with a loud, “B-O-O-M!” The slender shot line landed on the steamer amidships, but the men on board would not venture from the wheelhouse to look for the line swirling around on the wave-swept deck.

Captain Ocha concluded that the boat would have to be used. By 2:00 A.M. temporary repairs had been made to the rudder and the first launch was made. There were two reefs alive with boiling surf to cross. By the time the boat crossed the first reef, it had shipped three seas. Two of the crew bailed furiously to keep them afloat. The iron strapping on the rudder bent and the timber split. Ocha ordered the oarsmen to turn the boat about and head for shore.

Carpenters from the town went to work on the rudder. Ocha tried another shot with the Lyle gun. But still the shipwrecked crew would not venture out of the cabin to retrieve the line.

By daybreak the rudder had been fixed again and the boat was launched. After a long hard pull, with some of the crew bailing all the way, the lifeboat came alongside the steam vessel. She was a weird spectacle—the seas had encased her in a shell of ice. The lifeboat was also growing its own crust. Ocha decided that it would be prudent to take only nine of the fifteen sailors aboard. Regaining the shore was relatively easy compared to the trip out.

The second trip involved another constant battle with the tumbling walls of water. The tiny craft shipped a succession of seas, each filling it to the gunnels. But they managed to bring in the remaining six men from the Robert Wallace safely.

They next put out for the David Wallace to retrieve her crew of nine. It was now 7:00 A. M.. The wind had subsided somewhat, but the seas were tremendous; the lifesaving crew were worn out. Again and again the boat was flooded and driven astern. On the second reef they were nearly thrown end over end. The rudder split again and became useless. Ocha steered by giving appropriate orders to the crew. Water froze on their clothing and thickened into armor-like sheathing. But their indomitable efforts paid off. They arrived at the schooner at 8:00 A.M. and returned with the remaining nine sailors. The lifesavers were in worse condition than the men they rescued. They were rushed to the bonfires and fed hot coffee and food.

Although their cargoes were lost, both of the wrecked vessels were later salvaged. And so ended, for some “Great Lakes sailors,” a now-insignificant event in our history.

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About the Author: Capt. Adrian L. Lonsdale, born in Port Angeles, Washington, is a third generation Coast Guardsman. A graduate of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, in 1950, he has commanded cutters General Greene and Vigilant, both of which patrolled fisheries and provided search and rescue services of the New England coast. He served as a task force commander with the U. S. Navy in Vietnam and has been commanding officer of the icebreaker Southwind based at Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Captain Lonsdale is co-author of Guide to Sunken Ships in American Waters, and of Voyager Beware, and has written articles and stories for several national magazines. He is also a contributing author to Handbook of Ocean and Underwater Engineering. 

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Early Lake Captains, Revenue Cutters, and Politics – Winter 1973

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

By Truman R. Strobridge

A unique, fascinating and little known (if not unknown) facet of Great Lakes history is the intertwining of the careers of two early lake captains—Daniel Dobbins and Gilbert Knapp. Both left their mark on the region’s, and even on the nation’s, history, by their bold decisive actions. In many ways they were similar, but their differences in temperament and political leanings were destined to bring them to loggerheads and leave them rivals for the command of the revenue cutter on Lake Erie.

Portrait of Daniel Dobbins. Image from Wikipedia.

Daniel Dobbins, first of the two to breath the fresh, cool breeze off Lake Erie and feast his eyes upon the inland seas, was born on July 5, 1776. Reared in the pioneer environment of Lewiston, Pennsylvania, he visited Erie, then merely a tiny hamlet of four log cabins with all the rest—as he described it—merely “wild, gloomy forest; and these few hardy pioneers of the woods, with the Indians, disputed their right to the soil, with the bear, the wolf and the panther,” in the company of some surveyers on July 1, 1796.1 The lure of the almost primeval Lake must have been overwhelming to the young landlubber. He soon set about learning the skills of a sailor and, for the rest of his life, would use Erie as his home port.

Four short years later, Daniel Dobbins had proved himself to be one of the best navigators upon the Lake. Becoming the master of his own merchant vessel took only three more years. Between the years of 1803 and 1812, he sailed to the far reaches of both Lake Erie and Lake Huron, mostly carrying salt, whiskey, fur, and other home and food products. The merchant ships he commanded during this period were the Harlequin, Good Intent, Ranger, General Wilkinson, and Salina. 

The outbreak of hostilities in the War of 1812 caught Dobbins off guard aboard his fur-laden Salina at Mackinac. Permitted by the victorious British commander to use his ship to transport the paroled American prisoners back to friendly lines, he shortly thereafter found himself a prisoner again, when Detroit fell. The story of his subsequent adventures as an escaped prisoner with a price on his scalp, his perilous flight to freedom, his trip to Washington, his appointment as a sailing master in the U.S. Navy following a special Cabinet meeting, and his successes in becoming the organizer, initial superintendent, and general “troubleshooter” for the construction of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous fleet on Lake Erie, as well as his other valuable services during the war, have been told before in both great length and detail.2Having “served under all the Commanders on the upper Lakes until after the close of the war,” he continued in the U.S. Navy until ordered to sea in 1826, at which time, he preferred to resign his commission and, as he later explained, “was afterwards actively engaged in the construction of Harbours on the Lakes.”3

In sharp contrast to the pioneer upbringing of Daniel Dobbins, Gilbert Knapp was born on December 3, 1798, and reared in Chatham on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, an area already long past its own frontier days. Here, he enjoyed an education in the common schools, specializing in navigation.4

In common with the frontiersman Dobbin, however, the pull of the sea and ships proved equally strong upon young Gilbert. He shipped out on a merchant vessel at the age of fifteen. No sooner had the War

Portrait of Gilbert Knapp. Image from Wikipedia.

of 1812 broken out, than he was made a master’s mate on the Leo, a Federal-chartered privateer given the mission of carrying dispatches to France. Several times during the three voyages the Leo made during the war, Knapp experienced the shot and shell of engagements with British men-of-war.

Following the signing of the peace treaty, Knapp, aided considerably through influence of naval officers he had befriended, entered the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, as the U.S. Coast Guard was then known. (Although this naval service was also referred to as the U.S. Revenue Service or U.S. Revenue Marine Service at different times—and sometimes the same time—during the period covered in this article, the name “U.S. Revenue Cutter Service” will be used throughout, primarily for the sake of consistency and ease of comprehension.)

On May 9, 1819, following a two-year training period, Gilbert Knapp was commissioned as the Captain of the Revenue Cutter A. J. Dallas —home port Detroit, Michigan. Ten months later, he and his cutter were transferred to Mackinac Island, Michigan. His orders were “to stop the illicit traffic between British fur-traders and the Indians,” which was giving the famous fur trader, John Jacob Astor, some headaches, primarily in his pocketbook!5

Accordingly, when Henry R. Schoolcraft made his notable trip in 1820, he found Captain Knapp and his cutter on station at Mackinac Island. In fact, on June 8, Captain Knapp gave him and part of his party a lift on the revenue cutter to and from the St. Martin’s Islands, where gypsum was reported to be found.6 And, six years later, Knapp tendered the same hospitality to the Indian agent Thomas McKenney, who had just finished negotiating a treaty with the Chippewas at Fond du Lac on Lake Michigan, giving McKenney an enjoyable trip down Lake Huron and back to Lake Erie aboard the revenue cutter.7

Captain Knapp’s first ten years commanding a revenue cutter on the Great Lakes passed smoothly. There was only one revenue cutter on the inland seas, and he commanded it. Since no uncomplimentary remarks about his performance have survived, he must have performed his assigned tasks in a satisfactory fashion, for he did earn a “commendation from John Jacob Astor for the efficient service rendered” in breaking up the illegal traffic in furs between the Indians and the British.8

The Presidential Election of 1828, unfortunately, would bring about his downfall and initiate a bitter rivalry with Captain Dobbins. The prospects of having the “rough-hewed” frontiersman, General Andrew Jackson, at the helm in Washington, where his seemingly radical views would enjoy great power, apparently enraged Captain Knapp. In any event, once in office, the new Jacksonian administration accused Captain Knapp of having said in the presence of a large assembly of Erie citizens on election day, “I consider General Jackson a cut-throat and murderer, and his wife a strumpet, and if he would be elected I never will hold an appointment under him. ”9 One eyewitness remembered the words “d-d whore” instead of “strumpet” and insisted in later years that his “recollection of the words is distinct and perfect.” 10 This language and conduct, if true, certainly was unbecoming of a gentleman and officer, even more so in those days than now.

Offended supporters of General Jackson reacted quickly. The Democratic Corresponding Committee of Erie County drew up a detailed statement of the facts surrounding Knapp’s indiscretion, affixed their signatures, and dispatched it posthaste to the Hermitage home of their candidate. Despite this speed, the newly elected President had already taken his inaugural oath, before his private secretary, a Major Donnelson, discovered the existence of this hastily drawn document.

Retribution, nevertheless, was as swift as bureaucratic machinery could move. When the matter was brought to his attention, Secretary of the Treasury Samuel D. Ingham “Immediately dismissed Captain Knapp from the Service”11 and appointed Daniel Dobbins a “Captain of a Cutter in the service of the United States, for the protection of the revenue,” on April 4, 1829.12 Thus, the paths and careers of these two early lake captains intersected in a most dramatic fashion. And they were destined to remain intertwined and embittered for many more years.

Captain Dobbins’ next dozen years were no doubt pleasant ones. Once again, he wore the naval uniform, commanded his own ship, and even possessed the prestige of being the senior officer of his Service on the Great Lakes. As always, he performed his assigned duties faithfully and competently. He even stepped back into the history books again through the participation of his cutter and crew during the Canadian Insurrection of 1838.13

During these same years, ex-Captain Gilbert Knapp, late of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, would also carve a niche for himself in the history books. First, however, he had to strip off his nice uniform and pursue some kind of civilian livelihood until his ship came in.

His ship in reality was wilderness land ideally suited for residential land use. Because of the many years spent aboard revenue cutters cruising the Great Lakes, Knapp

. . had become familiar with all their ports and, noting the rapidity with which the northwest was being settled, he decided to attempt to profit by developing a town site and studied various locations which appeared to possess natural advantages for this purpose. In 1828 he put ashore at the point where the Root River empties into Lake Michigan and being much impressed with the possibility of a harbor there as well as with the excellence of the soil of the region, formed the decision to locate there.14

Accordingly, upon his departure from the Service, he “settled in one of the lake ports of western New York, where he entered the commission and forwarding business.”15 Here, he was content to bide his time until the Federal Government threw open to settlement the land he had selected.

Finally, in 1833, an Indian Treaty was signed. It opened up the unsettled land north of the Illinois state line for surveying, and provided for the evacuation of the Indians by 1836. This was the go-ahead signal. Selling his business and property, Knapp immediately headed west. Following another quick trip—this time overland and facilitated by Indian guides-to where the Root River empties into Lake Michigan to confirm his earlier findings, he returned to Chicago to form a partnership for developing the townsite.

In November 1834, Knapp again was back at the Root River mouth. Here he built a log cabin, thus establishing his preemptor’s claim. The following year he plotted the land into lots for a townsite that was named Port Gilbert in his honor. 16 The city he founded, however, bore his name only until the establish ment of a post office there a few years later. Today it is called Racine, Wisconsin. Gilbert Knapp even served as a legislator for the new Territory of Wisconsin, starting with the Rump Council of 1836 and lasting two years.

Meanwhile, events in Washington, such as a fire in the Treasury Buildings that destroyed many priceless records—including Captain Knapp’s personal records containing the damaging allegations against him—and a recent election bringing a new president and party to power, resulted in his return to the Revenue Cutter Service. As a friend of Captain Dobbins would later complain, the following sequence of events ensued:

Immediately after the inauguration of Pres. Harrison, Knapp, taking advantage of the loss of the evidence on which he had been dismissed (and the death of the principal witnesses) succeeded in impressing the administration with a belief that he was a victim of persecution for his political opinions merely, and by this means procured the removal of Dobbins, without any charge of misconduct or opportunity for a hearing—and his own reappointment. 17

In any event, President William Henry Harrison signed the commission of Gilbert Knapp as a “Captain of a Cutter in the service of the United States, for the protection of the revenue,” on March 15, 1841.18 The next day Captain Dobbins received a brief note from Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Ewing, stating that the “President has this day revoked your commission as Captain in the Revenue Cutter Service. Your relation to the public as such will, therefore, cease and be dissolved.”19

Despite Dobbins’ protests at such cavalier treatment—merely being eased out of the Service to make room for Captain Knapp—no receptive ears in high places could be found until the political party in the White House had changed once again. When this happened, President James K. Polk revoked Captain Knapp’s commission and reinstated Dobbins as a captain on May 13, 1845. In the end, Dobbins’ career in the Service terminated upon General Zachary Taylor’s ascendancy to the Presidency, his dismissal once again, and the commissioning of Gilbert Knapp as a captain on May 9, 1849.20

As late as March 7, 1853, political friends of Dobbins were still pushing in Washington for his reinstatement. Despite the Captain’s advanced years, they argued, “his naturally strong physical energy is unimpaired, and much more vigorous than that of most young persons. “21

These pleas fell upon deaf ears, however. Daniel Dobbins, who had worn the uniform of America’s naval services for thirty-seven years, was destined to remain a civilian. He passed away in his beloved Erie on February 29, 1856. Today, only the Dobbins Islands off Green Bay, Wisconsin—named after him for sailing the first vessel other than a canoe into that port—remain a physical memory to his name.22

Captain Knapp’s career in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, meanwhile, had also been terminated. On April 14, 1853, his commission was revoked, when the Service had to reduce its number of officers.23 He returned to the town he had founded, Racine. Seven years later, its grateful citizens elected him to represent them in the State Assembly.

No sooner had the Civil War broken out, however, than he resigned his elective position in the Wisconsin legislature—just three days prior to its adjournment— and offered his nautical skills and combat experiences to the hard-pressed Union cause. His services were instantly accepted, and he was commissioned a captain in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service on May 3, 1861.24

At first he was assigned to coast and blockade duty. His first command, ironically enough, was the revenue cutter Dobbin —named after a former Secretary of the Treasury, but what memories it must have brought back. Home port of the Dobbin was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Captain Knapp’s return to Great Lakes duty came on June 21, 1862, when he assumed command of the revenue cutter Floyd, based at Detroit. On January 7, 1863, he was again transferred, this time to the command of the revenue cutter Morris, stationed in Boston, Massachusetts.

The FESSENDEN on its maiden voyage. Image from the Alpena Public Library.

His next and last Civil War assignment brought him back to more familiar waters—the Great Lakes. On March 28, 1865, he was ordered to supervise the construction of two side-wheel steamers, Fessenden and Sherman, at Cleve land, Ohio. Following their completion, he assumed command of the new revenue steamer Sherman at Detroit, Michigan, on November 16, 1865.

Apparently, the name of this cutter was changed to Fessenden within the next year or so. In any case, Captain Knapp temporarily lost command of this revenue steamer on December 6, 1870, when he was placed ashore on “Waiting Orders” status. The next spring, on May 2, 1871, he was again given command of the Fessenden. His active career in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service terminated abruptly on April 1, 1872. Not only was he removed from command of the cutter, but he was placed on “Permanent Waiting Orders” status.

At this time, the Service did not have military pensions. Therefore, superannuated officers were customarily placed on “Permanent Waiting Orders” instead of being removed from the rolls by dismissal, so that they could still draw a certain percentage of their former salary.

Following his relief from command of the side-wheel steamer Fessenden, Gilbert Knapp returned once again to Racine. Here he spent the remaining days of his life. When he died on July 31, 1887, the “flags on all public buildings in his city were lowered to half-mast on the occasion of” his funeral.25

The passing of these two early lake captains ended a period of Great Lakes history. The ones who followed them could no longer routinely sail into uncharted waters bordered only by wilderness and Indians. Whatever the merits of the respective captains in their rivalry over commanding revenue cutters, the fact remains that both men, by their own unique actions and personalities, have made significant imprints upon the early history of the Great Lakes.

  1. Buffalo Historical Society Publications, Volume VIII, The Dobbins Papers (Buffalo, N. Y.: Buffalo Historical Society, 1905), p. 258.
  2. Ibid., passim; Max Rosenberg, The Building of Perry’s Fleet on Lake Erie, 1812-1813  (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: State Historical and Museum Commission, 1968); Captain W. W. Dobbins, The Battle of Lake Erie and Reminiscences of the Flag Ships Lawrence and Niagara, with Preface and Biographical Sketch of the Life of Oliver Hazard Perry by John Elmer Reed (Erie, Pennsylvania: Ashby Printing Company, 1929); Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1868), pp. 509-10; Fletcher Pratt, The Navy: A History: The Story of a Service in Action (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1938), pp. 178-9.
  3. Letter, Captain Daniel Dobbins, U.S.R. Marine, to President Zachary Taylor, 12 March 1849, in Daniel Dobbins Folder, Applications for Positions in the Revenue-Cutter Service, Records of the U.S. Coast Guard, Record Group 26, National Archives Building (hereafter cited as RG 26, NAB), hereafter cited as Dobbins Application Folder. 
  4. Unless otherwise cited, biographical data concerning Gilbert Knapp has been derived from the two WPA biographical sketches of Gilbert Knapp written circa 1940 and now in the manuscript holdings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, hereafter cited as WPA Knapp Biog.; Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography (Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1960), pp. 208-9; State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Proceedings of the Society at its Sixty-Eighth Annual Meeting Held October 21, 1920 (Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society Publications, 1921), p. 152.
  5. WPA Knapp Biog. 
  6. Henry R. Schoolcraft, Narrative Journal of Travels Through the Northwestern Regions of the United States Extending from Detroit through the Great Chain of American Lakes to the Sources of the Mississippi River in the Year 1820, edited by Mentor L. Williams (East Lansing, Michigan: The Michigan State College Press, 1953), pp. 83, 368.
  7. William Ratigan, Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), p. 169.
  8. WPA Knapp Biog. 
  9. Letter, Doctor F. W. Miller to Capt. Daniel Dobbins, 4 January 1842, in Dobbins Application Folder. 
  10. Letter, Robert Cochran to Capt. Daniel Dobbins, 13 February 1844, in ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Commissions Revenue Cutters 1812-1844, RG 26, NAB.
  13. U.S. Revenue Marine Record of Officers 1797-1870, p. 70, RG 26, NAB; U.S. Coast Guard, Records of Movements, Vessels of the United States Coast Guard, 1790-December 31,1933, 2 volumes (Washington: Office of Assistant Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, undated (1935?), pp. 463, 412-14, hereafter cited as USCG, Record of Movements, with appropriate page(s).
  14. WPA Knapp Biog.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ray Hughes Whitbeck, The Geography and Economic Development of Southeastern Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, 1921), pp. 143-5.
  17. Letter, Henry S. Harvey to President James K. Polk, 7 May 1845, in Dobbins Application Folder. 
  18. Commissions Revenue Cutters 1812-1844, RG 26, NAB.
  19. Letter, Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Ewing to Capt. Daniel Dobbins, 16 March 1841, in Dobbins Application Folder. 
  20. Various letters, ibid.; Commissions Revenue Marine April 20, 1839-December 14,1852, RG 26, NAB; U.S. Revenue Marine Record of Officers 1797-1870, pp. 70, 173.
  21. Letter, Gideon J. Ball and five other residents of Erie, to President of the United States of America, 7 March 1853, in Dobbins Application Folder. 
  22. USCG, Record of Movements, pp. 509-10; James Grant Wilson and John Fishe, Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume II (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), p. 189,
  23. U.S. Revenue Marine Record of Officers 1797-1870, p. 173.
  24. Unless otherwise cited, the following information concerning Captain Knapp’s service in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service has been derived from: ibid,; Revenue Cutter Service Register of Officers 1870-1883, RG 26, NAB; Revenue Cutter Service Register of Officers 1882-1894, RG 26, NAB; USCG, Record of Movements, passim; and published annual Registers of U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Officers from 1873 to 1887.
  25. WPA Knapp Biog, 

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About the Author: Mr. Truman R. Strobridge is Coast Guard Historian, Public Information Office, Washington, D. C., and author of the article “Early Coast Guard Lightships on the Great Lakes,” published in the Spring 1973 issue of INLAND SEAS. Capt. T. McDonald, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, Chief, Public Affairs Division, in submitting this article states that the author compiled it from special research he had undertaken for articles in two official Coast Guard publications. 

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Rails Across the Water – Fall 1973

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

By Carl E. Krog

The transportation system which developed along the west shore of the Green Bay region during the three decades after 1860 was designed to serve sawmill towns, not manufacturing cities or regional retailing centers. Forest and water complemented one another in a seemingly natural combination. Logs were floated down the Menominee River, the boundary between Wisconsin and Michigan, to sawmills in Marinette, Wisconsin, and Menominee, Michigan, two towns at the mouth of the river. Here the logs, after being converted to lumber, resumed their journey via water to Chicago.

Logging on the Menominee River. Image from the Library of Congress.

After 1890, what formerly was an asset became a debit. Almost all of the merchantable timber near natural waterways was cut, and lumbermen were forced to build logging railways to reach the remaining stands of timber, or ship logs by rail great distances. Land, valued only for its magnificent stands of white pine, became valueless when once cut over. In time it became tax delinquent and reverted back to the county government. Similarly, Lake Michigan, a superb highway for inexpensively transporting lumber to the Chicago market, now began to assume the aspect of a barrier with the development of an integrated national railroad system.

Marinette lumbermen faced difficulties on both ends of their lumbering operations after 1890. New railroads were needed both to reach timber stands and to provide alternative routes for reaching markets. Unlike some of their competitors, Marinette lumbermen could not ship directly by rail from mill to customer because of the high rates charged by both the Northwestern and the Milwaukee Road. What was needed was an alternative rail route for reaching markets.

A railroad company with a capitalization of $1,500,000 was organized in the fall of 1893. The new railroad, called the Wisconsin and Michigan, had the financial backing of Isaac Stephenson, Marinette’s wealthiest and most prominent lumberman. The nucleus of the new line was the roadbed of a 27-mile narrow gauge lumbering railroad which hauled logs from the Michigan woods to the Menominee River. This railway was extended north to Faithorn Junction, where it joined the east-west line of the “Soo” Railroad. Bridging the Menominee, the railroad extended its line south to the village of Peshtigo, which was to be the headquarters of the new line with a roundhouse, car shop, and offices. From Peshtigo the railroad ran seven miles southeast to the Peshtigo harbor on the railroad roadbed which the Peshtigo Company had built in 1868. By using the Milwaukee Road’s branch line the Wisconsin and Michigan gained access to Marinette and Menominee.1

Wisconsin and Michigan railway bridge cross the Menominee River. Image from the Library of Congress.

Ineptitude marked the Wisconsin and Michigan Railroad’s first year of existence. The railroad’s bridge across the Menominee River was washed out the first spring and in the fall of 1894 a steam locomotive and switch engine collided.

Despite the Depression of 1893 and the closing of the Peshtigo Company, hopes were high in the neighboring village of Peshtigo in 1894. The new railroad held great promise for the future. It already provided a source of employment for the village, which faced the bleak future in the 1890s of being a sawmill town without a sawmill. The railroad appeared to have greater potential for Marinette and Menominee because the two cities now had a rail connection by way of the “Soo” line with the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

Though the tracks of the new railroad ended at the Peshtigo harbor the southern terminus of the Wisconsin and Michigan was Chicago. Since it was no longer practical to ship lumber in the leaky barges of the Marinette Barge Company, Stephenson decided to keep the same system, but modernize the operations. The plan was to send railroad cars filled with iron ore and finished lumber on barges. The Lake Michigan Car Ferry Transportation Company was organized as a subsidiary of the Wisconsin and Michigan for this purpose.

The new company ordered four large wooden barges, 316 feet long, 44 feet wide, and 20 feet deep, capable of carrying 24 freight cars on four tracks on an open deck. The railroad cars were protected from the weather by gunwales and canvas described by the Railroad Gazette, not altogether reassuringly: “The gunwales are high enough to protect the cars except in very high seas.”2 In the same year, 1895, the Marinette Barge Line Company sold its tug, J. C. Perrett, to the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Transportation Company.

The amphibious Wisconsin and Michigan Railroad also expanded its operations on land. By September 1896, it owned seventy miles of track, eight engines, over five hundred cars and employed one hundred men. Despite vigorous rate cutting by the Wisconsin and Michigan and Lake Michigan Car Ferry Transportation Company during the summer of 1896, the new company did not prosper. Lumber rates between Menominee and Chicago were cut to five cents per hundredweight in August. The company later offered a through freight rate from Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul (via the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Transportation Company, the Wisconsin and Michigan Railroad and the “Soo” Railroad) of thirty-five cents per hundredweight. The Northwestern and Milwaukee road, the Wisconsin and Michigan’s chief competitors, charged sixty cents per hundredweight by an all-rail rate to the Twin Cities from Chicago.3 In spite of the rate war for Twin City trade, the barge line, nevertheless, remained dependent upon its parent company, the Wisconsin and Michigan, for traffic, although some coal was shipped from southern Illinois by the Wabash Railroad.

There were a number of reasons why the venture failed. Shippers and other railroads were reluctant to subject cargo and equipment to the long voyage on an open barge. The railroads looked upon the new amphibious operation with great distrust because a few barges and a tug represented a small investment compared to what the Northwestern and the Milwaukee Road had invested in their transportation systems. In fact, the Central Freight Association refused to publish the joint Wisconsin and Michigan ferry line rates. In the end, the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Transportation Company merely continued the declining trade of its predecessor, the Marinette Barge Company, shipping lumber and railroad ties to Chicago. .

The skepticism of railroad men over the feasibility of shipping railway cars on open barges on Lake Michigan proved to be well founded. The barge company lost two of its barges, loaded with pulpwood, in a severe storm in November 1900. The following fall the company lost two more barges with thirty railroad cars aboard, thirteen of them carrying iron ore. The cars became loose in a storm on Lake Michigan and capsized in twenty-five feet of water in the harbor of South Chicago, taking the lives of three men.4

Nor was the company successful in operating its tugs. A company tug crashed into a schooner in the Sturgeon Bay ship canal in 1897. In 1906, as the result of an accident in the harbor of South Chicago, the company leased the car ferry Pere Marquette which ran aground twice after she was acquired, had two collisions in 1907, and did considerable damage to the Waukegon city dock. The latter accident ended the amphibious phase of the Wisconsin and Michigan railroad twelve years after the railroad had begun its barge operation. 5

Neither the Wisconsin and Michigan Railroad, nor the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Transportation Company, were long term successes, but viewed as the means by which Isaac Stephenson secured favorable all-rail rate to Chicago for his lumber, the new transportation system was effective. He observed, “The railroad officials [of the Milwaukee Road and the Northwestern] were brought to the realization of the shortsightedness of their policy [of high freight rates for lumber] by the establishment of a car ferry which ran between Chicago and Peshtigo, connecting at the latter place with a short railroad line, the Wisconsin and Michigan, which ran for some distance up the Menominee River.” Stephenson claimed that the system forced the Milwaukee Road and the Northwestern to reduce their freight rates from the Green Bay region to Chicago by one-half. When this was done, the Chicago and Milwaukee yards of the Marinette lumber companies were discontinued and shipments were made directly from the mills.6

Although the last years of the 1890s were difficult for the railroad, prospects improved in 1900. In that year, the Wisconsin and Michigan reported its total revenue was $123,628.89, expenses $87,817 with a total indebtedness of $1,349,198.47. In October 1900, John Walsh, founder of the Chicago National Bank and president of the Southern Indiana Railroad, bought a large interest in the Wisconsin and Michigan. Walsh planned to ship Indiana coal north and lumber and iron ore south via his three transportation companies, but the operation remained unprofitable.7

The railroad’s main freight was not coal and iron ore, but farm and forest products from the Menominee valley. In spite of poor returns Walsh continued to invest in the railroad, adding to its rolling stock. Walsh announced at a Marinette stockholders’ meeting in the fall of 1905 that the railroad planned to build west into the adjoining counties of Forest and Vilas, and eventually west to the cities of Superior and Duluth.

In spite of the railroad’s continued poor return, Walsh remained optimistic about its future and the region. Lured by land and railroad companies, farmers continued to settle in Marinette and Menominee counties, and both Menominee River cities hoped that other industry would replace lumbering. Walsh assumed that the Wisconsin and Michigan would follow the pattern of railroads serving the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, a declining lumbering region similar to the Menominee valley.

The Lower Peninsula railroads in attempting to increase their business promoted northern Michigan as a tourist resort and vacation land, Using the lower Michigan railroads as a model, Walsh built an elegant hotel on the eighty two acre Miscauno Island in the middle of the Menominee River, about forty five miles upstream from Marinette. The hotel was to serve the wealthy as a refuge from hot Chicago summers. In addition to the hotel, the island had a nine-hole golf course and tennis courts. The hotel venture was at best a sideline for the railroad, providing a seasonal business during the short northern Wisconsin summer, but the transportation of tourists was hardly the basis for sustaining a railroad.

Thus, Walsh overextended himself, and in December 1905, his railroad and banking empire collapsed. Investigation later revealed that Walsh had loaned himself millions of dollars from his Chicago bank. In 1908, he began serving a five-year sentence at the Federal Prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for embezzlement of funds. The railroad fared poorly over the next few years. Deficits of over $100,000 were recorded for the years 1910 and 1911, and in 1912, the railroad went bankrupt.8 John Marsch, another Chicagoan, bought the railroad at a receiver’s sale in 1917, reorganized it, and resumed service on a limited scale.

The quest by Menominee River lumbermen for alternative railroad routes to markets did not end with the organization of the Wisconsin and Michigan, At the same time the railroad began operations, the Ann Arbor Railroad and Car Ferry started alternate day service between Frankfort, Michigan; Kewaunee, Wisconsin; and Menominee, Michigan. Samuel Stephenson was appointed president of the Ann Arbor in 1899, the year the railroad was incorporated under Michigan law.

Car Ferry ANN ARBOR NO.1 cutting through ice. Image from Alpena Public Library.

The Ann Arbor began service shortly after the Depression of 1893, and its first years were beset with difficulty. The citizens of Marinette and Menominee skeptically watched the approach of the Ann Arbor ferry on January 7, 1895, as it cut its way through six inches of Green Bay ice. The ship successfully reached port, the first time a ship had landed in Menominee during the winter. Winter service was short-lived. On February 1 it was discontinued, not, as was predicted, due to ice, but to lack of profit. The company reported that coal alone cost the company $150 a day, while daily receipts were only $220.9 In spite of the difficulties of the first year, the line became profitable during the years that followed and the Ann Arbor was able to provide excellent year-round service.

The Northwestern Railroad bitterly opposed its new competitor at first. The railroad was forced to trim its rates in the port cities on Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Shippers from Oshkosh, closer to Chicago, paid $35 more a car than shippers in the cities of Green Bay or Marinette. Marinette shippers paid seven cents per hundredweight for freight to Chicago. The cost to Oshkosh shippers was ten cents per hundredweight.

In the late 1890s the Ann Arbor began discussions with the Milwaukee Road and Wisconsin and Michigan Railroad concerning possibilities for building a belt line railroad from its docks on Green Bay to the industrial area along the river. To the surprise of local citizens, the Northwestern Railroad received a contract in October 1899, to do the switching from the Ann Arbor’s docks in Menominee. In return, the railroad agreed to allow Ann Arbor to use its tracks. The talk of a new belt line railroad was merely bluff by the Ann Arbor.10

Unlike the Wisconsin and Michigan, never a viable alternative except for carrying lumber and logs, the Ann Arbor provided Marinette and Menominee with a direct route to the eastern market, giving them parity in rail freight rates with Wisconsin and Illinois cities on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Geographers differ on the northern limits of the northeastern industrial region. A majority would probably draw the line from Muskegon, Michigan, on the Lower Peninsula, across Lake Michigan to the city of Green Bay. At best, Marinette and Menominee are on the periphery of this industrial belt of northeastern United States. The Ann Arbor, besides providing an alternative to the Northwestern, brought the two cities a little closer to the industrialized northeast.

  1. Marinette Eagle, October 21 & 28, 1893; March 31, 1894; September 13, 1894; November 10, 1894; and November 17, 1894. Isaac Stephenson, Recollections of A Long Life, 1829-1915 (Chicago: R. R. Donnelly& Sons Co., 1915), p. 83.
  2. Marinette Eagle, March 16, 1895. George Hilton, The Great Lakes Car Ferries (Berkeley: Howell North, 1962), pp. 186 & 187.
  3. George Hilton, op. cit., p. 189.
  4. Marinette Eagle, November 17, 1900 and Marinette Eagle-Star, October 2, 1906.
  5. George Hilton, op. cit., pp. 188-89.
  6. Isaac Stephenson, op. cit., p. 83.
  7. Marinette Eagle, May 26, 1900.
  8. Marinette Eagle-Star, August 18, 1903; October 23, 1903; May 17, 1904; May 4, 1906; October 10, 1906; and February 5, 1912. George Hilton, op. cit., pp. 190-193. Willis F. Dunbar, All Aboard, A History of Railroads in Michigan (Grand Rapids: Wm. B, Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1969), pp. 173-79.
  9. Marinette Eagle, January 12, 1895; February 2, 1895; and November 4, 1899. The Ann Arbor discontinued services to Menominee in March 1970.
  10. Marinette Eagle, June 17, 1899; September 10, 1899; October 7, 1899; and October 28,1897. 175

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About the Author: Dr. Carl E. Krog is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin Center, Marinette, Wisconsin. His doctoral dissertation, a part of which was published in INLAND SEAS, Winter 1972, was devoted to the lumbering activities of Marinette, 1850-1910. Dr. Krog’s Ph.D. in history was attained at the University of Wisconsin, in 1971. 

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Sir George Gibbons, Canadian Diplomat and the Boundary Waters Treaty – Summer 1973

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

By Harriet E. Whitney

Canada and the United States have cooperated in commercial development of the Great Lakes in the American heartland for over three score years without friction. This amicable relationship ensued from the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 which set up principles insuring equitable water use and a permanent bilateral commission to implement them.1 Both were essential for Canadian partnership in boundary water utilization as its southern neighbour industrialized rapidly in the early twentieth century.

Portrait of George C. Gibbons.

The central figure in the negotiation of the treaty was George Christie Gibbons who, as Chairman of the International Waterways Commission after November of 1905, first recommended a boundary waters treaty, drafted the first treaty memorandum in 1907, and helped with the final revision of the agreement. 2 Although earlier articles have credited Gibbons with participating in treaty talks, they have overlooked the vital role he played in getting a comprehensive contract.3

American Secretary of State Elihu Root wanted a treaty on preservation of Niagara Falls only and British Ambassador James Bryce tried to get Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to approve this limited agreement.4 It was Gibbons who perceived the American dilemma—that the Federal Government had no authority to prohibit further diversion in non-navigable Niagara River by New York State electric companies unless it could negotiate a treaty.5 He advised Laurier to hold out for a treaty with stated principles applicable to all boundary waters, and not sign one on Niagara Falls alone.6

Gibbons viewed the final contract as a step towards nationhood for Canada.7 Legal Adviser Loring Christie in the Department of External Affairs during World War I later acknowledged the importance of the treaty: “Canada has no more vital interest than the insurance of the full integrity of the system created by the Treaty of 1909.”8 A review of the events culminating in its ratification shows the indispensability of Gibbons.

The International Waterways Commission (IWC), composed of Canadian Chairman James Mabee, two other Canadians, American Chairman O. H. Ernst, and two more Americans, first met in May of 1905 and spent the summer investigating navigation problems in St. Marys River between Lakes Superior and Huron.9 In November it recommended that a permanent board regulate water levels in the river.10

In the same month Laurier appointed George C. Gibbons Chairman of the IWC upon elevation of Chairman Mabee to the Ontario Supreme Court.11 No doubt Gibbons was the choice of Minister of Public Works Charles Hyman who had supervision of the IWC and who knew Gibbons well since both were in the “Big Four, ” inner clique of the Liberals in London.12 Gibbons, a prosperous London lawyer, was energetic and impulsive, with a verve for living which sent him riding to the hounds in the London Hunt Club and giving popular campaign speeches about the great Canadian future and better relations with the United States.13

Gibbons quickly reviewed IWC minutes and drafted its First Progress Report. 14 The report recommended that “riparian rights in relation to navigable streams or international waters . . . be adjusted by some treaty arrangement between the two countries.”15 Gibbons tried to get a full commission meeting with the American Section but found that Chairman Ernst was unwilling to meet until the United States Congress acted on the IWC proposal on the St. Marys River.16

President Theodore Roosevelt broke the impasse. Responding to a campaign of the American Civic Association for the preservation of Niagara Falls, he sought the Attorney General’s opinion on how he could stop the New York State Legislature from granting charters to electric companies at Niagara Falls since the Federal Government had no authority in rivers not used for commerce.17 The Attorney General advised that a treaty be negotiated upon the recommendation of an international commission, so Congress passed a resolution requesting a report from the IWC on the preservation of the falls.18

Ernst, heretofore indifferent to Gibbons’ overture, now wanted to hold a meeting immediately.19 First, Gibbons had the Canadian Section publish a Second Interim Report recommending a twenty-five-year treaty establishing principles on paramount rights of navigation over diversion of water for electric power and equal sharing of boundary waters by the two countries under the supervision of a permanent international commission.20 “Diversions * ** should only be permitted . . . for domestic purposes and for the service of locks . . . Temporary diversions, where the water taken is returned again, only on the recommendation of a joint commission. “21 The report also limited the permanent diversion at Chicago to 10,000 cubic feet per second (c.f.s.) and at Niagara Falls to 36,000 c.f.s. on the Canadian shore and to 18,500 c.f.s. on the American side of the boundary, where the falls was less extensive.22

In the joint report of the IWC the American Section had to include these Canadian stipulations in order to get a full commission recommendation for a compact to preserve the falls.23 Six months later the IWC incorporated another draft of Gibbons, except for a legal point, into their report on a proposed permanent diversion in a cross-country river west of Lake Superior. 24 It recommended a treaty to define the use of international waters “without the necessity of adjustment in each instance,” and a permanent commission to decide the rights of all parties when water was permanently diverted from navigable streams crossing the border.25

In January of 1907 Gibbons decided that the time had come for more than recommendations. He obtained authorization in a Minute of the Privy Council to go to Washington to engage in talks on possible joint legislation on boundary waters.26 However, it was May before Secretary of State Root delegated Commissioner George Clinton to carry on discussions with Gibbons and then only in a “very informal way.”27 Both men wanted a treaty. As Gibbons explained, “Legislative action might be reversed at the very next session of Congress while a treaty must run its course. “28

Gibbons sent a treaty memorandum to Clinton who in turn sent a draft to Gibbons. 29 By September the two reached a compromise and titled it “Proposed Treaty Clauses.”30 Clinton recognized that Gibbons had made the major contributions to this: A six-member commission would call upon an arbitrator if they could not reach a majority agreement; the consent of both countries would be necessary for diversion or obstruction of boundary waters or rivers crossing the border; the commission would delineate the boundary line through the Lakes; where irrigation diversion was permitted, the rights of each country and its citizens “must be equitably protected.”31 In September Gibbons added a final article which gave the commission power to render advisory reports on all matters of difference between the two governments.32 Since Clinton objected to “certain fixed principles . . . which will become the rigid law of the two countries,” Gibbons accepted concurrent legislation for the police powers of the commission.33 Diversion at Niagara Falls was to be the same as given in the Second Interim Report of the Canadian Section.34 An article forbade the pollution of waters “in one country to the injury of health or property in the other.”35

Laurier approved a revised draft which omitted the lower St. Lawrence from boundary waters.36 December found Gibbons once again in Washington in the hope that he could convince the American leaders to adopt the treaty .37 Ambassador Bryce, British author of The American Commonwealth turned diplomat, had come to Washington in the spring of 1907 to settle outstanding differences between Canada and the United States which jeopardized British American friendly relations. Incidentally, he could indulge his passion for travel within the American vastness.38 Bryce welcomed Gibbons and talked at great length with him but left him at the Embassy when he had a scheduled conference with Root.39

Gibbons, on his return to Canada, wrote to Laurier and objected to Bryce acting as intermediator: “We could accomplish about ten times as much in the same space of time if I could see Mr. Root with him and thresh matters out. ”40 In a letter to Bryce, Laurier praised the “active and energetic” Gibbons: [He is] “familiar with all aspects of the question . . . His thorough knowledge of all local conditions ought to be of great assistance to you, to meet objections and to clinch matters to a prompt and definite issue. “41 Bryce invited Gibbons to accompany him on his February conference with Root.42

At that time Root argued that principles could only evolve out of the settlement of a number of cases and he presented a treaty providing for a commission of inquiry.43 He did not think that the Senate would approve the Gibbons-Clinton commission with authority to apply principles by concurrent legislation.44 But Gibbons countered with the argument that the only way to remove boundary waters from politics, on both sides of the border, was to establish a permanent commission which could apply a few general principles impartially to any problem that arose.45 As for injury to a country’s private and public interests by diversion before a river crossed a boundary, Gibbons pointed out that it did not matter how this was settled, as long as both countries received equitable treatment.46 He was gratified to find that Robert Bacon, the American Assistant Secretary of State, agreed with him.47

Root still hoped to get a convention on Niagara Falls only and asked Bryce to take a draft memorandum along when he visited Laurier in mid February. 48 This was no doubt the one sent to him by Francis L. Stetson, a lawyer who represented J. P. Morgan’s three electric companies at Niagara Falls, which were authorized by their charters to divert 26,700 c.f.s. on the American side.49 The draft proposed a diversion increase on the American side from 18,500 c.f.s. to 20,000 c.f.s. so that there would be “the least possible injury to investments which have already been made.”50 But Laurier, who had called Gibbons to Ottawa for consultation, was uninterested in any agreement on Niagara Falls alone.51

Sometime within the next three months, Root decided to leave the State Department at the end of President Roosevelt’s administration the following March. 52 If he were to get any treaty on Niagara Falls before he left office, he would have to accept Canadian terms. So he welcomed another visit by Gibbons in June when Bryce suggested it.53 Bryce himself left on a trip through the Great Lakes and then to England, leaving Gibbons on his own.54

On this trip to Washington Gibbons carried a new memorandum he had drafted which had the approval of Laurier.55 Principles were not to apply to rivers crossing the border; instead, each country would divert water from streams in its own territory with due regard to injury of private or public interests in the other country and with that country’s assent.56 At their meeting Root, after castigating the Canadians for their attitude “that the American people had always overreached them heretofore and were lying in wait to do so again,” asked Gibbons to meet with Chandler P. Anderson, his advisor on Canadian matters, to agree on the articles for a boundary waters agreement. 57

Gibbons was triumphant when he returned to Canada. He explained to Laurier that Root’s tirade in the meeting was caused by his having “to recognize the existence of another power on this continent having equal rights” and our “joint control of the Great Lakes system for all time to come. ”58 But July and most of August passed before the expected meeting with Anderson took place.59 And there was another delay before Gibbons received a draft in mid-November, and then without the important article on Niagara Falls.60

This draft, revised after the two men met in New York within a few weeks, extended the Canadian right of navigation to Lake Michigan for the duration of the treaty. Article II reserved to each country exclusive jurisdiction and control over the use and diversion in its own territory of waters which flowed across the boundary or into boundary waters. Any damage done through interference with or diversion from these waters was to be handled as if such injury or damage took place within the same country as the diversion, so private citizens could apply to the courts of the other country for compensation. 61

The permanent commission (later designated as the International Joint Commission) was to have six members, three from each country; for the first time Canada’s right to appoint its own representatives was recognized by the phrase, “appointed by His Majesty on the recommendation of the governor in council of the Dominion of Canada. ” Outside of government works for the improvement of navigation, the commission was to have authority over all boundary waters with diversions by the rule of “equal and similar rights” in the following priority: (1) Uses for necessary domestic and sanitary purposes; (2) Uses for navigation, including the service of canals for navigation; (3) Uses for irrigation and for power purposes. Among the latter uses, temporary diversions were to have precedence over permanent ones.

The draft also included the clauses on pollution and on advisory opinion on other matters which had been in the Gibbons-Clinton draft. Miscellaneous matters, such as the meeting place of the commission, taking of oaths, provision for public hearings, and salaries were included in one article. The treaty was to remain in effect for five years when it could be terminated upon a twelve-month notification. 62 Gibbons saw the draft as a victory for Canada. “They have yielded to our every contention,” he wrote to Laurier. But later he found “a little hitch in the Washington business.”63

On rereading Article II he found it did not protect navigation rights to his satisfaction and he proposed adding the clause: “The foregoing provision shall not be construed as an agreement authorizing diversions on either side which in their effect would be productive of material injury to the navigation interests on the other side.”64 Anderson did not like this nor another attempt by Gibbons. Then Anderson suggested the following, which Gibbons accepted: “It is understood, however, that neither Government intends by the foregoing provision to surrender any right, which it may have, to object to any diversion of waters on the other side of the boundary the effect of which would be productive of material injury to the navigation interests on its own side of the boundary.” 65

The arrival of the Niagara article caused difficulties. Anderson had adopted the diversion of the draft Root had given Bryce the previous February, 20,000 c.f.s. above the falls.66 In addition, the amount which could be diverted below the falls by the Americans had been raised to 26,000 c.f.s., twice the amount allotted to Canada at that point.67 Furthermore, another clause permitted increases after five years, to become permanent if the other government raised no objection within three months. Gibbons was at first indignant but solved the problem by accepting the extra 1,500 c.f.s. diversion above the falls, and omitting any reference to a specific total below the falls, relying upon the commission to apply the principle of equal diversion there.68

Another article inserted into the final treaty draft was the result of negotiations by Canadian Commissioner William King and the American, N. H. Newell. The St. Mary and Milk Rivers flowed from Montana into Alberta, with the Milk River turning east into Saskatchewan, and then recrossing the border. Both countries had irrigation plans for the rivers and the two special commissioners worked out a compromise which gave a minimum annual water supply to each country from the combined waters of the two rivers.69 It was on Gibbons’ earlier advice that Laurier had this article inserted into the treaty. But at this point King started to worry about the agreement and wanted to restudy it.70

Gibbons, upset by this snag and parliamentary criticisms, confided to his friend, Minister of Justice Allen B. Aylesworth, that he thought he had been treated “most abominably,” since he had communicated all along just what he was doing and had gotten a treaty which was to Canada’s advantage.71 The article remained in the document as it was and Ambassador Bryce cabled the treaty to London. Several word changes were cabled back which designated Great Britain as the treaty-making party and not Canada.72

On January 11th, 1909, Bryce and Root initialed the treaty and it went to the U. S. Senate. Here a Michigan Senator, who controlled a majority of votes, insisted that a reservation be added to protect the riparian rights of a Michigan hydroelectric company in the St. Marys River.73 Assured by Root that the Federal Government would take over these rights, Gibbons telegraphed Canadian approval of the treaty to Bryce.74 In the last weeks of negotiation Gibbons lost his usual sanguinity as he struggled to carry on his own legal work, along with conferences in Ottawa, New York City, Washington, and last-minute changes by telegrams. In February he wrote heatedly to Laurier: “Between all the fires I am distraught. When I was asked to undertake the negotiation of this treaty I was told that our then position was helpless; that the Americans simply did as they pleased, and that unless some arrangement was made would continue to do so. ”75

Laurier was suspicious that the contract was not in the Canadian interests, particularly Article II on cross-boundary rivers and in March telegraphed Bryce that Canada would need time to reconsider the treaty before ratification.76 Nearly a year later, when the President of the Canadian Pacific Railroad assured Laurier that the ultimate effect of the St. Mary-Milk Rivers article would not be injurious to Canada, and a project of an American aluminum corporation to dam a channel in the St. Lawrence threatened to lower water levels at Montreal, did Laurier yield to Gibbons’ entreaties and grant final approval for the exchange of ratifications. 77 This took place on May 5th, 1910.

Canada got a good bargain. With a much smaller population than the United States and emerging from colonial status in the British empire, its industrialization was proceeding at a slower rate than the world power across the border. The primary goal of British Ambassador Bryce was to settle differences between Canada and the United States so that the friendly relations between Great Britain and the United States would not be threatened in the future by the developing Canadian nationalism. As is evident in this article, Bryce was unaware of the particular importance of Niagara Falls to American political leaders and at a crucial point in the negotiations supported the American position against the Canadian. Canada would have been weakly served by the British Ambassador alone. Canadian firmness, combined with fortuitous circumstances in the United States, resulted in a treaty which gave Canada equal rights in the Great Lakes and rivers flowing along and across the boundary. For the first time in the world a permanent international commission governed boundary waters. Gibbons had served Canada well, and in 1911 he was awarded knighthood for his efforts in the negotiations of the Boundary Waters Treaty.

  1. Robert Borden, Treaties and Agreements Affecting Canada in Force Between His Majesty and the United States of America (Ottawa, 1915), pp. 185-195.
  2. Infra, 4, 5, 9.
  3. Alan O. Gibbons, “Sir George Gibbons and the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909,” Canadian Historical Review XXXIV (1953), 124-138. This article incorrectly attributes a letter to Gibbons, along with other inaccuracies. Peter Neary, “Grey, Bryce, and the Settlement of Canadian-American Differences, 1905-1911,” ibid., XLIX (1968), 357-380. This article does not assess the position of the British Ambassador, nor the importance of Niagara Falls in the negotiations.
  4. Infra, 7.
  5. Don C. Piper, The International Law of the Great Lakes (Durham, S. C., 1967), pp. 19-20.
  6. Public Archives of Canada, Gibbons Papers, Minutes of IWC Meetings, Oct. 1905-March 1906, Vol. 10. Also PAC, Wilfrid Laurier Papers, T. Côté to Laurier, March 21, 1906 (108746), and March 24, 1906 (108743).
  7. Gibbons Papers, Gibbons to Laurier, Aug. 25, 1908, Vol. 8.
  8. Magrath Papers, Christie to O. D. Skelton, July 12, 1927, Vol. 6.
  9. The two Canadians were William King, Chief Astronomer of Canada, and Louis Coste, civil engineer. The two Americans were George Clinton, lawyer, and George Wisner, civil engineer.

10.U. S., Secretary of War, Annual Report of the War Dept., I, 59th Cong., 1st Sess., 50-52.

  1. Canada, Sessional Papers, 1913, XLVII, No. 19a, I, 18.
  2. The other two were George M. Reid and James C. Duffield. Henry James Morgan, The Canadian Men and Women of the Times (Toronto, 1912), p. 443. Scrapbook of Elizabeth C. Gibbons (Public Library, London).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Gibbons Papers, Minutes of IWC, Oct. 1905-1906, Vol. 10.
  5. Report, Canada, Sessional Papers, 1913, XLVII, No. 19a, I, 16.
  6. Gibbons Papers, Ernst to Gibbons, Dec. 20, 1905, Vol. 5.
  7. Ibid., William H. Moody to T. Roosevelt, Oct. 14, 1905, Vol. 14. J. Horace McFarland, The Campaign for the Preservation of Niagara Falls (Philadelphia, 1906). 18. U. S., Congress, Senate, Preservation of Niagara Falls, 59th Cong., 1st Sess., 1906, Dec. 242. 19. Gibbons Papers, Ernst to Coste, March 2, 1906, Vol. 12.
  8. Canada, Sessional Papers, 1913, XLVII, No. 19a, I, 338.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 337. 23. Ibid., 339-340.
  11. Ibid., 367-368. The legal point raised the possibility that full protection of all interests could lead to the permit to be granted for diversion.
  12. Ibid.
  13. PAC, Record Group 2, Series I, Vol. 1026, P.C. 33, Jan. 14, 1907. 27. Gibbons Papers, Root to Clinton, May 25, 1907.
  14. Ibid., Gibbons to Cartwright, May 3, 1907, Vol. 8.
  15. Ibid., Clinton to Gibbons, May 22,1907, Vol. 5; Gibbons to Clinton, June 17,1907, Vol. 5. 30. Gibbons Papers, Draft Proposed Treaty Clauses, Vol. 14.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., Gibbons to Clinton, Sept. 3, 1907, Vol. 8.
  18. Ibid., Draft, Vol. 14. 34. Supra, 4.
  19. Ibid. This may have resulted from inquiry by H. W. Ogden, New York Sanitary Engineer, June 27, 1907, R.G. 76, Department of State, 293/9102, National Archives. 36. Gibbons Papers, Laurier to Gibbons, Sept. 26, 1907, Vol. 5; Ibid., Gibbons to Clinton, Nov. 28, 1907, Vol. 8; Ibid., Gibbons to Bryce, Dec. 2, 1907, Vol. 8.
  20. Ibid, Bryce to Gibbons, Dec. 9, 1907, Vol. 3.
  21. H. A. L. Fisher, James Bryce (New York, 1927).
  22. Gibbons Papers, Gibbons to Laurier, Dec. 16, 1907, Vol. 8.
  23. Ibid., Gibbons to Laurier, Jan. 8, 1908, Vol. 8.
  24. Ibid., Laurier to Bryce, Dec. 24, 1907, Vol. 3.
  25. Laurier Papers, Bryce to Earl Grey, Jan. 23, 1908, Vol. 733.
  26. Gibbons Papers, Gibbons to Laurier, Feb. 11, 1908, Vol. 8.
  27. Ibid. 45. Ibid. 46. Ibid. 47. Ibid.
  28. Root to Bryce, Feb. 15, 1908, Chandler P. Anderson Papers, Box 68, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  29. Stetson to Root, Feb. 2, 1908, Elihu Root Papers, General Correspondence S-Z, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  30. Memorandum, Feb. 15, 1908, Anderson Papers, Box 68.
  31. Gibbons Papers, Gibbons to Laurier, Feb. 12, 1908, Vol. 8.
  32. Root left the State Department because of the effect of the social responsibility on his wife. Philip C. Jessup, Elihu Root (New York, 1938), II, 138.
  33. Gibbons Papers, Bryce to Gibbons, June 8, 1908, Vol. 3.
  34. Ibid., Gibbons to Laurier, June 13, 1908, Vol. 8.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid., Gibbons to Bryce, July 3, 1908; Gibbons to Laurier, July 6, 1908; Gibbons to Laurier, June 22, 1908, Vol. 8.
  37. Ibid., Gibbons to Laurier, July 9, 1908, Vol. 8.
  38. Anderson Papers, Anderson to Gibbons, Aug. 7, 1908, Box 65; Gibbons Papers, Anderson to Gibbons, Aug. 12, 1908, Vol. 3.
  39. Gibbons Papers, Gibbons to Bryce, Nov. 16, 1908, Vol. 8.
  40. Ibid., Draft, Vol. 14.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid., Gibbons to Laurier, Dec. 10, 1908, Vol. 8.
  43. Anderson Papers, Revised Draft, Dec. 2, 1908, Box 68.
  44. Gibbons Papers, Gibbons to Anderson, Dec. 10, 1908, Vol. 8; Ibid., Anderson to Gibbons, Dec. 14, 1908, Vol. 3.
  45. Supra, 7.
  46. Gibbons Papers to Anderson, Dec. 17, 1908, Vol. 8.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid., Gibbons to King, Dec. 17, 1908, Vol. 8.
  49. Ibid., Gibbons to Laurier, Dec. 21,1907, Vol. 8.; Ibid., Gibbons to Anderson, Dec. 17, 1908, Vol. 8,
  50. Ibid., Gibbons to Aylesworth, Jan. 8, 1909, Vol. 8.
  51. Gibbons Papers, Bryce to Sir Edward Grey, Jan. 7, 1909, Vol. 8; Anderson Papers, Gibbons to Anderson, Jan. 9, 1909, Box 69.
  52. Ibid., Brief Outline of the Situation, Box 20; Gibbons Papers, Bacon to Gibbons, Feb. 20, 1909. vol. 3.
  53. Gibbons Papers, Gibbons to Root, March 2, 1909.
  54. Ibid., Gibbons to Laurier, Feb. 18, 1909.
  55. Anderson Papers, Laurier to Bryce, March 3, 1909, Box 69.
  56. Canada, Sessional Papers, 1910, XLIV, No. 10, 83-84; Gibbons Papers, Laurier’s Secretary to Gibbons with enclosure from Montreal Board of Trade, March 10, 1910, Vol. 7; Ibid.,

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About the Author: Dr. Harriet E. Whitney has been an Assistant Professor of History at State University of New York—College at Brockport, since 1967. Her special fields of instruction are Canada in the Twentieth Century and Recent American Foreign Policy. Dr. Whitney’s doctoral dissertation, on which the above article is based in part, was on Sir George Gibbons, and completed December 1968 at Michigan State University under Professor Alvin C. Gluek. Postdoctoral research was undertaken at Ottawa, Ontario, and Washington, D. C., through a grant from the State University of New York Research Foundation.

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By Canoe to Lake Superior in 1838 – Spring 1973

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

By Fred Landon


Rev. James Evans taken in 1855. Image from Library of Congress

When Rev. James Evans was sent in 1838 as a missionary to the Indians on the Canadian shores of Lakes Superior, he faced a long and perilous canoe journey, for in no other way could he reach that far-off region and its primitive people. He was then serving as a missionary of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, to the Ojibway Indians resident at Port Sarnia on the St. Clair River just below Lake Huron.

Evans was already an experienced missionary among Indian tribes, having served in that capacity at Rice Lake and Mud Lake and for one year at the Credit River, all in Upper Canada. At these stations he had displayed a remarkable talent for discovering the construction of the languages of these native peoples. He had been able to mark the position of the Red Man’s vocal chords when he formed different sounds. It was from these observations that later, when he was in the Far West, he invented an alphabet of nine syllabic characters with thirty-six positions. The Western Indians were thus provided with a written language, one of the greatest contributions ever made to the advancement of Canada’s Western Indian tribes.1

When Evans came to Sarnia in 1834, the work among the Ojibways resident there had already been under way for two years, with Rev. Thomas Turner in charge, and much progress had been made. Evans continued his study of the language at Sarnia and was soon able not only to preach in the Ojibway tongue but also to make translations of portions of Scripture, which in 1837 were printed under his direction in New York. By the middle of November of that year he was ready to return to his family, but before he arrived at Sarnia that place had become a centre of military activity. It was the year of the uprising in Upper Canada against misgovernment and the Huron County militia had been summoned to Sarnia. There, in the absence of proper quarters, they were housed in the Methodist mission house for some weeks, as Evans found on his return. (Considerable damage was done to the building for which the church later received recompense.)

At the meeting of the Methodist Conference a few months later Evans received his marching orders. He and Rev. Thomas Hurlburt were selected to go to Lake Superior, a field as yet almost untouched by the Methodist Church. The two men were an excellent choice. Both were good linguists, had studied the grammatical construction of the language, and were thoroughly conversant with the customs, habits and beliefs of the Ojibway Indians. Evans left his wife and daughter in Upper Canada (Ontario) but Hurlburt was accompanied by his family. They journeyed together as far as the Sault but later Hurlburt went on to Fort William where he continued at work until 1842.

Birch Bark Canoe

The party left the St. Clair River on July 13, 1838, in a large birch bark canoe which had been procured from an American official at Fort Gratiot opposite Sarnia. Their course followed the eastern shore of Lake Huron. They were four days in reaching Goderich at the mouth of the Maitland River, contending with constant wind and water, wading to the waist in making landings, and sleeping through nights of rain. They had forwarded provisions and “necessaries” by a schooner to the Saugeen Fishing Islands farther north on Lake Huron. These they would take into their canoe when they came to that point.

They left Goderich on July 18th with a fair wind but in a torrent of rain, arriving at the Saugeen on the 20th. Writing to his wife the next day Evans says: “We arrived here yesterday in a beautiful southwesterly breeze. We found all well at Saugeen. The Indians are all absent at the Munnedoolin Island. They are doing well in religion and as to their habits of industry their extensive corn and potato fields speak volumes. Their fields which I judged at three hundred acres far exceed that quantity, their corn and potatoes are well hoed and present a beautiful appearance.”

The Saugeen or Bruce Peninsula, stretching north toward Manitoulin Island, had been noticed by Champlain when he visited it while with the Huron Indians in 1615. “The country is fine and pleasant,” he wrote, “for the most part solitary, shaped like Brittany and similarly situated, being almost surrounded and enclosed by the Freshwater Sea.” Surrenders of the land were made by the Indians from 1836 onward. As early as 1831 the resources of the Fishing Islands had become known, enormous catches of whitefish and herring being shipped to Detroit. Evans says that sometimes four hundred barrels of herring were caught at one drop of the seine.

Of his canoe Evans wrote: “She is a first class sailor and almost water tight, we seldom bale out a drop of water although we are pretty well loaded down, and she rides in a swell with great gracefulness and ease, as we proved on Friday morning. When running about seven or eight miles an hour before a good gale from the southwest she never shipped a drop of water but rode like a duck and we went through the surf into Saugeen River with a splash about us but not a drop on the gunwale.”

Map of Bruce Peninsula and Cape Hurd.

The night of the 26th was spent on Cove Island a little way from Cape Hurd and on the 27th the party crossed the open lake to an island near Manitoulin. There they dined on trout weighing up to twelve and fourteen pounds. Pigeons were also abundant. The next day they landed and camped in Hayward’s Sound. Writing from this place on August 4th, the day of departure for the Sault, Evans says that he had been visited by Chiefs from the Sault who spoke of their bands leaving that point and going about forty miles up the lake to a fine bay of excellent land and good fishing. Evans evidently had in mind the establishment of a school at this place. The party arrived at the Sault on August 22nd.

“Sault Ste Marie is a very handsome place,” he wrote. “It will surprise you when I say that the waters of the St. Clair are muddy in the clearest time when compared with these waters, they are as clear as crystal and teem with fish of the very first quality.”

But the Sault was not his destination. Up the north shore was the proposed scene of his labors and by October we find Evans and Hurlburt at the present Michipicotin. One of the first jobs undertaken was to lay in a supply of fish for the approaching winter. Snow had appeared as early as mid-September. A vessel from the Sault touched in on the 20th of October bringing letters and papers. Mr. Hurlburt about this time left for Fort William and Evans was alone. He had plans for going farther west in the spring, even as far as Lake Winnipeg.

‘We expect,” he wrote, “as we are furnishing ourselves with snowshoes, to visit the Indians during the winter. We have missed it much in not being furnished with good dogs as they cannot be obtained here without paying a high price from six to ten dollars and twenty each, and it is hardly possible to dispense with their services in the north. Had we some of the growling puppies from civilized life we’d teach them to be silent and industrious. Our prospects on Lake Superior are not by any means discouraging but many things conspire to make our mission tedious. First, we started too late by three months, as we should have left St. Clair in April at the latest instead of in July, and we are now consequently winter bound at this place instead of being three or four hundred miles farther on. We have had some snow, about a fortnight ago it snowed nearly all day, however it has all gone except on the mountains.”

At the first of November Evans set out for a visit to the Sault accompanied by two Indian boys, his objective being the establishment of a mission station at that important point. The weather by this time was extremely cold, the shores being covered with ice as were the oars and paddles used by the party. Describing this journey he says: “We were met by a heavy gale from the southwest. Several times we attempted in vain to land, the surf beat on the shore with too much violence and we were compelled to keep the lake, with a tremendous swell increasing every moment. The wind fell an hour before sunset and we got about dark within three miles of our landing place when the wind arose again with redoubled fury and we were tossing about three hours in the dark while the white foam of the majestic waves often threatened and sometimes even ventured into our little bark. We are now under the lee of a little island safe from harm. I have over head a good cloth tent, not quite airproof to be sure, on one side in front lies our little canoe and on the other side heaps of pine tops extending some distance in front as wind breakers, between these is our camp fire before which my moccasin soles are cooking while my back chills. My present stock of provisions consists of about two pounds of rusty pork, half a pound of worse butter than you ever found at St. Clair and a half a pound of good bread with fourteen potatoes and a little bit of tea and sugar. It still blows a hurricane and looks likely to blow on.”

It was a four-day journey on Lake Superior’s wild waters and at zero temperatures. “You may guess what kind of a swell we had,” he writes, “when we ran on Friday sixty miles between eight in the morning and ten at night before a wind which had the whole sweep of Lake Superior from Fort William to the Sault. It was grand, with our little Indian blanket sail we mounted the towering and majestic waves and skimmed like a duck over their white capt [sic] summits.”

Referring again to the abundance of fish in Lake Superior he says: “We have since our arrival caught four barrels of excellent fish, principally salmon trout with some whitefish-the fish here are all superior to any I have ever seen, the trout are not infrequently an inch thick with fine white fat resembling the leaf of a hog, and if hung in the sun will almost melt away leaving nothing save the skin and bones. They fry without anything to grease the pan and leave therein an abundance of fine pure sweet oil which is even good to shorten cake without leaving any disagreeable fishy taste.”

Evans spent the winter of 1838/39 at his lonely post on the lakeshore. He discovered that the Hudson’s Bay employees had found it impossible to grow potatoes or other vegetables and his conclusion was that the Indians would never become farmers—they must hunt forever. Mission work must take this into account. It would be well, therefore, that schools be established so that children would learn to read and write before they were twelve. They would have to be boarded, or they would be absent with their parents eight months out of twelve.

Of the country in general he wrote: “We have no government here and consequently—blessed be thanked—no politics. The country is the most barren waste imaginable. This winter has been particularly unfavorable. The snows have been almost incessantly falling from the 19th October so that the poor fellows on their hunting grounds have in several instances been utterly unable to provide for their families. We much fear some may have hungered to death, a misfortune by no means of rare occurrence in this country. In fact we have no great supply for ourselves for in November the boat was lost with 16 barrels of fish on the bar entering the river and all went to the bottom, a poor fellow with it, and the season was so stormy that 30 barrels more with 300 dry white fish could not be sent down the lake to this post.”

Evans returned to the East in the spring of 1839 and was assigned to a post in Upper Canada for the next year. In the spring of 1840 he again went West, this time as superintendent of Wesleyan Methodist Missions in the territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company. There he remained until 1846, covering vast regions in his missionary journeys and organizing the work of his church. He died on November 23, 1846, while on a visit to England where he had made a tour addressing missionary meetings and telling of his work in the Canadian West. His ashes were brought to Canada in 1954 and now rest at Norway House on Lake Winnipeg, his headquarters in the 1840s while working in the great company’s territories.

  1. James Evans was born at Kingston-upon-Hull, England, on January 18, 1801. Coming to Canada as a young man he was converted at a camp meeting and at Kingston in 1830 was received as a probationer for the Methodist ministry, being ordained two years later. He was chosen at once by the Conference for mission work to which almost the whole of his remaining years were devoted. In 1840 he became superintendent of the Wesleyan missions in the territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company and labored in these far distant regions until 1846.

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About the Author: Dr. Fred Landon of London, Ontario, was a Charter Member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, and a loyal friend and advisor from its beginning in 1944. His career was a multiple one. He was professor, librarian, newspaperman and author. Among honorary degrees he held Doctor of Letters from the University of Western Ontario where he was an Associate Professor, and Doctor of Laws from McMaster University. He was Chairman of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and a branch of the London Public Library is named for him. Dr. Landon was an Assistant Editor of INLAND SEAS and wrote numerous articles for the journal up to the time of his death in 1969. This account is one of his last manuscripts still in our files

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Last Trip of the BRUCE MINES, November 1854 – Winter 1972

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

By Roy F. Fleming

BRUCE MINES is pictured in a drawing circa 1870. Image from the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library archives.

The side-wheeler Bruce Mines was owned by the Montreal Mining Company which operated the copper mines along the St. Marys River known as Bruce Mines. Built in 1842 at Montreal, the ship, 126 feet long, of Welland Canal size, was the main connecting link between the little mining town near Sault Ste. Marie and the Lower Lakes. The vessel would take slag and copper ore from the mines down as far as Toronto where it was shipped on to England for smelting. Then the ship would bring back supplies for the mine’s operation and food for the village inhabitants.

In November 1854, the vessel, on her last trip of the season, discharged her load of ore at Toronto and took on a cargo of supplies for the return voyage. The ship then was in charge of Capt. Frederick McKenzie Fraser and Mate Duncan Lambert, both able and experienced mariners, familiar with their routes of travel.

After going through the Welland Canal, Lakes Erie and St. Clair, the ship passed into Lake Huron and made a call at Goderich, Ontario. At that port more food and a supply of salt were taken on, so that with four passengers and a crew of twenty-two, the vessel was now heavily loaded. In the afternoon of this day Monday, November 27, the vessel pulled out and took a northwesterly course for the False Detour, east of Drummond Island, the channel then used for entrance to the North Channel. There was a strong headwind but the ship rode well and made headway. Captain Fraser calculated that they would reach Bruce Mines late the following day.

However, about midnight a strong gale from the west came on and great waves struck the little vessel with tremendous force. The sea strangely changed direction several times and subjected the craft to uncalculated strains, so that very soon a number of seams opened out and water began to enter in large quantities! Men were set working at the pumps, but the water gained headway and it soon became evident that the vessel was in serious danger.

“Throw the deck cargo overboard,” the captain ordered in the hope of keeping the vessel afloat. However, by the time everything movable was thrown out, the situation was no better. The pumps were working in relays all that night. But by morning the water had risen in the hold and had put out the boiler fires — the engine stopping dead. The ship then drifted about helplessly, and everyone aboard realized that the situation was almost hopeless.

The officers knew they were off the coast of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula; the wind was driving them towards it but they were far away. At two o’clock in the afternoon a sailor on watch at the masthead reported “Land in sight to the east!” It seemed to be about twenty miles away, he said. Though the drift of the vessel was in the right direction, the rate was so slow there was no hope of reaching land before their craft would sink. Suddenly the ship’s carpenter rushed to the captain with the word, “We’ve only five minutes before the vessel will sink!” The crisis had come.

There were only two yawl boats on board and these were not large. If the weather had been fair all the company of twenty-six could probably have been carried in them, but with the surging waves the chances of the company surviving in them appeared very doubtful.

When the captain ordered the boats to be launched, the terror-stricken crew made a mad rush for them. Captain Fraser, a real commander of the best British naval traditions, cocked his two pistols, one in each hand. “I’ll shoot the first man who tries to enter a boat before I give the order!” he yelled. The men obeyed, and went back to work. However, when the boats were being lowered the tackle of one became snarled and the rope would not go through the pulley. With great presence of mind the mate seized an axe and cut the rope, allowing the boat to fall with a great crash into the water.

Mate Lambert and fourteen men entered this boat. Another man, the carpenter, jumped for the boat but missed it and sank to his death in the water. In the other smaller boat, Captain Fraser then took the nine persons remaining. The two boats had scarcely left the vessel when she sank, but left the upper deck floating. This float fortunately acted as a barrier to prevent the vortex of the sinking ship from drawing down the two overcrowded yawl boats.

The story of the miraculous escape of these twenty-five mariners in surging seas, many miles from a rocky shore, is told in a letter written to the Toronto Globe by one of the four passengers in Mate Lambert’s boat. It was published December 16, 1854, but the writer failed to sign his name. There were only two oars in each boat, the narrator says, but fortunately some buckets had been thrown in which were soon used for bailing. The boats pulled away from the sinking ship, and the rowers in each were able to keep the bow across the rolling waves and headed for shore. The crests of the waves came in over the gunwale continuously, but the men were able to bail out with the buckets, keeping the water below the fatal level.

Night came on and the boats separated. At 10 P.M. those in Lambert’s boat heard breakers ahead, but in the darkness they could not see shore. They heard waves crashing on rocks on both sides of them, yet in front no sound but the screaming gale. They were passing through a narrow gut between reefs. The rowers then ceased, and steadied their boat on what was an expanse of calm water. They could hear the roar of the breakers behind them.

Map of Bruce Peninsula and Cape Hurd.

In the darkness of night the men moved slowly about the basin they had entered. At last they grounded against a rocky cape and the men were then able to get on shore. When day broke the company found themselves on a small island in the lee of Cape Hurd near the top of Bruce Peninsula.

“If we had touched even one hundred yards farther down,” the letter writer tells, “we should have been all dashed against the rocks and inevitably lost. It was the will of the Almighty that we should land at the only spot on the coast where we could possibly save ourselves and that in the dark.”

The two rowers, one a passenger and one a deckhand, had done all the rowing from the wreck to the shore, laboring continuously for eight hours — from three o’clock in the afternoon till eleven o’clock at night. Their muscles were so played out that they were unable to stand. They had to be lifted from their places by their comrades.

Brush and logs were next gathered together and with a good fire soon blazing the men were able to warm themselves and dry their clothes. The two rowers soon regained their strength and fortunately suffered no ill effects from their prolonged ordeal.

By daylight the company was able to appraise their situation. There they stood, fifteen weary but undaunted men, on an uninhabited coast, without an ounce of food and no means of obtaining any! Only one of them knew anything of the lay of the land, Mate Lambert, who had served for years with Capt. Alexander McGregor in the Fishing Islands to the south.

“The peninsula,” he said, “is trackless, without even a trail through it. The nearest settlement of whites is at Sydenham (Owen Sound) 130 miles away.” He overestimated the distance by thirty miles, but the prospect was certainly very bleak. However, the company was cheered a little as they espied curls of smoke from a nearby island, and soon recognized Captain Fraser’s band, who had landed only a short distance away.

Mate Lambert’s group then moved over to join the captain’s, and there they conferred as to what should be done. Fraser, having sailed other vessels on Georgian Bay, knew the route to Owen Sound. The question was, would the men have the strength and tenacity, without food, to row such a long distance in cold stormy weather? But there was no other alternative, so the journey was decided on. It was agreed that after rounding the peninsula the boats should hug the shore in the lee of the west winds.

Early on Wednesday morning, November 29, the two lifeboats set out for Sydenham (now Owen Sound), Captain Fraser’s boat in the lead. They passd Cove Island and Collin’s Inlet (now known as Tobermory) and rounded Cabot’s Head into Georgian Bay. They passed slowly but steadily along the coast, rounding each point to keep in the shelter of the land. The rowers worked in relays.

During the first night the boats lost track of each other, the mate’s taking the lead. It was 8 o’clock Saturday morning, December 2, when the first boat arrived at Sydenham, four days and five hours after the Bruce Mines had gone down.

At three the next morning Captain Fraser and his men also arrived, and all the company was thankful in their strange deliverance from death. Food and rest were given to the poor refugees who had not eaten for five days. The villagers were appalled at the story the mariners told of the loss of their vessel, their strange deliverance from death and their terrible ordeal of rowing before they reached civilization.

Fonunately for the four passengers of the company, when they landed at Sydenham there was a schooner at the dock ready to set sail for the Bruce Mines. So they were able to reach home and bring the direful news of the sinking of their vessel, with the winter’s supplies for the village, and the loss of one life.

Captain Fraser was a scion of an old Scottish family. His father, Col. McKenzie Fraser, was an army officer and member of Parliament for a Scottish shire. The son had sailed the pioneer steamer of Georgian Bay, the Sir Francis Gore, from 1845 to 1851, and later commanded the steamer J. C. Morrison on Lake Simcoe, and the Prince Arthur during the Fenian Raids. Mate Duncan Lambert had lived in Goderich, and was an able seaman, having fished and sailed vessels under Capt. Alexander McGregor at Main Station in the 1840s. His son later kept the light at Chantry Island, Southampton, Ontario.

The sailing fraternity of the Great Lakes has had few officers as able and resolute in duty as were the two heroes of our story, Capt. Frederick Fraser and Mate Duncan Lambert. They controlled their seamen, and though they lost their ship, were able to save all on board with the exception of one man.

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About the Author:At the time of his death in 1958, Mr. Roy F. Fleming was writing a book on Great Lakes shipwrecks. Several of the completed chapters given to INLAND SEAS by Mrs. Fleming and their son, Mr. Bruce H. Fleming, have been published an earlier issues of our journal. Mr. Fleming was an instructor in art on the staff of the Ottawa Normal School, and for many years wrote historical articles, mainly on Great Lakes history, for the Owen Sound Sun Times, and for other papers and magazines. He was a Charter Member and a Trustee of the Great Lakes Historical Society.

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