The First Lighthouses on Lake Ontario near Kingston – Fall 1957

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

By R.A. Preston

On March 5, 1803, the Legislature of Upper Canada amended an act of 1801 for the collection of customs duties on shipping on Lake Ontario and included a clause authorizing duties for the erection and maintenance of lighthouses. One light was to be on Mississauga Point at the entrance to the Niagara River, a second on Gibraltar Point at York, and the third on Isle Forest (now Simcoe Island) at the entrance to the outer harbour at Kingston.1 Lighthouse duties at the rate of 3 d per ton were collected from every vessel passing any of the above places as from April 1, 1803.2

Mississauga Point Lighthouse

In 1804, Captain James Green, the Lieutenant-Governor’s secretary, sent a plan for the Mississauga Point Lighthouse to Mr. John Symington, the Collector of Customs at Niagara.3 The existence of the lighthouse at Mississauga Point is known from the testimony of a Mrs. Quade, the daughter of Dominick Henry, keeper of the lighthouse on Mississauga Point from 1803-1814. Mrs. Quade was born in the lighthouse-keeper’s house in 1804.4 Her evidence is confirmed by Heriot, who said in 1806 that it had been lately erected, by Christian Schultz (1807), and by Charles Prentice (October 1807).5 In 1808, the “Commons of Upper Canada,” having examined the state of the fund erected by the Act for erecting lighthouses, and having found that the revenue from the Tonnage Duties was not sufficient to complete all three, petitioned the Lieutenant-Governor to cause the lighthouse on Gibraltar Point to be erected. This lighthouse was then built.6 It is clear that the third lighthouse on Isle Forest was not yet erected and there is no reason to believe it had been put up by the time of the War of 1812.

In March 1818, Captain John Mosier of Kingston petitioned the Legislative Assembly to complain that only the harbour at York was provided with a lighthouse and that he, ‘tin making Port in the night time, particularly the Niagara River, has frequently hazarded life as well as property in the risk incurred.”7 Evidently, the lighthouse in which Mrs. Quade was born was no longer there after the War of 1812. She herself said that it survived the sack of Niagara in 1813 because it benefited the Americans as well as the British;8 but it did not survive the War. It was taken down to make way for the erection of a new fort.


On October 31, 1818, Mr. Joseph Clench gave notice of a bill in the Assembly to appropriate money for the erection of the lighthouses on Isle Forest and at Mississauga Point. His bill was referred to a Committee of the Whole House but seems to have gone no further.9 About the same time steps were taken to grant relief from the lighthouse duties for steamships, a move which was urged in the interests of the builders of the new Frontenac, built at Ernestown in order to forestall American rivalry in the steamboat field.10 An Act passed by the Legislature on November 27, 1818, exempted steam vessels from paying on the space taken up by their boilers and machinery; and at the same time it stated that, whatever had been the practice in the past, lighthouse duties were not to be collected at a port where there is no lighthouse.11 It would appear that the collection of the duty from vessels entering the Niagara River had continued after the demolition of the light. By 1818, then, there was only one lighthouse in Upper Canada, that at Gibraltar Point at the entrance to York Harbour.

The date of a third lighthouse (which would be the second oldest on Lake Ontario, since that at Mississauga Point was never rebuilt) is made a matter of some speculation because two maps seem to indicate that a light was built on Isle Forest as early as 1818. An undated map in the Public Archives of Canada, entitled “River St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario to Kingston,” shows on “Cage [Gage] Island formerly Isle aux Forets” (i.e. Simcoe Island) a “proposed site for Light House” on “Pt. Sir James, formerly 4 mile pt.,” and a “Licht [Light] F.,” meaning a fixed light, on “Pt. Yeo, formerly 9 mile pt.” The first named of these two points, which has retained its older designation and unfortunately no longer commemorates the British naval commander of the War of 1812, is situated at the widest part of Simcoe Island facing north-west. Nine Mile Point has also retained its older name. It is at the extreme south-west end of the Island facing the open water of Lake Ontario. Either of these lights could be the one planned by the Legislature on Isle Forest in 1803 and 1818.

The map on which these references to lights appear is a tracing and is dated on the back in pencil “1801- 1819.” But the names of geographical features on it prove that it was not made until at least as late as the end of the War of 1812. Sir James Yeo commanded the naval forces in Kingston from 1813 to 1815. Certain shoals on the map are marked “Netley,” ‘Regent,” “Melville,” and “Royal George,” obviously named after the ships of Yeo’s fleet. H.M.S. Netley bore another name until January 22, 1814.12 She was employed by the surveyors in 1815. A “Plan of Kingston and Vicinity,” which does not extend as far as Simcoe Island, was produced in 1816 by the surveyors Lt. H.L. Rennie, R.E., Lt. A.T.E. Vidal, R.N., and Act. Lt. Wm. Bayfield, R.N.13 It is possible that the undated tracing showing the light and proposed lighthouse on Simcoe Island may be another part of the same survey and that these are proposals for, or evidence of the existence of, a light or lights at the entrance to Kingston Harbour.

A Survey of the River St. Lawrence, from Lake Ontario to the Galop Rapids

A second map in the Public Archives, “A Survey of the River St. Lawrence, from Lake Ontario to the Galop Rapids,” is dated 1818 and is stated to be by Captain W.F.W. Owen, R.N. Owen had come to Lake Ontario in 1813 with Yeo and had succeeded him in November 1815. He was himself replaced by Sir Robert Hall in 1816. But between 1816 and 1817 Owen was engaged in a careful survey of the naval situation on the Lakes.14 It seems most likely that surveys of the Kingston area mentioned above were made under his direction and possibly while he was in command from 1815 to 1816. The map which bears his name is lithographed. It was possibly the sum total of surveys made by junior officers under his direction. Owen’s second map is similar in most of its features to the undated tracing but makes no reference to the proposed lighthouse on “Pt. Sir James, formerly 4-mile point.” However, “Light F,” the fixed light on “Point Yeo, formerly 9-mile Pt.” is now marked “45 feet vis. 15 mile,” which seems to imply that it was actually in operation.

As it is unlikely that there were at that time plans for two lights on the island, the information on the tracing might mean that there had at first been two different proposals for the site of the lighthouse on Isle Forest; and Owen’s printed map seems to show that the Nine Mile Point site was the one eventually selected. Captain Mosier’s petition in March 1818, gives us positive evidence that the lighthouse was not then in existence. Owen’s map suggests that it had been set up before the end of the year.

Maps and plans are, however, not always reliable evidence of the situation existing at a particular time. They may include proposals or projects; and they may be dated at the time of the survey, but copied and printed later with the inclusion of changes that had been made since the survey was carried out. Something of the sort appears to have happened in this case. There is no reference in the journals to the erection of a lighthouse on Isle Forest (or Gage Island) in 1818. On January 28, 1826, an act was passed to improve the lighthouse on Gibraltar Point, to impose duties for defraying the charge of the same, and to erect other lighthouses in the province.15 Between 1828 and 1829 a lighthouse was erected on the Fake Ducks;16 and in January of 1832 an Act was passed to erect a light between Nicholson’s Island and the Ducks in the County of Prince Edward.17 It is noticeable that these new lights were not at the entrance to a harbour. This may explain an attempt which was made in the session of 1831-2 to secure the abolition of lighthouse duties at York. A bill for that purpose failed to secure passage;18 but on February 13, 1833, provision was made for the maintenance of the four lighthouses “now erected in this Province,” namely at Gibraltar Point, the False Ducks, Long Point in Prince Edward County (now Point Petre), and Long Point in Lake Erie (Point Pele).19 As most of the lights were now in the open lake rather than at the entrance to a harbour, the cost of erection and maintenance could no longer be charged against a particular port.

On the same day in 1833, the Legislature passed an act for the building of a lighthouse on Nine Mile Point at the entrance to Kingston Harbour. John Macaulay, John Marks, and Hugh Christopher Thomson, were appointed commissioners to arrange the contract and supervise the work.20 The new lighthouse on “9 mile Point, Simcoe Id.” is shown on Charts of Lake Ontario dated 1836 and 1846. On the latter, Nine Mile Point is again called Yeo Point as on the Hall survey of 1818.21 From 1839, lighthouse tonnage duties at the rate of a shilling a ton were imposed on all British vessels navigating the lakes of Canada.22

Nine Mile Point Lighthouse, still standing today.

The fixed light on Nine Mile Point also appears on two lithographed charts by Edward M. Hodder printed in 1863 and 1866.23 On none of the four last mentioned charts is there a light or lighthouse shown on Four Mile Point; but by 1863 a red light is shown on Snake Island, which lies directly off that point. The first mention of this Snake Island light is in the Public Accounts of the Province of Canada for 1858, when L. Wartman was appointed Lighthouse keeper of Snake Island from April 1st of that year, and the inclusion of his annual rate of pay suggests that this was a new appointment.24 The List of Lights and Fog Signals for 1893 shows the same red light on Snake Island and also the fixed white light on Nine Mile Point which is named alternatively “Gage Point” although the Island itself was now called Simcoe. This same publication shows two range lights on Barriefield Common, which are still used, and also a gas light in the City Hall Clock, which has long been removed.25 In 1900 the lighthouse on Snake Island was rebuilt with a steel and concrete pier near the south end of the shoal surrounding the Island.26 In 1918 the Snake Island light was moved to Four Mile Point on Simcoe Island, thus partly fulfilling the project of exactly a century ago.27 The Four Mile Point light has now been replaced by a gas and bell buoy on the Middle Ground shoal fairly close to Snake Island which shows a white light, and a lighted buoy showing a white light near Snake Island. The lighthouse built on Nine Mile Point in 1833 is still in use; but it now shows a flashing white light in place of the fixed light.

  1. Journals of the Legislative Council of Upper Canada, Seventh Report of the Bureau of Arches for the Province of Ontario, 1910 (Toronto, 1911), pp. 195, 196, 198; Statutes for Upper Canada, 43 George Ill, Cap. II.
  2. Journals of the Legislative Council, Ontario Archives Report for 1910, 211, 371, 406; Journals of the Assembly, Ontario Archives Report for 1912, p. 525.
  3. Public Archives of Canada, Upper Canada Sundries, April 2, 1804. A plan of this lighthouse is in the Public Archives; and the J. Ross Robertson collection has a picture of the lighthouse and the keeper ‘s house.
  4. “Recollections of Mrs. Elizabeth Quade, nee Henry,” Niagara Historical Society, 11, Reminiscences of Niagara (Niagara, The Times, n. d.).
  5. George Heriot, Travels through the Canadas . . . (London: R. Phillips, 1807), p. 151; Heriot, Schultz, and Prentice are quoted in “References to Niagara in Early Books of Travel, Diaries, et c.,” Niagara Historical Society, No. 11, Reminiscences of Niagara, 37-8. The first Mississauga Point lighthouse is given the dates 1802-1815, in Niagara Historical Society, No. 32, Notes on Niagara, pp. 21-22. Its history is told in Lillian Rea Benson, “The First Lighthouse on the Great Lakes,” Inland Seas, Vol. I, No. 2, April 1945, pp. 14-17, where it is dated 1804-14.
  6. Journals of the Assembly of Upper Cana da, Report of the Ontario Archives for 1911, 261. See Rowley Murphy, “Gibraltar Point Light,” Inland Seas, Vol. Ill, No. 3, July 1947, pp. 150-154; No. 4, October 1947, pp. 248-253.
  7. Journals of the Assembly, Ontario Archives Report for 1912, 525.
  8. “Recollections of Mrs. Elizabeth Quade, nee Henry,” cit.
  9. Journals of the Assembly, Ontario Archives Report, 1913, 42, 46, 51.
  10. , pp. 47-8, 54, 70, 90, 92.
  11. Statutes of Upper Canada, 59 George III, Cap. XVI.
  12. P. Stacey, “The Ships of the British Squadron on Lake Ontario, 1812 -14,” Canadian Historical Review, XXXIV, 319. The only one of these shoals which has retained the name of the 1812 Warship is the Melville Shoal.
  13. A. Preston, ”The Fate of Kingston’s Warships,” Ontario History, XLIV, Foot­ note 29.
  14. George A. Cuthbertson, Freshwater (Toronto: Macmillan, 1931), p. 205.
  15. Journals 1825-6, 106, 112, 113, 118.
  16. Journals 1826-7, 43; 1829, p. 76.
  17. Journals, 1831-2, 96,
  18. Journals, 1831-2, 96.
  19. 3 IV, Cap. XXXV. According to the current List of Lights and Fog Signals in the Inland Waters, 1957 (Ottawa, 1957), the first three of these lights were originally established in 1808, 1828, and 1833. That on Point Pelee appears to be no longer in existence. The light on what is now called Long Point in Lake Erie dates from 1843, Ibid.
  20. 3 IV, Cap. XXXVI, 13 Feb., 1833; Journals of the Assembly of Upper Canada, 1832-3, p. 94. Marks was a former Naval purser who about this time took over the Kingston Dockyard.
  21. Public Archives of Ca na da, “Chart of Lake Ontario from actual survey by Augustus Ford, U. N.” (entered according to Act of Congress … 1836) and “Plan shewing the position of Hare Island and its capabilities for affording shelter for Gun Boats drawn to accompany the 4th Report of the Naval and Military Commission dated 29th January, 1846” (Boxer and Holloway Plan). The writer is indebted to the staff of the Public Archives for furnishing this and other in­ formation.
  22. Journals of the Assembly of Upper Canada, 1836-7, 525, 542; 1839, pp. 35, 387.
  23. Chart of Lake Ontario compiled from Surveys made by Capt. Owen and Herbert, R. N, and Capt. A. Ford, U S.N, with Harbours and Ports of the Lake Surveyed by Edward M. Hodder, Esq., M. D., Commodore of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. Lithographed, Printed and Published by W. C. Chewett & Co. of Toronto, 1863. The second map bears the same inscription but is dated 1866.
  24. Public Accounts for the Province of Canada for the year 1858 (Quebec: Rollo Campbell, 1859), p. 154.
  25. Department of Marine and Fisheries, List of Lights & Fog Signals on the Coasts, Ri vers, and Lakes of th e Dominion of Canada , 1893 (Ottawa, 1893), p. 102.
  26. Dominion of Canada, Sessional Papers, XXXIV, No. 9, 1900, p.
  27. List of Lights & Fog Signals, Inland Waterways,

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About the Author: Richard Arthur Preston, M.A., Ph.D., F. R. Hist. 5., Professor in the Department of History, Royal Military College of Canada, was born in Middlesbrough, England, and was educated at the University of Leeds and Yale University.   Before & present appointment be was on the faculty at Toronto University and at Cardiff University College. He has been a member of the Executive Committee of the Ontario Historical Society, and a member of the Council of the Canadian Historical Association. He is now a Vice president of the Kingston Historical Society. Dr. Preston is the author of Gorges of Plymouth Fort and a History of the Port of Kingston; and a co-author of Men in Arms: a history of the relation of warfare and Western Society and of A Short History of Kingston as a Naval and Military Centre. He will shortly publish in the Champlain Society’s Ontario series, two volumes of documents on the history of Kingston: Royal Fort Frontenac (with Major L. Lamontagne), and Kingston Before the War of 1812.

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Weather and the Great Lakes – Summer 1957

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

By H.N. Burke

The TRUESDALE taking water over the deck on Lake Erie

From the days of the early fur traders down to the present time, the Great Lakes and their effect on the weather has had a definite bearing on the growth of industries, the development of recreational facilities, the water supply for growing cities and communities, and a natural environment for a reasonably large segment of agriculture.

In 1870, the United States Congress passed a statute creating a national weather service. Embodied in that original statute was recognition of the importance of the effects of weather on commerce on the Great Lakes by the words, “For giving notice on the northern lakes and on the seacoast, by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms.”

The existing maritime commerce on the Great Lakes drew first attention of the newly-created weather service. Of the 25 stations originally established, a large proportion of them were at Great Lakes’ ports. The first warning message issued by the United States Weather Bureau was early in November 1870, for a storm on the Great Lakes. Gradually, display stations containing visual displays of storm warnings were established along the shores, displaying flags by day and lights by night, to warn the sailing vessels of approaching storms.

The invention of radio-telegraph and later, radio-telephone, improved communications with boats at sea so that up-to-the-minute warnings could be received even if out of sight of a visual display. Modern freighters on the Lakes depend entirely on two-way radiotelephone for their weather advices but the visual displays are now playing an important part in the safe conduct of fishing fleets and the rapidly increasing number of pleasure craft.

The present weather service to the Great Lakes consists of routine forecasts issued every six hours during the navigation season, and broadcast by a number of marine radio stations. In addition, a Great Lakes Weather Bulletin comprised of a number of vessel weather reports, as well as a large number of reports from shore installations, is broadcast each six hours. Many AM-FM stations throughout the Lakes also broadcast the lake forecasts, particularly during the small boat season.

Warnings, issued by the Weather Bureau when necessary, are given prompt and widespread dissemination by marine radio, commercial radio, Coast Guard and display stations. The weather information is used by Great Lakes captains to choose the best and safest routes during storm conditions, or possibly to seek protective shelter in the lee of some island or lake shore. Perhaps no one but the farmer pays such close attention as the mariner to the weather and how it will affect his day-to-day operation.

Fog lays over Toledo. Photo by Paul LaMarre, III

The mariner is concerned in the early spring with the ice conditions and the probable weather that might permit blocked harbors and passages to open. Fog, especially in the spring when large masses of warm, moist air from the south sweep northward over the Lakes, presents a hazard to navigation, and at times brings movement of vessels to a complete halt. Within the last ten years many of the larger ships have been equipped with radar to permit them to proceed safely even under fairly heavy fog conditions. Throughout the summer, thundersqualls with wind gusts sometimes exceeding 60 miles per hour are encountered. These sudden squalls are the greatest danger to small fishing and pleasure craft, thousands of which are operating on the Lakes during the summer months. In the fall, Great Lakes marine commerce encounters its worst storms. Large storms covering hundreds of miles move eastward or north­eastward across the Great Lakes. The storms of November 27, 1905, and November 8 to 11, 1913, are well-remembered by many still sailing the Lakes. Of more recent date, the Armistice Day storm of 1940 resulted in severe loss of lives and property over the three Upper Lakes.

Improvements in construction and sturdiness of boats, increased and improved weather services by both the United States and Canada, and modern navigational aids, have all combined to outwit the disastrous meteorological effects of weather on lake shipping. Progress continues as research gradually builds up our knowledge of the many complex factors operating in the atmosphere that work to make up our weather. New equipment is being developed to extend the area of observations formerly limited to permanent observation points. Storm detection radar is the latest aid now being used to track weather. An installation has just been completed at Cleveland, Ohio, that has a range of approximately 200 miles. The skies over all of Lake Erie can be scanned for echoes. Echoes from meteorological phenomena can be evaluated in terms of area coverage; intensity; whether storm is developing or dissipating; direction and distance from station; direction and speed of movement, and altitude of the top of the storm. This information can be an invaluable aid in prompt issuance of small craft warnings during thunderstorm or line squall conditions.

The location of the largest inland seas in the world, in the north temperate zone, and surrounded by a vast continental area, gives its day-to­day weather a complex character. Although the climate is considered to be continental, it is less so than the large area in the same latitudes west­ward to the Rockies. It has no rainy or dry season as such, and precipitation is well distributed throughout the year, although particular years will vary considerably from average. Floods for the most part are minor, as compared to those experienced in the larger river basins of the country.

In general, the Lakes modify temperature extremes over what it would otherwise be. The winters are less cold and the summers less warm, with the greatest effect at the shores of the Lakes, and diminishing effects progressively, as you move inland from the Lakes. Although the cold waters of the Lakes delay spring over wide areas, fruit growers and horticulturists consider it a blessing, as the early growth of buds is delayed until the frost season is well over. Again, they count their blessings in the fall, as the warm waters of the Lakes ward off frost and lengthen the growing season beyond that of more inland areas. While the Lakes without doubt, affect the precipitation pattern of a much larger area, these effects are not as well defined as the temperature effects. However, local effects in the form of heavy snows, usually over very small areas, and particularly on the lee side of any of the Lakes, are pronounced examples of precipitation caused by the Great Lakes.

In any discussion of weather and climate, the question, “Is climate changing,” invariably arises. The answer is “yes.” Geologists can trace down through the ages a succession of climatic changes either towards warmer or colder for millions of years. However, most people are not concerned with the climatic change requiring thousands of years, but with the changes that are happening now. Here, unfortunately, the meteorologist encounters a number of factors that are not meteorological. Systematic weather observations in this country go back less than 100 years, a few perhaps longer.  A study of these records do show small changes, but it is difficult to prove that they are wholly meteorological. The change over the years in the exposure of the instruments from a purely rural exposure, to one surrounded by a metropolitan area, can appreciably affect the records. The removal of trees and vegetation, part of nature’s air conditioning plant, and the substitution of factories, houses, thousands of miles of roads and driveways, are but a part of the changes in climate that are purely man-made. The heat given off by millions of automobiles, industrial gases, better-heated homes, are but a few of the factors that man is contributing to changing climate. That the question of climate change is not new to this generation is attested by the following, taken from the Niles National Register published in Baltimore, Maryland, August 10, 1816:

“With regard to our own country it has been observed, that since 1812, the seasons have been very unlike what they had formerly been. We do not pretend to conjecture as to the causes of this change, our present business is to enquire what change has taken place, its effects and probable consequences of its continuance.”

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About the Author: Mr . Burke is Meteorologist in Charge of the Weather Bureau Airport Station, at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, Cleveland, Ohio.

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

By John Borman

Appropriately, Alfred Parker’s epitaph reads, “HE LOVED THE LAKE.”

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About the Author: John Borman was born and raised on Put-in-Bay and knew Captain Parker all his life. John even helped raise three of Captain Parker’s grandchildren and wrote, “I am very proud of them!” Borman has many fond memories of riding alongside Parker in his wheelhouse.

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The Last of the Sidewheelers – Spring 1957

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

By Dan M. Weber

With three months required to dismantle the wooden superstructure of the City of Detroit, the wrecking contractors announced on November 29th that superstructures of the Greater Detroit and the Eastern States would be burned to speed up the scrapping operation for these remnants of the D & C fleet. Burning arrangements were made with Captain Frank Becker, operator of a Detroit towing company, who had prior experience in burning the Put-In-Bay in 1953. Having spent some 40 years on the Lakes, and being active in several nautical organizations, including the Marine Historical Society of Detroit, he was not content merely to tow them off to an isolated spot and set them afire. As the souvenir collectors made their last trips aboard these boats in search of mementos, he made plans for a farewell ceremony befitting their importance in the history of passenger travel on the Great Lakes.



The Greater Detroit, built in 1924 at a cost of $3,500,000, along with her sister ship, Greater Buffalo, were the largest passenger ships to sail on the Great Lakes, and the largest sidewheelers in the world. Their overall length of 535 feet exceeded the Aquarama by 15 feet, although the gross tonnage of the Aquarama is approximately 11,000 compared to their 7739. Their 12,000 horsepower inclined engines were the most powerful ever installed in freshwater ships. The Eastern States, built in 1902, was much smaller (366 feet overall) and less glamorous. However, she was a real “workhorse,” giving 48 years of dependable service between Detroit and Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, and Detroit and Chicago.

The burning was originally scheduled for December 10th at 6:00 P. M. in Lake St. Clair, approximately three miles offshore from the Grosse Point Yacht Club. Representatives from NBC and local and out­of-town newspapers were assembled at the Third Street Dock at 9:00 A. M. that morning, but 35 mile-per-hour winds forced postponement of the ceremony for two days. Nature seemed to be lending a hand in prolonging their life, but not for long. On December 12th, the weather forecast was more favorable, and the press representatives assembled again. Captain Lewis Mantell, last skipper of the Greater, came out of retirement at Belle River, Ontario, and donned his uniform for the final flag raising on her stern. A woman with 30 years’ service in the house­ keeping department of the D & C was also on hand. Although reminiscing freely about the Greater’s glorious past, they did not wish to remain for the fiery finale. Around 10:30 A. M. the procession got underway with four tugs abreast, the B. H. Becker, Atomic (1955 International Tug Race Winner), Aburg, and Ethel 5., towing the Greater while the Eastern States was tied on behind. These four tugs abreast were quite a sight themselves, and a fifth tug, G. F. Becker, was utilized by Captain Becker to direct the operation by radio-telephone.

GREATER DETROIT and EASTERN STATES under tow on December 12, 1956

As they headed up-river, the auto-carrier George Ingalls and the carferry Lansdowne gave their farewell salutes of three long and two short whistles, acknowledged by the tugs. The sun broke through the overcast for a few moments, giving downtown Detroiters a last glimpse of these once­ stately craft which had sailed on the busy waterway at their front door. The souvenir hunter, the art collector, and the man seeking salvageable material for a project at home or in his business, had paid thousands of dollars for the more valuable furnishings aboard these ships. The Greater still presented an impressive outward appearance as the December winds whined through her littered cabins and decks. The Eastern States looked more bedraggled tagging along behind – minus her wheel house and with many windows broken. Proceeding past Belle Isle and out into Lake St. Clair, the funeral procession dropped anchor in a shallow dumping ground in Canadian waters. However, using two Canadian tugs and mooring in Canadian waters necessitated an unexpected customs clearance for Captain Becker’s two tugs which were to take press representatives out to the burning site.

Traffic jams had developed on East Jefferson Avenue on the two previous evenings as thousands of motorists with their families came out to bid the ships “goodbye.” Perhaps the postponements diminished the crowd on December 12th, but the police departments of communities on Lake St. Clair required extra help to keep traffic moving. Many came and went, or flooded newspaper switchboards with calls as the hours dragged by without any sign of fire. Little did they know of the frustrating delays being encountered by Captain Becker and his associates in getting the fires started. However, those among the estimated 15,000 spectators who held out until 10:00 P. M. were well rewarded for their patience, even though many were moist-eyed as the spectacle unfolded before them.

Press and newsreel representatives, and some people previously associated with the D & C Navigation Company, had gathered at Captain Becker’s apartment at 3:30 P. M. in anticipation of a 4:oo P. M. departure to the scene. However, the delay for customs clearance resulted in a 6:30 departure. The G. F. Becker, a former mail boat on the Detroit River, contained a well-equipped cabin which accommodated some 12 to 15 reporters and photographers. others in the party were accommodated aboard the smaller B. H. Becker, which also carried fireworks to be shot from the stern of the Greater for half an hour preceding the burning.

We headed into a moderate sea which brought spray over the bow, and in 24 degree temperature the deck soon became coated with ice. The pitching and rolling had a nauseating effect on several of us in the crowded, heated cabin. After an hour’s ride, the ghostly white form of the Greater loomed before us in the G. F. Becker’s searchlight. Photographers slung their cameras over their shoulders and ventured out on the deck, de-iced to some extent with salt. Original plans were to spotlight the top deck so that photographers might shoot the lowering of the flag and the playing of taps. However, rough waters forced cancellation of fireworks and this ceremony on the Greater’s stern, so the men preparing inflammatory materials aboard both ships were taken off. As the firing was about to begin, it was discovered that 30 gallons of fuel oil were still to be spread on the Greater. With some difficulty, three men were placed back aboard her and 45 minutes were consumed in distributing the oil and getting these men back on the tugs. At 9:00 the ships were ready, but the electrical detonator from tug to ship could not be used due to the rough water. A flare was then tossed aboard the Greater and it started a small fire on the main deck at the last passenger gangway. As it was about to flicker out, the B. H Becker went alongside and a roman candle was shot into a pile of oil-soaked scrap lumber which the wrecking company had gleaned from their yard and loaded into the main deck. This material flared up in a few seconds and the burning was really underway at 9:45. The partly used roman candle was cast overboard, and the sight of colored balls of fire, shooting back at the B. H Becker from the water, was one of the few occasions for laughter that night!

GREATER DETROIT burning on December 12, 1956

While the fire licked its way to the upper decks, a few more fireworks were set off for the entertainment of those who waited ashore. Flame broke through the roof at 10:00 and inched forward against the wind. The sky was lighted for miles around and great clouds of smoke billowed down toward Detroit.

As the press tug cruised back and forth, the wind diminished, the water became smoother, and photographers were able to take pictures without the risk of being tossed overboard. However, just as the NBC Television filming began with the blowing of taps, a wave hit the tug over the stern. The bugler, Captain Becker, and NBC interviewer Richard Applegate, were tossed to the deck, getting their shoes filled with water. Those who saw one and a half minutes of the burning on the Chet Huntley-Dave Brinkley program at 7:45 P. M. the following night, may now better appreciate the difficulties encountered in filming that brief scene!

By 11:00 P. M. the flames had reached their peak, and attention was then diverted to the Eastern States. Being anchored only a few feet down-wind from the Greater, it was expected that flaming embers would blow onto the Eastern so that both ships would be afire together. Some flame did leap across open water and ignite wooden deck railing on the Eastern’s bow, but it burned very slowly. A few creosote-impregnated fenders also caught fire. However, to the surprise of many, the embers which dropped on her boat deck in great numbers did not touch off a sweeping conflagration. When her turn came to go up in flames, she slipped her anchor, and drifted approximately a mile away before going aground. It seemed that she was making a last effort to escape her fate. Being off-wind, the few little fires aboard burned very slowly, and it was necessary for a tug to go alongside and throw a flare into the main deck, which also contained combustible material.

Her half-century old superstructure with countless coats of paint to feed the flames, was soon aglow inside. To the accompaniment of gun­ powder explosions, which caused her to shake noticeably, the flames shot through the roof at 11:45. Snow had been failing and few of the press chose to remain on deck any longer. In their uncomfortably cold condition, they asked to be taken ashore. However, those of us who remained topside, saw the more spectacular blaze as the brilliant orange flames mounted skyward – higher and brighter than those of the Greater. It was a bit paradoxical that the ship which was the least glamorous of the fleet should provide the most colorful finale to this era which had come to an end. Even the ghost of Frank Kirby might have smiled at this turn of events for his “proud old lady.” As we departed, the Eastern was still burning brightly, while the Greater had begun to cool off – the metal railings and fixtures in her superstructure collapsing into twisted wreckage.

We docked at 1:00 A. M., cold and tired after six and a half hours on the sturdy though bouncing tugs. It was “A Night to Remember” for the rest of our lives and looking back on the events of that evening there came to mind a particularly appropriate quotation from the works of John Masefield, “We shall not see such ships as these again.”

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About the Author: Mr. Weber is a resident of Toledo, Ohio, and holds a Master of Arts degree in Social Administration from Ohio State University. Previously engaged in adult probation work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin , he is presently a Case-Work Supervisor in the Lucas County Juvenile Court.

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A German Traveller Visits the Soo in 1855 – Winter 1956

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

By Johann Georg Kohl
Translated by Henry C. Koch

On June 18, 1835 the Illinois, small wooden steamer, locked through the Sault Canal, first vessel to pass though the channel which had been two years in the building. It was an object of both Public and commercial amazement, certainly a sight worthy to be included in the itinerary of all travelers in the Great Lakes region.

It was to be expected then, that Johann Georg Kohl, a professional traveller and geographer from Germany, should stop at Sault Sainte Marie to inspect this new feat of American engineering, on his steamer tour of the Great Lakes.

Johann Georg Kohl

Kohl was born in Bremen in 1808 and was educated in law at Gottingen, Heidelberg and Munich. He was a private tutor in Courland for several years and travelled extensively in Russia later establishing himself in Dresden. From this city as a base, he made excursions to nearly every country in Europe and carefully and thoughtfully described what he saw in a series of publications. He was an observer of social and economic conditions as well as of people and scenery.

Kohl arrived from Berlin in 1854 and spent the next four years traveling and searching for early maps of this country and its Atlantic Coast.

After Kohl’s return to Germany be was employed as state Librarian at Bremen. He then wrote a number of important works on early American geography and exploration, among them the eight volume, A History of the Discovery of the East Coast of North America … from 990 to …  1578, which contains facsimile copies of many of the earliest maps known to exist. His Kitchi-Gami, Wanderings round Lake Superior is an exhaustive and valuable treatise on Indian life, – according to one bibliographer the best ever written.

Kohl’s account of his visit to the Soo is contained in Chapter 29 of his Reisen im Nordwesten der Vereinigten Staaten (2nd ed., New York, 1857), from which the following is translated. He began his lake trip at Chicago in early July, 1855, embarking on the steamship Traveller. He broke his trip now and then to see major cities and points of interest, but by August he was ready to leave Mackinac for Lake Superior.



On the Fifth of August I shipped on board the steamer Louisiana for Lake Superior and especially for the famous waterfalls or rapids of St. Marie at the outflow of this lake. It is a very interesting journey of about 70 miles. At first we travelled in beautiful weather over the northwestern end of Lake Huron and then we sought the entrance to the canals and channels in which the waters of Lake Superior flow southeast.

A chain of large and small islands swings in a semicircle around the northern end of Lake Huron and divides it into two (waterways), the so-called Georgian Bay and the North Channel. These islands are called the Manitoulin and for the present are primarily inhabited by Indians. The only whites on these islands are some pious Catholic missionaries who preach Christianity among the natives.

Only at the entrance to the inner waters, on Drummonds Island, have white people broken through the forest. They have drawn up the plan of a small city in the hope that the small harbor there would be at a propitious spot. I met the owner and proprietor of this city and he told me that among other things on his island that were useful for building a town, he had discovered a quarry where the rock had been split by nature into pure square stones so that one could choose square blocks of all sizes ready for construction. There were not only perfect horizontal cracks through the rock, which formed strata of similar thickness, but there were also perpendicular cuts across the rock which completed the dissection into cubes and parallelepipeds. I heard later that this quarry was already known in Detroit and that houses had already been built there of these square stones chiseled by nature.

Again this appeared to me as a small part of the American Mother Nature which provided everywhere for its spoiled American children in such an astonishingly maternal manner. If the Americans are neither enervated nor degenerate, and if they preserve their vigor and efficiency, then we must strike out the famous line of Goethe, where he says that nothing would be more difficult to endure than a long series of fortunate, prosperous days.

We crossed the North Channel, perhaps 15 miles wide, and landed in Bruce Mines in Upper Canada. The English have opened a copper mine here which, to be sure, is not as productive as the famous mines on the United States side, or as a German-American miner whom we had on board, expressed it: on the “States-side.” On the States-side, this man told me, they paid better wages and they took out pure copper by the hundredweight. Here on the English side, as in Europe, they had to take the copper out laboriously, fragment by fragment, smelt it, refine it and put it through all sorts of processes. Half of the people in the American mines, he said, were German. He himself had also worked there. However, during the previous winter, at the time of the Depression, when they frequently reduced the wages, he thought he would rather turn to farming and had asked a friend to buy him a piece of land near Chicago. He had already paid ten dollars in advance as down payment. Now, after having seen his land, he was feeling very low. It had been so terrible down South that he had left his land and ten dollars behind him and quickly come back up North again, where conditions had now improved and where one felt much better.

Bruce Mines, Canada

Since it was Sunday the entire population of little Bruce Mines, all dressed up, had come down to look at our steamer. There were several hundred curious and colorfully dressed men, women and girls standing at the end of the pier, eager to pick up any news we might have brought. I looked with the greatest interest at this small collection of subjects of Her Britannic Majesty.         I must say that a breath of good old Europe wafted across to me. The women looked very lively and nice and men appeared stronger, sturdier and more robust. It also appeared to me as if the people were more wide-awake and talkative. I don’t know how to account for it directly, but it was certain that in this little band of people everything looked different from a similar group on the States-side. I will not say that it was all to the advantage of the English side, but a European, even a German, can perceive much of the Fatherland at this most extreme northwest end of Canada. (sic) In front of one of the houses I saw a poor old woman mending the clothes of her children. She must have been either very poor or perhaps a French Catholic, since she did this on Sunday. She had an amazing amount of wrinkles in her face, wore large glasses and worked very diligently. Such a poor wrinkled old woman I had not seen in the young West.

“Briefly, sir,” I said to an American standing next to me, “this little Canadian town really pleases me very much.” “It is a poor place,” he answered, “doesn’t pay at all. The people are fools that they don’t come over to our side. The land is hard and thankless, and even in September the potatoes sometimes freeze on them.” That was true, to be sure; as friendly as were the Sunday people, just so bleak was the sight of their coast land. Nothing but dark, almost black granite rock which extended in islands out into the water.

For the rest of the journey, almost up to the rapids, the landscape remained rather wild and bleak, although not at all uninteresting, especially on so magnificent a day as today. Our entire broad waterway, called the St. Mary’s River, was strewn with a mass of large, small and tiny islands, between which the channels of clear water flow, dividing and uniting. The rounded dark granite rocks of Bruce Mines recurred here and there and at one place I saw a row of rocks in the water with such rounded backs that it appeared as if the whole mass had been run through a sausage machine.

Everywhere the scenery is wild and lonesome; both banks of the river are rocky, marshy and trackless with neither a village nor friendly church for mile upon mile. The villages which do lie upon the river banks usually have but one resident. For example, there is Churchville where Mr. Church lives, and if I remember correctly also Brownsville with Mr. Brown and Paymentsville with the Payment family. I have a special chart of this river on which all those cities are plotted for the future with their proposed streets and public squares indicated, as if they were old city-states. We visited the population of one of these cities, i.e. Mr. Church. He had chosen his site very well and had built some blockhouses on a peninsula at the entrance of a lake. There he carried on a flourishing business with the passengers of the steamships which did him the honor of landing for a few moments in his harbor.

In spite of the apparently impenetrable wilderness the Indians on the American side had been driven away by civilization and had entirely disappeared. On the Canadian side, however, where more consideration is taken of the Indians, there is still a village whose huts and tents stretch along the bank for well over a mile.

Long Sault Rapids

The only really active point on the entire length of the river is near the famous cataracts and rapids. From either side they have always been the terminus of voyages heretofore, and have thus given rise to the establishment of a small harbor town and trading post. On the English side the Hudson Bay Company has established one of its forts, which in turn has drawn fishermen, farmers and customs officials. On the American side lies the small center of Sault Sainte Marie, first an old Catholic mission, then an Indian gathering place and a small trading post of the French and Canadian trappers. Now, when the place has become more and more Americanized, it is also the seat of a Catholic bishop of the newly created diocese which embraces all the extensive wilds which surround Lake Superior.

The English and Americans call this place simply: “the Sault,” or rather according to their pronunciation: “the Soo .” This is indeed laconic but not as pretty and sonorous as the Latin name which still lives in the title of the bishop of this region: “Villa Sanctae Mariae ad Cataracts.”

To me it has always been a truly remarkable circumstance in the history of this region that these cataracts and Lake Superior were discovered by the French even earlier than the ends of the lower lakes, Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan and their connection with one another. I could produce some very interesting old maps, which I copied in Paris in the Marine Archives, on which Lake Superior is represented with geese and ducks swimming on it as a special branch of the St. Lawrence system, and some of the southern lakes again as another special branch. It is explained by the fact that the French did not come here from lake to lake on the route of the main channels, but on a roundabout way through the Ottawa River.

The river falls about 16 feet within the cataracts on a stretch of one mile. Although this is not high, the roaring and bubbling, the foam and splashing of the clear waters make a powerful impression. The strangest thing is that in the midst of this stirred-up stretch there are completely calm and mirrorlike places in which the water comes almost to a standstill through counter-currents. These are favorite spots of the fish and the Indians, skilled with their canoes in the cataracts, especially seek out these calm places to fish.

These rapids would be an insurmountable barrier for any other than Indian boats and boat men. Since the lake water never rises appreciably, the rocks and sandbars never disappear during the year, as they do at similar rapids at Louisville on the Ohio, and the difficulty remains constant all year long. As a result Lake Superior remained to a large degree isolated and cut off from the lower lakes. It had, as it were, its own flotilla, but this was extremely small. Aside from a great many Indian canoes and Mackinaw boats, it consisted of a few small cutters of the Hudson Bay Company and some small American propeller boats which, however, did not have power enough for the frequent heavy storms of the lake.

The canal which they had long wanted to build to avoid the cataracts did not need to be very long, but it presented a large and expensive difficulty. It had to be hewn entirely out of rock. Up until the discovery of the great wealth of copper on the south bank of Lake Superior, the interest in the navigation of these waters was never great enough to support sufficiently such an undertaking. But the more treasure that was taken out of the copper mines, and consequently the more the small harbors on the south bank of the lake were populated, so much more urgent became the demands for a penetration of that vexatious barrier.

For this purpose there was finally formed a company with the necessary capital and the enterprise was stimulated by a gift of a million acres of land. The company was to choose these million acres from the unsettled government lands in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan according to its own discretion. In this way the amazing excavation finally could be carried out. A sufficiently broad and deep groove was blasted out of the rock plateau alongside the rapids, was provided with the necessary sluices and now, finally, for the first time at the beginning of this year of 1855 the canal, which now connects Lake Superior with the rest of the St. Lawrence system, was given over to navigation and commerce.

Immediately a half dozen of the best and most elegantly fitted-out steamers were sent in this direction, bringing hundreds or rather thousands of curious travelers up to the newly discovered lake, bringing them into its most westerly corner, and also collecting from all these corners and small harbors the large quantities of ore which were now brought down to the southern smelting furnaces.

With justice the Americans consider this remarkable Sault Sainte Marie canal as a great national enterprise. It is probably the largest and most interesting undertaking which they have recently achieved within their broad frontiers. It removed the separating isthmus between the two largest freshwater seas in the world. For this reason it is so much more to be regretted that it was not more solidly and more pleasingly carried out. The great American construction of canals and roads is not altogether distinguished by taste, not even the much praised canals of New York nor the Erie Canal. The reply is: “And yet they have already held for a good long time and serve the purpose of commerce.” That is true. It is also true that the main work of the St. Marie canal, the deep cut in the rock, is actually there and cannot easily be obliterated.

Sault Locks in 1865

Concerning the locks, however, and the masonry with which the canal is enclosed, although I am no competent expert I will risk saying this, that if a Dutch, or English or French canal is compared with it, this St. Marie will appear as a superficial and careless piece of work next to conscientiously and solidly finished work. Even a layman can understand that it cannot be called a Roman work. The wood in the sluices is already splintered with many cracks and holes. The stones and boulders with which the walls of the canal were finished were so loosely thrown together that it is doubtful if they can withstand the first frost let alone the rigors of a northern winter, where the Romans piled mass upon mass without cement they still lie there unmoved after a thousand years. If one goes along this year-old St. Marie canal, one already finds many of the stones shoved out of their place, twisted and out of balance. Many parts of the walls are made of the small red sandstone rocks which are so common in this region, not cemented together but stuffed together. It will be said that this is a matter of secondary interest; the clever construction of the sluices and the cut in the rock is more important. Nevertheless, in the end this new work will have to be made more solid or annually repaired and cleaned out.

It is also annoying for me to see that there is not a trace of aesthetic care to be discovered in this work. I admit that canals in general little provoke the fancy; but this canal did. The circumstances demanded something just right for it, to build something not merely useful but also something beautiful. The canal is very short; it can be seen from beginning to end almost with one glance. As has been said it was all cut out of the bedrock and thus because of its difficulty and importance it was worthy of a monumental embellishment. If the Egyptians had had to do this they would have put obelisks at both ends of the canal, the Austrians have carved lions out of the rock where they have had to widen the channel of the Danube. If they didn’t want obelisks and lions here they at least could have planted an avenue of trees and an orderly path along the canal. There is not even a railing here and so the canal has already served as a grave of many nocturnal wanderers. If many Americans should find this too much to ask at least they will wonder with me that there is not even a memorial tablet in Latin, or for all I care, in English…. And if they don’t want any of this, then they should at least force their company to remove the refuse, rubble, fallen stone and excavated dirt which lies in long disorderly piles. Everywhere else in civilized countries this type of thing is obliterated or so used and piled up that it is somewhat concealed. – Did I say in civilized lands? No, have not the old, only half-civilized American aborigines, in the erection of their tumuli and other earth monuments so destroyed all trace and remains of their work that we do not yet know where they obtained the earth?

With this rather pompous little lecture Herr Kohl concluded his stay at the Soo and continued his boat trip though the Great Lakes.

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About the Translator: Mr. Koch, who made this translation, is head of the Literature and Social Sciences Division , Michigan State University Library

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Eye Witness Reports of the Burning of the NIAGARA- Fall 1956

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

Edited by William A. McDonald 

The short stretch of water along the west shore of Lake Michigan between Port Washington and Manitowoc seemed to be an ill fated spot for the early steamers which ran in the passenger trade of the period. The settlers had barely recovered from the shock caused by the loss of the Phoenix north of Sheboygan when they were again startled by another disaster in which, while the loss was not as great as the Phoenix, it was heavy enough to arouse the sympathy of everybody and was accompanied by harrowing scenes which were the more terrifying that they happened in the sight of hundreds on the shore and scores on vessels in the vicinity which were hurrying to the assistance of the sufferers.


On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 24, 1856, the steamer Niagara of the Reed Line caught fire and burned to the water’s edge five miles off Port Washington and two or three miles north of that place. The Niagara was one of the finest boats on the lakes at that time and traded between Collingwood and Chicago. She was commanded by Captain Fred Miller, an excellent sailor and a favorite with the traveling public and for this reason the steamer had on board a large list of passengers in the cabin and steerage, on what was to be her last trip. The steamer left Collingwood two days before the tragedy with 75 cabin passengers and about 180 in the steerage, most of them emigrants bound for the west. At Mackinac where the Niagara put in, six more cabin passengers were taken on board and at Manitowoc several more were added while a number were put off to make their way overland to points where they intended locating. This left, as near as any of the officers could determine, between 285 and 300 passengers and crew on board when the boat left Sheboygan for Milwaukee that pleasant September afternoon. The day was one of the beautiful fall days and the little village of Port Washington could be seen as a dull blot to the southwest.

The dread cry of “fire” ran through the cabin causing the blood to chill in the hearts of all who heard it. The fire, as near as could be determined, broke out around the smoke stacks where they issued from the deck. Everything in the vicinity was as dry as tinder, and almost before the crew or passengers could realize the danger they were in, the flames had spread to an extent that the hose, which Captain Miller, awakened from a sleep in his cabin, ordered manned, was of no use.

At the first cry there was the wildest excitement. The passengers rushed here and there – families gathered together to face death or help each other to escape as the case might be. Captain Miller moved, calm and energetic, issuing orders that were promptly obeyed by the crew. It was impossible to save the boat and the only hope was that the fire would not drive the people on board into the water until help could reach them, and help was coming as fast as sail and steam could bring it. The schooners Dan Marble, Pilot and another schooner, the name which is not remembered, were a short distance away and they at once put for the burning steamer – with every sail drawing the light breeze. The steamer Illinois with Captain Blake in command was some miles away but went at once to the scene. About ten miles to the south the steamer Traveler with Captain Sweeney was coming to the rescue.

But in spite of all this help so near, scores were to give up their lives before assistance could reach them. The boat when the fire was discovered was headed for the shore with all steam on, but the engineers could not remain at their posts for more than a few minutes. Five minutes from the time the alarm was given the wheels stopped and the steamer was left to drift. In 15 minutes from that time, so swiftly did the flames do their work, there was not a person left on board. When Captain Miller found there was no hope of saving the boat he ordered the doors of the staterooms thrown overboard for floats and supplemented this by throwing over washstands, chairs and everything which would float a person for a few minutes until the rescuers, coming up on every side, might reach them.

There is no doubt that the action taken by Captain Miller saved many lives, but as it was, between 150 and 180 lives were lost. As the flames crept forward and aft the passengers were crowded closer and closer to the bow and stern and one by one had to plunge into the cold lake. The rescuers could see the people dropping in clusters into the lake, most of them never to rise again. Ropes had been lowered alongside the steamer in order to give those in the water something to cling to. There they hung, as one who was present that day said, “like strings of fish,” until the ropes were burned off when they sank and drowned. It was an awful sight and the pity of it was that a few seconds made the difference of life or death to so many.

Two boats were safely lowered and got away for shore. Another boat was being lowered from the stern when Congressman John B. Macy, who was a passenger on the boat, jumped into it and being a heavy man, tore out the falls on one end and the boat load was dropped into the lake. The first to reach the scene were the sailing craft who threw overboard their deck loads of lumber to those struggling in the water and thus they saved many lives. Whole families were wiped out, one member being saved while the rest perished. One such case was Harvey Aimsworth, who had taken passage for Wisconsin from Vermont with the intention of settling near Baraboo. With him were his wife, three children, his brother and sister-in-law and his father. His brother had disembarked at Sheboygan to make the trip overland ahead of him while the rest of the party went on to disembark at Milwaukee. Of this family only Mr. Aimsworth was saved. There were many more such cases.

These saved, and as many of the dead as could be picked up, were taken into Port Washington where the living were cared for and the dead buried. Among the rescuers was Captain Fred Pabst who was first mate on the steamer Traveler. When the steamers with their freight of living and dead came to the pier at Port Washington, the scene was a sad one .

The best report of the disaster told at the time was by C. D. Westerbrook, then a resident of Green Bay and a passenger on the Niagara. He said,

I was in the after saloon about four P. M. when I heard the cry of ‘fire.’ I saw the flames bursting out from the lining of the engine room. Congressman John B. Macy seemed greatly excited and cried ‘we are lost.’ The man at the wheel called for help and I went into the wheel­house and helped him head the boat for the shore. We were about two or three miles out and about four miles north of Port Washington. The wind was blowing fresh down the lake. The engines stopped in about five minutes and the vessel drifted rapidly before the wind. I went to the deck and got a plank which I carried aft, and clung to the boat till driven off by the flames. About 30 of the crew and passengers got off on planks from the forward deck and the steamer drifted rapidly by from them. A boat put off with 22 persons in it. The life boat was thrown from the deck into the water and upset. The crowd jumped for it and it rolled over. (This was probably the boat lowered from the stern which was upset by Congressman Macy jumping into it.) Ropes were attached to the guards aft and let down and a number of people, mostly women and children, slid down and hung on in clusters until the ropes were burned off and they were drowned. When the flames came near me I flung my plank into the water and jumped for it but others struggled for it and I left it and swam to a cabin door and by the aid of that reached the guards and climbed up into them. I was there with Captain Miller when the ropes burned and we shoved planks and spars among the people but they failed to get them. We remained there until taken off by the boats from the Traveler. It did not seem more than 15 or 20 minutes from the time the fire broke out before there was not a soul on board the steamer. All had been forced overboard by the flames.

Mr. Hurson, who was one of the crew of Captain Pabst’s boat engaged in the rescue of the passengers and crew, also gives a graphic account of the scenes of that day. In recalling its incidents he said:

I was on the steamer Traveler at that time, running between Chicago and Manitowoc. C. C. Wheeler, now of the Northwestern Road, was clerk on the boat and Captain Pabst was First Mate. We were wooding up at Port Ullio when the Niagara was discovered to be on fire. I think it was Wheeler who first discovered her condition. He was on deck with a big telescope and was watching the steamer when he saw the smoke bursting out from her decks. Steam was made as rapidly as possible and we started for the burning steamer. I think we carried more steam that day than the law allowed. Lard, grease and everything which would tend to get steam quickly was used. We were about seven miles from the steamer, Port Ullio being five miles this side of Port Washington and the Niagara was about two miles above Port Washington. The Traveler was capable of making 12 or 13 miles an hour usually but that day she made more. The engines were crowded to their utmost capacity. As we neared the burning boat, we could see the people in the front part of the boat, dropping off one by one and after a short struggle, sinking under the water. There was a schooner near the steamer when the fire broke out and she was the first to get near enough to rescue the drowning people. She was loaded with lumber and as the vessel came up with them, the crew threw overboard part of the deck load of lumber which was seized and kept the people afloat until they could be picked up. The steamer Illinois was the first to reach the wreck and picked up quite a few people. We lowered two boats from the Traveler. One of these was commanded by Captain Pabst and the crew consisted of myself and a man named Wilson. The other boat was under the command of the second mate and had the wheelsman and another sailor as crew. We saw Congressman Macy when he made his jump into the boatful of people and threw them all into the water. Macy was on the upper deck and the boat was being lowered from the stern where it was carried in the same manner as yawls of vessels now-a-days. The boat was packed with people and had been lowered a short distance so it was seven feet perhaps, below the roof of the cabin on which Macy was. He ran from the forward part of the steamer and when he reached the stern, jumped for the boat. He was a very heavy man and the force of his falling weight tore the falls from one end and the entire load of people was tumbled into the water. Many went down at once, others clung to a rope which trailed from the stern. There they hung like a string of fish until the rope was burned off and they went down. Had we been 15 minutes sooner we might have saved a great many more. As we came up an old man was seen clinging to the stern and Captain Sweeney cried to us to rescue him first as he seemed to be in the most danger. When we pulled him on board, he said, “I’ll lay down on the bottom of the boat and trim her,” but before he dropped down he asked if anyone had any tobacco as he had left his on a beam. He was the coolest man I ever saw. After taking him on board we pulled back to the wheelhouse, which shuts in the paddle wheel and there we found Captain Miller, his mate and 12 others. They could have remained there for several hours for they were on the windward side of the boat and the wheelhouse was made of thick planks and being wet would not have burned for a long time. There was a light southeast wind, enough to cause the steamer to drift, and also to drive the flames over the starboard side to leeward. After taking the people from the wheelhouse we pulled around to the leeward side by means of the braces and came near being burned ourselves but managed to pull out all right and made for the steamer. The Traveler picked up nine dead bodies and took them to Port Washington, where they were afterwards interred. The Traveler and Planet at that time were operated by the Chicago and Milwaukee Road, that is how Wheeler happened to be on board as clerk.

Captain Pabst when asked for his remembrances of the day said:

An archaeologist investigates one of Niagara’s paddle-wheels
Photo by WHS, Maritime Preservation and Archaeology Program

I was First Mate of the Traveler running between Chicago and Two Rivers at the time the Niagara was burned. We were with the Niagara at Sheboygan but left before she did and put in at Port Ullio for wood while she was going on towards Milwaukee. I had just stepped on the dock to measure up some wood when I looked down the lake and saw the Niagara afire. I jumped on board again and told the engineer to get up steam as quick as he could and then headed for the burning steamer. As we bore down on her we swung the boats clear, ready for launching. I was in the first that was lowered. The crew gave way with a will and we were quickly alongside the steamer which by this time had burned well down towards the water’s edge. The first man we picked up was an old fellow, who on being pulled into the boat said, ‘Lads I was never so glad to see any one as I am you. Now I will get my trunk.’ He had been floating on a fender and as he dropped into the boat he said ‘I’ll just lie down and ballast the boat.’ We then pulled around to the windward side of the steamer and found Captain Miller, the mate and 10 or 12 more whom we took on board. These were all saved. There had been another steamer there before we arrived but I don’t remember her name. As we were nearing the steamer we saw that the crew were lowering the boat which all steamers carried at their stern those days. The boat was loaded with passengers. As she was about half way down we saw a heavy man, who I afterward learned was Congressman John Macy of Fon du Lac, jump down into the boat. His jump capsized the boat and those in it were thrown into the water and drowned.

Captain Sweeney, when asked for a story of the wreck, said:

I am afraid I cannot aid you with any additional information in regard to the disaster. I was in command of the Traveler and we were with the Niagara at Sheboygan that same day. We left there about noon and stopped at Port Ullio to get wood. It was, as I remember, about 2:30 or 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon when we discovered her on fire. Captain Pabst was the First Officer with me and had charge of the boats we sent to rescue the people. I do not remember how many people we saved. The captain of the Niagara was Captain Miller and the first mate was Gillis or McGillis. John Leonard was the engineer. C. C. Wheeler was the clerk of the Traveler. We stopped at Port Washington and Milwaukee and then went on to Chicago.

Mr. Towsley, now living at Port Washington, gave the following recollections of the disaster:

I was a clerk at the middle pier here during the season of 1856. About 3:30 P. M. on September 24th, being about the usual time for the arrival of the steamers on this line on their up trip, I took the glasses and went out of the office to see if she was in sight. I sighted the steamer off North Point about seven miles from Port Washington; it was coming south and I could see it was on fire. From all appearances no one on the steamer seemed to be aware of that fact as the steamer kept on her course probably 10 minutes when she changed and ran for the shore. Soon her wheels stopped and she appeared not to move except as she drifted. She burned to the water’s edge and then sank. The steamer Traveler of the Ward Line and the steamer Illinois were near Port Ullio when they discovered the steamer to be on fire and headed for the scene and were there in time to save many in the water who were on the gang plank and floats. Captain Fred Miller, the captain of the steamer, was taken from one of the steamer’s wheels. John B. Macy of Fondulac was aboard the steamer and was drowned. I think his body was never found. The steamer had a full load of passengers, many of them emigrants on

Francis Lifeboat in the National Museum of the Great Lakes

their way west. There was a great deal of excitement at Port Washington when the burning steamer was discovered. Two boats, one a Francis lifeboat, and the other a fishing boat, put out for the steamer as soon as they could be manned. Others of the inhabitants went along the shore on foot towards the spot where the steamer seemed drifting, others started in wagons in the hope to be of assistance. Port Washington then was a village of from 1,000 to 1,200 inhabitants. The hull of the steamer sank about six miles north of this place in deep water. I do not recollect that any attempt was ever made to raise it.

There it lies today on the bottom of the lake probably covered with the shifting sands, while in the little cemetery a few mounds pointed out to the occasional visitor as the graves of the victims of the Niagara disaster, are all that remain to recall the great tragedy of 1856.


* Niagara – U. S. no official number – wooden hull, sidewheel, passenger and freight steamboat built in 1845 at Buffalo, New York , by Jacob W. Banta for C. N. Reed & Co., Erie, Pennsylvania.

Dimensions – 255 ‘ o.a. x 33’6 ” beam x 14’ depth, 1099 tons. Engine, vertical beam, cylinder 65″ diameter, length of stroke 10 feet, built by Shepherd Iron Works, Buffalo, New York; view of Niagara Falls was painted on the paddle wheel housings. When new the Niagara was the flagship of the Reed Line and ran between Dunkirk, New York and Detroit, Michigan. Later on the route was changed, being from Buffalo to Chicago and way ports. In May 1855 the Niagara was chartered to a Canadian concern, the Simcoe and Lake Huron Railway, “The Great Northern Route”, and ran between Collingwood, Ontario, and Chicago, Illinois. The same arrangement continued in 1856 and was in effect when the steamer burned.

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The previous story was found in some old scrapbooks bought at a farm auction by John Nelson of Sheboygan , Wisconsin. He showed them to his friend William A. McDonald of Detroit, one of the earliest members of GLHS, who has often contributed to Inland Seas. Mr. McDonald has edited the story and added the statistical data. He says the story of the Niagara is not well known, the ship is not listed in the “Lytle List” but is of special interest just now as this year marks the 100th anniversary of the disaster. The scrapbook account was a clipping from the Sheboygan Herald of Saturday, September 4, 1897, which had appeared in the Sheboygan Sunday Sentinel earlier that year.

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Sarnia from the Port-Side – Summer 1956

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

By Anna Young

The setting sun is reflected in low, billowy, cloud formations on the Canadian side of the St. Clair River, which is growing darker by the minute, as a big ore carrier, with lights on deck and masts, powered by the miracle of her dynamo, emerges from under the span of the International Bridge where Lake Huron flows into the river. The ship, carried by the nine mile current at this point, glides noiselessly along the rhythmic course that ships and cargoes have travelled for 200 years. Its silhouette combines with the river’s ancient waters, shifting and iridescent in the growing darkness, with mirrored images of spiles and derelicts to capture one’s imagination. All through the night they pass, by night as well as by day, for the river is a sparkling, winding thoroughfare of changing moods and wonderful cloud effects, a backdrop for the pattern of men and ships.

Blue Water Bridge to Sarnia

Although International Bridges have come with progress they will never provide the color and novelty of the old Sarnia-Port Huron ferries. Choppy crossings, well-buried “treasure” smuggled in baby carriages or suspended from swinging undergarments, popcorn and peanut shells, are long remembered features of those old ferry-boat days. During this period Point Edward situated at the mouth of the St. Clair River, one mile above Sarnia, was a railway terminus for trains crossing to the U. S. by car-ferry. However, on the completion of the St. Clair tunnel it assumed a smaller role almost overnight. Its loading facilities being favorably situated were used by the Northern Navigation Company as a freight and passenger terminal even though passenger offices were maintained and traffic was routed through Sarnia.

Although Sarnia Bay has now been cleared, in the interest of politics and a dubious speck of town planning, it was in days gone by a harbor of ship’s bones consisting of rotting timbers, old anchors and rusting chains, all of which lay forgotten by everyone but the local boys for whom it made a delicious rendezvous. Here some were taught a grim lesson but in spite of the various hazards, such as the wash from passing ships, which threatened those who teetered precariously on homemade rafts, or the thin coating of ice which formed between seasons and tempted a few, drownings were rare, even though supervision of the waterfront was unknown. The proximity of churches to the water made religious education something of a choice as, although the boys started for Sunday School, only occasionally did some of the worthier members straggle up the bank and into classes at the ringing of the bells. The majority remained to enjoy the quiet waters of the Bay and only vaguely heard the bells afar off.

The premises of the Reid Towing and Wrecking Company was the rendezvous of the old timers for, as many of the jobs performed by the firm were epics in their day, what better place could be found for reminiscence? The saying “Reids can do it,” meant that the company, under the guiding genius of Captain Tom Reid, a worthy successor to his father, was ready for the hardest kind of business and its docks were used by these same old timers as a barometer of the times. Each morning, as Sarnia roused to the light of a new day, they would eye Reid’s to check on the positions of the tugs City of Sarnia and Guardian and the homely old salvage vessel, a powerful red and black hulk, the Maplecourt, which usually lay like an old watch dog with one eye open, her fires bunkered down but geared for an emergency anywhere on the Lakes. If one of these were missing the question popped, “Where’s the trouble?”

Watchers from all walks of life stopped on the street, dropped the check on the horses’ necks and stood in a fence corner or pulled up beside the willows of the river-bank to watch the passing boats. The ships of the company which started as the Beatty Line received more than a fair share of attention, for every Sarnian had an intensely possessive pride in the company. This line and its successors operated a fleet of package freight and passenger vessels out of Sarnia for nearly eighty years and the fact that many of the officers were fellow townsmen bred a personal interest in their careers.


The Beatty Line was organized by the late Henry Beatty of Thorold in 1870 with the Manitoba. This ship, a paddle-wheeler built in Port Colbome, was commissioned to run between the ports of Sarnia and Thunder Bay with calls at Silver Islet, Batchawana and Keewatin on Lake Superior. Captain Symmes, of Sarnia, was her first skipper. She was joined by the Ontario in 1872 and the Quebec in 1873. They had been constructed of white oak at a Chatham, Ontario shipyard, were propeller driven and were among the largest ships operating at that time on the Great Lakes.

In 1876 the name of the firm was changed to the Northwest Transportation Company by Messrs. Jas. H. and John B. Beatty who became managers when Henry Beatty went over to the C.P.R. The new management added two more ships, the Asia and the Sovereign, which were canal size and operated from Kingston to Prince Arthur’s Landing, carrying rails for the new C.P.R. transcontinental railroad. In 1882 the Asia went on the Collingwood, Owen Sound, Sault Ste-Marie run and was lost that year on Georgian Bay, leaving only two survivors of the 100 souls on board. During this same year the United Empire, Queen of the Beatty Line, was launched by the Parry – Dyble Shipbuilding Company, located on the site of the present Number One Plant of the Imperial Oil Refinery at Sarnia. Built with an arch truss to add strength to her hull she used both wind and steam. Her power was supplied by a 1,000 h. p. engine, built by George One of St. Catharines, then a thriving shipping centre, and she carried a foremast sail, similar to that of a Thames barge. This was said to add both speed and steadiness. Affectionately called “Old Betsy” by her crew, she supposedly had accommodation for 150 passengers at rates as low as $28.00 return, berth and meals included. Her first Master was Captain Ed. Robertson, known to his friends as “Pa” Robertson. He was followed by Captain R. D. Foote and then by Captain John McNab who continued as Master until she was rebuilt in Collingwood and returned to the Lakes as the Saronic. Later she became a barge.


The Monarch, built in 1890 at Sarnia, with arches of steel running fore and aft to strengthen her white oak, became a total loss when, coming down on the last run of the 1906 season, she went on the rocks of Isle Royale. After the Monarch there were no further ships built at Sarnia for 54 years until the Mac-Craft Corporation used the shipyards for the duration of the second World War. When their first small vessel went down the ways there was no one present who remembered being present at the last launching.

The first forty years of this century brought glistening passenger boats which operated seven day luxury class cruises. Their pennants flying and their decks lined with vacationists, these ships came from Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago and Duluth. Among them were the Great Lakes Transit Company ships Octorara, Tionesta and Juanita; the D. & C. Navigation Company ships Greater Buffalo and Greater Detroit together with the Northwest, Northland, North American and South American of Chicago interests. They provided entertainment and relaxation unsurpassed by modern standards. During this same period there were the perky daily excursion vessels, their clean black and white lines cutting across the inimitable blue of a brilliant afternoon on the river, familiar to all and highly patronized in their time. The Tashmoo which had a smooth, sharp prow, that answered to her engines like a dog to its master, along with the Put-in-Bay and Thousand Islander gave wholesome relaxation and holiday diversion to rich and poor, young and old. By moonlight the young people tripped the light fantastic romantically on their dancing floors.

By moon and by barometer readings fearless, vigilant navigators from Sarnia handled their ships with skill and daring on the notoriously difficult waters of the Great Lakes and many of them perished. Slowly improvements were added to ease their task. In 1916 the Glensha, later renamed Goderich, was the first to be equipped with wireless, and in 1925 the Gleneagles was the first to be given direction finding apparatus.

HAMONIC, burned at Point Edward

In 1926 the Huronic, Hamonic and Noronic of the Northern Navigation Company, previously the Northwest Transportation Company, became known as the Northern Division, Canada Steamship Lines, and Canada Steamship Lines adopted the original Beatty Line stack as their own. The accidental burning of the Hamonic at Point Edward dock in 1945 and the tragedy of the Noronic fire at Toronto in 1949 have been intimate losses too poignant for words. The Huronic, built in 1901, survived as a freight carrier for a few more seasons, and then regretfully, went the way of old ships, to the steel mills at Hamilton.

As the chill of Autumn comes the River takes on its nutbrown look, the short evenings close in and pleasure boats hang up their tarpaulins and pull in to the slips. Through the fog and dreamy mistiness of Indian Summer, the sirens of cargo vessels blow sharp warnings. October passes, the winds blow stronger and with the first few snowflakes in the air the river mirrors the purple storm clouds lowering over it. Ice begins to form in the slips while, unconsciously, the big freighters seem to quicken their pace. As winter nears the storm warnings increase and there is no time to lose in the urgency of moving 100 million bushels of grain 1000 miles to the seaport. With only 20 foot channels part of the way, there is equal necessity of getting tons of iron ore moved before insurance rates, doubled with the weather hazard, increase the freight rates. These were the factors of fall navigation during the first half of this century.

By December twelfth, “Last boat in” echoes along the waterfront. The smoke dies down from stack after stack while ice forms in the slips to hold ships fast. Snow blows in about the decks, icing ledges and cables and giving an Arctic element to the scene. Aboard the ships wintering in the Bay the ship-keepers, who usually lived in the crew’s mess-rooms and were there comfortably equipped for winter living, made their eight­ hour rounds. Ashore it was a festival of home for the men whose business precluded such an element for eight or nine months of the year. Social activities such as curling, conferences among departmental heads and navigational school for those qualifying for certificates made time fly. Sailors already in retirement provided much local colour. Thus, the winters were spent recalling past seasons and this season with the varied experiences only sailors themselves could appreciate. Day by day the ship-keeper marked off the calendar until the tenth of March drew near. Then engineers and their crews boarded the ships, the waterfront went into action, small boys drifted down to the harbor with wholesome curiosity and painters, pipe fitters and welders worked ceaselessly fitting out the ships for the season’s service. When ice reports told of clearing channels to the head of the Lakes and buoys and lighthouses showed the way, the sirens sounded. Once more the people stood, on the street or riverside watching the ships go by. The strokes of the Post Office clock echoed along the waterfront but few foresaw the momentous changes shortly arriving to change the leisurely trend of Sarnia life.

Progress took over suddenly at Sarnia. Great areas along the river road were stormed by bulldozers and in no time at all tall chimneys superseded the whispering willows. Miles of fabulous illumination lit the machinery along the river like a huge circus of multicolored balloons while men moved, like ants, to execute the workings of a great industry. The river road was closed but the new highway carried rushing trucks, hordes of workers, high tension electrical wires and service stations. News was picked out of the air, while people travelled fast to beat the next red light.

The sun is laying long fingers across the marshes of Sarnia Bay and lights begin to twinkle on the International Bridge as the big, new, Diesel-engined flagship of the Steel Trust rounds the bend past Gratiot light and sets her course for Lake Huron. She is the latest link in the chain, joining east and west in competitive enterprise and supply, building a new world and feeding a universe, a chain forged bit by bit of a wide variety of ships over a period of two hundred years, a chain, the romance of which, has captured the imagination of all. Now the middle of the century is here, bringing with it streamlining, automatic loaders and round trips shorter than any optimist had foreseen. The age of sail is gone, the age of steam is passing, the Diesel has arrived.

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About the Author: Herself the daughter of a ship’s officer and reared in an atmosphere of ships and the men who navigate them, Miss Anna Young, now a resident of Guelph, Ontario, has given a picture of Sarnia on the St. Clair River as she knew it in her girlhood when her home was a meeting place for Sarnia’s skippers and chief engineers.

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The J.H. SHEADLE in the Great Storm of 1913 – Spring 1956

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

By Capt. S.A. Lyons

J.H. SHEADLE – 1919

We loaded grain at Fort William and left there at 8:00 P.M. the night of November 6th. The captain of the James Carruthers and I were in the shipping office together and intended to come down together as we were going to get away at about the same time, but evidently he did not get out until some time after I did.

When I left the barometer was below normal but stationary, and the wind had been blowing for some time. After getting outside of Thunder Cape a heavy sea was running from the southwest, and a strong breeze. I went back under Pie Island, letting go anchor at 10:00 o’clock and laying there until 3:30 the morning of the 7th, when the wind went north and we proceeded on our voyage.

On arriving at White Fish Bay it shut in very thick and foggy, which held us there the balance of the night and until about 8:00 o’clock the following morning, November 8th.

There were a number of steamers laying at anchor further down the bay and they, of course, locked down ahead of the Sheadle. The James Carruthers locked down just ahead of us, then we followed at 8:30 P.M., with the Hydrus immediately after us, both of which vessels were lost. It had been snowing, having commenced along in the afternoon. It was snowing some while we were in the lock but had cleared up when we left the lock.


I had wired the office I would not leave, but as it cleared up we continued on down the river, passing out into Lake Huron at 1:53 A.M. the morning of November 9th, with the wind light north northeast. The only variation in our course from that time until practically within two miles of Thunder Bay was one-eighth of a point. As we approached the fuel dock of Messrs. Pickands, Mather & Co., we sighted the Carruthers taking fuel; she left the dock, rounded to, and entered Lake Huron shortly before we did.

Before we arrived at Presque Isle, Lake Huron, it commenced to snow some; sometimes it would clear up so that we could pick up the land; we saw Presque Isle, Middle Island, and Thunder Bay. From our soundings when we got to Thunder Bay at 8:35 A.M. we were about two miles outside of our regular course down Lake Huron, having steered southeast by south 1/8 south. The barometer at this time was below normal, but stationary.

In an hour and a half after passing Thunder Bay Island the wind had increased and there was a strong wind from north northeast with snow. The sea kept on increasing, and the wind changed to due north blowing a gale. At 11:30 A.M. the course was changed to south by east 1h east in order to bring the ship more before the sea, and we continued to shift from a half to a point as the sea increased so as to keep the ship running practically dead before it; also to keep the ship from rolling and the seas from breaking over the decks.

We got the regular soundings at Pointe Aux Barques that we had been getting on previous trips, and by the soundings and the time we could tell when we were abreast of the point. It was snowing a blinding blizzard and we could not see anything. According to the soundings we got by the deep sea sounding lead we were abreast of Harbor Beach at 4:50 P.M. and three miles outside of the regular course we take during the summer. At this time the wind was due north and at Harbor Beach we changed our course to due south, running dead before the sea and wind. The bell rang for supper at 5:45 P.M., which was prepared and tables set, when a gigantic sea mounted our stern, flooding the fantail, sending torrents of water through the passageways on each side of the cabin, concaving the cabin, breaking the windows in the after cabin, washing our provisions out of the refrigerator and practically destroying them all, leaving us with one ham and a few potatoes. We had no tea or coffee. Our flour was turned into dough. The supper was swept off the tables and all the dishes smashed.

Volumes of water came down on the engine through the upper sky­lights, and at times there were from four to six feet of water in the cabin. Considerable damage was done to the interior of the cabin and fixtures. The after steel bulkhead of the cabin was buckled. All the skylights and windows were broken in. A small working boat on the top of the after cabin and the mate’s Chadburn were washed away.

It was blowing about 70 miles an hour at this time, with high seas, one wave following another very closely. Owing to the sudden force of the wind the seas had not lengthened out as they usually do when the wind increases in the ordinary way. In about four hours the wind had come up from 25 to 70 miles an hour, but I do not think exceeded 70 miles an hour.

Immediately after the first sea swept over our stern, I ordered the boatswain to take sufficient men and shutters to close all windows in the after cabin. The men forced their way aft, braving the wind, sleet and seas, one hand grasping the life rail and the other the shutters. Reaching the after cabin in safety they began securing the shutters, when another tremendous sea swept over the vessel carrying away the shutters. The men were forced to cling to whatever was nearest them to keep from being washed overboard; immediately a third sea, equally as severe, boarded the vessel, flooding the fantail and hurricane deck. The men attempted to reach the crew’s dining room but could not make it, and only saved themselves by gripping the nearest object they could reach. Indeed one of the wheelsmen was only saved from going over by accidentally falling as he endeavored to grope his way to the rail, his foot catching in one of the bulwark braces, preventing him from being swept off. Another monster sea boarded the boat, tearing the man loose from the brace, and landing him in the after tow line which had been washed from its rack and was fouled on deck.

The men finally made the shelter of the dining room and galley. One of the oilers stood watch at the dining room door, closing it when the boat shipped a sea and opening it when the decks were clear to let the water out of the cabins.

The steward and his wife were standing knee deep in the icy water. The steward’s wife was assisted into the engine room, the steward remaining in the dining room, securing furniture and silverware. The firemen and seamen were comfortable in their rooms as they were not touched. Some of the outfit of the private dining room was washed into the mess room, the steward’s trunk was washed out of his room and stood on end in the Galley. The steward’s wife had to remain all night in the engine room wrapped in a blanket.

Water through the engine room skylight drenched the two engineers who were throttling the engines; I do not think it ever happened before when these two men had to stand by those two positions constantly. From 2:30 P.M. until 5:00 the engines raced, requiring the greatest care and judgment. At times the ship was so heavily burdened with seas coming over her decks that her revolutions were decreased from 75 to 35 turns per minute. The engineers made their positions more comfortable by rigging up a piece of canvas over the engines.

We continued on our course, following our deep sea soundings, and at 9:00 o’clock had soundings of eighteen fathoms. This carried us well off to the west shore. I called the engineer up at this time and told him that at 10:00 o’clock (the night of November 9th) I was going to turn around head to the sea unless I could locate the land or Fort Gratiot light, and wanted to increase the speed of the ship up to that time so as to enable me to bring the boat around head to on account of the sea running behind us. At 10:00 o’clock we turned, heading north half east; the vessel rolled very heavily but came around all right head to. I should judge that we were ten minutes in turning. At that time we were about ten miles north of Fort Gratiot by the soundings we got – ten fathoms. I had everything lashed before we turned. No one thought of a life preserver. The way the ship was behaving we had every confidence in her. The heavy rolling tore adrift the binnacle on top of the pilot house. After that it was extremely dangerous to be in the house as this heavy object was hurled back and forth across the deck as the ship labored and rolled in the heavy sea.

During this time from Pointe Aux Barques to the foot of the lake our log line iced heavily, and the seas at times washed brace and dial inboard over the rail, rendering it useless. We were obliged to depend entirely on the deep sea lead, which was in constant use for 17 hours, at half hour and 15 minute intervals. By the use of the deep sea lead we knew where the ship was at all times. Having the familiar soundings right along through it all was the only thing that kept us from being wrecked, as it gave us confidence as to our location. The men were familiar with the use of the lead, as we had used the machine constantly, but it was a great punishment on them to keep it going at this time.

Just after turning I sent the first mate aft to inspect the wheel chains and quadrant. He telephoned me that they were all right but that he could not get forward again at that time, the seas covering the decks with a solid mass of blue water. The men of the second watch had remained on deck with us, and while we would not let one man go aft alone we did not hesitate to let two go together.

The mate made quite a fight to get forward but was unable to make it then, and crawled back to the engine room half unconscious.

I started back on a vice versa course, which would be north half east for six and one-quarter hours, following my soundings back from ten to twenty-two fathoms. During this time one of the wheelsmen got aft, securing a few pieces of bread, and came forward again with the mate and boatswain. One watchman remained on watch in the galley.

At 4:15 A.M., November 10th, I turned again, heading south one quarter west. This time we experienced much difficulty in turning, the ship remaining longer in the trough of the sea on account of not getting so much way and running head into it, but she behaved well, handled well in every way and steered well. The rolling was very bad – I was lifted right off my feet. Only by the greatest effort were the second mate and myself able to hold onto the stanchions on the top house, our legs being parallel with the deck most of the time.

Again and again she plunged forward, only to be baffled in her attempts to run before it, sometimes fetching up standing and trembling from stem to stern. She was buffeted about by the tremendous seas, almost helpless, dipping her hatches in the water on either side, barrels of oil and paint getting adrift and smashing out the sides of the paint locker. The men were tossed around the wheel house at will.

I feared her steering gear had given way, but fortunately on examination it proved to be all right. She would gain a half point, only to lose it, but finally after a mighty effort she swung around. I never had seen seas form as they did at this time; they were large and seemed to run in series, one mounting the other like a mighty barrier.

Running back we decreased our speed from “Full” to 55 turns as we got down closer to the river, following back on somewhat different soundings than we got going up. We came back in two hours where it took us six and one-quarter to face the sea.

At 6:30 A.M., November 10th, I called the engineer and told him I was not satisfied with the soundings we were getting, and to be prepared at any moment to give me full power to turn the ship again. We could see nothing on account of the heavy fall of snow.

At 6:45 A.M. we turned for the third time, heading north by west. This time the sea had decreased, and the wind had gone to the northwest in the meantime, so that there was practically no sea to bother us any.

The 70 mile gale lasted from about 10:00 o’clock Sunday morning until about 2:00 o’clock Monday morning, 16 hours of it, with continuous snow all the time. We kept our whistle blowing all the time, but at times we up forward could not hear it ourselves.

The hull of the CHARLES S. PRICE

At 8:30 A.M. it had cleared up so we could see quite a distance, so we turned around again heading south one-half west, the wind and sea going down. In fifteen minutes we could see the west shore, and sighted what I suppose was the wreck of the Price, passing this hull at about a distance of 1,000 feet. We noted what we thought were oil barrels and wreckage floating not over a quarter of a mile to the leeward of her. Just before we arrived abreast of the wreck we cast our deep sea lead to determine what water there was in that locality, and found ten fathoms.

We proceeded on our way over to the location where the Fort Gratiot lightship should have been stationed. We had slowed down to slow speed some time before we got in this locality. I picked up the stack of the lightship, which had drifted two or three miles out of position. Just at this time it shut in to snow again, and I backed away from the stack three-quarters of a mile or more, letting go my anchor, and waiting there until it cleared up at 12:00 o’clock noon.

When it cleared up we proceeded on our voyage down, passing Detroit at 7:00 o’clock the evening of the 10th. After entering the river the steward served dinner in the galley, which was the first regular meal since Sunday noon, and which consisted of beef and potatoes. Supper was also served in the galley, consisting of ham and potatoes.

The water being low, and we having no provisions, I tied up at Smith’s coal dock to take provisions on board the next morning, the 11th, leaving there at 9:00 o’clock when the water came up.

When we arrived at Bar Point the water was unusually low and we grounded there in the west channel. We released ourselves with our own power after some five and a half hours delay, getting on our way and proceeding on our voyage to Erie, that being our port of destination, where we arrived at 11:10 A. M., November 12th.

*    *          *          *          *


Ann Arbor, December 24, 1913

Mr. J. H. Sheadle, Secretary The Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co. Cleveland, Ohio

Dear Sir:

Your letter received referring to my statement of the last trip, asking for my reasons for turning around three times during the storm of November 7th, 8th and 9th.

The first time, I turned around at the lower end of Lake Huron owing to the circumstances. I did not consider it safe to proceed any further on our course toward the river, or get in the locality where downbound steamers would likely be at anchor. From the soundings I felt perfectly safe in turning as I did. I had figured for some time previous on doing so, and had given the engineer ample time to be in readiness at such a time to turn around, which we did at the exact time and I have every reason to believe in the locality I had figured on.

You may ask the question why I did not let go my anchors after turning around under such conditions. I did not consider it a safe policy to do so, for had I attempted it there was a long chance of losing them, and at the same time putting the steamer in a position where it would be impossible to handle her. In fact, it has always been my policy to not try to find a harbor or anchorage under such conditions as long as my boat is seaworthy and is acting satisfactorily in every way.

The second time I turned, I figured I was far enough from the river to get back shortly after daylight, and besides I was not going that way with my cargo. I had also given the engineer due notice in regard to time, etc. Of course we would naturally expect a little more difficulty in turning this time, but by the proper handling of the engines and the helm we turned around and headed back for the river.

The third time we turned there was no sea to speak of and we had no difficulty whatever in turning. The soundings were not satisfactory, and it was still snowing so that we could see no distance, and I did not consider it safe to proceed any further, especially as the soundings I had been getting were not satisfactory. I considered it policy to keep in good water until it cleared up.

About ten minutes after turning the last time it began to clear up so we could make out the shore line on both sides of the lake.

As to the question of the safety of the steamer other than stranding or collision, I considered her perfectly safe, as we had only run our ballast pump five hours in the 24, and one-half of this time was taken up pumping out the weather side. After covering up the vent pipes on deck leading to the ballast tanks we had very little pumping to do.

At 11:00 A.M. on the 9th I called up the engineer and told him to start the ballast pumps on the weather side, and at 1:30 P.M. he called me and said they had a suck on all tanks on that side, and from that time on we only pumped two and a half hours during the bad weather.

I can truthfully say to you that at no time during this storm did I have any fear whatever for the safety of the steamer, and if any of my crew thought different their actions did not show it.

Trust this explanation as to why I turned will be satisfactory to you.

Yours very truly,


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About the Author: The previous is the report of Captain S. A. Lyons to the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company on his handling of his ship, the Str. J. H. SHEADLE during the famous storm of November 11, 1913.

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Cruising Down the River – Winter 1955

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

By Dan M. Weber

Whether the ship’s orchestra is playing the tune which titles this story when the sun shines, or “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella” when rain is in the air, one can be sure of an interesting ride down the Detroit River on the steamers Columbia and Ste. Claire.  Leaving the Woodward Avenue Dock six times a day between Memorial Day and Labor Day, these ships have carried millions of passengers to Bob-Lo Island, an amusement park on the Canadian side of the river near Lake Erie.  These cruises appeal particularly to the family with their picnic basket – trying to get away from the city’s heat; the couples wanting to dance in the ballroom aft, or just to enjoy each other’s company in the moonlight; and to the marine enthusiast who likes to get closer to the passing parade of ships.

The Columbia is of 968 gross tons, 216 feet long, 60 feet wide, and has a capacity of 2556 passengers.  Her oil-fired triple-expansion engine of 2000 HP provides a cruising speed of 13-15 miles per hour, and she frequently passes the slower-moving freighters in the close confines of the channel.  The Ste. Claire is of 870 gross tons, 197 feet long, 65 feet wide, and carries 2414 passengers.  They are well-kept and one would not imagine that they are veterans of half-a-century of service.  Comparison of these craft is easily made by going downstream on one, and after a sojourn on the island, returning on the other.  It was my pleasure to have such an experience on an August afternoon in 1955.

With a long blast of her whistle, and the playing of nautical tunes by the ship’s orchestra, the Ste. Claire headed out into the channel.  Passenger ship fans were quickly attracted to the last of the D&C fleet, Eastern States, City of Detroit III, and Greater Detroit languishing at a dock a short distance downstream.  Binoculars reveal the deterioration which has resulted from their five years of inactivity.  Just one year ago two other ships of this fleet were still to be seen moored on the river – the Western States (now a ‘Motel’ at Tawas City, Michigan), and the City of Cleveland III, (burned while being converted to a barge at Windsor, Ontario.)

Before reaching the Ambassador Bridge there was already a profusion of signaling with upbound and downbound freighters, and with cross-river carferries.  These are the sounds which thrill the steamboat fan but sometimes they send children into tears.  Falling into the downbound procession of ships we passed waterfront terminals with foreign freighters unloading general cargo; steel ills with freighters unloading iron ore; a shipyard whose drydock contained the 620-foot Cliffs Victory, and alongside the 647-foot Cason J. Calloway, damaged that week in a collision on the St. Mary’s River.  The Tom Girdler, converted from an ocean vessel into a 600-foot bulk carrier of 14,000 tons capacity gave us a blast from its air horn in passing upbound.  Powerful as the air horn may be, it lacks the romantic sound of the steam whistle which was often a distinguishing feature of the old passenger ship.

If the departure time is planned carefully, one will encounter the only cruise ships remaining on the lakes – the North American and the South American.  Their gleaming white hulls with multi-colored flags flying fore and aft, and crowded decks of waving vacationists provide a high point of this excursion.

Further downstream are the cities of Ecorse and Wyandotte with their busy factories and waterfront homes with spacious lawns.  Many small craft were encountered with their occupants fishing, water-skiing, or pleasure cruising.  The Canadian side of the River below Windsor is very sparsely settled, with some areas probably changed little from what the French explorer, LaSalle, encountered when he sailed the Griffon up the lakes on 1679.  As we approached Bob-Lo, downbound freighters proceeded on its west side through the Livingston Channel.  Upbound ships pass by on the east side of the island, and an excellent view of this traffic is obtained from picnic tables near the boat dock.  At the south end of the island is an old blockhouse – an outpost of Fort Maiden at nearby Amherstburg in the War of 1812.  In addition to blockading the river to American shipping, the fort was also the embarkation point for Barclay’s fleet which was defeated by Commodore Perry’s force near Put-in-Bay in 1813.

After a train ride around the island, rides on the ferris wheel, merry-go-round, caterpillar, whip, rocket, and a snack in the cafeteria, the homeward trip began aboard the Columbia.  Other freighters, American, Canadian, and European were passed en-route to Lake Erie with their cargoes of iron ore, limestone, wheat, colorful deckloads of automobiles, and package freight.  The Detroit skyline, framed by the Ambassador Bridge, came into view as we passed around a bend in the river.  The sun was casting deep shadows on these buildings as we pulled out of the channel and tied up to the dock with a mournful ring of the telegraph – “finished with Engines”.

These daily excursion boats are only a memory in most of our Great Lakes cities, but few offered the variety of pleasant experiences for the marine enthusiast as is found on these Detroit River cruises.  While the river “keeps on rolling,” let’s hope that these Bob-Lo boats “keep on sailing.”

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Ships and Shores – Fall 1955

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

By Herbert W. Dosey


On June 25, 1913 the steamer Pendennis White of the old Mitchell line was discharging a cargo of iron ore at the Central Furnace on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. And I was the gangling teen-aged youth who struggled up the boarding ladder with an over­burdened sea bag and a heart bulging with gratitude for the people who built ships and arranged to transport ore from Minnesota to Ohio.

Those were the days of chuffing wooden tugs, melodious steam whistles and a new crew each trip. Days of trolley cars, horse drawn drays, cheap whiskey and free lunch in every saloon.

Addison Remington was the understanding steward to whom I was assigned as a cabin boy. And it was he who patiently explained my duties and then proceeded to do most of them himself while I was somewhere on deck observing the working of the ship. I deeply suspect that my juvenile naivete was all that saved me from severe disciplinary action, and the fleeting years have increased my esteem of this big hearted, jovial steward who was so typical of the steamship men of that era.

The day following my embarkation, two puffing tugs deftly maneuvered us down the winding river toward Lake Erie and the “open sea.” We passed between acres of slanting piles of freshly sawn, aromatic lumber glistening in the June sun and several of the small wooden steamers actively engaged in its transport. During that period the Tempest, Huron City, Argo, Mary H Boyce and Canisteo were regular visitors in the port of Cleveland and occasionally the names Annie Laurie, George H Van Vleck, Homer Warren and Edward Hines appeared on the Cleveland port list as having arrived with lumber from the remote, romantic and almost forgotten ports of Penetang, Cutler, Spanish Mills, Blind River, Byng Inlet and Pequaming.

As our ship was towed through the open draw of the old Superior Viaduct we passed the old fire tug Clevelander at its berth, and then the palatial steamers City of St. Ignace and City of Buffalo were observed taking on passengers and freight for their respective nocturnal voyages to Detroit and Buffalo. At the river’s mouth lay the trim package freighter North Sea of the Mutual Transit Company loading railroad rails, pipe and bales of fence wire consigned to Gladstone and Duluth for the growing west.

Having disengaged the tugs our ship proceeded through the harbor entrance to the open lake and headed for the port of Lorain and a waiting cargo of coal consigned to Duluth. The old B & O dock at the mouth of the Black River was comparatively slow in those days. The present method of inverting coal laden railroad cars and permitting the coal to slide through a huge funnel into the cargo hold had not been perfected. During that era the dock inverted the car and dumped the coal into a large hopper, then the hopper was hoisted up and the coal emptied through a spout into the ships’ hold. Thus the coal was handled twice which consumed more loading time and broke up the coal. Loading dragged on all through the night and when I arose at 4:30 next morning and began my chores of cleaning up the mess room and galley, I was greatly surprised to see the deck so close to the water. Our 7000 ton cargo had lowered the ship about 20 feet. The deck was now even with the dock and our long boarding ladder had been stowed.

We soon got under way and departed from Lorain and my excitement knew no bounds as I began my first voyage across the inland seas. A few hours steaming brought us to the old Southeast Shoal lightship and the North Passage between Point Pelee and Pelee Island. All ships bound for ports west of Toledo traverse this passage and the traffic is dense and diversified. My menial tasks were rather confining but fortunately the galley was on the port side of the after house, thus affording me a fine view of the passing traffic.

My previous acquaintance with shipping had been confined to vessels moored in the Cleveland harbor and I knew every intimate detail of the regular traders. But the array of ships seen In the North Passage surpassed my anticipation. Graceful passenger steamers with foaming bows were threading their way between small wooden lumber carriers, package freighters, tankers, tugs with barges, sand suckers and of course, the ubiquitous bulk freighters cradling their tremendous cargoes of coal, ore and grain. The schooner Newell Hubbard sailed by with tautly curved sails and a cargo of sand from Pelee Island, bound for a south shore port.

After steaming quietly along past Pelee Passage Lighthouse, and south of lonely Colchester Light, we arrived at Bar Point and the mouth of the Detroit River. This cabin boy verily believed himself to be in a land of enchantment as the ship proceeded through the narrows between Bois Blanc Island and Amherstburg. The clear green water of the river scintillated in the June sun as it flowed between wooded banks and past neatly painted homes, and the red and black channel buoys bobbed in the current.

Those were the days when Detroit was proud of its one tall building, the Hotel Pontchartrain, and the ferry steamers were hustling to Windsor and Walkerville. Our whistle exchanged frequent signals with a miscellany of passing watercraft as we continued on past Belle Isle and Windmill Point. Lake St. Clair was calm and hot but the comparatively narrow ship channel confined all vessel movement to a fixed fairway and afforded a close-up view of each passing ship. I had been signed on to wash pots, kettles and dishes and to “soojie” the galley and mess room floors. This I did with alacrity but every time the whistle blew I dropped everything and ran out upon the deck to see what ship was approaching. It was my good fortune to be off duty as we entered the St. Clair Flats Ship Canal in the delta of the St. Clair River. I sat on a midship hatch where I had an unbroken view all around and marveled at the marsh country scenes. Cottages on Harsens Island had canals instead of driveways and a boathouse where we were accustomed to see a garage.

Quaint Algonac soon appeared off to port as we passed the Ojibway Indian Reservation on Walpole Island, and farther on upriver the outline of Marine City was taking definite shape.

Both Marine City and St. Clair were centers of early ship-building and there is hardly a family in either community that has not been actively engaged in lake commerce. Above St. Clair the river banks slope up quite steeply and in sharp contrast to the lowlands along the Flats. Both the thriving Canadian city of Sarnia on the east bank of the riverhead and Port Huron opposite enjoy a safe and comfortable elevation above water level. It was late in the day when we passed Sarnia Bay where a number of old schooners had settled into their last berth with their topmasts starkly erect, with rotting shrouds, halyards and stays festooning them like broken cobwebs – truly the ghosts of a bygone era.

While crossing Lake Huron, Billy Sullivan, the mate, ordered the bos’n to have the deckhands black oil the forepeak. This was a messy job so the boys let the ship furnish their raiment by the simple expedient of cutting arm and neck openings in the blue denim pillow slips. The high command was highly perturbed at this diversion of equipment, but since the improvised shirts had been cut and splattered with black oil, the alteration was given permanent status.

Entrance to the locks at St. Marys River

Lake Huron was good to us that night and we arrived at Detour right on schedule. We entered the St. Marys River and proceeded on past Drummond Island, Squaw Island and Lime Island, then across Lake Munuscong to the narrows at the Encampment. From here to the Soo the river was very narrow and crooked which rendered early navigation so hazardous that night passages were rarely attempted. Ships that arrived late in the day anchored until the next morning. Rains’ Island and Neebish Island were passed close aboard and I marveled at the wilderness in the North Country. The pine scented summer breeze, the forests and abundant bird life cast a spell over me that I often recall with a nostalgic yearning to return.

And then the Soo, the Rapids and the locks. There were only two of them then, the Weitzel and the Poe, and Canada had one on the Ontario side of the river. An outstanding event was the purchase of 25 pounds of trout and whitefish from the Indians who actively fished the rapids and peddled their catch to the ships locking through. The upper reach of the river above the locks cut through a rugged wilderness and the blue waters around Point aux Pins were framed in nature’s grandeur. We steamed past Point Iroquois, and the Gros Cap lightship gracefully curtsied in our wake as we headed across Whitefish Bay toward mighty and mysterious Lake Superior.

That night a dense, wet fog lay upon the calm lake like a soggy mantle and the repeated blasts from our steam whistle shook it down like rain. It was intensely cold and remained so all next day. Land was sighted as we rounded the “horn” at Copper Harbor, but unlike anything that I had ever gazed upon before. The sea and coast line were obscured by the murky fog and the mountains in the hinterland rose above it like a floating mirage. I braved the cold that morning and sat on deck outside the galley door paring what seemed like a bushel of potatoes. They were due in the steam kettle by ten-thirty but I was so engrossed in the ever changing panorama of the rolling, forested hills reaching through the fog that steward Remington had to grab a paring knife an hour before noon and set a hurried pace for the job’s completion. The crew ate boiled potatoes that day.

Another of my duties as mess boy was to arouse the watch below with the “hash hammer,” a large brass hand bell. Chief engineer John Fetting protested against my short cuts through the engine room but relented when he observed my keen interest in the moving crossheads and revolving cranks. Chief John liked anybody who admired his engine.

My first glimpse of Duluth made a lasting impression as we closed with the land late in the starlit evening. Parallel rows of street lights ran up the hill until they seemingly joined the stars, and the maze of city lights cast dancing reflections upon the waters of the ship canal and harbor. Duluth was a booming frontier city in those days and the downtown area was crowded with hordes of lumberjacks, railroad men, miners and seamen. Our cargo of coal was discharged across the bay in Superior and a waiting ore cargo was taken on a few days later at nearby Allouez. The unloading docks were slow then and since they rarely worked at night the stay in port was prolonged. The trip back to Lake Erie was pleasant but uneventful and Captain Fred Furtaw waved a greeting to his wife as we passed close to his home in Marine City. We arrived in Cleveland and discharged our cargo at the Central Furnace where I had signed the ships articles fifteen days before. But I was now a veteran seaman – I had been up the lakes and around the horn.

During the great storm of November 9, 1913, the steamer Pendennis White was snugly moored in Buffalo. Years later she was re-named Vega and acquired by the Interlake Steamship Company.

The following summer I shipped out on the B. F. Jones commanded by Captain R. W. England. During a trip from Cleveland to Milwaukee and around to Duluth we saw the pathetic remains of once proud ships that had been caught in the terrible gale on that wild night in November.

HOWARD M. HANNA after the 1913 storm

The badly battered Matoa was anchored at Sarnia after her release from the rocky east coast of Michigan. And somewhere near Port Sanilac we met the ill-fated steamer Howard M. Hanna in tow of the Reid Wrecking Company tug Fisher. The wrecker Manistique was alongside and lustily pumping out the water that was gushing through the Hanna’s shattered bottom. It was a depressing sight to see this once trim ship reduced to an inert and helpless derelict with doors and windows stove in, one boat missing and the other suspended vertically over the side from a davit. The skylight was smashed in, the funnel was gone and the after boat deck was twisted down over the fantail. The winter spent on the rocks of Port Austin Reef had taken its toll but this ship was subsequently rebuilt and is still in active service under Canadian registry.

Due to a slow dock and the nature of our cargo it took about five days to discharge the cargo in Milwaukee. As a result the lads spent considerable time in “Uncle” Louis’ saloon across the street. And by some strange quirk of fate Louis’ daughter took sufficient interest in me to prompt her mother to intimate that if I married Sophie, I would one day own the saloon. What price glory?

Billy Barnes, our cook, took great delight in telling all and sundry that he was a former “glass blower from Kokomo.” And he never tired of elaborating upon this bit of history by adding that he “blew the foam off the glass.”

We proceeded to Ashland for ore and while “rounding the horn.” the stranded Turret Chief was distinctly visible, perched high upon the rocky coast west of Copper Harbor where Lake Superior had disdainfully cast her aside. She was subsequently re-floated and returned to active service.

During boyhood, my world of ships was confined to the vessels which frequently entered the port of Cleveland and the endless procession of strange ships seen passing through the rivers and the straits had a most fascinating magnitude and variety. It was observed that many ships bore personal names and several of the older vessels bore the names of pioneers prominent in science and industry. An outstanding group in the Pittsburgh Steamship fleet bore the names James Watt, Sir William Siemens, George Stephenson, John Ericson, Robert Fulton, General Orlando M. Poe, Robert W. F. Bunsen and Samuel F. B. Morse.

The college group Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton and Rensselaer is well known to lake folks and three vessels of this famous quintet are still plying the inland seas.

A compendium of lake ships would be incomplete if it failed to list the famous “typewriter” group of ships in the fleet of the Great Lakes Steamship Company. The steamers L. C. Smith, B. Lyman Smith, H W. Smith, Monroe C. Smith, Wilbert L. Smith and Lyman C. Smith enjoyed long, successful and profitable careers.

Ships bearing the names of rivers in New York and Pennsylvania were prominent in the days of package freighters. And many port lists were graced with the romantic names Wissahickon, Delaware, Conemaugh, Codorus, Susquehanna, Allegheny, Muncy and Clarion of the old Anchor Line. This line also owned the able passenger steamers Juniata, Tionesta and Octorara. The Chemung, Ramapo, Tioga and Owego proudly hoisted the house flag of the Erie Railroad’s Union Line for many years. Other ships in this line were the Delos W. Cooke, Granville A. Richardson, John G. McCullough, F. D. Underwood and the Binghampton.

After serving aboard several steamers I became aware of differences in the atmosphere aboard and it became increasingly apparent that, like any other business or organization, the attitude of the crew is a reflection of the disposition of the top command. One outstanding personality was Captain George Bowen of the steamer Ellwood. A kindly, gentleman sailor who encouraged his men to bank their wages, who qualified deckhands for better jobs by encouraging them to learn to steer, and who always insisted that the crew dress up before passing through the Soo locks, in cognizance of public opinion.

One rainy night in 1914 I was sitting in the fo’c’le with the rest of the deckhands when the mate entered with the query: “Can any of you fellas ‘wheel’?” We had just left Duluth with ore for Lorain and had snugged everything down all shipshape and Bristol fashion. The mate explained that two of our wheelsmen had failed to return to the ship at sailing time and if any of us could steer we were in line for immediate promotion. Having learned the compass and the art of steering a ship during my free time I was assigned to the task on a probationary basis. And when we arrived in Lorain my promotion was given permanent status. A few weeks later I fell asleep at the wheel while crossing Lake Huron on a bright starlit night. This would not have been very serious except for the fact that the mate was also asleep in his chair. I was rudely startled out of my repose when the lookout cried, “Lights Ahead, Sir” and there, dead ahead shone the street lights of the town of Lexington. In another 15 minutes we would have been high and dry on Main Street.

Dawn broke in a blaze of golden radiance that mellowed the chill of the rising northeast wind as we met the schooner Alice of Milwaukee sailing to leeward under a cloud of billowing canvas. She was bound for Cleveland with a load of lumber and I think she was the last merchant sailing ship to enter that port.

Messabi docks in Duluth, MN

We arrived at the Mesabi docks in Duluth a few days later and I went ashore for the evening. And when I came back the ship was gone, leaving me stranded in Minnesota with two dollars. If misery likes company I should have been quite contented because one of our stokers had missed the ship also and promptly joined forces with me. I had accurately appraised him as a first class hobo and accepted his plan to rejoin the ship at the Soo where it was due to arrive 36 hours hence. We walked over to Superior and out to the Belknap Street yards of the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railroad where he found an east bound freight train among that maze of cars with amazing precision. According to stoker Jack, this train was scheduled to arrive at the Soo in 15 hours, which it probably did – but without us. Two burly brakemen unceremoniously evicted us from our cold box car some 30 miles out in the wilderness, thereby forcing us to return to Superior as pedestrians. Being a true knight of the road, stoker Jack wheedled me out of 50 cents which he spent most injudiciously on whiskey at 10 cents a jolt.

At this juncture stoker Jack and I parted company. I returned to Duluth and visited the office of the vessel agent where I was informed that the Ellwood would be back in 10 days. I had a 10 cent bed in the Mission on Tower Avenue in Superior which was promptly denied me when I ran out of dimes, whereupon saloon keeper Douglass across the street took me in as a porter to tide me over until my ship returned – which it did.

Having regained my sea bag and blessed with a pay check, I obtained a room in the Lennox Hotel in Duluth where I divested myself of the “Weary Winy” accouterments. Within a few days I shipped aboard the fine steamer John P. Reiss of Sheboygan as ordinary seaman. During the voyage to Buffalo the bos’n led us down to the forepeak, which someone had foolishly decided to paint white. Since this part of the ship was below the waterline we had to use kerosene lamps for illumination while we diligently applied nice white paint to the wet, slimy hull plating. But the job was never finished. Due to the lack of ventilation and the heat from the lanterns we developed a turpentine jag of major proportions. When the boys started slapping each other with brushes full of paint the bos’n ordered us out of the forepeak and as we emerged on deck the whole gang danced and yelled lustily. Captain James Doner countermanded the order for the painting job causing Mate Hughes to lament long and vociferously that he was not “running an excursion steamer for deckhands.” He had a strong aversion to “those deckhands,” and it was solely due to Captain Doner’s vigilance that we were not hazed off the ship. Along about this time the cook noticed the disappearance of pies which he had locked in the pantry. Evidently someone had a pass key, but who? A trap was set by the simple expedient of dusting an apple pie with cascara powder instead of cinnamon. Next day Mate Hughes stood convicted.

Having endured Mate Hughes as long as I could I switched jobs in Ashtabula by shipping aboard the little freighter G. A. Flagg and then quitting the J. P. Reiss. The Flagg was a home. Captain Gus Hartman was a very young skipper who recognized that some of us were students on vacation and he treated us accordingly. We carried coal from Lake Erie ports to the “Copper Country” around Houghton & Hancock. Slow docks in Ripley, Dollar Bay and Hubbel gave us considerable time in port in this “wild west” of Michigan and by the time we proceeded to Ashland for ore and returned to Lake Erie, fifteen days had gone by. I was painting the white upper bows one day while we lay moored in Lake Linden and I had a deckhand standing by to lower my stage plank as needed. I never suspected his colossal ignorance of knots and hitches until one of my slings let go, plunging me and a bucket of white paint into icy water twenty feet below. When I came up through the paint which had spread over the water I felt and looked like a snowman and had to be scrubbed with kerosene to restore the original finish.


Captain Alexander McDougall was an astute Scot from Collingwood who knew the moods of the lakes and decided to build an unsinkable ship. The result was a cigar shaped hull with the deckhouses mounted upon turrets which offered the least resistance to the seas as they swept the deck. The first one, built in Duluth, was barge No. 101, which gave rise to the popular belief that he had one hundred dreams before actually beginning construction. I shipped as wheelsman aboard the whaleback Bay State with Captain Anderson J. Hanna and I soon learned why “pigboat” men never stooped to pick up what was dropped. It wasn’t there anymore.

The worst storm of my seafaring career was experienced while serving aboard the very staunch freighter William D. Crawford in 1928. We cleared Fort William with grain for Buffalo one cold and blustery afternoon late in November. After standing out of Thunder Bay and passing from under the lee of Isle Royale we were beset by a heavy sea rolling under a strong southwest wind. Our course lay southeasterly toward Whitefish Bay some 156 miles distant, but as night descended the wind increased and Captain John Hesson altered the course toward Keweenaw. The sky was hidden by a black scud and the wind shrieked a piercing din in the rigging. The seas became higher and more vicious as the night progressed and our 525-foot steamer rolled and plunged like a canoe in a millrace. The gunwhales were rolling under and the hissing seas were sweeping the deck. If one of our fifteen hatches had failed that night our ship would have been added to the long list of mysterious disappearances on Lake Superior. There was not one among us who was not thinking of home and friends ashore. And when the storm increased, some of us despaired of ever seeing another sunrise. Sleep was impossible so the watch below wedged themselves into their bunks and held on as best they could. Early morning found us in the lee of Keweenaw and the worst was over. That evening we locked through the Soo and next day proceeded across Lake Huron without any disturbance. However, when we entered Lake Erie the southwest wind picked up again and as we neared Buffalo it was becoming too rough to enter. We turned about and headed back under Long Point where we anchored for the night. Next morning I counted 27 vessels at anchor in the shelter of the point.

I always enjoy the recollection of humorous incidents aboard ship such as the time the tug was towing us out of Huron too fast. Captain Langell blew three toots to slow down but the tug kept right on pulling lustily. Finally, the skipper’s patience was exhausted and he grabbed the megaphone and hailed the tug with, “Slow down, I can smash this ship up myself -I don’t need a tug to help me.” Langell always referred to the long freighters as, “these lath and plaster boats.”

We suffered a slight collision with another steamer on Lake Erie one night so, although the damage was slight, the alarm bells were rung. Next day I met Elmer, our colored waiter, coming around the after house so I asked him what he did when the disaster alarm rang. He replied, “Oh! I sat down and put on my shoes. These slippers wasn’t gonna be no good for the kind of running I was gonna do.”

Some years later when I was master of a ship, I entered a small port for shelter, and while waiting for the storm to abate, my cook, whom we shall call Pierre, became disgruntled over some injustice, fancied or real. So he quietly stole away in the dark of the night and asked directions to the railroad station from a lone straggler. Following the directions he set off down the road with his two heavy bags sagging his shoulders and before long he was quite confused when the road ended among the breakers. Undaunted, Pierre retraced his steps to the nearest cross-road which he followed with grim determination only to find himself again at the water’s edge. Utterly lost he trod up to a cottage showing a glimmer of light and again asked directions to the depot. And the kindly old lady squinted over her specs and said, “My good man, don’t you know that you are on an island.” Pierre served breakfast on time in the morning but news travels fast on an island and I was tipped off the instant I went ashore.

That same afternoon I observed a small excursion steamer moving out of the bay with a happy group of tourists cheering and waving. Pierre had shuffled along the deck and joined me at the railing to watch the departing ship. “Where are they bound, Cap?” quoth he. I scanned the horizon intently for a fleeting moment, and then I turned and looked directly at the little cook. His white chefs cap was set at a jaunty angle, reflecting the summer sun like a glacier, but his eyes looked tired. “To the railroad depot,” I replied softly.

Pierre went below.

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About the Author: Mr. Dosey. G. L. H. S. trustee and chairman of the Membership Committee. keeps his Master’s license and sails when time permits. His delightful stories appear frequently in INLAND SEAS.

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The Soo Locks – One Hundred Years Ago – Summer 1955

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

By R.S. Brotherton 


Sault Rapids

The Sault for many, many, years before the locks and canals were completed was a great central meeting place of all Indian tribes when they were at peace with each other. They called it “Bowating,” meaning the Place of the Rapids, and the Chippewa located on the river named it “Gitchi-Gumi-Sippi,” the River of the Great Lakes.

Here also came Pere Marquette in 1668 and spellbound by the great beauty of the tumbling waters gave it its name, “Le Saut de Sainte Marie,” the “Falls of Holy Mary” -we call it “the Soo.”

Charles T. Harvey

It was 100 years ago, April 19, 1855 that Charles T. Harvey first opened the sluice gates of the cofferdam and water entered the first state lock, a tandem affair of two chambers each doing part of the total job. But it was not until June 18 that the first sidewheel steamer, the Illinois, with Captain Jack Wilson in command, passed through the locks bound westward to Marquette. Later still, on August 14, 1855 the first cargo of 132 tons of iron ore left Marquette on the Brig Columbia, Judson Wells master, and passed through the locks on August 17.

The Sault has a long and colorful history. Two years before the Pilgrims in the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, a French explorer, Etienne Brule, stared in amazement at the rushing waters and in 1668 Father Marquette established a mission there. In modern times the rapids proved a bottleneck to the transportation of copper and iron that had been discovered in the North Country. Charles T. Harvey, who came there in 1852 saw the great possibilities and he, together with John Burt, his engineer, completed the Soo Canal in 1855 – 100 years ago.

Strangely enough, the Soo is the least known of modern engineering achievements. When you view the ships that go through the locks on an average of one every 18 minutes, 24 hours a day, eight months of the year, you are astonished at the speed and ease with which the vessels are raised and lowered, so that a freighter which has been towering above you has, in a few moments, dropped so low that you are looking down on its deck. The Soo Locks are really a set of gigantic water elevators raising or lowering the ship over the hump of 18 to 20 feet between the level of Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

Since the first cargo of iron ore passed through the Canal in 1855, more than three billion tons of iron ore have passed through the locks. Little did the American people dream 100 years ago that the locks would prove such a vital role in national and world economy.

At present there are four locks operating on the American side and the chronological story is as follows:

Early Soo Lock

The State lock was built in 1855 with a length of 350 feet, width 60 feet, depth 11 ½ feet and was destroyed in 1888 by excavation for the present Poe lock.

The Weitzel lock was built in 1881 with a length of 515 feet, 80 feet wide narrowing up to 60 feet at the gates, with 17 feet depth. This lock was destroyed in 1943 by excavation for the present MacArthur lock.

The Poe lock was built in 1896 with a length of 704 feet, 100 feet wide and having 16.6 feet depth and is still operating.

The Davis lock was built in 1914 with a length of 135 0 feet, width 80 feet, depth 23 feet and is still in operation.

The Sabin lock was built in 1919, length 1350 feet, width 80 feet, depth 24 ½ feet and is still operating.

The MacArthur lock was built in 1943, length 800 feet, width 80 feet, depth 31 feet and is still in operation.

The four American locks take a force of about 175 men to operate them and in addition employ some 150 others as engineers, electricians, mechanics, clerical and mail clerks, laborers, etc.

There is also the Canadian lock built in 1895, length 900 feet, width 60 feet, depth 17 feet and still operating.

It is wonderful to watch the colorful pageant of giant 600-foot ore freighters carrying 20,000 tons of iron ore, huge grain carriers with half a million bushels of wheat, oil tankers, trim private yachts, passenger ships, tugs and even rowboats, all crafts, no matter how large or small passing through the locks without any charge or expense.

The Soo locks do not belong to Michigan alone, or to the Midwest, but to all America. And all America is invited to celebrate the Centennial of this wonder of the modern world.

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About the Author: This article was part of a 100th anniversary of the Soo Locks edition of Inland Seas.  

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