Tug Ohio Christening, June 21, 2019

Tug Ohio Christening, June 21, 2019

On June 21, 2019, the Maumee River was the host to a unique dual christening ceremony. The Museum Tug Ohio (background) was re-dedicated as a museum ship and formally retired from active service and it’s replacement, the new Tug Ohio (foreground), was christened in it’s new home port. The new Ohio can be seen working up and down the Maumee River today and is just the latest in the long history of tugboats in the Port of Toledo.


This exhibit is made possible by visitors like you.  Please consider making a donation to the National Museum of the Great Lakes to help us continue our important work of preserving and making know the history of the Great Lakes.

ROUSE SIMMONS and the Port of Chicago – Winter 1987

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

By Theodore S. Charrney

On the eve of the Civil War, Chicago was already the largest grain shipping center in the country, having displaced New Orleans through the opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. That waterway became a feeder for the Great Lakes and 500 ships were employed in the grain trade. These cargoes sailed east to Black Rock above Buffalo, at the head of the Erie Canal to feed the eastern seaboard. Grain bound for export to Europe went to the Canadian railheads in Georgian Bay at Goderich and Kincardine as well as Sarnia on Lake Huron. The grain shipments continued to multiply with the growth of the breadbasket at Chicago’s back door.

Over in Michigan’s dual peninsulas the greatest lumber operations in our then history were taking place. So intensive was this activity that by 1862 Chicago displaced Bangor, Maine as the world’s greatest lumber receiving and re-shipping center. The forests of Michigan covered 95% of the state’s area and were then believed inexhaustible, a fact later disproved.

Thus, in mid-nineteenth century the Great Lakes area saw an immense fleet of sailing vessels built to carry the cereals and lumber.

From April until December, during the sailing season, each newspaper published a Marine Intelligence column listing arrivals and departures and all the information pertinent to the lake faring gentry. In these columns could be found the news and activities of the ship builders, vessel owners, sailing masters, port authorities, coast guard, tugboat companies. bridge-tenders and all other floating interests. Yet, to follow the career of a ship from the laying of its keel in the shipyard to its final abandonment or disaster, one must consult thousands of newspapers to trace her wandering. In this manner the forty-four year career of the Rouse Simmons was brought together. It was only one of 2000 ships of sail but it was built in the days of the state of its most advanced art and sailed well into the sunset era of the schooner fleet.

The Rouse Simmons

ROUSE SIMMONS under sail

The Rouse Simmons was built in 1868 in Milwaukee for Kenosha ownership. Her keel was laid in March and by August the vessel was launched. Her cost was $14,000. After being documented by the government her maiden voyage was made in early September. She sailed in light trim for Manistee, Michigan to pick up a cargo of lumber destined for Chicago. This was the first of more than a thousand ship arrivals in Chicago harbor during her lifetime. The ship spent her entire career in the lumber trade carrying scantling, joist, lath, shingles, cedar posts, railroad ties, telegraph poles and tanbark. The vessel was named for a member of a family prominent in the commercial and industrial life of Kenosha. The same family later founded the Simmons Bed Company. Oddly enough, the ship’s namesake never owned a plank in the vessel but his family was instrumental in funding its construction.

She measured 127 feet overall; 27½ feet of beam; 8 feet depth of hold and 220 tons burthen; three masts, fore and after rigged, with square sail on top mast, specifically designed for the lumber trade.

In 1869, during her first full year, twenty-six arrivals were registered in Chicago harbor all lumber laden from Manistee. Her carrying capacity was normally 200,000 board feet of lumber but this was increased by 10 percent during the balmy summer sailing. In the fall when “Old Boreas” made his appearance, her cargoes were shortened to 180,000 feet by the reduction of deck loads and out of consideration for the underwriters.

During this same year there were 13,730 arrivals recorded by the harbor master in Chicago. This exceeded the total number of vessels entering the salt water ports of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Mobile and San Francisco combined. True, the tonnage of some of these ports was greater than Chicago, ocean-going vessels being larger, but the comparison is all the more striking when we remember Chicago’s sailing season was only eight months while the salt water ports were open year ‘round.

The Chicago River and branches was known as the harbor and as many as 120 ship arrivals were logged on a single day but the average for the sailing season was slightly more than fifty daily. From its mouth to Van Buren street the river was spanned by a dozen pivot bridges which opened and closed by turning on their midstream piers. The rapid and easy movement of these bridges was one of the sights of the city, but their frequent opening and closing was no trifling annoyance to the landsmen who complained of being “bridged” during such delays. The ships of sail were helpless in the harbor being in the tow of tug boats and jousts between ship and bridge were frequent. Hundreds of such collisions occurred annually. In this atmosphere the Rouse Simmons made her debut and Lake Michigan and Chicago harbor became her arena for almost half a century.

After four years in the service of Kenosha the Rouse Simmons was sold to Charles H. Hackley of Muskegon, formerly of Kenosha. He was perhaps the wealthiest of the forty Muskegon lumber barons of that sawdust city and his company owned a fleet of as many as seven ships during the heyday of lumbering in the 1880’s. Of all the floating property owned by Hackley, the Rouse Simmons was his workhorse for the longest period, twenty-six years. Should you go to Muskegon today you will find a park, a library, an art gallery, a high school, a church and monuments to Lincoln and McKinley, all the gifts of Hackley to his adopted town. I believe some of this philanthropy was made possible through the earnings of the Rouse Simmons.

During the quarter of a century spent in the Hackley fleet the vessel saw her share of glory and frustrations. Collisions with other ships under fog bound conditions disabled the vessel on two occasions. The vessel lost her jib-boom or cathead several times in harbor accidents placing her in dry dock for repairs. On some late season voyages the vessel came into the harbor iced up at the bow and on her sides, her deck load either jettisoned or greatly reduced, with three or four feet of water in her hold and the crew thoroughly exhausted from incessant manning of the pumps.

Crew Fatalities

Several deaths occurred during her Hackley period. Once an unlucky deck hand fell from her topmast. Another time a hand fell overboard and still another was crushed by the hull of the ship coming against the pilings. The most spectacular death occurred in 1875. One William Rothwell, an English born sailing master was given command of the ship in spite of the fact he had a drinking problem. Late in the season when storms were the rule on the lakes, the ship incurred some minor damage each trip that could usually be accounted for. In a mid-November storm, however, she lost her mainsail and used a full week for the 200-mile trip from Muskegon, and upon arrival in Chicago she ran against the pier and lost her anchor. This brought about Rothwell’s discharge and after fortifying himself with strong waters, he checked into the Sherman Hotel and committed suicide by morphine.

The Forests Recede

The third owner of the ship, a Chicago sailing master, used the vessel in the lumber trade but the receding forests made necessary trips of longer distances, hence her arrivals in Chicago were substantially reduced. In October of 1904, while loading at Torch Lake in the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay, she was caught at her moorings by a northwest gale that kicked up a wicked sea and started the vessel pounding against the pilings. To save the ship from breaking up she was scuttled and settled to the bottom in fifteen feet of water. Sitting thus she was sold to a Beaver Island sailing master, raised, pumped out, jacketed and floated to Charlevoix where she wintered. The following spring, she crossed Lake Michigan at the end of a towline while the men at the pumps kept her buoyant. Up on the boxes at Sturgeon Bay the vessel received a complete refit and was placed in the tanbark trade between Beaver Island and the tanneries in Milwaukee.

In the fall of 1906 the vessel was dismasted in a violent gale and was given up for lost when the Grand Haven Car Ferry picked her up and towed her into Milwaukee harbor. She was again refitted and sailed for three years without mishap.

Christmas Tree Ship

A 1909 photo of Captain Herman Schuenemann, center, Mr. Colberg, right, and W. L. Vanaman, left, standing among Christmas trees on a ship.

The most romantic period in the life of the Rouse Simmons began in 1910 when a part ownership in the vessel was purchased by Herman Schuenemann, a member of the Chicago family associated with the Christmas tree trade.

Since 1884 Herman and his older brother, August, had brought holiday greens into Chicago on the final voyage of the sailing season and sold them from the deck of a schooner. For over a quarter of a century a dozen ships, either owned or chartered, brought their evergreen cargoes into Chicago.

In 1898 August lost his life and his cargo of greens off Glencoe when the schooner Thal went down with all hands. Herman, however, continued to follow the Christmas tree trade and as each ship fell by the wayside through attrition he finally came to own a part of the Rouse Simmons.

In 1912, the third Christmas tree voyage made by the vessel departed Thompson in Michigan’s upper peninsula in a rising gale. The next day she was sighted off Kewaunee, Wisconsin flying distress signals. Although the coast guard went to relieve the ship, the weather closed in and she was heard from no more.

Barbara, Herman’s widow, continued the business, but her greens came in by rail and were transferred to a show case ship chartered for the purpose. She continued the family enterprise for twenty-two years until her death. Her daughters erected a gravestone over her ashes, and although Captain Herman’s body was never recovered, his name shared the marker with Barbara. It stands in Acacia Cemetery in Chicago and between the two inscriptions is graven a Christmas tree.

During the years following the sinking of the Rouse Simmons, fisherman in the vicinity would frequently bring up their nets clogged with Christmas trees. Once a wallet wrapped in oil skin was picked up on the beach at Sheboygan containing many items personal to Captain Herman.

Fifty-nine years after the Rouse Simmons was lost it was inevitable that a scuba diver should find himself on the deck of the sunken hulk. A Christmas tree, or what was left of it, was brought up and displayed in the counting room of a Milwaukee bank during the Yule season of 1971.

Later the anchor was raised and incorporated into a monument that stands at the entrance of the Milwaukee Yacht Club. The mainmast, too, was retrieved and serves as a flagpole on the estate of the scuba diver.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: Theodore Charrney began work at various jobs in 1923, but in 1928 he began a maritime career, fresh-water and salt, which endured until the fall off of shipping in the depression of 1934. He has been researching marine subjects for many years.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member

Singapore: Michigan’s Imaginary Pompeii, Part 2 – Spring 1954

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

By Charles R. Starring

The first part of this article can be found here.


Since Singapore was not more than 14 miles from the settlement made in 1847 at Holland, it is not surprising that Dutchmen began to appear in Singapore, finding employment in the mills or in the store. As early as 1847, one Dutch family, the Strengs, had been landed at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, where they had lived for a while in a warehouse, walking over the sandhills to buy supplies at Singapore. Two years later the Dutch people were holding religious meetings conducted by Jan Pees, probably in houses, since there is no record of a church building in Singapore. Before their own sawmill was set up, the people of Holland got their lumber from the Singapore mills by floating it down the river to Lake Michigan, then north to Black Lake.

Francis B. Stockbridge

In the time of the Civil War, Singapore seems to have been regarded more as a sawmill community than an established town. The Michigan Gazeteer, published in Detroit in 1863, does not mention Singapore; though Saugatuck is listed as a town of 400 persons, with two tanneries, one flour mill, two stave factories, four lumber yards, and six saw mills. It was clear by that time that Saugatuck, not Singapore, was to be the permanent settlement near the mouth of the river. Two of the sawmills and two of the lumberyards in Saugatuck were owned by Stockbridge and Johnson, who in 1859 had formed the partnership of O. R. Johnson and Company. They owned most of the good pine lands as far up the river as Allegan. Just after the war, this company bought out the Singapore mills and pushed those operations to their greatest development. Both Johnson and Stockbridge were Maine men, and both became wealthy from their lumbering operations in Michigan. In 1874 Stockbridge bought a pretentious mansion at the corner of Carmel and Main Streets in Kalamazoo, and went into politics. In 1887 the legislature elected him to the United States Senate, where he was serving at the time of his death in 1894.

The O. R. Johnson and Company mills were busy in the years following the war, and when their Singapore mill burned in 1868, it was soon replaced by a modern plant that could turn out 60,000 feet of lumber in a day on its circular saws, siding machine, and edger. This is the mill that appears in one of the only two known pictures of Singapore, probably taken in 1869. The superintendent, B. B. Hazelton, directed a crew of 28 men, most of whom lived in Singapore in the spring and summer, implying a population of perhaps 100 persons. In winter this population was considerably reduced when many of the men found work in the beech and maple forests around East Saugatuck, cutting charcoal wood for Michigan ‘s iron furnaces. By 1870 the store had closed; the people did their trading in Saugatuck, which they usually referred to as The Flats. Singapore then had probably fewer than 20 houses, with board walks leading from each house to the sandy road. A map printed in 1873 shows 22 buildings. Two of them were the mills, the Stockbridge and Johnson mill at the east edge of town at the river ‘s edge, the older mill about 900 feet downstream in the extreme southwest corner of the settlement. Of the other buildings, 14 were on the north side of River Street, four on the west side of Detroit Street.

By 1870 the days of pine lumbering in the Kalamazoo valley were numbered. The best stands were approaching exhaustion, and the lumbering men, including O. R. Johnson & Co., were moving into the richer stands to the north and in the west. In 1870 exports from Saugatuck – Singapore exceeded those from any port on the west shore of Michigan except Grand Haven. The collector of customs reported 672 vessels had cleared from the mouth of the river, carrying 30,000,000 feet of lumber, 31,000,000 shingles, 2,000,000 lath and pickets, besides cordwood, ties, and staves. O. R. Johnson & Co.’s Singapore mill was the largest in the area, and the company had three schooners plying between the Kalamazoo River and Chicago.

But this activity was a last gasp. Probably the rebuilding of Chicago after the fire of 1871 accelerated the cutting of the remaining stands. Harrison Hutchins and his father, who were in the business of cutting logs on contract and would not cut a stand estimated to produce less than two-thirds good lumber, found no more tracts of that quality after the 1880-81 season. Towns along the river without railroad connections were losing more and more of their business. In 1868 the Kalamazoo, Allegan, & Grand Rapids Railroad reached Allegan, and three years later the Chicago and Michigan Lake Shore sent its first train through Fennville and New Richmond. Both these railroads reduced the already diminishing volume of traffic on the lower river.

O.R. JOHNSON, used to move the last Singapore Sawmill

When, in 1873, the O. R. Johnson & Co. sold its Saugatuck mill to the Saugatuck Lumber Company for $30,000, along with some of its pine lands for an additional $169,000, the days of the Singapore mill were plainly numbered. In August, 1875, the company began making arrangements for moving the mill, and on Wednesday, September 29, their new tug Flora, with the schooner O. R. Johnson and the steamer Saugatuck, sailed out of the mouth of the river carrying mill machinery from Singapore to the company’s new operations on Point St. Ignace in the upper peninsula.1 0ne month later the Lake Shore Commercial Record of Saugatuck lamented, as well it might, “nothing remains of a once thriving village but a few scattered houses, and hereafter Singapore must be considered among the things that were.”

This, briefly, is the story of Singapore. It is a fair conclusion from the record that Singapore was never much more than a lumber-mill camp. It came into being at the very tail-end of the boom of the 1830s, just in time to fall a victim to the depression of 1837. Its first phase ended about 1840, when Oshea Wilder ‘s dreams of a prosperous port at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River collapsed with the bank and the mill. As business revived in the middle 1840’s, Singapore took on a new life, and as long as good pine remained in the river valley, the saws at Singapore and Saugatuck cut it into lumber for Chicago, Milwaukee, and other lake ports. But there were never more than two mills standing at one time at Singapore, and usually only one was doing much business. There seems never to have been a postoffice at Singapore, the Astor House was more accurately a boarding-house, and the wild-cat bank managed a dubious existence for less than a year. There was but one store and no church. The population was just sufficient to operate the mills and the very minor allied activities, and probably never exceeded 200, or perhaps 300 as an extreme upper limit. Even as the town was enjoying a brief prosperity after the Civil War, the shadow of death was already over it; and with the removal of the mill machinery in 1875, it died. The sand dunes were moving in as the mill moved out.

Singapore in the early 1900s

What happened to the buildings of Singapore? They seem to have been left to salvage, sand, and decay. There are occasional recorded glimpses in the years since 1875. When Mrs. J. E. Brown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, visited Saugatuck in 1883, she wrote to the editor of her home-town paper that “ten or twelve houses, without paint or sash, mark the spot. The hotel is there and the remains of a . . . mill. The buildings are partly buried in the sand and in good shape. Not a person lives there.” In 1888 a writer mentioned “a few deserted, decaying houses . . . with the sand blowing over them as if to bury the last vestige of the place, while the wild waves breaking on the beach a few rods away chant its requiem.” These observers either overlooked or failed to mention the last inhabitants of Singapore – the family of James Nichols, a fisherman who built boats on the side. This family had taken quarters in the Astor House. As the sands mounted, the family sought higher quarters. By the summer of 1892 they had reached the third and last floor, and when the sand began to run into the chimney top, the Nichols menage moved out. On Christmas Day of 1894, Ray Nies and a companion found a portion of the roof of the old hotel projecting from the sand, and, as boys are likely to do, set fire to it. In the summer of 1896 a smoldering fire was burning in the remains of the old dock, which still held “hundreds of cords” of slabs and piles of sawdust. In the fall of that year the wood in and on the dock was salvaged. This was the fate, over the years, of most of the good lumber in the remaining buildings. As recently as the time of the first World War, the tops of the picket fence around the cemetery could be seen above the encroaching sand.

Some time around the turn of the century the site of Singapore was bought by David C. Cook of Elgin, Illinois, a publisher of Sunday School literature. He built a large house on the slope overlooking the site from the east, and probably cleared out visible ruins. In 1905 the Federal Government bought from him a right-of-way for the present channel, which begins its course close to the site of Wilder’s mill. Three or four cottages were built on the site of Singapore, along the path traveled by fishermen walking from the dug-out road to the government pier on the north side of the new channel. These frame buildings, unused for several years, became the victims of time and vandalism; and when David A. Bennett of Chicago bought some 400 acres on both sides of the river mouth in 1945, he had these wrecks torn down, except one, which he remodeled as a guest house. He spent much money on the building and grounds of the old Cook house, which, with its white pillars, became an impressive sight on the high north bank of the river. Then, annoyed at the behavior of persons who parked or picnicked on the land in front of his guest house, he built a strong wire fence across the old Dug Road that led along the river to Singapore. Some of the older inhabitants of Saugatuck challenged his right to do this, alleging the Singapore road was an established public road. The case was appealed from a justice court to the circuit court of Allegan County in 1949. On February 17, 1951, Judge Raymond L. Smith found that, while a road had been used west of Bennett’ s fence, it had never been a well-defined public road, and the fence was allowed to stand. Feeling over this matter was high for a while. Mr. Bennett died in his home by the river on April 19, 1953, and the fate of the site of Singapore is at present uncertain.

Singapore today – completely covered by Michigan Sand Dunes.

Are there buildings buried beneath the dune that covers much of the site of the old town? There may be parts of frame buildings that escaped salvage and decay; parts of the Astor House might appear as the sand shifts eastward. But at present there is no indication whatever of any such remains. And grievous disappointment awaits the antiquarian who digs into the site 2000 years hence expecting to find docks, log houses, stores where Indian women bought their calico, and a wild-cat bank that issued notes without gold to back them. Such discoveries will be made in the future, as in the past, only in Sunday feature articles and pamphlets written for the edification of tourists.


  1. Mr. Henry Randall believes the new location was on the Black River near Cheboygan. I have followed the contemporary account in the Saugatuck Commercial Record.



Harrison H. Hutchins, himself a second-generation pioneer of the Singapore-Saugatuck region, for several years kept a record of interviews with surviving early settlers. Then, adding material from his own long and active life, he wrote about 35 sketches of the history of the Singapore area. These were published in the Saugatuck Commercial -Record between 1919 and 1925, and have been collected in a scrapbook in the Allegan Public Library.

Bound volumes of the Saugatuck Commercial-Record (the title changed occasionally) are in the office of the present editor, Mr. William R. Sinnnons, in Saugatuck. Except for two volumes, the file is complete since the first issue in 1868. The issue of December 3, 1875, has a brief history of Singapore, published soon after the last sawmill had been moved away. Of scattered and not always useful items in other papers, the feature articles in the Detroit News for October 26, 1930, and in the Detroit News-Tribune of May 6, 1917, deserve mention.

A record of Wilder ‘s work as agent for the New York and Michigan Company appears in the Knowles Taylor Letter Book in the Burton Historical Collection in Detroit. In these copies of letters sent by Wilder to Taylor are found an almost day-by-day record of his activities between 1836 and 1839, including Wilder ‘s sketch of the mouth of the Kalamazoo River and details of company organization. Wilder ‘s journal of his 1831 trip to locate land in Michigan is in the Michigan Historical Collections in Ann Arbor. Some details of his life in Eckford Township, Calhoun County, are found in William A. Lane’s Homer and Its Pioneers, and in several articles in the volumes of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society ‘s Historical Collections. A letter in which Wilder gives figures on the output of his Singapore mill is printed in the November 1, 1839 issue of the American Railroad Journal and Mechanics ‘ Magazine.

Mrs. May Frances Heath, Early Memories of Saugatuck , Michigan, 1830-1930 , contains several valuable Singapore items. The author is the grand-daughter of one of the earliest of the Saugatuck pioneers. The Netherlands Museum, in Holland, Michigan, has a sheet of uncut Singapore bank notes. Mr. Peter T. Moerdyk , curator of the museum, has translated an article in the January 14, 1912 issue of De Grondwet, containing the story of the Streng family. V. R. Wadsworth , Trials of Pioneer Life, published in Fennville, is an excellent memoir of early settlement in the lower Kalamazoo River valley

These are useful for maps: I. M. Gross, Map of Allegan County, Michigan, 1864; and J. Lake, Atlas of Allegan County, Michigan, 1873. Both have plats of Singapore. Considerable information is found in John T. Blois, Gazetteer of the State of Michigan, 1839, and in Charles F. Clark, Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1863-64. Dr. Henry P. Thomas, A Twentieth Century History of Allegan County, Michigan, is a more than average useful work of its kind. All these items are in the Burton Historical Collection.

I have not tried to untangle the complicated relationships of the New York and Michigan Company, the Boston Company, and the Singapore City Company; the Allegan County records would undoubtedly reward further research along that line. The Updike Abstract Company of Allegan has a photostat of the original plat of Singapore; the original drawing has disappeared. The papers of Francis B. Stockbridge and Otis R. Johnson, if they exist, would furnish more details of Singapore lumbering operations. Unfortunately, I have found no trace of them. There is a brief sketch of Stockbridge in George W. Hotchkiss, Industrial Chicago:  the Lumber Interests.

Of several persons who have contributed from their own knowledge, Mr. Henry Randall, a native of Singapore; Mr. Ed House; Mr. William R. Simmons; and Mrs. May Frances Heath are residents of Saugatuck. I thank them all, and many others, for their friendly help.

-C. R. S.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

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.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member

Singapore: Michigan’s Imaginary Pompeii – Winter 1953

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

By Charles R. Starring

In its Sunday issue of October 26, 1930, The Detroit News informed its readers that

Michigan’s Pompeii lies nearly forgotten at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River . . . Perhaps 2,000 years from now antiquarians will dig into the dunes over Singapore to obtain an inkling of its departed glory, and learn how its people lived. The searchers of the future would find many things to excite their interest. Under the sands is a tavern, where James Fenimore Cooper sketched the outline of “Oak Openings.” There are docks where schooners, with sails furled, waited for cargoes. They would find log houses, stores where Indian women bought their calico, and a “wild cat” bank that issued notes without gold to back them. They would find peavies, cant hooks, and other rusted implements used for logging on a river now devoted to industry; kettles, cranes and additional articles from the kitchens of pioneer women. Their machinery would unearth evidences of a sawmill that turned out lumber for the rebuilding of Chicago, after Mother O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lamp in its barn (if it did), and started a disastrous fire.

Singapore, MI in its heyday.

To compare a rough sawmill town with the Roman city buried under the ashes and lava of Vesuvius may seem a little pretentious, and the suggestion that beneath the sand lie extensive remains of the domestic and commercial activities of a frontier community is a greater tribute to the enthusiasm of the feature writer than to the carefulness of his historical research. Yet Singapore did exist, and its intriguing name continues to keep its memory alive. There is living today at least one person born there, and a recent law suit in the circuit court of Allegan County, Michigan, put its name briefly in the newspapers again. The real story of Singapore is a revealing footnote to the beginnings and growth of southwestern Michigan.

Many other towns than Singapore were platted in Michigan in the boom years of the 1830’s. Some of them grew into important cities. Others, like Superior and Port Sheldon, finding no reason for existence, languished and died; Singapore lived nearly 40 years before it joined them. Situated about one mile from what was then the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, protected by sand hills from the storms that swept westward over Lake Michigan, Singapore seemed to have the natural location for a town that would surely grow out of the traffic from a river flowing more than 100 miles through a potentially rich land. Singapore began as a typical frontier speculative effort in 1837, just as the panic of that year struck the country. It was the product of the dreams of Oshea Wilder, who put his money and the best efforts of his mature years into its founding. He was a superior type of pioneer and deserves to be better known.

Oshea Wilder was born in Gardner, Massachusetts, probably in 1784. His father taught him blacksmithing and he learned surveying. Surviving letters show he learned to write clearly and accurately for his purposes. He saw some service in the War of 1812, married in 1813, and spent about two years (1821-23) in London, with some traveling in France. Upon his return he moved to Rochester, New York, where he engaged in the crockery business. In the fall of 1831 he went out to Michigan and located on 80 acres in Eckford township, Calhoun County, about four miles southeast of Marshall on the Homer Road. In 1832 he brought out his wife and children – five sons and one daughter. Another son, Daniel, came out later and helped his father in the Singapore enterprise. The Wilder house stood beside a stream still called Wilder’s Creek. In the summer of 1833 he built a sawmill on this stream, and in the next two years added a blacksmith shop, a wagon and chair factory, and a tavern, which he leased with the condition that no liquor should be sold therein. Called by one of his contemporaries “a man of refinement and more than ordinary culture,” he was elected or appointed to various offices: supervisor of the township, postmaster, and delegate to the state Democratic convention of April, 1836. He soon caught the frontier enthusiasm, for as early as 1833 he wrote letters to a Detroit paper urging the building of the railroad chartered in the previous year to join Detroit with the mouth of the St. Joseph River. With Cyrus Lovell and Isaac Crary he was appointed by Governor Mason a commissioner for organizing Allegan County, and he surveyed that part of the village of Allegan lying between the river and the hills on the western side. As these activities acquainted him with the lower Kalamazoo River valley, his active mind soon decided that the mouth of that river was a natural site for a town. He interested eastern friends in the project, and between 1836 and 1840 gave his chief attention to its development. In 1837 he began a sawmill at Singapore, opened a bank there in 1838, and, after the failure of these enterprises in 1839-40, returned to Eckford, where he died in 1846.

Such is a summary view of Wilder’s life. The founding of Singapore is revealed in a close examination of his activities between 1836 and 1839.

In April, 1836, Wilder made an agreement in New York with four men, including S.V. Wilder, probably his brother, and Knowles Taylor, the leading spirit. These four men subscribed $25,000 for investment in lands in Michigan Territory, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin Territory. These lands were to be selected by Wilder, whose share was to be one­third of the profits realized on the venture. The company would divide its profits within five years, pay Wilder’s expenses, and charge him 6 percent on funds advanced until he invested them. For five years Wilder was bound to buy no land for himself for any purchaser other than the New York and Michigan Company.

Soon after his return to Michigan, Wilder began buying land in the Kalamazoo River Valley, some of it at the Kalamazoo Land Office, some from speculators who had gotten ahead of him. Convinced that the growing population around the south end of Lake Michigan would be dependent on Michigan pine lumber for many years, his purpose was to acquire as many acres of pine lands as his authorization permitted. With pine lumber selling at $17 per thousand in Chicago, he figured a profit of at least $180 per acre from pine lands bearing only 15 trees an acre, and for such land he could afford to pay as much as $60 to $70 an acre. He found good pine lands for much less. He bought 2000 acres near Dunningville for about $10 an acre, 320 acres along the Rabbit River for $5. Altogether he bought 5015.31 acres in the valley for $36,714 (apparently his credit had been increased), an average price of $7.32 an acre.

A seven-week trip to Chicago and Green Bay in May and June of 1836 convinced him the Michigan pine lands were worth twice as much as he had thought, and upon his return from this exhausting trip by horseback he advised Taylor not to sell his lands to take a speculative profit, but to build a sawmill at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River and sell pine lumber to the Chicago and Milwaukee markets, where he had found both demand and price increasing. Only Chicago and Milwaukee were potentially more important than the mouth of the Kalamazoo, he advised, though he gave Grand Haven the advantage of a better harbor. He sounded out Horace H. Comstock on the purchase of Comstock’s platted village, called Kalamazoo Harbor, between the north bank of the river and Lake Michigan. The owner wanted at least $ 50,000, and would not give Wilder a satisfactory option on the property.

In September or October Wilder went to New York for a conference with Taylor. The outcome was an authorization to buy an undivided half -interest in 110.2 acres of land at the north bend of the river about a mile above Comstock’s plat. The other half-interest was owned by the Boston Company, of which Sidney Ketchum of Marshall was the agent. The evidence suggests that Wilder paid $10,000 for his company’s interest, $3,000 of It in specie.

In December, 1836, the effects of the Specie Circular, which Wilder called the “greatest of humbugs that any Government ever invented,” were causing the eastern banks to restrict their loans, and Taylor instructed Wilder to draw no more drafts on him. The 5015 acres already purchased were in Allegan County, on both sides of the Kalamazoo River between Dunningville and the present Swan Creek dam, with scattered holdings along the Rabbit River between Burnips and Dorr, and about 3 miles above New Richmond. Wilder estimated saw and planing mills using logs cut from these lands would earn the company a profit of $76,000 for 200 days of operation in the year. To cut the logs, to build and operate the mills to earn these profits, the New York and Michigan Company was now reorganized into a 200-share corporation of $100,000 book value. The number of stockholders was increased from 4 to 14. Although Wilder was not one of the stockholders, he was probably paid suitably for his work thus far, perhaps by the 10 shares entered in the name of his son Daniel. On December 26, Oshea wrote that he had rented his mill and farm at Eckford, and “was making every disposition for moving to Singapore.” This is the first discovered use of the name of the town. The presumption is that it had been agreed upon during Wilder’s visit with Taylor in New York. Perhaps Taylor, who evidently had a fair amount of capital to invest, was interested in the China trade and suggested the name out of that background.

On January 28, 1837, Wilder sent Taylor a sketch map of the site of Singapore. The west half of the plat he described as a handsome plain, inclining to the river; the east part as hilly and covered with timber. At the end of January, through snow three feet deep, he set out for the “pinery,” intending to make Singapore his permanent home. He believed land values at the mouth of the river would increase 300 to 400 percent as soon as operations began in the spring. In March he urged Taylor to send his agent, Mr. King, out as soon as possible, and that he bring with him all the unskilled labor he could find, as well as carpenters and a ship builder. Laborers, he reported, were getting $20 a month, carpenters $1.50 to $3.00 a day and board. Money was scarce, but, considering the season, there was no depression. He was buying enough lumber for the temporary shanties they would need to house their workmen until their own mill would get into production. The Boston Company, he reported, had offered to sell its undivided half, and he had offered Ketchum $ 50,000 for it. He urged Taylor to approve this offer, pointing out that while the New York and Michigan Company would do almost all the work in building Singapore, the Boston Company would get half the profits unless the New York Company bought them out. And he estimated that $150,000 could be made from Singapore.

Soon after the Michigan legislature passed the general banking law on March 15, 1837, Wilder decided Singapore should have a bank with a branch in New York. He suggested a bank of $100,000 capital, two­thirds of it owned by Taylor and his eastern associates. As four of nine directors he proposed himself, his son Daniel, Taylor’s agent King, and the cashier. The bank could issue from $20,000 to $50,000 in notes payable in New York, and the time required for them to reach New York would allow ample opportunity to arrange for their redemption.

Singapore Bank notes

On January 8, 1838, the Bank of Singapore was chartered by Oshea Wilder and Company. Daniel Wilder was president, Robert Hill the cashier. The bank was housed in a frame building containing a vault of glazed or pressed brick shipped from the east at considerable expense. Of the $50,000 authorized capital, apparently about $45,000 was paid in by Oshea Wilder and James G. Carter, a banker of Lancaster, Massachusetts. One account says the bank issued $50,000 worth of notes. It is not clear whether the legal requirement of $1 ,000 in specie for a capitalization of $50,000 was observed. It is extremely unlikely that it could be, in that part of the country at that time. An often-told story, probably true, suggests the bank had a difficult time in finding enough specie to satisfy the examiner on his tour of inspection.

The law of 1837 required that each bank be inspected once every three months. Considering the remote locations of many of the banks, and the means of travel in those days, this requirement imposed a difficult task on the three examiners. In the story told of the Singapore bank, the specie reserve had been checked at the Allegan bank. When the examiner was safely on his way, the specie was entrusted to an Indian to be taken by canoe to Singapore. Somewhere below New Richmond the canoe capsized, and the gold went to the bottom of the river. The Indian reported his misfortune, and the examiner was entertained at New Richmond while a blacksmith fashioned a drag-hook with which the gold was retrieved and sent on its way to Singapore in time for the examiner’s delayed inspection.

The Singapore bills must have depreciated early. Many years later an old settler remembered his father paying $40 for a darning needle in Singapore bills, though he had accepted them at par only a short time before. Levi Loomis ordered a supply of boots from an eastern jobber. He sold about 200 pairs to Singapore workmen, accepting Singapore bills in payment to the amount of about $600 only after he had been assured by the bank the bills would be redeemed in time for Loomis to pay his eastern creditor in specie bills. But the bank repeatedly put off the day of redemption, until Loomis took desperate measures. The cashier of the bank, Robert Hill, roomed at Loomis’ house and, Loomis was sure, kept the bank’s good bills under his pillow at night. One morning, after the other roomers had left, Loomis went to Hill’s room, locked the door, drew a pistol, laid the Singapore bills on the bed, and told Hill they must be redeemed on the spot. Hill protested that he would have to go to the bank. Loomis told him the only way he could get out of the house was to be carried out – unless he redeemed the bills. Thus motivated, Hill pulled a roll of sound bills from under his pillow, paid Loomis his $600, and received the Singapore bills in exchange.

Much stronger organizations than the Bank of Singapore succumbed to the terrible depression of 1837 and the following years. The Singapore bank lasted less than a year. One evening late in 1838, after the bank had closed, Loomis and a neighbor were called to the home of an officer of the bank to witness the destruction of the unissued notes of the bank. On a table about 4 feet square were stacked packages of bills from 3 to 6 inches deep. At the request of the officer, Loomis and his neighbor, Mr. Moulton, burned these notes in a stove. With the failure of the bank, Wilder and his associates presumably lost their investment as well as the mortgages they had posted with the state auditor. Probably the loss was not too critical to James Carter, but it must have been disastrous to Wilder.

In the meantime, Wilder had been completing the mill. By the late spring of 1839 two rotary steam engines had been set up to drive six upright and four circular saws. Actually, only three upright saws seem to have been operating, though possibly three more began cutting before the summer was over. Between May 22 and June 26, 1839, three saws had cut 307,861 feet of lumber, an average of nearly 14,000 feet each working day. This mill represented an investment of about $60,000, and was undoubtedly the best mill on the Kalamazoo River below Allegan. It cut the logs floated down the river, and the lumber was carried by small sailing vessels to the Chicago and Milwaukee markets.

What progress had been made with the town of Singapore in the meantime? Only the west half, containing 55.1 acres, had been platted. On December 1, 1837, the New York and Michigan Company sold its interest to Pliny Cutler and Samuel Hubbard of the Boston Company, retaining an area in the southwest corner for the mill property then being developed by Wilder. Cutler and Hubbard built a store and a hotel before selling out to the Singapore City Company. This company, formed by the stockholders of the New York and Michigan Company on January 25, 1839, had a nominal capitalization of $100,000, divided into 100 shares. Oshea Wilder was given 15 shares as payment for his work, and the company retained the services of Cutler and Hubbard as agents, hoping to make profits from the sale of city lots and from the operation of the hotel and store. The hotel, called the Astor House, was a 40′ x 60′ frame structure, three stories in height. Its assembly room was the center for such social life as Singapore may have enjoyed in its brief life. Probably the hotel was more nearly a boarding-house, for it is not likely that enough transients would have come to Singapore to make a three-story hotel profitable. One of the visitors in the Astor House was James Fenimore Cooper, who stayed there while looking at western lands and collecting material for “Oak Openings.” He left, it is said, because he didn’t like Indians standing around to watch him at dinner.

Oshea Wilder had surveyed the town. The plat was recorded in Allegan on February 5, 1838, and a copy was filed with the Commissioner of Deeds in New York City on April 16. With a frontage of about one­third mile on the north bank of the river just as it turned south (east of the east end of the present north pier), the plat of Singapore shows a grid of rectangular streets extending 140 rods north of the river.1 Running east and west along the river was River Street, 80 feet wide; in three blocks on the north side of this street were most of the buildings of the town. Perpendicular to River Street at its eastern end was Broad Street, also 80 feet wide. The other east and west streets, from River Street north, were Oak, Pine, Chestnut, Walnut, and Beech. The north and south streets, from Broad Street west, were Detroit, Cherry, and Cedar. In 1844 the New York and Michigan Company and the Singapore City Company either sold or forfeited their holdings to James G. Carter, the eastern banker who had supplied most of the capital for the bank. The mill had closed down in 1840 or 1841, a victim at last to the depression that Wilder and his associates had been fighting since 1837. The closing of the mill and the bank must have been a bitter blow to Wilder.

He was now, in 1840, a man of 56 years, old to begin a new venture.

The years immediately following the closing of the mill must have been lean ones indeed for the people in Singapore. In the fall of 1842 hardly enough food was on hand to carry them through the winter. Fortunately for them, their scanty store was supplemented in November by the wreck of the schooner Milwaukee on the Lake Michigan shore. The Milwaukee, carrying a partial cargo of high wines, had anchored outside the bar at the mouth of the river to take on flour brought down the river from Allegan and Kalamazoo. The loading done, the captain took his ship out into a severe gale and snowstorm. The helpless craft was driven ashore and pounded to pieces in the surf just west of the town. The seven members of the crew who lost their lives were buried in one grave. The salvage of the cargo was directed by William G. Butler. During the unusually long and bitter winter, the flour served to soften the distress of the population, though it is reported that some Indians came to an untimely end by their concentrated consumption of the wine. That winter was long remembered; before it was over, teamsters in the woods had defended themselves with sled-stakes against the attacks of famished hogs, and when men went to town meeting in the first week of April, the snow was still four feet deep.

In 1844 James Carter came out to Singapore to manage his property. By that time the country was well on the way to recovery, and once more there was a market for lumber. Carter paid his millworkers $16 per month, with board. In 1846 the mill burned, and in the following year Carter sold out to his brother Artemas and Francis B. Stockbridge, who rebuilt it. They are said to have paid their workers half in cash and half in merchandise from their store. In 1847 another mill was built by Wade and Carter about 900 feet east of the older one. When the Wade and Carter mill burned in 1849, that property was taken over by Stockbridge and Carter, who rebuilt the mill and launched the first three-masted schooner on the lake, the Octavia from their Singapore yard. In 1850, Stockbridge bought out Carter. The decade of the 1850’s, except toward the end, was a period of prosperity, and presumably Stockbridge’s mill operated steadily and profitably on the logs that were floated down each spring from his large holdings in the lower Kalamazoo River valley. In 1857 he sold some of his property to a Kalamazoo group headed by Thomas P. Sheldon, and two years later he formed a new partnership with Otis R. Johnson. These moves may have been related to the depression of 1857.

(This article will continue next week!)

1. Singapore was situated in Town 3 North, Range 16 West, in the NE * of the NW * of Section 4 of Saugatuck Township in Allegan County, Michigan.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: Mr. Starring is an associate professor of history at Western Michigan College in Kalamazoo, and a trustee of the Historical Society of Michigan. A native of Kalamazoo, he has spent much time on the dunes and the river in the Singapore region. From the time he saw, as a boy, the name Singapore on a three-dollar note in the Kalamazoo museum, he was curious to learn what sort of place it was with so intriguing a name. His chief interest at present is in a study of Hazen S. Pingree and the beginnings of progressivism in Michigan.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member

In Grandpa’s Wake – Fall 1953

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

By Esther Rice Battenfeld

I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life from my mother’s point of view. Still, she wasn’t prepared for my sotto voce announcement last spring that I was going to seek a job as porter on a Great Lakes freighter, carrying coal up to the head of the Lakes and hauling iron ore back down to the steel mills.

“Give up a perfectly good career to -to wash dishes in a galley, and – and everything like that ?” She meant scrub bathrooms and their appurtenances.


“Just because when you were born your grandfather wired home from the Soo what your name should be is no reason you have to dedicate your life to the Great Lakes!”

In a way I was dedicated to the Lakes. But it really wasn’t going to be my fault if I were forced to run away from home to sail our Midwestern inland seas. The blame would fall on grandpa, who at ninety­eight drank his whiskey from a soup bowl and held title as the oldest retired master in the entire Great Lakes region from Sackett’s Harbor, New York, to Duluth, Minnesota. At times this must have amazed United States Steel, who, I imagine, hadn’t counted on paying him a retirement pension for so many years.

Grandpa raised me on the lore of the Lakes, spinning a net of wanderlust around my spirit until I was trapped by a mesh of nautichosis. I used to consider having my malady psychoanalyzed away, only I feared no substituted neurosis would prove half so exciting.

Back in grammar school, one of my teachers, who merely wanted me to learn to read the hands of the clock correctly instead of guessing, reached for her wig when I revealed to the class that fifteen degrees of longitude equals one hour of time. Arithmetic was never dull if I could side-track the pupils into listening to one of my lectures with blackboard illustrations on the secret of boxing a compass or how to lose a day in the Pacific or the Atlantic. I often got confused, but nobody in 2-B knew the difference.

Later I absorbed the rules of navigation from grandpa along with lessons on just-less-than-cheating checkers and cribbage. More years passed, and I joined a yacht club, religiously entering my small sailing­ craft every Sunday morning in the club races. Still later I was admitted to practice in federal court as a proctor in admiralty. But because I’d been born a granddaughter instead of a grandson I couldn’t be a sailor. Then one day I discovered there was a chance – I mean, to be a sailor. A few freighters on the Lakes carried women in their galleys!

Immediately I turned over my legal files to the law firm partners, and hurried to the Marine Hospital for a lung x-ray and Wassermann test so that the Coast Guard would certify to my eligibility as a food handler. Now, I thought, I was ready to sign on a crew’s list the same as any old tar.

Among lake freighting circles it is well known that porters classify as itinerant labor. They are more or less picked up down in the local bowery, often work a few trips, maybe just one trip or a half-trip, then pay off or simply jump ship without their salary. So it goes all season. But my case required three interviews by appointment with the vessel personnel manager and another interview with the cook aboard the boat, which being without cargo was sitting high in the water. I wanted to believe that I was climbing right into heaven to reach the deck of my dream-boat, but I looked down at my soot-coated gloves and realized I was still in the flats alongside Cleveland’s muddy Cuyahoga River.

In 1952, Edward Rice was Captain on the EMORY L. FORD of the Hanna fleet.

For these interviews I didn’t know whether to play the peasant with a babushka tied around my head or dress like officer material in a pressed navy blue suit and crisp white blouse, so I varied the motif from meeting to meeting. Unluckily for me, my Uncle Ed had to be the master of one of the company’s boats -the only company hiring women. I learned that he had advised Mr. Vessel Personnel Manager I had been a teacher, a fashion model, even a defeated candidate for the state senate. To off-set this distorted impression of my portering potential, fast-talk became necessary on how I’d only taught a year and never suffered with mal-de-mer. From my haggard expression, Mr. V. P. Manager must have gained assurance that my fashion modeling days were over and there was not a chance I’d corrupt a single crew member, for finally (I’m sure only after a meeting of the “board”) I was ordered to report to work Easter Monday at 7:00 A.M.

Due to boiler trouble, we remained alongside the dock for a whole week, but nothing mattered, since I’d be sailing soon. Every evening at 7:30 P.M., after having polished the chromiumed and stainless steel galley for the last time that day, I taxied home, sat in a nice, warm tub of water to ease muscular wear and tear, and called out to my mother through a crack in the bathroom door how wonderful it was to be a sailor. You could have all you wanted to eat and no responsibility. (I never mentioned – even to myself – that two porters already had quit that season during fit-out. One had broken her arm placing a new mattress on a top bunk!) Well, the bunks were all mattresses now; and all I had to do was watch out for flying knives! The cook, I’d observed, had the temperament of an artiste. When he began the ceremony of baking bread, a hush fell upon the galley. Nobody dared to speak, not even rattle a dish. I knew it counted as a crime for an officer to strike a man. That should even include with a frying pan. But it would do little good to seek punishment of the offender once my skull was split. I’d just have to remember what grandpa said about self-preservation being the first law of nature, and be on constant guard.

My nightly bath gave me courage; and I’d taxi back to Suicide Bend, crawl into my bunk with even my heels aching, and contemplate the cab company as the holder of most of my day’s earnings. For some reason, though, I still wouldn’t have changed places with the president of that cab company.

The night cook had the bottom bunk in the small cabin which we shared and which we couldn’t both fit into at the same time unless one of us remained prostrate on her bunk (which position we dropped into with exhaustion most of our “off” hours anyway). So there was no problem there.

From the beginning, however, I felt the curiosity of the three other women on board. Somebody had found out and broadcast that my Uncle Ed was my Uncle Ed. Besides, I took at least one shower a day and my uniforms were always clean, although I couldn’t take them home but had to wash and iron them myself when we were on the run. Those other three women, being old at the game, probably were laying bets on how long I could keep this up. When my hands, down in the sink regions, turned to raw beef, looks were exchanged. When my hands healed and I stayed on, I was aware of my colleagues’ surprise. I even stayed on after the cook threw a box of soap chips at me with such force that it hit my chest and bounced up to split my lip. I really had only myself to blame, for I had barged into the galley in the middle of the bread-making ceremony (Russian rye and raisin) to ask for those soap chips. The life agreed with me. I wrote to grandpa every night and each week when we got down to Cleveland to unload our ore, I’d have time to run home for an hour or so if I weren’t on duty. Regardless of how they complained, my family was pleased with the new glow of health and the hippage I was acquiring.

I was seeing my Great Lakes as a sailor – just like grandpa had, if I discounted the fact that I was some 600 feet aft of the pilot house. Sometimes, while gooey in the galley constructing elaborate banana splits, I could only glance now and then through a “dead-head” to note our rapid descent from Lake Superior as we locked down through the Soo. Then again, against military regulations, only half dressed, I would open my cabin door a few inches to snap an unpermitted colored photograph of Sault Ste. Marie. Up at the head of the Lakes, if I weren’t submerged in the lower depths of the ice box, complete in buttoned-up refrigerator coat, struggling to hang up a half a cow without hanging myself by the sleeve, I might climb down onto the bum boat which had tied up beside us and have a Coke.

In my ‘off’ hours, I washed and ironed clothes, and read by the light of a twenty-five watt bulb, cramped up in my top bunk. Frequently I read Alice In Wonderland to maintain the proper perspective; the ceiling above my bunk hung not with webs, but with the strands of my hair tom out by splintered plywood when I turned over in my sleep.

My colored slides, a documentary account from fit-out and our first trip to Duluth through the ice, were mounting. Here was another set of pictures to add to my trail-gazing collection, which I planned to enjoy from my rocking chair someday in the old folks’ home. I had enough pictures to remind me of my sailor days on fresh water. I had enough – period.

I was so fat from our impeccable cuisine that I’d soon need a derrick to hoist me ashore. Still, my weight wasn’t my chief problem. Once I returned to a world of worry and responsibility it would melt away. But could I ever cast off the sea hag personality I was acquiring in this galley? Everything from spearing peas to swearing was just like second nature!

If it was within the cook’s power to keep me aboard when we were in or near Cleveland, he did so. I always returned too happy after a visit home. But then there came the time when we went up to Duluth with a load of coal, which would necessitate our being in port for a day or longer because several boats were ahead of us. I reported for duty that morning to discover that both the second cook and the other porter, who lived in the vicinity, were hurrying ashore to a full day of freedom. Furthermore, in addition to the usual routine of all the chores which would be left for me, there was dirty laundry to count, piles of clean linen to put away, cases of groceries to stow, and a bride and groom as passengers on board who had nothing better to do than play a game of who could think up more extra services to telephone back to the galley department for! This morning I wasn’t singing in the galley, as was my custom. My repertoire might vary from “The Old Rugged Cross” clear through to “Jealousy,” but I usually sang. Today I couldn’t.

The cook commanded a performance. I informed him that my contract didn’t require me to sing. I don’t know whether he was angry because he had given two of his staff a free day or because this time I wasn’t accepting his unfairness with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart.

The extra work I would have done, but when he demanded, “Smile and be happy in this galley,” I slammed a tray of dishes down on the counter, stalked right up forward to the captain’s quarters with a blazing cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth, and asked for my pay! Then I threw my uniforms overboard, and took a plane to Cleveland. I had to fly to be home in time to celebrate grandpa’s birthday.


Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: Miss Battenfeld, whose diversified talents are indicated in her story, is the donor of the Captain Frank Rice Collection and an ardent Lakes lover.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member

The Spirits of ’26 – Summer 1953

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

By Herbert W. Dosey

The era of national prohibition during the “roaring twenties” was marked by a conflict between idealistic legislation and realistic desires. Since the fulfillment of these desires was profitable, a brisk traffic in illicit spirits flowed across our borders.

Atlantic fishing schooners abandoned fishing for the more profitable rum trade from the Bahamas. Cargoes of whiskey, consigned to Bermuda and Havana from Canadian lake ports, were dumped on our beaches. Since the Great Lakes and their connecting waters bore a considerable portion of this trade, the following true narrative of an event in an outstanding decade in lakes history is set down as it was told by one who participated in it.

“Bones” Lanigan was a good engineer and a soldier of fortune so I was hardly surprised when he told me about his part in a bit of rum smuggling across Lake Erie in the Twenties. We were lounging in Hutters’ old place and sipping our beer when the subject came up.

“Herb,” he said as his gaze wandered out of the window and swept the harbor below, “did you ever know Captain Redlen – George Redlen? Well, anyway, he looked up my brother Roy, who cooks on the Lakes, and learned of my whereabouts. We met by appointment a few days later and he unfolded his plan. There was money to be made in the whiskey trade and he had ‘connections.’ Canadian whiskey was selling for around $15.00 a case. Truces, fees and the go-betweens’ cut brought it to $40.00 per case, but the Ohio market offered between $100.00 & $200.00 per case so an attractive margin was assured.

“Redlen had gone to Canada – to a distillery many miles inland – and had been promptly referred to a Mr. Barrows who frequented a certain club in the same town. Mr. Barrows was mildly interested and in an impersonal way he intimated that a cargo would be available several days after a cash advance payment in full with no receipt. This seemed a little risky but further inquiry developed the fact that Barrows’ integrity was unassailable. With this information Redlen came home and teamed up with a promoter named Kassley who was going to dispose of the stuff on this side. We held several meetings at Kassley’s house and worked out the plans down to the last detail.

“The owner of the old Neptune offered her for a reasonable cut and because she was just the type for the run we promptly accepted. To thwart spotters we painted the name Alcona on the other side of the name boards which would conceal our true identity by merely turning them over on the trip across. We agreed to date all telegrams 24 hours in advance of an event so that if we wired Kassley that shipment would go forward on the 14th it actually meant the 15th. Since the Coast Guard had such a disconcerting way of following rum runners into harbors and popping tracer bullets at them we decided to unload into a small boat along the beach. Kassley rented a cottage on the beach west of Fairport and a big flat bottomed row boat for lightening cargo.

“Since we didn’t dare show any lights it was up to Kassley to be alert to our arrival. And to guide us to the cottage it was arranged to have a red lantern in a box at the waters’ edge. Although it was quite improbable, we were mindful of the possibility of strangers blundering along the beach, in which case a pile of crumpled newspapers would be ignited. Such a beach fire would arouse no suspicion but it would warn us to remain away for two hours. If another beach fire flared up at the end of the two hours it was understood that we were to remain “hove to” over the horizon until the following night. And to top it all off Kassley had a big German shepherd dog to warn him of approaching strangers. However, it was hardly likely that anybody would be strolling along that remote section of coast on an April night. As I said, the cottage was hard by, up a short path through a thicket. Once in the shack it was a simple matter to load eight or ten cases into the auto for delivery to waiting customers. And better off they would be for drinking good import instead of the bottled creosote of the domestic bootleggers.

A Rum Running Vessel

“We departed for Port Stanley on a clear, calm April night and moored to the west bank of Kettle Creek shortly before noon of the following day. Redlen reported in to old man Jackson at the Custom House and that same afternoon he boarded an interurban car for London and points north. He told me that he would be gone for a day or two so I just settled down for a couple of days of loafing and tinkering.

“Our ship was a 52-foot heavy cruiser and although we pretended to be on legitimate business we weren’t fooling anybody. They knew us for what we were and asked no questions. Redlen was gone for five days and during his absence my growing acquaintance with the guys along the docks produced a lot of useful information. One fellow hinted that a load of furs was available for export at, ‘an attractive freight rate.’ Others knew of some orientals with the wanderlust -or did we want a load of whiskey? I took all this in and stuck to my story -I was the engineer aboard and the captain was ashore on ships’ business.

“When Redlen returned he had quite a story to tell. The province of Ontario was dry, but it seems that some king way back in history had granted distilling charters which were to remain in force for several hundred years, and were beyond the powers of the prohibitionists to rescind. Since Ontario was dry, shipments from the distillery could be released for export only and every precaution was taken to prevent diversion to local bootleggers. There was some hitch about old Jackson so we sailed twenty miles east to Burwell where, according to Redlen, we would have better cooperation. Later I learned that Barrows had suggested the shift. Redlen went away again and when I next saw him he was coming down the hill on the dirt road with five other fellows in an open touring car. Behind them came a big heavily loaded truck and right behind that came another touring car full of guys that I learned later were armed guards. A few loads had been hijacked but that nuisance had been snuffed out in a hurry. We formed a chain gang and passed the whiskey cases along from truck to deck in a steady flow.

“I can still see the poor customs officer crouching at the hatch to check off the cases as they were passed to waiting hands below. He had about seven forms to process for each case and those happy-go-lucky guards were all tallying out of unison to confuse him. One would be counting 17-18-19 while another would call 22-23-24 and another 20-21-22. It was all a big lark to that devil-may-care lot, but they were fine fellows all. How those export documents were ever processed I’ll never know – if they ever were. Since the U. S. was also dry the two governments had entered into some sort of a mutual agreement concerning the ‘noble experiment’ and were not issuing clearances from one side to the other – so we cleared for Havana.

“As a final gesture Barrows asked Redlen to pick a random case for inspection. One was opened, found to contain good whiskey and after hand shakes all around we were ready to run the blockade. The sun was high as our ten knot ship cleared the piers and swung her nose toward Fairport and our rendezvous with Kassley.

“During the voyage across we unscrewed the name boards from the bows and the stern transom -turned them over and re-fastened them. The old Neptune was herself again and we chuckled at the thought of possible reports on one Alcona having loaded spirits at Burwell. We also covered the engine room ports and reduced the binnacle light to a faint glow. The sun was low in the western sky as we raised the smokestacks over the horizon at Fairport, so we hove to until dark for our final dash through patrolled waters to the little red lantern on the beach.

“We had our anxious moments too, believe me. Many questions passed through our minds as we lazily tossed on the quiet, glassy swells twelve miles off shore. How would the lantern show up? Suppose Kassley tired of waiting and had abandoned the whole project? What if a patrol boat came along? If Kassley failed us where could we sail with a cargo of contraband? Return to a Canadian port was illegal and would have placed us under suspicion of conspiring with Ontario bootleggers. And many there were who would have cheered us at the gibbet.

“Due to our impatience it seemed as if night would never come and even after the sun had slid under the horizon there was a glow in the clear sky which lasted until total darkness enshrouded us about ten o’clock. Under bare steerageway we stealthily stood in to the coast with a bearing on Fairport light with its mocking flash at our shipload of contraband. As we gradually closed with the coast the off-shore breeze had set in to polish the last ripple off the surface of the lake.

“With straining eyes we scanned the loom of the land for the red light which, being screened by a box, would be visible only when we were exactly abreast and bearing about S.S.E.

“And then -the light -or was it? A red glow showed four points on the port bow. By noting the time required to bring it abeam we had established our distance from shore. By guessing our speed at five knots Redlen hastily figured we were a half mile out, which was too far, so we stood in on the lead until we got two fathoms. But the baffling part of it was, why the light should be visible from down the coast when it was supposed to be in a box with the open side seaward. And it should have been a mile further west. Suddenly it flared up. But why? Kassley could never see nor hear us because by now the night was darker than the inside of a black cat, our exhaust was under water and at reduced speed our stern was breaking water silently.

“Whoever said ‘the way of the transgressor is hard’ knew something about the rum trade, because another red light showed up about a half mile west of the first one to add to our confusion. At this point Redlen headed in until the lead showed one fathom, which was a bit close for our five foot draft. Knowing how sound travels over water we spoke in muffled tones about lowering a boat for reconnaissance when Redlen, peering through binoculars, made the startling discovery that the lights we were watching were the dying embers of abandoned beach fires. So, with the lead going we continued westward and had gone hardly another mile when suddenly there burst upon our vision a beautiful red glow almost abeam. Good old Kassley hadn’t failed us. We backed just enough to get the way off and when the lead line showed we were stopped we quietly lowered the light anchor.

“This latter action was contrary to our better judgment, in case of the need for a hasty departure, but the rope could be cut with one slash so we took the chance. A moment later the muffled dip of oars reached us and the next instant the dark outline of a large, black, flat bottomed row boat emerged from the Stygian blackness. Redlen muttered something about a pass word as we stood at the rail peering down and the rower replied, ‘Yelssak,’ which I recognized as Kassley spelled backward. Redlen replied ‘Nelder’ and identifications being in order we proceeded to discharge 100 cases of well stowed whiskey. These were wood cases, burlap wrappings not having been devised yet, and many were the slivers we got that night. The skiff could only carry ten cases so Kassley made ten trips to the beach where some crony of his helped get the stuff ashore. Kassley wasn’t much of an oarsman but he learned a lot before that night was over.

“When the last case had been lowered over the side we breathed a grateful sigh of relief, weighed anchor and headed for Cleveland where we were promptly boarded by the law. The wood splinters which littered the afterhold intrigued them immensely but we just couldn’t think how they got there unless perhaps one of them had sneezed while snooping – and besides we were tired and going to bed, which we did.”

*     *    *     *

Subsequent trips followed a similar pattern but strong forces were continually plotting to obstruct the traffic. Because a few loads marked for export had been diverted within the province, the Ontario Temperance Association had been enabled to institute legislation barring further shipments over the highways. To circumvent that obstacle the boys “in the Trade” shipped their cargoes from the distillery to Port Dover by rail, until a member of the OTA discovered a roadway between the track and the dock and invoked the new law.

But a siding was found which crossed the road and entered a fish house so a Canadian Pacific switching locomotive was engaged to push the car loaded with whiskey across the highway where everything was legal. Later it was deemed to be more expedient to load the blockade runners in Toronto but that entailed a longer haul including the 25 locks in the old Welland Canal.

The era of cross lake rum smuggling was of short duration but it added an exciting page to Great Lakes History.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: Mr. Dosey is chairman of the Membership Committee of G. L. H. S., a lakesman by avocation and has written frequently for Inland Seas.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member

McDougall’s Dream: The Whaleback – Spring 1953

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

By George Barrington Mason

The whaleback will never be forgotten as long as men sail the inland seas, for it was so completely a Great Lakes product that for many years after it had become obsolete, the rest of the world generally believed it to be the prevailing type of lake cargo-carrier. By its unique and revolutionary design, it captured the popular fancy as perhaps no other ship except the American clipper has ever done.

In the whaleback’s construction the principal features which marked it as radically different from conventional ships were the almost cylindrical form of the hull, the pointed, conoidal bow and stern, and the turreted superstructure which allowed it to be loaded until the rounded deck was practically awash. The name “whaleback” was of course derived from this rounded deck, which curved down into the sides, suggesting the back of a partly-submerged whale, but the snout-like bow, with twin hawse pipes for nostrils, brought the whaleback steamer and its barges the unflattering nickname of “sow and pigs.”

Actually only forty vessels of the whaleback type were ever built on the Great Lakes, representing a very small percentage of the total contemporary fleet of about 800 freight-carriers in these waters, and in addition, three more whalebacks were launched at coast yards, and a whaleback steamer was built under contract at an English shipyard, to Captain McDougall’s designs.

Of the 40 lake-built vessels of this unique design, 15 were freight steamers, 24 were freight barges, and one, the noted passenger steamer Christopher Columbus. Two of the whalebacks built on the coast were barges and the other a steamer. None has been constructed since 1899, and only four whalebacks are still in existence.

Alexander McDougall

The inventor and designer of the whaleback, Captain Alexander Mc­ Dougall (1845-1923), was born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1854, settling near Collingwood, Ontario, on the southern shore of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron. At 16, he shipped as a deckhand on a Lake vessel and for 21 years continued to sail the Lakes, becoming a second mate at 18 and captain of a large ship at 21. He moved his mother and family to Duluth in 1871, and in that year, at a Buffalo shipyard, helped to build the iron Anchor liners China, India, and Japan, then the finest passenger steamers on the Lakes.

This brief shipbuilding experience inspired his radical design for the freight-carrier which came to be known as a whaleback, the basic plan of which he patented as early as 1881. In that year, he gave up sailing and undertook stevedoring at various lake ports, meanwhile attempting to interest capitalists in his whaleback vessels. After seven years of effort he secured the required financial backing and his first whaleback, the barge 101, was built.

Due to the lack of skilled shipfitters at the head of the Lakes, the conoidal ends of this first whaleback were built to his order at a Wilmington, Delaware shipyard and then were knocked down, shipped to the Lakes, and erected with the cylindrical hull at the yard of Robert Clark in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1889. This experimental hull was relatively small, being only 191 feet long, and was extremely narrow, having a beam of only 21 feet.

In 1889 McDougall organized the American Steel Barge Company and built the next six whalebacks, comprising the steamer Colgate Hoyt and five barges, No. 102, 103, 104, 105, and 107, at his own yard in Duluth, which was relocated in 1891 at the neighboring city of West Superior, Wisconsin.


After building 33 more whalebacks, several non-whaleback oil barges, and a shipyard tug there, Captain McDougall sold out his interest in the American Steel Barge Company in 1899, and founded the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company at Collingwood, Ontario, near his boyhood home. The new shipyard built only vessels of conventional design, and no more whalebacks were built by their original builders. The last one built was a steamer named Alexander McDougall for its designer, and was of a transitional type, with a straight stem above its spoon bow, and a raised forecastle.

McDougall had ambitious plans for pushing the construction and use of whaleback ships all over the world and secured patents on their design in almost every country in Europe and in North and South America. Under these patents the whaleback steamer Sagamore was built in 1893 to Captain McDougall’s designs, for Belgian owners, by W. Doxford & Sons at Sunderland, England. Having been successively renamed Solideo and Ilva by later Italian owners, it became a war loss in 1917, after a quarter century of service. One of McDougall’s projects contemplated the construction of a fleet of whaleback barges on the Rio Grande River in Nicaragua, in return for a grant of 2,000,000 acres of valuable land, but nothing came of it.

Another project resulted in sending the whaleback steamer Charles W. Wetmore across the Atlantic to Liverpool with a cargo of wheat. Her design was severely criticized by the British for its lack of cargo-handling apparatus, such as masts and booms, and of trunks above deck for better trimming of bulk cargos. These features appear to have been added after her return to this country, for the List of Merchant Vessels of the United States, for 1892, contains an excellent photo-engraving, showing against a New York harbor background “An Ocean Whaleback Steamer,” fully equipped with masts, booms, and cylindrical trunk hatches. This can only have been the Wetmore, since a contemporary account of the British-built Sagamore describes her as of conventional whaleback design, with bolted-plate hatch covers and no masts.

The Wetmore next sailed from Wilmington, Delaware, loaded with shipyard machinery and fabricated steel for construction of a whaleback steamer at Captain McDougall’s new shipyard at Everett, Washington, a brand-new city founded by him in 1891. The Wetmore reached Everett late in that year, via the Straits of Magellan, after losing her rudder off the California coast. Placed in the Pacific Coast coal trade, she suffered a series of collisions and grounding and, early in 1892, stranded at Coos Bay, Oregon, and became a total loss.


The new shipyard at Everett produced only one whaleback, the steamer City of Everett, reputed to be the first American steamship to circumnavigate the globe and pass through the Suez Canal. Having been converted to an oil tanker, the Everett was operated by the Standard Oil Company for many years in transatlantic trade, towing non-whaleback oil barges, until she was lost at sea in 1924, en route from Cuba to the United States, after 30 years of service.

Another project, for the building of whaleback barges to be towed by powerful tugs in Atlantic coastal trade, resulted in the construction of two barges, the 201 and 202, at the yard of Handren and Robins, Brooklyn, New York, in 1890. Both ships soon found their way to the Lakes, where each was lengthened 61 feet in 1896.

The whaleback steamers Joseph L. Colby and A. D. Thomson, which McDougall operated for 18 months in coastal coal service, and barges 109 and 110, towed by them as consorts, all returned to the Lakes. As the four ships were too long for the St. Lawrence River canal locks, they made the trip down to the ocean by running the rapids and presumably were returned by the same route, although how the rapids were overcome on the way up is not clear.

The steamers Pillsbury and Washburn, built in 1895, were unique in being the only freight whalebacks built with ‘tweendecks and side ports, as they were intended for Lake package-freight service, but these features were removed when they were acquired by the Bessemer Steamship Company in 1900 and renamed Henry Cort and James B. Neilson, respectively.


No account of these strange craft would be complete without mention of the fastest and most successful of them all, the whaleback passenger steamer Christopher Columbus. Built by Captain McDougall for a company formed to provide transportation to the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, this famous ship was launched in three months and was guaranteed by her builder to make 20 miles an hour with ease, and to load 5,000 passengers within five minutes and unload them in less time. She actually carried 7,000 people as guests on her trial trip, but was allowed only about 4,000 in regular service.

After a year of most successful service at the World’s Fair, the Columbus was acquired by the Goodrich Transit Company and operated in excursion business between Chicago and Milwaukee, continuing to be efficient and popular until scrapped in 1936, after 40 years of service.

The freight-carrying whalebacks had a much shorter useful life on the Lakes, since they became obsolete and unsuitable for the ore and coal trades in about 15 years. When the Pittsburgh Steamship Company, or Steel Trust Fleet, built their first ships of the 570 to 600-foot class in 1905-1906, the smaller whalebacks were turned in to the shipyards in part payment for the new tonnage, and later sold by them for ocean service, under new names. Having made their way to the coast, they gradually disappeared there, through stranding on shore, foundering at sea, or simply being abandoned as no longer serviceable.

Of the larger whalebacks, which continued in Lake service, only four still remain. The last whaleback steamer under the American flag, built in 1896 as the Frank Rockefeller, served for a time as the automobile­ carrier South Park and is still in service as the lake oil tanker Meteor. Three more whalebacks, also too large for passage to the coast, are yet in operation on the Lakes, but under Canadian registry. These are the steamer John Ericsson and barges 137and Alexander Holley.

The last and largest of the whalebacks, the steamer Alexander McDougall, was scrapped in 1946, as one of 20 over-age Lake freighters then removed from service. The first whaleback steamer to be lost was Thomas Wilson, sunk in collision with the wooden steamer George G. Hadley near Duluth in 1902. Samuel Mather, renamed Clifton, disappeared in Lake Huron with all hands in 1924, and James B. Colgate foundered in Lake Erie during the Black Friday storm of October, 1916. Pathfinder towed the whaleback barge Sagamore until its loss in 1903, and later served as automobile-carrier Progress until scrapped in 1934. James B. Neilson (ex- Washburn) stranded in Lake Superior in 1915, but was raised and served 21 years longer as J. T. Reid until scrapped in 1936; her sister ship, Henry Cort (ex-Pillsbury) was wrecked on Muskegon breakwater in 1931. John B. Trevor, renamed Atikokan, served Canada Steamship Lines until dropped from registry in 1926.

Four more whaleback steamers ended their days in Atlantic Coast service. Bay Port (ex-E. B. Bartlett) and Bay State (ex-Joseph L. Colby) both stranded in 1917, the first-named in Cape Cod Canal and the other off Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Bay State was re-floated and operated for another 18 years until scrapped in 1935. Bay View (ex-A. D. Thomson) also served until scrapped in 1936. Bay City (ex-Colgate Hoyt, first whaleback steamer ever built) stranded on Rock Island, Rhode Island, in May, 1909, with barge Brittania (ex-116), but both ships were floated and safely towed into port. Sold and renamed Thurmond, Bay City stranded again only seven months later, in December, 1909, off Seaside Park, New Jersey, and this time became a total loss.

Barge 101

Of the whaleback barges, 101, first whaleback ever built, served a few years as a coastal oil tanker and then foundered off Seal Island, Maine, in 1908. Barges 102 and 103, first rechristened Sir Joseph Whitworth and Jahn Scott Russell when they joined the Bessemer Fleet, and later Berkshire and Bath, respectively foundered off Cape Charles, Virginia, in 1906, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in 1910. Barge 104 was wrecked on the Cleveland, Ohio, breakwater in 1899, while being towed out of harbor in a storm, and 105, as Baroness, foundered off Fire Island, New York, in 1911. Barge 107, renamed Bombay, foundered in Vineyard Sound in 1913, while barge 109, then called Baravia, sank off Montauk Point, Long Island, in 1914.

Barge 110, first renamed Badger, was one of four whalebacks that survived to become Pure Oil Company tankers in the 1920s, and burned at New Orleans in 1932, as Pure Lubwell. Barge 111, then named Ivie, sank in Hampton Roads, Virginia, after colliding with M. & M. T. Co.’s steamer Berkshire in 1916. Barge 115 foundered off Fire Island, in 1911, under her later name of Baroness. Barges 116 and 118 became Pure Oil Company’s tankers, like 110; first renamed Brittania and Baston, they became Pure Tiolene and Pure Detonox (ex-Pure Oil No. 9) and were abandoned to the ship-breakers in 1947, after a half century of service. Barge 117, Providence, was sold British in 1929, presumably for scrapping, as no record of her is found after this date.

Barge 126, as Baden, stranded at Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, in 1906, and barge 127. first renamed Jeanie, soon became Texas Oil tanker Dallas and was abandoned in 1937. Barge 129 was sunk in collision on Lake Superior in 1902, and so was whaleback barge Sagamore, only a year later. It is of interest that the latter ship was replaced by a non-whaleback barge Sagamore, built at the Globe yard, Cleveland, in 1898, as David Z. Norton, which continued to be towed by Pathfinder.

Barge 130, then called Lynn, was abandoned in 1924. Barge 131 was the fourth whaleback to become a Pure Oil Company tanker, serving as Pure Nulube (ex-Salem, ex-Pure Oil No. 10) until abandoned in 1947. Barge 132, as Portsmouth, foundered off Freeport, Texas, in 1927, and barges 133 and 134, then Searsport and Bangor, ended their careers by coastal strandings in 1912-13, off Fire Island, and in Hampton Roads, respectively. The two whaleback barges built at Brooklyn, New York, 201, Cassie, and 202, Fannie, stranded at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in 1919, and foundered off Barnegat, New Jersey, in 1908, in the order named.

One of the chief advantages claimed for the whalebacks was that their rounded decks and turreted superstructures enabled them to operate, unhindered by storms and heavy seas, when conventional vessels were obliged to heave to or reduce speed to bare steerageway. Another was that the rounded upper corners of the midship section made them self-trimming and, finally, the simplicity of their design made them cheap and easy to build.

Their inventor, Captain Alexander McDougall, admitted in later years that the rounded deck and the fore-and-aft stringers under the outer edges of the 8-by-10-foot bolted-plate hatch covers would not admit of a large enough hatch opening for the modern clamshell system of unloading cargo, which employs buckets having a 24-foot spread when open. It was this most serious drawback that rendered the whaleback obsolete.

Captain McDougall was an inventive genius, having patented some 40 inventions, mainly pertaining to ship construction and equipment, ore and grain loading machinery, and dredging apparatus. When the Mesabi iron range first came into production, he perfected and patented a successful process for cleaning the sand iron ores of the Mesabi. During the first World War, his fertile brain evolved the idea of a whaleback gunboat, and he made several other proposals to the War and Navy Departments, but the short duration of the war prevented their receiving consideration.

Alexander McDougall showed outstanding ability in the promotion of large business undertakings. In 1891 he founded the Pacific Steel Barge Company and the city of Everett, Washington, in which it was located, and in 1899 founded the St. Louis Steel Barge Company, which built three vessels for service on the lower Mississippi River, and he was one of the prime movers of the Great Northern hydro-electric project in 1900-1903. During the First World War he was president of the McDougall-Duluth Shipbuilding Company, which built many steel ships for lake and ocean trade, and shortly before his death opened his McDougall Terminal. Captain McDougall married Emmeline Ross of Canada in 1878 and was survived by a son, the late A. Miller McDougall, and a daughter, Mrs. Lewis G. Castle of Duluth.

The Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Virginia, possesses a wealth of memorabilia of the whalebacks, either acquired by purchase or through the generosity of donors on the Lakes and elsewhere. These include a series of Captain McDougall’s experimental ship models and a fine oil painting of the Christopher Columbus, by Howard Sprague, all given by the late A. Miller McDougall of San Francisco, who also allowed the Museum to make a photostatic copy of his father’s scrapbook of his ships and inventions. There are also two tempera paintings by V. D. Nickerson of proposed whaleback steamers and barges, the gift of Lewis G. Castle of Duluth, which although painted in 1882-84, some years before any such vessels existed, shows them exactly as they were later built. The actual relics of the whalebacks include the brass capstan plate from the Alexander McDougall, presented by Herbert R. Spencer of Erie, Pennsylvania, and a collection of door fittings from the Columbus, given by L. H. Kent of Ludington. There is also McDougall’s patent anchor from the Columbus.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: Mr. Mason Is Editor of Publications of the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Virginia.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member

A Voyage into the Past on the J.T. WING – Winter 1952

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

By Joseph E. Johnston

The navigator beginning an ocean voyage must establish a point of departure before losing sight of land. That is if he wishes to make his destination with the maximum degree of accuracy and the minimum of effort. At noon of each following day a position is established, either by dead reckoning or by observations of celestial bodies. No matter how painstaking today’s observations and calculations may be, they are of little value except in their relationship to those of yesterday, and to the point of departure. For unless one knows whence he came, and the course and distance made good, it is extremely unlikely that he will be able to lay a true course towards his destination. The study of history may be considered in this manner, for unless we know what progress we have made, and in what direction, and at what cost, how can we plan our future?

Historical museums are not justified by the number of objects they collect, but by the story those objects are made to tell by properly relating them to other objects in the collection and to people and events of significance to human progress. The Museum of Great Lakes History at Detroit, Michigan has kept this in mind from the beginning. Since the schooner J. T. Wing was opened, four years ago, visitors to this unique institution may voyage into the past of shipping on these inland seas.

Creation of a dugout canoe, ca. 1590.

Let us take as a point of departure the era of the dugout canoe, on these waters, for it is there that the voyage begins. That era began so far back in time there is not even an Indian legend telling of it. Today it is hard to imagine the towering wall of timber that crowded close down to the water along every one of the 8,000 miles of shore line. There stood the raw materials for the building of the dugout canoe. The trunk of one tree served to make as large a boat as the Indian needed, or could propel, and one particularly suited to primitive men. No seams to leak, and considerable resistance to hard use and neglect, it served well in the open Lakes, with their rocky shores, and could be paddled along the lower reaches of most of the rivers. Whatever simple commerce there might have been was served by these, the earliest Lakes craft.

For navigating above the first obstructions in the rivers the dugout had disadvantages. It was too heavy to portage. This posed a problem to those who desired to travel in the hinterland. The Indian’s solution of this problem constitutes the naval architecture – the first engineered job in this field, and began a tradition. That tradition is one of special types for special purposes.

So good was the Indian’s design for the birch bark canoe that we are copying it to this day, regardless of what materials we use in its descendants. It was good on both lake and stream, and since the Indian’s way of life did not permit the ownership of more than one boat, the birch bark canoe became the prevailing type. In war and peace it was the best craft, and for nearly a hundred years after the coming of the white man it served Church, State, and whatever trade there was.

With La Salle came visions of empire, and ships to serve it. His Griffin, built in 1679, was adapted to the special needs of the times, rather than designed for them. Of Dutch design, she could skim over the uncharted rocks of the unknown shores and come in close to the shore to load where no wharves existed. A few years after her untimely end another type of boat appeared on the Great Lakes. Here, indeed, was a special type for a special need. Built of plank, laboriously whipsawed from the tree, these vessels were about 28 to 32 feet in length, with a long run of flat bottom, resembling what we know as a Cape Cod dory, but with a much wider transom. The flat bottom served a very special purpose. When overtaken by a storm, and unable to reach shelter, this boat was run out on the beach, the cargo removed to a point above wave damage, placed on rollers and hauled out.

Mackinaw Boats

Two masts carried what has since come to be called a schooner rig, and were so stepped against the after side of the thwarts as to be easily lowered when occasion demanded. There were two cockpits, one forward and one aft for the crew of two, who could, in a calm, propel the boat with oars. Between these two cockpits there was a decked-over section for cargo. The foot of the jib was attached to a large ring, or hoop, which could be rigged out to the end of the bowsprit when set, and hauled in for stowing, a very ingenious idea which made it unnecessary to climb out beyond the bow of the boat when taking in sail. From this early Lakes Craft several types have been developed. These became known by other names, but those which retained the rig described above, kept the name “Mackinaw boat,” regardless of what forms their hulls took. Since sailing craft usually are known by their rig it is not entirely incorrect to refer to any boat carrying the above rig, as a Mackinaw boat. The “Huron boat” now owned by the Museum of Great Lakes History carries such a rig.

For approximately two hundred years the Mackinaw rig was the most popular for work boats on the Upper Lakes. It was nearly a century, after they first appeared, until anything that might properly be called a ship was launched upon the Upper Lakes for commercial purposes. Small sloops appeared first and as early as 1785 one was navigating Lake Superior, but could hardly be called a ship since she was only 34 foot keel, 13 foot beam, and four feet deep. The schooner Nancy built at Detroit is generally thought to be the first commercial vessel built with the sole aim of commerce in view. Even she became a transport serving the garrison at Mackinac Island in the War of 1812. During that period there was much uncertainty as to the proper draft for Lakes vessels, and no special-purpose ships were built. Centerboards were being tried out, and later became very popular, even the largest vessels being fitted with them.

In one sense early Lakes steamers may be called special-purpose craft, since the demand of the times was for fast and dependable passenger service. But the next type that became a truly single-purpose boat was the lumber schooner. When lumber became the predominant cargo of the Lakes there were few improved harbors where the saw mills were located, so shallow-draft vessels were designed to navigate the shallow waters. In order to prevent excessive leeway in the open Lakes they were provided with centerboards. This feature, combined with their peculiar rig made the Great Lakes lumber schooner a distinct type.

Steam cut in on their monopoly of the lumber trade, and most of them ended their days in a tow behind some type of steam-powered vessel if they escaped being driven ashore in some gale. When iron ore became an important cargo there was an attempt to press the old wooden sailing ships into that trade, but they could not take the rough usage, especially at the loading docks, so again a new and special type had to be designed.


In 1882 the iron-hull Onoko was launched at Cleveland, and became the first of the long slender metal-hull ships of the type we know today as bulk carriers, all of which are special-purpose vessels. A prominent designer of these ships declares there is nothing more that science can do to improve them. All they can do is build them longer and longer.

Another special type of vessel that has come and gone on the Great Lakes without leaving a trace is the package freighter, which often was really a dual-purpose ship because of its passenger accommodations. This was the principal means of travel available to many communities before the railroad reached them. The design permitted loading and unloading through side ports by the use of hand trucks, a very economical method for small shipments of bags, boxes, and bales. What the spur line railroad did to the package freighter, the highway trucks did to the railroads. only the truck survived the fight.

In no other waters of the world can a ship wear itself out running between two ports, carrying only one type of cargo, and like its predecessors the bulk carrier of today is unique. So, from the birch bark canoe of the Indian to the leviathan of the Lakes in our day it has been one story with many variations. With a few boughs and a bit of bark (the materials at hand in his day) the Indian built his special-type boat. Not far from the open Lakes is another material which we dig up, melt, and roll into thin plates, for the building of a boat especially suited to our times. The magic of Hiawatha lives on in the building of the long ships of today, only after the manner of Tubal Cain. Once, of a summer night, from the decks of the schooner J. T. Wing. on the shore of the Detroit River:

I thought I saw old Tubal Cain, his smithy glowing bright,
Although it may have only been a passing steamer’s light.
I thought I heard his anvil ring, although I could not tell;
It may be that I only heard a passing steamer’s bell.
I sometimes wonder if the myths, we think are dead and gone,
Are still alive, and with us, and still are living on;
For down within each deep dark hold, of vessels passing by
Upon a star-lit summer night, there’s more than meets the eye.
The dark red earth we think of, asjust another ore,
Will meet with some strange alchemy, along the Erie shore;
And so instead of inert dust -if we but only try,
‘Tis either swords, or pruning hooks, that we see gliding by.

And so it is in the hold of the schooner J. T. Wing. There the attempt is made to turn objects into ideas, through the alchemy of logical sequence in arrangement, so that our “young men shall see visions, and our old men shall dream dreams.”

J.T. WING at Belle Isle -1955

In that section of the Museum which is called “The Story of Lakes Shipping” there is a series of models of Lakes craft; all built to one scale, and arranged in chronological sequence, beginning with the dugout canoe and ending with the modern bulk carrier. Either the careful reading of the labels, or a brief talk by a guide, will dramatize the display and the visitor will see the characters who have moved across the stage of time. Here is the Indian, silently threading the intricate water courses in his birch bark canoe; Father Marquette, smoothing the trail for civilization; the colorful traders and trappers, and the voyageurs, blazing trail for commerce; La Salle, the indomitable, driving his Griffin through the storm while his captain cringed in fear of the elements; Captain Job Fish, venturing out into the treacherous waters of Lake Erie, in a new and untried steamboat. The list is too long to give here, but to the visitor in the museum ship they spring to life and it becomes clear that there were giants in the land, and still are.

The exhibit of obsolete lighthouse equipment tells in a graphic manner how, by the use of prismatic lens the feeble rays of oil lamps were captured, reflected, and concentrated so as to be visible 20 miles, and timed in their flashing so as to set them apart from any other light in their vicinity.

The “Ship Bridge” shows how the navigator of a steam vessel controlled his ship; the collection of builders’ half-models tells the story of hull design; the working knots of seamen are shown without the confusion of difficult ornamental knots; authentic, contemporary oils and water colors show the famous old lakers as they were in their various periods. The St. Lawrence Seaway is treated in a manner which brings out its importance to this area. The “Language of the Lights,” a visitor­ operated exhibit, shows the lights required on various types of vessels as they appear at a distance in the dark.

There is a hobby case too, usually holding work by one or more members of the Great Lakes Model Shipbuilders’ Guild, and changed at frequent intervals. The Guild’s first Annual Exhibition, Summer 1952, brought together the largest fleet of fine models ever shown at one time in Detroit. Nearly 600 visitors to this show purchased their tickets in advance, and many others paid as they entered. By request the display was kept intact for one week and on the last day 1000 persons viewed them. This group of craftsmen augment the work of the Museum by volunteer work of all kinds, and the draftsmen among them are doing a big job of perfecting plans of old ships which come to light from time to time, and reducing in scale some of the very large drawings of current ships. The Museum and the Guild working together, hope to collect every possible drawing of Lakes vessels, past and present, so that coming generations will not find themselves in the unhappy position of having no sources of information on by gone Lakes ships.

A fine gesture was made by a local industrialist, Mr. Gust Hofer, President of the Huron Engineering Corporation. A huge anchor of the old wooden-stock type was raised from Lake St. Clair. The Museum needed such an anchor to complete its collection, but could not immediately raise the $250.00 asked. Mr. Hofer, hearing of the Museum’s plight, immediately sent his company’s check for the amount, and notified the Museum to pick it up.

Through such generosity the Museum of Great Lakes History grows. Although self-supporting as far as plant maintenance and the payment of salaries goes, no surplus has accumulated for such emergencies as the one met by Mr. Hofer. Serving the entire Great Lakes region it seeks exhibit materials from all sections, so that the story of the development of commercial shipping on these waters shall not perish.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: Captain Johnston is a retired ocean shipmaster who is now in charge of the Museum of Great Lakes History, a branch of the Detroit Historical Museum.
(This article first appeared in Winter 1952)

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member

An Unknown Visit of an Unknown Painter on the Great Lakes – Fall 1952

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

By Felix O. Lehner

June 27, (18 ) 69, Auburn, New York, as a guest of former Secretary of State Seward.

Nearly a year has passed since I last remembered this book. What a rich panorama developed before my eyes in this short time!

On July 14, (18) 68, I left New York and went to Cleveland (and) across Lake Erie to Detroit. From there, (I went) on the Meteor, (with) Captain Wilson, to Sault Ste. Marie and up to Houghton and Hancock on the Portage Lake, romanticized by the copper mines there. (I) searched in vain for pure blooded Indian tribes at Keweenaw Bay. In Keweenaw, (I) nearly (was) blown up into the air with old drunken Captain Bundy on his steam tug. (I) went back and spent four to five beautiful days among half breeds in the Entry. This might also be the place to remark that I painted, 600 feet below the surface of the earth, a study of the Sheldon Columbia Mines. Then (I went) back on the steamer Keweenaw to Sault Ste. Marie, probably the most interesting point on Lake Superior, and painted it from the American shore and again from the Canadian shore. Here I built myself a study on a rock in the midst of the rapids with the Swiss White Cross in the Red Field streaming from my castle of art. But the poetry of the Indians is a fact only far from them in the dreams alone.

Frank Buchser

This is the short report of a visit to the Great Lakes in the Journal of the Swiss painter Frank Buchser. It is illustrated by a great collection of sketches, drawings and studies in oil and some large, wonderfully and carefully executed paintings in oil.

Why, in 1868, did a Swiss painter go up the Great Lakes?

Frank Buchser was one of the most remarkable painters of Switzerland in the 19th century. He was born in 1828. Before becoming a painter, he had learned the trade of a piano maker, but later he left Switzerland to study painting in Rome, completing his studies in Belgium, England, France and Spain. His later life is characterized by extensive travel in Italy, France, Spain, England and the Netherlands and towards the end of his life he made trips to southeastern Europe. Especially remarkable are two journeys to Northern Africa. On the first he travelled dressed like a Moslem, and even entered a mosque. On the second, he was official painter of Spain in the war against the Kabyles.

He was too much of an independent spirit to confine himself to a formal school of art. His nonconformance stands somewhere in between romanticism and naturalism, but nearer the latter. Yet his paintings were appreciated by one of the greatest art critics of his time, Jakob Burckhardt. In public life and politics, he was active as one of the chief leaders in the founding of the Society of Swiss Painters, Sculptors and Architects.

Since he was interested in politics and since he had great experience in traveling in foreign countries, he was regarded as the best qualified man for a special mission to the United States. Notable Swiss politicians had opened a subscription for a large painting representing the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War as the Triumph of Justice. It was planned to give the painting to the Swiss Government for its new building at Berne. The first money they got was spent to pay for the painter’s trip to the United States, but soon the subscriptions stopped and the painter was dependent on himself. The portraits of General Banks, President Johnson, General Sherman, Secretary of State Seward[i] and General Lee show the political aspect of the trip. He earned his way mostly by painting portraits[ii].

The third problem to which he devoted himself in America was a study of the Negroes. A fourth group of paintings and drawings shows his interest in the daily life of the American people. A fifth theme was the countryside and nature. There are three regions, Virginia, where he made most of the Negro studies, the Laramie plains and the Great Lakes. It is very probable that the painter undertook the two great expeditions to the Laramie plains and to the Great Lakes not so much for the study of nature itself but for a sixth aim of his work in America, to paint the American Indians. As the newspapers reported, the painter had made suggestions for such a painting to the United States government.

At Laramie the painter made careful sketches at the Indian camps, but obviously they were not a sufficient basis for a large composition. So the painter tried to find more Indians on the Great Lakes. The fact that he was a Catholic may have influenced this decision, the reservation of l’Anse being a Catholic foundation. At least we find in his notebook the name of a missionary, Father Gerard Terhorst. Although the Journal is very brief concerning the trip to the Great Lakes, we are nearly able to follow the painter day by day. The list of the daily expenses in his sketch-book describe the itinerary; the sketches themselves and the accompanying notes show what was of greatest interest to the painter. Moreover, most of the drawings and oil studies are marked with the date and name of the place.


July 14, 1868, the painter left New York by train for Cleveland. On the 15th, he went to Detroit where he stayed over the 16th. The 17th, he went aboard the steamer Meteor; the captain was Thomas Wilson, “an excellent man,” as he adds in his notebook. The destination was Houghton. He crossed Lake St. Clair to the St. Clair River. The ship stopped at several points and the painter went ashore. In the evening, Lake Huron was reached. Here the painter sketched two sailing-boats against the sunset and added in words the colors of sky and water: “Gold – light-colored, the level (of the water) blue, the mixtures green, strangely mild and soft. The horizon looms only below the God of Light himself, the whole play (and brilliancy) of colors is a bright mass of light seen in a mother-of-pearl tone.” During the night and the following day Lake Huron was crossed and the painter sketched the sunset of the 19th on the southern shore of Lake Superior. On July 21st he arrived at Portage and made several sketches of Portage Inlet and Portage Entry. The fact that the painter did not go to Houghton, but went directly to look for Indians, shows clearly that he had undertaken the trip for this special study. Yet he was very much disappointed. He noted:

22 July (18 ) 68. Lake Superior – all the story’s of Indians in these quarters are, when seen close, nothing at all. The full blood, if found, is utterly spoiled by the imitation of the whites; there costumes are more like a testless maskerade of a beggar than an Indian; they can only be used as staff age -in a landskep, therefore let us make off for the Sault de Ste. Mary and use them in the bark canoes -off we are –[iii].

Die Stromschnellen von St.Marie

Although the orthography is not correct, the sense of the words is clear -the painter did not find what he had expected. The Indians were not like the wild and even dangerous Moslems whom he had found in North Africa. So the painter tried an artistic experiment. He went into the copper mines and stayed for two days 600 feet below the surface of the earth, sketching, drawing and even painting. On the 27th, he was again on the Portage Lake and at Portage Village. On July 31st, he was on an excursion to the Canadian shore of Lake Superior. August 1st, on his way back, he sketched the Pictured Rocks from the deck of the steamer, and on August 2nd, he arrived at Council Grove near Sault Ste. Marie. At Sault Ste. Marie, he lived in the Canadian part of the village, probably because a Swiss family was living there. The Ermatingers were executives of the Hudson Bay Company.

In the latter days of August, the painter moved to the Indian village on the lower part of the river. On September 5th, he left Northern Michigan for Detroit. The sketches show the route. From the deck of the Meteor, he sketched Sault Ste. Marie, the entrance from Lake George into Echo Lake, the shores of the lakes, the freighters on Lake George, the forests, log cabins on the shores of Detour Islands, a sailing freighter on Lake Huron, etc. On September 7th, the painter arrived in Detroit and moved into a studio. He stayed in Detroit through the fall, working out the studies which he had made in Upper Michigan.

Yet the big picture of the Indians for which the painter had undertaken the whole trip was never painted. He had not found what he had been expecting when he went there. He did not find the real “wild men.” Yet the careful sketches which he brought home are an interesting historical document about the extinction of the “wild” Indians, their assimilation into the life of the white man, the mixture of the two cultures, and finally about the life of the early white settlers.

Lake Superior

First of all the painter tried to understand the Indian language. Many words are penciled in his notebooks and on the sketches. Then the painter made portraits of the most characteristic heads he had found and he added their names in English and in the Indian language with some remarks about their life. Here we find, for instance, the picture of Spauany Cabo, “the most celebrated builder of canoes on Lake Superior,” or Shib vanoh-habe and his wife, who was said to have eaten his father, several of his wives and a nephew. Buchser added, that the wife whom he portrayed was a “full-blood Indian.” He sketched them inside and outside their houses, log cabins and huts made of bark and in their camps. He lived with them and had watched them in their daily life and work. He ate their food, “fish alone and only fish” as he noted. We see women sewing, hanging up nets, bringing grass out of the dark woods, carrying children, etc. The men are shown hunting and fishing, building canoes and sailing them. He liked to catch them passing through the rapids. The painter carefully observed the importance of the canoe in the daily life of the Indians. He made only one picture of an Indian in his traditional costume. He was sincere enough to realize that that time had gone. He sketched them rather, serving the whites or working in the mines.

A few drawings describe the life of the bearded, sharp faced white settlers, their log cabins, the factory of the Hudson Bay Company and the population of Sault Ste. Marie. The life of the Indians was so poor, insipid and colorless that there was no material for a large painting such as he had made of the Negroes. So he used the Indians only as “staffage,” as the earlier quoted remark says.

The main theme of the large paintings was the countryside, especially the rapids of Sault Ste. Marie. In spite of the variety of drawings and sketches which the painter had made, he concentrated on the Sault. At least six of these paintings can be counted. One of them was sold in Detroit and nobody knows whether it still exists. Most of them show the rapids at sunset. Their colors express a tremendous power. Only a few painters have been able to create such imposing compositions with so few elements, water, waves, forest, stones, sky and light. The Indians are in the paintings, but only as “staffage”; their small figures nearly disappearing, intensify the impression of the immensity of the scene. They stand and sit on the mainland or ride their canoes through the rapids, but the main force of these pictures is color and light on sky and water.

Buchser was not able to sell his masterpieces in Detroit so took them home where they now hang in Switzerland’s museums.

The report in the painter’s Journal, quoted at the beginning, continues concerning Detroit: “In Detroit I lived for a few months and around the end of November, I left for St. Louis . . . I painted a good picture of General Sherman . . .”[iv]

Following an invitation the painter went then to Auburn to paint Secretary of State Seward. Later on he went again to Virginia for his Negro studies and to paint General Lee. In 1871, he left America for Switzerland. It may be added that in Detroit Buchser did one of his finest American portraits, “The Philanthropist,” a German citizen of Detroit. He made many more portraits in Detroit which now are lost. On one occasion he invited the press in, to get publicity. The newspaper­ men were astonished to see: “how in the same time required to take a photograph a portrait was made by the hands of the above mentioned artist having the advantage of portraying inner qualities and individuality.”

Buchser asked $50.00 for such a portrait and it seems that his business was not too bad.

It was the fall of 1868, election time. The painter who was so much interested, in politics watched carefully what was going on. A sketch of a discussion in the Democratic Club shows how he observed the growth of political decision. The final voting made a deep impression on the painter. It inspired him to make one of his finest American drawings, “Citizens at the Polls.” Its motto is “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” the voice of the people, the voice of God.

Sources: Frank Buchser, Mein Leben und Streben in Amerika… Orell Füssli Verlag, Zürich-Leipzig 1942.
Henry Lüdeke, Frank Buchser’s Amerikanische Serdung 1866-1871, Holbein-Verlag, Basel, 1941.
Walter Ueberwasser, Frank Buchser der Maler, Urs Graf Verlag, Basel und Olten, 1940.
Gottfried Wälchi, Frank Buchser, Leben und Werk, Orell Füssli, Zürich-Leipzig, 1941.

[i] The Journal entry quoted at the beginning of this article was made during the time when the painter painted the portrait of Secretary of State Seward in his home at Auburn, New York.

[ii] The painter brought a few examples back home to Switzerland, but most of them are lost. Maybe there are still quite a few of them hanging somewhere in the United States, or lying among rubbish in a lumber-room, or discarded.

[iii] Story’s = stories, there = their, testless = tasteless, maskerade = masquerade, landskep = landscape.

[iv] In between he stayed for a short time in Chicago.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: The author of the article was a Swiss student in America on a scholarship at Union Theological Seminary. In his historical studies he came across the journal of Frank Buchser, a Swiss painter of the 19th century who, coming to the United States on a semi- official mission, stayed to paint scenes and portraits of America and Americans. A commentator, H Ludeke, writing on Buchser in ART IN AMERICA (July. 1947, page 187) says ‘”he was a genre painter with a Particulate note of his own, a dear-eyed intelligence, a frequent touch of humor and occasionally of irony, a deep and convincing knowledge of human character and withal gifted with a sense of color values . . . ‘ In 1868 the painter spent the summer on the Great Lakes at Sault Ste. Marie and it is of this part of his American journey that the author writes.

INLAND SEAS and the Great Lakes Historical Society are indebted to Mr. Lehner for a unique story of a talented visitor to our Great Lakes. We are particularly grateful for the author’s appreciative words which inspired him to say: ‘As you see . . . my mastering of the English language is not yet perfect . . . but it seemed to me being in this country on a scholarship it would express my many thanks well, if I could contribute something to its cultural life, so I tried to write this article.• We feel that Mr. Lehner has ably achieved his goal.

This article first appeared in Inland Seas in Fall 1952

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member

John Island’s Stolen Sawmill – Summer 1952

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

By W. R. Williams

With east-west length of four and two- thirds miles, by almost a mile and one half greatest breadth, uninhabited John Island rises to 250 feet in Georgian Bay’s North Channel, twenty miles east of Blind River, and the same distance west of Little Current. It appears to have remained unnamed and unnoticed until a stolen sawmill was unloaded at the harbour near the eastern end. Milelong Aikens Island stretches east and west across its entrance and makes it a perfectly sheltered basin. A four-fathom channel enters it from the north, and a fourteen-foot channel leads in from the east. This suited the needs of a lumberman named John Moyles, who conspired with his three brothers, George, Bart and Jim to steal a sawmill from Detour, Michigan, then towed it across the international boundary and re-erected it at what is now called Molles Harbour. It remained in operation for over twenty years.

In 1890, or thereabouts, the four Moyles brothers, whose home was in Saginaw, Michigan, built a large well-equipped sawmill at Detour, but when it came to securing their raw material, the logging and other operating expenses were so high that they were soon in financial difficulties. The owners of the timber limit advanced them more capital so that they might increase the capacity of their mill, and they bought new machinery, but still operated at a loss.

Bart Moyles was a clever and none too scrupulous lawyer, and devised a plan whereby he and his brothers could save their mill from being taken over by the creditors. They planned to steal their own mill, and transport it by water to Canada. Elaborate preparations were made to carry off the sawmill at the time of the spring break-up. Tugboats and lighters were brought up Lake Huron from Saginaw to Detour, under pretense of taking back lumber cargoes, but, to the surprise of their crews, were tied up at the sawmill instead of the lumber wharf. Meantime, every bit of the mill machinery was being dismantled behind closed doors within the mill walls, although two watchmen had been deputed to protect the interests of the Alpena firm which had financed the improvements. Artifice was used to circumvent them.

Putting a bottle of liquor where one of them could find it was all that was necessary to render him hors de combat. The other watchman was more difficult to handle, but the conspirators got him out of the way by having a man rush in about 6:30 P. M. and tell him that his wife was about to give birth to a baby, and that he was wanted at home forthwith. He left on horseback but the horse had been doctored so that it would become ill on the road. As a result the watchman was forced to walk the final seven miles. He arrived exhausted to find his wife in good health. Suspecting nothing, he waited until morning before beginning his return to Detour.

A typical Great Lakes Sawmill, ca. 1905

Meanwhile, after both watchmen had been disposed of, the mill crew and tug crews united their efforts and lost no time in loading the machinery and mill frame on the two large lighters. Everything was loaded, including engines, boilers, tramways, jack-ladder, lumber, trucks and all equipment. Even the nails that held the siding were taken, and the total value of the property, outside of real estate, left at Detour did not exceed five dollars. By 1:30 A.M. everything was on board the two lighters, the tugs had steam up, every person was at his post, and the convoy got under way. When morning dawned, the convoy was about seven miles from Detour, fiercely battling the drift ice. About 4:30 P. M. it crossed the international boundary, somewhere in the vicinity of Whiskey Point, St. Joseph’s Island, and was safely in Canadian waters.

When the watchman returned to Detour, he quickly found that the large sawmill and all its trimmings had disappeared, although the tugs and their lighters were still in sight. He rushed to the telegraph office to wire his chiefs at Alpena, and the sheriff at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, but discovered the wires had been cut. Next day the sheriff caught up with the runaway sawmill. John Moyles was captain of one of the tugs. He feared the sheriff might try to get a line aboard the lighter he was towing, and attempt to pull it back across the international boundary. Seizing a rifle, he strode to the stern of his tug, and in a loud voice warned the pursuing sheriff that if he attempted to board any part of his fleet he would drill such a hole through his body that his friends would be able to see next Christmas through him, and that his heart might fall overboard, and be separated from his body for a considerable period. The result of this hostile demonstration was that the frustrated sheriff returned to Sault Ste. Marie without accomplishing his purpose.

The little pirate fleet remained imprisoned in the ice by an onshore wind for three days. The wind then changed, and the ice moved so that the two tugs and their lighters were able to proceed north through Worsley Bay, and then through the western part of the North Channel, calling, but not tying up at Thessalon and Blind River.

No trouble was experienced with the Canadian customs officials, and the stolen sawmill, after a few days was re-erected by willing hands at Mailes Harbour, on John Island.

Two and one-half to three fathoms was ample depth for schooners and steam barges to tie up at the lumber wharf that was constructed. Two parallel lines of cribwork, with room for schooners to proceed between them were next built a short distance eastward, in Mailes Harbour, to provide additional piling space.

One of the two tugs was used to tow lumber-laden lighters from the mill wharf to the cribwork, besides assisting schooners during their arrival and departure. Schooners chose either the northern or eastern entrance to make best use of the breeze that was blowing. The remaining tug was employed to bring log-rafts to the mill through the north channel. The cribwork, as well as the wharf, remains to be seen by visitors, and both appear in the accompanying air view of Mailes Harbour. The daring and successful exploit of stealing an entire sawmill intrigued the hundreds of bush workers along the North Channel, and they found delight in recounting the story of the stolen sawmill to the crews of tugs whenever they arrived to tow log-rafts to the sawmills on the southern shore of Georgian Bay.

It would form an agreeable close to this story to state that John Moyles and his three brothers finally achieved financial success with their sawmill in Canada, after being dogged by failure in the United States, but the facts are otherwise. After operating their mill on John Island for a number of years, they sold it to Guy Multhrope of Bay City, who had been operating along the Onoping River, west of Sudbury. Multhrope then remained in possession of the sawmill until he retired from lumbering, due to depletion of the timber limits.

On Sunday, April 17, 1918, this historic sawmill was totally destroyed by fire along with the other buildings in its vicinity. Since then, John Island has remained uninhabited, except for a few Indians who camp on it during the summer in order to fish.

In one thing John Moyles was successful beyond contradiction, and that was in giving his name to an island over four miles long in Georgian Bay. A number of islands commemorate Royal Navy officers, but in the whole world there is only one island that honors a man who stole a sawmill. His name was John.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member