Life Aboard the Schooner LUCIA A. SIMPSON in 1926 – Winter 1980

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

By Carl A. Norberg

LUCIA A. SIMPSON. Image from the Bowling Green State University archives,

On a warm spring day in 1926, six surviving seamen of the sailing vessel era on the Lakes assembled at a dock near the Becher Street Bridge in Milwaukee where the grand old lady, Lucia A. Simpson had been in winter quarters. In her fifty-first year, the venerable old schooner was one of the very last of her kind in service: so was her crew and so was her master, Capt. Hans Simenson, who since 1900 had guided her while their number had dwindled to a handful. The jargon among these men was a strange mixture of Norwegian, Swedish shipboard terms, and very little good English.

They had been called in by the schooner’s owner, who for decades had used sailing vessels to provide cedar logs for his Milwaukee Cedar Company, to send the Lucia A. Simpson north once more for the dwindling cargoes still available from the cutover timber lands.

Fitting out took but a week: no major repairs were even mentioned. Four days before sailing, a young man cautiously boarded the schooner and announced to the Captain that he, too, had been hired to sail with the vessel. The thought of standing watch with a rank greenhorn was greeted by mutters of discontent from the crew. The young man, about twenty-one, was Russell Jones, whose father later bought the Simpson. Jones had only one grudging advantage-he knew how to operate the wood-burning steam winch on the foredeck, used occasionally to haul on halyards. A steam engine was a little too mechanical for the old seamen.

Russell M. Jones is the source of this story of how it was aboard the Lucia A. Simpson, three-master and full-rigged, as she sailed north in 1926 for her first cargo of the season. Jones related the adventure one winter afternoon in 1973, at my home in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida. Prodded by my urging, memories of the trip began to surface something like this. He needed a summer job. Money was scarce and employment hard to find. In April he applied to Mr. Charles J. Sanderson, the owner, who informed him the pay was $1.00 per day or $30.00 per month and “found” (board and bunk). It was surprisingly low, about what a seaman was paid in 1890, but remember, 1926 was not a boom year. There was no mate on the Lucia A. Simpson, the Captain ran the ship on all watches. He did the navigating and only he made the coffee. Jones thought he was licensed.

Four days after he boarded the schooner, a small commercial tug came alongside and towed her through three bridges and out into the swells of Lake Michigan, where they cast off. Sail was made, but new line for halyards was kinking at the blocks and a man had to go aloft to unfoul them. The old salts made sure that the greenhorn went up-where the pitching and rolling promptly made him seasick! Jones was able to finish the job, but he quickly earned a bad reputation as a lubber and felt the scorn of the crew-they even spit in his food! The watches below were eaten alive in the foc’sle by hoards of lice, bedbugs, cockroaches, etc. Jones next came to the rescue by rigging a steam hose and thoroughly cleaning out the vermin. From then on his standing improved and conditions were livable.

Going north, the vessel was light. Four or five days later she sailed into Little Bay de Noc, the northernmost inlet in northwest Green Bay, where she anchored near a sawmill and the small town of Stonington. This was the home of Andrew Skoug, who was “director” of Milwaukee Cedar Company, and it also was the home of Captain Simenson.

Loading the ship began at once, the work being done by the sawmill gang, who derived their “GO” from the copious use of snuff. A tug with the name of Fram soon appeared alongside towing a large boom of cedar ties, which were loaded aboard the schooner from a low raft. Jones maintained they were shoved through side ports, but plans of the vessel from the Smithsonian Institution do not show any side port holes.

As the vessel sank lower into the water, the open seams of the dry topsides began to leak badly and the use of a “Norwegian soldering iron” was begun, and continued until the Simpson was fully loaded. In this operation, a mixture of horse manure and sawdust was loaded into a box at the end of a long pole, which was pushed down as far as possible on the outside of the hull, then inverted, causing the mixture to float upward and sucked into the open seams. (My father tells how, while aboard a Norwegian square rigger, South American ant hills were used as well. The vessel, of course, must not be under way: however, in a dead calm it would work.) In the meantime the Simpson’s crew on deck were busy on the bilge pump.

When the hold was filled and the deck hatches were caulked with oakum, the rafts of telegraph poles were brought alongside. The ship’s crew, with halyards, hauled them on deck and chained them down. During the return trip, a new strain on the rachets was taken frequently, as a loose cargo of poles was terror. The crew climbed over the poles to move around on deck.

When the schooner was fully loaded, caulked, and “Norwegian soldered,” the loading gang and the vessel crew went ashore to the settlement for an all night party, joined by most of the townspeople. This was really a great cause for celebration. A jug of whiskey, water, and sugar was set out for the merrymakers. Dancing and enjoying life went on until dawn, as no other visitors would be expected until the Simpson returned.

The following morning the Fram turned the schooner around and the crew “walked the capstan” until the anchor was brought aboard and secured for sea. Blocks creaked as men bent to the halyards, assisted by Jones and his steam engine. The Lucia A. Simpson was homeward bound bearing her first cargo of the season. Life fell into a routine not unlike my father’s day aboard square riggers.

A male cook was aboard who used a wood stove in the after cabin measuring about 20’ by 20’, providing the Captain’s quarters, galley, and mess table. Meals were little changed from when the vessel was built in 1875. Fresh baked bread was a staple, boiled potatoes in the skins, the ever-present “salt horse” or “corn horse,” was soaked before cooking to remove excess salt-its only preservative. Jones still remembered pancakes and prunes and the ever-present coffee, always ready on the gimbal stove to keep it hot. Each man was furnished a bowl for food or drink, but no cups: again, just like my father’s days at sea about 1885. In 1926, the water in Lake Michigan was so pure and potable that no appreciable amount was kept aboard. It was brought on deck with a bucket flipped over the side. Cooler water at anchor or becalmed was obtained with a jug on a long pole with a cork lanyard which was pulled when down deep.

Bathing was easy from a Jacobs ladder at slow speeds, or with a bucket on deck. Jones was a little vague about the system of deck watches, but at the wheel it was two on and four off. The Captain could be called at any time as he was the only navigator. Usually, there were three or four men on deck or on call at all times. From his cabin the Captain, by means of a mirror, could see the compass and the course steered. All the crew, except perhaps the cook, bunked forward.

In good weather, on Sundays at 10 A.M., the Captain took the wheel and placed the Bible on the binnacle where he could read portions of the good book to any of the crew who wished to join him. There was no work during that hour, Since I was literally brought up on “square rigger stories” I feel that Captain Simenson had served on saltwater in his early years.

When the Milwaukee light was close at hand, the signal for a tug was run up and they towed to Sanderson’s yard to discharge cargo. The crew was then paid off, as was the Great Lakes custom, but they would return in a few days to “sign on” for the next trip. Russell Jones remained to work at transferring the cargo to the dock at the magnificent rate of $1.00 per hour and bunk aboard-no meals. Shortly, all hands were back for the second trip north.

Jones made three similar trips to Stonington on Little Bay de Noc. By then it was getting into August and time to prepare for school. No heavy weather was encountered and the Captain hoped to make eight or ten more trips before laying up. In the winter all of the men went back to work in the north woods.

In the season of 1927, the Lucia A. Simpson served another typical season like that in 1926, to Little Bay de Noc. Emery B. Jones, father of Russell Jones, and Dr. O. B. Jesse, both sailors in their younger days, made a trip for oldtimes sake. Whether the supply of cedar ties was exhausted or the operation became unprofitable-or both-this was the last season of cargo carrying for the old schooner. In the spring of 1928, the docks and decks were silent.

The Simpson was not forgotten by the elder Jones and the good doctor, nor was their wanderlust dulled. In 1929 they formed the Northern Marine Company for exciting salvage ventures, and Captain Simenson and the old crew returned and prepared for a job on Lake Superior. The Lucia A. Simpson sailed July 6, and twenty-four hours later was struck by a fierce “White Squall” from the “nor’west!” The aging hull and rigging took a terrible beating and she was towed close to Kewaunee harbor by the ferry Ann Arbor No. 7, where the Coast Guard brought her into port in a sinking condition. Inspection at Sturgeon Bay revealed that refitting expenses would be prohibitive, and the working days of the old girl were ended forever in her fifty-fourth year.

Her last documented owner in 1935 was the Town Harbor Yacht Club of Chicago. She was to be fitted out as a clubhouse in the downtown harbor. For months she was expected to sail into town but the season passed and she failed to arrive, undoubtedly due to her deteriorated condition. On December 5, 1935, she was among seven vessels destroyed at the Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company by a runaway fire that started aboard the old wooden steamer Petoskey, then spread to the E. G. Crosby, Waukegan, Kenosha -and the Lucia A. Simpson.

Final note: In 1929, on her closing voyage, the Lucia A. Simpson was the last “full rigged” schooner on Lake Michigan. That meant that she still carried topm’sts and tops’ls. The three master Our Son, still sailing until 1930, with her Scandinavian crew under oldtimer Fred Nelson, then seventy-two years old, was considered a “sailing barge” without topm’sts and tops’ls. The third old sailing vessel, the City of Grand Haven, was abandoned in 1929 at Marinette. Her rig was a third type, commonly called the “Grand Haven Rig” or technically a ketch, with but two masts. All three carried rafees until the very end.

Thus ended the very last of the “great white winged fleet,” which at one time were so numerous, oldtimers said, that it was seldom one or more sails were not in sight on the horizon.

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About the Author: An enthusiastic devotee of that period in history when sailing vessels dominated the maritime scene on the Great Lakes, Mr. Carl A. Norberg has added another chapter to our Journal concerning a very special ship, the Lucia A. Simpson, last of her era to sail the Great Lakes. He inherited his love for these early schooners from his Norwegian father, who sailed on all the seven seas and the Great Lakes as well, and Mr. Norberg’s maternal grandfather also served on the Canadian schooner Queen of the Lakes, which added to his interest in acquiring records regarding these sailing vessels, back in the 1920s. He admits to having explored every harbor between Chicago and Little Current, Ontario, during his search.

A graduate of the University of Chicago’s School of Business, his professional career included the manufacture of industrial and marine paints at both Chicago and St. Petersburg, Florida. Now, happily retired in St. Petersburg, he confesses to devoting his “spare time” to writing, regarding his special interest-the early days of sail on the Great Lakes.

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