The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By William Maher Howell
I was born and raised in Ere, Pennsylvania, in what would be classified today as a nice middle-class neighborhood. Our section of the city bordered on Presque Isle Bay and was inhabited by families associated with waterfront activities.
As an example, in the block where I lived, there were four families who owned their own fish tugs, a family who owned one of the leading fish companies, and another family owned a boiler works which specialized in ship repair and barge building. My grandfather, Capt. R. Paul Howell, and my uncle, Capt. Paul V. Howell, had lived next door to our home and had sailed for the Bradley Transportation Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Both men had passed on before I was born but grandmother Howell and my aunt Anne still lived in the Erie homestead which was rich in memorabilia from grandfather’s sailing days on the Great Lakes. I spent a good deal of time at grandmother’s house and it’s no small wonder that I was fascinated with Great Lakes ships; my parents were on constant call to take me down to the waterfront. Our trip home from church on Sunday always included a ride to the foot of State Street to the Public Dock to see “what was going on.”
I remember especially the year 1927 when I was eleven years old. There were quite a few freighters laid up at Erie. I can’t recall if the layup was brought about by some strike or an economic slowdown, but I do remember sitting on the hill above the Cascade docks and studying the ships through my grandfather’s binoculars— thrilled beyond measure at being that close to the ships. Some of the ships docked were the Henry Steinbrenner, Philip Minch, Adriatic, John J Barlum, Thomas Barlum and the W. G. Pollock. Even the colors of the ships comes back to me; the Pollock was green hulled, the Barlum ships were grey and white and the other ships the common rust-colored hulls. It is quite a contrast to today’s standardized colors—rust or black hulls. As excited as I was at watching these ships practically every day, my biggest thrill was yet to come. My father received a phone call at his office one day from Mr. Crebo Jones. Father remembered Crebo immediately as the cook on the Gladstone. My father and his brothers had taken a few trips up the Lakes on the Gladstone each summer when school was dismissed and Crebo was well remembered for his exceptional cooking ability. He and his wife Grace still sailed the Lakes, cooking on various ships and now were aboard the John J. Barlum as cooks, and in its present layup state had stayed on as shipkeepers. Crebo invited father, mother, grandmother Howell and me to Sunday dinner aboard the Barlum. Try to imagine the feelings of an eleven-year-old boy who was enthralled with ships but had never stepped aboard one! Now the greatest dream was to come true. Crebo sensed my feelings immediately and from the moment when I climbed the ladder and stepped aboard the Barlum, he had a captive audience in me.
After we finished dinner, he took me on a tour of the ship. Not an inch of that vessel was left unexplored. To quote the oft-used expression, I was “on cloud nine”! Crebo then promised me that he would see to it that I would take a trip up the Lakes the following summer on the Barlum. My parents took me aside and tried to reason with me that Crebo was making a promise he couldn’t possibly keep. But I wouldn’t hear it— Mr. Jones had promised me and that was that! Even they never dreamed it would necessitate a twelve-year wait. I never lost hope for that trip but events took shape which caused it to fade into the background. The Barlum ships left their Erie lay-up later that summer and unfortunately we never again heard from Crebo Jones.
It had been an annual occurrence for me to stay at my grandmother’s house when my parents went away on their vacation. Early in the summer of 1928, grandmother Howell suffered a heart attack and died and my parents had to alter their vacation plans to include me in their travels. In retrospect, I’m sure they planned this trip to make up for the Great Lakes trip promised me by Crebo Jones: they decided to leave the car home and travel as much as possible by ship.
At that time the steamers Erie and Dover sailed between Erie and Port Dover, Ontario, on alternating trips carrying passengers and automobiles. I remember the ads promoting these trips as saving many hours of tiresome automobile travel around the Lake, by taking your car aboard ship directly across the Lake and enjoying a lake ride at the same time. To me this trip was like a journey to a foreign land. I had never been to Canada—this was a land far away across the Lake. We sailed aboard the Erie early on a Saturday morning for the 3½-hour trip to Port Dover. We passed the Dover on her return trip to Erie and sighted several freighters making their way up or down the Lake. It was a beautiful day for a lake trip, with not a cloud in the sky, nor an affecting wave on the Lake. I satin a chair near the bow and I remember for certain that I never left that chair during the entire trip.
The next leg of our vacation would have to be made by land inasmuch as there was no way of traveling by passenger ship to our next stop—Toronto. Walking to the trolley depot in Port Dover one thing struck me and has remained in memories to this day-the uniform the policeman wore. He was dressed in the same uniform as the oldtime English Bobby, complete to the tall hat. The present-day uniform is modern, of course, but at that time to this then eleven-year-old boy, that person might as well have stepped off the boat onto English soil!
The trip to Toronto was made by electric interurban trolley, a mode of transportation which has all but disappeared from the scene. I don’t recall too much of this part of our travels except such names as the “Telephone City,” Brantford, Ontario, and Hamilton, the high speed of the trolley and the seemingly endless and beautiful Canadian countryside. We arrived at Toronto in late afternoon and took a cab to the harbor to start our next leg of the trip which would take us by steamer through the Thousand Islands.
When we arrived dockside, I was surprised to see the steamer Kingston. She was a beautiful steamer but I remember having reservations about her at the time. I remarked to my father that she must be an old ship because I had seen a picture of her in one of my grandfather’s books. Father assured me that she was in her prime in spite of her twenty-seven years. Unfortunately the habit of “overbooking” didn’t originate with the modern day airlines. A group from Allentown, Pennsylvania Fire Department had also booked passage on the Kingston, had arrived before us, and every stateroom was taken. There were quite a few of us who would be left behind for the next trip if we didn’t protest, so after a session of raised voices the company agreed to set up wooden folding cots in the steamer’s lounge. Trying to sleep on those cots made up the roughest part of the passage, and I was reminded of it in later years in the Army, trying to sleep under other than favorable conditions.
Our overnight trip to Rochester, New York, and Kingston, Ontario, was uneventful. Being wakeful most of the night, I remember the ship docking near an amusement park on the American side and it was raining quite hard when we docked at Kingston early the next morning. Fortunately, the weather cleared and by the time we reached the Thousand Islands the sun was shining and the trip through the islands has to be one of the most beautiful a traveler can enjoy. The panorama of the islands with their great homes and castles was further enhanced by our cruise director who gave glowing descriptions of the islands, the homes and their inhabitants. He informed us that on the island owned by the Pullman family, the clock in the tower had hands of solid gold. The descriptive tale about Hart Island and Boldt Castle was almost beyond belief. Years later I was to take this same trip by smaller craft and visit some of the islands, and I came to the conclusion that the cruise director of 1928 had much too vivid an imagination!
Our last stop on this part of our vacation was Prescott, Ontario, where we were to transfer to the steamer Rapids King for the spectacular trip through the Rapids and onto Montreal. I was looking forward to shooting the rapids as I had been told this was an unforgettable thrill. I was doomed to disappointment however, because word of the overbooking at Toronto had preceded us and I can now appreciate the company’s reluctance to overload the Rapids King on this thrill-packed journey. When we docked at Prescott we were told that the Rapids King would not be making the trip through the rapids. Father, acting as spokesman for our group, approached officials of the line to inquire as to the reason for cancellation of the trip. When he returned, he smilingly informed us that “the King had lost his rudder. ” While we Americans chuckled over this remark, our Canadian friends responded with an icy stare. Whether or not the Rapids King had lost a rudder I never did learn, but I have since been told these ships took a beating on their run through the rapids and that such damage could occur.
We spent the rest of the day sitting on our luggage on the waterfront at Prescott while CSL had a special train made up to take us the rest of the way to Montreal. We spent several days in Montreal sightseeing and my parents took me to the Shrine of St. Joseph on Mont Royal. Father was as disappointed as I at having missed out on shooting the rapids and after inquiries in Montreal found another trip we could take through the rapids. The following day we hired a car and were driven to Lachine. There we boarded the side-wheeler Empress. The Empress was a sorry-looking old girl but we gave little thought to her seaworthiness, we were going to shoot the rapids after all! I was told that the pilot was an Indian; the Indians were familiar with the river and its safe channels. (I took this particular trip again the following year and it was still a great thrill. The ship seems to be traveling at great speed through the angry frothing waters, rocking from side to side and occasionally a hard thump is felt as it strikes some submerged obstacle.) After a while we reached calm waters and eventually entered Montreal harbor.
My parents and I were on top deck at this time and I was treated to a view of what is one of the world’s busiest harbors. Ships of all sizes and types were either dockside or sailing by us in the harbor. I had a notebook and pencil with me and I was writing down the names of vessels as fast as my parents could call them out to me. The Empress next entered a lock in the harbor and was raised to dock level where we disembarked and returned to our hotel after this thoroughly satisfying trip.
Our original plans to travel by ship were to end at Montreal, but luckily this wasn’t to be. One day we were walking through the lobby of the Windsor Hotel and mother spied an advertisement describing an overnight trip to Quebec on Canada Steamship Lines’ new ship, the St. Lawrence. This trip looked like the frosting on the cake and also would enable my parents to take me to the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec. Late that afternoon we boarded the St. Lawrence and were shown to our stateroom. This ship was only a year old, and in my eyes she was beauty beyond description. We stayed up quite late watching the lights of the ships passing us on the river. The next morning we docked at Quebec in the shadow of the Chateau Frontenac. We hired a car and a driver for the day to take us to points of
interest and act as an interpreter when we should go to lunch. We traveled to the Shrine, Montmorency Falls and other places in and about Quebec. Late that afternoon we returned to our ship. An ocean liner, Empress of Scotland, had tied up during the day near the St. Lawrence. Our guide wanted to take us aboard for a tour but time did not allow it. He explained that this ship, the Empress of Scotland, had been designated by Kaiser Wilhelm to be his private yacht on a world cruise after he won World War I!
Our return to Montreal aboard the St. Lawrence was the last part of the vacation by ship. Our vacation days were overspent and we had to hurry back to Erie, so the speediest form of travel in 1928 was the train. The two-day trip by train is hardly remembered; travel by ship is still the best as far as I am concerned. As I look back, my parents more than made up for any disappoint- ment I may have felt at missing out on that Great Lakes trip on the Barlum and I’m sure that they were aware of the great happiness they gave me.
Twelve years later I married the nicest girl in the world and after our wedding reception we drove to Cleveland, Ohio, and boarded the Seeandbee for a honeymoon cruise up the Great Lakes. Although taken twelve years late, this trip was well worth waiting for.
About the Author: William Maher Howell, as he states in his article, was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. His father’s side of the family produced two shipmasters: his mother’s family was associated with the fishing industry, and as a young lad he made trips on fishing tugs with his uncle “Bill” Maher.
Following retirement, after thirty-two years of service with the Post Office Department, Mr. and Mrs. Howell now reside in Salisbury, Maryland, and devote their travel time mainly to harbor tours. A recent trip on the Mississippi River was a fine experience, but couldn‘t compare with an excursion on the Great Lakes! Hoping now for a trip aboard a Great Lakes freighter, he fully realizes that he will “never give up!”