The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Herbert W. Dosey
On June 25, 1913 the steamer Pendennis White of the old Mitchell line was discharging a cargo of iron ore at the Central Furnace on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. And I was the gangling teen-aged youth who struggled up the boarding ladder with an overburdened sea bag and a heart bulging with gratitude for the people who built ships and arranged to transport ore from Minnesota to Ohio.
Those were the days of chuffing wooden tugs, melodious steam whistles and a new crew each trip. Days of trolley cars, horse drawn drays, cheap whiskey and free lunch in every saloon.
Addison Remington was the understanding steward to whom I was assigned as a cabin boy. And it was he who patiently explained my duties and then proceeded to do most of them himself while I was somewhere on deck observing the working of the ship. I deeply suspect that my juvenile naivete was all that saved me from severe disciplinary action, and the fleeting years have increased my esteem of this big hearted, jovial steward who was so typical of the steamship men of that era.
The day following my embarkation, two puffing tugs deftly maneuvered us down the winding river toward Lake Erie and the “open sea.” We passed between acres of slanting piles of freshly sawn, aromatic lumber glistening in the June sun and several of the small wooden steamers actively engaged in its transport. During that period the Tempest, Huron City, Argo, Mary H Boyce and Canisteo were regular visitors in the port of Cleveland and occasionally the names Annie Laurie, George H Van Vleck, Homer Warren and Edward Hines appeared on the Cleveland port list as having arrived with lumber from the remote, romantic and almost forgotten ports of Penetang, Cutler, Spanish Mills, Blind River, Byng Inlet and Pequaming.
As our ship was towed through the open draw of the old Superior Viaduct we passed the old fire tug Clevelander at its berth, and then the palatial steamers City of St. Ignace and City of Buffalo were observed taking on passengers and freight for their respective nocturnal voyages to Detroit and Buffalo. At the river’s mouth lay the trim package freighter North Sea of the Mutual Transit Company loading railroad rails, pipe and bales of fence wire consigned to Gladstone and Duluth for the growing west.
Having disengaged the tugs our ship proceeded through the harbor entrance to the open lake and headed for the port of Lorain and a waiting cargo of coal consigned to Duluth. The old B & O dock at the mouth of the Black River was comparatively slow in those days. The present method of inverting coal laden railroad cars and permitting the coal to slide through a huge funnel into the cargo hold had not been perfected. During that era the dock inverted the car and dumped the coal into a large hopper, then the hopper was hoisted up and the coal emptied through a spout into the ships’ hold. Thus the coal was handled twice which consumed more loading time and broke up the coal. Loading dragged on all through the night and when I arose at 4:30 next morning and began my chores of cleaning up the mess room and galley, I was greatly surprised to see the deck so close to the water. Our 7000 ton cargo had lowered the ship about 20 feet. The deck was now even with the dock and our long boarding ladder had been stowed.
We soon got under way and departed from Lorain and my excitement knew no bounds as I began my first voyage across the inland seas. A few hours steaming brought us to the old Southeast Shoal lightship and the North Passage between Point Pelee and Pelee Island. All ships bound for ports west of Toledo traverse this passage and the traffic is dense and diversified. My menial tasks were rather confining but fortunately the galley was on the port side of the after house, thus affording me a fine view of the passing traffic.
My previous acquaintance with shipping had been confined to vessels moored in the Cleveland harbor and I knew every intimate detail of the regular traders. But the array of ships seen In the North Passage surpassed my anticipation. Graceful passenger steamers with foaming bows were threading their way between small wooden lumber carriers, package freighters, tankers, tugs with barges, sand suckers and of course, the ubiquitous bulk freighters cradling their tremendous cargoes of coal, ore and grain. The schooner Newell Hubbard sailed by with tautly curved sails and a cargo of sand from Pelee Island, bound for a south shore port.
After steaming quietly along past Pelee Passage Lighthouse, and south of lonely Colchester Light, we arrived at Bar Point and the mouth of the Detroit River. This cabin boy verily believed himself to be in a land of enchantment as the ship proceeded through the narrows between Bois Blanc Island and Amherstburg. The clear green water of the river scintillated in the June sun as it flowed between wooded banks and past neatly painted homes, and the red and black channel buoys bobbed in the current.
Those were the days when Detroit was proud of its one tall building, the Hotel Pontchartrain, and the ferry steamers were hustling to Windsor and Walkerville. Our whistle exchanged frequent signals with a miscellany of passing watercraft as we continued on past Belle Isle and Windmill Point. Lake St. Clair was calm and hot but the comparatively narrow ship channel confined all vessel movement to a fixed fairway and afforded a close-up view of each passing ship. I had been signed on to wash pots, kettles and dishes and to “soojie” the galley and mess room floors. This I did with alacrity but every time the whistle blew I dropped everything and ran out upon the deck to see what ship was approaching. It was my good fortune to be off duty as we entered the St. Clair Flats Ship Canal in the delta of the St. Clair River. I sat on a midship hatch where I had an unbroken view all around and marveled at the marsh country scenes. Cottages on Harsens Island had canals instead of driveways and a boathouse where we were accustomed to see a garage.
Quaint Algonac soon appeared off to port as we passed the Ojibway Indian Reservation on Walpole Island, and farther on upriver the outline of Marine City was taking definite shape.
Both Marine City and St. Clair were centers of early ship-building and there is hardly a family in either community that has not been actively engaged in lake commerce. Above St. Clair the river banks slope up quite steeply and in sharp contrast to the lowlands along the Flats. Both the thriving Canadian city of Sarnia on the east bank of the riverhead and Port Huron opposite enjoy a safe and comfortable elevation above water level. It was late in the day when we passed Sarnia Bay where a number of old schooners had settled into their last berth with their topmasts starkly erect, with rotting shrouds, halyards and stays festooning them like broken cobwebs – truly the ghosts of a bygone era.
While crossing Lake Huron, Billy Sullivan, the mate, ordered the bos’n to have the deckhands black oil the forepeak. This was a messy job so the boys let the ship furnish their raiment by the simple expedient of cutting arm and neck openings in the blue denim pillow slips. The high command was highly perturbed at this diversion of equipment, but since the improvised shirts had been cut and splattered with black oil, the alteration was given permanent status.
Lake Huron was good to us that night and we arrived at Detour right on schedule. We entered the St. Marys River and proceeded on past Drummond Island, Squaw Island and Lime Island, then across Lake Munuscong to the narrows at the Encampment. From here to the Soo the river was very narrow and crooked which rendered early navigation so hazardous that night passages were rarely attempted. Ships that arrived late in the day anchored until the next morning. Rains’ Island and Neebish Island were passed close aboard and I marveled at the wilderness in the North Country. The pine scented summer breeze, the forests and abundant bird life cast a spell over me that I often recall with a nostalgic yearning to return.
And then the Soo, the Rapids and the locks. There were only two of them then, the Weitzel and the Poe, and Canada had one on the Ontario side of the river. An outstanding event was the purchase of 25 pounds of trout and whitefish from the Indians who actively fished the rapids and peddled their catch to the ships locking through. The upper reach of the river above the locks cut through a rugged wilderness and the blue waters around Point aux Pins were framed in nature’s grandeur. We steamed past Point Iroquois, and the Gros Cap lightship gracefully curtsied in our wake as we headed across Whitefish Bay toward mighty and mysterious Lake Superior.
That night a dense, wet fog lay upon the calm lake like a soggy mantle and the repeated blasts from our steam whistle shook it down like rain. It was intensely cold and remained so all next day. Land was sighted as we rounded the “horn” at Copper Harbor, but unlike anything that I had ever gazed upon before. The sea and coast line were obscured by the murky fog and the mountains in the hinterland rose above it like a floating mirage. I braved the cold that morning and sat on deck outside the galley door paring what seemed like a bushel of potatoes. They were due in the steam kettle by ten-thirty but I was so engrossed in the ever changing panorama of the rolling, forested hills reaching through the fog that steward Remington had to grab a paring knife an hour before noon and set a hurried pace for the job’s completion. The crew ate boiled potatoes that day.
Another of my duties as mess boy was to arouse the watch below with the “hash hammer,” a large brass hand bell. Chief engineer John Fetting protested against my short cuts through the engine room but relented when he observed my keen interest in the moving crossheads and revolving cranks. Chief John liked anybody who admired his engine.
My first glimpse of Duluth made a lasting impression as we closed with the land late in the starlit evening. Parallel rows of street lights ran up the hill until they seemingly joined the stars, and the maze of city lights cast dancing reflections upon the waters of the ship canal and harbor. Duluth was a booming frontier city in those days and the downtown area was crowded with hordes of lumberjacks, railroad men, miners and seamen. Our cargo of coal was discharged across the bay in Superior and a waiting ore cargo was taken on a few days later at nearby Allouez. The unloading docks were slow then and since they rarely worked at night the stay in port was prolonged. The trip back to Lake Erie was pleasant but uneventful and Captain Fred Furtaw waved a greeting to his wife as we passed close to his home in Marine City. We arrived in Cleveland and discharged our cargo at the Central Furnace where I had signed the ships articles fifteen days before. But I was now a veteran seaman – I had been up the lakes and around the horn.
During the great storm of November 9, 1913, the steamer Pendennis White was snugly moored in Buffalo. Years later she was re-named Vega and acquired by the Interlake Steamship Company.
The following summer I shipped out on the B. F. Jones commanded by Captain R. W. England. During a trip from Cleveland to Milwaukee and around to Duluth we saw the pathetic remains of once proud ships that had been caught in the terrible gale on that wild night in November.
The badly battered Matoa was anchored at Sarnia after her release from the rocky east coast of Michigan. And somewhere near Port Sanilac we met the ill-fated steamer Howard M. Hanna in tow of the Reid Wrecking Company tug Fisher. The wrecker Manistique was alongside and lustily pumping out the water that was gushing through the Hanna’s shattered bottom. It was a depressing sight to see this once trim ship reduced to an inert and helpless derelict with doors and windows stove in, one boat missing and the other suspended vertically over the side from a davit. The skylight was smashed in, the funnel was gone and the after boat deck was twisted down over the fantail. The winter spent on the rocks of Port Austin Reef had taken its toll but this ship was subsequently rebuilt and is still in active service under Canadian registry.
Due to a slow dock and the nature of our cargo it took about five days to discharge the cargo in Milwaukee. As a result the lads spent considerable time in “Uncle” Louis’ saloon across the street. And by some strange quirk of fate Louis’ daughter took sufficient interest in me to prompt her mother to intimate that if I married Sophie, I would one day own the saloon. What price glory?
Billy Barnes, our cook, took great delight in telling all and sundry that he was a former “glass blower from Kokomo.” And he never tired of elaborating upon this bit of history by adding that he “blew the foam off the glass.”
We proceeded to Ashland for ore and while “rounding the horn.” the stranded Turret Chief was distinctly visible, perched high upon the rocky coast west of Copper Harbor where Lake Superior had disdainfully cast her aside. She was subsequently re-floated and returned to active service.
During boyhood, my world of ships was confined to the vessels which frequently entered the port of Cleveland and the endless procession of strange ships seen passing through the rivers and the straits had a most fascinating magnitude and variety. It was observed that many ships bore personal names and several of the older vessels bore the names of pioneers prominent in science and industry. An outstanding group in the Pittsburgh Steamship fleet bore the names James Watt, Sir William Siemens, George Stephenson, John Ericson, Robert Fulton, General Orlando M. Poe, Robert W. F. Bunsen and Samuel F. B. Morse.
The college group Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton and Rensselaer is well known to lake folks and three vessels of this famous quintet are still plying the inland seas.
A compendium of lake ships would be incomplete if it failed to list the famous “typewriter” group of ships in the fleet of the Great Lakes Steamship Company. The steamers L. C. Smith, B. Lyman Smith, H W. Smith, Monroe C. Smith, Wilbert L. Smith and Lyman C. Smith enjoyed long, successful and profitable careers.
Ships bearing the names of rivers in New York and Pennsylvania were prominent in the days of package freighters. And many port lists were graced with the romantic names Wissahickon, Delaware, Conemaugh, Codorus, Susquehanna, Allegheny, Muncy and Clarion of the old Anchor Line. This line also owned the able passenger steamers Juniata, Tionesta and Octorara. The Chemung, Ramapo, Tioga and Owego proudly hoisted the house flag of the Erie Railroad’s Union Line for many years. Other ships in this line were the Delos W. Cooke, Granville A. Richardson, John G. McCullough, F. D. Underwood and the Binghampton.
After serving aboard several steamers I became aware of differences in the atmosphere aboard and it became increasingly apparent that, like any other business or organization, the attitude of the crew is a reflection of the disposition of the top command. One outstanding personality was Captain George Bowen of the steamer Ellwood. A kindly, gentleman sailor who encouraged his men to bank their wages, who qualified deckhands for better jobs by encouraging them to learn to steer, and who always insisted that the crew dress up before passing through the Soo locks, in cognizance of public opinion.
One rainy night in 1914 I was sitting in the fo’c’le with the rest of the deckhands when the mate entered with the query: “Can any of you fellas ‘wheel’?” We had just left Duluth with ore for Lorain and had snugged everything down all shipshape and Bristol fashion. The mate explained that two of our wheelsmen had failed to return to the ship at sailing time and if any of us could steer we were in line for immediate promotion. Having learned the compass and the art of steering a ship during my free time I was assigned to the task on a probationary basis. And when we arrived in Lorain my promotion was given permanent status. A few weeks later I fell asleep at the wheel while crossing Lake Huron on a bright starlit night. This would not have been very serious except for the fact that the mate was also asleep in his chair. I was rudely startled out of my repose when the lookout cried, “Lights Ahead, Sir” and there, dead ahead shone the street lights of the town of Lexington. In another 15 minutes we would have been high and dry on Main Street.
Dawn broke in a blaze of golden radiance that mellowed the chill of the rising northeast wind as we met the schooner Alice of Milwaukee sailing to leeward under a cloud of billowing canvas. She was bound for Cleveland with a load of lumber and I think she was the last merchant sailing ship to enter that port.
We arrived at the Mesabi docks in Duluth a few days later and I went ashore for the evening. And when I came back the ship was gone, leaving me stranded in Minnesota with two dollars. If misery likes company I should have been quite contented because one of our stokers had missed the ship also and promptly joined forces with me. I had accurately appraised him as a first class hobo and accepted his plan to rejoin the ship at the Soo where it was due to arrive 36 hours hence. We walked over to Superior and out to the Belknap Street yards of the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railroad where he found an east bound freight train among that maze of cars with amazing precision. According to stoker Jack, this train was scheduled to arrive at the Soo in 15 hours, which it probably did – but without us. Two burly brakemen unceremoniously evicted us from our cold box car some 30 miles out in the wilderness, thereby forcing us to return to Superior as pedestrians. Being a true knight of the road, stoker Jack wheedled me out of 50 cents which he spent most injudiciously on whiskey at 10 cents a jolt.
At this juncture stoker Jack and I parted company. I returned to Duluth and visited the office of the vessel agent where I was informed that the Ellwood would be back in 10 days. I had a 10 cent bed in the Mission on Tower Avenue in Superior which was promptly denied me when I ran out of dimes, whereupon saloon keeper Douglass across the street took me in as a porter to tide me over until my ship returned – which it did.
Having regained my sea bag and blessed with a pay check, I obtained a room in the Lennox Hotel in Duluth where I divested myself of the “Weary Winy” accouterments. Within a few days I shipped aboard the fine steamer John P. Reiss of Sheboygan as ordinary seaman. During the voyage to Buffalo the bos’n led us down to the forepeak, which someone had foolishly decided to paint white. Since this part of the ship was below the waterline we had to use kerosene lamps for illumination while we diligently applied nice white paint to the wet, slimy hull plating. But the job was never finished. Due to the lack of ventilation and the heat from the lanterns we developed a turpentine jag of major proportions. When the boys started slapping each other with brushes full of paint the bos’n ordered us out of the forepeak and as we emerged on deck the whole gang danced and yelled lustily. Captain James Doner countermanded the order for the painting job causing Mate Hughes to lament long and vociferously that he was not “running an excursion steamer for deckhands.” He had a strong aversion to “those deckhands,” and it was solely due to Captain Doner’s vigilance that we were not hazed off the ship. Along about this time the cook noticed the disappearance of pies which he had locked in the pantry. Evidently someone had a pass key, but who? A trap was set by the simple expedient of dusting an apple pie with cascara powder instead of cinnamon. Next day Mate Hughes stood convicted.
Having endured Mate Hughes as long as I could I switched jobs in Ashtabula by shipping aboard the little freighter G. A. Flagg and then quitting the J. P. Reiss. The Flagg was a home. Captain Gus Hartman was a very young skipper who recognized that some of us were students on vacation and he treated us accordingly. We carried coal from Lake Erie ports to the “Copper Country” around Houghton & Hancock. Slow docks in Ripley, Dollar Bay and Hubbel gave us considerable time in port in this “wild west” of Michigan and by the time we proceeded to Ashland for ore and returned to Lake Erie, fifteen days had gone by. I was painting the white upper bows one day while we lay moored in Lake Linden and I had a deckhand standing by to lower my stage plank as needed. I never suspected his colossal ignorance of knots and hitches until one of my slings let go, plunging me and a bucket of white paint into icy water twenty feet below. When I came up through the paint which had spread over the water I felt and looked like a snowman and had to be scrubbed with kerosene to restore the original finish.
Captain Alexander McDougall was an astute Scot from Collingwood who knew the moods of the lakes and decided to build an unsinkable ship. The result was a cigar shaped hull with the deckhouses mounted upon turrets which offered the least resistance to the seas as they swept the deck. The first one, built in Duluth, was barge No. 101, which gave rise to the popular belief that he had one hundred dreams before actually beginning construction. I shipped as wheelsman aboard the whaleback Bay State with Captain Anderson J. Hanna and I soon learned why “pigboat” men never stooped to pick up what was dropped. It wasn’t there anymore.
The worst storm of my seafaring career was experienced while serving aboard the very staunch freighter William D. Crawford in 1928. We cleared Fort William with grain for Buffalo one cold and blustery afternoon late in November. After standing out of Thunder Bay and passing from under the lee of Isle Royale we were beset by a heavy sea rolling under a strong southwest wind. Our course lay southeasterly toward Whitefish Bay some 156 miles distant, but as night descended the wind increased and Captain John Hesson altered the course toward Keweenaw. The sky was hidden by a black scud and the wind shrieked a piercing din in the rigging. The seas became higher and more vicious as the night progressed and our 525-foot steamer rolled and plunged like a canoe in a millrace. The gunwhales were rolling under and the hissing seas were sweeping the deck. If one of our fifteen hatches had failed that night our ship would have been added to the long list of mysterious disappearances on Lake Superior. There was not one among us who was not thinking of home and friends ashore. And when the storm increased, some of us despaired of ever seeing another sunrise. Sleep was impossible so the watch below wedged themselves into their bunks and held on as best they could. Early morning found us in the lee of Keweenaw and the worst was over. That evening we locked through the Soo and next day proceeded across Lake Huron without any disturbance. However, when we entered Lake Erie the southwest wind picked up again and as we neared Buffalo it was becoming too rough to enter. We turned about and headed back under Long Point where we anchored for the night. Next morning I counted 27 vessels at anchor in the shelter of the point.
I always enjoy the recollection of humorous incidents aboard ship such as the time the tug was towing us out of Huron too fast. Captain Langell blew three toots to slow down but the tug kept right on pulling lustily. Finally, the skipper’s patience was exhausted and he grabbed the megaphone and hailed the tug with, “Slow down, I can smash this ship up myself -I don’t need a tug to help me.” Langell always referred to the long freighters as, “these lath and plaster boats.”
We suffered a slight collision with another steamer on Lake Erie one night so, although the damage was slight, the alarm bells were rung. Next day I met Elmer, our colored waiter, coming around the after house so I asked him what he did when the disaster alarm rang. He replied, “Oh! I sat down and put on my shoes. These slippers wasn’t gonna be no good for the kind of running I was gonna do.”
Some years later when I was master of a ship, I entered a small port for shelter, and while waiting for the storm to abate, my cook, whom we shall call Pierre, became disgruntled over some injustice, fancied or real. So he quietly stole away in the dark of the night and asked directions to the railroad station from a lone straggler. Following the directions he set off down the road with his two heavy bags sagging his shoulders and before long he was quite confused when the road ended among the breakers. Undaunted, Pierre retraced his steps to the nearest cross-road which he followed with grim determination only to find himself again at the water’s edge. Utterly lost he trod up to a cottage showing a glimmer of light and again asked directions to the depot. And the kindly old lady squinted over her specs and said, “My good man, don’t you know that you are on an island.” Pierre served breakfast on time in the morning but news travels fast on an island and I was tipped off the instant I went ashore.
That same afternoon I observed a small excursion steamer moving out of the bay with a happy group of tourists cheering and waving. Pierre had shuffled along the deck and joined me at the railing to watch the departing ship. “Where are they bound, Cap?” quoth he. I scanned the horizon intently for a fleeting moment, and then I turned and looked directly at the little cook. His white chefs cap was set at a jaunty angle, reflecting the summer sun like a glacier, but his eyes looked tired. “To the railroad depot,” I replied softly.
Pierre went below.
About the Author: Mr. Dosey. G. L. H. S. trustee and chairman of the Membership Committee. keeps his Master’s license and sails when time permits. His delightful stories appear frequently in INLAND SEAS.