The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By George P. Wakefield
One of my most vivid reflections of the Vermilion, Ohio, steam fish tugs can be best described by reciting the details of seeing the big, good-looking Edward K. appear at the bend in the river just across from Cloudy’s ferry dock. The location nowadays is about at the mouth of the first lagoon.
She came into view quite unexpectedly, for she came silently and steadily with all her dignity exuding from her like a graceful lady walking up an aisle. She was that kind of a boat to me and I presume to most boat lovers of the era, and the attractive personality must have come from her good lines, her silence (she was equipped with a condenser so did not make a sound from the usual steam exhaust just aft of the stack), and her skipper, Bert Mattison, who possessed an outward personality like the boat herself, although Bert was considerably beamier. At least, that is the way the Edward K. impressed me then, and now.
Bert had checked her with three chirps on the engineer’s signal whistle which was always ready for service in the boiler room. Its crisp tone sounded much like the whistle created with your lips and Bert kept them short and snappy, as if a command. The other tugs used bell signals so the “K” was a ship by herself in an audible sense.
Undoubtedly, I was sitting on George Goetz’s front steps at his grey twine house just south of the waterworks. George was there beside me, for it was a habitual place to sit and listen to his tall stories of fishing or farming when he lived at Avon Point. He could tell some big fish stories in those days for he had caught many a monster sturgeon off the beach in small sailing boats. But back to my story of the Edward K.
George liked the oncoming tug, perhaps as much as I did, but he wouldn’t ever admit it like I would. He may not have liked the skipper even, but he was aware of the same loving personality the ship portrayed and he wasn’t about to miss the moving scene emerging from the distance like an apparition from center stage. He had become silent!
As she passed Bert pulled his signal cord. We could see the motion, and a single, sharp chirp stopped the engine. Engineer Hubert had shut off the throttle and swung the reverse lever for the “full speed astern” expected from the two chirps soon to come. Bert’s profile appeared in the pilothouse door. He was holding her carefully on the right course for docking and she was coasting on her momentum to the coal dock. Soon he would turn her just right to port, for a course almost parallel to the dock, so she would rub it with a glancing touch at her for’d quarter. A fast reversing engine would stop her and Bert would throw a line over the stake.
Before docking the crew stood at the side stern door ready to pop on the dock and make for the coal bin. They had taken that position as soon as the boat entered the piers, for they then could see what was going on along the riverside. They seemed to be just as curious as the people watching them. If some of the native fishermen such as George Krapp with son Harvey were along the pier waiting for a big catfish to strike, chances are one of the crew would ask, “How’s fishin’?” or maybe just a simple, “Any luck?” Sure as shooting, George would either hold up a big one or ask, “How’d you do?”
Then there might be a strange yacht at the public dock at the foot of Huron Street to look over. There was usually some tidbit to scan and discuss before hopping off to the coal. And if their favorite “teasee,” (for most of the crew loved to kid about some incident that had a particularly novel slant), “Old Gib,” was at the dock in or around his little fish boat, then the boys would have a ball.
It all grew from Gib picking ice to help with the winter’s harvest down at Kishman’s one year: Gib was always in need of cash so he was always at the fish house when ice cutting was ready. One year he was busy with his pike pole pushing the cakes along, and Phil Darley, the boss man, came along and ordered Gib to move downriver where help was needed. It just so happened that right at the place he was supposed to go the water was on top of the ice and conditions were quite slippery – and Gib knew that. He growled something to Phil but didn’t move an inch. When Phil came back and found he was in the same place, he blew his top at Gib. And this is where the famous “I quit!” originated. Gib never lived it down and he was the target for most all the gillnetters that passed by. Consequently, “I quit” was the passing salute for old Gib and it was repeated with great gusto and laughter. Gib would make some guttural remark more like a growl than words, indicating some curse for the whole crew.
With the tug’s screw thundering vociferously Bert would stop the engine just as the boat was about to stop. He had to figure in the time delay between when the signal was given and the time required for the chief to actually stop the engine, so it took considerable skill to stop the boat, send a loop over the pile and secure the line on the wooden cleat at the bulwarks. Bert was puffing when she was tied, for he was short and stout, so he stayed right on deck and gave the engineer an oral signal. “Kick ahead a little, Hubert.” We children used to pretend we were a captain on a fish tug and the inevitable order was Bert’s “Kick ahead a little, Hubert.” We thought it was a classic command and a lot better than a whistle. Bert’s other signal was, “That will do, Hubert.” It is amazing how one can remember such things after fifty years.
By now the crew was pushing the coal car up the track to the bin where they would put in so many shovels full for next days steaming. Hubert would pull the manhole cover off the coal bunker and crawl back into his “office” making certain that the cabin door was closed tight to keep out most of the coal dust when the lumps began to fall. Down the track would come the coal car, and with a thudding rumble the coal would make its dusty trip to the bunker. You could hear the big lumps hit the wood bars the chief had put up to barricade the coal. Hubert would leave his other door with a shovel, push the stray lumps into the manhole and clean up the best he could with a shovel. The rest would be hosed away in cleaning the decks for the day.
If nets were to be reeled they were hauled off by the crew at this dock. In the
meantime, Bert had given another order for Hubert, “That will do, Hubert,” and the chief would stop the engine. Bert was that way in giving orders to the engineer and that is why we remembered his commands so well – they were simple, direct, courteous and always accompanied with the name of the chief.
A crew member, perhaps Lauson Rumsey or “Rube” Mattison, had secured a line on the stern quarter as Bert cast off the forward line, and Bert climbed into his pilothouse and pulled two chirps for Hubert. With the ship swinging outwardly at the bow Bert waited until she was clear of the Mattison that may have been docked up ahead, and pulled another chirp. The stern line had been removed as it slackened. With another chirp the “K” started ahead slowly upriver for the unloading dock in front of the Kishman house.
About opposite the dock Bert turned the wheel hard over to starboard. After swinging as far as he could in safety he stopped his engine and put her in reverse. This is when Hubert opened her up for it took a lot of churning of the big cast iron screw to stop her fast, for she was on collision course for the dock. Of course, Hubert knew when to put on the steam and when to take it easy. If he had followed the whistle orders to a tee he would have broken lines, crashed docks and raised hell in general with the big ship so the whistle signals had to be supplemented with Hubert’s skill and experience, and at times, intuition. The main ingredient was consistency for Bert counted on regular time intervals between signals and engine action.
Transferring 2,400 or 3,800 pounds of fish from the boat to the dock was quite a lift and it took four strong men – two on the dock and two on the boat. The boat men would lift the box to the rail, turn it and hold one end, the dock crew would hook two iron hooks into the handle holes and with a push and a pull, up it would come with exertion showing on all faces. When all the fish were on the dock the boxes were then dumped into “tote boxes” which were carried to the house scales where Phil Darley would weigh them and mark down each net load weight on a yellow tally pad.
After all the fish were in and accounted for by Phil, the crew, after the usual good-natured kidding, and this was constant and normal as a byproduct of the life at sea, would walk along the docks to where the nets were unloaded for reeling. Then you would hear the “song of the reels” as the nets were spread and rolled up on the large wooden reels that squeaked the melodious tune.
By now Bert had hosed down the deck of coal dust, fish bits and lake refuse and Hubert was putting his engine and boiler to bed. Bert had probably moved the boat back and tied her with her regular mooring lines if another boat was due to use the unloading dock. You could hear Hubert scraping his shovel on the concrete floor, way down deep in the boilerroom as he banked the fires for an overnight nap. Soon he would emerge to his bridge at the engine and wash up from a day of soot, ashes and oil. This was an essential ritual for the chief, for my memories of the engineer’s face was one black as coal.
It wasn’t long before the dinner pails were removed from the rack back of the engine room and the crew trod up the hill with visions of a hot dinner waiting for them at home with a rest on the sofa afterwards, for a good catch was a lot of hard work for everyone on a steam tug in Vermilion.
About the Author: Mr. George P. Wakefield has had a fascination with steam gillnetting since boyhood, and remembers sculling on the river at Vermilion, from age six, and spending much spare time on the boats as they maneuvered around the harbor.
A Great Lakes marine writer on factual as well as fictional subjects, and a yachtsman of power and sail related to cruising, he is currently a Director of the Great Lakes Cruising Club, a Trustee of the Great Lakes Historical Society, and Past President of the Vermilion Area Historical Society.
Professionally a consultant in lighting, Mr. Wakefield specializes in the design and development of refractors for commercial use. He is a Fellow in the Illuminating Engineering Society, resulting from his contributions to the art and science of lighting, and is also a realtor at the present time, in the acquisition of corporations. Mr. Wakefield has recently been elected a national director of AND (Americans for the National Dividend), a citizen’s action group supporting a plan to distribute corporate income taxes to all registered voters, as a personal tax-free dividend.