Waters Astern – Spring 1952

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

By Herbert W. Dosey

Many changes have come to the lakes since the advent of their discovery by white men. Their waves have danced to the songs of the early voyageurs and their shores have echoed the thunder of Naval combat. They afforded access to the hinterlands of the central west and they served mightily in the winning of the far west. With the founding of settlements a feeble commerce was born which grew to a robust activity as immigrants pursued the setting sun. The canoe, bateau, schooner, brig, and steamship developed through overlapping cycles during a continuous transition which ultimately produced the supercarrier of the present era. The term “boat” as commonly applied to the huge modern lake vessels is a carry over from that period in early history when the bateau and the Mackinac boat were the common carrier. According to definition a ship is, “any decked vessel capable of self propulsion,” which quite obviously disqualifies lakes vessels from the “boat” category.

The first few ships were manned by a courageous lot of migratory adventurers, but increased shipping attracted sailors from the eastern seaboard as rumors of better food, higher wages and shorter trips infiltrated the coastal boarding houses. Many Scandinavian, English, Scotch and Dutch seamen came to the Great Lakes sailing ships, and with them came a colorful array of nautical terms which were adopted with modification by lake men. However, since the Ohio farm lad, the Michigan woodsman and the Canadian pioneer were unfamiliar with the new jargon, we find such prevalent redundancy as, “up forward,” “back aft” and “down below.” Thus all doubt was removed as to the meaning of a term and so deeply were these terms implanted that they persist to this day and rare is the lake sailor who says, – “forward,” ” aft” and “below.” Early Maritime laws and seaman traditions led to the adoption of ocean shipping customs such as the signing of articles by crew members, paying off in cash at the end of each trip and the issuance of customs clearance from all ports of departure. The waterfront population of the principal ports grew as shipping increased, and the saloons, bawdy houses and brothels expanded numerically to lure the lonesome tar.

During the equinoctial storms of years gone by, when the falling leaves swirled in eddies around homes ashore, the oft repeated phrase, “Pity the sailors on a night like this,” was fervently uttered by the kin of seafarers, but the wag in the tavern who corrupted it to “Pity the nights with sailors like these,” was doubtless prompted by bacchanalian events equally blusterous.

After the nomadic adventurers had been outnumbered by career sailors the water fronts of the principal ports were permeated by a salty flavor which persisted until steamship smoke obscured the sight of passing sails.


Crew at Superior, WI


With the opening of the Soo locks, freight for the growing west consisting largely of rails, pipe, fence wire, and nails was shipped to the rail head at Duluth. Return loads consisted of copper, iron ore, and lumber and later, grain. As lumbering became widespread throughout Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada co-incident with extensive grain cultivation further west, the steamship was in its ascendancy and speedily replaced the sailing vessel. By the turn of the century, due to the coming of the steamer, the duties of ordinary seamen had been taken over by a mixture of itinerant lumberjacks, miners, farmhands and hoboes, many of whom had the disconcerting habit of jumping ship at the upper lake ports in mid summer and working as harvest hands in the western grain fields. This caused considerable delay while another crew was being rounded up. Possessed of a childlike mentality they were most imprudent in their quest for pleasure and any thoughts of winter unemployment were subordinated to the desires of the moment. Able seamen, mates and engineers were a bit more stable and the lads from the St. Clair River towns of Algonac, Marine City, St. Clair and Port Huron along with their Canadian contemporaries, were considerably more steadfast in their chosen occupation.

The practice of paying off crews in cash at the end of each trip increased the temptation for a fling ashore, with the result that most ships had a complete turn-over of able and ordinary seamen and frequent changes among the mates and engineers. A particular case is recalled of the stoker who bluntly replied that he was “getting off because he had sixty ‘bucks.” The continuous turnover made jobs plentiful and every incoming ship offered berths to the insolvent and usually hungry applicants. A common joke among newly signed crew to the effect that they had “never missed a meal but had postponed a lot of them,” always circulated around the cabins with embellishments. Continuous repetition never seemed to diminish its potency. The time honored query, “How does she feed?” was indicative of the primal requirement of most applicants and the magnitude of the recommendation was usually inversely proportional to the length of service aboard of the one to whom the question was directed. The first meals were always eaten with gusto but as they, “got the wrinkles out of their belly,” enthusiasm gave way to indifference and finally to the griping which preceded the “getting off” phase of the cycle. The previous ship was always held in high esteem and conversation was usually interspersed with references to the herculean exploits of her “old man,” the mate, or some other super-crewman.

The case of bos’n George is vividly recalled as his frequent references to the Pee-Gash-Us and the miracles of navigation performed by her “old man” were deeply mystifying. Adroit questioning of George and our intimate acquaintance with lake ships never produced any clews to aid us in identifying this phantom Pee-Gash-Us. Enlightenment came as a bolt from the blue as we were gathered on the forehatch one sunny Sunday forenoon when George leaped to his feet and running to the port rail proudly announced, “Here she comes.” And there, majestically sweeping along for all to behold came the Interlake steamer Pegasus up bound light. The mystery was solved and George was vindicated.

Crewmen never tired of singing the praises of cooks on other ships and the incumbent “meat burner” aboard their present vessel was always the worst of the lot. Why corned beef was termed “steel trust chicken” was never proven but many seamen vehemently declared that at one time chicken had been verboten” on the tin stackers, so named because their stacks were painted silver with a black crown. Prunes are still known as “Anchor Line strawberries” and passing time does not seem to re-classify this commodity.

An amusing incident occurred in Milwaukee as we were discharging a cargo of fine slack coal up the Kinnickinnic river prior to the first world war. The decks were covered with black dust which was wafted through open doors and windows by the summer breeze. The cook had set bread dough that morning which raised and overflowed on to the table, and in his haste to knead it back into the pan he discovered, too late, that the table was covered with coal dust, most of which was now in the dough. When served, the slices presented a mosaic of beautiful hair line designs which were promptly eaten with neither aesthetic appreciation nor ill effects.

During the passage from Milwaukee to Escanaba for ore we rolled pretty hard in a beam sea. Since cooking was impossible, the steward placed dishes with sandwiches in the large galley sink where the ships’ motion could not send them adrift, and as a receptacle for used dishes he nailed a huge old bread pan to the serving table. Having perceived the chief engineer approaching the galley door, one of the lads firmly grasped the nail fastened pan in a mock gesture of holding it steady. Joining the group in the galley the chief took his turn at holding the fastened pan, now full of dishes, whereupon all hands walked out leaving him alone and unaided. We disposed ourselves around the deck out of sight but within earshot of the galley to better follow the result which came without delay. His vehement protestations about holding a condemned pan when he had engines to run, interspersed with vociferous maledictions against the misbegotten crew, brought the second cook to the scene. This dignitary suggested abandonment of the pan to the whims of Neptune, so cautiously relaxing his grip, the chief backed away fully expecting the next roll to heave his charge crashing to the galley floor. When nothing happened he tested the stability of the pan with a jerk and finally, on discovery of the hoax, fled to the engine room. The old chief was never the same after that.

Upon another memorable occasion we had shipped two lubbers as stokers when no experienced hands could be found. These fellows were promptly taken in charge by our mischievous porter who dubbed himself the “ships fire warden” and proceeded to put the neophytes through an improvised fire drill. They were instructed to disrobe and climb into their bunks. At the count of one they were to get up and dress, at the count of two they were to hasten on deck and unship the deck hose which was festooned in beckets along the port railing, and at the count of three they were instructed to rush the hose forward along the port side, up the steps to the fo’c’sle, around the pilot house, down the starboard stair and run aft. If this nonsensical excursion was completed in three minutes they were to be awarded a “certificate of proficiency.” As all of this was unknown to me, I, the mate, unwittingly became an accomplice in the nefarious plot. The scuffle of running feet and the banging of a dragging hose coupling aroused curiosity as I sat in my room. I emerged on deck in time to see two men top the stair dragging the deck hose. Tailing on, my coat tails flapped in the breeze as I was hauled around the wheel house at a fast pace. Down the starboard stairs we went and not until we arrived amidships in our mad flight did reason return to route my hasty and undignified impulse. Having awakened the irate captain from his afternoon nap I suffered the added embarrassment of having to defend my sanity. I never pressed inquiry into the outcome of the fire drill.

Crew aboard a Great Lakes vessel

During fire drill aboard another ship earlier in my career, I, as second mate, had charge of the after pump crew. Since the hand pump was in the fantail the only proof of its operation was to direct the stream out the port gangway where it could be seen from the bridge. At the signal of fire aft we hastened down the companionway, unreeled the hose and reached for the two pump handles which were carried in a rack on the bulkhead. These handles are shaped like baseball bats and they are inserted into the hollow ends of the pump beam. To our dismay one handle was missing, so no pumping and no stream. Time was up, the drill was over and our frustrated pump crew emerged on deck to behold the second cook tamping ice around the ice cream freezer with our missing pump handle. When I explained the absence of that stream to our inquiring captain he laconically opined as how it would be all right to let the ship burn so long as the crew had ice cream.


The days of “wooden ships and iron men” were ending shortly after the first world war and their passing was highlighted by the last of many amusing incidents that ended with that colorful era. Due to slow shipping and an unsavory reputation, one “Box Car Kelly,” a resourceful and breezy rascal, was having difficulty finding a berth. Since others of his ilk were faced with the same problem, Kelly conceived a plan to find a berth for the boys and so, having assumed the role of crimp for the port, he circulated among the idle brethren with the promise of a ship for a fee. When he had signed a sizeable complement and collected in fees all that the traffic would bear, he led his motley crew to a wharf near the site of the present Cleveland stadium where the old Milan built schooner Unadilla lay moored, stripped and abandoned. This, he informed them, was the ship he had provided and which he had been tipped off would soon be fitted for sea. How he escaped the wrath of his dupes is not recorded.

Sailing entails a loneliness that even love for the sea and ships cannot entirely dispel. This inevitably led to a lot of buffoonery, so Einar became the unwitting victim of one of those ever recurring pranks so artfully contrived to dispel the monotony. Being one of those rare hands who stuck to one ship we permitted him to disembark at the Soo on the last down bound trip early in December and thus shorten the journey to his home near Knife River. This small reward for continuous service made such a profound impression upon Einar that he felt impelled to bid farewell to each of the crew individually, which provoked the incident and provided the opportunity.

Vessels in the locks at Sault Ste. Marie

Somewhere near Gros Cap lightship he emerged on deck with his two battered suitcases which he placed upon No. 1 hatch in readiness for his ‘getting off’ at the Soo. Then, leaving the forward crew until last, he proceeded aft to bid farewells to the afterguard. This did not take long but it allowed sufficient time for the forward crew to open the bags and load them with old shackles, hatch clamps and sundry scrap iron. Not being entirely satisfied with their handiwork thus far, they padded and stuffed the remaining spaces with grain just to make sure that the job was “all shipshape and Bristol fashion.” As a final comradely gesture he was assisted ashore with his well ballasted luggage and the last we saw of Einar he was slowly trudging towards town with sagging shoulders and stretched arms and we faintly suspected that his frequent stops to wave us farewell were inspired by motives other than to wish us bon voyage. He joined another ship the following season but I met him in Ashland and learned of his father’s appreciation for the generous heap of chicken feed we had sent home with his son.

Early recognition of the tremendous future potential of lakeborn commerce prompted the ship owners to strive for improved working conditions and greater safety to ships and personnel. Through their Lake Carriers Association, crews quarters were made more commodious, the working plan was changed from the two watch system to three watches, seaman’s wages were constantly increased and safety committees aboard ship were alerted to occupational hazards. These inducements together with the higher national educational standard produced the type of steamship men now actively engaged in the continuous record-shattering activity of moving phenomenal tonnages. Navigation and engineering schools impart the technical knowledge essential to the efficient operation of a complex modem ship and assure advancement commensurate with ambition and diligence.

Wage payments by monthly check and shipboard banking facilities have engendered thrift and stability unknown to the profligates of yesteryear.

While on the subject of pay checks I am reminded of coal passer Jeeter. Jeeter was drunk, and he was “getting off,” as we were discharging ore at Zug Island in lower Detroit. Jeeter had $115.00 coming which he requested in two checks, $100 for Jeeter and $15 for his dependent mother in Slagtown, better known as South Chicago. This request was promptly granted but somehow the $100 check got into the envelope addressed to the mother, which we mailed, and Jeeter got the one with the $15. By the time he had recovered from his bacchanalian debauch we were steaming toward Sandusky for coal and basking under the vision of a happy old lady in Slagtown.

The characters encountered aboard ship in the old days were as varied, and too frequently as fluid, as the clouds in the sky. There were morons, half wits, fugitives from factory work, perverts and drunks. Also fine lads from the rich and the poor, just seeking adventure or financing an education. We carried fugitives from justice, dreamers allergic to claustrophobia and members of that numerous brethren to whom a steady routine job was a fate worse than death. There was Bill, our second cook aboard the old G. A. Flagg, an Oxford graduate, and Al aboard the Pendennis White of the old Mitchell line. Al married one day and the next day he absconded with his bride’s bank roll. He was a very mild mannered, unobtrusive sort of fellow, particularly when a United States marshal and two Duluth policemen came aboard to invite him up to their place of business.

Then there was Asa. Asa hailed from the hinterlands of old New York state, ‘eat the mountains,” where, so he said, they called him Acie. Having made several trips as a deckhand, Acie aspired to better things and began casting covetous eyes at the job held by the “grinders” who are listed in the ship’s register as wheelsmen. Having satisfied himself that “wheeling” was for him, he made discreet inquiry concerning qualifications for the job and was promptly advised by his scheming shipmates to see the mate.

And so it came to pass that Acie tapped on my door to request audience while his snickering pals gathered outside. He hastily voiced his hopes and not wishing to thwart ambition I sparred for time by telling him that he must first learn the compass. But Acie confidently informed me that the compass was no mystery to him. “I learned it in school, said he, “North is up and south is to yu.” This theory seemed like an ominous portend of the approaching streamlined era but being conservative navigators and a bit old fashioned we continued using the old method. Acie wound up his sailing career in a blaze of glory at the Iroquois Inn that fall and returned to his natural habitat, the mountains, where “North is up and South is to yu.”

The steamship man of today is a highly trained specialist. He is familiar with electronic direction finders, gyroscopic compasses, ship-to-shore telephones, radar and depth sounding recorders.

The engine room crews, besides maintaining and operating the main engines and turbines, have mastered mechanical refrigeration and an array of auxiliary devices unknown aboard a decade after the turn of the century. The heavy toil of hauling aboard tons of ice for the cooler and tons of hard coal for the galley stove is speedily following the old wooden hatch cover to oblivion. Steering is now mechanically activated and there isn’t any need to pad the wheelhouse ceiling with mattresses as, legend insists, was done aboard the old Hiawatha to prevent bruising the wheelsman when a quartering sea against the rudder spun the wheel and tossed him around.

The world order is change, as witness the passing of sail, of the chugging little high pressure tug, the evolution and demise of the palatial side wheeler, the vanished lumber hooker and package freighter. But the lakes are the same, only man’s devices change. To those who respect them the lakes are kind and bountiful, but when held in contempt their reaction is lethal. The rivers, bays, islands and coast lines are quite the same as when first observed by Champlain and Marquette and when so familiar to Etienne Brule. Man’s intrusion with fickle customs can never change their moods nor suppress their robust sparkle in the summer sun. And to one attuned to their caprices, by virtue of close communion and retrospect, the shades of those who have gone on before will reappear during the long silent watches of the night. The rollicking songs of the early voyageurs will be faintly audible from afar, attuned to the dip of their paddles, and on a calm night, when the translucent haze softens the moonlight, the rustle of canvas and the creaking of halyard blocks will float over the water, perhaps accompanied by:

Some with a shovel
And some with a spade,
Some with a pickaxe
Each man to his trade,
Our fingers were numb
And our knuckles were sore
As we cussed Escanabee
And red iron ore.

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