THE problem of
transportation was almost as important to the lumber industry as the
problem of production itself. The era of railroads had not yet begun
and the isolated mills at the mouths of the rivers emptying into
Green Bay, Big Bay de Noc, and Bay de Noquette,— practically the
entire northern lake region,— depended upon boats to bring them
supplies an(l to take their output to market.
The importance of
navigation on the lakes, although it was the great highway between
the East and West over which the grain from the rapidly growing
prairie states was carried in exchange for the manufactured products
of the older cities along the seaboard, was not generally recognized
by the federal government. The harbors were in wretched condition
and lights and buoys to guide the mariner and warn him of dangerous
passages were few.
When I came west in
1845 there was only nine feet of water in Milwaukee harbor and
conditions at Chicago were just as bad. Neither were there any tugs
to assist a vessel to a safe berth. In Chicago, for many years,
ships were pulled out of the river to the lake by hand, a head wind
necessitating the use of a windlass. What little aid had been
extended by the federal government in improving these conditions was
withdrawn in 1842 or 1843 when the Democratic administration, then
in power, suspended all appropriations for river and harbor work. As
a result every sailor on the lakes became a Whig and afterwards a
The idea that the
lakes were little more than a "goose pond" prevailed in Congress for
some years later. I remember hearing Captain Blake, a veteran of the
battle of Lake Erie, who had achieved notoriety in these waters in
the early days for his profanity and red waistcoats, expressing the
fervent hope, when he had a United States Senator aboard as a
passenger, that he might run into a gale to convince the
unsuspecting legislator of the hazards of inland navigation. Even at
the "Soo," the great gateway from Lake Superior, no improvements had
been made and freight was transferred around the rapids on a small
Sailing a ship was
not unlike blazing a. way through the forest. With conditions
wretched as they were the navigator was practically without charts
and the master figured his course as nearly as he could, estimating
the leeway and varying influence of the winds. By comparison with
the difficulties that confronted its the lot of the sailors of the
present day is an easy one. With compasses and lights the course of
their vessels is as plain as the tracks of a railroad, and the
steam-driven propellers keep the ship to it without variation and
bring her to harbors equipped with all the aids modern ingenuity has
been able to devise.
Among the trips we
made in the forties was one, which I still have vividly in mind,
from Racine to Escanaba on a vessel laden with hay for the lumber
camps. After setting sail we saw neither light nor land but followed
our uncharted course very much as instinct guided us. Through
Death's Door, the narrow passage from Lake Michigan into Green Bay,
we groped, feeling our way with the lead line, and headed cautiously
for the mouth of the Flat Rock or Escanaba River. Proceeding
blindly, sounding as we went, we came about in five feet of water,
stirring up sawdust from one of the mills. From this position we
retreated cautiously to deeper water, lowered a boat, pulled ashore
in the dense fog and with the aid of a compass found our general
bearings. I returned to the ship and when the fog lifted detected a
vessel lying close by. To our intense relief we discovered that we
were in the right anchorage.
At no time during
these early voyages did it seem that we were free from threatened
danger. The officers were constantly on the alert. During these
years I made several trips with Captain Davis, of the "Champion," as
a passenger. While the boat was under way he never took off his
clothes so that he might be prepared to answer a call to the deck at
To make our situation
worse the Green Bay region was largely inaccessible, except through
the dangerous passage, Death's Door, and a long detour was necessary
to clear the peninsula. This disadvantage was overcome to some
extent later by the construction of the Sturgeon Bay Canal. At the
mills also, where there were no harbor facilities, loading the
vessels was difficult as they were anchored some distance off shore
and the cargoes had to be taken out in scows or rafts. Gradually we
improved these conditions and the problem was eventually solved by
the construction of harbors and the building of railroads.
As I have said I had
already had a glimpse of the sea at St. John, New Brunswick, and at
Boston and Bangor, and was on the verge of embarking on Captain
Eustis's ship for Nova Scotia as a cabin boy when fate stepped in
and decreed otherwise. No one could have lived in Maine during the
early part of the last century without having given ear in some
measure to the call of the sea. Nearly half the people of New
England were sailors when I was a youth, a condition which
maintained for the United States an enviable position as a maritime
power and led to the upbuilding of a great merchant marine before
the Civil War. Whaling, too, was a great industry. Many of the men
who attended Harvard and other universities went on a whaling voyage
for two or three years before taking up their professions or,
possibly, for lack of opportunities to take them up, or sailed for a
time before the mast. One of these, a Harvard graduate, I came in
contact with on a trip from Milwaukee to Escanaba. As a common
seaman he received wages of sixteen dollars a month.
At Bangor, when I was
a youth and the spell of the sea was upon me, I had laid awake many
nights and in the calm security of my bed pictured myself as the
master of a vessel on the lee shore in a gale of wind. The small
catalogue of nautical terms at my command T used with extraordinary
facility and issued orders with decisiveness and despatch. In these
imaginative predicaments I never lost a ship.
My interest in
seamanship was revived by my experiences on the lakes which had an
element of danger sufficient to stimulate a young man's passion for
adventure and the time came when I wanted to try sailing as a
reality. Frequently in the summer time I was a passenger on the
vessels on which we transported lumber from Escanaba to Milwaukee.
On more than one occasion I was permitted to take the wheel.
Besides, at Escanaba on Sundays, the only time I had to myself, I
availed myself of every opportunity to practice sailing and became
so proficient that as early as 1,848 I had acquired something of a
reputation as a sailor.
At this period the
Mackinaw boat was the most common type of small vessel in use and
was deemed the most effective for all sorts of weather. They were
particularly seaworthy and, if properly handled, could survive any
gale on the lakes. These and sailing vessels carrying both
passengers and freight were the only means of transportation we had
on Green Bay and between Green Bay points and Milwaukee and Chicago
during the navigating season from April 1st to November 30th. During
the remainder of the year the bay was frozen and to communicate with
Green Bay city we went on the ice. I also had opportunity to
exercise my ingenuity in sailing a Mackinaw boat at the "Soo," where
I went to enter lands for the company. Louis Dickens, one of the
pioneer merchants, was always willing to turn over his vessel to me
and I made numerous short excursions in the waters in the vicinity.
Several years later, in 1838, I brought to Marinette a very good
Mackinaw boat which, in a heavy sea, I ran over the bar into the
My desire to sail
before the mast had always met with the unrelenting opposition of
Mr. Sinclair and, as a result of his maneuvering, my experiences in
that direction were confined to a single trip. He evidently
proceeded upon the theory that an unlimited dose of sailing would
cure me of any weakness I had for the sea, or the lakes, as it
happened to be, and he took occasion to administer it on a trip from
Milwaukee to Escanaba and return on the large schooner "Champion."
The owner of the
vessel was Mr. George Dousman who, as I have said before, was
engaged in the shipping and warehouse business in Milwaukee. He was
a friend of Mr. Sinclair, and by his direction the conspiracy having
been arranged beforehand— Captain Davis, the commander of the
"Champion," made it a point to show me no favors on my first voyage
as a real sailor and to accord me no more consideration than was
given the other men. When we left Milwaukee I went into the
forecastle with the crew and performed the duties allotted to me. We
reached Escanaba without mishap, took on cargo of lumber and
returned to Milwaukee.
Mr. Sinclair, by
accident or design, was a passenger on the return trip. Having
doubtless kept me under scrutiny and thinking that his plan had
succeeded by this time, lie asked me one morning where I had slept.
"In the forecastle
with the men," I replied.
"Didn't you feel mean
with a lot of drunken sailors?" he added.
"No," I said. "Here
in the vessel I am a sailor before the mast as they are and I can't
prevent their drinking."
Perhaps I was
somewhat defiant but, to myself, I was ready to admit that I had my
fill of sailing, at least as an occupant of the forecastle. None the
less I completed the voyage. When we arrived at Milwaukee and the
men prepared to unload the boat, which was the custom at that time,
I needed no further discouragement and told Captain Davis that he
might put a man in my place. I accept my own counsel but I had made
up my mind that failing was not a desirable avocation and that the
wages of sixteen dollars a month during the summer and from twenty
or twenty-six dollars on the last trip in the fall were very small
compensation for the hard work and discomforts to which one was
Later Mr. Sinclair
talked to me about my lost aspirations in a more kindly vein and
advised me not to choose a career of this kind. When he asked me to
get into the carriage and go with his family to .Janesville, I went
without urging, but I made no confession of defeat, keeping that
part of the situation to myself.
The experience was
the extent of my career as an ordinary seaman but I had not yet
(lone with sailing. A short time after going to the farm Mr.
Sinclair sent me to the ''Soo" to enter lands while he vent to the
mills at Escanaba. There he purchased the schooner "Galhinipper" -
the boat which I had hauled out on the ways several years before -
and instructed me to hire Captain Johnson Henderson, or anyone else
I might select, to take command of her. I made the arrangement with
Henderson, who earned lumber from Escanaba for two or three years,
until he lost the vessel, and went with him as mate.
The first few trips
were uneventful but in the early part of September, 1850, while on
way to Escanaba, with the boat light, we ran into a storm. There
were eight passengers aboard, a yawl in tow and a horse on deck all
bound for Bailey's Harbor. The yawl could not be taken aboard
because the schooner was very "crank" when unladen and had capsized
two years before at Presque Isle on Huron.
A terrific gale came
up and, while fighting the storm from Friday morning to Sunday
afternoon, we drifted from what is now called Algotua, then known as
Wolf River, twelve miles south of Sturgeon Bay, to a point ten miles
south of Racine. The yawl parted its painter and went adrift to the
east side of the lake; the horse died at midnight on Sunday, when we
were off Milwaukee harbor, and the passengers, who had despaired of
ever seeing land again, were back where they had started. The storm
which we had happily survived was said to be one of the most severe
that ever swept Lake Michigan. At Milwaukee just as we were about to
embark upon the momentous voyage I had met a Captain Davis, the
owner of a vessel called the "General Thornton" who was preparing to
cross the lake for Manistee where he was to take on a cargo. He also
ran into the storm, his ship went down and all of the crew were
drowned. He saved his own life by lashing himself to a spar on which
he floated for six days and eleven hours before he was picked up.
Famished and exhausted he sought to keep himself alive by sucking
the blood from his arm. A number of years later some of the old lake
captains wrote to me asking for information concerning Captain
Davis, who was a Welshman and an interesting character, but I knew
nothing of him except that he had gone to Chicago where he was
employed in a sail loft. After that I had lost trace of him.
After I had made a
few trips on the "Gallinipper" as mate the company commissioned me
to buy horses, oxen and supplies, another ruse of Mr. Sinclair's to
divert my attention from sailing. Mrs. Sinclair, whose maternal
interest in me had not diminished, also pleaded with me to give it
up as a career. None the less I was still absorbed in it and during
the following year, 1851, I purchased a half interest in the "Gallinipper"
on July 5, when she was on her way to Escanaba. This was not. a
fortunate venture. On July 7, when off Sheboygan the vessel capsized
and sank, a total loss although all of the crew were saved. The
transaction not having been recorded with the under-writers I saved
my outlay for the purchase. The untoward experience did not deter me
front making further ventures of the same kind. Shortly afterward I
went to Milwaukee and bought the controlling half interest in the
schooner "Cleopatra" from Captain William Porter. The ship was under
charter, the Sinclair and Wells Company owning one half. I came in
on her to Escanaba and about sunrise went ashore to make
arrangements for taking on a load of lumber. Mr. Sinclair was just
sitting down to breakfast.
"Where did you come
from?" he asked in surprise.
"On what vessel?"
"Did you buy Captain
Porter out?" he asked, evidently suspecting what had happened.
"Yes," I said.
"Who is captain of
the vessel now?"
"They call me captain
when I am aboard," I replied.
interchange obviously convinced Mr. Sinchair, who was a man of much
determination, that I had taken up sailing in earnest and he
capitulated, making no further effort to dissuade me from my course.
''Sit down," he said, "and eat your breakfast." That concluded the
I made nine trips on
the ''Cleopatra" during the summer and autumn of 1851, and netted in
profits six hundred dollars. Freight rates, however, were low and
the returns small compensation for the outlay and the hard work, not
to speak of the risk encountered. The following year I made only one
trip, after which I put another man in my place and went back East
and was married. I had definitely and finally arrived at the
conclusion that sailing was too hazardous an occupation and offered
no attractions as a permanent career. In 1853 I sold my interest in
the vessel, deciding that I wanted no more of it as seaman, officer
or vessel owner.
Although I had
abandoned this course the experience I had on the water was none the
less valuable, and I never lost interest in this aspect of activity
on the lakes. The development of water transportation, particularly
in connection with the commercial growth of Wisconsin and Michigan,
is a fascinating story, especially to one such as I who has seen the
sailing vessels and side-wheelers of the mid-century give way to the
great freighters plying between the commercial centers which once
seemed mere villages on the fringe of a vast wilderness. The
outlines of the earlier period are growing dimmer as they recede
with the years, but I am not likely to forget, however little it may
interest later generations, that to the men who then sailed the
lakes are due the honors of pioneering no less than the men who
brought the unbroken prairie to bear and laid open the wealth of the
In some of the less
important nautical incidents of this time I played a small part. The
first steamboat that came into the Escanaba River was the
"Trowbridge," a small side-wheeler, built in Milwaukee and used to
carry passengers ashore from the Buffalo boats. In 1845 the vessel
carried an excursion party to Green Bay and ran into the Escanaba to
obtain wood sufficient to carry it back to Milwaukee or Washington
harbor, the latter a place frequented by steamers on the route from
Buffalo to Green Bay. The next steamer to enter the Escanaba was the
"Queen City," a vessel drawing only forty inches, which I took up as
far as the water-mills in 1858. Isolated as we were, excursions of
this kind were about the only diversion to which we had recourse on
days of leisure, and women and children as well as the men were only
too glad to avail themselves of an opportunity to take a trip of
this kind. A number of times I commandeered all the vessels at hand
on which practically the entire population of the small settlements
embarked for an outing.
The "Morgan L.
Martin," a Fox River boat, was the first vessel oil Menominee River
to tow scows and rafts of lumber from the mills to vessels at anchor
outside the bar. At this time, 1860, the Menominee had no harbor
improvements, and there was only from three and one-half to four
feet of water at the mouth. It was the practice of the mill owners
to pull the scows and rafts out to the waiting vessels by hand, a
process which cost from five to ten dollars, low as wages were at
the time. Not long after I took charge of the null of the N.
Ludington Company at Marinette, we decided to experiment with a tug
and purchased the "Morgan L. Martin" with this end in view. In this
we were successful. We found that we could reduce the cost of towing
more than one-half. During the first year we charged $1.50 to tow a
scow both ways. The next year the price was increased to $2.00. The
mill owners, who looked upon the experiment with scepticism, soon
came to the conclusion that the tug was indispensable, and we added
two or three more to our equipment.
The 'Morgan L.
Martin" was of so light a draft, thirty inches, that it could
venture into streams which were not considered navigable for steam
vessels. I took her into Cedar River for the first trip that had
ever been made by a boat of her type in that region, and into Ford
River where the water was very shallow. But the most unusual
achievement of the vessel was a trip four miles tip the White Fish
River to the water-mill, which I took in 1860 with one hundred and
fifty people from Flat Rock and Masonville, one Sunday afternoon.
This was hailed as an extraordinary nautical event, the first and
probably the only occasion when a vessel of considerable size had
gone so far up the river. As we threaded our way cautiously up the
narrow stream the echo of our whistle reached the ears of Peter
Murphy, the superintendent of the White Fish property, who was in
one of the waterwheel pits making repairs. When we neared the mill
he emerged covered with grease and astonished beyond measure at the
unfamiliar sight. For a time, he said, he was almost convinced that
the boat was approaching overland from Lake Superior on the Grand
Island trail. In celebration of the event he wished to serve dinner
for the entire party, but I persuaded him instead to accompany us in
his boat back to Masonville. When we came to turn about we found it
necessary to shovel away a portion of the river bank to give us
adequate space and Burleigh Perkins, one of the pioneers of the
region, and some other men edged the steamer around with handspikes.