Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter VII

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 What little aid had been extended by the federal government in improving these conditions was withdrawn in 1842 or 1843 when the Democratic administration, then in power, suspended all appropriations for river and harbor work.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 Republican.

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 tramway.

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 any moment.

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 Menominee River.

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 subjected.

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.

"Milwaukee," I replied.

"On what vessel?"

"The 'Cleopatra'."

"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.

This brief 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 episode.

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 forests.

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.

Return to Contents Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus