Wayne Brewster, 91, Recalls Life as Sailor on Schooners
in Bustling Trade on the Lakes
CAPE VINCENT - Sailing as a crew member upon the schooners that plied from Lake Ontario to Chicago in the busy years of inland water traffic following the Civil War, Wayne B. Brewster, 91, finds, in retrospection that the early years of the enlarged Welland Canal brought a period of danger through the trend of masters to overload their craft and take full advantage of the greater depth.
The canal boat had acted as a regulator upon cargoes. If loaded to a point where draft was increased beyond normal, even the small ships of that time could not pass. "After they enlarged the canal, they used to overload the boats," Mr. Brewster declared, recalling an experience when the schooner on which he sailed was over laden and the captain, encountering heavy weather, solemnly promised to do so no more.
Mr. Brewster can call the heyday of lake shipping, for he antedated the era of railroad traffic, himself a passenger upon the first train that entered this village. The trip marked his coming to make his home here.
Sailed on Schooners
He sailed upon the Polly Ann Rogers and her sister ship, the L.S. Hammond, both two masted schooners built at Sackets Harbor for E.J. Burnham, owner of the local elevator, burned in 1905. In was the second elevator at this port, the first having been built in 1853 for the Watertown & Rome Railroad. Burnham's elevator handled 700,000 to 800,000 bushels of grain annually.
"We carried wheat, coal, corn, anything," Mr. Brewster said. "We generally had a deck load of coal when we went to Chicago. We got the coal mostly at Oswego. There were eight in the few, Joe Saunders, father of Mrs. Sackett, was captain. I sailed on her three seasons. I also sailed on her sister ship, the L.S. Hammond, named for the president of the Cape Vincent bank and captained by Dick Saunders, a brother of Joe. We carried anything that happened along."
Horses vs. Syrup
Mr. Brewster tells of one voyage on which the boat had a number of horses and several barrels of maple syrup. One of the syrup barrels became broached, the syrup flowing into the horses' quarters causing all sorts of trouble, as the horses slipped in the sticky mass and became cast. There also was an occasion when the schooner shipped ice for Cleveland.
The Rogers carried about 20,000 bushels of grain, in bulk. Mr. Brewster encountered many storms but no shipwreck, although once he was knocked off the mast when it was struck by lightning.
“It took is two weeks to make the trip to Chicago,” he revealed. “We couldn’t tell just how long it would take. There were quite a number of propellers on the lakes then, most of the steamships being out of Buffalo. There were mostly sail boats on this lake. We took many cargoes to Kingston; that was a great grain center, the grain going from there to Montreal. We used to go to Kingston to take on stone, loaded by prisoners at the penitentiary. They would form a line and dump the stone in the hold as they passed. We took it to Oswego, where it was used in the furnaces.”
Recreation was not entirely absent. The crews enjoyed fishing from their schooners, salmon being the favorite catch. At one attempt, Brewster caught eight lake trout instead of the salmon he sought.
After his marriage, he quit the lake and devoted himself to the carpenter’s trade. He was born May 25, 1849, on Point Peninsula, son of a ship carpenter descended from William Brewster of Massachusetts. When the first train ran over the Watertown-Cape Vincent railroad, he and his sister, now Mary Brewster Cough of Green Bay, Wisc., boarded it at Chaumont to come to their new home.
Although handicapped by deafness, Mr. Brewster enjoys splendid sight and can read without glasses. Among the treasured possessions of his household is a picture taken of him at the age of four. His father was busy on a carpenter job on the day appointed for the picture taking. The son went to see his father.
“I crawled under the stoop and went to sleep, and they had to put over the picture until the next day,” Mr. Brewster laughed.