Maritime History of the Great Lakes
"Giants in Those Days" in the Timber Trade: Schooner Days CCVII (207)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 28 Sep 1935
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"Giants in Those Days" in the Timber Trade
Schooner Days CCVII (207)


ONE of the pleasantest pieces of mail for the compiler of these chronicles came recently, addressed to him on a Cunard Line baggage tag:

"First-class passenger per S.S. Schooner Days, sailing from Telegramport to Isles of Enchantment, Date, Saturdays."

It was from a well-known yachtsman—Farrel C. Feeney is my guess — and it contained an old brown battered volume of a literary magazine called the Mirror, which was publishing Scott's novels as serials in 1824 and polishing off with Bryan's last poems.

This Mirror wasn't as highbrow as (that might indicate, for one of the articles, "copiously illustrated" with a poor woodcut faithfully reproduced, is on a contemporary marine marvel for which Canada had to take the dubious credit.

This was "the great Canadian vessel, or raft, the Columbus, unquestionably the longest ship ever seen in England," which had just arrived in the Thames. In the light of Schooner Days recent articles on the timber trade, in which Alexander Muir got his baptism of backache on the Great Lakes a century ago, it may be of interest to repeat the Mirror's description of this colossus of 1824. Steamers like the Empress of Britain, Normandie and Queen Mary now run to three times the length of this longest ship for her time, could carry ten times her cargo, and do cross the Atlantic in as many hours as the Columbus took days.

This is the Mirror's description of this monster timber drogher, with I the incredible crew of ninety-six men—enough, one would think, to eat her up. But everything was done by hand in 1824, and the big crew's biggest job, pumping, was almost too much for them. They must have pumped the whole Atlantic through her on the way across:

"The Columbus was built in order to convey at once a great quantity of timber. She is of the following dimensions: Length of keel, 294 feet; length of deck, 301 feet; breadth of -beam, 51 feet 4-12; depth of hold, 29 feet 4-12; from the top of her bulwarks to the bottom, outside, 37 feet; tonnage, 3,690 tons; mainmast above deck, 72 feet; best bower cable, 27 inches; 80 cwt. 2 qrs. 17 lbs. She is perfectly flat bottom, with a keel of about 12 inches, wall sided, sharp forward, and rather lean aft. She admeasures 3,900 tons, but her cargo amounts to 6,300 tons.

'The Columbus is unquestionably the longest ship ever seen in England, but her appearance in every other respect is far inferior to that of one of our large Indiamen. It is not true as was stated in some accounts of her, that her cargo (red and white pine) was fastened into her timbers in the building; it is stowed away in the same manner as on board other ships timber laden. In her masts, spars and rigging, the Columbus presents an appearance not at all proportioned to her rate of tonnage; they are not larger than those used in a small frigate.

"She left Quebec on the 5th September, and continued her course in safety till the 9th, when she got ashore on the north side of the river St. Lawrence from Point des Betsiamites, and was not got off till the 12th, when, for the purpose of lightering her, a considerable quantity of timber, deals and staves were obliged to be thrown overboard.

"After a very boisterous passage across the Atlantic, she made the Scilly Light on the evening of the 29th October, all the pumps having been kept constantly going for a week before making the land, to the great exhaustion of the crew, who were only ninety-six in number.

"To encourage them to maintain this harassing labour, a guinea extra upon the wages of each man was promised, and it is supposed, but for this inducement, the vessel would never have reached her destination.

During the voyage the leak gained from eight to eleven feet water; and when in the river there was no less than eighteen feet water in the hold. In consequence of this she lay deep in the water, drawing twenty-three feet, and standing only fifteen feet above the water's edge.

"She reached the Downs on the 1st of November, and was afterwards towed up to Blackwall by the steamboats. The following description of this great vessel, though somewhat technical, is so correct that we quote it as the best account that has appeared it appeared first in the New Times paper.

"Thanks to branch pilots, steamboats, warps, and the capstan, the Columbus is now off Folly House, in Blackwall Beach, where she is likely to be easy in her berth without moorings or even a kedge." Folly House was a well known waterside hotel, and the crack about, the easy berth means that the vessel was lying on the mud.

"-- This Columbus is extremely deceitful in her appearance, especially when she is seen end on; she scarcely looks half her size. She is like a wedge forward, has no cutwater, is wall-sided, carries her beam, we should imagine, to abaft the second main-mast—for she has four masts—and has a square tuck. Her run is very gradual, and from her length she looks extremely lean. A tolerable-sized light West India-man, or a thirty-eight-gun frigate in cruising trim, appear almost as lofty in the hull when you are alongside. At a broadside view from a distance, the Columbus looks a tremendous length, and though seemingly hogged or broken-backed, and very much under rigged, there is something sneaking and dangerous in her show.

"As you approach her, however, she looks as she is -- an immense mass of timber knocked together for the purposes of commerce, without any regard to beauty, and little attention to the principles of naval architecture. She has two sets of beams. The upper ones, which sustain the deck, project through the sides. She has also an inner frame, for the better security of the cargo—to prevent any starting of the timber. Her blocks were laid in October, 1823: she is perfectly flat-bottomed and her shell was completely built before a plank of her cargo was stowed. Previous to her being launched, however, 4,000 tons of timber were run on board by horses, through the bow and stern ports, and she drew about thirteen feet when she first sat on the water.

"Unlike large ships, her galley and bitts are above deck; and between the foremast and the first mainmast there is a fore hatchway, and a cable tier and messing-place for part of the crew, which look like a rude gap made in her cargo after it had been stowed. The height from the timber which the cable is coiled, and here the men have two or three berths, is about six feet; so that there must be even there about thirty feet deep of timber. But from the first mainmast to the second, the cargo runs from deck to keelson. And abaft the latter mast, close to the wheel and mizzen or treysail mast, where the binnacles stand, is a place for the accommodation of the officers and the rest of the crew. The provisions, we believe, are stowed abaft the treysail mast. Her rudder is hung like that of any other ship, but its head comes above the taffrail, and the tiller is above deck.

A great deal of the timber she is on board was, we understand, fresh hewn—it now looks extremely wet—it is principally red pine, and, like most Canadian timber, it runs large and long.

The rigging of the Columbus was naturally a minor consideration with her owners; and though it has answered the purposes for which it was intended, it presents nothing worthy of commendation to the eye of a seaman, and nothing striking to that of a landsman. The masts are ill-proportioned for beauty, and injudiciously so as far as the labor of the crew is concerned. The lower masts are too taunt—there is too much of them above deck, and this necessarily gives the courses a tremendous drop. One of the crew, an intelligent sailor-like man, said the fore-sail had fifty feet leech.

"The bowsprit and jib-boom are but one spar: they steeve little, and the hoist of the jibs is consequently, great. The topmasts and top-gallant masts are also in one. They are exceedingly short, and a royal can only be set on one of the mainmasts. Her fore-yard does not measure above 70 feet. The only studding sails she carried were topmast ones on the first mainmast. Her hemp cable measures 26 inches in circumference, and the chain is in proportion.

"She crossed the Atlantic with a single bower anchor, and a kedge of about seven cwt. It is said she worked easily and surely; that she was perfectly under the government of her rudder; that she was in general steered with facility by a man and a boy; that she went from nine to ten knots or miles an hour when sailing free, and that at six points and a half from the wind she went six knots, and made but little lee-way. In a sea-way she was, of course, heavy, and shipped much water, as she could not rise, from her great length and want of beam. In fact, she could have been but as a log of wood in a short chopping sea, one of which might have broken over her midships almost without anybody forward or aft knowing of the circumstance.

"We are, however, rather skeptical as to whether we should conclude that she is actually possessed of all the good qualities attributed to her. We cannot believe that she ever sailed at six points and a half, or at even seven points from the wind, or that she ever went nine or ten miles an hour. We do not think that a square sail in her would stand at six points and a half, and she has no buttock for running.

"On the whole, however, she is an extraordinary piece of workmanship; and though vastly inferior to a first, second, third, or fourth-rate man-of-war in beauty and capacity, the Columbus is well worth visiting. We think, however, that a bear and swab, if not a holy-stone, would improve the appearance of the deck extremely."

Much of the intended sarcasm of the Mirror, or of the Times which it "scalped," is wasted through the passage of years. The talk about the bear and swab means that the deck was dirty. A bear timber droghers' generally were, for at best they were floating wood-yards. A bear was a sand-box for scouring.

Sailing "at six points and a half, or even seven from the wind," means nothing in the twentieth century, but it was certainly a very modest claim to make. Eight points from the wind means at right angles to the way the wind is blowing. A vessel which could not do better than eight points would never make any progress at all to windward, but would tack back and forth in her own track—as many of the old square-riggers did. Yachts like Endeavour, Yankee and Rainbow, racing for the America's Cup, will sail three and a quarters from the wind. Most yachts do four, and good square-riggers six.

When the critic declares there was not a square sail in the Columbus which would "stand" at six and a half points he meant that they could not be trimmed closer than that. "No buttock for running" meant that the wedge-like shape of the hull gave her an awkward form for sailing before the wind.

The Columbus was certainly no beauty, but there is a spice of ill-nature in the criticisms quoted. Few good things came out of Canada in those days. She was not intended to be a man-of-war, nor an Indiaman. Just a big carrier, and this she was to perfection.

In her one trip across the Atlantic she delivered more timber than half a dozen vessels of her time could handle. She started back for Saint John, New Brunswick, and was lost on the homeward passage. One can imagine that long wedge-shaped box of a hull beating hopelessly against the westerlies, with no cargo to keep her afloat when the ninety-six pumpers were all worn out. They were taken off in safety.

But the Columbus was neither the last nor the largest of the Canadian timber droghers. In the following year, 1825, the four-masted Baron of Renfrew was built at the same spot, L'Anse du Fort on the Isle of Orleans, below Quebec and sent across, timber freighted. She registered 5,294 tons and must have floated 9,000 tons of timber, and been over 300 feet long. Alas, these nine thousand tons were scattered all along the shores of the English Channel, for the Baron of Renfrew came to grief before making port, being stranded at Long Sand Head near Dover and broken up when she floated off and blew in on the French coast.

And so the ambitious timber export trade received a severe check. Never again were such huge shipments attempted in the days of the wind-wagons.

Frederick William Wallace, in his Wake of the Wind Ships, says the Baron of Renfrew was stranded through the stupidity of the British pilots, after she had safely crossed the Atlantic and been taken in tow by two tugs. He gives her dimensions as 304 feet long on deck, 61 feet beam and 34 feet depth. She had no less than five decks, with about seven feet headroom between.

These giant ships were the product of the brain of a Scotch naval architect, Charles Wood, who practiced his art with his brother John at Port Glasgow. Charles Wood came out of Quebec to build them, and made the voyages across the Atlantic in them. His plan was to break them up as soon as unloaded, their frames and planking being, in this way, part of the cargo. But they were not mere rafts or solid masses of timber. By exporting the timber thus it was hoped to avoid customs dues. He was opposed to the second voyage which the Columbus attempted, but the owners overruled him. Although they lost both their vessels they must have made a fortune from the venture, for in addition to the profit on the enormous quantity of timber they delivered they collected $5,389,040 insurance on the two ships.

There was money in timber droghing on the lakes, but never anything like this.



THE COLUMBUS, from the wash drawing in the John Ross Robertson Collection of Canadian Historical Pictures.

Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
Date of Publication
28 Sep 1935
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
Richard Palmer
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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"Giants in Those Days" in the Timber Trade: Schooner Days CCVII (207)