Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Up Lake Superior in December With Capt. Jas McCannel: Schooner Days CCLXX (270)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 12 Dec 1936
Full Text
Up Lake Superior in December
With Capt. Jas McCannel
Schooner Days CCLXX (270)

By C. H. J. Snider


JIM McCANNEL commenced his 1,200th voyage to Lake Superior on Monday morning, Nov. 30th, 1936, at 6 a.m.

The moon, almost at the full, flooded the snow-filled streets of Port McNicoll with fluid silver as he carefully closed His house door behind him. The greatest commandment left in his decalogue is "Thou shalt not wake the Laird." This tiny divinity is his grandson, seven months old, plump as a young walrus, with the cutest of round ears, curled at the tops like fern fronds, a laugh that would make Giant Despair chuckle, and wide wee hands, exact miniatures of his grandfather's, except for the sailor tattoo marks.


The thermometer hovered at one half degree below zero. The sky, hung with morning stars, was as clear as blue crystal. A faintly green shade in the southeast told of the sleepy sun still an hour below the blankets of the horizon.

Jim McCannell trudged down to the Assiniboia's berth, as he had trudged a thousand times before. He had been master of her twenty-four seasons. She was ready for him to take her out again, white spar lights gleaming above the red and green sidelights, smoke volleying from her stout funnel. Thirty or forty carloads of jute bags, canned goods, package freight and general merchandise for the West had been stowed, and her bunker coal was aboard. The snow and ice she had accumulated on her last trip still clung to her, indistinguishable from her white paint. Zero weather had turned it into enduring enamel.

He ploughed through the sparkling snow at the end of the C.P.R. freight shed to look at the draught marks on her stem. Ten foot six. Much better than last trip, when the light jag of upbound freight left the Assiniboia floating high as a blimp and about as manageable. Jim McCannell head was still sore, where she had knocked him insensible over a radiator in the chart room. His shoulder was still stiff where she had tried to throw him downstairs.


A short bark of the Assiniboia's whistle broke icicles from the zero air. The crew jumped to stations. The "Old Man," as skippers are always called no matter how young e they are, was on the bridge. The ice cracked and groaned as the propeller surged the Assiniboia and rocked her in her frozen cradle.

The stuff that was in the Assiniboia crew was shown this very morning when after cracking the ice until sunup and getting all ready for the start, there came a telegram. "Stand by for orders." Every man's heart his mouth or his boots. Not that she was going to Lake Superior again. For fear she wouldn't!

The orders came, and grins they were not the dreaded command to lay up and pay off. That was the sister ship, the Keewatin. Assiniboia's were to proceed at once, and the crowd rejoiced.


"You're crazy to go sailing at this time of year," friends had told the writer. "Why does anyone have anyone more sense than to go to Lake Superior in December?"

So that you may have toast to butter, ma'am, these cold winter mornings, is the answer.

The Assiniboia made her December trip to bring down flour for four million loaves of bread. The boys went with her to have money to fill Christmas stockings. I went along for the fun of it.

We were all "dressed for weather" as they say on the lakes, meaning j that we wore all the clothes we had, J and wished for more. Capt. McCannel was best off, with a fleece-lined suit of windproof sheepskin over his uniform, his fur-lined watch-coat over that, and his well-worn schooner cap over all. The mates had fur coats. Some of us wore seaboots and oilskins over all we had, except our overcoats, which went on top. Some had leather jackets or mackinawcoats and prospector's boots, and some just sweaters and overalls. Most of us had cloth caps. Some had fur. We all had leather or woolen mitts, for the frost in the framework of ship and her steel wire mooring lines burnt the naked hands.

It was cold of course outside, on deck or on the bridge, but inside, the radiators, sizzling with live steam, always drew the frost out of us quickly. The meals were first-class] hotel standard, and the berths were warm enough for sleeping always.


BUT this is the saga of Jim McCannel's send off from the lakes, and no one else, so let us get on with it.

With gay hearts all hands fell to grinding a way out through the miles of six-inch ice that, had sealed Port McNicoll in the zero weather. The field extended away beyond the Midland ranges, almost out to Hope Island. By eleven o'clock, after three hours of grinding, the Assiniboia was through the worst of it. By 1 she was passing the Western Islands, and steering straight across Georgian Bay.

The sun, which had risen gloriously was soon masked by the steam from the yet unfrozen water meeting the gelid air. This is what sailors mean by "vapor." It rose and wreathed fantastically, like dark steam, obliterating landmarks, disguising distances. The Assiniboia was, however, able to recognize her sister ship Keewatin, inward bound to lay up, and the freighter Shaughnessy, as they passed.



We had only got out by following the hard-frozen track of the long black grain carrier Secord — not Laura, but Capt. C. G.—which had left Port McNicoll on Sunday.

Her master, Capt. Angus McKay, had not been able to wait for the funeral of his brother, Capt. Norman, who went down on the bridge of the capsized Hibou the week before, burning distress flares till his hands charred as she sank. "Orders is orders," and every hour counts in: these last days of navigation. The Secord had to go to the head of the lakes to dry dock and then to Detroit. Angus took her out as the. earth fell on Norman's coffin.


Tuesday the First of December found James McCannel again carving ice with the Assiniboia's sharp stem in the Sault River, which is also called the St. Mary's.

He entered the river when the day and the month were only one hour old. As the broad flash of the Detour Light passed him on to the green flash of the Frying Pan, the red glow of the Pipe, and the white twinkles of the Pipe twins we met the downbound fleet parade - the Colby, Wacondah, John B. Cowl, and a dozen others. Some were loaded almost decks to with the last grain of the season. All had hatches glazed with ice, and ice hung round their bows like walrus tusks. They glittered grimly in the floodlights which brought the midnight darkness of early winter. They had been stuck in the West Neebish channel and had had to break their way out with the aid of tugs.

Capt. McCannel gave them the road until the Assiniboia stalled in six inch ice near ancient Pipe Island. It is Isle La Pipe on Alexander Bryce's map of 1798. Then, noticing a gap in the parade, he wormed her around and crossed over into the lane the down-bound stream had made. It was so narrow there was not room for two vessels to pass, and he would carve a side bay for the Assiniboia and wait when, a down-bounder appeared. Near Lime Island he couldn't get her over far enough and the 600-foot Emory L. Ford, with thirty-six hatches lighted up like a Santa Claus village, froze in solid as she tried to come slow ahead. He whittled, hacked and hewed for two hours to get past the huge American craft, and the little Canadian Maple Bay, which had overtaken her and frozen in behind her. He put a line on the Bay boat, and tried to pull her out, but she was too solidly jammed to move. So he carved her out piece by piece.

After that there was pretty good-going up the Sailers' Encampment, where the storm-caught fleet wintered in '72. The ice here was heavy, but he chewed through, some time after daylight. At noon, after fourteen hours on the frozen bridge, he locked into the Canadian Soo canal, reporting 8 1/2 hours delay due to ice.

Fourteen unbroken hours in the frost-may sound strenuous to you. But Capt. McCannel has been on the bridge for sixty-five hours at a stretch, all the way from Port McNicoll to Fort William.


Snow and ice made the Sault as desolate as one imagines the Russian steppes. The howls of the seven members of the Algoma wolf pack in the park of the Ontario town would have been appropriate accompaniment to the Assiniboia's deep-throated whistle for the canal. The country was all in white and a blanket of white stretched from shore to shore over the river, seamed by the grimy grey churnings of propellors. The edges of the cakes congealed as the steamers passed.

Once, in our forty-five mile grind through this ice, we passed a gay red-painted hand-sleigh, store-new. Some laddie, trying to cross the frozen river, maybe walked into the steamer lane in the dark. There were no tracks in the snow, and, most hopeful sign, no rope on the sleigh. Perhaps it had only blown there. The boys tried to lasso it with heaving lines as we passed.


We pushed ice cakes ahead of us into Lake Superior early this afternoon.

By 1 p.m. on the first of December Jim McCannel was pointing the Assiniboia's frozen beak - and ours - into the grey-green ice-flecked fields of Lake Superior for his twelve hundredth time. There was open water once we got past Point aux Pins, which old sailors always call Point O'Parr, whoever he was. Capt. McCannel couldn't help thinking of the first time he had entered this mightiest of the inland seas, this freshwater ocean into which you could drop his ancestral Scotland and see nothing of Ben Lomond but bubbles.

The time was August, 1894. The western sky was all aflame with the crimson streamers of a Superior sunset. The lake itself was a deep sapphire blue, shading to black.

He was wheelsman in the William Ewart Gladstone, an American wooden steamer named after England's grand old man—then in-the height of his fame and popularity. Young Jim McCannel's watch had been over at 6 o'clock, when the Gladstone was coming up the Soo River, at the Sailor's Encampment. But he had not taken his six hours off, but had stayed up to make a note of the buoys and channels he had already steered, and those the Gladstone navigated after he was relieved at the wheel. He was also fascinated by the splendor of the sunset and the roar of rapids, which, in those days before the river was harnessed could be heard a long way below and a long way above.

And he was thrilled at the thought that he was now at last entering the enchanted region of Superior; whither two of his brothers had already voyaged as mates and masters, and where a third brother, a minister, was a missionary in Fort William. They were staunch Presbyterian stock, these McCannels of Jura who had become Blue Mountain Rangers in Collingwood Township. Long after he himself commanded a ship Jim McCannel had always to report to his mother, when he came home at the end of the season, whether he had:

(1) Gone to church every Sunday when in port?

(2) Touched liquor since going away?

(3) Treated his deckhands well?

Every Assiniboia graduate would give the dear old lady a satisfactory. answer to the last question, and I think James could look her in the eye and answer yes to all three. No one has ever heard him swear. And he would be the life of the party in a Buffalo bar-room and never take anything stronger than buttermilk.


It was like Jim McCannel to stay up through his "watch below" that time, to dream of Superior and memorize buoys and beacons and learn all he could of his profession. He had not gone sailing early. He worked on his father's farm on the Blue Mountain ridge near Craigleith until he was twenty. He wanted to join the army. Father said no. So he joined the navy—the Great Lakes navy of commerce.

This was in 1890. He went a sailor's boarding house in Buffalo and got a "site" as ordinary seaman at $15 a month in the steamer Hudson, with Kidneyfoot Valentine Jones. Kidneyfoot had broken arches, through falling from aloft, but he was a smart skipper. In fourteen years Jim McCannel was master of a steamer himself, the James S. Fay, of the Bradley line

He was promoted to the C. P. Ranney. Then he got his Canadian papers in addition to his American ones and joined the C.P.R. service in 1907 as mate and in 1908 as master of the Athabasca. In 1913 he was given command of the flagship Asssiniboia.


Father Superior was respectfully to his graduate when he reappeared on this first day of December, 1936. He has given him his final degree on the last voyage. He had admitted him, after forty-two years probation, ad eundem gradum.

"I thought," said Jim McCannel, "after all the hazing I had gone through as a freshman Old Superior might ease up a little for the graduation exercises and not march me across the campus as roughly as he did a week ago. That last trip was the hardest I ever had."

We shall hear about that next week.

The grim old Master of the Lakes tried to make it up to this accepted master of ships. It was cold on Lake Superior, where the water is only 40 degrees Fahrenheit in midsummer, but it was not below zero. In fact the mercury rose to above twenty. There was not much wind, not much sea, and the Assiniboia made good progress, past Whitefish, Caribou, Passage Island, all the old lakemarks.


BEFORE daylight Wednesday morning, December the Second, the twin cities of the Lakehead lay spread before Jim McCannell gaze like a jeweler's tray of blazing gems mounted on black velvet. Port Arthur rose in tier after tier of sparkling street lights. Fort William lay wider and lower, a necklace of jewels connected by corruscations crowning mills and elevators. High in the darkness of Mount McKay burned the solitary light which commemorates the red brothers who left their reserves and the Indian village at the foot the mountain to fight in the Great War of the palefaces.

There was ice in the Kaministiquia river, but traffic had kept it in cakes, and the Assiniboia nosed steadily through it.

"Hey, Cap., you're to unload at No. 4" hailed a dock foreman ere the street lights went out. Before the white collared world had come down for breakfast leather-mittened labor was whirling truck loads of canned goods, merchandise and package freight in the white-collared world's direction out of the Assiniboia's hold. During the morning Capt. McCannel had to shift her up to the Ogilvey mills to load nine or ten hundred tons of flour. At three o'clock he had to drop her back to No. 6 shed for a thousand more. A busy day into which he had sandwiched four trips up town on personal and company affairs.


Every time Capt. McCannel set foot on shore during the business of bravery of our this last day in Fort William his progress was continually interrupted by civic officials, C.P.R. officials, officers of the town, public dignitaries and passengers of many years standing, all wishing him good luck, long life, Merry Christmas and a good time in his retirement. Crown Attorney Langworthy, Police Chief Watkins, Inspector Marr, High School Principal A. H. D. Ross, Magistrate Palling (retired), Prof. Pengelly and dozens more, came down to see him off. When the Assiniboia got her last sack of flour and last barrow of coal Capt. McCannel himself returned aboard through the long freight shed, meeting the gang of stevedores knocking off. For many of them it might be the last job till next spring. "Good lock, keptin," "The Merry Christmas Capitaine," "Good-bye Cap.," "Good luck sir." "Safe trip an' a good time," they cried in Ukrainian, French, Scandinavian and Englishmen who would touch their mackinaw caps to no one else. He had always given them a square deal and a fair break in forty years of cargo handling, and they recognized it.

As the long procession of finished shed men caterpillared its way down the snowy dock under the electric lights Wednesday night, Dec. 2nd, Capt. McCannel climbed to the wind swept bridge to take the Assiniboia out into Lake Superior for his positively last appearance.

"Now for the buccaneers' salute," said he, and leaned his weight back on the bridge whistle lever.

Three long blasts and two shorts, and the Assiniboia's wheel began to churn the ice cakes.

Before the echoes could come back the Fairmount, whose battering from Lake Superior was pictured in The Telegram last Monday, roared three longs and two shorts from her icy throat. Then the tug James Whalen, sheathed against ice to the covering board, roared her five blasts. Steamer after steamer took up the chorus—all of those in port except the big rudderless 500-foot steamer Emperor disabled in the week-before gale. She lay silent where the two rescuing tugs had berthed her as though mourning the man she had washed overboard. She hadn't steam left to cheer.

Thirty-five blasts rent the night between the C.P.R. freight shed and the Revoire elevator—and thirty-five blasts were returned. The last five were from the watchman's fog-horn on the end of the pier, accompanied by a vigorous working his flashlight. They, too, got their acknowledgment. Even the ice-glazed bell on the gas buoy marking the channel entrance tried to work its frozen tongue in a rattled goodbye and the lone memorial light on Mount McKay became dim as if misted with tears.

But how Jim McCannel got back down Lake Superior, and how that inland ocean almost engulfed him after forty-two years defiance, will have to be told next week.


The Assiniboia in the Soo Lock on a last passage.

TWO TUGS TWIST THE RUDDERLESS EMPEROR INTO PORT—Note the flag: at half mast on the taffrail staff, for the poor watchman who was swept overboard -Photo by Tom George, of the Assiniboia crew.

WHAT THE EMPEROR TOOK AND THE ASSINIBOIA CONQUERED -The photographs, taken from the after-house of another freighter in the great storm by day, show how the deck of the Emperor must have been swept that night when her man was washed overboard and her rudder was carried away. The Assiniboia in the same gale, being light, took on solid water on board, but dipped her stern two feed under and seemed to stand on her head before throwing her bows clear. Her captain and seven of her crew were injured.

Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
This is the first of the Schooner Days articles on which C. H. J. Snider's name appears in a byline.
Date of Publication
12 Dec 1936
Personal Name(s)
McCannel, James
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.75011 Longitude: -79.81636
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 46.51677 Longitude: -84.33325
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 48.4001 Longitude: -89.31683
Richard Palmer
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
WWW address
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


Up Lake Superior in December With Capt. Jas McCannel: Schooner Days CCLXX (270)