Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Down Superior in December: Schooner Days CCLXXI (271)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 19 Dec 1936
Full Text

By C. H. J. Snider
Capt. Jas McCannel
in the Assiniboia


WELCOME ISLAND flashed a friendly farewell, and the keeper's house, immediately below the light, had a lamp in the window. Jim McCannel of the Assiniboia as captain and ship turned their backs to Fort William for the last time in company, on the night of Wednesday, December the Third, 1936.

Then the Assiniboia kept away for Thunder Cape and T-Harbor and Silver Islet and Trowbridge lights all guided her as she slipped by on her way to Passage Island and the open lake.

Father Superior himself continued to do the decent thing. The hoary terror, having failed to frighten Jim McCannel in a thousand efforts, decided to join in the good sendoff. He smoothed out his grey fleece of billows and let the mild south wind blow without wrinkling his face into more than white caps. The temperature rose as high as one degree above freezing. We were able to get most of the ice and snow off the decks—and Jim McCannel got his first night's sleep since the preceding Sunday.


Even on Thursday, December the Third, Lake Superior was gracious. Grey sky, grey sea, white wavetops and white gulls all the way.

The Assiniboia passed the frozen and snowladen shore of Whitefish Point at the eastern end of Lake Superior, at 4 o'clock Thursday afternoon after a good passage down the lake. It is here the Frenchmen used to shake their fists, every last trip of the season, and shout, "Goodbye, Ol' Superior, you no get me now this year!"

Jim McCannel felt like adding, "or ever" to the valedictory. His Lake Superior warfare was ended, his certificate signed, sealed and delivered. With Whitefish astern all was astern. Whitefish Point is a stubby sickle semi-circling a large bay on the American side of Lake Superior, at the east end. Every steamboat man knows that, once he has passed Whitefish, his troubles with the lake are over. It is only a short time until we will be within the sheltered water - or ice!—of the St. Mary's River. And every steamboat man knows that until he has passed Whitefish on the way up he has not really come to grips with Lake Superior at all. If it is storming from any direction he can still pop in under Whitefish and ride out the gale. Sometimes as many as thirty steamers will be gathered there, with their mudhooks down, waiting for weather. Once he ventures beyond Whitefish he has to pit all his skill, and experience against the untamed inland ocean. And his greatest reassurance is that if the worst comes, to the worst he may be able to run back to the sheltering arms of Whitefish Bay.


Capt. McCannel had been forced to try for that shelter the trip before, when a storm of almost hurricane violence burst on the Assiniboia in the darkness of Nov. 24th. The warnings were up for a gale from the northwest, and he had shaped his course accordingly. He had reached the middle of Lake Superior and a few more hours would have put the Assiniboia past Passage Island into the sheltered waters of Thunder Bay, when this storm broke. It came screaming from the north-northeast, instead of the expected quarter. The lee window of the wheelhouse had been kept open, and through it Capt. McCannel heard a roar as of Niagara in spate. It was Lake Superior's coursers tumbling over one another as they fled before the mile-a-minute scourging of that pitiless charioteer, Keewaydin, Cree Lord of the North Wind. The stout Assiniboia, riding high out of the water with a light load of ten cars of freight, heeled to the blast as though carrying sail and over-canvassed. Her lofty bow was swung from her course until her wheel hard over; and she leapt and ramped like a mare gone mad.

She had abused everybody that last trip—chased Afternoon Sandy, the water-tender, out of the firehold, and into a Fort William hospital, having hurled an anvil after him and caught him in the foot. She threw Miss Thompson, the stewardess, out of her bed on to the washstand and piled a dressing table on top of her. She hurtled one of the firemen into a coal pile and sent another ploughing the steel floor of the fire hold with the bridge of his nose. Engineers held the fire doors open and the stokers' shovels aimed at one door registered on another. Half a dozen men were hurt by flying furniture.

It had been a wild night, indeed, on Lake Superior, that Nov. 24th. The thermometer dropped to thirteen above zero—"comparatively mild" for Lake Superior. The water "steamed" until it was hard to see one end of the ship from the other. In the same gale the 500-foot bulk freight steamer Emperor drowned a man and lost her rudder. The mile-a-minute wind baffled and battered the Assiniboia, whichever way she turned. It always denied her her course. She could not look up within thirty-five degrees of it. It always blew her down on a lee shore.

She tracked a great ragged triangle over most of Lake Superior, in order to stay alive, rearing and plunging like a rodeo steer, rolling her promenade deck rails in both ways, a thirty-foot dip each time, shipping water over the stern, and shifting her cargo.

After reluctantly turning back for the shelter of Whitefish, a hundred miles behind, the marvel of radio direction showed that the Assiniboia was being set down on another lee shore, and she had to be hauled out into the raging lake again to stay in deep water.

Forty-five tons of steel pipe, that had been well chained, walked back and forth and up and down across the deck, polishing it bright as a new minted dollar. Her cargo hold was O.K., but her 'tween decks were a gory mess of car springs, railroad iron and package freight gone to kingdom come, amidst which Jack McCannel, second mate, and related to the captain only on Adam's side, played the western cowboy better than Tom Mix ever knew how. He lassoed here and hog tied there and corralled elsewhere all the time at deadly risk of being crushed. Just a good heavy weather man.


High over Jack's head, on the bridge, Capt. McCannel had stared all night long into the pitch black vapor and blinding snow, listened for fog signals and steamer whistles, growled low orders to wheelsman, watchman or messenger, and now and then rung the bells on his faithful chief, Billy Struthers, hanging over the engine throttles down below.

He could hear above the howl of the gale and the roar of the seas dining room furniture crashing from starboard to port, from port to starboard, and knew everything in his own cabin except the bathtub was standing on its head.

"I did wonder," confessed this thrifty Scot, "whether I was going to get any use out of that easy chair the friends in Fort William had presented me with in anticipation of my retirement."


But his job was to keep the balloon-trimmed Assiniboia out of the trough of the sea, so she would not roll herself to pieces after pitching overboard her three masts and single funnel and to keep her off the iron-fanged lee-shores of Lake Superior, and the mid-lake rocks and islands that reached out invisible claws in the darkness—and also to keep her from pounding her bottom plates and shearing her rivet heads.

That was all.

That is what a master's job is. Nobody else can do it. It has to be with the head and hand whether the skull splits or the fingers freeze.

Well, he had done it. In her wildest gyrations she never pounded once, nor scissored one rivet. She never shipped a sea, though she dived until those steel pipes got up and walked.

You couldn't see the top of the watery mountains from the wheel-house windows, and when she dipped her stern the horizon was high in the smoke, six feet above the funnel. First Mate John Pearson saw seas like Mount McKay on one side and Thunder Cape on the other, as she rolled. But she stayed on top.


Capt. McCannel had quietened her down some by letting his two-ton port anchor with three shots of cable, trail from the bow. Its weight, swinging at the end of a hundred yards of chain, had kept her from rising too quickly, and the weight of her cargo aft kept her from dropping too fast.

Thanks to wireless, steamers "visit" one another on Lake Superior like housewives gossiping on a party line, and, like calling the police, doctor, or fire brigade in town the wireless is the skipper's standby. Early that night Capt. John Brown of the Canada Steamships freighter Emperor, a hundred miles away, had reported moderate wind and sea. This encouraged the Assiniboia against the storm- warnings at the Soo. Next heard of the Emperor was her wireless hat her rudder blade, a plate as big as the side of a house, had carried away, leaving her wallowing helplessly with the wind blowing sixty miles an hour, and one of her crew had been washed overboard, helpless in the darkness. Capt. McCannel was at this time just keeping the Assiniboia on top, with his position between Caribou Island and Michipicoton precarious in the blinding snow and vapor and blackness of the night. He determined to turn to the rescue of the Emperor as soon as he could lay a course for her.

He thought of the crew of the steamer Schlesinger, which he had taken off just before she sank in Lake Superior. To his relief he got a message that two tugs had picked up the Emperor and she was again under control, so he resumed his voyage for Fort William.

The 236-mile voyage from the Soo to Fort William took 486 miles, owing to the forced courses steered, and the revolutions numbered 176,000. But the Assiniboia came through with only minor damage and twenty-four hours delay to report—and the Old Man very proud of his "boys." Every man in his crew of fifty he himself had trained, and for this very emergency and every man had passed with flying colors in the stiffest examination of all—the heavy weather test.


Well, all this was just another memory now. With Whitefish astern for the last time. But his care of his craft released not one whit. With the safety of the Soo beckoning, he had to anchor on the Birch Point ranges because there was no turning buoy to guide him on to the Pointe aux Pins range lights, and these were hidden in snow. The J. M. Davis, following us, grounded next day in the very same spot. It cleared on us, though, in an hour, enough for Capt. McCannel to grope his way out, with the lead going at 5 fathoms, and at half-past seven he blew for the Soo Canal lock, bound down for the 1,200th time.


Such a reception as he had when he passed through! The government tug Murray Stewart began it, and every craft in the frozen river took it up, three longs and two shorts. In the midst of the jubilation the Assiniboia's wireless took this marconigram:

"James McCannel, Assiniboia. Greetings. The marine men and citizens of the two Soos (Michigan and Ontario) join with the mariners of the Great Lakes in offering their congratulations on your successful career. To you, sir, a gentleman and a sailor, we wish God speed and safe moorings.


And here this scribe came in for his share of the reflected glory and found excuse for including this voyage in his Schooner Days chronicles. For a gentleman rushed to the Assiniboia's side, as she lay in the locks, and asked if he was aboard, and said he wanted to shake the hand of the man who wrote Schooner Days, and would he give his greetings to C. I. Radford, who wrote the Waterfront in The Telegram? Which is hereby done.

It was snowing at this time as heavily as it was raining congratulations, and ten inches of ice was reported on the river ahead. So the Assiniboia moored at the Government dock for the night.


WE pushed off down the river in the blackness of 6 o'clock in the morning of Friday, December the fourth. The ice was still there, but not caked solidly, and she made "summer time" past the pitiful upended stones and crosses from tree limbs that mark where laborers gave their lives in the rock cut, down the West Nebish Channel and Lake Muniscong to Detour Light, Lake Huron. She passed the light and turned eastward on the lake at half past ten that forenoon.

And all alone went she. Not a ship was staring, not a smoke smudge stained the horizon, once the Soo canal lock closed behind the Assiniboia. Lake navigation was coming to its early close. It seemed to end with the passage through the ice.

Old Man Huron copied the changed demeanor of his brother, Superior, and gave Jim McCannel a grand farewell. The sea rolled high but not wickedly, the wind blew strong behind, the Assiniboia scudded her smoke plume streaming ahead and we were up to Cove Island just as darkness fell - 5:46 p.m.

Cove Island makes the entrance to the Georgian Bay, and brother George could not do other than follow the example of his fellow monarchs and seniors, Huron and Superior. He was frosty but kind. The lightkeeper on the Flowerpot walked a long way to the light to blow the horn for Jim McCannel as we passed. The Bear's Rump buoy winked welcome through the early darkness. Then Cabot's Head horn roared the three longs and two shorts; and before midnight we were rounding Hope Island and getting the horn from the station where Capt. McCannel sent the lifeboat ashore a few trips before to the assistance of the sick and marooned keeper.


OLD GEORGE, however, was unable to sustain the lofty strain of high compliment initiated by the senior brethren. From Hope Island on he began to hand out hard stuff.

The ice was about where we had left it, coming out from Port McNicoll five days before. We learned the whaleback Ericsson had been stalled in it for thirty hours. We commenced our grind in at midnight, and got really down to business by 1 o'clock in the morning of Saturday, December the Fifth.

Off Midland the ice was as thick as ever. The Assiniboia ploughed into it and through it, going slower and slower. She had heaps of power and three thousand tons of weight, but steel plates nine-sixteenths of an inch thick are tenuous weapons thrust against miles of hard-edged ice six inches to a foot thick. At half past two Saturday morning she jammed and stuck, three nautical miles from home. The searchlight could not show any appearance of loose ice in the track. Capt. McCannel rang off the engines and waited for the day.

Before dawn the Assiniboia backed up and got going again. When the sun rose at seven, so did her colors, every flag in the ship.

The level rays dappled the ice with bright pink patches, and cast long silhouettes of the streaming bunting across the frozen waste. The Assiniboia found a little softer spot and began creeping at a mile an hour. It was the first time we had seen the sun since leaving Port McNicoll. He seemed C.P.R. property, garaged there.

"Don't stop on me here, you old Stone Frying Pan," begged Jim McCannel, the Presbyterian, as the Assiniboia ground her way to the turn at Methodist Island. The Assiniboia gets her name from the Assiniboine or Stony Indians, a branch of the Sioux who used hot stones to fry their meat. It took a lot of urging to keep her from forming solid church union with the ice, but after a few backs and aheads he got her past the point. The stem of the Assiniboia grinds slowly and it grinds exceeding small. Our progress was by inches. It took an hour to work the half mile between the Methodist buoy and Burgee Island.


Louis Belanger, wheelsman, got off and walked home with his laundry under his arm when his watch ended. He just stepped from the passenger gangway and struck across the ice, a quarter of a mile from the dock. The ice would have carried a team of horses. He was uptown and telling all about the trip long before First Mate Pearson could get the mooring wires out on the niggerheads. The last half mile took two hours. It was almost eleven o'clock before the engines rang off and Jim McCannel, leaving his captain's bridge for the last time, saluted the Assiniboia's flag. The bunting descended with him.


"OLD STONE FRYING PAN'S" sharp stem grinds foot by foot through ten-inch ice into Poit McNicoll, while a relieved wheelsman gets off and walks.





SINKING STR. FERDINAND SCHLESINGER from which Capt. McCannel rescued the crew - a story for next week.

Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
Date of Publication
19 Dec 1936
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.75011 Longitude: -79.81636
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 48.4001 Longitude: -89.31683
Richard Palmer
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
WWW address
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Down Superior in December: Schooner Days CCLXXI (271)