Early Sailing Days in Oswego
(Note: In 1876-77 some former residents of Oswego wrote reminiscing letters of the early days there which were published in the Palladium. There were a few maritime-related items that will be of interest. The rest is unrelated maritime history. This letter, dated Milan, Ohio, Jan. 16, 1877 from Hamilton Colton, published in the Oswego Palladium, Jan. 20, 1877).
At the beginning of the War of 1812 all the largest vessels - say from 80 to 100 tons - were sold to the government, and after its close re-purchased at auctions sale, mostly by the original owners. Of such was the CHARLES AND ANN, the largest vessel then afloat on the lake excepting the U.S. brig ONEIDA. She was owned by Townsend, Bronson & Co., and named after a son and daughter of the senior partner. Capt. Theophilus Pease was master of the CHARLES AND ANN before and after the war. She was a pioneer in the way of flush deck for and after, quarter decks being then the prevailing fashion as handed down from ancient shipwrights. Matthew McNair, with Townsend, Bronson & Co., owned the Hunter, sailed by Capt. Morrow before the war. McNair and Robert Hugunin owned the Diana, sailed by the latter before the war. The DIANA, built by Henry Eagle for M. McNair in 1809, became the HAMILTON, and sank on August 7, 1813. Capt. Asa Wing owned and sailed the HENRIETTA. Capt. Snow built and sailed a small vessel.
The four last named masters were fresh water sailors, as were also at a later date, John Eno and Aaron Bush. next in rank to the CHARLES AND ANN was the FAIR AMERICAN, sailed by Capt. Sweet, owned prior to the war by McNair, after its close by Townsend, Bronson & Co. Following her was the JULIA, owned previously to and after the war by McNair. A majority of the early vessel masters were necessarily imported from the seaboard. They were
Theophilus Pease, Barzillai Pease (no relation), Miles, Rogers, Whitney, James King, Clement Shannon and the two Trowbridges.
The twin schooners, NIAGARA and OSWEGO, were built by Henry Eagle for himself, Townsend, Bronson & Co., and McNair, in 1815-1816. They were about 90 tons burthen, built with especial reference to speed, and finished to accommodate passengers between east and west. Eagle sometimes officiated as Captain of the NIAGARA.
It may be well to notice the connection that the whole transportation business of the west, (some portions hauled by wagons from Albany to Buffalo), was transacted by the two houses of Townsend, Bronson & Co. and McNair, at Oswego, as is also to the lower part of the lake, the St. Lawrence and exports to Canada. Merchandise came from the east to the upper landing at Oswego Falls (Fulton); likewise potash, pork and flour by the Seneca River, from the Cayuga and Seneca Lake region. The staple article was salt, the freight of which was considered very low from Oswego to Lewiston, when it fell to 50 cents a barrel. About the year 1818 it cost double that hauling from Lewiston to Schlosser, and thence by batteaux to Black Rock (Buffalo).
The firm of Townsend, Bronson & Co. comprised of Alvin Bronson at Oswego, Jacob Townsend at Lewiston, and Porter, Barton & Co. of Black Rock. Edward Bronson, Alvin Bronson¦s son, after leaving the employ of Townsend, Bronson & Co., became a partner of David Crocker in selling goods and later was associated for a long time with George Demming in the same business, which he left to act as cashier of a bank in Painesville, Ohio.
He afterwards engaged in a storage and forwarding business at Cleveland, and later still in the same at Monroe, Mich. Before leaving Oswego he had attained the dignity and title of General in the New York Militia. During the war and for a time after its close no regular use was made of the other warehouses, in connection with the forwarding business, than those of Townsend, Bronson & Co. and McNair.
The schooner HUNTER and Captain Aaron Bush were inseparably connected for many years; the beginning or the end I do not know. The schooner HENRIETTA was last owned by T.S. Morgan, and sailed for a time by Capt. Edward Tyler, father of Joel. Capt John Eno was longest known as maser of the TRAVELER, owned by McNair. Capt. Joseph Whitney was master of the JULIA as long as he sailed from Oswego. he went to Carthage (now a part of Rochester) with Capt. Trowbridge and subsequently commanded the British steamer GREAT BRITAIN. He was a favorite with the public in each prominent position.
Captain Theophilus Pease kept a half way tavern between Oswego and the Falls, on the west side of the river (Minetto), which his family managed during the season of navigation. Capt. Miles sailed the OSWEGO one season; afterwards for many years he was master of steamboats on the upper lakes, hailing from Erie. Capt. Rogers was lost with the LADY OF THE LAKE, which he owned and run as a packet between Niagara and York. After a few years the OSWEGO was sold to parties in Canada, but the NIAGARA was nursed into extreme old age by her last owner and long time master Capt. James King. Both were finally lost near the mouth of the river. Capt. Clement Shannon sailed the Niagara one seas - probably 1816.
One night after the close of navigation he started east unexpectedly to is friends, was pursued by officer Ithen Hart, overtaken at Mexico (N.Y.) , and a few hundred dollars recovered. he was then allowed to continue his seaward voyage, and the place which had known him, knew him no more forever.
Mr. Davis was a merchant there and married Catherine Hugunin. Contemporary with Davis in merchandising was Epaphroditus Emmons, who removed to Schlosser (Niagara) and took charge of the warehouse at that place. From him descended "Fred" Emmons, of waggish notoriety, at Buffalo in years that are gone, when he was a competitor of Capt. "Nat" Johnson in steamboat agencies, all humorous oddities.
He was himself cosmopolitan; not especially noted as a navigator, his title was gained by occasional temporary command of vessels. He may be yet living for aught I know, but if not there are many who will remember him personally or by tradition for the many anecdotes that were locally current of his sayings and doings, amusing at the time, but not worth perpetuating in historic annals.
Eagle sometimes officiated as captain of the NIAGARA, nominally with Charley Bouquet as sailing master, who fell from the topsailyard when the vessel was lying at Burt's dock, foot of West Schuyler St., landing on a pile of stones. he was sadly crippled for life. Capt. Elias Trowbridge sailed the NIAGARA for one season - perhaps two - but I do not remember him as a master of any other sailing vessel, though years later, he was commander of the steamboat UNITED STATES for a time, without interfering with his storage and forwarding business in which he engaged himself after leaving the NIAGARA, in a warehouse near the Cove, East side, which was previously occupied by T.S. Morgan, a part of it at one time for merchandizing by Milton Harmon.
For the last few years that business was continued by Captain Trowbridge, Judge Grant was associated with him. (John Grant Jr. married Mary Hugunin). Capt. John T. Trowbridge may have been an acquaintance of Alvin Bronson, at New Haven, Conn., as both were from that city, or at least they had mutual friends and it was arranged that he should come to Oswego and on the way purchase a vessel on Cayuga Lake, which had been employed there during the war, but which the advent of peace had rendered useless.
He did so, and brought her down the river, running the falls and derricking over the rifts, which required about a month¦s time and much labor. The first that we saw of him and the MARY ANN was at Burt's rift (lower dam), where they remained for some days, attracting much attention from the novelty of the proceedings. The vessel was a flat bottom craft of perhaps 80
tons, a fore and aft rigged schooner, though the spars had been unstepped for the river voyage.
The captain, as seen from the shore, was a stout man, readily distinguished from the crew by a commanding presences about the deck, while giving necessary orders and directions. As known afterwards, he was the best specimen of a gentlemanly old-time sea captain that we had among the imported vessel masters, a good business man, and a thoroughbred sailor.
Subsequently he was rewarded by his government some $7,000 for a claim which grew out of his St. Domingo venture. This enabled him to build the largest house in the village in the western side of the Welland House block, which was afterwards owned and occupied by Rudolph Bunner, (southeast corner of West Second and Cayuga Streets). After navigating the MARY ANN for some years, Captain Trowbridge quit the lake and removing to Carthage, engaged in an extensive storage and shipping business. Capt. Joel F. Tyler, with favorite schooner CAROLINE, carried the broad pennant of the fleet, freighted from Carthage mostly down the St. Lawrence, till the completion of the Erie Canal turned the tide of commerce into other channels. I judge that the Carthage operations did not wind up profitably as might have been expected from their extent, from the fact that Capt. John Trowbridge spent the closing years of an active life in the quiet and
faithful discharge of duty, as a light-house keeper at Racine, Wisc.
Previous to the Erie Canal, transportation on the river was effected by means of Durham boats above Oswego Falls and batteaux below, with portage by teams from the upper to the lower landing. Boats above the falls were open except a section of deck at the bow and stern for storage of small parcels, and a lodging place for the crew of five men. Along the sides were "running boards" with cleats, for the men to traverse fore and aft, when using the setting poles. They were furnished with four oars, steering oars and setting poles, but when using the latter a man stood at the bow on each side without moving, as in the case of the Durhams.
The crew consisted of three men, usually owners, such as the VanValkenburgs, Van Burens and other families, a much better class than were the boatmen above the falls. There were at times, when needed, perhaps 20 of these boats in commission, making daily trips, regardless of wind or weather. Loading over night, they would reach Oswego early in the morning, and with a leading wind on their return the task was comparatively light; but otherwise extremely laborious.
The principal shippers and boat owners at Salina were Horace Brace (of Fruit Valley) and Ichabod Bracket; the latter was also one of the firm at the upper landing where James Lyon was most prominent. He was a good and reliable business man, and socially of much quaint humor and artistic taste. The march of improvement in river navigation carried Mr. Lyon to Oswego, where he joined Henry Fitzhugh in the forwarding branch of his operations. The brothers Falley were best and longest known in business at the lower landing. One of them, George, I think left Falley Academy as a memorial of himself at Fulton.
Much difficulty was experienced in sinking a lock pit connecting the Oswego Canal and river three or four miles above the Falls, so that the river boats were cut off by dams before the canal could be used throughout. In this dilemma a temporary warehouse was built directly above where the lock was to be, on a narrow strip of land, one end of the building on the canal and the other on the river. An occasional boat of the Troy & Oswego Line (a branch of the Troy & Erie) would come down and discharge cargo, which would be passed through the warehouse and reshipped on the boat ALVIN BRONSON, Capt. Porteus F. Parsons. Thus was done the entire first season's business at the Oswego Canal, by an agent of Bronson & Marshall. That was before Lucius B. Crocker added a company to the firm, which, after the retirement from it of Josiah T. Marshall became Bronson & Crocker. It is impossible now to realize the panic which preceded the cholera in its first appearance in this county in 1832, as it slowly ascended the St. Lawrence. At Oswego vessels were not permitted to enter. Occurring as it did at a dull season of the year, there was seldom occasion for there to do so, but volunteer guards armed were rightly stationed on the pier to prevent any attempt to do so. The greatest privilege extended in that way was one night when a captain was allowed to make fast a line and then drop off some distance till one of the guards could go to the village with a message for his family.
There were then two British steamboats running, which crossed over between Kingston and Toronto on each trip. One day the steamboat GREAT BRITAIN hove in sight and the writer chanced to occupy the stern sheets of a barge which conveyed the Health Officer, Doctor Adkins, out to warn here off, which was done accordingly and some idea of the fright may be formed when Capt. Joe Whitney was not permitted to enter a port where the people had long been proud of him as a vessel master and rejoiced at her promotion to the command of the largest steamer then afloat on the lake.
And farther still, "Governor" Stevens, an associate of Adkins, was a passenger, and pleaded urgently to be taken ashore, but without avail, much to our regret as well as his. Two or three days later the other steamboat was warned off in like manner, but the captain, an Englishman, claimed a right to land under protection of his flag, which he pointed to, and persisted in entering the outer harbor. An old cannon, long out of use, had been mounted on the hill to be in readiness for such an emergency, and was loaded with a ball. As the boat rounded to at the pier, the valiant Capt. James Peck of the "flood wood," after sighting for a dead shake, applied a match. Fortunately, it caused a flash, which proved sufficient. It was seen from the boat, and making busy preparation to try again, her captain deemed it prudent to withdraw from the
contest, and so backed out.
Whatever minor part may have been enacted by me in warding off the invading pestilence, it was soon requited in full. I had occasion shortly after to journey westward via the Welland Canal, (not then finished) Chippewa Creek and Niagara River. While descending the latter the schooner JESSE SMITH, Capt. Davis, a little in advance, was seen to settle by the head suddenly and sank, leaving her deck at the water's edge. The Jesse was built for carrying timber and was thus laden. In passing through the canal her ports had been opened and carelessly left so. When sailing against the current with a fresh breeze the result was a natural one. I volunteered to take her with two of the crew and proceeded to Black Rock, five or six miles farther on, for assistance. After a hard pull we reached that place at dusk, and were about to land when we were ordered off by men on the dock who claimed to have authority for so doing, but whether so or not, they were evidently in earnest and out numbered us by two or three.
We passed on to a piece of woods above the village, where I debarked and sent the boat back. And there, on that strange shore, in darkness and alone, my few remaining old-time friends must count me lost. They may, possibly long hence, hear from me briefly in the suburbs, but at Oswego proper - nevermore. Your Reminiscently, C.