The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Oswego Palladium (Oswego, NY), Nov. 27, 1886

Full Text
Salad For Saturday.

"I delight in telling what I think - I shall go on just as before, seeing whatever I can, and telling what I see." Emerson.


The most modest persons under the sun are sailors. Although their performances at sea are at times most heroic and daring it is only with the utmost difficulty that they can be induced to talk of their exploits, especially to a newspaper man. They could tell, probably, if they could be unscrewed, an interesting yarn about every trip.

"Nothing is lost on him who sees
With an eye that feeling gave
For him there's a story in every breeze
And a picture in every wave."

By diligent work I have persuaded some of the heart old lake captains who live in Oswego - and there are no better captains anywhere - to promise me some good stories for the coming winter, and I, in turn, will promise some thrilling old tar's twisters to the readers of the Palladium. But speaking of sailors reminds me that several of the best men among our blue-coated guardians of the peace were once sailors. Let me see. There is Dennis Connelly, "Jimmy" Hanley, "Jim" Reid, William Grant and Robert Gettings - all of whom at some time were shipmates together. They were all good sailors too, and some of them during their career on the lakes had experiences that they do not care to repeat. If they do not lock me up for doing it, I am going to tell some things I know about these officers and others on the force.

There are many people who are wont to sing:
"I want to be policeman
And on the corner stand,
A star upon my bosom
And a club within my hand."

But surely the policeman's lot is not a happy one. The unfortunate men who wear the blue coat and brass buttons of the Oswego uniform, are subjected to more restraints and petty inconveniences than men are in most any other kind of business. The pay of policemen in Oswego is but $55 a month - a niggardly compensation by the way - and for this sum the city expects and requires men of integrity, courage and virtue. A policeman who has to patrol the streets at night in the dead of winter, especially in this frigid part of an alleged temperate zone, and who tries to be all over two or three wards at the same time, tackles a pretty tough contract and no mistake. The first requisite of a good policeman is, of course, bodily vigor and strength. It is not necessary to be a fighter, like Sullivan, or as strong as the traditional bull. But a good officer must have the courage of the former and a great deal more sagacity than the latter.

Many people slander and but few praise the policeman, and many cannot see any comfort in turning out at midnight during inclement weather to pursue thieves and murderers. Altogether, the policeman's job is a monotonous, dangerous and farm from enviable one. Everybody knows "Bob" Gettings, one of the original members of the police force, but nothing bad of him. He has had a career marked with many adventured, but he came out of then unscathed, and today is in the prime of a vigorous manhood. One person in a hundred would not take him to be an Englishman, but he is. There was nothing but the purest English blood in his father's veins, and the traces of it found in the son is pretty good evidence that it was a very compound. Office Gettings' father served many years in the English army.

Robert Gettings was born in Oswego on September 20th, 1841. He obtained the first rudiments of education here, but when fourteen years old, he began work in the old rope walk owned by Hall Brothers in Baldwins Bay. Shortly after this he became possessed of an idea that he would like to be a "bold salor boy," and he shipped as a boy on the schooner Plymouth Rock, Captain Vickery, trading between Oswego and Sandusky. He learned the ropes quickly and was soon a competent seaman.

He remained with Captain Vickery two seasons and then shipped with Captain John Kelso in 1855. In the Fall of that season Sailor Gettings met with his first narrow escape. The vessel was loaded with railroad iron and was driven on a bar in a snow storm near Munroe at the head of Lake Erie. The captain thought he could get the vessel off by carrying the big anchor out into the lake and then using the windlass. With this intention the anchor and chain were loaded into the small boat, which brought it down almost to the water's edge. There was a heavy sea running and it was a risky job to venture out into the lake in so heavily a laden boat. But the crew got into her and started. The seas broke over her but the water was thrown out with buckets. Suddenly the little boat filled and went to the bottom like a shot, leaving the sailors struggling in the ice cold water. The other sailors clung to a loose board or two and the oars, but Gettings struck out for the vessel. Previously, the crew had been blowing a horn for assistance. The blasts were heard on shore, a life crew was organized and their boat came upon the scene just in time to save the sailors, who were about exhausted in their battle with the cold waves. The vessel was afterwards released.

When but 19 years old Mr. Gettings shipped as mate on board the schooner O.V. Brainard. While on this schooner he had the most thrilling experiences of his life. In the Fall of 1859 while on the way down from Sandusky with a cargo of grain the vessel was caught in a terrible gale. her topmasts, jibboom, foreboom and canvas were blown away, and the rudder was gone, and the vessel drifted helpless in the waves with every sea making a clean breach over her.

The crew worked manfully to keep the craft afloat. It was life or death with them. After several days had passed and they had given themselves up for lost, an N.T. propeller came along and took the vessel in tow. While on this vessel "Bob" had a difficulty with the captain whom every sailor will recognize from the following story without calling his name. The captain paced up and down the deck, and became very angry because the the breeze did not freshen up.

Suddenly he sprang into the shrouds, and, cursing the Almighty, he tossed a ten cent piece into the lake and demanded the extra wind that the dime would buy. The performance horrified the sailors and when he had descended to the deck Mr. Gettings protested in the most emphatic manner against such proceedings, and informed him that while he retained that crew in his employ, he must never do the like again. The vessel reached her destination all right, but on the return trip a fearful storm arose. While it was at its height the captain was standing near the wheel, when a tremendous wave broke over the vessel's stern. The man at the wheel was washed away and the profane captain jumped through the cabin window and saved himself. When he thought he was going overboard he cried out, "Oh, God, save me!" Gettings, who was nearby, could not resist the temptation to taunt him with the remark, "Ah, you are willing to call upon God differently now than on the up trip, aren't you?" That captain is still alive, but rarely visits Oswego. He is a good sailor and not a bad fellow at heart. In 1859 Mr. Gettings sailed on the schooner Minnie Kinne and in 1860 he quit the lakes and went into Andrew Miller's ship yard to learn the ship carpenter's trade. While here he became fired with that patriotism that swept over the land on the breaking out of the rebellion, and while not yet of age, he enlisted in the 24th regiment. His parents were very much opposed to his entering the army, and, on the ground that he was under age, protested with the authorities.

Andrew Miller also forbade the officers taking him away because he was under contract with him as an apprentice. Upon these representations he was released and returned to the ship yard. Later, however, when other calls for troops were made, Mr. Miller relented, presented Mr. Gettings with ten dollars, gave him a free discharge from his apprenticeship and told him he might enlist.

The patriotic young Englishman went home in high glee, and informed his parents. They interposed a vigorous object, but he told them if they did not allow him to enlist he would run away from home and enter the army. Reluctantly they consented, and Robert entered Company I, 110th regiment, Captain Doyle, in August, 1862, and served three years. Faithful in everything, he made a good soldier. He was with the regiment at the siege and capture of Port Hudson and was all through the campaign of the Army of the Gulf, serving under Generals Emory, Banks and Paine. he was in many battles and skirmishes, but came home without a scratch.

During the three years service he was promoted to a sergeant and was offered the captaincy in a colored regiment raised in Florida, but preferred to stay with his regiment. He came home in September, 1865, and went back to his old love - the lakes. He finished the season of '65 in the schooner Amaranth and the following season was in the schooner White Squall. The winter of '66 he spent in Chicago and in the spring of '67 shipped as mate with Captain Yates in the schooner Cornelia. On a trip down the lakes that fall Captain Yates was stricken with typhoid fever and from the Straits of Mackinac to Buffalo was delirious.

The management of the vessel fell on Mate Gettings and they had a terribly storm passage. On Lake Erie the vessel was nearly sent to the bottom by the gale. The cabin doors and windows were stove in and large quantities of water ran into the vessel, wetting 3,000 bushels of wheat. With taking care of a crazy Captain, who persisted in trying to get overboard, and bringing the schooner through a Fall gale, it can be readily imagined that Mr. Gettings had a busy time.

In 1868-69 our now popular policeman was made of the good barque Grace Greenwood of Chicago, Captain R. C. Smith. In the fall of '69, after the Greenwood had been laid up for the winter, Mr. Gettings was making preparation to come home to be married. The schooner E.M. Porch, a new vessel, was in the harbor ready to sail and the owner was very anxious to sign Mr. Gettings as mate, and finally, after he had gone to the station to take a train for Oswego, he reluctantly consented to go on the vessel.

On the first day of December the vessel left Chicago with a cargo of wheat for Buffalo, in company with the barque Sunshine and the schooners Comet and Golden Harvest. Probably a more venturesome and perilous trip was never attempted on the lakes. The idea of coming down the treacherous waterways exposed to the tender mercies of winter gales! The hardships of the crews of those vessels suffered cannot be imagined. The barque Sunshine was cut down with the ice off Malden. The Comet was caught in the ice in Saginaw Bay and never came out. The Golden Harvest lost her mainmast and was otherwise damaged. The Porch plowed along before the gale and got into Lake Huron all right. There the thermometer was way below the freezing point, a blinding snow storm was raging and there was nothing to do but go !

The vessel came down Lake Huron under a close reefed foresail in a tremendous sea, with snow so thick that it was impossible to see 60 feet ahead. As the vessel wallowed in the waves the water froze to her and soon she looked like a huge iceberg. There was a foot of ice on the decks, the head gear was frozen solid and the immense weight forced the deck of the schooner almost under water.

After running several days in this condition, with the crew almost exhausted and badly frozen, the storm let up a little. It was impossible to get up the rigging owing to the ice, and a rope was thrown up through the shrouds and mate Gettings went up hand over hand to see if he could sight land. He saw Lakeport, off about ten miles. In the meantime the wind shifted and the only hope of working the vessel to the shore was by putting on more sail. The captain told Mr. Gettings that this must be done. This was no easy matter with everything frozen solid.

The mate called the men aft and told them the mainsail must be set. They were so completely exhausted they could scarcely move and the mate so reported to the captain. "Well," said the latter, "remember you are working for yourselves now, not the owners." Then the captain, who was a temperate man, happened to think of a jug of whiskey that he had brought along in case of an emergency. It was brought out and each seaman was given a cup full. This revived them and securing capstan bars they set to work to beat the ice off the sail.

In two hours the sail was free, but the halliards were covered with sharp pieces of ice that lacerated the hands of the men and they could not pull them. The captain smashed in the head of the capstan with an axe, hot salt and water was poured into it until the ice in and around it was melted. The halliards were then taken to the capstan and the sail was hoisted. The vessel was then headed for the land, and the swash of the waves began to break off the ice and she soon lightered up and went along comparatively easy. In a short time a tug was sighted that had been sent in search of the vessel and she soon had her in tow headed for Port Huron. After they reached the latter place the crew were carried to a hotel.

They had nothing to eat for many hours, and their clothes were so frozen that they had to dig the ice from their sleeves, around their wrists, with knives, before they could take off their coats. After they had braced up, the vessel was taken in tow for Detroit, but in the river the tug was cut down by the ice and had to leave her. She drifted ashore at Hog Island and mate Gettings and others of the crew got on a huge cake of ice, pulled the small boat on to it and drifted down the river to Detroit where an iron tug was secured and the schooner brought safely into port, after being out 18 days from Chicago.

He returned to Oswego Christmas and was married the following January to Miss Catherine McBride of Waddington, near Ogdensburg. He was then employed in the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg railroad offices until 1870, when he became one of the original members of the present force. He lives in a pretty cottage in the Fourth ward with his wife and six children, to whom he makes the kindest husband and father. his oldest brother was lost at sea and his other brother was killed by a falling timber while working in a Chicago theatre. His old love for the lakes returns at times, but his love for his family induces him to stay with them, and for so doing he is a wise man in the opinion of En Passant.

Media Type:
Item Type:
In 1886-1887, Clark Morrison, the editor of the Oswego Palladium, wrote an interesting series of articles on   maritime life. The ones that are readable will be reproduced. Unfortunately, when the newspapers were bound,      some of them cut off the bottom line or two of the papers.
Date of Original:
Nov. 27, 1886
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Oswego Palladium (Oswego, NY), Nov. 27, 1886