The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Oswego Palladium (Oswego, NY), Sat., Nov. 20, 1886

Full Text
Salad For Saturday!

The bravery and the reckless daring of the average lake sailor has long been proverbial and many a thrilling tale has been printed of his exploits. They laugh at danger, and so fascinating is the life they lead that is very rarely that they can be inducted to give up their avocation and settle on land, even after they have earned a home and accumulated enough wealth to keep them and their families from want.

The lake sailor's life differs from that of the ocean tar in a great many respects. To begin with, their calling is far more dangerous. On the ocean, when a ship is overtaken by a violent storm there is plenty of room in which to maneuver. She can run before the gale for days and weeks if necessary, while on the lake, shelter must be found in a few hours' run. There are sunken reefs, rocky coasts, many small islands and harbors that are difficult of entrance.

Vessels are sailed on the ocean scientifically. On the lakes not only the Captain, but his officers and crew must know every island, every light, the exact location of every reef - every rod of coast, ever point of land - and they must know it as familiarity as they know the rooms and passages abut their homes. One cannot go aboard of a lake vessel and learn navigation by the use of charts and instruments as is don on the ocean. The required knowledge can only be obtained with months and years of active experience.

While a lake captain could take his vessel to the ocean and with a little study, ship a green crew and sail his vessel to England, France or China with perfect safety, so far as a knowledge of the water is required, it would be simply impossible for a salt water captain to come to the lakes and navigate them with a green crew. I do not mean to reflect upon the abilities of the ocean sailor, but the fact is that the lake sailors are far ahead of them in the qualities that go to make up the real sailor.

Very many ocean seamen regard the lakes as little fish ponds. Often these fellows come up this way "on a lark" to show our "land-lubbers" how to sail. They invariably return with increased respect for the lakes and lake sailors. A good many years ago an ocean captain was engaged to command a new vessel that had been built at Oswego. He came here full of bluster and exhibited contempt for the lake.

The vessel he was to command was very staunch and strong. I believe he brought part of his crew with him and the rest he made up from among lake sailors. One fair day he sailed for Toronto with a cargo. After getting well up the lake a storm came on. It found the ocean captain with all his canvas set, and, so great was his contempt for lake winds that he refused to shorten sail, believing that his vessel with his good management could withstand anything. The lake sailors knew the treachery that lurked in the storm clouds, which continued to increase in blackness, and they remonstrated with the captain.

He became furious, it is said, and refused to guard against the force of what he termed an ordinary ocean sailing breeze. Well, to be brief, the result was that a puff of wind more heavy than the rest, capsized the good vessel and all on board except two persons perished. That ended salt water experiments on this lake for the time. The wind may blow with greater force on the ocean at times than on the lakes and of course it "kicks" up a heavier sea. But at the same time there is less danger from the wind or the sea on the ocean. On the lakes the wind is puffy and does not blow as steadily as it does at sea. And then the waves follow each other in quick succession.

If a deeply laden schooner on the ocean happens to be engulfed with a big wave, and have tons of water poured upon her decks, she has plenty of time to shake it off and recover before the next swell comes along. On the lake it is different and that is why so many of our deeply loaded craft founder. A six, ten, or twenty foot wave rolls onto a vessel and before she can rise from the trough of the sea and throw off the water, another, and perhaps to or three big rollers come aboard of her. If a deep laden vessel happens to broach-to in a heavy sea the chances are very much against her recovering herself. The deep, long swell of the ocean is far from being as dangerous as that stirred up on the lakes by a 40 to 50 mile gale. But I have drifted away from what I intended to talk about when I began.

I could not help but admire the courage and dare-devil performance - I cannot call it anything else - of those Canadian sailors who faced that terrible storm of wind and snow a week ago tonight in their attempts to cross the lake. It required considerable spunk to tow out of a snug harbor into one of the blackest of nights in the very teeth of a blinding gale of wind and snow; with the thermometer below the freezing point and with huge white-crested waves rolling in, tossing the little ships about in a manner calculated to appall the stoutest heart.

It would be impossible to put on paper a true picture of the night and the situation on board those vessels. Go out in the street and face a storm of frozen snow, driven along at the rate of 40 or more miles an hour. That is bad enough. But imagine yourself on the deck of one of those schooners, towing out in the face of that storm where there are no trees and no buildings to curb the force. The vessel careens over almost on her beam ends, the wind whistles through the rigging with a wicked sound and huge clouds of spray thrown into the air as the vessel plunges into each on-coming wave, blows into your faces and freezes to everything. The din of the storm is terrific.

You cannot see twenty feet ahead out into the darkness and the lights from the town behind you are quickly shut out. Above, behind, ahead, all over, is an inpenitrable blackness. That was about the situation that night. Was it not quite an undertaking to start in search of a harbor 60, 70 or 100 miles away under these circumstances? It is any wonder that out of so large a fleet, the storm brought disaster to some of them. Had you been on board one of these vessels the adroitness and quietness with which the sailors managed them would have astonished you. The captain did not have to stand on "the quarter" with a big trumpet, bellowing out his commands above the fury of the gale. No big, burly mate stood about with his big boots to repeat the commander's orders and accompany them with a kick at a seaman. None of that. You could have been obliged to keep your ears wide open to hear a single voice.

Every man knew his place-his duty. Everything goes like clockwork. They are all brave, hearty, hardy fellows and such scenes as I have described, that would terrify an ordinary person, are not regarded with the first tinge of fear by them. Of course sailors who man the vessels trading between Oswego and Canadian ports are not subject to as much hardship as those who sail the upper lakes, but they take great chances and it is not often that these Canadian skippers are caught "in a hole." The greater number of them are young men who have sailed all their lives, and they have earned their papers by years of experience and not through favoritism. When a man obtains a license to sail a vessel in Canada he must be thoroughly qualified in every respect.

One of the best sailors that ever walked a deck is Captain "Joe" Parsons who sails the schooner Herbert Dudley of Kingston, Ont. his vessel is one of the staunchest afloat but I am afraid that Captain Joe will ask too much of her some time. A few years ago Captain Parsons made two trips between this port and Kingston after winter had set in and after the lights along the lakes had been extinguished for the season. he made the ventures against the protests of his friends, but luck favored him and he came out all right.

A week ago today he crossed the lake from Kingston to Oswego in a heavy northeast gale and blinding snowstorm. He astonished all the sailors in port by sailing swiftly into the harbor just at dark, when the snow was so thick outside that one could scarcely see a vessel's length ahead. A less competent man could never have found the harbor in such a storm and the slightest miscalculation would have wrecked the vessel. He left the wharf at Kingston while the gale was at its height, and it is said that his wife and friends entreated him not to attempt the passage.

Joe thought nothing of the trip and spoke of it in the hearing of the writer in the most commonplace manner. A week ago tomorrow hundreds of people stood upon the shore and watched a large fleet of these little Canadian vessels enter the harbor. The sea was tremendous and at times nothing would be visible to the watchers on the shore except the topmasts. Nearly every vessel came into the harbor more or less damaged, but the sailors could not see anything in the performance to attract hundreds of people to the beach.

They did not seem to realize the danger they had passed through. Everyone of these Canadian captains is the hero of many a thrilling episode. The plucky fight made by Captain Collier to save his steamer, the Belle Wilson, in the furious storm of last Friday and Saturday, shows that he is also made of good metal. His steamer was heavily loaded with barley and the steering gear gave out when fifty miles out from Oswego. With a forty-mile gale behind him, in the midst of a thick snow storm and heavy seas dashing over his vessel, most men would have made for the nearest beach, intent if possible on getting himself and crew safely ashore.

But not so with Captain Collier. He rigged a drag over the stern of the steamer, similar to those sometimes used by disabled ocean steamships and attempted to find Oswego harbor. In the darkness and the blinding storm this was impossible. Captain Collier, from Friday night until Sunday morning, waged the pluckiest kind of a fight against the elements in an effort to save his ship and her cargo. It was useless to attempt to anchor and the only hope lay in keeping her out in the lake until the storm let up sufficiently to allow them to be seen by the tugs in the harbor. With a fierce gale blowing on shore, nothing to steer with except an old log hanging over the stern, every wave raking the steamer fore and aft, and the roar of the storm drowning every commanded, this was no easy task. Several times during those thirty-six hours the steamer was almost in the breakers, but by extraordinary exertions she was headed into the storm again, and then, by putting on all steam, would work out some distance before sheering toward the shore again. After the crew had worked in this manner from Friday until Sunday morning without food, the steamer went ashore in spite of their efforts. She nearly foundered a score of times and had she not been a staunch vessel could never have lived as long as she did. Captain Collier will probably never have another such experience and live.

Speaking of the wreck of the Belle Wilson reminds me of the thrilling experience through which Mr. L.L.Sherman passed while attempting to get an account of the mishap for his paper, the Times-Express. Mr. Sherman drove to the scene of the wreck at Ford's Shoals in company with a Palladium reporter. The bow of the steamer was some distance from the shore and the sailors had rigged a "sling" on a rope fastened from the steamer to a big tree on shore.

When one of them wished to land, he fastened himself in the "sling" and his companions hauled him ashore by means of a small rope worked through a pulley. It was not a very pleasant performance, and when the reporters reached the shore, in order to see the captain, they had to be hauled on board in the same manner. The Palladium man went first and reached the wreck all right. Mr. Sherman regarded the "sling" with a good deal of suspicion.

Tremendous waves were rolling on on the beach and the rope was not very high above them. The weather was extremely cold, and a bath was not at all desirable. It was by more good luck than anything else that prevented the Palladium man from getting a thorough ducking, but after he had mad the passage safely, the sling was returned to the shore and Mr. Sherman climbed in. he is not much of a sailor and in getting in he tangled the ropes all up in his arms and legs. The sailors on the steamer were signaled to "haul away" and the news gatherer began his perilous trip. he reached about the middle of the rope in safety when the sling became ugly and refused to budget another inch.

Mr. Sherman hung in mid air with the huge breakers rolling under him. He had a cigar in his mouth but he bit the end off in his desperation and it fell into the lake. His hair raised up until it lifted his slough hat off and that blew away inshore toward a swamp. The wind twisted him around and tangles the ropes worse than ever. Suddenly a huge wave larger than the rest pushed the barge a little nearer shore. The rope slackened, and the same wave reached up to Mr. Sherman's middle.

There was a wild shriek and still a louder and wilder one as the next wave reached up still higher. If ever terror was depicted in a man's face it was in Mr. Sherman's as he yelled lustily for help. What would have happened had not a sailor shinned out on the rope, hand-over-hand, and untangled the reporter will never be known. He says the near wreck can go to blazes for all he cares.

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Date of Original:
Sat., Nov. 20, 1886
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Richard Palmer
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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), Sat., Nov. 20, 1886