The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Rochester Union & Advertiser (Rochester, NY), Oct. 21, 1893

Full Text
Traffic On Lake Ontario
It's Growth And Decadence During The Past Century.
Early Boatbuilding at Ontario's American Ports - Reminiscences of an Old Lake Captain - His First Trip to Chicago - Present Condition of Shipping on the Lakes.

The big fleet of schooners that went up and down Lake Ontario forty years ago and furnished an abundance of trade to the various lake ports has gradually disappeared within the past decade, and the shipping interests, which were then more important and prosperous than upon any other of the Great Lakes, have steadily decreased until now they represent but a small part of the capital that was formerly invested in them. The competition of railways and canals has diverted from this lake the greater part of the carrying trade, and vessels have been forced to go further up the chain of lakes to secure the business that formerly found its natural outlet by the waters of Ontario.

Lake Ontario has been plied by sailing craft ever since the days when the little settlements of the white pioneers began to appear on its shores. But years before that the birch canoes of the French voyageurs had traversed its waters frequently from the St. Lawrence to the Niagara, and the Great Lake is mentioned by the early travelers as the natural water highway to the then unexplored west. DuLhut, who carried the atmosphere of the French court in its most glorious period into the new world, and was one of the most energetic of the French pioneers, sent home a graphic account of his first voyage on the lake early in the last century. he afterwards pushed on through all the lakes, being probably the first white man to do so. It was in his honor that the city of Duluth received its name.*

At the beginning of this century Lake Ontario was the chosen route for many emigrants who were pushing on from New England and eastern New York to new homes in the west. Sackets Harbor, at the extreme eastern end of the lake, and Oswego were the only places on the American side that aspired to the dignity of a port, and the building of crude and queerly rigged vessels had already begun at these towns. The government under the shadow of an English menace and fearing the weakness of the northern frontier, had built forts at these points and stationed small companies of soldiers there.

During the War of 1812 several descents were made upon American ports by Canadian vessels carrying soldiers, and so great had the danger become that the government decided to construct a large ship of war that would be able to rid the lake of the English shipping. The new vessel was begun at Sackets Harbor, and so rapid did the work progress that in ninety days the ship was ready for launching. She as christened the "New Orleans" and was much larger than anything that had ever been floated upon the lake. Just at this time word was received that peace had been declared, and so the "New Orleans" was left in stays. For nearly seventy-five years the hulk rotted beside the old fort at the harbor, but finally after long being an object of curiosity to visitors it was purchased by an enterprising farmer who had the substantial timbers cut into canes which he sold as relics.

The Genesee River, which had already become recognized as a particularly safe port was visited several times by British schooners during the war, but no inroads were made upon the adjacent farms. Pultneyville, twenty-five miles east of the Genesee, which was then a thriving hamlet, was captured by a crew of an English schooner, but no more serious injury was done than the looting of the farm houses by the unwelcome visitors, the inhabitants having discreetly taken to the woods.

The shipping trade upon the lake may be said to have begun upon the lake soon after the close of the war. That event had given a sudden impetus to shipbuilding to the little ports along the eastern shore of the lake, and soon the clumsy crafts could be found pushing their way the entire length of the late, their captains ready to barter with the scattered farmers for grain, timber or furs, which they carried back down the St. Lawrence.

A little village had grown up by this time at the mouth of the Genesee and this had come to be considered the best port west of Oswego. The towns on the Canadian side of the lake had developed much faster than their American rivals, and the little schooners from that side had begun to dot the lake. The harbor at Charlotte little resembled the convenient port which the government later provided at considerable expense. No piers were constructed until after 1820, and the river washed out a huge sandbar that partially blocked the entrance. The shore then extended many rods inland from its location, and the high water mark was above the present landing of the Summerville ferry. With the formal establishment of the port by the government the river mouth was dredged and piers were built out into the lake for a short distance. These have been extended several times.

During the "twenties" there was a rush of boat building both at Charlotte and also at Carthage, that well-night forgotten village which flourished for some time on the east side of the river and near the present north line of the city. Nearly all of the shipping consisted of schooners, but these were small, a hundred ton vessel being considered a large craft. Many smaller boats, called "hookers," which on account of their light draught could be used in coasting along the shore, were also constructed by the Charlotte ship builders.

The first grain elevator in this vicinity was built at Carthage, and this quickly drew the lake vessels to the Genesee port for loads of wheat and other grain which had rendered the fertile river valley noted. A dozen of the best schooners on the lake also hailed from Carthage, and no better captains could be found than their commanders. Capt. John T. Trowbridge was the owner of the second elevator which was soon afterwards erected, and he also sent out five schooners. Another fleet was owned at Charlotte, and the entire shipping gave the harbor a busy air. Bushnell & Latta at Charlotte had also built large elevators and were constructing vessels to send out to the lake trade.

About 1825 the Rogers brothers began building boats at Hanford's Landing. Diodate and Ezra were the older brothers, but Hosea, who was then a lad, assisted them. Their schooners soon found their way to the upper lakes, which, by the opening of the Welland Canal, had become accessible to the Ontario sailors. Young Hosea soon took to the lake, and by the time he was of age he had become captain of a little schooner.

Mr. Rogers now lives in retirement at his pleasant home on the road to Windsor Beach, and despite his four score years, is still vigorous and in good health. He is probably the last survivor of the early generation of lake captains. He followed his profession for more than fifty years.

Capt. Rogers has a fund of interesting reminiscences to tell of his early life. "In 1834," he said the other day, "I made the trip to Chicago, which was then known as Fort Dearborn. I was captain of the small schooner 'John Grant," and this was the second vessel to make the trip from Lake Ontario through the lakes. Chicago didn't have then even a harbor, and we were obliged to anchor about a mile from land and pole our goods ashore in flat boats. Besides the fort there were less than a dozen houses there, with a number of Indian teepees not far away. The place was flat and marshy, and it didn't seem likely that it would ever be anything more than a trading station. Our load consisted mostly of barrels of salt, and these were sold to traders at the fort.

"I went to Fort Dearborn a year or two later and found that the settlement had grown rapidly. I have visited it often since and it has become the metropolis of the west, and it is difficult to make myself believe that I ever bartered with Indian traders on the steps of the little fort.

"The lake trade may be said to have been at its height during and just after the war," continued the captain, in answer to the reporter's inquiries. "Rates were high, and I have know a captain to receive 30 cents a bushel for bringing wheat down the lakes. That of course was unusual, but to to receive 10 and 15 cents per bushel was not infrequent. A big trade was done for many years in carrying white oak staves and timber down the St. Lawrence to Montreal for shipment to the old country. The timbers were often made into rafts and floated down the lower river. For many years captains were sure to have all the passengers that they could bring back from Ogdensburg and the river towns. The majority of these were emigrants from the old country who had come by the ocean vessels as far as Montreal.

"We used to carry a great deal of wheat into Canada and much hard timber. In return we would bring back barley and pine lumber. The shipping trade began to fall off about fifteen years ago until now. I guess, it is hard work to make a living aboard a vessel."

Capt. McCumber, Capt. Fiatt, Joseph and William Tyler, Cap. VanCleve, Capt. Farnham, William Higbie and Thomas Vance were among the old sailors who used to hail from the port of Charlotte and who were known throughout the lakes. Capt. Newcomb who still lives at Charlotte, also spent a lifetime on ship-board.

The building of the great elevators at Buffalo turned the grain schooners away from Lake Ontario, and nearly all of the vessels from up the lakes now unload at that port instead of continuing through the Welland Canal and to the seaboard by the St. Lawrence. The majority of vessels on Lake Ontario now hail from Canadian ports - Toronto, Kingston, Belleville, Hamilton and Cobourg. Many of of them are engaged in the grain trade on the upper lakes, while a few stick to the local trade between the home port and the American towns. Until the passage of the McKinley bill the transportation of barley furnished a good deal of business for schooners.

Charlotte probably does the largest business of any American port on Lake Ontario. This consists mainly in the shipping of coal, thousands of tons which are sent out monthly to ports on the upper lakes and to Ogdensburg down the St. Lawrence. The Canadian towns also draw much of their supply from Charlotte.

From 80 cents to $1 per ton is paid for transportation of coal, and the ordinary schooner barge can carry about 1,200 tons. During the "forties" a line of propellers running from Ogdensburg to Chicago was established. This was considered a great departure in passenger transportation, and the new steamers were regarded with a great deal of admiration. For a time the steamers touched Charlotte, one going down the lake at night and another reaching the port each morning. The Niagara, Cataract, Bay State, Ontario, New York, Northerner and Abyssinia were used on this line. There is no line of steamers running from the American ports now but the Niagara and Ogdensburg Company has a fine line running along the Canadian side.

Lake captains are united in declaring that they can make little money in the shipping trade at the present rates. A schooner carries a crew of nine men, which makes a big item of expense. About 5 cents a bushel is the average price for transporting grain. A schooner can carry from 20,000 to 40,000 bushels , although the big "whalebacks" are capable of carrying much more. E.C. M.

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Date of Original:
Oct. 21, 1893
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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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Rochester Union & Advertiser (Rochester, NY), Oct. 21, 1893