Early Days On The Lakes
Captain Molther's Paper Read Last Night
Interesting Reminiscences and Personal Experiences of the Captain's Boyhood Day - A Comparison That Shows the Decline of Oswego's Commercial Prosperity.
Captain John Molther, United States Inspector of Hulls for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, read an interesting paper entitled "Reminiscences of Early Days on Lakes," before the the Men's Club of Christ Church at the parish house last evening. There was a large attendance of members, the number, including vessel masters and men who have sailed.
Captain Molther told of his first experience on the lakes. It was on a scow schooner chartered to carry seine fishermen from Port Ontario to Chaumont Bay. The water became rough before Chaumont was reached and the fishermen were nearly all sea sick. One man named Coon had rolled himself and his loaded rifle up in a blanket and rolled about the deck. When cautioned of his danger he replied: "I don't care which goes off first; the gun or me."
The next Fall Captain Molther made a voyage in the schooner White Cloud from Chaumont to Oswego, with a load of fish, the freight being twenty-five cents a barrel and the distance forty miles. Flour is now carried from Duluth to Buffalo, nearly 1,000 miles for ten cents a barrel. The trip was a remarkable one as the White Cloud encountered head winds and the provisions gave out excepting pork and fish. he awoke one Sunday morning and found the schooner moored to an old landing at Stony Point and there after a walk of two miles got a five pound loaf of bread that had been baked in a kettle in a fireplace, for a shilling, and it was just the best bread he ever ate.
The harbor at Oswego was then different from now. The West pier was the same out to the stone lighthouse but there was no projecting piers North of South as now. There were no docks under the fort bank in those days. The big lumber district had not been erected. The place was then known as Grampus Bay. The island in the river only extended down to about Schuyler Street. There were no tugs and vessels had to sail in and out of port.
In those days the master of a vessel would think he was getting good dispatch if he unloaded 150 tons of freight in two days. Now they can unload 4,000 tons of grain and load as much coal in the same day. The principal vessels owners in those days were Sylvester Doolittle, Bronson & Crocker and Fitzhugh & Littlejohn. There was a daily line of steamers between Lewiston and Ogdensburg, stopping en route at Oswego, Sackets Harbor and Kingston. The landing dock was then the popular resort.
Among the prominent shipbuilders of Oswego was Mr. George Goble, whose yard was at the foot of West Second Street, and who today is hale and hearty at the age of seventy-eight years. The number of vessels hailing from Oswego increased rapidly between the years 1850 and 1857. The panic of the latter year was disastrous to vessel owners. In 1855 the firm of Penfield, Lyon & Company, millers, owned the schooners Melrose, Merrimac and Manitou and built the schooner George Steel at Three Mile Bay. In 1856 there were four schooners launched in Oswego in one day, namely: Titan, Dreadnaught, E.W. Cross. The name of the fourth Captain Molther could not recall.
After 1857 vessel building ceased until 1861. In 1862, Goble built the schooner Thomas S. Mott for the gentleman whose name she bore. Mr. Mott paid for building more vessels in Oswego than any other resident of the city. In the sixties the most prominent vessel owners were Thomas S. Mott, George Finney & Daniel Lyons, Morgan M. Wheeler and Michael J. Cummings. All vessels built for Lake Ontario trade were made to conform to the capacity of the locks in the Welland Canal.
Vessels built previous to 1870, with a carrying capacity, of from thirty-five to forty thousand bushels, were not greater earners, pro rate, than the canal vessels. One reason was that shippers were not rich enough to buy large cargoes When the immense amount of money spent during the Rebellion had been concentrated into a few hands and the channels between Buffalo and Chicago had been deepened to sixteen feet, while a twelve-foot vessel could get to but one dock in Oswego, the crisis came and with a free Erie Canal, Oswego's importance as a lake terminal ceased.
In the old days Buffalo and Oswego were rivals for the business of the West. Buffalo won because the United States would not build a canal around Niagara Falls. It was Buffalo, also, that advocated the abolishing of tolls on the state canals. This was a blow to the forwarding and commission business of Oswego, as all grain using the Welland Canal was required to pay a duty of six dollars per thousand bushels. When state canal tolls existed the tolls from Buffalo to Syracuse equaled the tolls through the Canadian canal, and as the Oswego route was the shortest, it was the cheapest and best.
Captain Molther alluded to Oswego's liberality in bonding $1,100,000 for railroads and says the bonding proved a curse, rather than a blessing. The city has paid more than $2,000,000 in taxes for interest on those bonds. One reason why Oswego has not grown in proportion to other cities may be found in the confidence which holders of real estate forty years ago had in Oswego as the location for a manufacturing and commercial city. Waterpower sites were considered more valuable than gold mines. Flouring mills were the principal manufacturing industries in oswego.
Big, pretentious buildings that gave employment to but a few. The Kingsfords were the only manufacturers in Oswego that employed men. Thousands turned to the lakes in those days for employment and found it, and the "Shipmasters' Ball" was one of the features after the close of the season of navigation. There are but few of the descendants of the men who were prominent in business thirty years ago, prominently connected with business today in Oswego. Among the exceptions are Kingsford, Sloan, Mott, Ames and Oliphant.
Returning to the question of shipping, Captain Molther says that between 1861 and 1874 Goble sometimes had two or three vessels on the stocks at one time. Investments in vessel property brought large and quick returns. One of Mr. Mott's vessels, launched in August, 1872, cost $25,000. When she was laid up at the end of the season of 1873 she had $17,500 to her credit. The banner year was 1872.
In 1873 there were 684 vessels enrolled in the Oswego Custom House. In 1896 there were twenty-seven. The largest vessel ever built in Oswego was less than 400 tons measurement and would carry about 700 tons. The average trip to Chicago consumed from thirty to thirty-five days. From six to seven round trips were made in a season. Steamers now make sixteen or seventeen round trips in a season. Captain Molther closed with a comparison of the business of the Suez and Soo canals.