The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Detroit Post and Tribune (Detroit, MI), Nov. 24, 1879

Full Text
Men Who Dwell by the Side Of the Rolling Deep
How They Live and What They Work at -- The Pay They Get
What it is to be a "Coal-Heaver," a "Trimmer," or a "Wharf-rat."

Among the many other objects useful and ornamental, which one sees who takes a stroll down by the river and along the docks, are the groups of "longshoremen," "wharf-rats," or "dock-wallopers," who lounge about on barrels and boxes, or hang their feet over the edge of the dock and wait forever, for what no one seems to know. They are everywhere along the miles of river front. This particular class will not - or at least do not - work steadily, are found wherever there is water to float the shipping of the lakes, and in the harbors of the seaport towns. No one seems to know whence they came or where they go. The only established fact is that hey are always there. With the return of warm weather each year they come as regularly as the flies or the summer breezes. The sounding of the first tug whistle is a signal for the gathering of the clans, and from May to November their ranks are ever full. The true longshoreman is an amphibious creature. He may be said to resemble the angel who is to declare that time shall be no more, in that he has one foot on the sea and one foot on the land.


The deckhand, whose summary dismissal assures him that he is no longer wanted on board the boat where he has been wont to roll salt barrels and other freight, unused to life inland, clings to the scene of his former labors. The tramp, who is ejected from city after city till he comes to the water's edge, the jumping off place, as it were, unable to proceed further, stops there. Boys who yearn for a life on the ocean wave, but whose wishes awake no reciprocity in the hard hearts of vessel masters, stroll up and down the river, waiting for something to turn up. So it comes up that those frequenters of the docks are not composed of the flower of the nation, but are the outcast of both land and sea. But they are a prominent factor in the shipping interests of the country, and are, after all, useful members of society. Though not desirable in other places, in their own way they render valuable aid in loading and unloading vessels, etc. An accurate computation shows that there are about 500 of these men in this city, who compose


They are of several classes, each distinct from the others in the work its members perform. There are the stevedores, grain trimmers, coal heavers, wood and lumber handlers and the wharf-rats proper. A reported of the POST AND TRIBUNE spent an hour or two recently in talking with these men - who are so seldom mentioned in print except when some unlucky member of the fraternity falls overboard once too often and drowns - and with their employers, with a view of writing them up.

The stevedore or longshoreman proper is one who assists in the loading of sailing vessels. The steamboats are loaded by their own deck hands. Lumber, wood, wheat, coal and heavy freight are moved by the stevedores, or rather the men who work under them. The stevedore, or "captain" of a gang of men, takes the contract of loading or unloading a vessel, and picks up men where he can and pays them a fixed sum per hour or quantity, according to the kind of work. Of this class there are but few in the city. The proprietors of the of the coal docks and elevators hire gangs of men on their own responsibility and thus do away to some extent with the "captains." These men who are hire by the quantity or hour are, as may be imagined, a rather hard lot, scarcely any of them fitted to the presidents of banks or of theological seminaries. A general suspicion of tar, navy plug tobacco and very bad whiskey pervades them. They are largely foreigners, and the wood handlers are nearly all negroes.


First come the "trimmers," who load vessels with grain. They go in sets of gangs of eight. The process of loading a schooner with grain is an interesting one. The vessel is tied to the dock, and one or more chutes from the elevator connected with the open hatches. The trimmers take their places in the hold. They are furnished with the weapons of their warfare, in the shape of moistened sponges, which are fastened over the mouth and nose to protect the lungs from dust; wads of oakum, which are stuffed in to the ears to protect them; and able bodied scoop shovels with which to stow away the grain. Eight men are stationed under a hatchway, four on each side of the longitudinal partition which runs through the center of the vessel. The mouth of the huge spout is placed over the hatchway and the grain begins to rush in at the rate of nearly 100 bushels a minute. For a time there is little for the trimmers to do, as the grain distributes itself. But soon a horrible dust rises and, in spite of the protections, fills the eyes throat, lungs and nose in a manner which is almost unendurable. As soon as the grain begins to accumulate around the mouth of the hatchway the real work begins and the wheat is shoveled away into the more remote portions of the hold. The men stand half buried in the grain, which showers down upon them. No light is admitted except that which struggles through the hatchway. There is no doubt that the hold of a vessel during the loading is


As it is filled, it often happens that the mouth of the hatchway becomes choked up by the stream of grain, and the trimmers are obliged to shovel for dear life to get a breath of air. It is not much to be wondered that when they get out the temptation is strong to "go and get some thing to clear the dust out of your throat, you know." The pay they get really counts up well while they are in the hold. They receive on average $1.25 per 1,000 bushels loaded, or about 75 cents an hour for the men. The "boss" who hires the men and stays on deck to see that the vessel "trims" properly -- that is, that the cargo is distributed evenly -- gets two shares or "whacks." The others divide the profits equally. Sometimes the work continues for many hours when there is a rush. At others they get but little work for days. There are several gangs of trimmers in the city who are terribly jealous, and accuse one another of incompetency, overcharges, etc. During the past summer some attempts have been made to "bushwhack" or cut down rates, get jobs away from regular gangs by picked up sets, etc., all of which have given to the life of the festive trimmer that variety which is said to enliven the dull routine of existence and make it endurable.


load and unload vessels carrying coal, as indicated by their title. Their pay is by the hour and not by the quantity. The leader of the gang contracts to unload the coal on a vessel, usually this season for 13 cents per ton. The "hoister," who furnishes tackle for raising the coal, a horse, etc., receives four cents per ton. The leader or boss pays his men 20 cents per hour. There are two classes, the "shovelers" and the "wheelers." The boss distributes his men where he thinks they will do the most good. The work in the hold is the heaviest, but it is not so bad as that in the wheat vessels. The dust is not nearly as great, and when the coal is dusty, that trouble is obviated by sprinkling it with water, a process which would ruin the wheat.

The coal heavers are nearly all married men, and while a rather irregular set, are more sober and steady than the trimmers.

During the winter they cut ice on the river or go into the pineries. Only the cold weather, however, will drive them away from their favorite abiding place, the docks.


come next in the list of men who are described in this article. They are all colored men. The work, while comparatively clean and carried on in the light and air, is heavy, and no coal heaver would under any circumstances short of actual starvation, leave his dark and dismal coal hole for a woodpile. He is not educated to it, and will quite work id set to it. The wood handlers also receive 20 cents an hour. A cargo of wood can generally be unloaded in a short time, but sometimes several consignments come at once. If not unloaded within 24 hours of the time the vessel touches the dock, "demurrage" fees are charged at a rate fixed by the captain of the vessel. Therefore it becomes necessary to work at times for even 24 hours continuously. So it happens that the pathway of the merry coal heaver (sic) is frequently one of weariness and woe. Those who do not go into the pineries for the winter or find employment, go to the house of correction, or eke out a holloweyed existence over the free lunch counters.

In former years the business of unloading lumber from vessels was quite extensive. Lately the greater part of the shipping has been done by rail, and the lumber handler is not as numerous as in the days of yore. But he is still found, and clings to the fast-fading traditions and customs of his past with a persistency worthy of reward.


and hardest to locate is the representative of the genus "wharf-rat," pure and simple. He it is who was never known to work at all the livelong day and year. Monarch of all he surveys, living no one knows how, dying no one knows when. He corresponds to the tramp of terra firma and is lowest in the scale of frequenters of the docks. Sometimes he fishes, and succeeds well, from long persistency born of sheer indifference. Indeed of him it may be sung,

For his only thought and his only care
And his only wish and his only prayer,
For this world and the one to come,
Is a string of fish and a jug of rum.

He is of an uncertain age. He begins young and continues in his chosen occupation long. He seldom dies and never resigns. For him the wealth that goes sailing by has as many charms as if he owned it all; more, in fact, if he can steal a reasonable share of it.

The longshoreman, above remarked and above shown, is a peculiar being. He is little known, but when one comes to learn about him, he is quite interesting after all.

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Nov. 24, 1879
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Dave Swayze
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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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Detroit Post and Tribune (Detroit, MI), Nov. 24, 1879