The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Jefferson County News (Adams, NY), March 29, 1860

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The Female Pilot.
A story of the St. Lawrence.
By Inez E. Butters

"I wish you would tell me a story, Monsieur Scotern," said I to an old white headed pilot of the St. Lawrence, as he sat in the housekeeper's room at my uncle's one cold bitter night in December, while the storm was such as Montreal only can boast. The housekeeper was his niece, and the old man would often come hither and enjoy a social chat, rather than remain alone in his cabin, which was midway between Montreal and Lachine; while a room over the kitchen was always reserved for his use. He was an especial friend of my uncle, and none were more welcome than he. Age had crowned his head with hoary hairs, and many a noble barque had he guided over the deep waters of the bell river of the Canadas." And what shall I tell you, love?" queried the old man, as I seated myself by his side and placed a brimming goblet of ale near him to help his memory in remembering the past.

"Tell me a story of the St. Lawrence," I answered-"something real and true."

For a moment he was silent; then sipping his ale he commenced."

Many years ago when I was so small a boy as hardly to recollect it now, my brother and myself were placed on board one of the river steamers, as cabin boys and waiters, with a view to become pilots when we should have become older. That was nearly fifty-five years ago, for I am nearly seventy-seven now, and boats were not fitted up in the style they are now, nor were good pilots a thing to be found every day. I had run up and down several times, when, one morning about ten o'clock, we stopped at Brockville to take on board, as usual a government pilot to guide us down the river. It was late in the season, and we had a strong wind the night before, leaving the river rough, and our usual pilot had hard work to keep the boat in its proper track, while it brought us into Brockville two hours later than the usual time. The clouds overhead still looked cold and the wind blew fresh and strong, when making all possible haste, we again put out of the harbor and were soon bounding on our way. Throughout the morning I noticed an anxious look on the captain's face, which bespoke his uneasiness about the final termination of our journey.

We had a good many passengers on board and although we usually reached Montreal by four o'clock in the afternoon, we should be delayed until six, if not later. About ten miles this side of Lachine a storm of rain commenced, which rendered it almost impossible to guide the boat at all; while the rapids of that name, the most terrific in the whole river, were yet to be passed. The pilot was one of the best on the route, but a man of passionate temper, with a peculiar dogged look, which was peculiarly disagreeable. Between him and the ordinary boat pilot there existed an old grudge, which once or twice had led to blows, when they came in contact with each other. That morning, while passing one of the higher falls, they stood together at the wheel, when owing to the strong current of the water, and the almost exhausted strength of him who had guided us all night, one spoke of the wheel slipped from his hand and nearly caused an accident of a pretty serious nature. This annoyed his companion and hard words again passed between them, since when a sullen silence had been preserved.

When about two miles above the Lachine rapids some of the rigging aloft gave way, and the night pilot mounted the upper deck with a ladder, and attempted to make it fast. The wind blew fiercely, and while exerting all his strength to stay the mischief, he lost his hold and fell, the ladder coming down directly upon the head of our government aid, wounding him pretty severely. Not pausing to look at the cause of the mischief, he seized the unfortunate man, and with almost superhuman strength lifted him above the railing of the boat. The other quickly guessed his meaning, and winding his arm around the neck of his companion, they fell together in the boiling flood below. We lowered the life boat as quickly as possible, ropes were flung out, and every effort put forth to save them; but in vain. They rose to the surface of the water still locked in each other's arms and then sank from our view forever.

The boat now rapidly rushed on, coming nearer and nearer the frightful rapids, while terror struck faces were around us, at the thought that no master hand was near to guide us through the dark passage below. The scene which we had just been called to witness only made our situation more terrific, while wild and tearful eyes around us bespoke the agonizing apprehension of the passengers and crew as we went plunging madly on to destruction scarcely half a mile from the gulf, whose dashing waves we could distinctly hear. The captain had frankly told us of his inability to guide us through the perilous passage while deck, gangway and cabin were filled with men, women and children, some of whom were praying, some weeping others intensely crazed with an agony too intense for utterance. Women eagerly clutched their children and husband pressed their wives to their bosoms with only the hope of dying together. The captain stood at the wheel assisted by one of the passengers vainly endeavoring to hold out to the last and guide her until every effort shall prove fruitless while with strained eyes and looks of despair, they gazed through the almost blinding storm upon the craggy rocks, lifting high their gray bare heads out of the water and upon which they expected every instant to be dashed to pieces.

Just as frenzy had began to cool down into sober, earnest preparation for the doom which awaited them, there came out of one of the state-rooms a fair, young creature, over whose head scarce sixteen summers had passed. She was of medium height, and fair as the lily of her northern clime. She donned a dress of plain black stuff, while the coat of one of the deceased pilots was buttoned tightly around her slight form. Her face was ashy pale as she mounted the stairway, and with her hair disheveled by the wind, she exclaimed in a voice, that rang clear as the notes of a bugle above the storm:

"I know something of this Lachine rapid, and will use my best endeavors to guide you, although we have everything of wind and weather against us. Let two of you who are most strongest and self possessed, stand by me at the wheel while the rest invoke His aid who ever stilleth the tempest, to guide our life laden barque safely through the troubled waters."

As if in derision of her matchless courage, the mad waves dashed higher, while the thunder pealed a loud defiance to her words. With pallid face and lips compressed, she took her station at the wheel, while two powerful men stood by to aid her as far as possible. With a firm hand she raised the glass and swept the scene before her, then bidding them have courage, the boat entered upon its fearful course, bounding onward as if conscious of the hand that guided its destiny. Her orders were given in clear loud tones, while she stood proudly erect, her eye brightened into a darker blue, until one would have fancied her the ruling spirit of the storm.

The water dashed against the sided of the boat, crowning her head with glittering drops; yet still she stood unheeding, while not an eye in that group but gazed in mingled awe and confidence upon that delicate form. Once again the spoke of the wheel slipped from the grasp of him who held it, but a fair jeweled hand arrested its progress and stayed the destruction which otherwise would have followed its swerve from duty. Onward sped the noble barque, and when darkness shut the last rock from our sight, one deafening shout rose high above the storm for her who had so bravely guided us through the shadow of death.

She would receive no thanks for herself, but bidding us " give thanks to Him whose voice ever ruleth the storm," she retired to her state room, and was lost to view.

Around the cabin table that night, about an hour before we entered the harbor of Montreal, we learned her history. She was the daughter of the merchant who owned the line of boats, one of which she had just saved from ruin. Her mother died when she was a child and her father had yielded to her wishes and allowed her to accompany him in the boat in which he was many years the captain. By degrees she became accustomed to every bend in that beautiful river, while calm and storm alike brought scenes of beauty to her eye. She was now on her way to visit some friends in Quebec, where her father proposed joining her to spend the winter.

A gentleman artist sketched her likeness on the leaf of his portfolio, as she stood at the wheel, wrapped in the pilot's coat with the glass in her hand and her full length portrait still graces the gallery of the fine arts in Montreal. Many a rough hand grasped the snowy fingers at parting and many a blessing crowned that noble head.

A magnificent diamond bracelet, bearing upon an inside plate the name of the vessel and the date of the occurrence, was presented to her about a week after her arrival in Quebec, by the passengers who were on board at the time; while loud and triumphant were the praises borne to the ears of a fond parent of the noble conduct of the frail but fearless one, who had braved the danger before which stout hearts and strong forms had quailed with a deadly sickening fear.

"And what became of her afterwards?" I enquired.

"She married an officer in Quebec and her children still live there. One is a noble boy or rather man now, and plows the ocean in one of the noble battle ships of England."

I thanked the kind old man for his story, and left him-one added to the list of admirers of the bravery of the fair pilot of my own favorite river.

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March 29, 1860
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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.
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Jefferson County News (Adams, NY), March 29, 1860