George Hall Corporation - Its History and Growth
When asked by the Advance for a write-up of the business founded by the late George Hall in the year 1880, we were reminded of the title of a book of reminiscences, recently published, called "Crowding Memories." Forty-years is a long span and the memories of that period come tumbling out of the hidden recesses of the brain, until we are almost at a loss to determine what to record and what to leave out in the long procession of events which marks the history of the wonderful development of the coal and transportation trade of the St. Lawrence waterway.
Our business started as a co-partnership with a capital of $21,000.00 It was styled George Hall & Co., and George Hall, William L. Proctor and James S. Bean had equal interests. The entire capital represented the cost of our equipment which consisted of one tug, the William Gardner; three barges, the "Black Diamond," "Hattie L. Johnson’ and "Argosy’" with a combined carry capacity of about 1,500 tons. The Parish store and dock together with a small stock of coal, all purchased of John F. Rosseel as receiver of Seymour & Co., at auction on the winding up of the affairs of the last named company..This left Hall & Co., with no working capital, and one of the first acts of the writer, on starting business, was to discount a note for $500.00 at the Ogdensburg Bank to pay current expenses. George Hall, by his strict business methods and probity of character, had won the confidence of James S. Bean, then president of the Ogdensburg Bank, and we could get all the money we needed for any legitimate purpose.
On the death of Mr. Bean, his interest in the partnership was given by his widow to her brother, Mr. Henry C. Deane, and after a few years Mr Deane retired. At the request of Mr. Hall , Hon. Roswell P. Flower advanced the money to buy Mr. Deanes’ interest, and he (Mr Flower) became a silent partner, retiring as soon as the business had grown to sufficient proportions so that his interest could be absorbed without detriment to its rapid growth. In the late eighties the business was reorganized as a corporation with a capital of $125,000 known as the George Hall Co. It was again reorganized later under the name George Hall Coal Co., with a capital of $650,000 in the meantime we had acquired the property of the St. Lawrence Marine Railway Co., had equipped coal handling docks with modern machinery at Ogdensburg. Prescott and Brockville, and added materially to our fleet of vessels.
Always on the lookout for expansion, we decided that the lower St. Lawrence offered great and growing opportunity, so we acquired a large property on the Lachine Canal, in Wellington Basin, Montreal, and erected thereon a modern coal handling plant and "broke in" to the Montreal market. This meant a further enlargement of our fleet of coal carriers and in 1912 we contracted with the Detroit Shipbuilding Co. for our first steel freighter. This was followed by others until when the Great War broke out we owned five steel ships of a total carrying capacity of 15,000 tons, and the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal & Iron Co., coal operators in order to give greater stability to our coal business had become financially interested in our corporation.
How the U.S. Government took our fleet of steel vessels and incidentally knocked our transportation facilities into a cocked hat; how we made a combination with Mr. Frank A. Augsbury’s interest bringing with it the pulp wood and wood pulp business, which has meant so much for the development of Ogdensburg’s commerce and manufacture and which has resulted in the organization of the Algonquin Paper Co., whose mill is now in process of construction are matters of recent history and so familiar to our readers.
We are proud, however, in closing this brief resume of our financial history to record that the present George Hall Corporation of Ogdensburg and George Hall Coal & Shipping Corporation of Montreal own and operate a fleet of 19 ships of which 13 are steel, with a combined capacity of about 45,000 tons, as against the modest fleet of three two barges of 1,500 tons capacity when we made our first bid for business in 1880, while our capital has increased from $21, 000 to upwards of $3,000,000. Surely this means confidence in ourselves, constructive and untiring effort, and the loyal support of a long list of satisfied customers to whom we here make grateful acknowledgment and without whose help this history of success could not have been written.
Interesting as the financial growth of a business may be to its promoters one must indeed possess a sordid mind if he overlooks the romance of the day’s work, and fails to record the passing changes which make a business an absorbing pastime.
In the early days, when transportation was limited to a few thousand tons of anthracite coal distributed along the St. Lawrence river and the carrying of Canadian lumber from Brockville to Oswego, the sailing vessel or "Wind Jammer," as she was known to the skipper, was the queen of the inland seas. In the early eighties large quantities of grain were brought to Ogdensburg by the sailing vessels and return cargoes of iron ore were loaded here, coming from Port Henry and transported to Cleveland. Then it was nothing unusual to see seven or eight vessels strung out behind a tug and the revenue from vessel towing more than paid the entire expense of operating a tug for the season.
Occasionally a vessel tried to negotiate the river without a tug and with disastrous results. One day "Cal" McKee of the Schooner "Sam Cook," loaded with iron ore, offered Capt. David Hanna of the steamer Stranger" $50.00 to tow him to Cape Vincent. The tariff for one vessel was $60.00 and Hanna would not "budge. The wind was "up the river" so Mckee said,"Tow me out into midstream for $5.00 and I’ll sail up." The result was that in attempting to sail through the Brockville Narrows the wind lulled an the vessel, driven out of the channel by the current, struck a rock and sunk. The Hall Co. bought the wreck and contracted with a firm of Port Huron wreckers to float her. They went into bankruptcy over the job, and we took over the wrecking outfit, raised the vessel and until she sunk several years later with a load of coal on Lake Ontario was one of our fleet barges known as the "William Wheeler."
We picked up another wreck which went on the rocks inside of Cole’s Light, above Brockville, and rechristened her the "Charles C. Buel," and again we bought the schooner "Bolivia" to save a law suite with the owner. Late one fall we contracted to tow her from Kingston to Ogdensburg, loaded with wheat. On the way down she struck an uncharted shoal, and had to be beached to keep from sinking.
The sailing vessel captain was a unique character, rough of speech, and as a rule rugged and honest. A reminder of the old sailing days is immortalized in a song of some forty odd verses known as the "The Bigler." It will be worth your while if you can prevail upon our old friend and associate "Billy" Algie to sing it for you.
At this time all the river traffic was borne by tugs and barges, and our corporation had the distinction of owning the first freight steamer on the river. We bought the steamer "Arctic" with the two barges "Mills" and "Sherman". The "Arctic" was commanded by Capt. Dan Hourigan of Oswego, who afterward for may years sailed on the Hecla and subsequently sailed our steel steamers L. N. Robinson and Adrian Iselin.
In the early days there were no gas buoys to mark the channel at night and the only navigator who would undertake to run the river at night with a deep draught boat, was the intrepid Dan Hourigan. For years he successfully piloted the steamer Hecla up and down the river every night making as many as 90 trips during the season of navigation and transporting 140,000 tons of coal. Subsequently when the gas buoys were placed ( and incidentally the late Gen. N.M. Curtis did valiant work in Congress to accomplish this great aid to navigation) Dan Hourigan remarked, "My occupation is gone, any d--d fool can navigate the river at night now."
It perhaps was a matter of luck with us that about the time the lumber business between Brockville and Oswego petered out, the railroads in our territory changed from wood to coal burners.
Our first soft coal contract was with the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain R.R. Co. for the delivery of 5,000 tons from Lake Erie and this was followed the next year by a contract with the Canadian Pacific Railroad Co. for 20,000 tons to be delivered at Brockville, and shipped from the port of Charlotte on Lake Ontario. How the traffic has grown is evidenced by the fact in recent years we have carried out of Charlotte during the season of navigation, about seven months, over a million tons. For many years the Canadian Pacific soft coal tonnage was the "backbone" of our business and millions of tons of coal have been sold to that corporation by us with no contract between us other than a letter stating the tonnage and price and an acknowledgment in reply.
Other large railroads with whom we have had the most cordial relations are the Grand Trunk, Central Vermont, Rutland and Boston & Maine. One incident worthy of record is an interview between George Hall and Charles M. Hays shortly after he became general manager of the Grand Trunk at which the writer was present. Mr. Hays told Mr. Hall that while he was glad to meet him, he could do no business with "middlemen" but would buy his coal direct from the producer. To which Mr. Hall replied that he hoped Mr. Hays would remember his words for he was sure when he became more familiar with our corporation he would change his mind and be glad to give us his business. Mr. Hall’s words were prophetic and we enjoyed Mr. Hays' confidence until his untimely death on the ill-fated steamer "Titanic."
The chance acquaintance which one makes along the highway of commerce, many of which ripen into enduring friendships, are among the compensation for a life of toil and the privilege of meeting men who do business in a big way is an inspiration. T. A. Gillespie was one of those. He had the contract for building the canal to connect the St. Lawrence and Grasse Rivers at Messina. He asked for an appointment and the writer met him on the ground where he had his steam shovels and dredges assembled for active operation.
Our introduction to him was in this wise, "I’m Gillespie and I want coal delivered by water. How soon can you deliver? To which we replied "Right away within forty-eight hours if you will furnish us a dock." Then he came back with "How fast" and we said "Faster than you can use it." Inside of an hour he had rented Richards wharf on which to store the coal, and his parting shot was " Start right in and keep the coal coming till I tell you to stop." Another contractor of unique personality was M.A. Cleveland of Brockport, N.Y. , who made the North Channel below Ogdensburg for the Canadian government. He was the only bidder for the work on this side of the border and when the bids were opened he was so far below the Canadian contractors that they all declared Cleveland would "go broke" before he finished the job.
But they all figured on under water work while he figured to dam the water at each end of the proposed work and pump out the ditch and then have dry digging. It proved to be one of his most successful contracts. He asked to furnish coal for the work. Said he wanted the best coal he could buy, and in all our business with him, extending over a period of ten years, he never asked the price and did not know the cost until re received the invoice. This spurred our curiosity and one day we put the question to him "Why do you buy coal without inquiring the price?" It was an unusual experience. His explanation was that he bought all his supplies in that way. He was posted on market values, picked reliable people with whom to deal expected the best of service, wanted his connection to make a reasonable profit, and in the course of a long and successful business career had rarely gone wrong in his purchases confidence inspire liberality in business begets itself.
Another incident worthy of record which carries its own lesson, is as follows: A certain modest Canadian citizen purchased an excursion steamer and after a couple of unsuccessful seasons on the river, failed, owing a large sum. The steamer burned up and the assets were nil. We had a fuel bill against her for nearly a thousand dollars which we charged to profit and loss account and as the years passed the incident was forgotten. About ten years thereafter an apparent stranger came into our office accompanied by two young men. He introduced himself as the one-time owner of the steamer-and introduced the young men as his sons. He said he came in to pay our account for the fuel furnished, and brought the his boys along to demonstrate to them that their father was an honest man. He insisted that he wanted to pay interest from the date the account was due, and we had quite an argument before he consented to consider our proposition that we waive the payment of interest and give him a receipt in full on payment of the face of the bill. It is such an experience as this which strengthens our faith in our fellow men.
To those whose business has not let them along the waterways the increase in St. Lawrence river traffic has been so gradual as to escape the attention of the "man on the street." But to those of us who have grown up in river transportation the change is phenomenal. First, a desultory traffic in anthracite coal and grain eastbound with lumber and railroad ties westbound carried by barges of small capacity, finally given way to antiquated wooden steamers which had seen their best days west of the Welland canal, and today with the growth of the soft coal traffic and the opening of the lower St. Lawrence river and its tributaries with their almost limitless supply of pulp wood, there is a continuous procession of modern steel freighters built for the trade, to the capacity of the canal locks, welding strong links in an industrial chain which binds more closely every year the commercial interest of Canada and the United states, to the glory and strengthening of them both.
Who can prophesy the future of the water borne traffic of the inland seas? With the proposed deep waterway connecting the ocean with the lakes, the commerce which now floats past our fair city will be but "sweepings." Then the grand old St. Lawrence will "Come into her own" and as a recompense for here pride in carrying the ships of the world on her surface, will give from her depths to the sister countries along her border a constant, never ending water power which will make of this north country a mighty empire within the Empire State.
GEORGE HALL CORPORATION OFFICERS
ROBERT J. BUCK
FRANK A. AUGSBURY,
Chairman of the Board
EDWARD L. STRONG
GEORGE J. MADDEN
HEWLETT P. STRONG