The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
British Whig (Kingston, ON), 15 May 1896

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Considered from various standpoints, the life of a grain shoveller is not the hardest life a man might live, by any means, but at the same time it is above the average in point of muscular exertion and endurance required. Some of the evils attendant upon the life of a scooper are more serious than those which are found in most other occupations, while there are many things to recommend the employment to men who are not skilled in a handicraft, but who are still forced to earn a living for themselves and families. It is not unusual, however, to find at the work men who are recognized clever mechanics, but who were unable to find employment at their trades and were obliged to enter the ranks of shovellers.

The chief objection to the occupation is made on the score of unhealthiness. It is recognized that the constant inhalation of dust, arising from the scooping of grain, has a bad effect on the pulmonary system. Physicians declare that this class of men are more liable to death from pneumonia and kindred diseases than most other men. Nevertheless, there are men working as scoopers in this city who have been at the business for over twenty-five years. Others in the 'gang" have served various terms from that period down to the new beginner.

To the uninitiated the effect of the dust of the grain is stifling, but the scoopers do not seem to mind it, and appear as much at home in the hold of a vessel as is the average man on deck. In the old wooden boats, happily now few in number and growing less, the hatches are small affairs, barely big enough to give access to the cargo. There is no opportunity for ventilation even with all the hatches off. The men breathe no air that is not contaminated by the dust in such boats as these. The larger steamers and lake barges are much better, as most of them are made with hatches that, when lifted, expose almost the whole interior to the light of day and allow a good part of the dust to escape, but often it is so dense that it fills the hold like a cloud of smoke and would soon suffocate the ordinary mortal. Cargoes vary in point of cleanliness, some containing comparatively little dust. That this evil is a serious one cannot be gainsaid. It has prevented many a man from earning an honest living in what seemed at the time to be the only vocation open to him. There are no mortality tables relating to the scoopers' vocation, but they would furnish interesting reading if obtainable. Still, there will always be scoopers, and there are always more applicants for positions in the "gang" than there are places for them to fill. After they have been at the work for a time the men claim they become accustomed to the dust and do not mind it. Some wear little wads of oakum tied across their mouth and nostrils. Others use very fine sponges, dampened, and say these improvised respirators are a very great aid in enabling them to withstand the ravages of the dust. There are many patent respirators made for scoopers, but the men have no use for them, declaring them to be valueless.

To one who has never seen it done, and indeed even to those who are familiar with the work, the operation of unloading a big lake vessel is a most interesting sight. When a vessel comes to the anchorage she is loaded down almost to the gunwales with grain. If there are not others to unload, two elevators take up positions on either sides of her, and beside the elevators again are two flat bottomed river barges. The hatches are removed and the big leg of each elevator is lowered into the hold, sinking deep into the grain. For the first few thousand bushels the services of the scoopers are not required, but as the cargo diminishes the scoopers get to work and feed the elevator. Forming a circle around the "leg," with just sufficient room between the men for the working of their wooden scoops, they begin their toil, which only ends when the hold is empty. When the men get tired shovelling in one position, the leader cries "turn" and the "gang" turns face about. This divides the labor evenly on the muscles of both arms. As each tier of cross-beams is passed in the downward course of the shovelling, there is a little special work to be done in cleaning off the beams with brooms. When the bottom is reached the men set to work and sweep up every grain and deposit it where the elevator leg can pick it up. In some of the boats this is a hard task, as may be imagined, while in others it is comparatively easy. In none is it more than a small part of the four to eight hours work necessary to unload a cargo.

The buckets in the "leg" carry the grain into a receiver on the elevator, from where it is allowed to drop, so much at a time, into scales where it is weighed, after which it is given another descent into the hold of the elevator and is from there carried up by another leg, dumped into a chute and is deposited into the hold of the barge alongside. This form is carried on with monotonous regularity until the cargo is discharged. While the vessel is in process of unloading the foreman of the scoopers, E. Bennett, is rarely to be found elsewhere than on deck, except when he descends into the hold to issue an order. There are a hundred things constantly occurring that need his attention. He had to attend to the shifting of the "leg," to the moving of the barges and to so many things that they cannot all be enumerated. As the foreman has oft-times three elevators to look after this position is no sinecure.

The necessity for agility and sobriety can well be understood by watching the work of unloading. A man who should try to cross the open hold on one of the slender cross beams must beware of mis-steps or a broken skull is the sure result. Should a man get caught in the buckets of the elevator leg itself, it would be certain death. Drunkenness is not tolerated for this reason, and if a man loses his position in the gang, it is from one of two reasons - drunkenness or non-attention to business. After a vessel is unloaded there may be, and frequently is, a long wait for another trick at work. Sometimes only one boat is unloaded in a day, then the men as a rule go home, as they are not encouraged to loaf about the dock. It is rare to find the scoopers engaging in any of the amusements common to the average gang of laborers when resting. There is seldom a pack of cards to be found in the gang. The men seem to take great pleasure in sitting about in groups, when waiting for an arrival, and arguing on politics or the prospective arrival of more boats. Sometimes after a long day's work the unwelcome news will arrive of the incoming of other boats, which means the continuance of work, and it often happens that a day's labor is carried on into the early hours of another dawn. Oft-times the men have to work continuously from twenty-four to forty hours at a stretch without sleep or rest. During the past two weeks the men have had only three regular nights' sleep.

One of the three M.T. Co.'s elevators here will unload 10,000 bushels in an hour, but if pressed hard could do two more. Two others will not do more than five or six each, so that when the three elevators are at work at once, on an average of 21,000 bushels is discharged in an hour. There are fifty men in the "gang" which, together with three engineers and three weighmen, total fifty-six. The men are paid so much a bushel, and if the season is good and no time is lost, they earn a fairly good salary. On an average half a million bushels of grain is transhipped here by the M.T. Co. in a week, but much more could be handled. To carry this quantity to this port requires on an average ten large vessels. On a low average, each of these boats leaves $75 in the city at each trip. This does not include the many tugs, barges and other small craft that ply this port.

While one who judges the life of a scooper from the foregoing may deem it a hard existence, the comparison must be made between such a life and that of the man in other occupations, whose sole capital is his muscle, untrained and unskilled. Such a man ordinarily wields a pick and shovel. He works ten hours a day and gets either $1 or $1.25 a day, more frequently $1. He is lucky if he puts in 150 days' work in a year. Compared with such laborers the average scooper is a king and millionaire.

p.4 General Paragraphs - Preparations were made for the launch of the schr. Hector, formerly the Glenora, at the M.T. Co.'s shipyard. It was expected the vessel would be floated by six o'clock. Application was made to the marine department of the dominion government for permission to change the name, but so far no answer has been received to the request. Until it is received the name must remain as of yore.

The sloop Maggie L., while making the slip at the foot of Princess street, this morning, nearly punched a hole in her bow. She struck the corner of the wharf.

The hull of the str. Highlander, the first side-wheel steamer to come up through the lower canals, lies buried beneath the debris at the M.T. Co.'s shipyard.


The schr. Trade Wind cleared for Lake Ontario ports last night.

The str. Monteagle discharged her cargo today and cleared for Chicago.

The schr. Dunn, timber laden, cleared from Toledo for this port on Wednesday.

The str. Myles, from Fort William, grain laden, is expected to arrive here tonight.

The tugs Thomson and Walker arrived up from Montreal last night, with eight light barges.

The schr. Wawanosh, Kingston to Toledo, light, passed up through the Welland canal yesterday.

The sloop Maggie L. discharged 3,100 bushels of peas at Richardson & Sons' elevator today. She was from Picton.

A neat and compact little steam yacht, called the Jophl, touched at this port today. She is owned by Messrs. Little and Paul, Newboro, and is in command of Capt. Campbell. This is her maiden trip and she behaved in a manner highly satisfactory to her owners. She is comfortably fitted up and has every modern convenience aboard.

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15 May 1896
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  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.22976 Longitude: -76.48098
Rick Neilson
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pd [more details]
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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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British Whig (Kingston, ON), 15 May 1896