Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Last Survivors: Schooner Days CXXV (125)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 10 Feb 1934
Full Text
Last Survivors
Schooner Days CXXV (125)

OPINION seems nearly unanimous that the schooner Lyman M. Davis, of Kingston, built at Muskegon, Mich., in 1873, and Canadian for the last twenty years or longer, should, not be burned at Sunnyside, but should be preserved as a reminder of the great age of sail on the Great Lakes.

Amid the volume of opinion expressed on the subject the question has been raised whether the Lyman M. Davis is "actually the last" sailing vessel left of the fleet which, a thousand strong, queened it the lakes when steam was only an infant.

The Lyman M. Davis is the last sailing vessel of them all.

It might be possible to resurrect some of the many old-timers, and rehabilitate them at great expense, but the Lyman M. Davis was in commission and fit for service up to the time she was bought for burning and in addition to being the last survivor is the most typical example of the Great Lakes centerboard schooner of medium size.

It is true the small schooner North West, originally built at Bronte or Oakville in 1882, is in existence at Midland, but she has been very completely rebuilt and fitted with powerful engines. Her rig, such as is left, might be described as "vestigial." Her deck is broken up with houses utterly unlike anything lake schooners ever had, and she has portholes in her sides like a passenger steamer. She is a very good craft for her present purposes, but vastly different from the lake schooners of the vanished era of sail. The Lyman M. Davis, the last schooner left, is typical in every detail.

Three years ago the papers chronicled the loss of the schooner Our Son on Lake Michigan as the last of the lakers, and this is one of the reasons, possibly, for doubts as to the "ultimacy" of the Davis.

The Our Son was a survivor of the Great Lakes fleet, and was really the last vessel left afloat under sail on the Upper Lakes. She had, at the time she was wrecked, several sisters in adversity all out of commission, waiting for the boneyard, like worn-out horses at the glue factory gates. Some of these old hulks may be retrievable yet, but even if recovered they would not rival the Lyman M. Davis for "last survivor's" honors. The Lyman M. Davis was in commission on Lake Ontario, one of the Lower Lakes, when the Our Son was lost.

Capt. James McCannel, of Port McNicoll, commander of the C.P.R. steamer Assiniboia, got some interesting snapshots of the Our Son on her last voyage, and has kindly lent them to the compiler of "Schooner Days."

The Assiniboia passed the Our Son somewhere near the Detour Passage in Lake Huron, bound back light for another cargo of pulpwood. As a sailor would see from the picture of her under sail, Death's Door in Lake Michigan would have been the most appropriate spot for the encounter.

The poor old thing had hogged her sheer and lost all her towering tophamper which once made her a queen of freshwater. When she was launched she had three masts, with topmasts on each, and on the foremast she had three or four yards, and a range of four or five jibs on a long tapering jibboom and bowsprit. She spread some sixteen sails in all.

These snaps from the Assiniboia show her dragging her weary length along with six pieces of canvas, barely enough to give her steerageway; her sides heavily scored and scarred with the chafing of thousands of pulpwood logs and the grinding of wharf timbers and canal locks; her masts the second-hand legacies of superannuated steamboats and tow-barges; her most ambitious effort at sail-spreading the little three-cornered raffee on the stump fore topmast.

She had long lost her graceful figurehead or cutwater, and her bow looked as bare as a boot. She had been built-up forward like a tow- barge, with a topgallant forecastle, and from this protruded a stub of a bowsprit which might have made a dolphin striker for her in the days of her prime.

Her cargoes of late years had been invariably pulpwood, and these had the merit of being non-sinkable if not highly profitable. She was always a grand carrier, and up to the last it was amazing how much wood she could stagger under. She may have carried the very paper in which her obituary was published, for the pulp she ferried by the thousand tons must have become newsprint.

The Our Son excited compassion in her decrepitude but she was also pathetic in the pride of her prime; for she commemorated a father's heart grief and his unselfish love and sympathy for his stricken wife. When the vessel was on the building stocks the eldest son of her owner, Capt. Harry Kelley, of Milan, Ohio, was drowned on the lakes. Capt. Kelley had embarked his fortune in this vessel; she was to be the most ambitious of all his efforts at producing large strong schooners eclipsing all that had preceded them in speed and carrying capacity. He hoped that one day this boy who was drowned might walk her cabin-top as Old Man, or master.

The blow of the boy's death was a staggering one to both his parents. But Capt. Kelley did not lose heart and leave the work of his hands to be finished by some unsympathetic jobber who might buy her at a bargain. He went on with the building and carried out the launching as scheduled; and when Mrs. Kelley smashed the bottle of champagne on the stem and the covering canvas ripped from the nameboards as the new ship took her first plunge, the letters O-U-R S-O-N told the world of a husband's abiding hope striving to comfort a mother's grief and his own, Our Son; not My Son.

William Jones had built the schooner Orphan Boy for Capt. Kelley at Black River, Ohio, in 1862. Romance lurks beneath her name. She was big for her time. 150 feet long and worth $17,000. She foundered with all hands in Lake Michigan, on Dec. 17th, 1885; drowning twelve. The Our Son, launched while the Orphan Boy was still in her youth, quite eclipsed her in dimensions. She was 182 feet long, 35 feet beam and 13.9 feet deep in the hold. She registered 720 tons gross .

Capt. Kelley sold the Our Son in 1879, after which she had several owners. In the 1890's she was towed behind the steamer J. H. Outhwaite with the barge Genoa. She was later owned by Winand Schlosser in Milwaukee. In 1923 she fell into the hands of Capt. Fred Nelson, veteran of the sailing age of the lakes who had been handling canvas since 1871. He sailed her for her last seven seasons in the spruce and balsam pulpwood trade from Georgian Bay to the Muskegon Paper Company's plant.

With rare good taste later owners in succeeding generations preserved the name Our Son, although it had become merely a curiosity of the lake marine. Our Son the schooner was called to the last. A final flicker of pathos in her pathetic career was that, for what proved her final trip, her optimistic master had bought a new mizzen-sail for her; the last piece of commercial canvas (outside of steamer's hatch-covers or some fish-boat's sail) to be stitched in a Great Lakes sail loft. That mizzen, neatly stowed, may be noted by the discerning on the cabin-top of the wreck in the photo, under the half-masted Stars and Stripes with the union down streaming from the stumpy mizzen masthead.

The Our Son was caught in a breeze of wind forty miles west southwest of Big Point Sable on Lake Michigan on Sept. 26th, 1930, when she was bound down the lake with pulp. She labored hard and opened up until the bottom almost fell out of her. While the cargo kept her afloat the water in her made her unmanageable, and there was no telling when she would roll over or scatter herself over the lake. So the weary crew, their backs broken at the pumps, flew the old gridiron upside down when the steamer, Wm. Nelson, of the Valley Camp Steamship Co., of Cleveland, Capt. Chas. St. Mohr, hove in sight.

The big steel steamer with her enormous unloading crane making her look like a contractor's plant gone adrift, stopped and sent a boat. They got the last crew of the last of the Upper Lakers out of her in safety, and a day later the poor old thing came ashore in pieces at Ludington.

It was a coincidence that Capt. Nelson was rescued by a steamer bearing his own name. He was at this time seventy-three years old, but an active skipper, who had never deserted canvas for steam. He had taken the Alice of Milwaukee to salt water in 1918. Forced to put into New York by stress of weather, this vessel was twice fired on, the second shell narrowly missing her helmsman. It was in the time of the Great War, and the amateur harbor guard took the innocent Alice for a submarine mother ship "because she did not carry a guard flag."

Capt. Nelson was also once a member of a crew of twenty-three in a ship. Every voyage they came home with the flag at half mast, until by accident they went out with a crew of twenty-two, and after that she never had a casualty.


"THE LAST OF THE LAST OF THEM"--Steamer Nelson coming alongside for the crew of the waterlogged schooner Our Son in Lake Michigan

THREE GLIMPSES OF "OUR SON" on her last voyage -- going up light and coming back loaded with pulp and wearing the new mizzen which closed the era of commercial sailmaking on the lakes.

"OUR SON" Passing out

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
10 Feb 1934
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 44.05778 Longitude: -86.51425
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 45.98224 Longitude: -83.88612
  • Lorain (formerly Black River):
    Ohio, United States
    Latitude: 41.45282 Longitude: -82.18237
  • Ohio, United States
    Latitude: 41.29755 Longitude: -82.60545
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.23418 Longitude: -86.24839
Richard Palmer
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Last Survivors: Schooner Days CXXV (125)