Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Gadabout Ellen: Schooner Days CLXXVI (177)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 2 Mar 1935
Full Text
Gadabout Ellen
Schooner Days CLXXVI (177)


THE ELLEN of Sebaiwing seemed possessed of a devil of perversity. She went a-wandering on her own account on six different occasions during her seventeen years of active life, and after her demise her drifting timbers and planks menaced the well-being of small craft in the Tittebawas river.

Old Frank Quick and Old Frank Pearson built her at Sebaiwing on Saginaw Bay, in 1885. Young Frank Quick and Tom Davidson sailed her for the first three years after she was launched. They sold her to Darien Gilkie, who sailed her with his young son, Louis, filling in as mate, cook and crew.

In 1892 Darien Gilkie went to his reward on the wings of a grippe epidemic, and for five years thereafter Louis Gilkie sailed the Ellen with the help of such rag-tags of the Great Lakes marine as deigned to engage in the pick-up-and-gypsy trade of the Michigan shore of Lake Huron.

The brothers Franz and David Sweitzer bought the vessel in 1897 and sailed her for three seasons, and finally a young man from Point Au Gres bought her from the Sweitzers and sailed her for two seasons and lost her.

She was built of as good white ash, rock elm and Norway pine as could be found in the bay shore regions of Tuscola and Huron Counties, Michigan. The two old cranks who built her were skilled their craft and stinted neither material nor workmanship. She was as staunch as a V-bow scow may be made of wood and iron, and her lines were as fine and as seemly as any scow’s lines may be, which may be rated as “not very.” She was sixty-eight feet long and, like most of her kind, she was credited with a ton of cargo capacity for each foot of her length. Maybe she could carry a little more than sixty-eight tons, maybe less.

There was plenty of pine in Michigan when the Ellen was built. There was also a super-abundance of pine lumber and other forest products to be shipped. Anything that could float with a cargo could produce some kind of dividends in the lakewise carrying trade. There were railroad ties and stave bolts, cedar posts and tan bark to be taken away from creek mouths and small harbors. There were countless cargoes of cordwood and slabs, begging for dispatch; and there were loads of trap-net stakes and cedar blocks and shingle bolts. There were jags of lumber to carry that were too small to attract big vessels and just right for such craft as the Ellen and her ilk.

For two seasons Tom Davidson and young Frank Quick made "better than big wages” in the Ellen. They were handy young sailormen who didn’t mind doing their own stevedore work and were not averse to working twenty hours at a stretch when the occasion demanded. They worked the little schooner as hard as they worked themselves, and she was plenty stout enough to stand the grind. Their gross receipts in two years totalled a little more than the original costs of building and fitting out the Ellen.

Then the Ellen asserted her independence. Tom and Frank laid her up for the winter in a protected cove at the mouth of Pigeon river. They moored her as snugly and surely as ever a schooner was moored, and made arrangements with a Pigeon river fisherman to keep an eye on her during the winter.

A week after the Ellen was berthed in her winter quarters the fisherman sailed out, very early one morning, to lift and set gill nets. Other gill-netters fared forth. The Ellen appeared to be all snug and proper. Heavy fog settled down while the fishermen were working their gear out on Saginaw Bay.

It was very thick when they returned to Pigeon river. So thick, indeed, that they made several tries for the river mouth before they found it. They couldn’t see the Ellen in the fog and were too busy with their own affairs to give her much thought.

The fog lifted eventually and blew off shore. The Ellen was not at her berth.

Some skulking enemy of Tom Davidson and Frank Quick had set her adrift. Her anchor chains had been unshackled; her good hemp mooring lines had been chopped through. Whoever turned the dirty trick probably poled the vessel away from her berth and clear of the river mouth.

A steady breeze from the southeast drove her more than half way across Saginaw Bay before the guardian fisherman and his friends found her. Pigeon River and nearby bay shores were icebound when the salvagers returned.

Davidson and Quick had been summoned from Ubly, Michigan, where they were spending the winter. They hired all the help they could find and worked hard for a couple of days breaking a channel in the gathering ice through which the Ellen could be taken back to her mooring place.

Tom Davidson lived aboard of her all the rest of the winter.

After their third season of ownership Davidson and Quick sold the Ellen to Darien Gilkie.

Gilkie ran into bad luck on his first trip. He cleared from Bay City bound for East Tawas with 250 bags of potatoes in his hold and a cargo of shingle bolts in prospect. He had a fair wind down Saginaw Bay for half a day. Then it hauled to the eastward and freshened. Before the Ellen picked up Tawas Bay the wind left her and she lay becalmed in a rough lump of sea for nearly an hour. The wind came again, screaming hot from the west. Gilkie had to run, and, to use his own words, "The least canvas he could set was too much.”

The Ellen was blown out into Lake Huron, and Gilkie tried to get her down the lake and claw in under what lee he might find on the "Thumb shore” of the Saginaw Peninsula.

He fetched a fairly sheltered berth to leeward of a long shoal near Port Hope (Michigan, not Ontario), and let go both hooks, with the chain out to the bitter end on the port one and the other hove short under her forefoot to keep her from ranging.

He didn’t feel so bad about things. He knew he could sell his load of spuds in Port Huron for more money than he had expected to get in Tawas and there was a profit to be made in carrying a load of bricks from Port Huron back to one of the bay ports.

It blew hard for a couple of days and the Ellen hugged her moorings. By the time the gales blew themselves out there was no grub left in Gilkie’s lockers, and he decided to go ashore and rustle some.

He gave his young son, Louis, all the instructions he thought he needed about keeping anchor watch and left him in charge.

A vagrant breeze from the south'ard swung the Ellen around. Renewed airs from the nor’west drifted her forward on her ground tackle and swung her when she fetched up. The long range of chain on the port side anchor fouled the short hold of the starboard hook.

Louis Gilkie undertook to unscramble the melee of chain cable and the quickest way to his untutored mind appeared to be to unshackle the long chain and pass its free end around the short one. Neither feat was at all difficult, but shackling up again was something altogether different. Young Louis knew nothing about stoppering free gear and his makeshifts failed to work.

Eventually he lost the anchor chain overboard and didn’t know enough to pay out more chain to the starboard hook. A gust of wind from the nor’west was all the incentive necessary to set the Ellen to wandering again. The remaining anchor dragged off the bottom.

When young Gilkie found himself adrift he decided that he might make out better if he had some canvas to help him. He got the forestaysail up and about a third of the mainsail. Then he figured that as the anchor had failed to function, he’d better have it aboard out of harm’s way, so he hove it in.

It was at about this time that Darien Gilkie discovered the plight of his schooner and his son. He started after the Ellen in a dinghy.

The schooner drifted downshore, sometimes edging in toward the beach; sometimes wiping off four or five points and heading out in the lake.

Louis Gilkie put in a lot of frantic but fruitless work at the helm and at halliards and sheets, with an experiment or two with the centre board for good measure, and finally gave it up and trusted to luck. Gilkie senior wasn’t getting any closer to the Ellen after miles of sculling, so he also gave up.

A very old man named Ganley, who tried to operate a little farm on the lake shore, saw the drifting schooner and realized her plight. Ganley was a lakeman, so were his three sons, and five of their sons. The old chap hooked up his fastest horse, which probably wasn’t any too fast at that, and drove to a telegraph office which the Flint and Pere Marquette Railway had temporarily established at a gravel pit. He persuaded the operator to mix a commercial message with train orders and get word to Joe Ganley, another grandson, who was a member of the life-saving crew at Sand Beach.

Joe gathered a crew at Sand Beach and sailed in a mackinaw boat to the rescue of the Ellen. The mackinaw met the schooner a short distance above Sand Beach. Ganley and his men needed a holiday, so they piled all canvas on her, sailed her up the shore until they found Darien Gilkie, and then went with him to Port Huron, where they claimed the beers were bigger and the sidewalks wider than in Sand Beach.

Maybe it was on account of the sidewalks or maybe for some other reason that the Ellen slipped her moorings in Black Creek at Port Huron after she had a load of bricks on board and drifted out into St. Clair River.

She didn’t go very far down the St. Clair until she was sighted by the crew of the tug Mocking Bird, which was towing a lighter barge to Detroit. They picked up the Ellen and took her along with them.

Gilkie got word of what had happened and took a train to Detroit. He was waiting on the dock when the Mocking Bird berthed the Ellen.

"If you guys kin sell that load of bricks for me in Detroit, I'll give you ten bucks salvage money. Out- I side of that I’m broke and don’t give a damn about it,” he told the Mocking Birders.

It happened that there was a ready market for the bricks, so all was well. Gilkie found a cargo of lime to carry to Port Huron and hired a darky to help him work the Ellen up river. Young Louis Gilkie hadn’t quite starved to death when his father relocated him. The lime was discharged, another load of bricks stowed aboard and the Ellen sailed back to Saginaw Bay.

Later in the season when she was taking on a deck load of trap net stakes off the Bay shore, a squall romped off and hove her down until her hatch coamings were awash. The Gilkies and two or three roustabouts jumped into a punt that was alongside and shoved clear. They were certain that the Ellen was doomed.

She wasn’t, just at that time. She righted herself, and in a deluge of rain that followed the wind squall, she dragged on a little marshy island. Darien Gilkie believed she was safe there for a spell. Altogether too safe, in fact. It was near the end of the day and he spent the evening mustering help for the laborious job of getting the schooner clear on the morrow.

She cleared herself during the night and next morning her master found her bobbing demurely to a light inshore breeze and all ready to claw off soundings.

The Ellen conducted herself in a reasonably orderly manner until the Sweitzer boys bought her from Louis Gilkie. The best part of her trade had disappeared by that time. The Sweitzers operated several small camps where ties, cordwood and wood bolts were made from the remnants and leavings of former lumbering operations. They also bought quantities of cordwood and ties from farmers and settlers.

They let the Ellen run away from them on a hot summer’s day in 1900. She had half a load of wood on board and was creeping along the Bay shore to her next loading point. Franz Sweitzer spotted a woodpile on the shore that he hadn’t seen before and decided to go see the owner with a view to buying if the price was right. He sculled himself ashore in a punt, while Dave stayed aboard the Ellen whistling for a breeze.

What little wind there was finally folded its wings and slept The Ellen was becalmed and the sun was roasting hot. Dave got restless.

Presently he chucked off what few clothes he wore and went overboard for a swim. Franz returned to the beach and shoved the punt afloat. Dave swam inshore to meet Franz.

A little two-by-scantly dry puff came frolicking offshore and reached the Ellen before her owners did, and took upon itself the job of sailing their schooner for them.

Throughout the afternoon puffs and calms kept the Sweitzer boys sweating in the punt and drifted the Ellen farther out on Saginaw Bay. Franz shared his wardrobe with Dave to keep him from being completely frizzled by sunburn. Dave wore bib overalls, a shirt and socks. Franz wore his under clothes and a pair of brogans.

Evening found the punt and a schooner about a quarter of a mile apart in mid-bay.

Night closed in. and the Sweitzers were no nearer their schooner than they had been when they set out in pursuit of her. They lost her during the night. The night was warm, but not any too warm for men clad is were the Sweitzer brothers. They dozed uncomfortably in the punt, and wished for grub, beds, morning and the Ellen.

The Ellen was not in sight when morning broke, but the Josephine was, so also was a fog bank. The Josephine was a scow schooner of about the same size as the Ellen, engaged in the gypsy trade of the Bay. She was not more than a mile away when the Sweitzers sighted her. There was no wind, and the man on watch was taking a snooze, on top of the cabin, while the man off watch snored happily in his bunk below.

The weary brothers Sweitzer rowed to and boarded the Josephine and awoke her complement.

The fog crept up to and around the Josephine. Search for the Ellen was postponed. When the fog cleared about ten o’clock the scow-schooner Oak Leaf was within hailing distance. The Sweitzers boarded her and sailed in her to Point au Gres, where they learned that the Ellen was aground, but otherwise unharmed, a few miles further up the bay shore.

"We haven’t a heck of a lot more use for her,” Dave Sweitzer argued. 'We’d about clean up everything worth while this season, and it’s half gone now. S’pose we get the wood off her and send it up to Bay City in the Oak Leaf, and call it square.”

Franz was agreeable. They arranged to have the Oak Leaf salvage the Ellen’s half cargo, and would have stripped their vessel and abandoned her. Young John Merrill, of Point au Gres, offered them one hundred dollars for her. They sold her to him.

Merrill engaged in a sort of marine huckstering business. He traded in farm produce, pigs, hides, tallow, jags of coal, baled hay, old iron, rags-bones-and-bottles, general junk and building materials.

For two and a half years he made fair wages, and in the fall of 1902 he took a load of potatoes and cabbage to Saginaw to sell. Ice formed in the Saginaw River before he disposed of his cargo, and he laid the Ellen up for the winter.

Spring floods tore her away from her moorings and piled her up on a pier of Saginaw City bridge. She was a complete and utter wreck, but still uncured of her wandering habit.

Her broken hull hung on the pier for most of the ensuing season. Drifting planks and timbers menaced the well-being of small craft in the river.

Finally the Saginaw Department of Works ordered her removed, and is there was no one else to do the removing, they went at it themselves.



Sir: I found your description of the Toronto waterfront of 1890 a couple of weeks ago very interesting and I meant to write and tell you at the time, but for some unknown reason I delayed. I am glad I did now, as something else has come to light in the form of a steamboat ticket good for one passage from Oakville to Toronto. A very interesting voyage, no doubt, and I am writing now to inquire of you the time of the next departure from Oakville (or Toronto), and if there is none, when was the last one and how many decades late am I for the boat. The ticket bears the name Oakville Nav. Co., and I would like to know more about this line and its vessels. It’s a long shot from schooners and I hope you won’t mind telling me. —I.S.B.

Hamilton, Ont.

The Oakville Navigation Co. ticket would be about thirty-five years old, so you are three decades late for the gang plank, I.S.B. W. S. Davis, present Oakville real estate man, was purser aboard the old steamer White Star and rose to general manager of the company. According to J. L. Hewson, reeve of Oakville, who was connected with the White Star before formation of the Oakville Navigation Company, which operated her, the organization was formed in 1899, did a fair business for two years, spent a lot of money the third year and went out of existence about the fifth year, 1904. According to a scrap book in Mr. Davis’ office, The Oakville Navigation Co. acquired the S.S. Richelieu in May, 1901, at which time Mr. Davis was promoted from secretary to general manager. Clinton G. Arms was Toronto agent. Under date of March 15th, 1902, a Toronto news item announced that the S.S. White Star would return from the trade to the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo the previous season and resume operations under O.N.C. management. The same item says that she was built for the Oakville Co. in 1897. The White Star was burned to the water's edge at the foot of Bay street, July 11, 1903.

The Turbinia was another steamer calling at Oakville later.


IN THE ST. CLAIR RIVER—The wandering Ellen, or one or her sisters like enough to be her twin, is the little vessel with the window-pane pattern on her foresail—result of generous patching. Her large black crony is the three-master Bertha Barnes, which fell on evil days but stage a comeback. As will be told later.

Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
Date of Publication
2 Mar 1935
Corporate Name(s)
Oakville Navigation Company
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 42.33143 Longitude: -83.04575
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.84474 Longitude: -82.65132
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.94585 Longitude: -83.28024
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.99002 Longitude: -83.67831
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.94084 Longitude: -82.71271
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 42.97086 Longitude: -82.42491
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.73224 Longitude: -83.45107
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.38669 Longitude: -83.96608
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.71002 Longitude: -82.93161
Richard Palmer
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Gadabout Ellen: Schooner Days CLXXVI (177)