Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Winter Storage, the "Gravy Load": Schooner Days CCCLXXIII (373)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 10 Dec 1938
Full Text
Winter Storage, the "Gravy Load"
Schooner Days CCCLXXIII (373)


How a Great Lakes Freighter Brings It From the Head of the Great Lakes to Toronto in December


"WINTER STORAGE" is the healthy ambition of every vesselman at this time of year, because there is not only the good freight on the last trip of the season, but revenue from the vessel through the dead months to come, when she would otherwise be lying empty in the icebound harbor, waiting for spring.

With a winter storage cargo she is a floating warehouse. She may unload at some elevator as required during the winter, or she may get an order for delivery of her cargo farther east in the spring, putting her one trip to the good. Winter storage may be said to date from the days when the schooners used to lie in the ice in the Bay and unload their cargoes on to sleighs which teamed the goods to the merchants of the town. That was before our time by a long chalk, but it is a tradition of Toronto waterfront and William Armstrong, artist of ninety years ago, has left pictures of steamers landing passengers and freight here from Niagara in the same way.

This week "Schooner Days" completed a last trip for winter storage in a Great Lakes freighter, and here is how it went:

First there was the problem of catching the Robert P. Durham at Owen Sound on the Georgian Bay on November 29th. She was to discharge the remainder of a grain cargo there, and then go north again to the "head of the lakes," the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, on Lake Superior, to load wheat for winter storage in Toronto. This would make a round trip of 1,400 miles in December, the time when extra insurance goes on as thick as the ice that usually coats the freighter from stem to stern before she gets in.

The dash to Owen Sound was accomplished in as good as summertime, thanks to the Royal Air Force navigation of Major Bert Wemp. It had taken one of The Telegram's trucks six hours to get through the day before, because of ice and snowdrifts. Major Wemp drove the ridges for route, and put us through in two and a half. In time to see the Robert P. Durham, half empty come rolling her 385 foot length in from Port McNicoll, where she had discharged 90,000 bushels.

Capt. Harry Finn raced down from the vessel's bridge with a welcoming grin as soon as a ladder had been put over the bow. In his smart grey lounge suit and crisp laundry he looked rather the ship's owner than the expected hard-bitten seaman from the frozen wilderness of Superior. Yet he had just finished a fierce one-fall bout with a southwest gale which had held the Durham up for an hour coming around from Port McNicoll.

The Owen Sound elevator spouts were probing the Durham's open hatches even while Capt. Finn was showing his guest to his quarters. Without bragging too much, these were quarters which it was a great privilege and a great pleasure to occupy. Steam heated, electric lighted, and furnished with everything up to a three-piece bathroom, they were the equivalent of a thousand dollar suite on a luxury cruise liner.

WE poked out of Owen Sound in the blackness of early morning-—4.29 a.m.--on the last day of November, 1938, and the last day of "regular insurance." That costs freighter like the Durham as much as $11,500 for the season. Capt. Finn has been so successful with her, with never a loss in nine seasons that he has had her insurance premium cut to $8,000; proving that a good captain pays his own salary.

It was cloudy, raw, but not cold. And that's how we were all the way to "the Head." Of course we had great luck. "Steamboat time," "summer time," the mates called it. By dark this first day—-that is, thirteen hours after starting-—we had crossed Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, without adding one icicle in the two hundred miles. At half-past eight we rounded into the St. Mary's River at the Detour Passage. Traffic was thick for a while, with last-loaders coming out of the down-bound channel. Their tarpaulined hatches reflected under the glare of their floodlights. Forty vessels got away from "the Head"—-Fort William and Port Arthur—-with ten million bushels of grain, on this last day of the month, before the insurance rates would jump.

We were neither cheered nor inebriated by the announcement that our insurance premium would be $2,700 higher after midnight of Nov. 30th and $5,400 higher after midnight of Dec. 5th. How much profit would that leave on a $4,000 freight from the Head to Toronto? But $4,000 was about all 200,000 bushels or so of grain, would yield at 2 1/4 cents. The 2 cents additional for winter storage might give us a break.

We met some of the last loaders coming out, but there were many more inside, snug at anchor till daylight. Not that they had cold feet, but the buoys marking the winding channels of the river had been taken up; needless forehandedness on the part of the Marine Department. They are so afraid of losing one buoy by the ice that they would let a man lose a trip or a ship. All navigation aids should stay while navigation needs them.

Capt. Finn ran the St. Mary's River from Lake Huron to Lake Superior by night, steering by the range lights that were left in it and his own mastery of his craft. He has pilotage licenses from the head of the lakes to Father Point at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, and two good mates and two good wheelsmen.

Every time the Durham came on a range its bearing was taken on the upper wheelhouse compass, checked by the lower wheelhouse compass, and compared with previous readings in the log. The wheelsmen steered to a half degree, spinning the great brazen wheel in endless circles, to the captain's "Steady," "Starboard," "Slow," "Steady," "Port," and so on. Very rarely it was "Hard-a-starboard" or "Hard-a-port," though we were going dead slow, and sometimes had to back up to get perfectly in the range. And the ranges were watched just as carefully against the lighted funnel aft as against the electric-tipped spearpole forward.

So we slid past the Frying Pan and Lime Island and the Stone Cut (where our searchlight showed the crosses that still point where poor fellows were killed in construction), and across Hay Lake and into the Soo.

Jim Curran had all the tame wolves and wild Vikings tucked into bed for the night, for it was 1.30 a.m. Dec. 1st when our wires went out on the niggerheads of Kemp's coal dock. That was when Capt. Finn said it would be, five hours before, over the wireless telephone.

We loaded 85 tons of engine fuel, exchanged hails with Capt. Windle Brown, of the steamer Shutte, waiting to do the same. "Hello, Windle," called Capt. Finn. Where you bound?"


"Huron's Golden Gateway," comented Capt. Finn in devout thankfulness he wasn't going there himself. "The Thorodoc lay seventeen hours outside that breakwater and took a terrific beating before she could come in. Better luck to you, Windle."

"Thanks, Harry. Good morning."

It was by this time 2 a.m. of the first of December, and we were entering the American Sault lock to rise 20 feet to Lake Superior's level in one step. By 2.30 we were nosing out for Point aux Pins at the entrance of the St. Mary's River.

THURSDAY, this first day of December, went by in drying out the cargo holds and getting ready for winter storage inspection. This was a gain for us in time, for which we had to thank the weather. The wind was light, the sea in small lumps and ridges, and there was no need for water ballast in the cargo holds to keep her from rolling.

The freighter's hold is a fearsome cave, dark as a well when the hatch covers are on, dark any time. Steel ribs of I section and close together line the sides, and form a framework for the steel plates which keep the hovering wolves of the waves at the safe distance of five-eighths of an inch. That, sobering thought, was all there was between us and a wet grave.

The ribs are strengthened by diagonal braces and knees, tying them to the deck, and by stringers, clamps and shelves running the length of the ship. The main shelf is steel plating four feet wide, ten feet below the deck. There is a two-foot shelf six feet or so below it again. Farther down yet is a steel floor. It is the bottom of the cargo hold, but the top of the ballast tanks. The ship's real bottom is invisible, four feet below this.

The cargo hold is divided into five water-tight compartments by steel bulkheads with cemented doors. Each hold has two hatches in the single deck which covers them all. When the ship is unloaded, or "light," the ballast tanks under the cargo floor are filled, and water is pumped into the open cargo holds, as required to trim her. It swashes, from side to side like waves on a beach, and by its movement counteracts, or at least slows down, the ship's tendency to roll in a seaway when not steadied by cargo. Robert P. Durham is a famous roller.

Equipped with seaboots and armed with whisks, brooms, mops, waste, and pails, our four deckhands and two mates descended the long ladders into the cargo holds as soon as it was light enough to see to work with the hatches removed. Steam pumps were already driving out the swashing water above the ballast tanks, and as it retreated the army of occupation broomed the puddles and streamlets back to the scuppers. They also dashed grain dust from the last cargo on to the steel floor to absorb the moisture. Then all the damp mess had to be swept up, every angle iron, shelf, clamp and stringer whisked and dusted off, and every last particle of dust removed from each hold. The watertight doors and other openings were checked, and some time after supper First Mate Cuthbert (nephew of Alexander Cuthbert, American Cup challenger) announced tersely, "She can take it." Meaning she was not quite dry, but fit for inspection. Inspection for winter storage is severe, for the grain has to lie where it is poured for months, perhaps, and come out undamaged and without damaging the ship. A cargo of grain getting damp might swell and burst the sides out, or might spring into flame from spontaneous combustion; or it might just mould, and be ruined.

All this day the lake, under a cloudy sky of soft grey, looked like weathered copper. Not the copper you think of, red and shining, but copper black with centuries of oxidization and the gnawing of verdigris, but still retaining its purplish lustre, as in old, old statuary. There were faint flushes of sunlight miles to the north and miles to the south. By eight o'clock at night we had picked up Passage Island light, and knew that, some time early in the morning, we should be moored in one of the ports of the Twin Cities. One low bar of sunset red hung late in the southwest, over Keweenaw peninsula as late as half-past six, when darkness descended. We were within three weeks of the year's shortest day.

It had been mercifully mild. You cannot dry out cargo holds when the frost is standing out on each river head like a fur cap. The trip before this it had been 18 below zero on the lake.

"Will be at No. 7 at 1.20," Capt. Finn said casually over the wireless telephone, and at 1.19 a.m. Dec. 2nd, we were getting our lines over the niggerheads under a great collection of concrete cylinders which made one think of the molten piling of the Giant's Causeway in Ireland.

This was the Saskatchewan Pool Terminal elevator No. 7 in Port Arthur, one of thirty groups of concrete tanks which hold 92,000,000 bushels of grain at the head of the lakes. They lie in the wilderness of swamp, waste land and railway tracks that forms the twelve mile preshore of both cities. Behind them the street lights blaze like trays of gems in jewelers' windows. And one solitary light burned half-way up the thousand foot wall of Mount McKay.

Having got to the point of loading the cargo in winter storage, left come up for air. There'll be more about this trip next week if the pencil holds out.


STEAMER ROBERT P. DURHAM in the Sault Canal, bound up "light," that is, free of cargo.

ICED UP—Not the Robert P. Durham, but an oil tanker, in the condition often experienced by vessels seeking winter storage cargoes.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
10 Dec 1938
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.56717 Longitude: -80.94349
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 46.50308 Longitude: -84.35171
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 48.4001 Longitude: -89.31683
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
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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Winter Storage, the "Gravy Load": Schooner Days CCCLXXIII (373)