Maritime History of the Great Lakes
"Robert P. Durham" Came Through While Five Sheltered Under Long Point: Schooner Days CCCLXXV (375)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 15 Dec 1938
Full Text
"Robert P. Durham" Came Through While Five Sheltered Under Long Point
Schooner Days CCCLXXV (375)

by C. H. J. Snider


How Toronto's Last "Winter Storage" Cargo to Arrive Made Port From Superior



"WELL, good-bye, boys. Merry Christmas," said Capt. Finn to the grain trimmers, as they tossed their birchen shovels and steel ploughs back on to the elevator dock in the twilight dusk of Saturday, the 3rd of December.

"So long. Cap, and a Happy New Year," they answered.

The last bushel of wheat put the Robert P. Durham down to 18 feet 5 1/2 inches at both ends, at the Searles elevator, Fort William, at 5.29 p.m. That is to say she was drawing the same depth of water at bow and stern, with 196,863 bushels and 50 pounds-—they measure wheat cargoes that accurately—-billed against her; about six thousand tons of wheat on board.

At 5.30 p.m. the tenth and last hatch cover was on, the steel mooring wires were winding in on the winches, and the Robert P. Durham was backing out, inch by inch, from the elevator which had supplieo the last of her load. At 6.05 in the gathering dark she passed the light at the Mission entrance to Fort William harbor, and the street lamps of the Twin Cities sparkled farewell to her.

A silent farewell, for hers was almost the last load, out for winter storage on the lower lakes. The Shaughnessy was expected after her —-and came. She did not get down to Port Colborne until Dec. 14th. The package freighter Superior did not clear the Lakehead until two days later than the Durham on the night of December 5. The Superior for the past four or five years has always been the last boat down the Canadian Sault canal, although she was a little earlier than usual this year. The Superior did not arrive in Fort William until Saturday, December 3, with over 2,000 tons of package freight and commenced loading grain Monday morning, December 5. The Superior is owned by the Northwest Steamships Limited of Toronto and is engaged in the package freight trade between Detroit River ports to Fort William, bringing grain down to bay ports. She is commanded by Capt. D'Alton Hudson, who had the honor of taking the first ship through the new Welland Canal in 1930 as you will see by the attached clipping. The Superior, under his command was also the vessel that rescued the motorship Gilly in distress on Lake Huron last summer.

Other steamers had gone when the Durham left. Instead of the usual uproarious fanfare from the whistles of those waiting to load and follow there was no sound but the chiding of Mrs. Gull telling her husband he was late again for bed, after hanging around that steamer's galley door till all hours of the night.

Lake Superior was sardonically smooth for us, smooth as hammered lead. The wind was northwest, light. The young half moon made a valiant effort to cheer, and the night settled down to a little rolling sea and fair visibility under the clouds.

By 8 p.m. Point Porphyry's fixed-ray was abeam, and at half-past nine the white flasher on Passage Island blew a season's farewell on his horn.

Our luck held all the 225 miles down Lake Superior. It rained a little on Sunday, blew less, and froze not at all. At noon the thermometer stood at 50. The lake stayed smooth. We left Cariboo Island on the port side at 10 a.m. At 2 p.m. we had Whitefish Point, that first and last milepost of Lake Superior, on the starboard beam, and altered our course for the St. Mary's River.

"Good-bye, Whitefish, kiss yourself, Superieur!" as the old French man said, only less politely. Superior can't harm you while Whitefish is at your back.

We passed the steamer Mapleton, of the Tree Line, bound to Fort William to lay up, and the Selkirk, Canada Steamships package freighter, bound up light, off Gros Cap. In the early dusk of 5 p.m. we turned off the Birch Point ranges for the Soo. Before 7 we entered No. 4 American lock for the last time in 1938.

While we were being lowered twenty feet to pass the St. Mary's rapids it rather blurred one's eyes with more than rain to see the crew's Christmas shopping. Watchman, fireman, deckhand, man after man, slipped up to the wheelhouse, tapped on the door, and braced the captain for advances of a buck, two bucks, half a buck, six bits. And he, knowing what was coming, was all ready for them, even to the exact change and the little notebook. He had been there himself, thirty years before.

Cash in hand they scrambled up the ladder to the lock level as the Durham sank lower and lower with the opened valves.

Under the canal lights, in the drizzle, they clustered around the two little waterproofed, bumboat carts which zealous hawkers had trundled along the concrete pier. Tobacco, cigarettes, chewing gum, candy, magazines, newspapers, postcards, souvenirs; ship portraits, picture frames like steering wheels, little compasses, spoons, match boxes, scarfs, pins, brooches, porcupine quill work, birch bark canoes. They were treasures from "up above," as Superior is called, which will be prized by little girls and boys, or perhaps big girls and boys, when Juneau or Hector or Mac or Tom or Dick or Harry fills the stocking two Saturday nights hence.

And believe me, boys, a two-bit souvenir from a deckhand braving Superior for $1.83 a day rates just as richly in the log book kept away up in the highest wheelhouse of all as does the gold and frankincense and myrrh brought from the east to Bethlehem by the three kings.

One toot ended this soliloquy and brought the crew scrambling down the ladder. At 7 this Sunday evening, when good folks were seated waiting for the first hymn, the Durham slipped out of the emptied lock and around to the coal dock and bunkered 50 more tons of coal and 20 bags of coke. Then she eased along down to Nine Mile Point on Hay Lake and anchored for the night at 8.45 p.m.—-abreast of the wheat-laden steamer Bricoldoc, which had left Fort William three hours ahead of us. The moon tried to come through and tempt Capt Finn down the buoyless channels.

"Not worth it," said he, resolutely.

Instead he telephoned a brief one-way message to his wife in Toronto--he did that every night—-left orders to be called at a quarter to six at the latest, and earlier if it cleared —-and turned in. His message went from his desk in the wheelhouse to VBB at the Soo, from VBB to Arrow Steamships in Toronto, from Arrow Steamships to 94 Glenmount Park road. A few words giving a position but what a godsend to one watching and waiting a safe return, to whom every weather forecast is more important than a proclamation in the Court Gazette!


AT 7 o'clock on the dark morning of Monday, Dec. 5th, in a drizzling rain mixed with snow, we commenced heaving up, at the same time as the Paterson line freighter, Bricoldoc, Capt. Cecil Clarke.

Two short toots and two short toots from us, as our port anchor grew.

That meant, as translated from the bridge, "Lay on the old gad, Cecil, we'll be after you!" The Bricoldoc, being first to anchor, was given first chance to get away. Capt. Clarke responded with four short toots, and passed by as we hosed the mud of Nine Mile Point from the stockless anchor before heaving it into the hawsepipe.

The Bricoldoc had no telephone. She was bound for Goderich, a tough billet if the promised northwester came down the lake.

"Tune in with your radio set," hailed Capt. Finn, "and we'll relay our weather reports on the way down."

"I'll get the engineer's set ready," hailed back Capt. Clarke.

So, in very neighborly fashion we followed the Bricoldoc across Hay Lake and through the Stone Cut, and so on down, squirming every time she did in order to find the channel stakes which marked where the gas buoys should have been. We could see them hauled up for winter, here and there, as we passed some of the cribs. We both steered on the red or green or white ranges, still burning. It was a nerve-wracking job taking narrow channels dead slow knowing a 385-foot steamer couldn't turn in a 300-foot channel, and that there were places where to swing a few feet off meant a fifty thousand dollar repair job. One touch of 6,000 tons of deadweight on the rock floor so close below, and the Robert P. Durham would need a new bottom. Every range was checked and double-checked on the two compasses and the record of previous passages.

"Pshaw," said Capt. Finn, up since six and yearning for breakfast, "it's all in the day's work."

His yearnings were unsatisfied until twelve o'clock when we were well out of the St. Mary's River and on our way down Lake Huron, with nothing ahead of us but Point Edward, two hundred and twenty miles to the south. Only then did he leave the wheelhouse for the breakfast table, just as the first mate's watch were coming in for dinner.

The Bricoldoc had dropped astern to coal at Lime Island, two hours before, and we saw no more of her.

An American freighter, bound down light, the Robert L. Ireland, had anchored for the night in our company at Nine Mile Point. Being light she had overhauled us after we all hove up and led us down to Detroit. But not liking the probabilities—-northwest winds and snow, and the actualities, northeast wind and rain, she rounded-to at Detour, and anchored at 11.05, leaving us to face Lake Huron alone.

One straggler, the green and white package freighter, W. W. Attebury ("Double double you, attaboy" to us) of the Great Lakes Transit Lines, passed, upward bound, while we were still on the river. After her we had no company but the gulls.


TUESDAY, Dec. 6th, "broke fair" for the Robert P. Durham, with the amber lights of the new Sarnia-Port Huron highway bridge making a rainbow arch in combination with the red and green range lights just ahead. She was at Point Edward, at the entrance to the St. Clair River; two hundred and twenty-five miles of Lake Huron astern after a quiet night, ninety miles of dredged channel in lake and river ahead. The time was 6.53 a.m., and it was still dark, as dark as on Lake Huron at midnight.

A little launch with a light in the bow brought the morning papers alongside. Two rowboats, lightless, and with smugglers pulling like Hanlan to get to Canada before daylight, crossed her bows. Otherwise she had the river much to herself. The Robert L. Ireland, coming on after things had cleared up, had overhauled her in the lake an hour before and passed down ahead of her. Being empty she could travel faster.

Five minutes' glorious sunlight, the first in over a week, greeted the Durham while she was still in the St. Clair River, listening to Jim Hunter give The Telegram's news and weather. It (the sunlight, not the forecast). Lighted up the innumerable bungalows on the American shore, and the old salt works at Algonac, red and ruined, like the shell of some brick academy. Then it faded and slate and copper snow-clouds took its place and the wind came screaming in from Lake St. Clair, as the Durham entered it at half-past nine.

Over the telephone, Captain Finn joked with Capt. Patterson, of the Renvoyle, which was then entering Lake Erie about having to take a beating on this littlest of the lakes, St. Clair, after Superior and Huron had given him nothing but pats on the back. But Capt. Patterson said Erie was kind as the rest of the big boys —- and invited "Schooner Days" aboard when we would both be in Toronto.

By 11.40 we had crossed the twenty-mile ditch dug through Lake St. Clair, and were shoving by the towers and skyscrapers of Detroit, and wondering whether we could pop under the mile-high bridge that spans the river.

At 2.23 p.m. we entered Lake Erie at the Detroit River light seven and a half hours after leaving Lake Huron. Wonderful time for the ninety miles, but credit must be given to the current, running sometimes five and six miles an hour, which speeds Superior to the sea through those magnificent straits.

Down Lake Erie then we snorted all Tuesday, pushed by a growing west wind that blew our smoke ahead of us in a long black pennant. Telephone reports from the Renvoyle, sixty miles ahead of us, supplemented by reports from the fish tugs Goodison and B. & H., setting nets off Rondeau, kept up hopes of a good run. The weather forecasts were hopeful too—-northwest and southwest winds, rain or snow.

Erie was fairly smooth, but, as the wind held, the seas lengthened, and by night the Robert P. Durham was blowing her nose vigorously, long rolls of white foam tumbling before her bow as she pushed down the lake. She snorted through her hawsepipes with so much noise one expected her pair of 2,000-lb anchors to shoot out of her.

By four o'clock in the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 7th, the wind had backed to the southwest, with rain, and the seas were slapping aboard on the starboard side from the break of the forward house to the aftermost hatch.

We could count the anchor lights of five steamers sheltering in the lee of Long Point, as we swung past in the darkness, and a big fellow was seen outside, turning over slowly, just holding his own while he made up his mind whether to come on or ease back under the Point for daylight. Courage must have prevailed over caution, for eventually he went on. We had the wind west and northwest again after passing the point, and no more seas came aboard. It rained some more, and, with daylight, purple squalls smoked up to leeward, and the December thermometer rose to the summer height of sixty.

It cleared to the north, we even saw pale blue sky for a few minutes while abreast of the Mohawk light off Port Maitland. At 9 o'clock we saw the welcome outline of Sugar Loaf Bluff, and the stacks and elevators of Port Colborne, where our Erie journey ended.

Ever the man of his word, Capt. Finn brought the Durham into Port Colborne on the dot at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7th, as he said he would.

Then began the slow, patient descent of the eight steps from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, which charts call the Welland Canal, and the lake freighters call the English Channel.

'Cause why? Because, to their mind, it is entirely manned by Old Countrymen. This isn't quite so, and if it were it might be worse. There is a good deal of feeling on the part of native-born Canadians in the trade against "invasion" by what they call "chirpers," "sparrows" and "broncos." There is always this unfortunate rivalry over jobs, (and Canadians get the same welcome in London, too, let me tell you) but somehow we all get together and stay together when the job pays $1.10 a day, less the price of the army blanket you are buried in. God bless, chirpers, sparrows, broncos and Canaydians all alike then!

As the Durham was passing down, one of the crew put the English Channel myth to the test. The steel nosing of all the concrete lock edges had just been painted for the season.

"What's all the decoration for, myte?" he mimicked.

"Ain't ye 'eard?" promptly answered a lockman, just as quick on the trigger as the Canadian. "King Jahge an' Queen Helizabeth's comn' aht!

You can't hurry in the canal. Two hours and thirty-three minutes is the allotted time to reach the guard lock from Port Colborne, and to make it in 2.32 is expensive. It just costs a $100 fine. Capt. Finn made it in 2.33 flat; if his spearpole had been 10 feet longer he would have been paying $10 a foot for it After that we made very good time indeed in that mixture of snow and rain—-7 1/2 hours for the eight flight locks. It was simply miraculous how the two wheelsmen, Fred Colman and Arthur Pogson, threaded the 46-foot wide Durham into the 85-foot wide locks, laying her right alongside the required wall without a scratch. And how Capt. Finn stopped her to the inch at the required spot. Six thousand tons of cargo and a thousand tons of ship—-same as a loaded freight train of a hundred and forty 50-ton cars! The only brake was the pull of the propeller in reverse, when he would give her the bells and back on her; about the same as the locomotive trying to back up against the push of all these cars.

But we came through scatheless. By a quarter to nine we were back on old familiar Lake Ontario with the Royal York's flood-lit tower top pricking the northern sky. And at midnight we got our mooring wires out on Pier Four, between the terminal warehouse and the elevators in Toronto harbor; and friends returning from an after theatre supper took me and my dunnage bag home.



Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
15 Dec 1938
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.389285184733 Longitude: -80.429249328125
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.2014267690863 Longitude: -82.328357734375
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.4136988530328 Longitude: -79.300818671875
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 47.0080499671804 Longitude: -85.241921546875
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.042777 Longitude: -79.2125
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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"Robert P. Durham" Came Through While Five Sheltered Under Long Point: Schooner Days CCCLXXV (375)