Maritime History of the Great Lakes
The "CLARA YOUELL": Schooner Days CDXLI (441)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 6 Jul 1940
Full Text
Schooner Days CDXLI (441)

by C. H. J. Snider


THE CLARA YOUELL always wore green, as far as this compiler's recollection goes. His own first glimpse of her in 1890 was of a green-waisted lady with a peep of red petticoat showing at her forefoot. This was one day when she was lying at the old Conger dock at the foot of Church street, on the old Esplanade, fresh in with a full cargo of coal from Oswego. As the big steel buckets were filled from her hatches and mounted aloft on steel cables, to the roaring of the newly-installed steam hoist in the "rig," or unloading derrick, the peep of red flannel underwear lengthened to a strip as long as the schooner herself. As hundreds of tons of coal were hoisted to the cars that ran back to the great heap in the yard, and the lightened vessel rose higher and higher in the water, the red strip widened to a band half the height of the vessel, because she was red beneath the green all the way down.

At the waterline her stern curved like a clipper, but above water it flared in a straight line or slightly convex curve, further complicated by a little knee under the bowsprit, notched like a bird's head with open beak. So, at least, she is remembered. In her earliest days she had a long cutwater which probably improved her appearance, but was awkward when mitering up in the canal locks. This was removed and a straight three-foot pad of oak substituted, which allowed her to ride more easily against the lock gates.

She had her name and the names of her owners painted in yellow on her quarters—"CLARA YOUELL, MATHEWS LINE, J. & J. T. Mathews"—-as had her consorts, the Emerald and the Laura, and the barges Lisgar and Grimsby, and other units in the fleet. It was supposed then that the name of the Emerald had set the fashion for green paint in the Mathews line. Perhaps it was the Shamrock, which they had owned and lost mysteriously only, a short time before this. Thirty years later her hulk was found on the bottom above Port Hope, by a diver searching for the lost dredge Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Later, when the Youell was out of the line and the line itself out of existence, she still wore green, but with a difference. A wide white band girdled her between coveringboard and bulwarks, smartening her appearance. It was broken with bits of green at appropriate places, such as the bolster for the flukes of the anchor and the fashion-piece at the stern.

What she wore when she went to her death long years afterwards, under the guns of Fort Ontario at Oswego, is unknown, for the compiler of her history was not there at the time. But she is pictured in imagination in a faded green wrapper, smudged and stained in many spots with daubs of newer paint, where leak after leak had been caulked and patched, and caulked again, and that may well have been her funeral garb.

Admitting that the life story of a typical lake master, Capt. John Williams, of Toronto, isn't getting to windward much faster than the old wooden wagons of the lakes used to do when the wind came ahead, there's a difference in the reason for the rate of progress.

The schooners couldn't help themselves. From their flat full-ended models they often had to sail three miles through the water to cover one mile over the bottom, if the wind was against them. But this story of lake life centered around John Williams, master mariner, has been progressing thus leisurely because the compiler likes to savor the old times as he goes along, even though they were passing before he was born. One wants to browse as a bumble-bee does in the heart of a hollyhock, rather than darting like a dragonfly. He would like to make still another tack before squaring away on the straight run of the story; and if you are not interested just keep your mudhook on the bottom ready for tripping, and tag along when we come back to the course next week.

This side slant is about the Clara Youell, which young Johnny Williams knew in the 'seventies and 'eighties.

Sailing vessels, some steamers, and a few gas-boats, have as much personality as the men who build, own, or sail them. Some have more. Even those "Old Canallers," proportioned on the dimensions of the smallest lock of the old Welland Canal, and so much alike that some captains had to hang a lantern over the stern to make sure what vessel they were in if they came aboard after closing time —- even these had personality. But the Clara Youell had personality plus.

She was not an Old Canaller, but a "tweeny." That is, she came somewhere between the middle-sized Lake Ontario schooners, which carried around 10,000 bushels of grain or 300 tons of coal, and the canallers, whose coal capacity was about 750 tons. She was not of Lake Ontario build or birth, but she spent most of her life here and ended her days on this lake. She was a product of the shipyards which once hummed in Port Burwell on Lake Erie; their saws and planes and hammers and mauls making music night and day in the little village. Good white oak grew on the banks of the Otter creek, and for a decade or two Port Burwell was building vessels which went to Buffalo or Brazil as cargoes called them. The Edward Blake of Port Burwell was one of the Brazilian voyagers, and Aemilius Jarvis was in her.

The Clara Youell was less ambitious. Sailors used to say the timber that went into her was culls. That does not mean as bad as it sounds, for the culls in shipbuilding may be perfectly sound timber which is not of suitable length, grain or curvature for a larger vessel and is laid aside for use in a smaller one. That is probably the reason why the Clara Youell was not a stock "old canaller," of which many were built around her time of launching, 1872. Her timber was sound enough and heavy enough to give her forty years of life, but she lacked the appearance of a strong vessel, and they said she had swamp elm in her in place of rock. Her profile, straight as a gun barrel, made her seem to have dropped in the ends, and although she was less than ten years old when John Williams left her, with the rating of first mate, she had already undergone a thorough overhaul, or partial rebuild, in the Abbey shipyard at Port Robinson on the Welland. Weak or strong, she probably outlived the young lady for whom she was christened, a daughter of a Port Burwell shipping merchant and head of the firm of Wm. Youell and Co.

Capt. Williams gives the Clara Youell a certificate as a smart handy vessel, and one who was boy, man and mate in her should know. Others criticized her flaring bow for pounding in a head sea, and sometimes missing stays and having to wear around instead of tacking. Had it been wearing stays, it would have been all right in those tight-laced Victorian days, but missing 'em was serious. (It's all clean fun, gentle reader. Missing stays means baulking at coming up into the wind and filling away on the other tack when required. Wearing means having to turn before the wind so as to bring it on the other side. This, when the vessel's course is to windward, or against the wind, is as awkward as it is for the driver who has to make a left turn on a cloverleaf by first making a right-hand circle.)

It was long after Johnny Williams stepped out of her that the Clara Youell came into the Mathews Line. She was a good earner for her new owners, but railway competition kept freight rates down and her running expenses showed no signs of following them. She was of that unfortunate size which required as many men as a vessel of fifty per cent. more carrying capacity. The addition of a donkey engine saved one man's wages, but she still had to have three in the forecastle and three aft. She was sold to the foot of the lake and was sailed on the shorter runs by various captain-owners. She was said to be hopelessly "in the hole" with bills of all kinds but two—-receipted bills and $ bills. One dark night she floated out from Kingston without warning. She was next heard of in Oswego, whither she had gone so often for coal that she had grooves worn in the top of the lake. But this time no more coal thundered down her hatches. She lay for a long while, "manned" by a crew of one mariner, name, rank, and title unknown. We may call him the Ancient. Perhaps he was Coleridge's original. One fine evening when it was blowing fresh from the northeast, according to the late John S. Parsons, the Ancient hauled down the remnants of schooner's tattered fly, and when the wondering harbor tug came alongside he said: "Pull us out! And give me a good long pluck to windward, mind."

"Cash down?" said the tugman mildly.

"You'll get your bill," answered the Ancient. "Get me out of here before the crew get away."

There had been no one but he aboard for weeks, but it sometimes happened that a captain corralled a drunken crew and locked them in the forecastle so that they could not desert before the tug got the schooner too far from land for them to jump overboard. The Ancient himself threw the end of the old towing hawser to the tug and cast off the schooner's mooring lines, and shuffled back to the long disused wheel. In the twilight the tall gaunt three-master slowly swayed past the pierheads and began to lift and heave once more to the rolling sea. The tug made a good job of the pluck to windward, but at the end of two miles decided there could be too much of such a good thing, and blew a blast from her whistle that she was going to cast off. The donkey-boiler of the Youell gave a cheery yelp of agreement. In the dusk the donkey was heard rattling through the motions of starting to hoist sail. It was dark before the tug got back into harbor, and details of the schooner could be seen. There was a good fresh breeze blowing, but nothing to worry even her decrepitude, for it was a "fair wind" for her if she was bound up the lake.

Bright and early next morning the harbor-tug watchman spied a new tenant of the battered shelf of rocks that fronts the shore east of Oswego harbor under the hill crowned by the star-shaped fort. Dozens of schooners have gone in there and been broken up-—the Albacore, Fred L. Wells, Daniel G. Fort, Baltic, Caroline Marsh, Wood Duck, Tranchemontagne, W. B. Folger, Two Brothers, to name only a few. The new one was the Youell; he could tell her by her tall weathered unscraped spars, which were standing bolt upright. The old schooner had landed almost high-and-dry on the back of a breaker. The life-saving station had seen her coming in, end on. They thought she was abandoned, but the Ancient composedly assured them that he was all right, and so was the schooner. After breakfast in the cabin he started to strip the wreck. With the proceeds of the first day's sale of junk he paid off the tugman and the accumulation of grocery bills, and settled down to "laying her up."

After all the running and standing rigging had been disposed of he had enough funds to build himself a little cabin on the shore, for the first real gale that blew was pretty sure to demolish his home aboard the wreck. That happened very soon; but for years the Ancient was a feature of Oswego harbor, gathering up and marketing every spike and bolt and splinter that came ashore from the Clara Youell of Port Burwell.


CAULKERS ALONGSIDE, 1900, for which "Schooner Days"indebted to Mr. James A. Craig, 75 Macdonell avenue, Toronto, an old Port Hope ship carpenter.

At anchor in Toronto Harbor, 1897.

Reefed down and running into Oswego past the wreck of the BALTIC, December, 1894.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
6 Jul 1940
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.45535 Longitude: -76.5105
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.65009 Longitude: -80.8164
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.65011 Longitude: -79.3829
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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The "CLARA YOUELL": Schooner Days CDXLI (441)