Maritime History of the Great Lakes
The Blackboard: Schooner Days CCCCLXI (442)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 13 Jul 1940
Full Text
The Blackboard
Schooner Days CCCCLXI (442)

(Continuing the lake story of John Williams, Master Mariner)

by C. H. J. Snider


THEY carried all sorts of cargo in the vessels in which our hero toiled and prospered. One of the most interesting, when Johnny Williams, rising young seaman, was mate, was a mixed load of oak and pine lumber and timbers for the starch factory at Oswego. The oak pieces were so long that to get them in the hold they had to drift the bolts of the after coaming of the main hatch, and lift the coaming out. This just allowed the long oak sticks to clear. Once in the hold they had to be ranged in the wings, in two long piles, with an alleyway between. This was filled with the pine lumber, and the whole shored and dunnaged carefully to keep the cargo from shifting. What pine did not go in the hold was piled on deck. And after it was all aboard they shipped two fine heavy draught horses, magnificent animals, Percherons perhaps. They were splendid dappled greys.

The horses were to work on a farm near Oswego. They were not a whit disturbed by their novel open-air stable on the deck forward, where a manger had been built from the pine boards. They munched their hay contentedly night and morn—-but they stood up all the time. Some horses never lay them down to sleep anyway. Every time the schooner tacked the pair of Percherons jibed over in their box, to bring their well-upholstered rumps to windward. Horses hate wind and rain and spray in the nose. The only time they got excited was when the vessel was in company with a big American "barque," and the wind freshened so that the stranger had to reef or furl her square topsail. The two vessels were close together, and the mighty greys could see the loosened sail billowing about in its brails and bunt-lines, and hear the thunderclaps it made as it flogged in its gear and filled and collapsed. That, and the shouts of the sailors aloft, made them plunge and stamp and heave on their halters.

One of Capt. Williams' later vessels, the W. T. Greenwood or the Speedwell, is down in the old books of the Toronto Harbor board, as bringing in a cargo from Charlotte consisting of several hundred fruit trees and one goat. Running across this entry the other day suggested the possibility of a good story of that trip, but unfortunately Capt. Williams was out of the vessel at the time it was made, and so knew nothing of it. One visualized the goat walking the triatic stay and browsing from the tips of the budding nursery stock.

Horses were often carried in the lake schooners for work purposes, but seldom as passengers. Before the days of the donkey engine the old timber droghers usually had two horses, which worked the capstan, hoisted in timber, made sail and even reefed it. A messenger would be clapped on to the reef earing and carried to the capstan. The beasts lived on a horsebox under the fore staysail boom, which was usually dispensed with to make room for their boudoir. They towed the vessel through the canal in place of a tug.

"Black Jack" Alfred Thomas, one of the old waterfront characters, used to tell of two cargoes of horses he carried in a Port Hope vessel. They went up to Pigeon Bay or some place in Lake Erie where they had loaded timber before and loaded horses from the shore, hoisting them aboard in slings after they had been ferried out in scows. Poor Dobbin! This first cargo was taken to Port Hope and after the vessel had been fitted for a longer voyage more horses were shipped and carried down to Halifax for shipment to Europe.

Most of his first vessel's cargoes were coal, grain or lumber. There was one cargo of something else, which led to Johnny Williams leaving her after three happy seasons.

It was only a small cargo, not a cargo at all, but it caused a lot of trouble. It was one of those situations into which a man may be pushed by circumstances. Perhaps that's how the master of the vessel got there. The mate had the moral courage to push himself out. It cost him his job, but he never regretted it.

Crews were hard to find and hard to keep. Liquor was the bane of of the waterfront. It was difficult to ship a crew at all and at times impossible to ship a sober one. So this captain tried a form of "government control." He carried a keg. In the cabin he kept a small blackboard. On this were chalked the names of the crew. Any man who wanted a drink got it, and a cross was marked opposite his name. When five crosses were recorded an entry was made in the book, and the line was rubbed out and a new one begun. Nothing happened till the payoff, and then the thirsty mariners found themselves short by the price of their potations.

Fair enough, except that it was, even in the easy-going 1880's, illegal to sell liquor without a license. But as a practical measure of improving sailors' conditions it was no greater success than the beverage room of our time or the bars the late N. W. Rowell helped to 'bolish. In fact it was worse, for so long as their credit lasted sailors would drink, and their credit lasted as long as they had a nickel coming to them in wages. The old lake proverb, "More days, more dollars," dribbled down to "More days, more drinks." And whether he wanted it or not, the captain got more and more earnest drinkers in his crews and fewer and fewer blue-ribbon boys.

When they struck the fly for the tug this time the captain said to the mate, "Tell that tug man to give us a good pull out of the harbor, for this crew isn't feeling very well to begin with." Johnny passed the word to the tug. The crew wasn't feeling very well so thoroughly that not a man could climb up out of the forecastle. The captain and mate, with the aid of the capstan, got the mizzen on the vessel and a couple of jibs, before the tug cast off. The schooner had a heavy foresail, requiring all hands to hoist, but between them they managed to heave up some of this, enough to give her steerage way, and keep her clear of the land. The mainsail and gafftopsail had to be left furled. The customers of the floating beverage-room slept off their shore jag while the mate did their work. In the morning they lined up shakily for hairs of the dog that had bitten them, and quaffed with satisfaction the little rows of crosses opposite their names grew to five, vanished, and started to grow again. It was all right with them.

The weather was light, the vessel's progress with her short sail was slow, and by the time they got down near to Oswego the crew had recovered sufficiently to complete the setting of sail. They were not much good for steering or for hauling lines when it came to docking. They were not much better on the trip back to Toronto, and when confronted with their accumulated crosses in lieu of pay checks they noisily departed, vowing never to set foot again on such a hell-ship.

"We'll never be bothered with them again," said the captain soothingly.

"I'm glad, to see them go," was John's restrained comment. He was not a temperance crank but the whole thing seemed so unfair--to the vessel, which was endangered, to the owners whose investment was affected, to the poor roughnecks who were ruining their lives and to the young mate who was doing the work of four men beside his own.

But before the coal was out of her at Conger's some of the same gang were back in the forecastle, and crosses began to appear again on the blackboard. The vessel towed up to the Northern docks to load lumber for Oswego, and by the time she had her deckload piled the whole troop of thirsty originals had their names on the slate, well punctuated with crosses.

"Where's your crew?" asked Johnny, as the captain spoke of sailing on the morrow.

"Oh, they'll come to after awhile, like they did the last time."

"Do you mean to tell me you've shipped them again?" said the young mate.

"Only one trip more will they be in her," the captain promised.

Johnny said never a word but packed his bag. He did not carry it to Capt. Jas. Ewart's schooner Speedwell, where he would have been welcomed, although she was nearby in the Northern docks. There was a little vessel, the Belle of Dumbarton, lying there, laid up. Johnny hid his bag in her cabin and walked up and down the wharf, deep in thought. It meant much for a young mate to turn his back on his old ship and captain and $40 a month. But the die was cast.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
13 Jul 1940
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.25506 Longitude: -77.61695
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.45535 Longitude: -76.5105
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.9436938397788 Longitude: -78.2910400097656
  • 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 Blackboard: Schooner Days CCCCLXI (442)