Maritime History of the Great Lakes
His Own Boss: Schooner Days CCCCXLIV (444)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 27 Jul 1940
Full Text
His Own Boss
Schooner Days CCCCXLIV (444)

(Continuing the life of Capt John Williams of Toronto, Master Mariner)

by C. H. J. Snider


JOHNNY WILLIAMS had made up his. mind. He had thrown up his berth as mate—-and $40 a month-—rather than serve as a potboy in an unlicensed bar, when his admired captain had fallen into the unhappy fashion of giving his crew all the liquor they wanted and taking it out of their wages.

It was one thing to quit such company, Then what? Ship somewhere else as mate, or a forecastle hand? Surely life had something better than that, for one willing to do a man's work in the world, and one who had been doing four men's work while they slept off their booze.

The little vessel in which he had hidden his bag, the Belle of Dunbarton, was stripped and laid up, although there was still a month left in the sailing season. It was only the end of October. Ted Goldring, he knew, had recently, bought her. Why wasn't he using her?

Ted answered that question promptly. He had landed a job in Firstbrook's box factory which meant steady income all winter, and he wasn't going to lose it by taking time off for a month to run a little hooker. He had bought the Belle at a bargain, on a speculation, from Hiltz of Frenchman's Bay, and he was pretty sure he could sell her at a profit before next spring, though no one might want to buy her for the fag end of the season. If not he would sail her himself when the factory job ended. Meantime, to save the cost of having her looked after, and her sails dried from time to time, he had stripped her and laid her up. He would charter her if anybody wanted her, but he didn't suppose anyone would for what little was left of the year. He'd take anything fhe could get.

"Well, how about a dollar a day?" asked Johnny.

"Sure," said Ted to his surprise. "She's yours."

Johnny felt a bit staggered. Here he was, all at once, master of a vessel, and as much his own boss as if he had bought her.

Walking down the dock he met his old captain, who said, as though nothing had happened: "We'll be pulling out before night. Where's your bag?"

"Aboard my own vessel," said Johnny, steadily.

"Johnny!" said the old man. "After all these years!"

He had prospered in this vessel. For two seasons he was before the mast in her, qualifying for his dollar a day or whatever an able seaman's wages were from time to time. They were sometimes $25 a month, and sometimes in the fall $2 a day or better. The third season he was made mate of her.

Johnny had too much heart in him not to feel the appeal, but he was not turning back. His next dealing with his old captain was to send him, years and years later, a little money to help him out when he was arrested in a Police Court case. The old man was acquitted. But he never said anything about the money. Perhaps he did not know where it came from, for Johnny did good by stealth and is probably blushing furiously at this moment to find it fame in his eighty-fourth year.

So for a month Johnny was master of his own ship. His first act was to find a crew. Who better than his own brother Tom, with whom he had sailed the Rover and the Brothers for seven years? Tom, three years older than himself, but in many ways as like him as a twin; steady, reliable, ready to give advice, and just as ready to take orders and carry them out. Yes, he would have Tom; as a partner, not as a hireling.

The Belle of Dunbarton was, a good sized hooker, almost as large as the Brothers, but no scow. She was 68 feet long, 15 feet 6 inches beam, 5 feet 9 inches deep in the hold, 31 tons register and is on record as loading 3,360 bushels of wheat in Port Whitby. She could carry 90 tons dead weight. She was schooner-built, with a straight stem and low set bowsprit. All painted white. She had been built at the mouth of Duffin's Creek, east of Frenchman's Bay, in 1865, and one of her early cargoes was flour ground in the century-old mill on the Kingston road near Pickering, which stood until destroyed by fire a few years ago.

The flour was floated down Duffin's Creek, in scows, and loaded into the Belle as she lay in the little basin at the mouth. This was then quite deep, and a ferry was maintained to carry passengers across the creek even in "modern times" of this century. An old road ran along the lake beach from Pickering Harbor or Frenchman's Bay. It still does. The creek mouth was bar-bound and dried up a few summers ago, but this year with all the rain and the high lake level there may be use for the ferry again.

By a curious coincidence another of the Goldrings of Toronto-—William-—was, in 1874 the registered owner of another Belle of almost the same tonnage—-shorter, and a few inches deeper in the hold. She was built at Port Dover the year after the Belle of Dunbarton was launched. Dunbarton was the port of registry for Frenchman's Bay and Duffin's Creek.

So Captain Johnny and First Mate Tommy started, out in partnership again. They had to have a "crew," and the crew consisted of a boy to cook the meals, as Johnny had done a few years before in the Rover and in the Mary Ellis. But this boy was hired at $15 a month and paid off at $20, which was more than Johnny had got in the beginning.

Their first venture was a load of lumber to St. Catharines, a short trip for a small freight. This worked so well that they got another load. On the second trip, when well across the lake, it came on to snow, the first of that fall. This shut out the lights, but Johnny stood on, making short tacks for the invisible entrance to the Welland Canal at Port Dalhousie. All at once a light gleamed through the snow, seemingly right over the Belle's mastheads. He was standing forward, on the lookout. Tommy was at the tiller.

"Hard up! Hard up!" he called back, "Let your mainsheet run!"

Tommy promptly jammed the tiller hard-a-weather, caught it in a becket, and threw the turns off the main-sheet cleat. The Belle swung off and all but went clear. She had made the entrance between the piers blindfold, and her low bowsprit was actually over the pier-end when the light was discovered. The lighthouse was inboard a short distance. Her bowsprit missed the tower by inches, but the bluff of her bow hit the waling of the pier a heavy blow. She went staggering up the channel and moored on the other side, with the water squirting through her loosened seams.

The boys lost no time in throwing their deckload out on the pier and running her booms out to the rigging, which gave" her a list and raised the damaged plank above water. This ended the leak. They got at the sore spot with oakum, tallow and canvas and soon had her ready for going up the canal to deliver her lumber at the axe factory in St. Catharines.

By this time it was getting daylight. The snow had cleared. They could see the tall spars of a three-masted schooner, deepladen, lying just outside the pier-ends. She had not made as lucky a strike as the Belle, for she was hard and fast aground.

With what haste did the boys repile their lumber aboard and get the Belle up to the axe factory. They were in hopes of getting a job as a lighter, helping to get the big fellow off, and lighterage was about as profitable form of coasting as anyone had discovered. They hastily unloaded and dropped down to Port Dalhousie again; but tugs had been to work on the big boy and dragged him off into deep water and then into the harbor, so their haste was wasted.

But at the axe factory they had heard of a cargo of scrap iron that was itching to get over to Oshawa, to be melted down in the little iron foundry there, so back the Belle climbed up the long stair of the old Welland Canal to Thorold, and loaded it, and then staggered down again to Port Dalhousie. Seeing that tugs were so expensive, Johnny, Tommy, and the boy were the Belle's canal horses, and were they weary of the towpath by the time she floated into Muir's pond at old Lock No. 1! However, they got a rest crossing the lake, and on the Way Johnny had another bright idea.

Oshawa was pretty far down the north shore, past the gravel beaches where old Ontario piled up treasure for all hardy enough to take it—-if riparian farmers did not interfere. Why not get a load of gravel when in the vicinity? Nothing to load it with, was the immediate answer; gravel had to be shoveled on to a beach scow and ferried out to the loading vessel, and the Belle had nothing but a little punt across her stern.

She had had a big scow when she was stonehooking but for some reason it had not been sold with her when Ted Goldring got her. Johnny had some idea of where it might be. Anyway, the wind being off the land, he rounded to in the piers at Frenchman's Bay when the Belle stood in to that part of the north shore. Yes, as he thought, there was a good big scow, moored inside the piers, and nobody around to ask about it. So he borrowed it, and sailed on to Oshawa, and unloaded his scrap iron. The weather stayed fine and he left in such haste that he did not collect his freight but asked that it be sent on.

But he did take time to buy three shovels while he was in Oshawa, and that same day they anchored off the ashore and began scooping up the gravel, shoveling it on to the scow, then pushing the scow off the beach and sculling out to the Belle and shoveling it aboard of her. Then it had to be shoveled from the deck to the hold, and eventually it would have to be shoveled from the hold to the deck and the deck to the dock. Every shovelful of gravel had to be moved at least five times, so gravel at a dollar a yard had to pay for a lot of labor.

But the Williams boys, went at it cheerfully and loaded the Belle scuppers deep. Then they., sailed into Frenchman's Bay and returned the scow, probably the first case on record in the stone trade where a "borrowed" scow ever came back. Hiltz, the owner, had gone up to Toronto to look for it, and scratched his head and thought he must have been seeing things when on his return disconsolate he beheld the scow just where he had thought it wasn't.

While unloading the gravel in Toronto Johnny heard of a man who had a load of cribstone in Bronte, waiting to be delivered, so as soon as she was unloaded the industrious Belle started up the lake.

They got to Bronte in the night, loaded the stone in the night, and sailed in the night-—not because there was anything surreptitious about it, but they were in haste to make their November "hay" while the sun shone, or the moon shone. In other words, while the good weather lasted. When you have a ship under charter you don't want to be paying for idle days.

When this sixth cargo was unloaded the Belle was again stripped of her sails and properly laid up and the key of her cabin turned over to her owner.

After paying for the boy, the groceries, the shovels, and a snub bought for canalling, and $30 for the month's charter, Captain Johnny had $84 apiece for himself and his brother. They had assuredly earned it, working hard, early and late. People used to work for their living in those far off days. Financially, there was a big difference between November's earnings and October's, when Johnny Williams was both mate in a big schooner and doing the chores of a bibulous crew. But morally there was all the difference in the world.

He was his own boss; and he had proved that he was a good boss.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
27 Jul 1940
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.39011 Longitude: -79.71212
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.81652 Longitude: -79.04128
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.20011 Longitude: -79.53291
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.8667141861918 Longitude: -78.8231341479492
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.20011 Longitude: -79.26629
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.6361970081364 Longitude: -79.3760335449219
  • 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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His Own Boss: Schooner Days CCCCXLIV (444)