Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Deckload for Dexter: Schooner Days CCCCXLVIII (448)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 24 Aug 1940
Full Text
Deckload for Dexter
Schooner Days CCCCXLVIII (448)

(Lake Life of a Licensed Master Mariner)

by C. H. J. Snider


"AND NEXT YEAR," said Old Charlie, when his new captain of the P. E. Young thanked him for the gold watch he gave him for Christmas, 1883,"I'll give you a locket and chain to match."

There had been a lucky windfall at the end of the first season, which brought the $1,200 odd nett up to almost $1,300 profit. Capt. Williams had got a winter storage cargo of grain into the P. E. Young from the Jas. G. Worts, which had to be lightered to get her into the Gooderham and Worts elevator. He tarpapered the hatches before he put tarpaulins over them, and the 4,000 bushels of grain lay in her hold as sweet and dry as hickory nuts. Every day during the winter he sounded the pumpwell, but the schooner was tight—-then.

"Like found money," said Mr. Robertson of the $60 paid for winter storage, for the little vessel would have lain idle and unearning till spring.

John Williams worked and studied, and passed his examination for master with flying colors. He took the P. E. Young out again, and again he did well with her, giving her her second paying season in a long term of years.

He took her away down to the Bay of Quinte for stone, when no better chance offered. He took her to Lake Erie when there was a cargo from there, and he took her to the very farthest corners of Lake Ontario.

Once he got a load of shingles in Toronto for the firm of Gilmours, in Dexter, N.Y. He had never been to Dexter, and few living sailors-—not even among the cruising yachtsmen—-have. He had only a small scale chart of Lake Ontario, and this showed Dexter somewhat inland, at the southeast corner of the map, past Sacket's Harbor, the old American naval base in the War of 1812. So for Sackett's Harbor he steered, laden with shingles to the sheerpoles.

The Young was a good runner, if hard to work to windward, and she made fast time down the lake with the wind over the quarter. When she got near Sacket's Harbor it was evening. He had never been in there either. The port is tucked in under the hook known as Shiphouse Point, where the American fleet was built and housed in, seventy years before this. The town is inland, south and west. Eastward stretches Black River Bay, where the blue lake water changes to brown as though poured into chocolate; and somewhere at the foot of this bay was the unknown Dexter.

There was a little island, with a bar making a causeway, almost, to the forgotten battlefield of Sacket's Harbor, where Major Gray's ghost still wanders on windy nights. They hear him shouting "Little York is avenged!" as he was doing when the musket ball brought him down. This is Horse Island, so called because Sir George Prevost wished to ride ashore there, but left his steed, and a good many British dead, behind him. The island and the bar offered a lee from the westerly wind, and young Capt. Williams anchored the P. E. Young to wait for what daylight would show.

He gave her both anchors, and set an anchor watch, but on towards morning it blew harder and she dragged her hooks off the holding ground and started down Black River Bay stern first There was no tug, and it was 20 years before auxiliary power, so he had to let her go, heaving in his ground tackle by the handspike windlass and getting a little sail on her to make her steer. Before him stretched four miles of Black-River Bay, in a lather of cream atop of chocolate. He could see the far end was marshy, and to the southward the way the yellow breakers were bursting showed that there was the softest place to hit. In half an hour the P. E. Young, with her centreboard tucked up under her, was bumping on a bar close to the shore, and the squares of shingles were rolling off her rail and washing into the bulrushes.

It looked bad for her. It looked worse for the young captain, for she was his first certificated charge.

But John Williams never despaired. He noted that the breakers died out on the far side of the bar. Beyond some willow trees there seemed to be a river mouth. The vessel had not bedded in and she was lifting a little with the seas, as she lost the weight of her deckload. By alternately hoisting the mainsail and the jibs, and giving her pressure at either end, he wriggled her over the bar. She began to answer her helm. As she did so a boat which had put out from the willow trees bumped alongside.

"Port a little!" shouted a man as he threw his leg over the rail. "We'll take you in, captain."

Capt. Williams thought from his manner he knew what he was talking about, and he obeyed his orders. The Young squirmed along some channel and nosed into the mouth of a river past the willow trees. She went twisting up the winding channel, her topmasts tearing the branches of the trees where they projected overhead, sometimes meeting, and the little, village of Dexter lay right on the end of her jibboom.

"Where do I go to file a protest?" asked Capt. Williams, mindful of his squares of shingles moored in the bulrushes and the insurance thereon.

"Don't you worry about them "shingles, captain," said the man who had said "Port a little." "We're from Gilmour's, and we'll accept delivery as they are and gather them up later. We know they're all right."

"Well," said Capt. Williams, "that's one load off my deck and another off my mind. Now here's a third. How am I ever going to get out of here when I unload the rest?"

"Don't worry about that, either, captain. By two o'clock in the morning the current will set out for the Bay and carry you clear."

It was so. Black River must be like the Napanee River and some of the reaches of the Bay of Quinte, where there is a two-hour tide, in and out. Big deep laden schooners used to pole their way up to Napanee on the tide as recently as twenty years ago, and this summer the narrator watched the tide swing the Bernice in circles in the Long Reach between Picton and Deseronto.

Anyway, the P. E. Young sidled out to the bar, and across into deep water again, early next morning. She worked up to Sackett's Harbor and went in and lay there wind bound with the persistent westerly for two days. In the interval the crew spent the freight money they had received in Dexter on clothes and keepsakes in the Sacket's Harbor shops, where they could buy cheaper than in Toronto. So busy were they shopping they saw nothing of the great dry-rotting three-decker New Orleans, which lay unfinished under her shed on Shiphouse Point, just as she had been abandoned at the close of the war; nor of the brig-of-war Jefferson, sunk beside the shed, whose gunports and eyebolts for the breechings were still visible when the writer was in Sacket's Harbor three years ago. Bargain hunting appealed more to them than historical research.

In 1884 earnings were not as high as before, for freights were lower and scarcer. Much of the year the schooner was under charter to Joseph Adamson, carrying building stone from Niagara, and how profitable the charter was to her owner Captain John Williams had no means of knowing. When the charter was completed and Capt. Williams took the Young wherever freights offered, he cleared $300, which was not bad for the fag end of the season. Mr. Robertson was as well pleased with his young captain as before.

But nothing happened. No Mary Everett. No locket and chain.

"Promises," said young Captain Williams, just returned from a sudden week in Cobourg at the end of the winter of 1884-85, "are like your piecrust, mother, easily broken."

"What's the matter with you?" demanded his father, long retired from sail.

"Nothing's the matter, and nothing's going to be the matter," said Johnny. "I saw old Captain Ewart when I was in Cobourg, and I'm going to sail the W. T. Greenwood."

"For him?"

"For him and me. I've taken a quarter interest in her."

"Huh!" snorted the elder Williams. "Never do things in a temper. They've rebuilt the Mary Everett and given her a third mast, and called her after that widow woman in the Bible, the Sarepta. Mike Troy left her up at Sarnia last fall, and young Jim Peacock is to sail her. He has bought an interest in her, I suppose. But what of it? That shouldn't take any skin off your nose. You've a good berth with a good owner, in Charlie Robertson's Paddy Young, and if you're sore about hot getting a locket and chain for your watch, blame me. I'm the man who told him not to give it to you—-yet. I told him not to spoil you by bringing you on too fast."

"Well, I'm fitting out the Greenwood, anyway, father."

So for weal or woe, John Williams cut the painter with a stanch patron; with no bitterness and without regrets. The Greenwood was a saucy schooner of 300 tons, of the smaller size among the long-voyagers. She has been built at Port Dalhousie in 1867 for Capt. W. T. Greenwood, who had earlier carried staves from Port Whitby to Quebec in the Cobourg brigantine Northumberland, and became a Cobourg vessel owner. The Greenwood was smart looking, clipper-bowed, and sprightly in the sheer; always painted black and red, with a white covering board. And at the truck of her foretopmast she bad a crowing rooster for a weather-vane.

Johnny had saved $500 out of his two seasons in the P. E. Young. He had a little more, but he had specified that he was to pay $500 down for a quarter interest in the Greenwood, and $250 more when he could. He had to have something by him for emergencies. And—

He was going to be married.



In his 84th year, CAPT. WILLIAMS set a good example to all over 16 by starting-out first thing Monday morning to complete his national registration, with the assistance of MR. CHICO, who insists on taking the place of his amputated leg. To the demand "Describe specifically the type or types of work in which you are specially equipped by training or experience?" he could reply: "Master Mariner since 1884," while Mr. Chico barked a Great Lakes "Aye, aye, sir!"

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
24 Aug 1940
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 44.00784 Longitude: -76.04437
  • 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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Deckload for Dexter: Schooner Days CCCCXLVIII (448)