Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Lee-Shore Law at Port Nelson: Schooner Days CCCCLXX (470)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 16 Nov 1940
Full Text
Lee-Shore Law at Port Nelson
Schooner Days CCCCLXX (470)

by C. H. J. Snider


"SURE I can get a cargo of coal into Port Nelson," Capt John Williams had said. "All I want to know is how much water there is at the dock. Eleven feet, you say? Certain of it? All right. I traded around there when I was a boy in the Rover, and I've a pretty good idea of how hard it is getting in there. We little fellows used to have to lie to an anchor and have our jags of lumber and cordwood and slabs floated out to us off the beach. But if there's a dock there that will take the Speedwell's lines I'll see that the coal's delivered."

Oswego people had been trying to get a cargo of coal up to Port Nelson at the opposite end and corner of Lake Ontario, for some time, but could not induce a suitable vessel to undertake it, though the freight was high. Vessels small enough to berth at the one solitary wharf were too small for the load, and vessels large enough to carry it were afraid of the exposed shore and lack of facilities.

Port Nelson was rather folding up as a port when Capt. Williams got the Speedwell in 1888. A coal cargo for that destination caused as much debate among the Speedwell crew even at that date as a charter to load coal in Longyear City would cause on Toronto waterfront now. Longyear City is where the Soviets mine coal in Spitzbergen, under a Norwegian lease.

The Speedwell was lying at the D. L. & W. trestle in Oswego when her crew heard of Capt. Williams' intention.

"That man," opined Nosey O'Brien, "would take his vessel to Mount Ararat with a cargo of arks if he was offered a good charter. Yes, and he'd bring her back loaded with Noah's empty wine-kegs. He'll never be beat for lack of trying. But carrying anything to Port Nelson now is a hard way of making a living."

"I was there once in a vessel," contributed Charley Giles, "It was the old Paragon, and I guess she was the biggest that ever unloaded there or ever will, if Johnny Williams doesn't take this Speedwell there. I'd shipped at ten dollars for the trip, and when we got there 1 broke me back heaving her in to that danged pier, for she was drawing more water than the lake sup-

"Soon's the lines was out I struck the Old Man for my freight and said I was quittin'. 'Oh no ye don't,' said he, 'this trip ain't finished yet by a jugful. We may have to heave off and run for Hamilton or Toronto a dozen times before it's over. This vessel can't lie Here if there's any sea runnin', and you know it. Ye can't leave pie here on a lee shore without desertion, and there's a law agin' that."

"T tell ye I'm quittin'," I says, 'Gimme my ten.

"Til get you ten days in jail first,* says he, and danged if he didn't try to do it. He knowed a county constable and he sent him after me to Johnny Dyneses' place up to Burlington Beach where I went to wet my whistle.

"'Go 'long with him peaceable,' Johnny told me, 'and I'll see you through. So we all three got into the buggy and drove back to the old brick general store with the cut off corner at Port Nelson. The Old Man was waitin' there for me with the J.P.

'You're charged with deserting your duty on the ship or vessel Paragon, said ship or vessel being in a position of peril on a lee shore, said the justice. 'How d'ye plead?' " 'Look here, J.F. said Johnny Dynes, who knew the magistrate well. 'You know the law, and what's more, you know all about sailing! and you're a practical man. Ain't he, captain?'

"The Old Man grunted, 'Sure, sure.'

"'Well now,' says Johnny, 'your Worship's got a good eye for how the wind's blowing, as good as any sailor. Would ye say it was nor'-nor'-west, now?'

" 'Nor-west-by north', says his Worship, who had shipped enough grain out of Port Nelson to know every point of the compass the wind could blow from, to let a vessel lie at the pier. 'It was nor'-west yesterday and the day before.'

"'EX-ackly,' says Johnny. 'Well, a vesselman like yourself, your Worship, don't need to be told that a nor'-west wind can't make a lee shore out of the nor'west side of the lake. It's agin' natur'. This side's the weather side, of course. So this poor feller couldn't desert a vessel at Port Nelson and leave her on a lee shore when the wind makes it a weather shore, could he?*

" 'I'm afraid, captain,' says the J.P., 'this charge wouldn't stand. Can't you arrange things with this man who's been—arr—well, brought here against his will?'

"The Old Man seen he was up against it. 'Here's yer ten, Charley/ he say s. 'How about stayin' on till we git unloaded and I'll give ye a dollar a day, but don't say anythin' t' anybody.' So I stayed."

"Where's this Port Nelson anyway?" demanded Barney the South Bayer, who had sailed the lakes since boyhood without ever hearing of the place.

"It's a little hole in the bank up Burlington way, close to Wellington Square; no anchorage, and no place to lie but one little wooden pier below a high shore, where you've got to hightail it for Halifax or HamiL ton if the wind comes in."

Old Nosey—not so named for inquisitiveness, but because he had lost the most prominent feature of his figurehead in battle sometime after the War of 1812, said: "I'd have ye to know that more than one vessel should have 'of Port Nelson' on her stern, for it was a fine building place long ago with oak and pine all to hand. They used to cut masts for the British Navy there, and raft them to Quebec. Maybe that's the way it got its name; it's all loyalty up at that end of the lake, Nelson and Trafalgar and Bronte and Wellington on every concession line west of the Sixteen Mile Creek.

"I can name you all of a dozen vessels that was built at Port Nelson, though you've got to search for the place with a magnifying glass. Old Capt. W. D. Pollock had the Dove built there for one."

"I saw him once," piped up an Oswego stevedore who was listening. "I was boy in a little Canadian vessel loading cordwood off the shore up there, and when night came on the Old Man had me scull him over to another little vessel, larger than ours. Ae we came alongside we could hear someone singing 'Nearer My God to Thee.' We went aft, and there in the cabin was an old man in his sock feet, sitting at the table with a Bible before him. It was, 'Qh, good evening, Capt. Pollock and 'Oh, is it you, Capt. So-and-so?, Come down, come down and welcome.'

" 'Where's your boys?' asked the Old Man, who was well acquainted with the family.

" 'Oh, they're all ashore getting a few vegetables,' and as he spoke a boat came alongside in the dark, and the boys began tossing corn and cabbage and carrots and beets and onions over the rail.

"After him singing 'Nearer My God to Thee?' sneered Panface Harry. "The old boy meant nearer the neighbors' gardens."

"Not atall atall," cut in Nosey O'Brien valiantly. "Who are you, Panface, to say whether his neighbor hadn't offered him the spuds and all the rest, or whether the boys hadn't bought and paid for them? Capt. Pollock was pious and honest, like all the old Port Nelson people.

"But I was tellin' ye about the vessels they built. Capt. McSherry that was lost with his sons in the Belle Sheridan had the Echo built there in '54, time of the Crimean War, and next year what with two-dollar wheat and times a-booming, two more was built, the George Henry, same size as the Dove, and the William Rayner, twice her tonnage. And the Una was built here—"

"Yah, the Una!" snorted the mate. "That cock-eyed scow with hor name painted U-N-A on one bow and A-N-U on the other to keep her from capsizing! She was launched there. I know, with her foresail set to budge her off the ways, and it almost rolled her over"

"It's small call ye have to be naming the Una cockeyed just because ye've twice as many eyes as good Billy Partlow that built her," came back Nosey. "Only one eye he had, and maybe that's why he spelled her name backward on one bow, but he saw clear enough to build up a fine trade in moulding-sand with her from the head of the lake to the glass furnaces and the foundries, and that's maybe more than some others could do."

The crowd gave the mate the laugh, for he had missed stays in one of his ventures in the foundry trade, and they knew it. Old Nosey went on:

"You can pick the place out yet by the stand of second growth white pine left above the red clay of the bank. There never was a lighthouse there, and there never was need of none, while they left the two old father and mother pines standin' in the middle of that grove of their children. Landmarks they were for miles around, a hundred feet high and more. The day those last two pines of the virgin forest was felled you could have got up a necktie party with every sailor from Wellington Square to Wellington, New Zealand, tailing on to the fall. It was a sin to slay them."

Nosey O'Brien was right when he said there was never a port so hard, to find that Capt. Williams couldn't get there if a paying freight offered; or maybe just from curiosity. He j was a born explorer. But we have taken so long to get him started on the Speedwell's one and only voyage to Port Nelson that it's time again to call the watch. See you next Saturday.


He Could Not Let go

"SPARKS," said he, "signal the convoy 'Am closing up closer to the enemy.'"

"'AM CLOSING UP…" crackled Sparks.

"They don't need to be told to carry on. Last orders stand till

Cancelled," said the captain. "Warn the layers we are closing the range, and keep those guns going."

The Jervis Bay, once luxury liner for sea holidays, left a wake like an arc as she leapt between oncoming death in an armored battleship and the scattered covey of thirty-eight merchantmen she was convoying.

The enemy battleship was firing salvos — "broadsides" they were in Nelson's time — not single shots. They churned the water, hailed shell-bursts on the ex-passenger liner, holed her, set her on fire.

"Closer," said he, "keep those guns going."

HIS FLAG was shot away, staff and all.

"Seize a fresh ensign in the rigging," he said, and a seaman ran up the ratlines with a flag under one elbow and a hank of marlin in his teeth.

HALF his right arm was shot away. He hinched to the port wing of the bridge, to steady himself with his left hand.

HALF the bridge was shot away.

He lowered himself from the ruins, and tottered along the open boat deck to the remaining after bridge, with its duplicate controls. As he hauled himself up the ladder by his left hand, this bridge too was shot away over his head. He started back for what was left of the main bridge amidships, just forward of the funnel. Here the quartermasters still swung the small steering wheel, which, backed by imprisoned steam, controlled the groaning rudder.

A DIRECT hit blew the forward gun into the sea. The stern of the Jervis Bay was dragging under water, with the ocean roaring into the shell holes. The decks and superstructure were aflame.

"Port fifteen," said he, "till the after guns can bear."

"Port fifteen on, sir," chorused the quartermasters, but added: "The steering gear's jammed, sir, and she can only go straight ahead."

"How's she heading?""

"For the enemy, sir."

"Keep her so. Yeoman of signals!"

"Yes, sir."

"Make 'Finished with engines' for me, and 'Abandon Ship.' I can't let — go — with — my — left — hand —"

"Finished with engines. Abandon ship. Signals made, sir."

THE throbbing of ten thousand horsepower ceased. Shrapnel bursts from the near and relentless foe sprayed the boats and life rafts as they were thrust overside and towards the dipping stern. The Jervis Bay, floundering ahead under her accumulated momentum for a death grip on the throat of the wolf slavering for the blood of her escaping flock, tossed her bold bows high. Then, flaming, hissing, roaring, shrouded in columns of white steam and black battle-smoke, her flag still flying, she plunged backwards to the sea-floor a mile below.

Holding by his left hand to a shell-twisted stanchion, teeth clenched and head high, Fogarty Fegen went with her.

HE could not let go.

WAR hath her victories no less renowned than peace. The sixty-four sailors who froze and drowned in cargo carriers and lake freighters in Lake Michigan in the great gale of Nov. 11th and 12th, 1940, and the gallant surfmen who rescued others who were imperiled, were heroes of peace like the grand legion of masters, mates and fore mast hands whose lives have been so fumblingly delineated with loving intent in this long-drawn series, now nearing its five hundredth number, of Schooner Days. They would be the last to begrudge tribute to the splendid heroism of the Jervis Bay, captain, ship, officers and crew.

Thirteen Canadians, recruited from the "Wavey Navy" as they call the long suffering R.C.N.V.R., and the "Freshwater Flotilla" as they nickname our Great Lakes freighters, yachts, and tugboats perished with Fogarty Fegen, gallant son or grandson of Tipperary. They died greatly, though their description be only "ratings" and their epitaph the official "Missing, believed killed in action." Their heroism almost synchronized with and quite outshone, the lurid drama of this Great Lakes gale.

In particular, Capt. John Williams and Capt, Charles Tufford, each of Toronto, each a master mariner and each in his 84th year and as bright as eighty-four golden guineas, have asked that tribute be paid Captain Fogarty Fegen, retired destroyer commander, recalled for service in a stop-gap auxiliary cruiser, a hastily armed passenger liner, and mow promoted to the staff of the Lord High Admiral of All.

The above recital of the ascertained facts is the best tribute which Schooner Days can pay, although is inadequacy is so apparent.


"THE OLD BRICK GENERAL STORE WITH THE CUT-OFF CORNER"—Still standing, the fine old red brick building, Port Nelson's pride, probably from Crimean War days, was a centre for "lee-shore law" and other community interests sixty years ago. Port Nelson's vanished wharf, warehouses and shipyard were all at the foot of the street, now grass-grown, where two figures may be seen in the distance.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
16 Nov 1940
Personal Name(s)
Williams, John
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.3322027593369 Longitude: -79.776821439209
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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Lee-Shore Law at Port Nelson: Schooner Days CCCCLXX (470)