Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Great Lakes in December: Schooner Days CCCCLXXIV (474)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 14 Dec 1940
Full Text
Great Lakes in December
Schooner Days CCCCLXXIV (474)

by C. H. J. Snider



Outward Bound

TWO large modern freighters, the Wm. Davock and the Anna C. Minch, have been lost with all hands, and the Novadoc and others have been wrecked with loss of life this fall, bringing the death toll up to 64 good men. The A. A. Hudson of Sarnia is one of the three last steamers to come down from the head of the lakes with a cargo of export wheat. One who has just made the round-trip voyage in her here tries to tell what such a winter voyage means.

Why are these winter voyages made?

Because the freight is four times as good as in summer, when ships are lucky if they "break even" on a voyage.

Schooner Days will in due course come back to sailing times, but why not have a look now at the brave things men of living flesh and blood have been doing this week to keep the commerce of the country rolling through the sixteenth month of war?


Young, praise be, for this means we shall have more generations of sailors for the lakes, and the navy, too. Shellbacks are all very well around a hot stove, but it takes young fellows to shove her when the waves freeze into icebanks as they fall on deck.

There are only two moustaches (smart toothbrush style, too) on board the A. A. Hudson. The two oldest men in this ship are clean shaven and have just turned fifty. Nearly all are in their twenties, too young to need a razor more than twice a week. Boys recently out of school, learning to be mates, masters or engineers.

The skipper, in his forties, is looked upon as an Ancient Mariner because he started sailing as a kid away back at the time of the Great War. He interrupted it to go fighting, but was injured in Canada and went back to sailing, He has been at it twenty years since many of these as master. He is now an owner.

The mates are much younger and know their jobs. They can work cargo, dock ship, lay off courses and navigate coastwise without the aid of gyro compass, radio direction finder or wireless telephone.

The youngest mate has to yell to make himself heard above the rattle of the winches - but not the master. He has a healthy Georgian Bay hailing voice. In the wheel-house his course orders are quieter than a good secretary's telephone conversation.

The effect is noticeable throughout the ship. The wheelsman doesn't get his head bitten off if he says "Beg pardon?" if he doesn't catch what is said.

The boys speak to one another is if they were at the pictures. They are nearly all from Midland or Georgian Bay towns and hockey is their conversation piece. They have their radios aboard and follow every match. So does the engineer, who curls at Port McNicoll. The roarin' game has even him some approach to the voice of Boanerges, when he feels that way.

Clean Ontario lads, in hockey sweaters, mackinaws, hunting boots, waders, seaboots, oilskins, sou'westers, peak caps, aviation jumpers, overcoats, mitts, gloves and anything else that will keep out the wet or the cold. All lean as laths and hard as nails. They get three good meals a day and a midnight lunch.


Big 600-footers like the Harold E. Bradley and LeMoyne, rivals for records for the Great Lakes, talk over their wireless telephones of the 400-footers as puddle-jumpers. The 400-footers have telephones, too, and call the 250-foot canal-sized vessels rabbits. We, being 248 feet on the keel, must be a rabbit, then.

Still, even after sailing in the Normandie and Empress of Britain, to Schooner Days the A. A. Hudson looks like to be a large vessel. She is 42 feet beam and 25 feet deep in the hold and 24 feet draft, double the dimensions of the old lake sailers. Her tonnage is ten times what they averaged. She registers 2,222 tons and has a deadweight capacity of 3,500 tons. Her present grain cargo is 115,620 bushels. She carries as much as 72 big freight cars.

She is high in the bow, for here are the living quarters for the captain, mates, purser, wheelsmen and watchmen, in a three-story castle shaped something like half a wedding cake. Here also the anchors and windlass and winches abide, and the navigation bridge and wheelhouse.

The main deck is flush, with nothing around it but two wires, set up on steel stanchions. At the after end are steel bulwarks and the taffrail, waist high. Between these, for the whole width of the ship except narrow alleyways on each side, is the steel after house, with two lifeboats and the black-and-red funnel and ventilators atop, and the engine, boilers and foretold deep down below.

On the deck level the house has quarters for the engineers, oilers, firemen and deckhands, dining rooms for the whole ship's company of twenty-one souls, a large galley with wide built-in cooking range, and cabin accommodation for the two cooks.

The ship is built of steel plate, but her accommodations are insulated and paneled in beautifully, polished mahogany and white enameled pine. Her master's and guest quarters are as comfortable and as well kept as those on an Atlantic liner, with tiled and enameled bathrooms and toilets.

Six high strong cargo hatches, with winches to work the derricks and the mooring lines, break the long space between bow and stern. This vessel was built at Wallsend-on-Tyne, twenty years ago, for some Scot with a yearning for his native Rahane in that land of brown heath and shaggy wood. That was her name until Northwest Steamships Limited got her. She is very blunt in the bow and full in the stern, making her a good seaboat, a big carrier, and slow. To get ten knots out of her is a triumph; eight is good when she is loaded.

And now for the voyage.


Wednesday, Dec. 4th

IT HOWLS and, blows from the southwest, with thick driving snow, while the steamer A. A. Hudson, 250-foot package freighter, lies in the lee of the freight shed on the pier at Goderich, and loads eleven hundred tons of salt and 60 of flour for the head of the lakes. Port Arthur and Fort William, the twin cities of Lake Superior, are where we have to take it. Some of the salt, specially treated, goes on to soften the alkali water in Saskatchewan. Some, iodized and free-running, is in bags for soldiers' camps in the west. Some in cartons with neat little folding spouts, or celophaned packages to make it still more crystalline, is destined for the kitchens and dining rooms of a million homes west of Ontario. Some, in marble white or cocoa colored blocks like building tile concrete, will supply prairie cattle and horses with a dainty treat in pasture and manger. Other cubic foot licking-blocks have been sulphurized or mineralized to meet local requirements. Some licks have been sawn into small cakes for dainty feeders, and some have been crushed coarsely.

Down in Nova Scotia, where salt from Turk's Island in the Indies is shoveled out of the holds of returning schooners like so much sand, one thinks of salt as just salt. Here in Goderich they make a salt for every taste of man and beast, and we have to take it west.

The stevedores worked all night last night. Thirty-eight of them. Most just kids in hockey caps. Some quit to-day at the pay-off at breakfast time, 6 a.m. Others quit at noon, getting a few more hours. But when the one o'clock whistle blew thirty or more were back on the job, postponing their Tuesday night's sleep till to-night. Fifty cents an hour makes a good foundation for Christmas if you can get enough hours together. They trundle the bags and packages and barrels and bales of salt aboard on trucks, while it howls and blows from the southwest, with thick driving snow, and howls and blows from the southwest with some more of the thicker and more driving snow.

"Will it ever let up, cap?" demands a stevedore, brushing the choking stuff from his mouth.

"It always has, so far," says Dalton Hudson, the captain.

"You'll be snowed in here for the winter," prophesies the foreman.

"Like as not says the captain, "for we're coming back here with a storage load of grain if we get up to the Head with this salt."

"You'll never get there."

"We'll try, anyway."

The loading gang are short-tempered and pessimistic from long work and lack of sleep. The captain is the one who ought to be worrying, for it is his ship and his company and his responsibility to make the voyage. But he refuses to fret or be fretted. Not even when they quit, after some haggling about another tarpaulin to keep out the snow. They want more money.

"Tell the mate to get her loaded," says he. "Give them the overtime rate."

TWENTY MINUTES after midnight this morning the last pinch of salt was aboard and the green-painted A. A. Hudson—green above and red below, black and red funnels and ventilators and with white houses and forecastle—began pushing her blunt nose through the snow-cemented ice cakes which choked Goderich harbor.

This is admittedly a poor place to mention her colors, for one-half of her was plastered with wet snow and all of her was indistinguishable in the blackest night early winter could afford. Yet one lonesome gull accompanied us out, hovering in the air above the galley door where the midnight lunch was laid out.

The snow had ceased, the sea was running down, friendly darkness of Lake Huron seemed positively cosy after the wild fury of the storm on the drift-buried shore. This recorder ran a cold tub of lake water and turned on the steam, gave himself a luxurious soak up to the neck in the hot water resulting, then a good rubdown, and turned in to a good night's sleep in a most comfortable bed.

Daylight showed Lake Huron still friendly under a sullen mask of cloud, and before the clock struck twelve twice we were grinding our darksome way past anchored freighters "waiting for weather" in the ice of Mud Lake or Hay Lake in the St. Mary's River, above Detour.

It had snowed at times through the day and night, but did not blow hard, and the four inches of ice in the St. Mary's did not stop the Hudson. Some time after the second midnight she jumped the twenty-foot fence between Lake Huron and Lake Superior and ploughed on into the greatest fresh-water sea in the world. Superior is 330 miles long and 160 miles wide and 1,300 feet deep, and 600 feet above sea level.


Friday, Dec. 6th

IT IS going on for nine o'clock, and we are trudging up Lake Superior in the misty radiance of a young quarter moon hanging high in the south. Our smoke races abeam of us in a travelling wall, dropping to the water like the barometer, which has dived to 28.61 -— but the barometer is always low on Superior.

The air is or was full of "come-in-ting with one another as to where they were going to "wait and see what was going to happen." Between Whitefish and Gros Cap, now far astern of us, four or five are at anchor, making up their minds.

We passed a couple under Gros Cap when we poked out from the blazing silence of the Soo Canal at four o'clock this morning and entered the gunmetal blackness of Superior in December. The couple were hugging Gros Cap, and in spite of the deckload of automobiles on one of them they looked like the canoes of the Ojibways who used to offer tobacco and wampum to Nanibajou, the manitou of the lake, on the huge rock the French named Big Cape. Their smoking funnels seemed busy on a belated sacrifice.

The idea harmonized with the crimson glow of the Algoma steel mills and Soo industries, working full blast night and day, and the blaze of electric floodlights on both sides of the St. Mary's river, making medicine against saboteurs and fifth-columnists.

Assuredly there is a war on. Damage to the Soo canal locks could paralyze more traffic than goes through Panama or Suez, and at a critical time. 'S a fact.

This southerly slant, which showed us our decks bare of the twelve inches of snow and ice which have concealed them for a fortnight, may only be good for a few hours, but these few hours have put us much nearer Port Arthur.

Dinner to-night, in two sittings for the twenty-one of us, consisted of:

(a) The best oyster soup ever served.

(b) A heaping plate of three portions of goose and turkey, with sage dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, applesauce, cranberry sauce and pepper jelly.

(c) Pumpkin Pie and plum pudding with brandy sauce.

(d) Doughnuts, fruit cake, biscuits, brown and white bread.

(e) Apples, bananas, grapes, figs, nuts, chocolates and cigars.

(f) Tea and coffee and fresh milk.

Everybody, from deckhand and oiler to captain and engineer, was urged to take away all the fruit and trimmings he wished, on leaving the table. It was the ship's annual thanksgiving dinner, postponed for nearly two months now since the official Canadian Thanksgiving Day, but religiously observed. Weather and the difficulty of obtaining turkeys and geese in cargo ports had caused the postponement. Though loading and unloading where geese and turkeys almost roost in the trees the cook had had to send to Toronto to get them.

The speeches were noteworthy. First Mate: "I wonder how the polarization affected that telephone."

Everybody: "Yes, I guess so."

Second Mate: "Heavy weather fare. Six meals a day, three meals down and three meals up."

Everybody: "Shame on you."

Schooner Days: "I have never had a better meal and never one so good on Lake Superior."

Everybody: "Yes, you bet."

Mr. Cook: "Eat hearty, everybody."

Mrs. Cook: "Yes, and don't forget to take some fruit and things with you."

Captain: "Well, I guess we'd better have a look around." Privately to Schooner Days: "Some owners won't stand the expense of a Thanksgiving dinner, but we always have one, whether they pay for it or someone else does." Meaning himself.

By 11 o'clock we are up with Gull Rock's red light at the west end of Manitou Island and almost past Keweenaw Point. The glass seems to be sounding and finding no bottom; it is down to 28.58, stormily low, and the wind is coming in from the west and obscuring the moon with snow-clouds. The captain sighs; sixty miles more would put us across the lake to Passage Island, within striking distance of Port Arthur; but if it comes down as heavy as the glass promises we would have to run back, maybe all the hundred miles to Whitefish. We could not pick up the dim winter lights left on Manitou in a snowstorm, to get in under Keweenaw. The navigation aids are all being withdrawn before ice destroys them.

So reluctantly the helm goes hard astarboard, and we almost circumnavigate Manitou, and steam past the Gull, teasing the extreme end of Keweenaw's copperbound claws, and on up "Bay Degree," for another ten miles, for anchorage, we let go at 1.45 a.m. Saturday, 23 hours from the Soo, under the lee of a high shore dimly discerned. We are in 17 fathoms and give her 300 feet of chain. She has not straightened out her cable before hard northwest squalls begin to chase flurries of snow across the decks like little seas breaking on a beach.


Saturday, Dec. 7th

LATE daylight, filtering through at seven, showed the A. A. Hudson horsing around her grinding anchor chain, as squall after squall of black wind scourged the grey water between the ice-bound shores of Bay Degree on the south side of Lake Superior, under Keweenaw peninsula.

"Nor shape of men, nor beast we ken," not even the Grey Beast which gave the bay its name. No sign of life ashore, after the lighthouse lamp went out—-and it may have been an automatic.

The shores were lofty and rocky, with Mount Houghton, 877 feet high, peering over a 600 hill close to the water and nameless on the chart. Where there was not rock there was solemn spruce and jagged jackpine, thickly powdered with snow, and black against the icy rocks. There once was a canal and piers near the head of the Bay, leading into Lac Labelle; silted up and abandoned now, except as a coast-guard station.

In the afternoon we hove up, steamed down the bay, and nosed out between Gull Rock, with its red automatic winter light, going day and night, and Keweenaw Point, to smell the weather. It smelt sharp, a hard sea rolling in before a hard northwest wind; both dead on end. Learned later it had been blowing 55 miles an hour.

We could make progress against it at a walking pace, but we went sidewise as well as ahead. The skipper decided to turn back. He watched for three big ones, and as the third broke he said quietly to the wheelsman "Hard-a-port." "Hang on to your hat," said the wheelsman to me, whirling the polished brass wheelspokes in swift and continuous revolutions. The skipper pulled out the drawers of the chart table for a brace for the first mate, who was taking bearings on Keweenaw Point and Manitou Island.

"Hard-a-port" murmured the wheelsman, thereby announcing that the rudder was over as far as it would go to the left.

The A. A. Hudson listed a little as she felt the helm and swung in a short semicircle, rolling gently until she straightened up before wind and sea, with her smoke streaming ahead of her, for the wind was still blowing 45 miles an hour, good train speed, and she was only going ten.

So we turned back, taking careful bearings on the points and the red light, and anchored around the corner in Keystone Bay, six miles from our first anchorage. It was really a daylight pilotage survey, to see how to get out in the dark if we had the chance. We anchored in 9 fathoms, close in, with three 15-fathom shots of chain in the water.


Sunday, Dec. 8th

THE CHANCE seemed to come at midnight, Saturday, so again we hove up and crept out around the corner and past Copper Harbor, in a diminished sea. We made seven miles the first hour, and better than seven the next, riding dry with an occasional hard bump and shake.

The wind really had eased off, and as the night wore we got up to ten-mile speed. In the grey of the morning we could see Passage Island on the north side of Lake Superior as we passed it, just before 8 a.m. Its welcome horn had been sounding for some time, and its light flashed bravely above the dark "winter fog" or "frost smoke" as sailors call the vapor that steams from the water when the air above is much colder. There had been snow flurries all night.

Sixty miles from Keweenaw in eight hours. Twenty-seven more to Trowbridge Island, heard but not seen in the "fog smoke white." The Sleeping Giant was also invisible under his blankets in Thunder Bay. Eleven more to the Welcomes, barely discernible, as our rare visitor the sun began to burn through.

It was bitter cold in the steam-heated pilot house. Windows frosted over, even where celophaned for clear vision. There was feathery rime on all the sails and rigging. The radio direction finder had to be wrapped in a blanket to save its battery. Doors and windows not intended for opening were caulked with cotton wool. Scupper-pipes were filled with rubber hose, to keep the frost from bursting them. All plumbing forward was cut off though this was rather in preparation for the grain cargo to come. Frost-burst plumbing would ruin the grain.

At a quarter past twelve, while the Fort William preacher was finishing his sermon for us on the radio, we crunched in through the ice of the Kaministiquia River, stopped at the Empire elevators for orders, and ground up to the C.P.R. place to unload some salt and hear the news.

We had been "given up for lost"— but not very heartily, for everybody with a head knew we would hole up somewhere on the south shore. Not hearing from our telephone caused some wonder. We had thought we might be able to send if not to receive, and had tried this at last, an hour before we got in. The message was received.

The boats which had made the sacrifices to Nanibajou at Gros Cap were still offering burnt offerings of bunkercoal. In other words, they hadn't got in.

We thought we would have to wait until they got unloaded, if they had come up the north shore while we were sheltering on the south, but we were in ahead of them, and by three o'clock this Sunday afternoon our salt was being trundled into the warehouse at time-and-a-half.

It was 15 below zero in Fort William when we were in the lake. It had been 35, earlier.

Next week will be told how the A. A. Hudson got back.




HE wears the grey - toned tweeds, freshly pressed, of a member of the Board of Trade. Another grey suit, freshly pressed, in the clothes locker in his stateroom.

He is a clean shaven with a dimple hiding in each cheek, and no hint of wind or sun or frostburn, the smooth complexion of the man who lunches at the country club. There is a bag of golf tools in his bridge quarters, and he plays whenever he gets the chance. He is treasurer of the hockey team in his home town, but his real passion is curling. He is skipper of the A. A. Hudson and skip of the A. A. Hudson's curling rink in Midland, made up from the ship's officers. They do well in bonspiels, too.

A minor passion is "hearts," at a cent a point. He is playing a farewell game now, with port magnates who have come to see the ship off on the last trip of the year. In half an hour he will be on the zero-swept bridge in his bare skin, to take her out, only the bare skin belonged to a bear before he got it.

A timid tap on the door of the French-polished mahogany living quarters, and a low voice asks for the captain. The speaker's cheeks and knuckles are red with frost. He is a wide shouldered young six-footer of twenty, roughly and thinly dressed, and limps as he walks. No wonder. The bottom of the right leg of his blue duck overalls flaps abound a flat piece of wood, angled to serve at once as leg and foot.

"Captain," says he, "I'd like very much to work my way down to Goderich, if you have room for me. I think I can get a job there."

The skipper looks him over. "We're full up, with two spares as it is. I'm sorry, but that's how we're fixed. If we had room I'd be glad to take you."

The eyes of the wooden-legged boy plead harder for him than his frost-blistered lips. "I'd sure like to get down there," he says. "And I really can work."

"Um," says the skipper, "see the mate. If he can place you I'd be agreeable."

As the boy stumps out one of the non-players tells him where to find the mate—-and what to say to him.

Five minutes later the wooden-legged lad is pounding around the icy deck like a whippet tank, hauling tarpaulins over the wheat-piled hatches, finding iron battens and making things snug as quickly and as intelligently as the hardest-bitten freighter hand that ever sailed Superior. Every now and then he crashes on the smooth steel plated deck, where his wooden foot slips in the fresh snow and spilled grain, but he comes up gritting his teeth.

The mate reports to the bridge that all is ready for casting off, and the shovelers hope the captain will give them a salute.

The card game ends like that, the visitors shake hands, wish Merry Christmas many times over, and scramble down the ladder as it is being hoisted up.

"Let go your bow line," says the captain as he jingles the engine room telegraph. "Did you see anything of a young fellow with a wooden leg?"

The mate, knowing what is required of him, answers: "His leg was cut off in the freight yard when he was seventeen. He's a hustler, worth his passage."

"Put him on wages, and give him an outfit if he hasn't more clothes than those overalls. And when we get to Goderich give him a job at laying up or something if he wants it."

THAT is Dalton Hudson, master and shareholder in the A. A. Hudson, package freighter. The ship is named after his older brother Archie, whose smiling portrait (also in business tweeds though he was the senior captain of the line), shines day and night on his kid brother from above the desk in the French-polished bridge quarters. It is flanked by a silk Union Jack, with the inscription: "WE ARE PROUD OF BEING CANADIANS. GOD BLESS THE BRITISH EMPIRE."



A "rabbit" to big fellows but with ten times the tonnage of the schooners which once plied the grain trade on Lake Ontario.

THEY COOKED THE GOOSE AND TURKEY TOO. Mr. and Mrs. Tom Miller of Midland, chefs of the A. A. Hudson's Thanksgiving Dinner.


Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
14 Dec 1940
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.7454304593846 Longitude: -81.7206856085205
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 46.53337 Longitude: -84.58327
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 47.40213 Longitude: -87.74872
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 48.22333 Longitude: -88.36556
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 46.50419 Longitude: -84.33893
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 48.4001 Longitude: -89.31683
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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Great Lakes in December: Schooner Days CCCCLXXIV (474)