Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Captain's Birthday Party: Schooner Days CCCCLXXXVIII (488)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 22 Mar 1941
Full Text
Captain's Birthday Party
Schooner Days CCCCLXXXVII (488)

by C. H. J. Snider


HIS crown of eighty-four years worn jauntily, CAPTAIN JOHN WILLIAMS had a birthday yesterday-—and another to-day. Not that he is twins, but Friday was always his lucky day, so his daughter, Mrs. Leon H. Watts, made him a birthday party for Friday. Today, being the second day of spring and the 22nd day of March and the eighty-fourth anniversary of his coming into the world in the year of grace, 1857, he is having another.

Capt. Williams came right in by Toronto's front door, too, for he was born within a block of the cosy modern home where the birthday party was held. His father, color-sergeant in His Majesty's 100th Regiment of Foot, was a pioneer of the whole Beaches district and saw such possibilities in it that he named his acres Kew Beach and called his youngest son Kew, and was known himself as "Kew Williams" last century. He greatly admired "Kew in lilac time" in his native London.

Captain John has made his home with Mr. and Mrs. Watts, at 57 Islesworth avenue, since Mrs. Williams died a few years ago. It was a very pleasant touch that his grandson, Mr. John Watts, merrily acted as butler for the occasion yesterday, doing most of the serving in person. Mrs. Watts, after placing the birthday cake, gay with its pink candles, on the beautifully patterned lace tablecloth, and helping to open the first installment of birthday parcels-—a pipe and tobacco, and a bulldog everybody christened Winston Churchill — beat a retreat. The luncheon was strictly a men's affair, the guests including Captain John's brother, Kew Williams, and his nephew, Walter Williams; his grandson, John Watts, Capt. Peter Shaw, Capt. George Blanchard, Capt. Wm. Malcolm, Capt. Williamson, Mr. Edward Charters and the Snider brothers.

Congratulations to Lake Ontario for growing such a grand old master mariner as CAPTAIN JOHN WILLIAMS, of 57 Islesworth avenue, Toronto; and congratulations to Capt. Williams for growing such a grand family as Mrs. Leon H. Watts and her husband and children.

ALL heads bowed reverently, the crisp curly head of the youngest steamer captain, the weatherbeaten thatch of the old Cat Hollow boy who had got six cents a bushel for barley to Oswego in the golden age of the fore-and-afters, the chromium poll of the captain whose father and brothers were drowned in the Nellie Sherwood in Georgian Bay almost sixty years ago, the silver snow of Captain John Williams, haloed in the mirror and silverware on the dresser in his daughter's lovely dining room. For it was his 85th birthday, and she was giving a luncheon for some of his old friends. Father was asking the blessing:

"Be present at our table, Lord,

Be now and ever more adored,

Bless these Thy gifts and grant that we

In Paradise may feast with Thee."

"You didn't say that grace always on the Straubenzee," commented Capt. George Blanchard, still in steam. He had sailed with Capt. Williams on that schooner the time they made the famous foray against the Bears of South Bay. "No," said Capt. Williams, "I was always in too big a hurry to relieve the man at the wheel, George, especially if it was your trick." In the lake schooners all hands went to meals together, except the man at the wheel. It was a point of honor to hurry through the meal, however good, so as to relieve him.

"D'ye mind when we made that trip for the gravel for the cement blocks for Port Dalhousie piers?" continued Capt. Williams. "Things were slow, and my brother Tom said we might try it, so we got a couple of scows for loading, and an old coal bucket, and plenty of planks and shovels and a couple of wheelbarrows, and sailed out of Toronto. The little scow we swung on deck, but the big one was too awkward for that, and we towed it astern, with a bridle onto its two timberheads. You'd have thought it would have risen up in the Straubenzee's wake, but no sir, soon as she got going good that scow stuck its nose down like a pig going to war and stood right on its head. Had to cast it off and round; the Straubenzee to in the dark-—and there was the scow, snug on our lee bow. Remember, George, how you passed the bridle clean around it? Then we hung a chunk of iron on the line we had for a painter, to keep the pull even, and filled away again. But even so we had to nurse her all the way down, for when the Straubenzee got going fast the scow wanted to root."

"And how did you make out with the South Bears?" questioned Doctor, rising the favorite upper Ontario name for the denizens of South Bay.

"Oh, fine. When we got to South Bay Point we anchored and sent the scows ashore. The gravel wasn't too plentiful, and the farmers none too friendly. In fact some of them started to talk of having the law on us. So I said, 'Well, that's all right, but the government has to have gravel for those piers at Port Dalhousie. And can you tell me where I could get a few potatoes, and a nice ham or two? And maybe a crock of butter?'

"That loosened them up—-the chance to sell provisions and a 'government contract.' I had to have the provisions anyway, and if I paid a dollar or so more they were worth it, for the farmers eagerly showed me where I could get more gravel and easier. Farther up the shore, inside the point, the water was deep enough to haul the Straubenzee in close to the bank. There was just enough room for the scows to lie between her and the shore. We shoveled the gravel on to the scows, stripped our fore gaff, and used it as a derrick and got the gravel aboard with the coalbucket. We loaded seven hundred tons in four days—-"I'll bet you didn't have any American eight-hour day," interpolated the youngest captain present.

"Dawn to dark," said Captain John mildly, "but then it got light so early we didn't let it get dark until late. We had $1,000 worth of gravel, or more. I don't remember how much, when we dipped it out of her at Port Dalhousie."

"AT THAT" said Doctor, "you didn't work as hard as the guy Blake Matthews put to work aboard your brother's vessel, the Highland Beauty. This fellow had a job to go to on a farm down Oshawa way, and he asked Blake if he would give him a ride down, taking him for the master of the vessel. Blake explained that the captain was uptown, but he thought he would carry him, if he could only make a favorable impression when he came aboard. 'Be showing yourself willing to work,' said Blake. 'How?' said the Hoosier. 'Well,' said Blake, taking him to the well of the centreboard box, where the chain came up to the winch. 'You see this hole? See the water at the bottom of it? It's got to be filled to the top before the vessel can sail, and if the captain comes aboard and finds you've got that done he'll sure be pleased.'

"So the gaffer got a bucket and began bailing water out of the harbor, carrying it across the deck, and pouring it down the hole. He had worked steadily for two hours at this when your brother Tom came aboard.

" What ye doing?' he asked.

" Trying to fill this hole,' gasped the innocent.

"'I'll bet Blake Matthews told you to do that"said Tommy. "That hole goes clean through the vessel, mister. You're only pouring the water back into the lake. If you want a trip, come along, and welcome, but have a bite to eat before we start.'"

"That was like Tom," said Captain John, with a memory-smile for his dead brother.

"When the Magdala wrung the head of her foremast off, the captain offered $10 for any man who could get aloft and rig support for what was left of the spar. All the rigging had gone with the head and the spar was as bare as a dead tree trunk. Tom was in her and the captain rather rode him because he had given some unasked advice before. Tom took a handsaw, a hammer and some nails and a few battens. He sawed off the first chunk, nailed it to the foremast and stood on it while he nailed the second chunk above it. So up the mast, making his ladder as he went, with heaving line around him to keep him from being jerked off. Then he unbent the heaving line and used it to haul up a block and gantline. When he had made these fast he told the captain, 'Gimme the ten now and go ahead and rig her. And he got it."

"And what, John," interpolated brother Kew Williams, "did you say to the examiner when he asked what you would do if your vessel broached to on a lee shore, taking the foremast out of her and she had carried away her rudder and stove her boats and was breaking up?"

"I told him," said Captain John placidly, "I would go back to the cabin and take another drink."

HERE WAS Big Bill Malcolm, of the clipped moustache, for twenty-two years the immaculate captain of the Chippewa, ferrying two thousand passengers to Niagara and back three or four times a day when the season was on.

"Strangest sight I ever saw," said he, "was the Jessie Drummond coming into Oswego in a gale, lumber laden, when Bob Maw had her. A sea smacked her square on the stern and washed clear over her. One minute she was coming fine, the next she had no yawlboat, davits, or cabin house, and there was the cabin trunk washed up on the deckload of lumber, with the man who had been at the wheel hanging on to the loose ends of the planks, and in the hole where the house had been was the cook, with the water up to her knees and draining from her hair. The cabin floor had gone, and she was standing on the lumber stowed below it."

"That was Mrs. McCracken, or she had been," put in Doctor. "She was a widow when she shipped with Capt. Maw, and he married her afterwards. I've often heard her tell about the time her galley was washed away over her ears. She thought it a great joke. One strange thing was nobody was washed overboard. Everything went up onto the deckload and the Drummond was floated off undamaged."

"She was a good vessel," continued ex-Slim, "edge-bolted, square fastened and through fastened, and she went across to Germany in the old days."

"When Jimmy Quinn had her she had a fly-by-night, or maintopmast staysail," said Capt. Blanchard. "I guess she always had that maintopmast staysail. Jim got a mate who had never been shipmates with such a sail. Jim had to show him how to set it. 'All right, Captain says the fellow, 'but before you turn in will you show us how to get it down?' 'That sail can stay up till it comes down of itself - was Jim's answer. That was his way."

THIS produced the old favorite of the Captain who kept telling his mate not to shorten sail, repeating, "The moon'll scoff it, the moon'll scoff it," meaning that the moon would eat up the threatening night. Next morning when the captain came on deck, nothing was left of the fore-gafftopsail but the boltropes.

"Where's your foregafftopsail?" he demanded of the mate.

"The moon scoffed it, sir, the moon scoffed it," the mate replied.

EVER see waterspouts when you're south?" asked Capt. Peter Shaw, of Cramahe, of Capt. Williamson, who, being of the new era, has tickets for salt and fresh.

"Yes, often," said the young man, with becoming diffidence, "but I've seen just as bad waterspouts at the west end of Lake Erie as I've ever seen in the Caribbean. I've never seen them on the other lakes."

"A fellow who was through one on Lake Erie told me," said Captain John, "that it was just as though the vessel had been passed under Niagara Falls. The waterspout came up on her from astern. All her sails were down. It tore the boat off the davits, stove in the cabin top, bust some of the bulwarks, and snapped the foreboom and foregaff as if they were matches. It seemed to collapse right on top of her, a tower of water whirling as high as the mastheads."

"WHAT about that schooner the stern fell out of?" asked Slim across the table of Capt. Malcolm.

Oh, the Halloran? She was one of the flash old timers out of Buffalo, with an Old Man who never tired of telling how good she was. He had her quarterdeck painted snow white, and you had to wipe your boots before coming aft to take your trick at the wheel. I shipped on her to load grain at the head of Lake Erie. The wind came down the lake heavy and she couldn't make anything.

"'This vessel never turns back,' says the Old Man. 'Give her the anchors!' And there we anchored in the middle of the lake and a fine bouncing around we had. She pitched and she rolled and she commenced to spew the oakum out of the butts of her deck planks, even the snow-white quarterdeck. This didn't look very good for a grain carrier. And then she rolled the mizzenmast out of her. It was rotten.

"The Old Man would have been glad to break her record and turn back then for shelter anywhere he could get it, but we couldn't get one link of the chain cable in, she was diving so in the sea, and we had to ride it out where we were. The wind came fair and we got the anchors and ran up under the foresail and mainsail to Amherstburg, where we were to get the first of our load. The Old Man put me ashore to take a line to haul her stern in to the dock, and when the strain came on the after chock the whole stern just gently dropped off her, till you could look into her cabin through the gap."

Unfortunately Mr. Watts, Captain John's grandson, had to leave just then, to get back to his office up town, so we did not hear Capt. Peter Shaw's tale of how they carried off the red hot stove from the hotel in Lakeport one night. But we have hopes.




Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
22 Mar 1941
Personal Name(s)
Williams, John
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.6721530078665 Longitude: -79.2944943908691
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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Captain's Birthday Party: Schooner Days CCCCLXXXVIII (488)