Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Seagoing Teamster's Cheerful Canary: Schooner Days DXIX (519)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 1 Nov 1941
Full Text
Seagoing Teamster's Cheerful Canary
Schooner Days DXIX (519)

by C. H. J. Snider


NAVY stuff was in the kid. His mother was the daughter of an officer in the old square rigged chequer-sided wooden walls which were then Britannia's bulwark, and he had been brought up in Oaklands, the family home between Corunna and Mooretown on the St. Clair River, his childhood flavored with daily spectacles of great fleets of schooners, in tow or under sail, swimming past shores where tales of the Peninsular War and Trafalgar mingled with the latest reports of the Fenian Raid. He wanted to be a sailor, no tea-kettle tickler, a sailor of the sail.

Through judicious political connections he was found a berth in a grocery store in Ottawa. He tried dutifully, for he was an obedient youngster, and found it quite impossible to grow up to be a big butter-and-egg man.

"I'm going to be a sailor," he told his employer.

"You're going to hell," the latter made reply.

Came home, and got a job boring fastenings in Archibald Muir's Port Huron shipyard—an offshoot of the Port Dalhousie yard and drydock— where they were building the steamer W. K. Vanderbilt. A long way from being a sailor, yet, but it was on the road.

Bearded Archie Muir, fine sailor himself, was sympathetic to the 'teen-age youngster. He told him the brand-new schooner Albatross, built by his brother Alexander at Port Dalhousie, was upward bound on her maiden voyage, to Bay City, Mich., for timber. She would stop at Port Huron on the way down for a pair of masts for the next of the great "A" fleet of the Muirs, the Antelope, whose keel had been laid at Port Dalhousie.

In course of time the Albatross alighted, swimming deep with squared oak logs piled as high as the top of the bulwarks. The laddie was told to go home across the river for his clothes. A berth in her was his, on July 11th, 1871.

"I'm going to be a sailor," he gleefully told the ferryman as he crossed back from Sarnia.

"You'll only be sorry for it once," said the ferry captain, "and that will be all your life."

It looked as though he was right. The well-bred, mannerly boy, small but strong for his sixteen years, and knowing enough about sailing already to shift a gafftopsail sheet or steer a trick, had come to a hard school, Timber-droghing was looked down upon in the old days; the vessels were clumsy boxes, all burthen and no beauty, their crews big brawn and little brains, navies afloat, bossed by foremen and section-bosses masquerading as captains and mates. Some were better and some worse. The Muir brothers, when they sailed the vessels they built, were good seamen and of good stock. If heavy-handed and tightfisted, they were fair and just to all men and generous according to their opportunities. But when they went into the dockyard and timber business they had to take the captains and crews they could get for the wages they could pay. Some of the gangs they got were hard bargains indeed.

The kid was hired as a horseboy, at $12 a month. The Albatross, like other timber-droghers, had a team of horses, stabled on deck, forward of the foremast. Their stabling consisted of a manger and a pair of blankets to shelter them from the rain and the spray. They slept standing up and had good sea legs The horseboy had to feed, water and groom them, and drive them around the great horse-power capstan when the sticks of oak, weighing tons, were being quilled up and hoisted in, for stowage in the hold and on deck, or for skidding overboard when unloading. He also had to lead the horses on the towpath when they were canalling. He was a seagoing teamster, but on top of that he was slavey, messenger and a choreboy to men, some of whom called the place where they kennelled the boarpen, but would have been kicked out of a sty by any self-respecting he-pig.

Aft in the square deck cabin berthed the captain, two mates and cook. All got their meals there at one time—save the man at the wheel —three substantial meals and a midnight lunch, from the same long dining room table.

The crew lived in the forecastle, sleeping in six bunks, narrow shelves against either bow of the Albatross, dark and airless. The shelves had fiddles or weatherboards, to keep the straw mattresses from rolling out into the floor.

The horseboy had to sleep on a straw tick laid on a couple of planks stretched across the chainlockers, which formed the seats of the forecastle. They were behind the paul-post, and the dripping anchor cables coming down through the deck hawsepipes, kept his bed damp.

Daylight never entered the pen The "toilet" was simplicity itself: the lake for a bathtub, a bucket for a hand basin, and for anything else the wide open spaces of the bowsprit shrouds and jibboom guys, used by all hands in all weathers, with all the privacy of seagulls.

At any hour of the day or night the horseboy would be routed from his sleep and given the work the sailors of the watch should be doing. If the drogher had a royal — some of them had, perched at the tip of the foremast like a pillbox cap — the horseboy would be sent aloft, to set or furl it, half a dozen times in a night. In making or trimming sail he had to hold slack, pull with the rest and coil up after them. If he dozed off from sheer weariness he was roused with the toe of a sea-boot.

Bucko Brennan bent a line to the bale of a bucket with a granny's knot, and hove it overboard. When the strain came on the knot the bucket floated away. It was a calm day and the Albatross was standing still, admiring her own wooden image in the smooth water. "Jump overboard and get that bucket," the gigantic timberman bawled to the horseboy.

The kid hesitated and the hero hailed: "Jump over before it drifts astern or I'll throw you overboard."

The lad could swim, and he saw the Bucko meant business. He kicked off his shoes, slipped out of his shirt and trousers, and dove off from the deckload. He caught up with the bucket in a few strokes, but could not well tow it, full of water, so he made it fast to the end of the line which was trailing alongside. His knot held—he knew most of the ends and hitches before he went to the grocery store — and Bucko hauled up the bucket and threw him back the line. He tried to haul himself up by it, but it is one thing to take a ten-foot dive down from a solid platform, and another to make a ten-foot soar from the water. It just can't done; and even holding on to the line with both hands he could not get enough grip on the slabsided timber-drogher with his toes to climb aboard; and he was too weak to haul himself up hand over hand. All he could do was to throw a bowline in the loose end of the line and hang on, calling to the bully to haul him up.

"If you wait till I haul you up you'll hang on there till you drown," answered the brave Bucko.

Then the boy heard a smack, ringing above the gurgling of the lake in his ears, and the rope tightened and up he rose out of the water without effort. He was pulled, gasping like a fish and naked as a fish, over the rail by the schooner's cook, a red-headed virago with arms like the oak timbers of the deckload. She was a sister of one of the crew. Most of the drogher cooks were women. Bucko was gaping with five red stripes across his face where she had smacked him with her open hand. "Don't mind your bare pelt, boy, I've children of me own," said she, "and that's more than a mule like that Bucko will ever have."

The Albatross was a fine stout vessel, well built by a good firm of owners, the Muirs, and meant to be a credit to her calling. In spite of her box-like model she was heavily rigged, with four jibs, two gaff-topsails, foresail, and mainsail, and she had a yard across the foremast, with a squaresail and raffee as well. All this was to "make time." for time was money. When she reached the Welland Canal her two deck horses were reinforced by four others—the Muirs had their own stables of canal horses—and the six steeds snaked her down the long levels and the twenty-six locks which then formed stairsteps from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. It takes eight hours to pass the Welland Canal now. Forty-eight hours was a good passage then, and sometimes it took a week.


RIGHTLY named the "raging canal," the Welland gave our boy worse shocks than the Albatross had already administered.

The day they arrived in Port Colborne a woman whose husband had been drowned threw herself into the harbor, a man fell from aloft in a nearby vessel and was picked up in pieces, and two Swedes failed to maintain a neutrality pact which existed on board, and, jumping out on the dock, went at each other with unsheathed knives.

It blew so hard going down the canal that sometimes a vessel would "take charge" going around a bend and, pitting her thousand tons of weight and windage against the six horsepower on the towpath, would pull the three teams and the horseboys into the canal. To avoid that the canaller would be moored to the bank to "ride out the gale."

The banks were lined with slippery, muddy towpaths, along which horses, mules, horseboys, and helpers and crews dragged lines, slipped, swore, fought and disentangled themselves and their vessels as best they could. Timber droghers like the 138-foot Albatross were tight fits for the locks of the "Old" canal. Their jibbooms had to be run in and topped up, their yards cockbilled, their yawlboats got inboard or overboard and their taffrail davits and catheads capsized. Even so, ten feet draught and twenty-two feet beam had to be hove through with the capstan, before the canal was enlarged.

Having survived the canal, the Albatross and our hero tackled Lake Ontario and reached Garden Island, opposite Kingston, where the Calvins had their great enterprise. The squared timber was here hoisted out and formed into rafts for Quebec.

This was the round of the Albatross all that season — Garden Island to unload, then up Lake Ontario, the canal and Lake Erie again to Pigeon Bay near Kingsville for another load, and then down to Kingston to unload. It was tough, but it could not kill the ambition of the little lad to be a sailor. That, however, was deferred for a more urgent ambition—to grow heavy enough and strong enough to give his captain the licking of his life.

Yet the same little captain— Charley Staley was his name—had his good points. He felt he was doing the best he could with what the devil sent him and he spared neither himself nor anybody else. He navigated the vessel, hired the crew, paid the bills, managed the ship's business and "worked timber" in the hold like any stevedore. He always took the starboard side against the first mate's, hustling his watch so as to get the vessel listed with the weight of the incoming timber, so as to make the mate's port side higher and harder to load. He was the "big shot." And he got big pay, $60 a month while the season lasted. Eight months at most.

The timber was loaded at anchor, as weather permitted. The oak sticks were floated out to the open sternports, hinged near the deck and hanging down to within a few feet of the schooner's light waterline. Quill-falls, depending from the timber-davits or quills in the schooner's taffrail, were hooked into the chains around the ends of the sticks, and the dripping watersoaked timber was quilled up to the port sills. Quilled by horses turning the big oak post which was the cylinder or drum of the timber capstan.

It had scores in it to take two messengers, or hauling lines, at once. The horseboy both drove the horses and held the slack, or free ends of the messengers, as the drum wound them in. He had both hands full, and was helpless until relieved, if the turns began to slip or anything else went wrong.

The timber entered the hold through the sternports, sliding down brows and persuaded into position in the wings, or sides of the ship, by breasters, short iron bars, with one end chisel-edged and the other sharpened into a spike. The spike was stuck into the ceiling, or inner lining of the hold, and the chisel end into the stick. The angle trained the timber into its required place, with the aid of canthooks, peavies, rollers, mauls, wedges, and much hard swearing. Men sometimes had their feet crushed under the bite of the square-edged sticks, or the flesh torn from their bones by the slipping of hooks and breasters.

When the vessel was loaded to her port sills, the ports were closed and caulked. Further loading went on through her upper ports, in the taffrail, above the deck, or over the side.

In the fall it was too cold and blew too hard to load timber on the open shore. The portsills and brows and skidways and the booms of timber themselves might get frozen up, or go adrift in the hard northerly winds. So the Albatross was swept clean of chips and slivers and sawdust and started for Chicago for her share of the gold of the west—a grain cargo. Her new sister, the Antelope, once got 27 cents a bushel, a $6,000 freight, for one cargo from Chicago to Kingston; one-third of her whole cost to build.


THE ALBATROSS started for Chicago. Upward bound, in the Welland Canal, there came aboard an Upper Lakes sailor who had stopped off to visit relatives at Port Colborne and wished to work his way home. He was a big man, and a revelation to our abused but unbroken kid. He was groomed and dressed like a prince; broad-brimmed wide-awake hat, blue broadcloth coat, velvet vest, doeskin trousers, fine white shirt without collar or cravat, and shining leather boots, knee-high, with decorated panels of blue leather at the tops. A typical self-respecting and successful long-voyager of the Great Lakes in the '70's, and as great a contrast to the rag-a-muffin canal jumpers and tough guys of the timber trade as a mountie to a scarecrow. He carried two beautiful hand-sewn leather bags. When he emptied them in the forecastle he folded up his visiting clothes, packed them neatly, and emerged decently dressed in blue derry smock and overalls, and ready for the hardest job mate or captain could set. And he left hanging handy as good an outfit of oilskins and seaboots as ever caught a codfish.

He carried himself with such assurance from the moment he threw his bags over the rail that all the petty bullies of the Albatross treated him with respect, recognizing a "big-vessel man" from "up above." That was right. He spent his seasons in the large carriers of the Upper Lakes, at good wages, and retired each fall for a snug winter at home in the west. Pat Canary was his name.

As they towed out from Port Colborne no one worked harder than Pat, at the long job of refitting after canalling and getting the Albatross' ten pieces of canvas set and drawing. When this was done the crowd sat themselves down on the fore-hatch and mopped their brows. They left to the unfortunate horseboy the endless task of coiling down and stowing the miles of rope which had descended to the deck as the mighty sails rose. "An' be dam' quick about it," Bucko Brennan added.

But Pat Canary had not sat down. He went on flaking the halliards faster than the kid had ever seen them coiled before.

"Why leave it all to the boy?" demanded Pat. "He's worked as hard as any of us and I'll bet he's just as tired. Let's all lend a hand." "Aw, he's paid for that," growled Bucko. He'll do it or get the toe of the boot."

"It's the toe of my boot will be ticklin' you first," said Pat cheerfully, hanging another coil on the belaying pin.

The droghermen shamefacedly got off the hatch and went to work.

It was thick weather most of the way up the lakes find when they got into Lake Michigan the smoke covered the sun by day. Off Milwaukee a tug came panting out, adding her woodsmoke to the pall.

"Chicago's on fire - and burning to the ground!" hailed her skipper. "I've a wire for you to load in Milwaukee, and I'm out to tow you in." So the Albatross put into Milwaukee, and every bridge they towed through someone hailed Pat Canary—"Hiya, Pat, how the blank d'ye get in a packet like that? How's all in the east? D'ye know Chicago's burned down?"

He was manifestly a great power wherever he went. He introduced the kid to wieners and sauerkraut and pretzels and Pabst beer in judicious quantities but innumerable places ashore.

Everywhere he was popular and would be told "You're money's no good here, Pat, you know that!"

And he would pay the shot and leave a quarter for the barman.

"Pat," asked the kid, "why can't I ship in one of these fine big vessels up here?"

"B'y," said Pat. "Them vessels is big and heavy rigged and they drive 'em like express trains. They're too heavy for a lad of your years, and they don't send b'ys to do men's work in 'em. Get some more beef on your bones, and in a year of two mebbe you can get a site in wan. Ye're a good lad, and you'll go far, but don't bite off more than ye can chew."

The Albatross loaded scupper deep in Milwaukee, and left Pat there, and sailed for Kingston. Pat's approval of the kid had raised his standing on board. Bucko Brennan ceased to persecute him, and the little captain showed himself somewhat kind. When they were coming down the river St. Clair he said: "We'll pay off in Kingston, but what you'll earn from now till then won't pay your fare home to Sarnia. If you like I'll drop you off at Port Huron as we pass, and you can ride across in the ferry and be home a week earlier."

So the kid left timber-droghing — for good. He sailed in many schooners, more happily, for the next seven seasons. Realized that the despised steamkettles had come to stay, got a steamer of his own to command. Many steamers. His first trip to Chicago he sought Pat Canary. Found him—moored ashore, proprietor of a prosperous bar; and prosperous bars were prosperous, in the newly risen Queen of the West.

Now the kid is a brisk young business man of eighty-six. In wholesale hardware, in Hamilton. Arrives at the office every morning at 9. Leaves whistling at 5.

His name? Capt. James W. Baby, same family as came to America with La Salle and left their name on both sides of the Detroit frontier and on Baby Point in Toronto.

His son, Stanley Baby, of Toronto, told his father's sailing beginning to the Shellbacks Club this week, very modestly and very well. It was a fine tribute to a graduate of the old school of the lakes whom Schooner Days has been privileged to hear singing quite recently:

"Oh, an outward bound ship is fair to see,

With her white sails set to the breezes free,

But to gladden the heart I would never think of nane

Like the outward bound ship coming hame again,

Safe hame, wi' her cargo under hatches, again."

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
1 Nov 1941
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.59447 Longitude: -83.88886
  • Illinois, United States
    Latitude: 41.85003 Longitude: -87.65005
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.22976 Longitude: -76.48098
  • Wisconsin, United States
    Latitude: 43.0389 Longitude: -87.90647
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.90012 Longitude: -79.23288
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.20011 Longitude: -79.26629
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 42.97086 Longitude: -82.42491
  • 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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Seagoing Teamster's Cheerful Canary: Schooner Days DXIX (519)