Maritime History of the Great Lakes
November Trip With Hickory Bolts: Schooner Days DXX (520)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 8 Nov 1941
Full Text
November Trip With Hickory Bolts
Schooner Days DXX (520)

by C. H. J. Snider


ONE day last week a big steel freighter caught in an early November gale was riding it out at anchor in Lake Erie a few miles off Port Talbot. It called to the mind of R. W. Johnson of St. Thomas the experiences of wooden sailing vessels one-tenth of the freighter's size, in such storms seventy years ago. In particular a strange dream someone else had, and what happened to the Port Hope schooner Lewis Ross. Mr. Johnson, auditor and accountant in St. Thomas for many years, is an old Port Hope boy.

In those days, before steam monopolized the lake carrying trade, experienced seamanship had to take the place of power. On Lake Erie harbors of refuge were few and far between, and bad weather generally meant a run for shelter as far east as Long Point.

Port Stanley and Port Burwell could not be made safely, and there was no other shelter of any account east of Rondeau. At Morpeth, Port Glasgow, Tyrconnell and other busy shipping points there were small docks from which farmers' wagons could load the schooners of that day, but in bad weather these gave little or no protection. The sailor had to watch the barometer and get out in time to be sure of sea room. With a north wind he might hold on to the little pier if a blow didn't look very dangerous, but if it was making up from the south west he was wise to hoist sail and get out into the lake before he found himself, too late, on a lee shore. Once outside he could try to ride it out at anchor, for the west half of Lake Erie has good holding bottom; or run for Long Point, which meant a week lost in getting back for the rest of the cargo.

Sixty-seven years ago this week the Lewis Ross of Port Hope, Captain John Phillips, was picking up a load of hickory and walnut deals and lumber for Montreal, and, after taking on half her cargo at Morpeth set out for Port Glasgow for the balance. The Ross was named for Lewis Ross, prominent merchant of Port Hope, and afterwards member of Parliament for East Durham. She was owned in Port Hope, and was a stout ship of about 480 tons carrying capacity, three-masted fore and aft rig, with a raffee and yard on the foremast, and carried a crew of captain, mate, five men forward and a woman cook.

It was blowing hard all over the lakes on this particular first of November, and the soughing wind swept over the hill above Port Hope on Lake Ontario as hollowly as it did over the hills of Morpeth on Lake Erie. Young Mrs. William Johnson, nursing her baby boy in Port Hope, kept thinking of her absent husband and her brother, Robert Rankin, all that day as the gusts whitened the harbor water. Both had gone with the black bearded Captain Phillips in the Lewis Ross, and she wondered where they would be—fighting the wind in Lake Erie or shoving lumber while the deckload rose to the rail in Morpeth or Port Glasgow, or snug in the Welland Canal, waiting for the gale to drop and permit of towing down to Lake Ontario? News travelled slowly then, and a voyage to Lake Erie was as hard to follow as a voyage across the Atlantic is now.

That night, in her sleep, Mrs. Johnson saw her brother come into the room. She asked him at once what had happened her husband, for she felt intuitively that he had been in an accident. Otherwise Bob would not have come back first and alone. In the split second of anguish while she waited for Bob's answer she woke up, stark staring awake, to hear only the howl of the wind. For the following week she went about, thinking of the dream, and she told it to many. But she had a cheerful confidence that Bill and Bob knew how to take care of themselves, whatever happened. And she was right. A letter mailed from Port Dalhousie came after seven days to confirm her hope.

Port Glasgow is so small that it cannot be found on some large scale maps of Ontario, and it had even less shelter to offer in 1874 than it has prominence in 1941.

During the short run down the lake from Morpeth it began to blow hard from the southwest, and the captain was forced to drop anchor a few miles out in the open lake and await developments.

As the ship rounded-to young Bill Johnson and another man went aloft to stow the main topsail, but, as the schooner plunged violently, it was all they could do to hang on, let alone subdue this big flapping piece of canvas. At last, when it was about in hand, a tremendous gust again wrenched it from their grasp, and hoisted it balloon-like, with young Bill along with it, up, up and out into space.

Fortunately for his young wife and , baby back home Bill was a strapping young six-footer, hard as nails, and a splendid swimmer.

When at last he hit the water after his seventy-five-foot flight arid had come back to the surface after going down another twenty feet, his first problem was to find out where the vessel had gone. Swinging at anchor in such a heavy sea she was often out of sight for minutes at a time, but an occasional glimpse of her gave him direction, and he kept on swimming. Every rope on the schooner that could be used for the purpose was cast overboard, for the sea was too rough to make it possible to launch the yawl boat. The lake, Bill said afterwards, was soon full of ropes, but ropes do not float any too well and time after time one within a few inches of his reach would sink or be washed away.

After twenty minutes of this November bath in heavy winter clothing a line at last came within reach of the fast-tiring man, and grasping it, he was immediately hauled towards the ship by eager hands. Too eager, some of them would have proven, for by this time he was barely able to hold on. Realizing his weakness, Bob Rankin grabbed a line, fastened it about his own waist with a couple of half-hitches, handed one end to Dick Edmunds, and jumped overboard to help his brother-in-law and chum. With Bill in his arms they were soon safe on deck, and there the exhausted man was given attention. Those were days when only the fittest survived. These boys were very fit. "Dick" Edmunds was the uncle of a namesake, "Rich" Edmunds, R. H. Edmunds, of Port Hope, still alive and a power in the land, after sailing many schooners and becoming police magistrate, reeve and mayor of his native port.

With good anchors and chains the schooner rode out the storm, and in a day or two was able to put in to Port Glasgow for the rest of her cargo.

But other trials and tribulations were yet to be experienced, for before her loading was completed the storm came on again. Unable to get away in time, there was nothing to do but hang on to the lee of the wharf. As the storm increased it was only a matter of hours until her plunging and straining had loosened half the piles on which the little pier was built, and ship, pier, and half the little warehouse were in on the beach under Knock Nellie, the ancient landmark of the West Elgin Scotch pioneers. That is what the hill was called, from Cnoc Neleich in the Gaelic. Neo-Celtic students give various translations of it, such as Neil's Hill, or New Hill, but the most reasonable seems to be the Rev. Dr. Ronald McLeod's, "Hill-under-the-Clouds," which would perhaps be done into English as "Cloud Cap" or "Cloudy Top," descriptive of a hill usually crowned with cloud or mist, because of its great height.

Here was another predicament, but the storm blew out before much damage was done. The Canada Southern Railroad had come through from Buffalo three or four years earlier, and there was a telegraph office at which is now Rodney, five miles north of Port Glasgow. From there a message was sent to Amherstburg, and a tug came down in a day or two to pull the Ross off the beach. She set out immediately for Port Colborne, and arrived there without further mishap and locked through the Welland Canal, and so the welcome letter came from Port Dalhousie.

But this was not the end of the various escapades of the Lewis Ross on this remarkable voyage. The trip down Lake Ontario proved uneventful, and at Prescott or somewhere down the river a tug was engaged to make the tow through the canals to Montreal. In one of these, the Soulanges, they were coasting along with a fair wind and not a care on anyone's mind, when the heavily loaded vessel overran her pointing guide and bumped into the stern of the little tug. This shot the towboat forward diagonally into the bank. Immediately the tug was cross-wise in the narrow canal and the vessel was coming over it amidships. Down went the tug to the bottom—and here was the Ross for another week, jammed on top of her own tug, while the canal was drained and the boats righted.

When the men on the Ross ran forward to see what could be done for the crew of the tug, they found one of them hanging onto the vessel with one arm around the dolphin-striker, which hung below the bowsprit, and with his prized fiddle under the other. Evidently he had been passing the time with some lively French-Canadian airs in the lee of the pilot house, and so was ready to spring instantly into the head chains of the following schooner when the rear-end collision took place.

At long last the eventful trip was completed and the lumber and hickory bolts were delivered in Montreal for W. & J. Sharples, of Quebec. There is no doubt that the owners of the Ross got little but experience out of the freight, and were relieved to have her home safely at last to lay up for the winter.

Many of the Port Hope schooners were built at Port Burwell on Lake Erie, and the Lewis Ross may have been one of them. She was a fine white-hulled schooner, with a plumb stem and very neat rounded transom. At one time she is said to have been a "fore-and-after" as lake sailors called two-masters. She may have added the mizzen later. She sailed well but as may be seen from the account of this voyage, the Black Dog must have walked over her timbers while she was building, for she was far from lucky. In addition to pulling down a wharf, getting ashore, losing a man overboard and running over her own tug on this trip, she barged into one of the lock gates of the Welland Canal, and that, as any old canaler could tell you, was an expensive experience. Where she left her star-crossed keelson is in doubt. She is said to have been wrecked at Weller's Bay or nearer Wellington or the Picton sandbanks in Prince Edward County.

Bill Johnson sleeps near his old shipmates in Port Hope, on his gravestone the fine and simple record "William John Johnson, Sailor." Half a century after his non-parachute drop from the main cross-trees of the Lewis Ross he revisited Port Glasgow one Sunday afternoon. He could not believe it was the same place. The lake banks had fallen away, the creeks were dried up, the famous Knock Nellie reduced to a mere mound, and the lake had come in a hundred yards from where the Lewis Ross had ridden.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
8 Nov 1941
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.38339 Longitude: -81.84978
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.65009 Longitude: -80.8164
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.50972 Longitude: -81.61139
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.9427050316566 Longitude: -78.2924133007812
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.66679 Longitude: -81.21644
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.63826 Longitude: -81.35795
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.60009 Longitude: -81.48305
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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November Trip With Hickory Bolts: Schooner Days DXX (520)