Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Seagoing Bishop Circuit Riding Pilot: Schooner Days DXCVII (597)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 3 Jul 1943
Full Text
Seagoing Bishop Circuit Riding Pilot
Schooner Days DXCVII (597)

by C. H. J. Snider


James Richardson, naval lieutenant and clergyman, hero of 1812, knew the ups and downs of lake tides - Cutter that climbed the crib - Antics of the levels


BISHOP RICHARDSON — Lieut. James Richardson, master pilot in the War of 1812, who became the Rev. James Richardson, D.D., Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church — knew about high water on the lakes a hundred and twenty-five years ago. From his "Reminiscences," his grandson, Jas. R. Roaf, K.C., favors Schooner Days with this quotation:

"The first marked rise was in 1818, July, when, standing to the anchorage at the mouth of the Niagara River, I observed the leadsman call out 'one-half-three,' (meaning 3 1/2 fathoms) where the depth had never exceeded three fathoms. My attention thus called to it, I looked over the quarter at the marks on the line, and saw that he hove correctly. I supposed it might be local, caused by the removal of the sand in the channel, but on returning to Kingston I found it to be general, so much so that the Merchants Wharves, which at the highest rise of the water previously had stood three feet above it, were now submerged, and the plank covering them was swept away. They built up these wharves about three feet higher, but in 1818 they were again overflowed, and thus, from the year 1816 the water in all the large lakes has been at least three feet, and in several seasons about six feet above what was ever known in previous to that period, or at least of which we have any word.

"This is a phenomenon yet unexplained, and well worthy of scientific investigation. The cause cannot be casual or occasional, as is evident from the sudden rise in 1815, and its continuance during the subsequent 48 years."

The "Reminiscences" must have been written in 1863, and carry the authentic high water record back many years earlier than department observations. The quaint hail of the leadsman "One half three" to indicate three and a half fathoms, or 19 feet 6 inches, has a corroborative ring. Soundings were, for convenience in understanding them, always hailed with the fraction first, somewhat in this fashion, "And-a-half-three," "a-quarter-less—twain," meaning 3 1/2 and 1 3/4 fathoms respectively. The hails with the fractions first were as much a part of the sounding ritual as the left-handed heaving line, the rope for which was so laid that the coils rendered easily in the left hand while the right was used to swing the lead for the cast.

THERE is a tide in the affairs of men but none in the Great Lakes, according to what we were taught in school.

The water surface of the Great Lakes is 95,275 square miles and the land surface of Great Britain and Ireland is 88,781 miles. It would, therefore, be possible for a great artist in global surgery to drop the British Isles into the Great Lakes and have nothing of them showing except a flotsam of surplus oi's, r's and h's. But the popular belief that Lake Superior alone could swallow them all is incorrect.

The description "thousand-mile waterway" is an under-statement, for it is 1,186 miles of continuous going from Kingston at the foot of Lake Ontario to Duluth at the head of Lake Superior, and side trips of additional 500 miles are required to ply Lake Michigan or the Georgian Bay.

The coastlines of the Great Lakes, 3,075 miles fin all, considerably greater than the mean distance across the Atlantic Ocean, surround more than half of the fresh water on the globe.


THESE facts may be borne in mind in discussing high water and low water on the Great Lakes, a sore subject with many this summer. We have, on the lakes, the equivalent of a tidal system in several phases.

1. Perennial tides, the present phenomenon, which acts like a slow breathing process, spread over an irregular number of years between highs and lows, but making a rough sort of average of seven years between extremes. Who or what is doing the breathing has to be learned. It may be the lakes themselves or the land under and surrounding the lakes. Whatever it is has been inhaling since 1935 and seems to be holding its breath now. One need not look for a sudden ebb in the lake levels. They should, indeed, go higher with the Ogoki diversion. They are not noteworthy for always doing what they should do, but they will, in the process of years, sink back to approximately the level of ten years ago.

2. Seasonal tides, corresponding to the amount of rainfall, ice formation, summer heat, evaporation, and in general, the year's weather, the results being traceable sometimes a year or a season after their primary causes.

3. Spasmodic tides, due to atmospheric pressure, electric phenomena, or wind velocities. A strong west wind will raise the water of Lake Erie as much as twelve feet at Buffalo, at the east end of the lake. The water in Owen Sound harbor has been known to ebb six feet, leaving steamers stranded on boulders, and flow back within an hour or so into their punctured hulls. At Oswego, in 1907, there was a sudden suck-out which left small boats which had been afloat in deep water stranded on the cribs which were some feet below them. The lake came back steadily, without any tidal wave, and floated them off into the original depth of water in a short time. Earthquake shocks also cause spasmodic tides.

4. Lunar tides, as on the ocean, difficult to observe and record because of the limited extent of water exposed to lunar attraction, the broken character of its area, the fact that unlike the sea there is no common basic level for all the lakes, and currents are continually set up by winds, evaporation, precipitation and traffic. The lunar tide may be in operation, but many factors connected with it cancel out.


IN Oswego, N.Y., they have probably the oldest "zero level" recorded, and it was established in a very practical way. In 1837, the subject of the varying lake level being under discussion, a pioneer known to be of good memory and long observation was appealed to by J. W. Judson, a U.S. engineer from West Point. He agreed that the water was higher than it had been, and mentioned the years when Lake Ontario was high or low, in his experience. This went back to 1800, and his recollections coincided with those of others and the occasional records then existing. Asked for the lowest water-year, he remembered he said 1800, and that in that year he was quarrying limestone on a bar just exposed by the low" water. He was drilling a hole in the stone so close to the water level that he intended to pack clay around it to keep his powder dry against the possible overwash of a ripple. Not finishing that day ho left the drill in the hole overnight. Next day the lake, rising with a storm, drove driftwood over the bar and snapped the drill off at the level of the stone, which had been the level of the water the preceding day. He took his inquirer to the bar (of limestone) on a calm day, and there, three feet under the water level, could be seen the drill, bedded in the lake bottom.

So the end of the broken drill fixed the low-water level for Oswego I for almost a century.

In 1898 the U.S. Government placed a "bench mark" in the form of a brass ball at the foot of West Third street, Oswego. It is well above normal water level, so that it can always be seen. It is curious that its height above sea level seems to vary. In 1898 it was calculated at 251.898 feet; in 1929, 252.073 feet; in 1942, 251,927 feet; and in the government Lake Survey, of unknown date, at 251.58 feet. The extreme difference is only a matter of six inches; but which wobbles—the sea level, the bench mark or the slide-rule?


Laura G. Sanford's History of Erie County says that in 1808 the water in Lake Erie was lower than it had ever been known. The year of the Battle of Lake Erie, 1813, the water was unusually high, otherwise Commodore Perry's squadron could not have been floated out of Erie harbor, where it had been built. In 1838 the water was 4 1/2 feet above the mark of 1808.

On May 30th, 1823, a little after sunset, at the mouths of Otter and Kettle Creeks on the north shore of the lake, twenty miles apart, the water rose 9 feet and 7 feet, respectively. The weather was fine, the, lake calm, and there was no freshet. After three swells, each: higher than the last, the lake quietly and quickly ebbed to normal.


At Cunningham Creek, Ohio, not far from Cleveland, in 1826 the water overflowed a bank 15 feet high in five minutes. In 1830 at Grand River, Ohio, on Lake Erie, a pier which stood five feet above water was suddenly submerged eight feet, and the U.S. revenue cutter Rush, riding with two anchors down, was almost floated over it.



From Lieut. Hewitt, R.M.'s, contemporary drawing.—Key:

(1) Company of Glengarry Light Infantry and 2nd Flank Company of De Watteville's Regiment, under Col. Fischer, landing.

(2) Battalion of Royal Marines under Lt.-Col. Malcolm forming column.

(3) Two-decker Prince Regent, of 60 guns, with Lt.-Gen. Drummond and staff. She was built at Kingston and launched in 1814, as was the Princess Charlotte. The other war vessels shown were built at Kingston earlier.

(4) Brig-of-war Charwell, covering the landing.

(5) American troops in line on the hillside.

(6) Frigate Princess Charlotte, 42 guns, with four reserve companies of De Watteville's regiment.

(7) Fort Oswego, manned by 500 Americans, including artificers and one naval captain, two lieutenants, thirty seamen and some British deserters.

(8) Brig-of-war Star, covering the landing of seamen and marines under Capt. Sir William Howe Mulcaster.

(9) Town of Oswego and American vessels, including the U.S. war schooner Growler.

(10) Sloop-of-war Montreal aboard which Bishop Richardson lost his arm, engaging the fort at close range.

(11) Sloop-of-war Niagara, wearing to give the fort a fresh broadside.

(12) Schooner Magnet, standing in to the river mouth with Engineers, Field and Royal Marine Artillery, with rockets, and Sappers and Miners, firing on the American militia.

REV. JAMES RICHARDSON, D. D., Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, bled at Oswego fourteen years after the old-timer lost his still and established a low-water mark. Lieut. Richardson was master pilot for the fleet and had the grave responsibility of bringing St. James Lucas Yeo's flagship into action when Oswego was bombarded and captured by the British fleet. A red-hot shot from Fort Ontario tore off the gallant sailor's left arm, but he berthed H.M.S. Wolfe where her batteries silenced the fortress. Bishop Richardson was born at Kingston, U.C., 1791 and died at Clover Hill, Toronto, 1875—a sailor of the King, a soldier of the King of Kings, a patriot and a Christian gentleman.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
3 Jul 1943
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.65009 Longitude: -80.8164
  • Ohio, United States
    Latitude: 41.76032 Longitude: -81.28066
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.63339 Longitude: -81.21644
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.45535 Longitude: -76.5105
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
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


Seagoing Bishop Circuit Riding Pilot: Schooner Days DXCVII (597)