Harbors are places of coming and going, of stories ended
and begun, of turning points. Today Great Lakes boaters usually call a marina
their homeport and sail from it past a waterfront of boutiques, condos, or
parking lots. Yet even here, there are still colorful characters and old salts
to be found and stories to be told and listened to.
If you can engage a boater owner in conversation who
predates the era of fiberglass hulls, a person who kept his yacht or work boat
at a boat yard rather than a marina, you may be fortunate enough to travel in
time to an era when the Great Lakes waterfront was host to nearly as varied a
collection of human flotsam and jetsam as that of any great seaport.
Our yacht is a regular visitor to Oswego, a small Lake
Ontario city that claims to be America's oldest freshwater port. The huge wood
and brick warehouses, lumberyards, fish houses and the timbered coal trestle
and flour and grain elevators that once crowded its shore have largely given
away to parking lots and urban renewal. Yet a leisurely tour of the harbor made
with your dinghy still turns up a bit of gritty commercial activity and archaic
industrial architecture. Once Oswego was far busier when the coal trade thrived and the "iron
boats" , barges, canawlers and even a few aged wooden schooners still
Oswego is bisected by a river and an old timer told me in
his boyhood that east side residents were known as "ciscoes" while
west siders were "freshwater shad". Any boy with even a modest
modicum of initiative back then was apt to be found poking around the harbor or
along the beach in search of washed up treasures such as the odd bag of bootleg
In rough seas the entrance to Oswego's harbor could be
hazardous, especially to low powered vessels or to schooners or barges in tow.
Consequently beach combing around Oswego often proved rewarding to scavengers.
One resident recalled seeing farmers driving their wagons down to the shore to
shovel up coal that had washed ashore from a wreck in the early 1900s. That
same old timer also remembered that each family would stake out a part of the
beach for exclusive scrounging rights. One stick was the Smith's territory, two
sticks in the ground marked the Jones's area and so on. Families generally
respected each others' claims, too.
One incident recalled by Oswego native Leo Garlock who
grew up on the waterfront was the loss of the little steamer John S. Parson. It happened around 1914.
The ship was loaded with lumber for the huge match factory that then stood on
the west side of town when she sprang a leak a few miles from port.
It was a November afternoon and word got around the
waterfront pretty fast as she proceeded to founder within sight of the western
gap. The youngster joined a number of onlookers on shore and recalled "We
were all there when a boat rowed up with the cook, mate, and captain in it. You
could look out and see the boat was all sunk, just the spars sticking up."
\when the crew pulled up on shore and got out, the female
cook started making a racket "Oh we lost the cat!" "Ah,"
said the mate, evidently less fond of the feline than the cook who perhaps used
to hand out a tidbit or two from the galley, "quit hollerin'. He left before
the rats." Just then the cat came along walking down the beach to rejoin
his crew. "He saw the cook and came over and rubbed up against her legs
happy as cold be to see her again."
Most of the waterfront scene from early 1900 in Oswego
has vanished. If you look closely though, a few traces remain of its past seen
in the cut stone seawall by the Coast Guard Station and at the old Goble
Shipyard dry dock now used by the Oswego Maritime Foundation. The land mark
grain elevator came down a few months ago, but the customs house, now home to a
maritime museum, still stands. Oswego remains an active port. Recently I drove
through town and saw three ships unloading, two cement boats and a sea going
Rochester's port of Charlotte hosts less commercial
traffic than Oswego these days. A couple of hardy entrepreneurs are carrying on
with sizeable excursion boats though. One of them, an aluminum hulled paddle
wheeler operated by Al Gilbert was built by its owner on the banks of the
Genesee in the tradition of the old ports once active ship building industry.
Like Oswego, this waterfront still hosts its share of old salts and colorful
characters. One who until recently was still driving himself down to visit his
old haunts was Dwight Bliss. He is old enough to recall as a boy watching the
construction and launch of a wooden schooner on the bank of the river at his
Another not as old salt, Jack Lee, once told me about the
scene in his boyhood in the 1920's. Where Shumway Marine now stands, there was
once a little marsh called Bullhead Alley where every spring spawning carp of
heroic proportion gathered to pursue fish love. Lee would give them fits when
he rowed his little skiff into the marsh then. As the panicked carp all rushed
for the exit out a narrow channel some would collide with the bottom of his
skiff with a loud thump.
The Charlotte waterfront then also had its share of
characters including several associated with the little carnival that operated
each summer on the beach. One was Captain Staines, a veteran of the Bengal
Lancers. He had been born in India and could speak nearly a dozen languages.
Staines had a lion act with one slightly moth eaten lion. Lee recalled that
Stain's wife was at least the beast's equal. "They got married in the lion
cage. The lion looked pretty worried with them both in there."
Another Charlotte character Lee remembered was a hard hat
diver who lived in a little shack under the Stutson Street Bridge. As a boy Lee
sometimes went out in his boat and manned the levers of the hand operated compressor for him. He recalled that
"Siggie slept on a bed made of boards held up by two cases of
dynamite." Fortunately, he apparently never smoked in bd. "Siggie did
some rum running now and then and he could be a holy terror. You didn't hand
him any guff. But he was always a gentlemen around women, drunk or sober."
Like several other older Charlotte area river rats, Lee
had fond memories of the Miller Brothers Boatyard, operated by Jake and Rigger.
The yard was an endlessly fascinating place for a youngster who watched the men
work out planks and shape frames for timbers and floors using adzes and large
slicks. Before long he was making himself useful as a go-for sweeping the shop
and fetching tools. Then he graduated to little jobs like varnishing or sanding.
Eventually he was lofting and getting out planks as a skilled carpenter . One
of the boat yard's more notable products was the hundred foot steam yacht, the Keelox.
Lee recalled one brother who, as his name suggests did
all the rigging, splicing wire and rope, parceling and serving. He was also a
skilled mechanic and repaired both gas and steam engines. "He was barely
literate and he couldn't tell you how he fixed it, but he sure knew
Less urbanized than Rochester or Oswego, Sodus Bay nonetheless
has seen its share of maritime activity. Like Oswego, it was a coal port until
its wooden loading trestle burned in a spectacular fire about 30 years ago. One
of the last working schooners on Lake Ontario, the Lyman Davis called here regularly in the 1920,s for coal. Sodus
Point resident Guy Hance sailed aboard her as a teenager.
In the spring of 1928 he and his sailing companion Dick
Burcroft (later to be a master mariner who skippered a freighter on the
Murmansk run) went to Napanee Ontario where the ship had been laid up for the
winter. The two teens spent several days reeving off lines bending on the heavy canvas and cleaning up the winter's
grime from the old schooner's deck.
that the ship was by then decidedly work worn and weary by then ( She was
burned off Toronto as a "spectacle" in 1933). Though by then she had
been cut down to a bald headed rig "It was 75 feet from deck to cross
trees. We had to go up there and bend on the sail. The ratlins weren't in too
good shape. Once in a while one would break underfoot."
The crew of the
Davis included two old hands Dolph MacFadden and "Tie Eye" Pippas
along with four teen aged "green hands" seeking a bit of adventure.
"The galley had an old wood stove range. The cook had a habit of spitting
in the skillet to lubricate the eggs as there wasn't any butter on
days of hard work, reeving, hauling, hoisting, patching, and dragging of gear, the Davis was some what ready for her
season of work. Burcroft was aft in the yawl boat "towing" (pushing the schooner) down the winding
Napanee River while Hance was at the
helm when the ship went aground on a mud bank late in the day. "We rode
the main boom back and forth but we couldn't get her loose'. Then there came a
little 'tide' the next morning and floated her off."
Hance was a
husky farm lad well over six foot whose muscle was well used on this trip. He
recalled the Davis had a little steam donkey engine but "they only used
that to unload coal. It went chuff chuff-one bucket at a time. they'd lower it
down into the hold, then a crew man would shovel the coal in. It took a long
time to unload a schooner full of coal." The sails on the Davis were
raised by Norwegian Steam, Hance recalled.
Once she towed
out on the wider deeper waters of Quinte and Lake Ontario, sails were hoisted
and she got under way. When she was light and had her centerboard up, Hance
remembered, the old ship sailed quite well and didn't leak much.
the bay of Quinte, the captain went below for a nap, worn out from the
exertions of re- commissioning and
running aground. He left
Burcroft with the helm and as Hance recalled he told the teen 'Dick I'm
going to let you sail her across. ' "It was a nice night, It was a full
moon the boat was light so she sailed right along, it was real nice
sailing." Hance added "We got into Oswego the next evening."
There he recalled bringing the engineless schooner in to the dock. "As we
were coasting along side the dock, Pipas threw a light heaving line in ( to
pass a heavier line over with). But the guy on shore took the light line and
tried to snub her with that. She finally stopped but that line was
smoking." Hance added "You wouldn't want to bump an old boat like
that too hard against the dock".
When asked how
he and Burcroft had gotten to know the
schooner's captain, Guy explained that on a visit to Sodus Bay the summer
before to load with coal at the trestle Dick and the captain had crossed tacks.
"Capt M- was a real gentleman. But he had one weakness. One drink and he'd
go on a binge, sometimes for two weeks he'd be gone. Once he came into Sodus in
the middle of the summer, had the ship all loaded with coal and then went on
one of his binges. Dick got acquainted with him then and sailed him around
Sodus Bay with (his sloop) the Scud."
the Davis generally loaded coal at Sodus Point, Fair Haven, or Oswego and then
took it to several different Bay of Quite ports, calling at Trenton, Belleville
and Picton to unload. However, even before the Great Depression hit hard, the
aging schooner was hard pressed to compete with the more efficient bulk
carriers and the roll on roll off car ferries Ontario 1 and 2. Leo
Burcroft meantime went off on more adventures upon wider waters. They agreed to
deliver a motor yacht down the inland waterway to Florida one fall which they
did though not without a few "adventures" enroute. Once in this
vacation spot for the rich and famous, both obtained jobs as crew on large
yachts. Hance's duties included operating one of the yacht's launches.
His recollections of the lifestyles of the "rich and
famous" and of their luxury yachts including one that was modeled after a
small scale destroyer and capable of thirty knots, were glimpses back into an
era vastly different from our own.
Yet through all the tales of far away salt water and Great Lakes adventures alike
there runs a common thread, that of fascination with the water and "messin with" boats. Whether fresh
or salt, the waterfront even today remains endlessly interesting to those who
take time to explore a bit.