On The Waterfront
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 called here.
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 beer bottles.
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 freighter.
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 uncle's shipyard.
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 engines."
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.
Hance recalled 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 board..."
After several 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.
After clearing 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."
Hance recalled 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
Hance and 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.