Books by willis j. Abbot

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Legends are preserved that lead to the belief that there may have been navigators of the Great Lakes before the Indians, and it is generally believed that the latter were not the first occupants of the Lake Superior region. It is said that the Lake Superior country was frequently visited by a barbaric race, for the purpose of obtaining copper, and it is quite possible that these people may have been skilled navigators.


Commercial navigation of the Great Lakes, curiously enough, first assumed importance in the least accessible portion. The Hudson Bay Company, always extending its territory toward the northwest, sent its bateaux and canoes into Lake Superior early in the seventeenth century. To accommodate this traffic the company dug a canal around the falls of the St. Marie River, at the point we now call "the Soo." In time this pigmy progenitor of the busiest canal in the world, became filled with débris, and its very existence forgotten; but some years ago a student in the thriving town of Sault Ste. Marie, poring over some old books of the Hudson Bay Company, noticed several references to the company's canal. What canal could it be? His curiosity was aroused, and with the aid of the United States engineers in charge of the new improvements, he began a painstaking investigation. In time the line of the old ditch was discovered, and, indeed, it was no more than a ditch, two and a half feet deep, by eight or nine wide. One lock was built, thirty-eight feet long, with a lift of nine feet. The floor and sills of this lock were discovered, and the United States Government has since rebuilt it in stone, that visitors to the Soo may turn from the massive new locks, through which steel steamships of eight thousand tons pass all day long through the summer months, to gaze on the strait and narrow gate which once opened the way for all the commerce of Lake Superior. But through that gate there passed a picturesque and historic procession. Canoes spurred along by tufted Indians with black-robed Jesuit missionaries for passengers; the wooden bateaux of the fur traders, built of wood and propelled by oars, and carrying gangs of turbulent trappers and voyageurs; the company's chief factors in swift private craft, making for the west to extend the influence of the great corporation still further into the wilderness, all passed through the little canal and avoided the roaring waters of the Ste. Marie. It was but a narrow gate, but it played its part in the opening of the West.

War, which is responsible for most of the checks to civilization, whether or not it may in some instances advance the skirmish line of civilized peoples, destroyed the pioneer canal. For in 1812 some Americans being in that part of the country, thought it would be a helpful contribution to their national defense if they blew up the lock and shattered the canal, as it was on Canadian soil. Accordingly this was done, of course without the slightest effect on the conflict then raging, but much to the discomfort and loss of the honest voyageurs and trappers of the Lake Superior region, whose interest in the war could hardly have been very serious.

So far as history records the first sailing vessel to spread its wings on the Great Lakes beyond Niagara Falls, was the "Griffin," built by the Chevalier de la Salle in 1679, near the point where Buffalo now stands. La Salle had brought to this point French ship-builders and carpenters, together with sailors, to navigate the craft when completed. It was his purpose to proceed in this vessel to the farthest corners of the Great Lakes, establish trading and trapping stations, and take possession of the country in the name of France. He was himself conciliatory with the Indians and liked by them, but jealousies among the French themselves, stirred up savage antagonism to him, and his ship narrowly escaped burning while still on the stocks. In August of 1679, however, she was launched, a brigantine of sixty tons burden, mounting five small cannon and three arquebuses. Her model is said to have been not unlike that of the caravels in which Columbus made his famous voyage, and copies of which were exhibited at the Columbian Exposition. Bow and stern were high and almost alike. Yet in this clumsy craft La Salle voyaged the whole length of Lake Erie, passed through the Detroit River, and St. Clair River and lake; proceeded north to Mackinaw, and thence south in Lake Michigan and into Green Bay. It was the first time any vessel under sail had entered those waters. Maps and charts there were none. The swift rushing waters of the Detroit River flowed smoothly over limestone reefs, which the steamers of to-day pass cautiously, despite the Government channels, cut deep and plainly lighted. The flats, that broad expanse of marsh permeated by a maze of false channels above Detroit, had to be threaded with no chart or guide. Yet the "Griffin" made St. Ignace in twenty days from having set sail, a record which is often not equaled by lumber schooners of the present time. From Green Bay, La Salle sent the vessel back with a cargo of furs that would have made him rich for life, had it ever reached a market. But the vessel disappeared, and for years nothing was heard of her. Finally La Salle learned that a half-breed pilot, who had shown signs of treachery on the outward trip, had persuaded the crew to run her ashore in the Detroit River, and themselves to take the valuable cargo. But the traitors had reckoned without the savage Indians of the neighborhood, who also coveted the furs and pelts. While the crew were trying to dispose of these the red men set upon them and slew them all. The "Griffin" never again floated on the lakes.

It is difficult to determine the time when sailing vessels next appeared upon the lakes, but it was certainly not for nearly seventy-five years. Captain Jonathan Carver reported a French schooner on Lake Superior about 1766, and in 1772 Alexander Harvey built a forty-ton sloop on the same lake, in which he sought the site of a famous copper mine. But it was long before Lake Superior showed more than an infrequent sail, though on Lake Erie small vessels soon became common. Even in 1820 the furs of Lake Superior were sent down to Chicago in bateaux.

Two small sailing vessels, the "Beaver" and the "Gladwin," which proved very valuable to the besieged garrison at Detroit in 1763, were the next sailing vessels on the lakes, and are supposed to have been built by the English the year previous. It is said, that through the refusal of her captain to take ballast aboard, the "Gladwin" was capsized on Lake Erie and lost, and the entire crew drowned. The "Royal Charlotte," the "Boston," and the "Victory" appeared on the lakes a few years later, and went into commission between Fort Erie (Buffalo) and Detroit, carrying the first year 1,464 bales of fur to Fort Erie, and practically establishing commercial navigation.

It is hard to look clearly into the future. If the recommendations of one J. Collins, deputy surveyor-general of the British Government, had governed the destiny of the Great Lakes, the traffic between Buffalo and the Soo by water, would to-day be in boats of fifteen tons or less. Under orders of the English Government, Collins in 1788 made a survey of all the lakes and harbors from Kingston to Mackinac, and in his report, expressing his views as to the size of vessels that should be built for service on the lakes, he said he thought that for service on Lake Ontario vessels should be seventy-five or eighty tons burden, and on Lake Erie, if expected to run to Lake Huron, they should be not more than fifteen tons. What a stretch of imagination is necessary to conceive of the great volume of traffic of the present time, passing Detroit in little schooners not much larger than catboats that skim around the lakes! Imagine such a corporation as the Northern Steamship Company, with its big fleet of steel steamers, attempting to handle its freight business in sailing vessels of a size that the average wharf-rat of the present time would disdain to pilot. What a rush of business there would be at the Marine Post-Office in Detroit, if some day this company would decide to cut off three of its large steamers and send out enough schooners of the size recommended by the English officer, to take their place! The fleet would comprise at least 318 vessels, and would require not fewer than 1500 seamen to navigate. It is sometimes said that there is a continual panorama of vessels passing up and down the rivers of the Great Lakes, but what if the Englishman had guessed right? Happily he did not, and vessels of 1500 tons can navigate the connecting waters of Lake Huron and Lake Erie much better than those of fifteen tons could in his time. That the early ship-builders did not pay much attention to J. Collins, is evident from the fact that, when the Detroit was surrendered to the Americans in 1796, twelve merchant vessels were owned there of from fifty to one hundred tons each.


At the close of the eighteenth century the American sailor had hardly superseded the red men as a navigator, and lake vessels were not much more plentiful than airships are nowadays. Indeed, the entire fleet in 1799, so far as can be learned, was as follows: The schooners "Nancy," "Swan," and "Naegel;" the sloops "Sagina," "Detroit," "Beaver," "Industry," "Speedwell," and "Arabaska." This was the fleet, complete, of Lakes Huron, Erie, and Michigan.

"A wild-looking set were the first white sailors of the lakes," says Hubbard in his "Memorials of Half a Century." "Their weirdness was often enhanced by the dash of Indian blood, and they are better described as rangers of the woods and waters. Picturesque, too, they were in their red flannel or leather shirts and cloth caps of some gay color, finished to a point which hung over on one side with a depending tassel. They had a genuine love for their occupation, and muscles that never seemed to tire at the paddle and oar. These were not the men who wanted steamboats and fast sailing vessels. These men had a real love for canoeing, and from dawn to sunset, with only a short interval, and sometimes no midday rest, they would ply the oars, causing the canoe or barge to shoot through the water like a thing of life, but often contending against head winds and gaining little progress in a day's rowing."


One of the earliest American sailors on a lake ship bigger than a bateau, was "Uncle Dacy" Johnson, of Cleveland, who sailed for fifty years, beginning about 1850. "When I was a chunk of a boy," says the old Captain in a letter to a New York paper, "I put a thirty-two pound bundle on my back and started on foot to Buffalo. I made the journey to Albany, N.Y., from Bridgeport, Conn., in sixteen days, which was nothing remarkable, as I had $3 in money, and a bundle of food. Many a poor fellow I knew started on the same journey with nothing but an axe. When I arrived at Buffalo I found a very small town--Cleveland, Sandusky, and Erie, were all larger. There were only two lighthouses on the lakes, one at Buffalo, which was the first one built, and the other one at Erie. Buffalo was then called Fort Erie, and was a struggling little town. My first trip as a sailor was made from Buffalo to Erie, which was then considered quite a voyage. From Buffalo to Detroit was looked upon as a long voyage, and a vessel of thirty-two tons was the largest ship on the lakes. In 1813 I was one of a crew of four who left Buffalo on the sloop 'Commencement' with a cargo of whisky for Erie. While beating along shore the English frigate 'Charlotte' captured us and two boatloads of red-coats boarded our vessel and took us prisoners. We were paroled on shipboard the same day, and before night concocted a scheme to get the Englishmen drunk on our whisky. One of our fellows got drunk first, and told of our intentions, the plot was frustrated, and we narrowly escaped being hung."


Once begun, the conquest of the lakes as a highway for trade was rapid. We who live in the days of railroads can hardly appreciate how tremendous was the impetus given to the upbuilding of a region if it possessed practicable waterways. The whole history of the settlement of the Middle West is told in the story of its rivers and lakes. The tide of immigration, avoiding the dense forests haunted by Indians, the rugged mountains, and the broad prairies into which the wheel of the heavy-laden wagon cut deep, followed the course of the Potomac and the Ohio, the Hudson, Mohawk, and the Great Lakes. Streams that have long since ceased to be thought navigable for a boy's canoe were made to carry the settlers' few household goods heaped on a flatboat. The flood of families going West created a demand that soon covered the lakes with schooners and brigs. Landed on the lake shore near some little stream, the immigrants would build flatboats, and painfully pole their way into the interior to some spot that took their fancy. Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois thus filled up, towns growing by the side of streams now used only to turn mill-wheels, but which in their day determined where the prosperous settlement should be.

The steamboat was not slow in making its appearance on the lakes. In 1818, while it was still an experiment on the seaboard, one of these craft appeared on Lake Erie. The "Walk-in-the-Water" was her name, suggestive of Indian nomenclature and, withal, exceedingly descriptive. She made the trip from Buffalo to Detroit, not infrequently taking thirteen days. She was a side-wheeler, a model which still holds favor on the lower lakes, though virtually abandoned on the ocean and on Lake Superior. An oil painting of this little craft, still preserved, shows her without a pilot-house, steered by a curious tiller at the stern, with a smokestack like six lengths of stovepipe, and huge unboxed wheels. She is said to have been a profitable craft, often carrying as many as fifty passengers on the voyage, for which eighteen dollars was charged. For four years she held a monopoly of the business. Probably the efforts of Fulton and Livingstone to protect the monopoly which had been granted them by the State of New York, and the determination of James Roosevelt to maintain what he claimed to be his exclusive right to the vertical paddle-wheel, delayed the extension of steam navigation on the lakes as it did on the great rivers. After four years of solitary service on Lake Erie, the "Walk-in-the-Water" was wrecked in an October storm. Crowded with passengers, she rode out a heavy gale through a long night. At daybreak the cables parted and she went ashore, but no lives were lost. Her loss was considered an irreparable calamity by the settlers at the western end of the lake. "This accident," wrote an eminent citizen of Detroit, "may be considered one of the greatest misfortunes which has ever befallen Michigan, for, in addition to its having deprived us of all certain and speedy communication with the civilized world, I am fearful it will greatly check the progress of immigration and improvement."

It is scarcely necessary to note now that the apprehensions of the worthy citizen of Michigan were unfounded. Steam navigation on the lakes was no more killed by the loss of the pioneer craft than was transatlantic steam navigation ended by the disapproving verdict of the scientists. Nowhere in the world is there such a spectacle of maritime activity, nowhere such a continuous procession of busy cargo-ships as in the Detroit River, and through the colossal locks of the "Soo" canals. In 1827 the first steamboat reached the Sault Ste. Marie, bearing among her passengers General Winfield Scott, on a visit of inspection to the military post there, but she made no effort to enter the great lake. About five years later, the first "smoke boat," as the Indians called the steamers, reached Chicago, the pigmy forerunner of the fleet of huge leviathans that all the summer long, nowadays, blacken Chicago's sky with their torrents of smoke, and keep the hurrying citizens fuming at the open draw of a bridge. All side-wheelers were these pioneers, wooden of course, and but sorry specimens of marine architecture, but they opened the way for great things. For some years longer the rushing torrent of the Ste. Marie's kept Lake Superior tightly closed to steamboats, but about 1840 the richness of the copper mines bordering upon that lake began to attract capital, and the need of steam navigation became crying. In 1845 men determined to put some sort of a craft upon the lake that would not be dependent upon the whims of wind and sails for propulsion. Accordingly, the sloop "Ocean," a little craft of fifteen tons, was fitted out with an engine and wheels at Detroit and towed to the "Soo." There she was dragged out of the water and made the passage between the two lakes on rollers. The "Independence," a boat of about the same size, was treated in the same way later in the year. Scarcely anything in the history of navigation, unless it be the first successful application of steam to the propulsion of boats is of equal importance with the first appearance of steamboats in Lake Superior. It may be worth while to abandon for a moment the orderly historical sequence of this narrative, to emphasize the wonderful contrast between the commerce of Lake Superior in the days of the "Independence" and now--periods separated by scarcely sixty years. To-day the commerce of that lake is more than half of all the great lakes combined. It is conducted in steel vessels, ranging from 1500 to 8500 tons, and every year sees an increase in their size. In 1901 more than 27,000,000 tons of freight were carried in Lake Superior vessels, a gain of nearly 3,000,000 over the year before. The locks in the "Soo" canal, of which more later, have twice had to be enlarged, while the Canadian Government has built a canal of its own on the other side of the river. The discovery and development of the wonderful deposits of iron ore at the head of the lake have proved the greatest factors in the upbuilding of its commerce, and the necessity for getting this ore to the mills in Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, has resulted in the creation of a class of colossal cargo-carriers on the lake that for efficiency and results, though not for beauty, outdo any vessel known to maritime circles.


At the present time, when the project of a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the Central American Isthmus has almost passed out of the sphere of discussion and into that of action, there is suggestiveness in the part that the canal at the "Soo" played in stimulating lake commerce. Until it was dug, the lake fleets grew but slowly, and the steamers were but few and far between. Freight rates were high, and the schooners and sloops made but slow passages. From an old bill, of about 1835, we learn that freight rates between Detroit and Cleveland, or Lake Erie points and Buffalo, were about as follows: Flour, thirty cents a barrel; all grain, ten cents a bushel; beef, pork, ashes, and whisky, thirteen cents a hundred pounds; skins and furs, thirty-one cents a hundred weight; staves, from Detroit to Buffalo, $6.25 a thousand. In 1831 there were but 111 vessels of all sorts on the lakes. In five years, the fleet had grown to 262, and in 1845, the year when the first steamer entered Lake Superior, to 493. In 1855, the year the "Soo" canal was opened, there were in commission 1196 vessels, steam and sail, on the unsalted seas. Then began the era of prodigious development, due chiefly to that canal which Henry Clay, great apostle as he was of internal improvements, said would be beyond the remotest range of settlements in the United States or in the moon.

At the head of Lake Superior are almost illimitable beds of iron ore which looks like rich red earth, and is scooped up by the carload with steam shovels. Tens of thousands of men are employed in digging this ore and transporting it to the nearest lake port--Duluth and West Superior being the largest shipping points. Railroads built and equipped for the single purpose of carrying the ore are crowded with rumbling cars day and night, and at the wharves during the eight or nine months of the year when navigation is open lie great steel ships, five hundred feet long, with a capacity of from six thousand to nine thousand tons of ore. Perhaps in no branch of marine architecture has the type best fitted to the need been so scientifically determined as in planning these ore boats. They are cargo carriers only, and all considerations of grace or beauty are rigidly eliminated from their design. The bows are high to meet and part the heavy billows of the tempestuous lakes, for they are run as late into the stormy fall and early winter season as the ice will permit. From the forward quarter the bulwarks are cut away, the high bow sheltering the forecastle with the crews, while back of it rises a deck-house of steel, containing the officers' rooms, and bearing aloft the bridge and wheel-house. Three hundred feet further aft rises another steel deck-house, above the engine, and between extends the long, flat deck, broken only by hatches every few feet, battened down almost level with the deck floor. During the summer, all too short for the work the busy iron carriers have to do, these boats are run at the top of their speed, and on schedules that make the economy of each minute essential. So they are built in such fashion as to make loading as easy and as rapid as possible. Sometimes there are as many as fourteen or sixteen hatches in one of these great ships, into each of which while loading the ore chutes will be pouring their red flood, and out of each of which the automatic unloaders at Cleveland or Erie will take ten-ton bites of the cargo, until six or seven thousand tons of iron ore may be unloaded in eight hours. The hold is all one great store-room, no deck above the vessel's floor except the main deck. No water-tight compartments or bulkheads divide it as in ocean ships, and all the machinery is placed far in the stern. The vessel is simply a great steel packing-box, with rounded ends, made strong to resist the shock of waves and the impact of thousands of tons of iron poured in from a bin as high above the floor as the roof of a three-story building. With vessels such as these, the cost of carrying ore has been reduced below the level of freight charges in any part of the world.

Yet comfort and speed are by no means overlooked. The quarters of the officers and men are superior to those provided on most of the ocean liners, and vastly better than anything offered by the "ocean tramps." Many of the ships have special guest-cabins fitted up for their owners, rivalling the cabins de luxe of the ocean greyhounds. The speed of the newer ships will average from fourteen to sixteen knots, and one of them in a season will make as many as twenty round trips between Duluth and Cleveland. Often one will tow two great steel barges almost as large as herself, great ore tanks without machinery of any kind and mounting two slender masts chiefly for signaling purposes, but also for use in case of being cut adrift. For a time, the use of these barges, with their great stowage capacity in proportion to their total displacement, was thought to offer the cheapest way of carrying ore. One mining company went very heavily into building these craft, figuring that every steamer could tow two or three of them, giving thus for each engine and crew a load of perhaps twenty-four thousand tons. But, seemingly, this expectation has been disappointed, for while the barges already constructed are in active use, most of the companies have discontinued building them. Indeed, at the moment of the preparation of this book, there were but two steel barges building in all the shipyards of the great lakes.

Another form of lake vessel of which great things were expected, but which disappointed its promotors, is the "whaleback," commonly called by the sailors "pigs." These are cigar-shaped craft, built of steel, their decks, from the bridge aft to the engine-house, rounded like the back of a whale, and carried only a few feet above the water. In a sea, the greater part of the deck is all awash, and a trip from the bridge to the engine-house means not only repeated duckings, but a fair chance of being swept overboard. The first of these boats, called the "101," was built in sections, the plates being forged at Cleveland, and the bow and stern built at Wilmington, Del. The completed structure was launched at Duluth. In after years she was taken to the ocean, went round Cape Horn, and was finally wrecked on the north Pacific coast. At the time of the Columbian Exposition, a large passenger-carrying whaleback, the "Christopher Columbus," was built, which still plies on Lake Michigan, though there is nothing discernible in the way of practical advantage in this design for passenger vessels. For cargo carrying there would seem to be much in the claims of their inventor, Alexander McDougall, for their superior capacity and stability, yet they have not been generally adopted. The largest whaleback now on the lakes is named after Mr. McDougall, is four hundred and thirty feet over all, fifty feet beam, and of eight thousand tons capacity. She differs from the older models in having a straight stem instead of the "pig's nose."

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