Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1895
- O, shake her up, and away we’ll go,
So handy, my girls, so handy;
Up aloft from down below,
So handy, my girls, so handy.—Old somg.
Somewhere, back in the dim shades of antiquity, some skeptical individual made the statement that “what is generally believed is usually untrue.” It is a rule rather too broad for everyday use, but if applied to the sailor of the great lakes it does not come far wide of the mark.
Common opinion regards the fresh-water sailor as a sailor only in name. He is looked upon as a low grade of day laborer, who smacks neither of ships nor of open water, but holds fast to the land. He is thought to be what in common parlance is succinctly known as a “bum,” and it is claimed that he can tell a handspike from a broom-handle only because he knows what a broom-handle looks like.
But, common opinion to the contrary not withstand a, the sailor of the lakes is a real sailor. He is neither deckhand nor roustabout not deck laborer, though all three masquerade under his name. In spite of the fact that his work and his surroundings differ materially from those of the “blue-water man,” he has about him more than a slight touch of the old salt, and resembles in more ways than one his brother of the ocean. Less than half of his life is spent on the water, but apparently it is the half which counts, for it sets on him an unmistakable stamp. Ashore or afloat he carries with him in bearing and in appearance a taste of the life aboard ship, and he has traits and beliefs and ideas such as no landsman, except perhaps Noah, ever possessed.
Real Sailor Is Vanishing.
The real sailor of the lakes is rapidly joining the “has beens” and becoming an extinct species, but there are still enough of them left to form a distinct class of themselves, and Chicago, formerly their great rallying place, has yet its share of the simon pure article. Neither the business-man nor the lake traveler comes in contact with them, however. They are not to be found on the steamers, and but seldom on the pleasure craft. The lumber hookers, the lumber yards, the craft in the iron trade, the lodging-houses near the docks, and the little saloons tucked away in odd corners clase to the river are the places where they may be discovered, and even in these places the real sailor is almost lost in the more recent crop of cock laborers and roustabouts. Formerly in the region near Clark, Wells, and Kinzie streets the sailor reigned supreme.
The introduction of steam into all branches of water transportation is everywhere laying the sailorman upon the shelf and putting the mechanic and laborer in his place. It is felt in the seaports, where the lovers of romance look with distaste upon the gradual disappearance of the historic “Jack,” but it is felt more strongly in the lake ports. The number of sailing vessels on the lake is steadily and rapidly decreasing. As the old ones are wrecked, broken up, or become unseaworthy, no new ones are built to replace them. The large part of those now on the lakes are used only as tows. And the occupation of the fresh water “Jack” is becoming a thing of the past. The lake sailor is taking no other pursuits. Some are still following the water aboard vessels run by steam; others have taken a life ashore; and many have left the lakes for the sea, where the sailorman still has some show for a living on the old lines.
Fresh Water Jack.
Perhaps the best place in the city to see the sailor as he was is in the neighborhood of the lumber offices at Franklin street and the river. At the docks which stretch in both directions from the street lie the lumber hookers, a line a block or more in length and three deep along the side of the river. They are sunk deep with their loads, and their shattered sides rub together with the sluggish motion of the water stirred by a passing tug or steamer. The crews of the vessels lie in the sun on the deckloads, busy themselves in odd jobs aboard ship, or mingle on the docks with the crowd of sailormen who are waiting for employment.
In spite of all preconceived ideas, they have a decided smack of the sailor that many of them wear their whiskers like the men in Cap. Marryat’s novels. They are tanned the clear deep brown which the sun and wind on the lake bring to the skin. Their hands are knotted with work at the wheel and the ropes, and their clothes fit them in easy curves over the muscles of the backs and legs. They are rough enough, and they walk with a slouch and a swing, but they are not the fresh-water navigator as commonly held up to opprobrium. They have not the hang-dog look, nor the appearance of a recent and imperfect recovery from a prolonged “bat,” which are in most minds connected with the sailor of the lakes.
These last are the property of the deckhand, who is commonly taken as representative of the inland sailorman. The deckhand is a landsman, pure and simple, who is supporting a precarious and seemingly not over-desirable existence by transporting barrels and boxes and freight of various kinds from the dock to the lower deck. The deckhand has commonly been led into a life afloat through an unfortunate combination of circumstances generally connected more or less intimately with one or more of the three Sirens of the East—wine, women, and fortune. He comes of all races, even the aboriginal American, and none of the races brags of the fact. In most cases he works, not to eat, but to drink; and his clothes are made to order, but to the order of some other man, and have apparently reached him only through destructive vicissitudes.
Franklin Street and the River
Near Wolf’s Point
Differs from the Deckhand.
The real lake sailor differs from the deckhand in many particulars, and in most cases has taken to the lake because he liked the life, and not through a too intimate acquaintance with the flowing bowl. But while while differing from the deckhand he also differs from the salt water sailor, for he is a combination of landsman and waterman, though the latter part predominates and gives him his distinctive characteristics. In fact, his difference from the ocean sailor is less than is commonly supposed, and is due to the shortness of voyages and the consequent greater interest in things ashore. The ocean sailor ships for a voyage of perhaps several years’ duration; the lake sailor for one of a few days; and the trips follow each other in succession rapid enough to keep him on the water during most of the time between the beginning of April and the end of October, they are broken by short stops ashore and more or less labor on the docks. Still the lake sailor is a sailor, and nothing else.
A dozen years ago, before the introduction of steam had so nearly extinguished the sailing vessel, the lake ports had a considerable population of those fitted to “hand, reef, and steer.” The lake sailor then was of all nationalities, and the trade of the sailing vessels was of all sorts. Now nearly the whole of the lake sailormen are of Scandinavian extraction, and almost the only business of the sailing vessels is in lumber and iron from the Northern ports. They are commodities which do not spoil if delayed, and a slow trip makes no particular difference. On the lumber schooners and the vessels in the iron trade, most of them “tramps” belonging to no big firm and often owned by the Captain, are to be found the last of the real lake sailors.
They have changed little, if any, with the time, and are the same as the sailors who have carried on the early lake traffic. They have their particular lodging-houses near the docks, their favorite drinking places, hidden among the lumber piles and warehouses, their superstitions, and their songs, though these partake more of the land than is thought desirable among the admirers of Jack ashore and afloat. The lodging-houses devoted to sailors are scattered through nearly the whole of the region near the docks. They are remnants in many cases of the earlier days, and their neighbors have deserted the sailor and adopted the more high sounding name of “hotel.”
“I can remember,” said one old Captain, who, according to his own assertion, has been on the lakes ever since there were any lakes to be on, “when Clark and Wells streets, near the river, weren’t anything but sailors’ lodging-houses. And not a one could I get into for love or money. Every door locked against me and braced on the inside. Many a trip I’ve made through there looking for men. They knew me and wouldn’t let me in. They said I worked the men too hard.”
The lodging-houses nowadays have lost in a great measure the taste of romance which came from such searching expeditions and the protection of the sailors by the lodging-house keepers. But they still have a flavor of their own, drawn not from their furnishings, which are little different from other houses of the sort not favored by fresh water Jack, nor from an occasional picture of a thrilling disaster to those who go down to the sea in ships, but from the presence of the men themselves. And it is the same in such of the little saloons as are given up almost entirely to sailor custom. The sanded floor, the smoky walls, the pink mosquito netting over the gas fixtures are all such as might be found in almost any place of the kind near the shipping district, but tyhe presence of the sailor, fresh-water navigator though be be, makes them different from most places of the sort.
No Great Yarn-Spinner.
In some way intimately connected with fresh breezes and the soft lap of water against a vessel’s side, though how connected no one has told, the sailor comes to regard things from a different point of view than the landsman, and even his life ashore cannot deprive the fresh-water sailorman wholly of this trait. He is not a yarn-spinner—there are very few story tellers among the lake men—but if he is reasonably old, so as to have experiences to look back upon, and if he gets started in the right way, he has things to tell, and he will tell them.
He is not superstitious—at least, he says he is not. But there is always in mind some tragedy of the lakes, some unusual wreck, or unheard of Chicora which offers a field of speculation and conjecture on lines which the landsman would not follow out. There are men on the lakes who believe as firmly as one can believe anything that a prophetess and seer on the South Side saw in a dream and afterwards describe the sinking of the Chicora just as it occurred before the least suspicion of the vessel’s lost had been aroused. But no man tells of his own beliefs in such matters. The superstitions he speaks of are those of other people, whom he holds to derision.1
“Regular old women, some of the Captains are,” said one old fellow. “Won’t sail on Friday for fear of bad luck; or don’t like to anyhow. I’d sail on Friday any time. I always have, I’d sail on Friday, the 13th of the month. And blow high, blow low, I’d lay nothing to that.”
The belief of bad luck from sailing on Friday is, however, not very strong. It takes the form rather of an uncertainty not strong enough to prevent sailing if conditions are otherwise favorable, for the exigencies of the lake traffic make sailing on Friday a necessity through the shortness of the trips and the consequent frequency of departure.
Cats Cause Storms.
“And then there’s cats,” said the Captain. “I don’t believe in cats. But I’ve seen a whole crew going round with faces as long as a capstan-bar because a kitten had fallen overboard and been drowned. Hardly a one of ’em that didn’t think something ‘d happen before gettin’ into port.”
The effect of the moon on the welfare of the sailor-man is not so strongly believed in as the kitten, but it is admitted that the moon may have something to do with winds. It is a strong-minded man who has no feeling of elation if the moon’s horns show sharp and pointed, promising good weather, and an even stronger-minded one who has no feeling of depression if the new moon appears “on her back.”
But things more remarkable than storms caused by cats have taken place on the great lakes. One perfectly calm night three fishermen were out in an open boat. It was bright moonlight, and the men could see nearly as plainly as in full day. Suddenly there was a ripple in the water beside them, and the head of a mermaid appeared. The creature swam slowly toward them, and attempted to climb into the boat. At this the fishermen were greatly frightened, and one of them seizing a hatchet cut off the mermaid’s hand. The creature immediately sank, but rising after a few moments uttered a deep sigh as though in pain, a state of affairs which seems bot at all unlikely. it again sank and was seen no more. The hand, which had been left in the boat, was like the hand of a woman. It had five fingers and was provided with nails. This is undoubtedly a true story, for it was not only maintained by all three fishermen, but, it is said, has been put into a book.
The Lottie Cooper
Serpent in the Lakes.
The statement is also made that the lakes are the home of a serpent, an immense creature which lives only in deep water and has been seen but once, and then by an Indian. Whether this Indian was Hiawatha is not known, as the teller of the story had never met Hiawatha. From the same source—an Indian—it has been learned that there is an island in Lake Superior, the sands of which are of gold, but as it is death to a mortal to step on them, “or leastways bad luck,” no investigation has been made.
The average lake sailor is not particularly touchy on points connected with his profession, and in the matter of risks of navigation is contented with brief remarks, such as:
- Nothing like that never happened to me.
Even statements that lake sailing requires much less skill than ocean navigation, and that anybody can sail a boat on the lake, fail to arouse any reply, except, perhaps, the seemingly sound argument that as most vessels are wrecked on shore, the more shore there is and the nearer it is the greater the skill required to keep away from it.
There is, however, an old Captain on the South Side who has followed the lake for the greater part of a reasonably long life, and from what a spark of fire was struck by such an assertion. He did not waste time in argument. He took a book from his desk and began to read aloud:
- ‘Considerable water was found in the hold at this time and the pumps were therefore manned and kept going till morning. The schooner rode very well until daylight, when it began to drag its anchors and drift toward the breakers, which, as it swung off broadside to the sea, rolled on board and filled it. Another call for a tug was therefore made immediately by displaying a flag only a few minutes, as it became apparent to the Captain that he would be in the breakers before a tug could reach him. He therefore set the flag at half-mast, union down, which was scarcely accomplished when the vessel, having been brought up by the anchors, was capsized.’
That was the Lottie Cooper. Went down off Sheboygan. The crew got onto the deckload of lumber and most of ’em was saved. But not all. They’d ought to have went to a hotel till the wind let up.2
‘It showed signals of distress’—this is another one. The Cummings—’It showed signals of distress, continuing to drag is anchors about half a mile from the shore, when they again took hold and brought it up with its stern just clear of the breakers. The Captain now realized that he could get no aid from tugs and concluded, in order as he hoped to save the hull of his vessel, to scuttle it where it was. A part of the crew was therefore set to work cutting a hole forward, but before they had completed their sorry task the storm had assumed increased energy and the stern struck the bottom with great force. driving the rudder through its casing into the hull and causing the vessel to fill and sink almost immediately.’
The Cummings went down off Milwaukee in ’94. Crew of seven it had. Lifeboat capsized tryin’ to reach it. Surfmen came near drowning. Six of the Cummings’ crew bever got ashore. They’d ought to have took a cab. 3
Inland Seas, Spring, 1989, Volume 45, No. 1
Schooner’s Last Trip Began From Douglas
By Carl A. Norberg
Back in 1924, the slip alongside the rotting old Red Dock at the foot of Union Street in Douglas (Michigan) became a landmark in the final chapter of the sailing days on southern Lake Michigan.
Captain John Woltman, owner of the schooner Mary A. Gregory, bent on the the best of ancient canvas she owned, cast an experienced eye over the weatherbeaten standing and running rigging and with particular attention to the bilge pump, declared her ready to sail.
A small cargo of potatoes and local fruit was stowed in the hold by his two seamen, docking lines were cast off as the small tug put a strain on the tow line.
With mixed feelings, her master guided his craft past old Saugatuck, into the broad Kalamazoo River, passing a ripple away from the old sawmill city of Singapore buried beneath the sand dunes and out the “new” cut into Lake Michigan. Mainsail and foresail rattled up to their places aloft in cadence to a half-forgotten chantey. As the tow line was cast off, two headsails slid up the stays and she was bound for Chicago.
Captain Woltman fully realized that this was the last chapter for the Mary A. Gregory. Furthermore, he knew this was the swan song of his sailing career. He suspected, and rightly, that this was the last cargo to reach the port of Chicago under sail, and unbelievable contrast to the maiden voyage of his schooner in 1875 when 20,900 sailing vessels arrived and departed that port in a single season.
After discharging her cargo at South Water Street Market, she was towed up the north branch of the Chicago River and moored in the mud alongside of Abe Burrell’s Yacht Yard, where Captain Woltman became the foreman. it became well acquainted with the schooner here, which quickly became a haven for homeless sailors of the old school, who could spin endless yarns of Skillagalee, Beaver Island and the Straits.
But the old vessel was deteriorating rapidly so that in 1926 she was towed out into Lake Michigan, well off shore, for her last moments. Set to the torch, she was a vivid spectacle to only a half dozen old salts. When the charred embers slipped beneath the waves, the last vestige of commercial sail was gone from Chicago and Lake Michigan.
It is reported that she was not forgotten by the Chicago Historical Society, which is said to have acquired her capstans, compass, figurehead, port and starboard running lights, megaphone and sternpost.
John Woltman, last owner of the Mary A. Gregory, was born in Holland, Michigan, in 1857, son of Captain Thomas Woltman, master of the Great Lakes schooners William Tell, Union Mary and Anteres. Young Woltman shipped aboard the Mary on her maiden voyage to Chicago with a cargo of lumber, in 1874.
Douglas, Michigan was the scene of the very last departure of an old sailing schooner in southern Lake Michigan. In this photograph the Mary A. Gregory is about to cast off for Chicago in 1924. She was definitely the last of her kind to enter that port.
After ten years of sailing he married Selma Sundman and made his home in Chicago. When he obtained his master’s papers in 1893, he purchased the schooner Wonder, of 39 tons, which a few months later was caught in a vicious late fall storm and on Nov. 29, with sails in ribbons and anchor dragging, was driven ashore seven miles south of Grand Haven. Farmers assisted the exhausted crew to safety. Undaunted, Captain Woltman saw the Wonder floated the following spring and once more he sailed her.
It was in 1875 when the new schooner splashed into the murky waters of the north branch of the Chicago River at John Gregory’s ship building yard. This is about a mile from Abe Burrell’s yard where she ended her days fifty years later. The vessel was built for Nathan Sanders, of Chicago, who was so proud at the launching he passed out ten cent cigars while dreaming of the profits he would make from his new vessel.
Not a sailor himself, he would have a captain and crew engaged in carrying lumber from the north woods ports to booming Chicago. Soon he would regain his investment of $7,000, which was the building cost. In the late ’70s and early 80s the freight earned to Chicago from Grand Haven was $1.25 per thousand board feet of lumber and $1.65 from Manistee. Lumber cargoes were always available and demand for lumber in Chicago unlimited. Sailor’s pay was .75¢ to $1 per day.
The Mary A. Gregory was a handy two-master of 87 gross tons, 84.6 feet in length, 23.8 foot beam and drew only 6.6 feet of water with centerboard up, without cargo. Always well cared for, insurance inspectors rated her A-1 and A-2 even in 1895. Mr. Saunders sold her in 1893 and for some time she loaded barreled fish from northern Wisconsin waters to Milwaukee and Chicago. At the turn of the century her ownership shifted to Michigan ports, usually owned by her master, and was well known from the Straits of Mackinac to St. Joseph.
As lumber and cedar posts became scarce at the great sawmill ports like Manistee and Muskegon, our schooner found cargoes at anchorages such as Port Village, North Manitou Island, Hamlin Lake, Beaver Island and innumerable small piers requiring risky and skilled vessel handling, always without benefit of tow boats. Her curse was common ton all schooners—that of too small a crew. She usually carried two men besides the captain, once in a while one more or less. In heavy weather and close quarters they always needed more hands, but in fifty years of constant sailing, often in late fall, or evading ice floes in the spring, she had a good record. Only once, 1903, did she capsize, when four men were swept to their death in a strong gale. In 1907 she stove a hole in her bottom anchored off Boris Blanc Island in the Straits, loading cedar posts.
In late summer and early fall her captain-owner often became an inter-island trader, peddling fruits and vegetables from the mainland. When Captain Woltman bought her in 1912 he continued to seek a few extra dollars in this manner for his wife and four daughters back in Chicago.
Records of the Life Saving Service and Coast Guard show only a few minor assists to the schooner, so well was she handled in spite of depleted rigging and an aging hull. On December 3, 1913, truly a late month to be sailing, but still seeking a few more dollars before winter lay up, Captain Woltman loaded potatoes at the Sands and Maxwell Waterhouse in Pentwater. The marine recorder of the Lexington Chronicle wrote “These vessels, which once lined the docks almost continuously, are seldom seen in Pentwater nowadays.”
As a postscript to our story of the Mary A. Gregory’s final trip in 1924, there still remained on Lake Michigan three old schooners. They were Lucia A. Simpson (US No. 140097), carrying cedar posts to Milwaukee, The City of Grand Haven (US No. 33869), a two master, and Our Son (US No. 19437), a three master, both carrying pulpwood logs to Muskegon. By Sept. 30, 1930, all three were gone—forever.
1 The Chicora (US No. 126902) was built for the Graham & Morton Transportation Co. of Benton Harbor in 1892 and was lost during a storm on January 21, 1895, while delivering a shipment of late winter flour from Milwaukee to St. Joseph. Twenty-three crew members and a single passenger perished. The remains of the Chicora has been considered the Holy Grail of lost shipwrecks in Southwest Michigan. The boat was finally found on May 21, 2001 about 15 miles offshore using side-scan sonar equipment.
In 1900, a tug captain, of the O.B. Green II, believed a ghost guided him to the area where the Chicora sank.
2 The Lottie Cooper (US No. 140185), built in 1876, capsized and sank, one life lost, on April 9, 1894.
3 The Cummings (US No. 90592), built in 1874, foundered in storm, sunk in 20′ water on May 18, 1894. Six hands lost.