Great Lakes Maritime History

History of the Great Lakes

Vol. 1 by J.B. Mansfield
Published Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co. 1899

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Vol. 1 of History of the Great Lakes

Early Perils, Etc. — Danger Points On Lake Erie – Proposed Double Track On Lake Huron – Recent Wrecks – Navigation Rules – Period Of Navigation – Opening At The Straits Of Mackinac; At The St .Mary's River; At Buffalo; And Through The Welland Canal – Marine Post Office At Detroit – Towing Sail Vessels Through The Rivers – Harbor Tugs, Etc.

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shewn, and a distant voice in the darkness.

   — Tales of a Wayside Inn.

A mack'rel sky and mares' tails
Make lofty ships carry low sails.

Sometimes we ship a sea,
Sometimes we see a ship.

A rainbow towards night,
Fair weather in sight.

Rainbow at night,
Sailors' delight.

Rainbow in morning,
Sailors, take warning.

Oft-times I have seen a tall ship glide by against the tide as if drawn by some invisible towline with a hundred strong arms pulling it. Her sails hung unfilled, her streamers were drooping, she had neither side wheel nor stern wheel; still she moved so stately, in serene triumph, as if with her own life.  But I knew that on the other side of the ship hidden beneath the great hulk that swam so majestically, there was a little, toiling steam tug with a heart of fire and arms of iron, that was hugging it close and dragging it bravely on; and I knew that if the little steam tug untwined her arms and left the tall ship, it would wallow and roll about, and drift hither and thither, and go off with refluent tide, no man knows whither. Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The navigation of the Great Lakes has been considered incidentally in many of the preceding chapters, and is also intimately connected with much of the history that follows this chapter.  Navigation, in fact, is practically the whole of this history.  It is purposed in this chapter merely to collect a few of the more notable facts and transformation scenes which have reference to the history of sailing upon the Great Lakes.  

Before government improvements began there were many perils to navigation, now happily ended.  Of harbors, there were none, and shifting sand bars closed the mouths of rivers.  Channels and reefs were unmarked.  Wreck was the common fate of the venturesome schooner or steamboat during the first half of the present century.  The comparative loss to human life, to hull and to cargo, was much greater than now.  It was largely this growing and tremendous loss which led to the inauguration of those many aids to navigation which the tide of human progress now demands.  Harbors were built, sand bars removed, channels cut through intermediate waterways, lighthouses erected to guide and direct, lifesaving stations established to succor in time of tempest and danger, weather signals created to warn of coming storms, danger points carefully and thoroughly marked by buoys.

In the early days of lake navigation there were but few conveniences for repairing vessels.  There were no dry docks nor railroads.  To caulk a vessel's bottom or to repair below the water line, she had to be hove down, and to have a thorough repair she had to be placed on ways and hauled out of the water.  Harbors were not to be found, except in the shape and form that nature herself had provided.  There were no charts, no land marks, nor lighthouses. The lead was about the only guide the sailor had.  The blue pigeon was kept constantly on the wing in a dark night, or in making a port, or in dangerous waters.  Besides all this the ground tackling was quite inferior to what is now in use. Toward the latter part of the seasons, when freezing weather was present, it was no easy matter to handle the big hemp cable while riding out a gale on a lee shore.  When the cable would freeze almost as soon as it was drawn out of the water, it was next to impossible to bend it round the windlass.

In those days the hawse pipes were made of lead and kept smooth to prevent chafing, and when an anchor was let go and a scope of cable given, parcelling was put upon the cable in the wake of the hawsehole, to keep it from chafing, and was renewed every watch in heavy weather by putting on fresh parcelling and surging or paying out more cable until the new parcelling came into the hawse, when the old one was taken off inside.

The vessels built in those days were much inferior to those built at the present day, both in size and model.  And sailing on the lakes was much more dangerous.  Not only have vessels been improved in their sea-going qualities, but the harbors have been made more commodious and safer in every way, and lighthouses have been erected wherever necessary all round the lakes.  In addition to all this the lifesaving service has been established and brought to a high state of perfection and usefulness. Modern methods have been perhaps as fully applied to every phase of lake navigation as to any feature of civilized life upon the land.

The early difficulties of navigation on Lake St. Clair were thus described by a writer 40 years ago:

"Another very important work to the navigation of the lakes is the deepening of the channel in Lake St. Clair, a shallow sheet of water some twenty miles in length, through which all the trade of the Upper Lakes is obliged to pass.  At the mouth of the river, which connects this lake with Huron, there is a delta of mud flats, with numerous channels, which in their deepest parts have not more than ten feet of water, and would be utterly impassible were not the bottom of a soft and yielding mud, which permits the passage of vessels through it under the impulse of steam or a strong wind."

James L. Barton, a gentleman long connected with the lake commerce, thus wrote some years ago upon this subject to the Hon. Robert McClelland, then chairman of the house committee on commerce:

"These difficulties are vastly increased from the almost impassible condition of the flats in Lake St. Clair.  Here steamboats and vessels are daily compelled in all weather to lie fast aground and shift their cargoes, passengers and baggage in lighters, exposing life, health and property to great hazard, and then by extraordinary heaving and hauling are enabled to get over.  Indeed, so bad has this passage become that one of the largest steamboats, after lying two or three days on these flats, everything taken from her into lighters, was unable, with the powerful aid of steam and everything else she could bring into service, to pass over; she was obliged to give her freight and passengers to a smaller boat, abandon the trip and return to Buffalo.  Other vessels have been compelled not only to take out all their cargoes, but even their chains and anchors have been stripped from them before they could get over.  To meet this difficulty as far as possible, the commercial men around these lakes have imposed a tax upon their shipping, to dredge out and deepen the channel through these flats."

A few sailing craft still "go it alone."  Steam propellers with their tows of one, two and often three schooners, do a large propor-tion of the carrying, particularly in the lumber trade.  Of late a tendency has developed to enlarge and perfect this system of towing. A heavy shipper in Cleveland maintains that it takes a steamer and consort but three days longer to make the round trip than a steamer alone; that the crew of a schooner is very small as compared to that of a steamer, and that the coal used in increased power to tow is no more than what would be used for the high speed of a steamer alone. The steam whalebacks often have tows of three steamless and sailess whalebacks. They carry enormous cargoes of coarse freights. The question of tows or no tows is not yet definitely settled, many changing conditions enter into the problem.

Danger Points on Lake Erie. - Many vessels, large and small, are lost each year on the Great Lakes. Our maps show the points of greatest danger in Lake Erie. The wreck map is based upon the annual charts issued by the Weather Bureau, and shows the location of the wrecks in Lakes Erie and St. Clair. The period covered is long enough to provide a basis for correct deductions.

The most dangerous place in Lake Erie is in the neighborhood of Point Pelee, near the western extremity of the lake. Off the point lies, like a satellite, Point Pelee island; between the two is a shoal. Point, shoal and island cause many wrecks each year. Long Point comes next in respect of danger. Its location, as a long spit of land running out nearly half way across the lake, is what constitutes its chief peril. The water is deep enough around it, but the point lies in the way of vessels an obliges them to take a roundabout course.

The deepening of the channels, and the consequent increase in the size of the boats, have had much to do with the number of wrecks off Point Pelee. The captains of the big boats are finding shoals that the little vessels passed over in safety. This new peril is a recent development - an event of the last few years.

One of the greatest sources of danger, in lake navigation, is the number of vessels, all traveling the same road. They are all running up and down the lakes, on parallel lines. Collision constitutes one of the chief causes of loss upon the Great Lakes.

Proposed Double Track on Lake Huron. - The suggestion has recently been urged that navigation may be made safer and easier by the adoption of a double track on Lake Huron. Capt. J.S. Dunham, of Chicago, refers to the great number of collisions that have occurred in the vicinity of Presque Isle, Lake Huron, and is credited with the idea of providing means to have up-bound vessels take a course some distance out from the west shore of Lake Huron, while down-bound vessels would pass closer to land. "The scheme" says the Marine Review, "has its advantages, but it would be very difficult to enforce rules that would make it effective. The time is not far off, however, when the growing commerce of the lakes will demand the adoption of measures of this kind. One course on Lake Huron, according to Capt. Dunham's idea, would be for all up-bound boats in leaving St. Clair river at Port Huron to keep out in the lake until they were from eight to twelve miles outside the course they now follow. They would maintain this course all the way to Presque Isle. When bound for Lake Superior they would continue the same distance to the eastward, finally returning to the old course at Detour. When bound for Lake Michigan they would cross over above Presque Isle and come back to the old course there. All boats bound down would keep close to the shore, following the present course. Vessels from Lake Superior bound down would cross the courses of Lake Michigan boats bound up. Thus, only at one point the entire length of Lake Huron would boats running in opposite directions meet. As soon as that point was passed captains would be certain that however thick the fog they were safe, for no boats would be coming in the opposite direction. All they would have to look after would be boats bound the same way, and it would be an easy matter to avoid them. The objection of having two courses -that some time might be lost on the up trip by boats keeping out in Lake Huron - is met by the statement that while a little time might be lost in pleasant weather, yet the gain of being free to run at a fair speed notwithstanding foggy weather would far more than overcome the loss. This is not taking into account the great increase in safety. Down-bound boats would not lose any time either from Lake Michigan or Lake Superior. They would keep along the course they have always followed, free to run, with nothing ahead of them. To make the two courses effective, vessels should be required to keep on them in all weather, for with the fickleness of the Lake Huron fog there is never any telling when the surface of the water will give forth a cloud."

Note: This is only a part of this chapter.