Back in December of 1972, we featured in these pages the two-stacked, wooden-hulled package freight steamers OATLAND and JOYLAND, two veterans which began life in 1884 as WM. A. HASKELL and WM. J. AVERELL (sometimes spelled AVERILL) respectively. They both lived to a ripe old age, although a third sister, WALTER L. FROST, did not. Readers who recall the story of these vessels will remember that they were followed from their builder's yard a few years later by five more boats of somewhat similar design, this latter group also being built to the order of the Central of Vermont interests. It is one of these later steamers that we have chosen for our present feature, for we have never before dealt in any detail with any of the five.
In the years before the turn of the century, and even for a short while afterwards, many of the railroads in the northern United States maintained not only thriving rail operations but also connecting steamboat services on the Great Lakes. One such company was the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad, later known as the Central of Vermont and still later as the Rutland Railroad. It was in 1883 that the railroad formed a lake shipping subsidiary whose purpose it was to transport package freight by water between Ogdensburg, N.Y., and Chicago. The new company, first known as the Ogdensburg Transit Company and later as the Rutland Transit Company, appears to have taken over the trade of the old Northern Transportation Company (or Northern Transit Company, as it had become known) which had begun the liquidation of its outdated fleet in 1882.
The AVERELL, HASKELL and FROST were the first ships built for the Ogdensburg Transit Company but, six years after their construction, the line felt the need for additional tonnage to assist them and to replace several chartered vessels. Contracts for five new steamers were let to the Detroit Dry Dock Company and all of them were turned out by the builder's yard at Detroit during the 1890 season. They were christened GOV. SMITH (Hull 97), JAMES R. LANGDON (Hull 98), A. McVITTIE (Hull 99), F. H. PRINCE (Hull 102) and HENRY R. JAMES (Hull 104).
It is rather difficult to understand why the railroad ordered five wooden-hulled package freighters as late as 1890. By this time, iron-hulled steamers had been ordered by several lines, perhaps the most famous of these being the beautiful HUDSON and HARLEM, built in 1887 and 1888 by the Wyandotte yard of the Detroit Dry Dock Company for the Western Transit Company, the marine affiliate of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. Undoubtedly, the Central of Vermont management was influenced by the success which had followed the commissioning of its own earlier trio of boats, but perhaps they were also a bit shy to leave aside so many years of tradition in shipbuilding and to take a chance on a form of construction upon which so many old-line shipping men looked somewhat askance. Perhaps, had the steamers been given iron hulls, they might have served the railroad and its successors for more than the twenty years that they ran for their original owner.
HENRY R. JAMES and her sisters were somewhat more modern than the earlier trio of steamers, but they were still typical of the wooden package freighters of the era. High-sided and bluff-bowed, they were equipped with large cargo ports on each side to facilitate the loading and unloading of freight. Two large cabins were mounted on the spar deck, or what might better be called the "upper deck", these providing most of the accommodation for the officers and crew. The texas, as the largest and farthest forward of these cabins might loosely be termed, was topped with a handsome square pilothouse, complete with three large sectioned windows across its front. Navigation was normally done from the open bridge located on the monkey's island, protection from the elements being provided by a canvas "dodger" or weathercloth, and by an awning overhead.
The after cabin was a smaller structure, from which sprouted a tall and fairly heavy smokestack, well raked to match the very tall mast which rose immediately abaft the pilothouse. The mast was fitted with a gaff, but there is no evidence that a boom was ever carried or that any of the boats were ever equipped to carry auxiliary sail. As built, all five vessels had but one mast but, as the years passed, they were given an interesting assortment of rather scrawny mainmasts. The first of these seems to have been located just abaft the "texas" cabin but, in later years, the main was relocated immediately forward of the stack. The five ships seem to have had their mainmasts set in slightly different locations. The hulls were given a sweeping sheer and the uplift of the bows was accentuated by the appearance of the anchor stocks which protruded from the closed bulwarks on the flush forecastle. The anchors themselves rested right on the open foredeck.
The Ogdensburg Transit Company's steamers seem to have carried a variety of colour schemes over the years. When built, JAMES and her sisters had black hulls and grey boot-tops, only the upper edge of the forecastle rail being white. The cabins were dark in colour, probably a shade of brown, and the stacks were white with a black smokeband which extended fully half way down the length of the funnel. The legends "O.T.Co." and "Central Vermont Line" appeared in white on the bows, the former on the rail and the latter beneath on the planked-in side of the 'tween deck. During 1896, the cabins began to be repainted white, although the shutters gracing the cabin windows remained a dark colour, probably brown or perhaps green. The rest of the colours remained the same until, shortly after the turn of the century and definitely prior to 1903, "the hulls were repainted white. The boot-top remained grey but the "O.T.Co." on the rail was changed to a black "R.T.Co." (indicating the advent of the Rutland years) and "Central Vermont Line" gave way to the black legend "Ogdensburg Line".
HENRY R. JAMES and her sisters, together with the earlier trio, led a gruelling life in the service of the Ogdensburg and Rutland Transit Companies. The line had the longest route of any of the American lake package freight services, for not only was it the only one to operate down onto Lake Ontario (most had their eastern terminus on Lake Erie), but the steamers had to push on down the St. Lawrence River as far as their home port of Ogdensburg. The route was particularly hard on the wooden ships since each round trip necessitated two tedious passages through the 27 small locks of the old Welland Canal. Eastbound, the ships could be found with their holds full of grain, but their westbound cargoes consisted of the usual general cargo plus large quantities of granite which was unloaded at Chicago for the building trades.
The five sisterships carried on with their usual route between Ogdensburg and Chicago until the latter half of the first decade of the new century. On August 19, 1906, GOV. SMITH was lost by collision with URANUS on Lake Michigan and, in the same year, the line commissioned its first steel-hulled canal-size package freighters, OGDENSBURG and RUTLAND, which were built at Cleveland by the American Shipbuilding Company. More steel canallers followed, BENNINGTON (I) and BURLINGTON (I) in 1908 from the Great Lakes Engineering Works at Ecorse, and ARLINGTON (I) and BRANDON in 1910 from the Wyandotte yard of the Detroit Shipbuilding Company, the successor to the Detroit Dry Dock Company.
As the newer steamers appeared, the older vessels were gradually relegated to standby status and it is fairly certain that they had been withdrawn from regular operation by 1910, although they undoubtedly saw fill-in service as necessary. HENRY R. JAMES, JAMES R. LANGDON and A. McVITTIE were sold for other service in 1910, while F. H. PRINCE was the victim of a fire which occurred on August 14, 1911. With all five of the newer ships having left the fleet, the only remainders of the wooden era still in the company's colours were HASKELL and AVERELL, their sister WALTER L. FROST having stranded to a total loss on South Manitou Island, Lake Michigan, on November 4, 1903. HASKELL and AVERELL remained with the Rutland until the Panama Canal Act forced the railroads to divest themselves of their lake shipping affiliates at the close of the 1915 season. The fact that they lasted longer than their newer, single-stacked counterparts was probably due to nothing more interesting than the fact that they were six years older and, as such, less likely to attract buyers.
HENRY R. JAMES and JAMES R. LANGDON both were acquired in 1910 by the same purchaser, namely the Quebec and Levis Ferry Company Ltd. of Quebec City. It was intended that the two steamers carry the cars of the Grand Trunk Railroad across the St. Lawrence River, railway access to Quebec City having been delayed by the 1907 collapse of the uncompleted Quebec Bridge. The company's ferry route was from a landing just above the Davie Shipyard's patent slip at Levis to Atkinson's Wharf which was located near the Quebec City customs house.
JOHN S. THOM and her sister shuttled back and forth across the St. Lawrence from 1910 until a new railway bridge spanning the river was opened in 1916. One would have thought that this event would have finished off the THOM and the SHAW for good, but such was not the case. The Quebec and Levis Ferry Company decided to place them both in the coal and pulpwood trades on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Considering their age and condition, this decision would have been surprising had it not been for the great demand for tonnage which had been created by the First World War; many of the more modern canallers had been requisitioned for salt water service and almost any bottom that would float was pressed into service as replacement tonnage.
During the summer of 1917, however, the THOM was involved in a stranding which very nearly proved to be her undoing. Had it not been for the war, she would probably never have been salvaged from her resting place on the rocky shoal protruding into Lake Ontario beneath the Devil's Nose, that high and bold promontory on the south shore of the lake, some 22 miles west of Charlotte. The Devil's Nose had proven fatal to many lake vessels over the years, particularly during the era of sailing ships which were easily trapped on the lee shore in heavy weather. But salvaged the THOM was and, for the full story of the accident and the refloating of the steamer, we can do no better than to quote the words of her master, Captain William J. Stitt, as contained in C.H.J. Snider's "Schooner Days", Number CCCXXII, which appeared in the Evening Telegram, Toronto, on Saturday, December 11, 1937.
"Early in August, 1917, we had loaded pulpwood on the THOM at Cap Saumon for Ogdensburg, had delivered our cargo, and were en route to Erie, Pennsylvania, for a coal cargo for Quebec City. Shortly after 4 p.m. on August 21, we got away from Ogdensburg and proceeded up the St. Lawrence, passing out into Lake Ontario at 10:30 p.m. The weather was fine and a light northeast wind was blowing almost directly astern.
"At midnight, we were out by Main Duck Island and on our course for the Welland Canal, making about 12 miles per hour. At 11:45 p.m., the other watch was called and, after taking their usual midnight supper, took over control. Chief Engineer W. A. MacLaren and I went aft to the dining room and partook of our light lunch and coffee before retiring for rest to be ready for a strenuous day putting the ship through the Welland Canal. As usual, after returning to the forward deck, we discussed the weather conditions and the prospect of a nice daylight run through the canal. It was a beautiful night with a clear atmosphere and the reflections of all the cities and towns on both sides of the lake showed up clearly. The C.S.L. passenger steamer was plainly seen pulling out of Charlotte and heading for Kingston.
"After the first watch had retired and things had settled down with all the officers on duty and following our usual course up the lake, the mate gave the wheelsman orders to keep a good course and, should any downbound boats be sighted on or near our course, to report to him. It was a close, muggy night, quite warm and with a tendency to make one drowsy, so the mate dropped down on the seat behind the big hand wheels and dropped off into a sound sleep. The wheelsman, left to his own meditations and with very little steering to do as the boat would keep her course almost alone, also got very drowsy and dropped off into a doze. The same thing happened to the watchman up forward who was supposed to keep a sharp lookout. Thus the ship was left to herself with the watch asleep at their posts, unmindful that she was deviating from her course and gradually working her head towards the south shore and approaching that dreaded boulder patch just east of the Devil's Nose.
"In the engineroom and stokehold, the second engineer, oiler and firemen were attending their duties and, between times, going to the gangway for a breath of fresh air. On one of these visits, the engineer spotted that big and prominent flashing lighthouse so well known by mariners, Braddock's Point Light, seven miles west of the Charlotte piers. He called the oiler and remarked to him that he never remembered seeing it so close aboard when passing up the lake. Another hour passed and the second engineer and oiler were at the gangway again for a breather; this time they noticed the south shore quite close aboard and the ship heading for the bight just inside that prominent landmark, the Devil's Nose. It was just about 4 a.m. then (Wednesday, August 22, 1917) and beginning to break day with everything as clear as a bell.
"Unless something were done at once, the ship would soon be aground. They did think of stopping the engine and calling the captain and chief engineer to investigate the circumstances, but delays are always dangerous when in close quarters and the ship running full-pelt at 12 miles per hour. It was decided to send the oiler up to the wheelhouse at last to call the mate and see what was wrong. Just as the oiler was ascending the ladder to the bridge, the ship struck the boulders and went bounding over them for a distance of several hundred feet. She came at last to rest, minus her rudder and part of her propeller, and with her back broken at midships.
"The shock was terrible and most of those who were off watch were thrown out of their berths and bounced around. The mate, wheelsman and watchman got a rude awakening, naturally, when the ship hit and they were very much awake by the time she came to rest. Considerable damage was done to the engines, which were running full at the time, as the propeller came in contact with the boulders and broke three of the blades off completely and carried the rudder away at the same time. The confusion on board was terrible as everyone came scrambling out on deck to see what it was all about.
"Fortunately, the ship was not leaking and quite tight, but we were certainly well aground on the boulder shoal and directly in front of us loomed up His Satanic Majesty's profile. After the mate and his crew had explained the circumstances leading up to the disaster and had accepted full blame for it all, we launched a lifeboat and made a thorough examination of the damage to the ship and the nature of the reef we were on. We rowed to the shore and in a summer cottage found a 'phone and got in touch with our owners, a wrecking company at Kingston, and the insurance company.
"We were 22 miles west of Charlotte and this was the morning of August 22. The lake was calm and just a light northeast wind was blowing, so we were in no immediate danger. Early on the morning of the 23rd, the Donnelly Wrecking Company arrived with pump, diver and wrecking equipment, and commenced salvage operations. As the ship was empty and nothing could be unloaded to raise her from the reef, she had to be carried bodily over the boulder bar and into deep water several hundred feet distant. The THOM was a big heavy boat and had very heavy boilers and engines. After working all day of the 23rd, we finally had the ship afloat just before dark and we towed her into Charlotte for the night, as the weather had turned bad and very threatening, with a fresh northeast wind coming up.
"On the morning of the 24th, we got away from Charlotte with the THOM in tow of the wrecking tug DONNELLY, and after a very good run arrived at Kingston just after midnight. Not being able to get the THOM on the Kingston drydock for repairs, she proceeded on down the St. Lawrence River to Ogdensburg, N. Y., where she was hauled out on the marine railway on August 27. After inspection of the hull, it was decided to make temporary repairs and take the ship to Quebec under her own power and there give her a thorough rebuild. We got away from Ogdensburg on September 9 and, after a very good run, arrived in Quebec at 9 p.m. on September 12. We dismantled the ship at that port and, on September 20, took her to the Levis drydock for rebuilding."
JOHN S. THOM needed a lot of work after her escapade on the Devil's Nose and she remained in the Davie shipyard at Levis over the winter of 1917-18. Much money was expended on her refurbishing but, rather than putting the THOM back in lake service in the spring of 1918, the Quebec and Levis Ferry Company Ltd. sold her for the sum of $160,000 (quite a price for those days) to New York interests. For seven years, JOHN S. THOM operated on salt water but it does not seem that she was placed in United States registry, as she does not appear in the "Merchant Vessels" listings. What she did on salt water, we do not know, but we find it hard to imagine that the THOM was particularly suited for operation on open waters along the coast.
Perhaps even more surprising than the THOM's continued operation after the cessation of the Quebec railferry service or her escape from the Devil's clutches was her return, at the grand old age of 35 years, to the ownership of the Quebec and Levis Ferry Company Ltd. which reacquired her at a cost of $70,000 during 1925 and brought her back to the lakes. Back in her old colours again, and looking just as she had before her venture onto salt water, JOHN S. THOM went back into the coal and pulpwood trades, staying mainly on the St. Lawrence River and Lakes Erie and Ontario. Seldom did she stray onto the upper lakes, for she was hardly in any condition to withstand the rigours of heavy weather.
JOHN S. THOM plodded along for a few more years in the service of the Quebec and Levis Ferry Company, but she was nearing the end of her days and, as might be expected of a wooden hull nearing the end of its fourth decade of service, more and more work was required to keep her in operation. The onset of the Great Depression spelled the end for her and, during 1930, she was laid away to rest in the St. Charles River at Quebec City. There she mouldered away in the boneyard and it seems likely that her last remains were dismantled during the late 1930s. Even so, the THOM lasted longer than any of her sisters. A. McVITTIE survived, cut down to a bulk carrier and later acquired by the Montreal Transportation Company Ltd., until she sank in Kingston Harbour during November of 1919. Her hull was finally dismantled in 1925. CHARLES H. SHAW, the THOM's companion in the ferry service and coal and pulpwood trades for eight years, ran until about 1920, at which time she also was laid up in the St. Charles River. Unlike JOHN S. THOM, she never went to salt water and she was eventually dismantled about 1927.
JOHN S. THOM, although she was a good-looking vessel back in her package freight days for the Central of Vermont, was never a handsome boat after being cut down for the ferry service. In fact, she was downright homely and one of the strangest ships ever to serve on the lower lakes. She did, however, fulfill a useful purpose and merits our acknowledgement, even after the passage of so many years since she last turned a wheel.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.