In the preceding feature about the life of STUART H. DUNN, prominent mention was made of the vessel having been a timber drogher. It has, of course, been many years indeed since the "art" of timber droghing was practiced on the Great Lakes, and it has occurred to us that many of the readers of that feature might not understand what we mean in so describing the vessel.
A timber drogher was a vessel which specialized in the transportation of squared timber, the main point being that this then-important commodity was picked up by the ship wherever it was available. As this was seldom at a port with loading machinery, but rather out in the wilds somewhere, the vessel had to be able to load (and also unload) her cargo of timber herself, and without the benefit of the sort of hoisting equipment that is available today.
Perhaps the best description of timber droghing comes from the pen of the late C. H. J. Snider, an expert in such matters, who had actually sailed aboard timber droghers in his youth. The following portrait of the lost art is taken from his 'Schooner Days - DCCXLIX', which appeared in "The Evening Telegram" of Toronto on Saturday, June 22, 1946.
"The timber was loaded at anchor, as weather permitted. As the oak was often heavier than water, it had to be buoyed up with pine or balsam to get it out to the schooner. The oak sticks were floated out to the open sternports, hinged near the deck and hanging down to within a few feet of the schooner's light waterline. Quillfalls, depending from the timber-davits or quills in the schooner's taffrail, were hooked into the chains around the ends of the sticks, and the dripping, watersoaked timber was quilled up to the port sills.
"It was quilled by horses turning the big oak post which was the cylinder, or drum, of the timber capstan, on the 'circle deck', so called from its circular track walked by horses, hitched to the long arm. It had scores in it to take two messengers, or hauling lines, at once. The horseboy both drove the horses and held the slack, or free ends of the messengers, as the drum wound them in. He had both hands full, and was helpless until relieved, if the turns began to slip (on the capstan) or anything else went wrong.
"The timber entered the hold through the sternports, sliding down brows, or inclines of heavy plank, and persuaded into position in the wings, or sides of the ship, by breasters, short iron bars with one end chisel-edged and the other sharpened into a spike. The spike was stuck into the ceiling, or inner lining of the hold, and the chisel end into the stick. The angle trained the timber into its required place, with the aid of canthooks, peavies, rollers, mauls, wedges, and much hard swearing. Men sometimes had their feet crushed under the bite of the square-edged sticks, or the flesh torn from their bones by the slipping of hooks and breasters.
"When the vessel was loaded to her port sills, the ports were closed and caulked and payed with pitch. Further loading then went on through her upper ports in the taffrail, above the deck, or over the side, the timber being hoisted up by masthead tackles or gaff purchases.
"Sometimes the timber on deck would be piled higher than the schooner's bulwarks and rail, which was three or four feet above the deck, but timber deckloads, being wet and heavy, could not be built up so high as deckloads of cedar posts or pine lumber, which sometimes towered like the piles in a lumber yard.
"The inside of the bulwarks and the stanchions above deck in the timber drogher were protected by fender strakes, square timber having a deadly habit of catching on corners as it was skidded along. Sometimes the bulwarks were closed completely with a ceiling, or inner lining, as was, of course, the hold below."
If this sounds like hard work, it certainly was, and a far cry from the conditions experienced today by deckhands aboard lake vessels. And even when the timber drogher was underway, things were but little easier. The boats were built as large as could be handled by the small locks of the old canals and if any canal passages were required (usually in the old Welland Canal), the drogher would have to be cajoled and squeezed into the locks and manhandled over the shallow lock sills. And between locks, they would have to be hauled by teams from the towpaths along shore. The teams would be made up of the hoisting horses from the ship, together with mules kept along the canal for the purpose, and the job of driving them would usually fall to the schooner's horseboy. The whole canalling operation was one of hard work and great frustration, with accidents occurring regularly and passages taking anywhere from two days to a week.
Mr. Snider described in detail the job of the master of a particular timber drogher, a man who was disliked by his young charges for the way that he drove them, but who had to be an expert at all the various facets of his difficult job in order to turn a profit for the vessel's owner.
The captain... "had his good points. He felt that he was doing the best he could with what the devil had sent him, and he spared neither himself nor anybody else. He navigated the vessel, hired the crew, paid the bills, managed the ship's business and 'worked timber' in the hold like any stevedore. He always took the starboard side against the first mate's (portside), hustling his watch so as to get the vessel listed with the weight of the incoming timber, which would make the mate's port side higher and harder to load. The port side gang would work all the faster to avoid the harder labour.
"He (the captain) was the 'big shot'. And he got his pay, $60 a month while the season lasted. Eight months at most; $480 a year to keep a wife and family twelve months, and 'amass a competence', which was the Victorian phrase for present-day 'security'. At the other extreme of the wage scale was the horseboy at $12 a month."
Many, however, were the masters of timber droghers who had begun their sailing days as horseboys. The work was difficult, the hours interminable, and the wages poor, but the job got done and the timber was then rafted on its way down the rapids to the river ports, where it would be loaded aboard salt-water vessels for export. Few, we suspect, would be the lake sailors of today who would care to change places with any of the men who worked the timber droghers.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.