The autumn of 1986 has been busy indeed as the lake fleets rush to overcome the effects of the grain handlers' strike, and it certainly has not lacked its share of the nasty weather for which our lakes are so well known in the months of November and December. Let us now, however, turn back the pages of time and take a look at the autumn of 1936 (a particularly unpleasant season which capped a most unfortunate year for lake shipping) as reported by C.I. Radford in his column "Along the Waterfront", which appeared daily in "The Evening Telegram", Toronto. The following items come from clippings contained in the scrapbooks kept by our late Chief Purser, Jim Kidd.
On Friday, November 20, 1936, Radford reported that "biting cold winds to crisp wintry air is felt all along the waterfront these days, but the realization that winter is here was shown visibly yesterday as ships entered the harbour covered with ice. Not only were there ships from the (lake)head with their winter covering, but from Montreal too. The severe cold of yesterday and Wednesday night gave the vessels the appearance of having fought terrific gales on the lakes...
"A choppy sea with plenty of spray flying was the cause of the coating. The ELMBAY arrived about midnight Wednesday, but it was nearly six o'clock Thursday morning before the hatches were taken off. This was due to the thick ice layer covering them. Deckhands worked all night hosing the hatches with hot water, and in the early morning the first hatchcover was released from the frozen grip... The first mate of the ELMBAY stated that this fall has been one of the worst in many years for bad weather. 'When we were at Fort William, I was talking to the skipper of the HAMONIC which had just arrived. He told me there was a northeast gale blowing. We cleared shortly after this and found the wind had changed to the southwest, and very strong. It was not long before a northwest gale was raging and we were forced to take shelter. You can't depend on the weather at all this fall. The wind seems to change about every half an hour', he said."
On November 28, Radford wrote that "indications from lake mariners yesterday showed that there was a possibility of an early closing this year, due to the arrival of winter. Severe cold weather of the past few days has told on the main shipping links of the lakes to the sea. Yesterday, the Welland Canal was frozen over... When Capt. J. A. Lepine of the CITY OF MONTREAL came through the Lachine (Canal) early this week, there were three inches of ice. Another skipper declared that if there was a heavy snowstorm in the next few days, the canal would be impassable.
"Capt. A. H. Dixon of the ELMBAY, Tree Line Navigation Company, arrived here all iced up (sic - the ship, not the master -Ed.). He is taking his command to the lakehead and is supposed to return to Montreal. However, his is not the last of the Tree Line ships headed for Fort William. Capt. Dixon stated that this fall has been one of the worst he has known. 'The gales come up with absolutely no warning', he said. 'This fall, we have been unable to go by the barometer, even, so sudden have been the changes in the weather.' And Capt. Dixon is not the only skipper to make this statement, for others have complained about the 'freakish' weather on the lakes this season.
"The ice in the St. Mary's River is three to six inches thick from Sweet's Point to Point aux Frenes and at Big Point above the locks... With continued cold weather, it is expected that the ice will thicken rapidly. Present temperature is about 10 above Zero (Fahrenheit), and it is snowing. Mariners on the Great Lakes will get dirty weather over the weekend, according to the Toronto Meteorological Office. Strong southwest winds and gales prevail today, changing to northwest tomorrow.
"Rising suddenly before midnight last night, a strong southwest gale, estimated between 50 and 60 miles an hour, whipped Lake Erie into a fury and sent vessels on the lake scurrying to shelter. Heavy snowflurries made visibility poor. Vessels storm-bound in the local harbour are NEW YORK NEWS, GEORGE L. TORIAN, ACADIALITE, PENETANG and COLLIER (not one of them still on the lakes in 1986 -Ed.). The strong wind piled the water at this end of Lake Erie, raising the water in Port Colborne harbour nearly two feet.
"Lake steamers moved cautiously out of the Soo today as northwest gales whipped Lake Superior and ice conditions became worse in the lower river. The lighthouse tender TAMARACK reported one to three inches of ice in the lower river and drifting fields of ice in Lake Munuscong. Lighthouse men said the river was freezing fast. Steamers in Lake Superior reported a northwest gale this morning, with rough seas. During the night, 4.7 inches of snow fell at Sault Ste. Marie, making a total of 7.7 inches on the ground. A wind of 14 miles an hour blew from the west. The steamers HAMONIC and BERRYTON reported high winds and heavy seas on Lake Superior.
"A blizzard from the northwest blew over the western region of Lake Superior today, hampering port activities at Port Arthur and forcing inbound vessels to seek shelter. The KEEWATIN docked three hours behind schedule after bucking the gale up the lake. The big passenger liner NORONIC, now engaged in carrying freight, was believed in shelter in a secluded bay on the northern side of the lake. She was upbound from Sault Ste. Marie."
On November 30. Radford reported that "all ships leaving the head of the lakes are reporting bad weather on Lake Superior. Snow and high winds are making the close of the season one to be remembered for many years. There will be plenty of ships leaving the lakehead ports today, too, for it is the last day for the season's first insurance rates. This weekend was a busy time for the grain elevators there, with elevator employees working frantically to load ships in order for them to clear by midnight tonight. Every loading chute was put in operation as the vessels pulled to the docks to load...
"Storms which swept Lake Superior for four days last week had apparently abated today as waterfront activity speeded up with the season's end within sight. The freighter CALGARIAN of Canada Steamship Lines and NORONIC docked at Port Arthur yesterday, many hours late and with their bows and cabin sides coated with ice. CALGARIAN was delayed by stiff winds and high seas on the lake, while NORONIC was held up by heavy ice in the Soo River. Both vessels will... return east to tie up for the winter. NORONIC sailed yesterday with a cargo of flour on her last trip. The C.S.L. freighter FAIRMOUNT is preparing to tie up at Port Arthur."
Then, on December 1st, Radford wrote that "the possibility of the navigation season coming to an abrupt close, due to the heavy ice formations, was expressed by lake skippers at the waterfront this morning. Not only is the ice thick at the head of the lakes, but it is also thicker than it is usually at this time of year in the St. Lawrence Canals. Capt. T. S. Paterson, master of Canada Steamship Lines' huge (!! -Ed.) package freighter RENVOYLE, arrived from Fort William yesterday and cleared for the lakehead. According to Capt. Paterson's sailing orders, he is to tie up at Fort William for the winter, and that is what he says he is going to do, but when he referred to this, there was a slight evidence of doubt noticeable. RENVOYLE was brought down the St. Mary's River last Thursday, and at that time the ice was three to seven inches thick, Capt. Paterson said. 'I've been sailing for a great many years, but I have never seen the ice so thick at this time of the year', he said. . .
"From Capt. J. A. Ferguson of the CITY OF WINDSOR, one of the Canada Steamship Lines fleet of 'City' boats which operate from Montreal in the package freight trade, we learned that the ice is very thick. Last Thursday, he said, it was eight inches thick in the Lachine Canal. Capt. Ferguson is clearing Toronto for Hamilton, where CITY OF WINDSOR will be tied for the winter. On the trip from Montreal, Capt. Ferguson said he was bucking ice most of the time. He was held up there, too, through snow. Due to thick ice in the canals, freighters are taking twice as long to make the trip, and are lined up waiting for their turn through the locks. And as their turn comes, so the freighters' masters find that they have difficulty pulling away from the dock wall with the ice formed all around them."
The following autumn, that of 1937, posed an entirely different set of problems, which did not so much concern the weather as they did a lack of cargoes to be moved, and many lakers were sent early to winter quarters. On November 17, 1937, C. I. Radford reported that "they're coming home... those men of the lakes. It's joy and disappointment, wrapped up in one. The joy is for their safe return, and the fact that the men will not be fighting gales, sleet or fog on Lake Superior. They will be safely in port when the really bad weather comes. But it will be disappointing financially for many of them as the ships tie up three weeks before the regular season close.
"First ship to go to winter quarters in Toronto was the JOHN J. RAMMACHER of the Upper Lakes and St. Lawrence Transportation Co.'s fleet of 27 ships. She is tied up at the new dock, Cherry Street, and came from Montreal, light. Yesterday afternoon, two others of the fleet went into winter quarters. They were the GEORGE L. TORIAN and SHIRLEY G. TAYLOR. At Port Dalhousie, FRANK B. BAIRD has gone to the wall... At Three. Rivers, Quebec, the ROBERT W. POMEROY of the same fleet has concluded her season's activities. So came true the predictions of some weeks ago made by shipping men, that this season would see the earliest close for several years for many of the bulk carriers.
"First of the big self-unloaders (sic) to go to winter quarters in the Port of Toronto will be the GLENEAGLES of Canada Steamship Lines, according to advance information. She will arrive here for wintering within a few days. The NORFOLK and ELGIN, two bulk carriers, canal-size, of C.S.L., are now wintering at Kingston. They went to bed a week ago. And during the next ten days, more of the company's ships will conclude their season's work. The Tree Line Company ships, only five left in the fleet now since the company first began selling its ships, are package freighters, and they are expected to carry on until November 3 before any of the five are tied up.
"Reason for the early tie-up is the shortage of grain... the failure of the Canadian grain crop this season. All the grain that was brought from the west to the twin lakehead ports has been moved, it is said. Usually, at this time of year, the freighters are going full steam, carrying grain from Fort William and Port Arthur to eastern ports. However, the grain has now been moved, and into elevators at that. This means that many of the ships that came to Toronto in previous years with storage loads will come here light...
"Capt. G.M. Chadwick, who took over command of the JOHN J. RAMMACHER when Capt. Tom Heffernan was injured, was aboard the RAMMACHER yesterday, 'cleaning up for the season'... Capt. Chadwick came to the Upper Lakes Company with the first group of ten freighters bought from the Eastern Steamship Company Ltd., and has commanded several of the ships now owned by the Upper Lakes and St. Lawrence Transportation Company Ltd."
How times change, but even so things have a way of repeating themselves, in one way if not another. In 1986, we once again have lots of grain to move (thanks to the strike) and the ships will be busy as long as the weather permits. But then again, we also have some thoroughly rotten weather to go along with the heavy vessel traffic. The one major change that the passing of fifty years has wrought lies in the vessels themselves, for not one of the ships that we have mentioned is still active in Great Lakes trade.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.