Captain John Brown
Captain John Brown, perhaps in the employ of the old Northern Transportation Company, a longer time than any other skipper on the lakes, and one of the very few pioneer steam- boat masters now living, was born near Brockville, Ont., in 1826, and having what may be termed an iron constitution, tall and robust, of great vigor and strong vitality, he is still in active employment in the shops of Adams Bagnal Electric Company, of Cleveland. He is the son of John and Mary (Robbins) Brown, his mother being the daughter of Robert Robbins, of Perth, Canada. Shortly after his birth John's parents removed to the United States, landing at Waddington, afterward going to Lewisville, St. Lawrence county, then to Canton, and finally locating at Ogdensburg, N.Y., in March 1839.
It was out of that city that Capt. John Brown first shipped, in the fall of 1839, on the topsail schooner Ontario, this berth lasting but two months, and it seems to have answered the purpose for a time, as it was a very boisterous fall, and we find him working ashore the next four years, one year in a foundry, and three years at the coopering trade in Ogdensburg. The season following he shipped on various vessels, closing on the brig Wabash; the season of 1847 being passed in much the same way, but closing with young Brown as mate on the schooner J.B. Collins. In the spring of 1848 he was appointed mate on the schooner Young Leopard, with Capt. George Rogers.
The next season Captain Brown turned his attention to steamboats, and entered the employ of the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario Steamship Company, as wheelsman on the steamer Northerner, holding that position two seasons, followed by a like berth on the steamer Niagara the next year, and in the spring of 1852 was made second mate on the Niagara. In 1853 he entered the employ of the Northern Transportation Company as second mate of the steamer Granite State, but after two months on this boat he was made mate and pilot of the propeller Michigan, serving on her three months, then became master of the J.W. Brooks, and after twelve days, the boiler giving out, he transferred the cargo to the propeller Cleveland, laying her up in the fall, after which he made a trip to Dunkirk and Buffalo with the Granite State, laying her up in Cleveland. In 1854 he joined the Wisconsin as mate, with Capt. Luke Hickey, and during the Captain's absence sailed her two trips.
In 1855 he came out with Captain Rosman as mate of the Lady of the Lakes, but did not make the round trip, as he was appointed master of the Bay State, which propeller he sailed the next season, and was in Cleveland with her on the day of Mr. Buchanan's election to the Presidency. In the month of August, 1856, while Captain Brown was in command of the Bay State, a beautiful and unusual mirage presented itself on Lake Ontario, and was seen by those on board the propeller, while on the passage from Niagara to Genesee river. It took place just as the sun was setting - twelve vessels were seen reflected on the horizon in an inverted position, with a clearness truly surprising. The sky was overcast with a thick haze, such as is seen before a storm, and of a color favorable to represent, upon a darkened background, clearly the outlines of the rigging and sails as perfectly as if the vessels were themselves actually transferred to the clouds. This unusual phenomenon lasted until darkness threw a veil over the picture.
Late in December, 1856, while sailing the Bay State from Port Dalhousie to Ogdensburg, when off "Devil's Nose," the valve stem broke. Captain Brown asked his engineer if a substitute could be made on board; he said "no," that he would have to go to a shop and have a new one made. Being about ten miles off shore, the Captain manned a boat, and sent the clerk and engineer ashore; they landed fifteen miles above Genesee, where they hired their boat hauled to Charlotte, and then went by stage to Rochester to shop. In the meantime Captain Brown tried to sail into Genesee river, but failed, bringing up nine miles below, on account of drifting in a southwest wind, dropping anchor in ten fathoms of water. About midnight the wind shifted to the northwest, turning severely cold, it blowing about a half gale. He then "let go" his second anchor, his boat by this time being so "iced up" that she was "down by the head" some eighteen inches. Next day at noon, Captain Brown started to make a substitute for a valve stem, which he accomplished by using a "rolling brace," and substituting the kitchen stove for a forge. It was at this point when Pat Laughlin said, "By gob, Captain, if you make her go I'll spind fifty cints to get your name put in the paper." But "make her go" he did, and though the gland was let off, which necessitated a delay of some hours to let steam go down, he finally started the engines and steamed into Genesee river. The engineer from the shore concluded, from the sparks which were thrown in profusion in getting under way, that the Bay State was on fire, and reported to the authorities that she had burned and sunk with all hands. Captain Brown went on shore, and hiring a carriage, went "post haste" to Rochester, and telegraphed to the agent at Oswego that all was well and the Bay State in port. His message arrived just as the wrecking tug was casting off her line to go to his assistance. During the gale the propeller Ogdensburg had tried to go to his assistance, but was compelled to put back. Captain Brown remained on the Bay State until the close of navigation in 1857.
In the spring of 1858 he sailed the propeller Vermont, and the next three seasons was master of the Bay State until September 23, 1862, when he left her in charge of Capt. William Marshall, went to Cleveland, and took charge of the propeller Maine, sailing her until the close of the season of 1862, having moved with his family to Cleveland in May of that year.
In the fall of 1862 he was censured on account of a slight accident on the Maine, and in 1863 was offered the captaincy of the Vermont, which he promptly refused and went as mate on the Tioga, and on her second trip her boiler gave out, scalding and killing four men. During the repairing of this boat he took charge of the City of Boston, making the trip from Cleveland to Chicago and back to Detroit, during the illness of her master, Capt. John Condwell.
In 1864 he sailed the Susquehanna, chartered by the Erie line, from the W.T. Co. In 1865 he was mate on the Granite State, with Capt. Ira Bishop, three trips, when he was transferred to the propeller Wisconsin, finishing that and the next season on her. In 1867 he was captain of the propeller Akron, and the next season mate of the propeller Norman, with Capt. John McKay, making two trips to Lake Superior, after which he went to Cleveland and worked in Stevens & Presley's shipyard, having been appointed by Superintendent Keating to take charge of the construction of the new boats building for the Northern Transportation Company, which were the City of Concord, Nashua, St. Albans and Lawrence.
After the completion of this work, in the fall of 1868, Captain Brown went to Detroit and took command of the propeller Young America, and sailed her the three following seasons. About November 20, 1871, an interesting feat, which resulted in the liberation of an ice- bound fleet in the Welland canal, was performed by Captain Brown while in command of the propeller Young American. He took the back track far enough to wind about, and then came down past the fleet stern first, breaking the ice with the current from his wheel all the way through, for which act he got a good-sized check from his company. In the spring of 1872 he brought out the propeller City of Boston, and sailed her in the passenger trade from Cleveland to Duluth, until July 9, 1873, when he returned to the Cleveland shipyard work. His next berth that season was mate with Capt. Peter July on the propeller Glasgow, making three trips, after which he was engaged as wrecking master for the Mercantile Insurance Company. In 1874 he went to Port Huron as mate and pilot on the wrecking tug Rescue. He raised the S.D.R. Watson, and the schooner Chicago Board of Trade was raised, but they had to let her sink again on account of rough weather. They then went to work on the John Dunn, but did not get her. Captain Brown then took command of the wrecking tug, Captain Garrison being called home.
In 1875 he again raised the Chicago Board of Trade and took her to Buffalo, and continued his wrecking operations through the season of 1876. In 1877 he joined the steamer D.M. Wilson as mate, holding that berth through the next season. On one trip coming down the boat stopped at Wilson's dock to take some merchandise, when a stranger, in the shape of a black bear, came on board and treed the lookout. Captain Brown took an ax to do up bruin, driving the ax to the helve in bruin's back, and, after having several hand-to-hand encounters with him, finally came off victor, the bear being found nearly dead on shore next morning. In 1879 he was still mate of the D.M. Wilson. In 1880 he was appointed captain of the Main street bridge. In June, 1882, he went to work in Stevens & Presley's shipyard, in Cleveland. In 1886-87-88 he was again captain of the Main street bridge, and during Mayors Gardner and Rose's terms was captain of the Seneca street bridge. In 1893-94 he worked in the shipyard and took Mark Hanna's yacht Comanche to Prescott, Ont. In 1895 he stopped ashore and enjoyed a well-earned rest, during the winter acting as watchman in the New England block. In 1896 he went to work for the Brush Electric Company, and during the winter entered the employ of the Adams Bagnal Electric Company. During the year of 1898 Captain Brown again took the Comanche to Prescott, and later the Algonquin and Onondaga, all three being for government use in the late Spanish-American war. The two latter he took to Ogdensburg to be cut in two in order to get them to the coast.
Socially, Captain Brown is a member of the Odd Fellows, having joined the order in Ogdensburg in 1855.
On December 31, 1846, Captain Brown was wedded to Miss Ann Jane Richardson, of Ogdensburg. Seven children were born to this union: Mary Agnes, the widow of J.F. Pennrich; Frances Esther, the widow of A.L. Pennrich; George Erastus; Capt. John F., a lake ship master; and Amos Douglass, chief electrician for the Adams Bagnal Electric Company, and for six and a half years prior to this was in Shanghai, China, in the employ of the Brush Electric Company, being the first man to introduce the incandescent lights in China and Japan; and Alice Theodocia, now Mrs. W.E. Kelly. One son died at Ogdensburg, aged five years. Captain and Mrs. Brown celebrated their golden wedding on New Year's eve, 1896. The members of the family present on the happy occasion were three daughters, three sons, seven grandsons, seven granddaughters and five great grandsons. The family residence is at No. 24 Geneva street, Cleveland, Ohio.
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.