Captain William Johnson
Captain Johnson was born in Norway in 1836, and at the age of fourteen years went as cabin boy at Arendal, Norway, and for five years sailed on the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean; also sailing from Christiana, Norway. While thus employed he had many interesting experiences. When he was sixteen years of age, sailing on the Norwegian ship Frey, he nearly met his death by drowning. The good ship was entering the harbor of St. Tubas, Portugal, and the crew were lowering a small boat, in which young Johnson was placed for the purpose of unhooking the tackle from the masthead in order to let the boat hang in the tackle under the yardarm to lower it down to clear the side of the ship. The end of the tackle, not being made well fast in the block, slipped, and the end of the boat dropped down throwing him head foremost into the sea. The tide was running out at the rate of five or six miles an hour carrying Mr. Johnson with it, but being a good swimmer he kept afloat, and kept constantly watching his ship though with little hope of ever reaching it again. His thoughts were on the death that seemed to await him, and of the loved ones at home, who would so grieve at his untimely death; but just as all possible hope of rescue seemed passed, and he was calmly waiting the end, he was rescued by an old Portuguese peddler, by the name of Joseph, who was in a small boat peddling fruit and wine among the vessels.
In 1855, at the age of nineteen, our subject came to Chicago, and at once entered the employ of George Steel, who owned a number of vessels, among them the St. Lawrence, on which Captain Johnson sailed during the seasons of 1855 and 1856. During the seven successive winters, so attached had Mr. Steele become to the young sailor that our subject made his home with his employer, and was regarded as one of the family during the summer months following sailing. An incident which illustrates the bravery of Captain Johnson, as well as his devotion to his friends, is worthy of mention in this sketch. In February, 1857, Chicago was visited by a flood caused by rain and melted snow, which carried away bridges and did much other damage. While the flood was at its greatest height, Mr. Steele and Captain Johnson attempted to cross the river at Healeys slough, now the branch that runs to the stockyards, with a horse and buggy. Thinking the bridge was still in place, but covered with water and floating ice, they drove the horse into the river to their dismay, however, finding the bridge had been carried away, so horse, buggy and men were thrown into the water, and were in great danger of being drowned. Captain Johnson succeeded in getting to the opposite shore, caught the horse by the head and assisted him to get a footing on the river bottom. He then swam out and rescued Mr. Steele, who was a large, heavy man, and brought him ashore in an almost exhausted condition. Mr. Steele ever after, in relating the incident to his friends (as he often did), gave Captain Johnson the credit of having saved his life, and his gratitude was shown in his honest admiration and friend- ship for his noble rescuer.
From the time that he entered the employ of Mr. Steele, in 1855, Captain Johnson's career on the lakes has been a successful one. As stated above, he first sailed on the schooner St. Lawrence, where he remained two seasons, and then became a vessel owner by the purchase of the schooner Fish Hawk, which he sailed from Chicago, and which was engaged in the coasting trade. Two years later he bought the schooners Traveller and Richard Mott, and engaged in the grain trade. During the same season he sold the Mott and purchased the schooner D.O. Dickenson. This vessel he sold in 1860, and the same season bought the schooners Paulina, Magnolia and Rosa Belle. To this fleet he afterward added the schooners Cecilia and Ida, and he was largely engaged in the grain trade, besides doing considerable in lumber. In 1870 he built the schooner Lena Johnson, and later the schooners Clara, Olga, Alice and William O. Goodman. Three of these he still owns. In the early days of Captain Johnson's experiences on the lakes, freights were much higher than now. He once took to Buffalo, in the Magnolia, 9,000 bushels of corn in one cargo, and received for carrying it twenty-seven cents per bushel. It was a large cargo for that time.
While sailing on the lakes years ago many of the disasters which were common came within the personal knowledge of Captain Johnson. He witnessed the burning of the steamer Niagara at Port Washington in 1857, and assisted in the saving of the crew. When the schooner Greyhound, loaded with grain, went ashore at Sheboygan, Captain Johnson helped to shoot a line out, and assisted in rescuing most of the crew; two who tried to swim ashore were drowned. About a month after the loss of the Lady Elgin, he picked up the bodies of two women, who were among the passengers, one of whom was identified by two rings on her finger (one having the letters "W.B.G.L." engraved on it, the other having "B.L." on it), and supposed to belong to Milwaukee. He took the bodies to Racine, where the inquest was held and the bodies buried. The three schooners now owned by Captain Johnson - the Clara, the Olga, and the William O. Goodman - are all engaged in the lumber trade for the Sawyer Goodman Company. They were built by Captain Johnson and have ever since been employed in that trade.
Captain Johnson was married in Chicago, in 1872, to Miss Eline Theodora Shoemaker, who was born in Norway. Of their five children, three are now living - Clara Amelia, Olga Theresa and Alice Eline Theodora. Captain Johnson is a well know resident of Wicker Park, Chicago, and is quite largely interested in real estate in that vicinity. He was one of the early settlers of the Park, and for five years he has been engaged in some large transactions. However, he still retains a deep interest in marine affairs, and is one of the representative vessel owners of the Great Lakes. What he is, and what he has, is due to no inside influence. He landed in America a poor sailor, and by his indomitable energy, and faithful attention to his duty, he has attained an honorable place among his fellow men, and through legitimate channels of business has acquired a high position in the financial world.
In 1878, accompanied by his wife and eldest daughter, the Captain visited the Paris Exposition, and spent five months traveling in Europe.
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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.