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Fall 2004

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An Old Tar's Twisters

Great Lakes Yarns

From a series published in the Oswego Palladium collected by

Richard Palmer

Oswego Palladium, Jan. 6, 1877

Standin' Riggin'

Iron Shrouds for Vessels

"Speakin' about standin' riggin'," remarked an old tar yesterday after he had wiped his knife blade, with which he had peeled an apple on the skirt of a man's coat sitting next to him and made a half circle in a plug of navy, "reminds me that I knew three vessels on the upper lakes with standin' riggin' of iron rods inch and a half in diameter.

"Last summer one of the schooners while passin' through the draw of the International Bridge, Niagara River, steered a little wild and her shrouds caught on the bridge. The iron work of the bridge would not give but the shrouds did and when the vessel was stopped it was found that the shrouds had not broken but had stretched two feet. After getting the vessel clear of the bridge she was towed to Tonawanda and on her arrival there the weather suddenly changed from warm to cold.

"As it was night the mate thought he would not bother with the riggin' until mornin' and so the turn screws were not worked. In the mornin' the crew on reachin' the deck found the shrouds all right and tight, the frost durin' the night havin' contracted the iron. Now if those shrouds had been wire or Russia rope they would have broken when they caught on the bridge. Of course I'm in favor of iron," replied the old man to a question.

Oswego Palladium, Jan. 6, 1877

The speed of Vessels Twenty-Five Years Ago

A Miraculous Escape From Drowning

It was a dark stormy night—the wind howling its loudest and shrillest from the northwest, a good night for a yarn and it was evident from the frequency with which the ancient mariner scratched his poll and expectorated highly colored saliva that while the quid was being rolled from side to side, his brain was in the trough of bygone days and was tossed like a cockle shell in the breaker. The silence had grown to be almost unbearable when the old tar threw away his quid, bit off a fresh piece of navy and looking around the party a waiting his "twister," opened his budget and relieved himself of the following:

"Many wonderful things happen at sea, and in my time I have seen things on the lakes that you wouldn't believe if it wasn't I, a man of veracity, tell you. In 1852 I was mate on a little clipper hailing from Cleveland. She was a smart little witch, very slippery on her heel, and always led the fleet a stern chase. There was one thing about the schooner that I did not like, and that was the suddenness with which she came in stays.

I have seen her come in stays after a good fall, lift the men attending the jib sheets off their feet and dash the man at the wheel into the weather scuppers. When the order 'ready bout' was given on that vessel it meant something. Men who knew the tricks of the vessel used to tie the ends of the lines around their waists while she was on the wind, so that in case she left them dancing on nothing with a prospect of dropping into the water when she went around, they could haul themselves back again to the deck. "But it was her sailing that I meant to speak about when I started. Although she was 'greased lightning' by the wind, it was before the wind that she shone as a bright particular star. The facts I am about to relate are so indelibly fixed in my mind that it seems but yesterday that they worked themselves out. We were coming down Lake Huron in the month of October—a month, by the way, that is little if any behind November in violent gales, when we were overtaken by one of the worst gales from the northwest I have ever seen.

"Although Huron is deep it took but a few hours to kick up the heaviest sea I ever encountered, and when we got down to Saginaw Bay it seemed as though all Superior, Michigan and Huron were tumbled into one and that each, in trying to reserve its identity, was determined to outdo the other in size of waves. Waves, you know, roll in triplets—three of a kind (not very strong in poker, but hard to beat when old Neptune holds them).

"We were running under double-reefed foresail and a reefed jib, and were going through the water so fast that spray was flying to the foremast head, altho' the schooner was acting as well as could be expected. When about half way across Saginaw Bay (sailors call it the bay, but it is the lake) we shipped a huge wave, one whose crest was far above the sheer poles, and poor Tim Mulcahy, who was standing near the forerigging lighting his pipe, was swept overboard and far in advance of us. The poor fellow shouted at the top of his voice, but only a faint whisper could be heard as he was carried away on the breast of the wave. We all gave him up for lost and were on the point of saying a good word for him when the wind freshened; the little clipper gathered herself, and with a bound that would do credit to a hound, was off on the wings of the wind.

"It was plain to be seen that if the puff held we would soon overtake Tim, who was still on the top of the same wave that carried him overboard. Fortunately the wind held and the 'little beauty,' as we called her, overhauled the wave Tim was on, cut through it under Tim's feet and before we knew what was up Tim was plumped on deck and rushed aft to the cabin. We thought that Tim would be swept off again over the stern but when he arrived at the cabin he grasped two loaves of bread the cook had out cooling and was saved. We had a woman cook who made such heavy bread that one loaf would anchor the yawl in the middle of Lake Erie forever. I have known the schooner to ride one wave for hours. How do I know it was the same wave? Why, I have thrown cork wood overboard and in hours after found it alongside or seen it in our wake, showing that the schooner would at times outrun the waves.

"On our arrival at Buffalo, Tim left, declaring he would not be made a shuttle-cock by waves and vessels. The last time I heard from him was in Nice, Southern France, in drying plums. A shipmate saw him there several years ago sitting on a basket of plums and Tim told him that he was getting good wages. Tim said that he could dry three baskets a day and the sun could not dry one unless the plums were spread out, and spreading bruised them."

Oswego Palladium, Feb. 1, 1877

In the summer of '40, I think it was, a schooner I was in, cut a sea sarpint in two. We stood out from Kingston about noon with the wind from the nor'east, a pipin' rather strong, and as the schooner was flyin' light she traveled astonishin' to see. Just after passin' the Ducks the 'old man,' who was pacin' the deck, called the mate's attention to sumptin' in the water about a quarter of a mile dead ahead. Lookin' off that way a long object, resemblin' the back of a shoal, was plainly seen. For a minute or two the 'old man' was in doubt what to do, but finally concludin' that a shoal had no business in such a place, he orderd the man at the wheel to steer dead for it.

All of us on deck, exceptin' the man at the wheel, run for'ard to get a sight of the obstruction and got on the forecastle deck just in time to see that the thing was nothin' more nor less than a huge sea sarpint, sound asleep. The monster wasn't less'n fifty feet long, with a head sumthin' similar to that of the fiery dragon we see in picter books. It was a full dull brown color, scales on its back, hair jest back of the neck, and a tail like a harpoon head. In less time than it takes to tell it we was atop the monster and crushin' its bones in an awful way.

Our headway was deadened a trifle but we kept on, and as the monster come up under our stern we could see we had cut it clean in two and the two halves was swimmin' away in opposite directions. Before then there hadn't been but one sea sarpint on Lake Ontario, but since then two have been seen most every year. Morton's distillery, near Kingston, was in full blast at that time, and I account for the sarpint bein' asleep this side of the Ducks instead of the other side of Snake Island, its usual haunt, by the fact that that mornin' the men at the distillery dumped two or three hundred bushels of mash into the lake and the sarpint had got a trifle 'how come you so.'

Diamond of Napanee, who made quite a stir a few years ago by safely pilotin' the lost Ivanhoe from the Ducks into the upper gap of the Bay of Quinte, had a big tank built two or three years ago for the sarpint. The idea was to ketch the chap, put him into the tank and sell the whole thing to Barnum. The tank had a gate like a lock gate, and it was sunk in South Bay, the favorite feedin' place for the sarpint. The plan was, drive him into the tank, when the suction would close the gate and the wonder of the lakes would be trapped.

The steam barges Adventure of Kingston, Ivanhoe of Napanee, and Norman of Belleville was to frighten the brute into the trap, and either one of them boats was fully able to the task. As luck would have it, the day the three boats left here there was a fog so thick the captains lost their reckonin', and when it cleared up the Ivanhoe was tryin' to get into Sandy Creek, the Adventure was up near Charlotte, and the Norman had turned completely 'round and was in the river runnin' a race with the plaster mill. The tank is still in the same spot and will stay there till Calvin & Breck launch their ship from Garden Island, hopin' that when she slides into the water the sarpint will rush into the tank in its anxiety to escape the huger monster.

If the plan works, 'there's millions in it,' and the Bay grangers can keep their barley and handle it themselves or all turn malsters and brewers.

Oswego Palladium, March 10, 1877

A Breeze on Lake Erie

Yes, to be sartin, I remember the breeze in the fall of '44. I were mate on one of them 'ere pocket edision brigs belongin' to Detroit then. We was workin' up Lake Erie and had just got breast of the O w'en wind which were sou'west come a howlin' and a snortin' in an angry manner. It didn't ketch us a blinkin', fur we seed ut a cinub', long afore it struck us, and w'en it ariv' we were ready for it.

I prided myself that I hed seed it blow in the Injun Oshun, but thet 'ere breeze jest took the rags off any thing I hed ever run a foul on. The wind picked up water as tho' it wus sand and hurled it frightful fur to see, and if we hadn't a dodged it we'd a bin a wet lot as corpusses a waitin' for Gabriel to sound his fog horn. Speakin' if a horn jogs my mem'ry thet four fingers of Jamaycay, a half dosen drops of hot water, two or three spice, a lump of butter es big es a small walnut, three lumps of sugar and a little lemin' rubbed on to the edge of the glass air not bad to take this hour of the day.

But to git back to the breeze I were a tellin' you about we'n my mind were diverted. It hadn't blowed long w'en we founded that the brig hed cum to a ded stop and lookin' over the side we diskivered that she were on the bottom and there were not a drop of water to be seed where the lake hed bin. We wus on the bottom five hours afore Detroit River spilled water enuff inter the holler to float us. W'le the brig were a restin' sum of the boys was off on a voyage of diskivery, but they giv it up arter a short cruise, owin' to the ded bodies they run across. The lower part of the lake on a high old bender at the time, and Buffalo was washed clean up to Main Street. It were an airy old breeze, and w'ile it lasted a feller hed to git a prevention stay outer his sou'wester to keep his ha'r on.

Oswego Palladium, March 31, 1877

"I were a speakin' to yer some time ago 'bout the escapes us sailors from drownin', and forgot to tell ye uv a ship-mate uv mine which met with a mishap on Lake Ontario in '57. Soon arter dark, it was in the fall, the wind began ter do its prettiest, and ter blow a gale which would hev pleased a feller with a long run afore him. Jist afore the sun went down inter a black bank iter the west'erd we sighted the Devil's Nose and not long arter we wus down abreat uv it. Es the night bid fair ter by a dirty one the 'old man' called the mate and told him ter reef the fo's'il and mains'il and gather in the kites.

"Arter the gaff tops'ils and two uv the jibs he bin sekewered and the fo'sil hed bin reefed, we hauled the mains'ill aft and arter squattin' it passed the lacin' and was a haulin' out the reef tackle. Four uv us was onter the house pullin' for all we wus worth and I were a singin' out with my meuwical voice to ease the work w'in I heerd the mate sing out, 'mind yer eyes, me hearties, the boom are goin' to jibe.' And quicker nor thought over went the boom.

"Three uv us managed for a drop down, but Bill Sykes wern't sudden enough and overboo'rd he went. It were darker than death's night ter a feller which don't take any stock in the hereafter, but we seed one was amissin' and the mate, a spry chap, huv a plank overbo'rd and sung out to the keerless lubber et the wheel to put his helm hard down. The schooner cum up inter the wind, and es the seas was too heavy ter lower the boat, we finished reefin' and remained huv to til mornin'. W'en the grey broke inter the east in the mornin', s'help me Davy Jones! If there wern't Bill Sykes bout half a mile to wind'erd uv us, and floatin' out the plank. Did we save him? You wager yer ulster again a linen duster (no great odds) we did."

Oswego Palladium, Nov. 30, 1878

The Yarn of the Oldest Oswego Sailor

Quitting Salt Water

"When I arrived at Adams, Jefferson County, I met a cousin who informed me that my parents had left Antwerp and were now living in the town of Henderson. The next day we went there and I met my folks after five years absence, during which time I had not heard a word from them or they from me. As I was in a Navy tar's rig my mother did not know me, nor did my father, who, during my absence had suffered from a shock of palsy; and on being told who I was, had another one which nearly proved fatal. He recovered, however, and there was a merry time over the return of the prodigal son.

"I told them that I belonged to the Tenedos and was to return in a short time to join her for another voyage, but this they would not listen to, and finally I wrote to Capt. Loren, asking to be discharged which request was granted, although I lost my chest of cloths by the means that my boarding mistress having got married and gone to New Orleans soon after I left. This settled the thing and made me a fresh water sailor.

"There was no use of trying to be a farmer. What little time I was at home it seemed to me that everyone who came along was inclined to look under my collar for hayseed and 'cod' me for a landlubber, so in September I went to Smithville and saw old Jesse Smith who owned the brig Adjutant Clitz and asked him for a berth: he asked if I had ever sailed and I told him I had some, but I did not say I had come from salt water, as I meant to keep that to myself, as salties before the mast in those days had a rather uncomfortable time of it on fresh water,. On account of the jealousy of fresh water sailors. Smith finally told me to see Captain Bob Hugenin and probably I could get something to do, so I went to Sackets Harbor and found the Clitz there. She was a brig, having been the United States Brig Oneida during the war and had been lying sunk in Sackets until three years previous, when she was pumped out and refitted by Jesse Smith and sailed by Capt. Bob Hugenin up to this time.

When I saw the captain, he also wanted to know if I had sailed any, and I gave him the same answer I did Smith, he finally said I could go to work as an ordinary seaman, and set me to work passing the bale for the old Summer Adams, who was fitting a fore top mast backstay, and was serving it against the sun. It was so awkward for me to pass the bale this way that by dinner time I had got thoroughly disgusted with fresh water sailing if this was a sample, and made up my mind to go back to salt water. Just as we knocked off for dinner the captain came where we were and I told him that I had quit.

He wanted to know what the trouble was and I old him that what little sailing I had done I had not learned to pass the bale backhanded, and was going back where they sewed the rigging with the sun. This is the first he knew of my having come from the seaboard. He would not listen to my leaving them, but set me to work by myself fitting a pair of pendants for the schooner Lucinda that was on the stocks building at that time. I worked that afternoon about as lively as I ever did and turned out a first class job in a short time, and was known before night as "Salty" by all the men in the yard. The next thing was to cut and fit a gang of rigging, which I succeeded in doing all right. By this time all the riggers that belonged there got down on me so that I found I was going to have a little work to do of another kind before long.

One day while we were stepping the main mast a shower came up and all hands went in the loft and got to skylarking and wrestling. I did not take any part in it until one of them got me by the collar and gave me a good shaking up. This was more than I could stand, and he got one between the eyes that settled him. After a little more of the same kind of work with one or two of them, they made up their minds to leave me alone and I never had anymore trouble of that kind afterwards.

Captain Hugenin made me mate with him in the Adjutant Clitz and as I had now got aboard I will endeavor to give a description of her as I remember it. As I stated before, she had been the U. S. Brig Oneida and sunk until raised by Smith. She was about 450 tons burden, square rigged fore and aft, and would be called a very good model in those days as far as looks are concerned, but her draft of water was so great there was no profit in running her, she drawing twelve feet of water loaded and could only get in at Niagara River, Sackets Harbor and the St. Lawrence, and would only come inside the piers here light. She sailed well for a square-rigged vessel.

When we fitted out the next spring which was in 1830, I was mate, but Captain Hugenin was ashore most of the time, leaving me in command, he being engaged in raising the brig Sylph that had been lying sunk at Sackets since the war, she having ben a man of war and sunk with the Oneida. When raised she was fitted out as a morphodite brig and went by the same name she had when in service. Her first commander when she came out was Capt. John Fore, who sailed her all that season. She was the fastest vessel afloat on the lake at that time having a standing keel and being sharp as a wedge fore and aft, and so crank light that it was ticklish business going outside without ballast.

We were in the timber trade all this season, loading at Oak Orchard, 18-Mile Creek, Lewiston and Youngstown for French Creek. It was tedious work those days, every stick having to be hove in by the old-fashioned windlass, horse not having been thought of and patent windlasses or capstan unknown. All the timber we handled was for Smith and Merrick. Smith being at Smithville and Merrick at French Creek. Luther Wright was in the employ of Smith at Smithville as bookkeeper or clerk at this time.

L. P.

Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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