Last of the Lake Schooners
Came into Port Together
It was late in the afternoon on a summer day on Aug. 26, 1925. Not a cloud was in the sky. Suddenly on the horizon there appeared three lake schooners, under full sail, headed for Oswego harbor. At first some observers thought they were seeing an apparition or a mirage. But when it was discovered it was real, people thronged to the lower bridge to view a sight that hadn't been seen in decades. They came in on the wings of a northeast breeze from across Lake Ontario.
The Lyman M. Davis of Napanee, a three-and-after, led the little band that also included the Mary A. Daryaw and Julia B. Merrill, both hailing from Kingston. For some years, these relics from the past had been working out their last days transporting coal between Oswego, Sodus and Fair Haven, to Canadian ports.
The days of sail on the Great Lakes ended where they began—in Oswego—even into the postcard era. Here, the schooner St. Louis is shown leaving the harbor under tow with a load of coal . She had been around since 1864.
It was a sight that would not be repeated again anywhere on the Great Lakes. For the days of the sailing ship were gone. For more than two decades the numbers had dwindled until today there were only three or four still in active service. All of the schooners that were once home-ported at Lake Ontario ports had long since vanished. These three were among several "transplants" from the upper lakes, purchased by Canadian forwarders to replace worn out old carriers.
Everyone in Oswego knew they were getting their last glimpse of the past when as many as 50 such vessels visited this port in a single day. Old-time gray-haired sailors and skippers looked upon this "sight for sore eyes" perhaps for the last time. The day of the old-time "canvas" sailor was also quickly passing. The work that once took a crew of perhaps five or six men had long since been replaced by a donkey engine "fondly" known as the "iron jackass."
These weren't the sharp-looking, spotless schooners of yesterday. They were covered by years of grime. The decks and running rigging were covered with coal dust, the sails themselves resembling besmirched quilt work. No longer did the owners, skippers and crews take pride in "bright work" and varnished masts. They were tarnished ghosts serving out their last days of hum-drum existence.
A classic view of schooners tied up on the west side of Oswego harbor in the 1870s, from an old stereoptican slide. Vessel immediately in the foreground is the "Cossack." At left, railroad iron awaits transshipment to the midwest.
Time was rapidly catching up with these remnants of the golden age of sail. It had obviously been years since these vessels were properly maintained. Their hulls were weak and leaking, and they sorely needed caulking. They were only kept afloat by a constantly working steam syphon.
The Mary A. Daryaw in its early days when it was known as the Kewaunee.
After the three-way race across the lake, the Davis, leading the pack, made her berth at the coal docks, soon breathlessly followed by the others. The three would continue to limp along for a few more years. It is ironic that Oswego and Kingston, which witnessed the arrival of the first sailing vessels on Lake Ontario, would also witness the last of them some two or so centuries later.
Another view of the Lyman M. Davis which is believed to have been the last lakes' schooner in commercial use.
The Davis, undoubtedly the best known of the three in Oswego, usually sailed into port under full sail, including flying jib, jib topsail, standing jib, staysail, foresail, foregaff, topsail, mainsail and main gaff topsail, making a total of eight sails on two masts.
Data on these "Last of the Last" Lake Schooners
Mary A. Daryaw built as Kewaunee 1866 at Port Huron, Mich., by J.P. Arnold for Murray & Slanson, Racine, two masts. Given last name in 1921. (U.S. Registry No. 14065; Canadian Registry No. 150481.) Ship dimentions: 124' x 27' x 8.' Lost at Four Mile Point near Simcoe Island, Oct. 15, 1927.
Lyman M. Davis built in 1873 at Muskegon, Mich. by J.P. Arnold for Mason Lumber Co., two masts. (U.S. Registry No. 15934; Canadian Registry No. 130436.) Ship dimentions: 128' x 37'3" x 11.' Last operating owner, Capt. John A. McCullough. Burned at Toronto as a public spectacle during Toronto's centennial celebration, June 29, 1934.
Julia B. Merrill built 1872 at Saginaw, Mich. by George Carpenter for Merrill & Skeele of Chicago, three masts. (US. Registry No. 75478; Canadian Registry Co. 126468.) Ship dimentions: 128' x 13' x 6.' Purchased by Henry Daryaw, Kingston, 1910. Last owner, William Peacock of Port Hope. Burned at Toronto as a spectacle, July 21, 1931.
© 2008, Richard Palmer
Illustrations from Richard Palmer.