Among the treasures we encounter while on a Lois McClure adventure are the people we meet who have some sort of personal connection to or special interest in the system of canals and natural waterways on which we travel and the industries and cultures of the people living along these shores. William, “Bill”, H Leighton and his wife Bertha are such treasures.
While moored beside the H. Lee White Museum on the West First Street Pier in Oswego, NY, we were invited to a special exhibit by a local artist involving Tug Boats. Mercedes Niess, Executive Director of the museum, led us to the specially prepared hall where Art Cohn and I were greeted by William and Bertha Leighton. We were stunned when we saw a model Tug Boat which was the centerpiece of the exhibit.
The piece is impeccably made; to describe it as ‘Museum Quality’ is not praise enough. Art and I enjoyed a conversation with Bill as we learned that his inspiration developed as he watched and studied boats in the Oswego harbor. He told us how and when he built the model and related a touching story about the model. A former [unknown] crew member of the Tug Catherine Moran saw the model, without fenders, while it was on display at a previous venue and apparently, was very inspired by the model. Some weeks later, Bill received a package in the mail and upon opening was surprised to find a set of handmade, miniature fenders made by that former crew member. They fit perfectly and there are more of them stowed in the hold of the model. Bill and Bert also explained that they have more models and artwork at their home and invited us to come for a visit. The next morning, we arrived at their home and were shown two more incredible Tug models, numerous watercolor paintings, pen and ink drawings and more.
Thank you, Bill and Bertha, for sharing so much with us.
On August 20th, we were ready to tackle Lake Ontario with the Lois McClure. I say tackle because Lake Ontario is Big Water, plenty big enough to get too rough for a vessel built to travel on quiet canals and rivers. To be sure, the schooner’s direct ancestors, the O. J. Walker and the General Butler, the vessels from which she was copied, had been overcome by storm waves merely on Lake Champlain, but we were well aware that just a fresh breeze on Lake Ontario could generate waves as troublesome as Lake Champlain’s worst.
It’s a matter of fetch, the distance over which waves have a chance to build up. A west wind of 20 knots, sweeping for 150 miles the length of Lake Ontario can make 8-foot waves; it would take a storm of 60 knots to make 8-foot waves over a 25-mile open stretch of Lake Champlain.
And once big waves build up, it takes time for them to go down. We read Captain Theodore Bartley’s 1886 account of being towed in his canal boat across Lake Ontario in calm weather and rolling so much that water came in through the scuppers, in first one rail, and then the other, because there was a left-over sea from strong winds of the previous days.
With these things in mind, Co-Director of the Museum Erick Tichonuk, when he made up the McClure’s schedule back in the spring, allowed five days to choose from for the one-day, 35-mile trip along the east shore of Lake Ontario from Kingston to Sackets Harbor and another five for the leg of the same distance across the Lake from Sackets Harbor to Oswego. With luck, that ever-present factor in seamanship, we could find days to make those trips when the waves on the Lake were small.
As it turned out, the very first of the five days scheduled to go to Sackets Harbor looked fine, so off we went on the 20th. We started early, as soon as there was enough daylight to see by, 5:45 a.m., to take advantage of the morning calm. Once you get past the objection to a rude awakening, it’s satisfying to be underway before sunrise. By the time the sun came up, we were well clear of Kingston Harbor heading west down the channel toward Amherst Island. As I looked back from the wheelhouse of the C. L. Churchill, towing ahead at a steady 5 knots on a 200-foot hawser, the schooner’s masts, in line astern, pointed exactly at the brilliant orb, just climbing out of bed.
When we rounded Melville Shoal and turned south toward Sackets Harbor, we were out in the open water of the Lake. It was as calm as the Lake ever is, I suspect, and it stayed that way, with light and flukey breezes, all the way down past Nine Mile Point, Long Point, Grenadier Island, and Point Peninsula. My log says, “Lake calm as a clock.” By 12:45 p.m., we had entered Black River Bay and were off the narrow entrance to Sackets Harbor, so we cast off the towline on the schooner, Art Cohn hauled it in onto the tug’s low stern, and we put her on the schooner’s starboard hip for docking.
Halfway to Sackets Harbor, New York, off the entrance of the St. Lawrence River, we had crossed the border, so before we could step ashore, the vessels had to be officially entered into the United States. We had given the U. S. Customs our estimated time of arrival, so there was a gentleman in uniform on the dock when we tied up. Each crew member presented her or his passport, and the official’s inspection of our vessels was satisfactory, so we were free to enjoy our country. We had liked very much our watery tour of Canada, but it is always good to be home.
We now had four laydays. The crew took advantage of the time by applying a good deal of paint to the schooner’s topsides and bulwarks. Ship’s Carpenter Kerry Batdorf, assisted by Jean Belisle, installed a compressor in Hilton Dyer’s refrigerator. We were now a little less dependent on a daily supply of ice. Kerry also enlisted Ian and together they got some of the pesky deck leaks caulked.
And we actually took a day or two off. Sackets Harbor has much to offer the visiting sailor. There’s a handsome park up on Navy Point, where we often walked after supper to watch the sun go back to bed in the Lake. Men from both sides of the border died on this land two hundred years ago when Canadians attacked, for Sackets Harbor was the site of the primary U. S. naval base and shipyard for building a squadron of warships to take control of Lake Ontario in the War of 1812. We toured the local museums and learned the story of Sackets Harbor in war and peace. We patronized restaurants, coffee shops, and, perhaps most often, a fine ice cream stand.
At Sackets Harbor, I ran across an episode that linked the town to my own family. In a picture history of the place, I chanced to see a photograph of a German submarine, U-97, that, having been taken as a spoil of World War I, had toured the Great Lakes and had ended up as an exhibit in Chicago. While on the tour, the U-boat had visited Sackets Harbor, hence her picture in the book. I was able to answer the battlefield museum curator’s query about how the U-97 had come to the U. S. She, and a few other captured U-boats, had been escorted—and at times towed—across the Atlantic in 1919 by the U. S. Navy’s submarine tender Bushnell. I knew this because the naval officer put in charge of that particular operation, the Commanding Officer of the Bushnell, was my father.
While all this was going on, the citizens of Sackets Harbor, seeing a strange vessel at their town dock, came down to see what was going on. At last, on August 25th and 26th, our advertised schedule allowed us to open the boat for their inspection. They came by the hundreds, seventeen hundreds over the two days. We were able to add a new and different feature to the historical exhibits at Sackets Harbor.
The five days allotted for the open-water trip to Oswego began on August 27th. The forecast for that day and the next called for the wind coming up to a moderate westerly breeze for that day and the next, with 2-foot to 4-foot seas. Not a good forecast for us. But the forecast for the 29th looked better, a light northerly becoming west a bit stronger in the afternoon, with 2-foot seas. Then moderate westerlies the next two days.
By break of day on the 29th, then, we cast off, swung the schooner’s bow round with the Oocher, and eased out of the protection of Sackets Harbor. By 7:50 a.m., we were 10 miles on our way, taking departure from Stony Point light, a mile away on the port beam. In the unlimited visibility from the Churchill’s wheelhouse, as we towed ahead on the long hawser, we could see just where we were bound: the tall, twin stacks of the Oswego power plant, right in line with the entrance between the breakwaters, 25 miles away. I was glad to see that when we headed for the stacks, we were on the compass course that I had laid down on the chart.
This was open water all right. The Lake resembled perhaps an irregularly tolling bell, rather than a quiet clock. There were only ripples from the light northeast breeze following us, but the westerlies of the previous two days, despite their moderation, had left a low, rolling swell from the west surmounted by a small chop angling in from the northwest. The tug rolled so that sitting on the steering stool you wanted both feet planted solidly on the deck. I called on the radio back to First Mate Tom Larsen, steering the schooner in the tug’s wake, to make sure that the swifters he had rigged were continually taken up taut, as the schooner’s roll stretched her rigging. For we knew that if she rolled much out on the Lake, the lanyards holding the shrouds supporting her masts would stretch under the extra strain, thus allowing the masts to start swaying. The swifters were lines across the vessel from shroud to corresponding shroud, sweated up tight to hold everything together. They worked.
By 12:45 p.m., we were moored to the big, western pier in Oswego Harbor, and at about 1:00 p.m., sure enough, the breeze came in a bit stronger out of the west. I, for one, was glad to have Lake Ontario astern. It blew fairly hard the next two days, but we cared not.
August 30th was another layday, and we were glad to see right on page one of that morning’s Syracuse Standard a nice photo of the Lois McClure entering Oswego Harbor. And that was before the next day’s press conference, in connection with a canal conference at Oswego, brought on board twenty-three ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate. The result of all this publicity was that over the next three days we had plenty of Oswegans on board, and we found that many of the inhabitants of this port city were knowledgable about all sorts of maritime affairs.
We were now at a turning point in the 2012 cruise. New Canadian cruising grounds, including Lake Ontario, were behind us. We were ready to re-enter familiar waterways: the Oswego River, the Erie Canal with its Oneida Lake, the Champlain Canal, and finally Lake Champlain itself. We were homeward bound.
Four o’clock in the morning is as good as night. A few hours earlier I woke up ‘round midnight to see the breeze was up. If the wind were to build, we’d have quite a challenging ride on the broad lake by 6:00! But the harbor lights at 4:15 reveal calm waters. Just after some sounds of movement on deck the Lois McClure, I hear a strange air-sucking sound below the berth I’m borrowing on Tugboat Churchill. It’s the airhorn’s pressure tank filling. As I slowly swing down, trying not to hit the tug’s wheel or operating switches, I smell coffee wafting over from Lois. A very faint gray horizon in the East is backdrop for the marina.
By 5:30 we are ready to go, as planned. Gangway up, last use of shore heads, and crews of the Oocher and Churchill are in position to pivot the schooner on the one spring line we’ve left holding us to the dock. Oocher starts but then coughs, floods, takes a few tries and then finally starts back up. We move off the dock and have to leave the spring line floating in the water as it refuses to flip off its cleat. Oocher will retrieve it in a few minutes when we’re pointed in the right direction. By now there’s a hint of silver in the East. We are the only movement apparent in this small port town, site of War of 1812 events, source of excellent views out on Lake Ontario, and, just as important to the crew, home to two pubs and a bakery.
We slide out past Navy Point and then in the gradually increasing light we make ready the arm-thick hawser to switch the tug from the hip to towing position out front. It takes several of us to pay out the giant blue python hand to hand from the stern of the tug to the bow of Lois. Captain Roger swings carefully and nimbly over to Churchill and then Kathleen hands him and Art a bag of food and drink since the two boats will be at a distance for a number of hours. Then we cast off the regular hip lines and Churchill goes ahead on about 175 feet of towline.
We all hope for the chance to be released and sail if the wind comes up from the correct direction and has the requisite force – not too strong, not too light. We settle into the necessary roles for a transit: a few on bow-watch, one or two back at the wheel, and others to pick up various tasks keeping the boat shipshape. By 6:30 morning is upon us and we can easily see into the distance. Looking through binoculars we spy what seems to be a grouping of variously colored objects not far off shore. As we near the passage between Stony Point and Stony Island we make out a number of fishing boats, apparently all after the same quarry. What is it they are fishing for? A few hundred feet off our bow a spearhead-shaped fish, white bellied and a good 3 feet long, leaps high out of the water and plunges back in. What was this impressive fish? Lake trout? Muskellunge? Sturgeon? We finally get close enough to one of the 18 fishing boats to yell out the question. “Salmon!” they shout back. We speculate that because of the venturi effect of the narrow, 100-foot-deep channel here, the currents kick cold water up to the surface, bringing coldwater salmonid species with them.
Once in a while a monarch butterfly crosses our path, sometimes flying faster than us – are they gathering for the great migration to Mexico? Swells that are never seen on Lake Champlain begin to arrive in groups of four or five as we pass the abandoned lighthouse at Stony Point. The schooner lurches and heels, making the mainmast stays flop around. We notice this looseness coupled with a somewhat disconcerting half-inch play of the mast in its square tabernacle. First mate Tom Larsen decides to have us cinch the stays together from port to starboard over the boom, which does seem to have its moderate tautening effect.
As the sun begins to impart its heat, we catch sight of the towering nuke stack jutting up to the South, a giant plume of steam rising above it. Later we were to learn from a local that many in the Oswego area are lobbying New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to bring a new nuclear reactor to the existing facilities on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario to compensate for the likely retirement of the Indian Point nuke on the Hudson River. To the West, we take in a sight we Lake Champlain sailors rarely see: a vast horizon of nothing but water, as if we were at sea. Below, the water is a turquoise color that recalls the Caribbean.
After more than four hours into our journey, intern Carolyn Kennedy is itching for exercise. After making several tours of speedwalking the deck of the schooner (around the foremast in the bow and the cabintop in the stern), several of us do the calculation of how many rounds she’ll need to walk to make a mile – about 40. At 10:15 a.m. she completes her mile and is greeted with cheers. Our other intern Ian Montgomery wonders aloud how far the schooner has gone in the time it took Carolyn to complete her mile – likely much less.
The heeling of the boat – caused by increasingly regular swells and our approximate 5-knot following wind – becomes more marked. Belowdecks now there is a regular slish-sloshing of bilgewater and the dinging of the metal centerboard key against the centerboard trunk. Questions arise as to whether or not the fridge or icebox (and other upright boxes) are fastened down. Boxes have been known to topple. As if hearing our thoughts, Captain Roger radios to inquire about the mainmast in its tabernacle. Referring to the stays, he says “Keep ‘em tight,” so we raise and tighten the cinch-lines we have tied on the stays.
The winds are a bit light to warrant raising the sails, so we continue motoring and arrive at Oswego a little before 1:00 p.m. We shorten the hawser and then enter the inner harbor, passing a boarded-up lighthouse on the end of one breakwater. Ron Wilson, a volunteer at the H. Lee White Marine Museum, greets us from his motorboat, and tells us to dock right between the Museum’s two vessels: a giant grey military tugboat and their new metal-hulled schooner. We ease in slow and take our time tying onto a couple of sturdy steel bollards. Another safe trip for our trio of boats, something we never take for granted but always work diligently toward.
After only a couple of hours with the public on Sunday, August 26th in Sackett’s Harbor, NY, the crew of the Lois McClure enjoyed a few days off in the small but lovely historic town of Sackett’s Harbor. The Captain and First Mate had decided that our best weather day for passage on Lake Ontario would probably be in the middle of the week, so on Wednesday, August 29th, the entire crew woke up at 4am to prepare for departure at 5am, well before sunrise. Departure went smoothly, or at least it seemed that way, being the rookie sailor I am. Lucky for us our Oocher crew, Ian and Kerry, was able to collect a line we had to leave behind or lose Len overboard, but other than that we left Sackett’s Harbor in one piece. In the dark we entered the vast expanse of water that is Lake Ontario.
While the majority of the crew stayed aboard the Lois, Captain Roger and Art towed from Churchill, and so Tom and Kerry were left in charge of steering and general ordering around of the rest of us. Being brand new to the whole moving a canal boat experience, the seven and a half hour passage across Lake Ontario from Sackett’s Harbor to Oswego was certainly an exciting start. Lake Ontario was historically only rarely used by canal schooners due to the dangerous swells and potential for terrible weather. Our modern forecasting equipment, and our Captain’s good judgement allowed us to choose a very calm day to make the journey, and thankfully so. Even with wind well under 5mph, we were still rolling to swells that had been created by winds earlier in the week. It was rather unpleasant to be stuck below decks for any length of time. No wonder canal boaters disliked crossing wide expanses of water! These boats were certainly not made for it, though Lois held her own.
We saw a large number of fishing boats early in the morning, the crews of which were certainly shocked to see us carving a nice line between them. I liked to imagine them as huge pirate ships that we’d have to fight our way through. Only some of the crew entertained my ideas for any lengths of time. While passing through these fishing boats we watched the sun rise behind us, a fantastic sight on the water. After the sun came up the crew settled down for the long trip, enjoying a second breakfast around 9am and munching on cookies all morning long. I entertained myself (and the crew) by walking forty-two laps around the deck to equal a one-mile walk, while enjoying the illusion of the lake falling off the end of the earth to the West. We saw the tower of Oswego’s nuclear power plant from early on in the trip, probably some twenty miles out still, and watched as it slowly got large enough to see clearly.
Finally we approached the breakwater of the Port of Oswego, sometime around noon. Some excitement occurred as Art pulled in the tow line onto the tug and we were approached by a motorboat offering assistance. Only once we were well inside the breakwater did the swells no longer roll the boat. Here Churchill assumed her regular place at the hip of Lois, guiding her into the pier next to the H.Lee White Maritime Museum, where we were welcomed by Mercedes Niess who was our main host here.
Carolyn Kennedy A recent graduate of Concordia University in Montreal where she studied archaeology, Carolyn was introduced to the Lois McClure project while doing a nautical archaeology field school at LCMM.
On August 8th, the Lois McClure, towed by the tug, C. L. Churchill, on her hip, left Ottawa and went up through two pairs of locks and into the navigable part of the Rideau River at a place called Hog’s Back. For Colonel John By, when he planned his canal as a safe water route for military supplies north of the U. S. border (in case some American president subsequent to Madison might repeat his 1812 notion of invading Canada), determined to use the river and its chain of lakes as much as possible to save digging. He did have to dig, flood, and build twelve locks from the Ottawa River to Hog’s Back, a distance of five miles, since, below Hog’s Back, the Rideau has rapids and then a mighty waterfall where it dumps into the Ottawa.
We found the Rideau River leading us westward without too many S-turns, varying in width from narrows of 100 yards to the occasional bay that was 400 yards across. And we found many Canadians enjoying their river from the terraces of grand houses or the porches of summer camps. They were also afloat on the river in watercraft, from the personal to the significant vessel, with many a raucous speedboat in between. By the time we reached Kars, however, to tie up for the night at the Long Island Marina, twenty-four miles (and four more locks to keep the river navigable) from Ottawa, we were out of suburbia and into the country. It was boat country. Chris, the marina operator, rowed out to meet us in his Nutshell pram. Later, he showed us over his 28-foot wooden ketch. He also gave us permission to board and inspect the S. S. Pumper, an old steamer, anchored across the river awaiting the next event in a long career.
On the 9th, we went on up the river to Merrickville, seven more locks and twenty-one miles. The approaches to some of the Rideau locks are quite narrow. At Lock 20, Andrewsville, I looked out at the exit and saw four boats moored to the approach wall waiting for us to come out of the lock so they could come in, making our maneuvering space even more narrow. As we leave a lock at very slow speed, we can’t prevent the tug, on the hip, from pushing the schooner sideways. It looked to me as if we might not be able to avoid crabbing into four expensive-looking yachts. I mentioned my concern to the lockmaster. He said, “Well, the people from all those boats are right here to watch a big canal boat go through.” When he relayed my concern to the group, they ran for their boats, and kindly (and wisely) moved back into wider waters to let us pass safely. Anyway, in Merrickville, we showed and told our story to nearly 450 visitors.
It was on up to Smith’s Falls on August 11th, a distance of 15 miles, with five locks, one of which lifted us 26 feet. Located at Smiths Falls is the Parcs Canada headquarters for administering the Rideau Canal. Juan Sanchez was our Parcs Canada man, worrying over getting this large, historic vessel safely through his canal. The controlling depth in the canal is 5 feet, but in this summer of drought, Juan told us, it was more like 4 ½ feet. We like to maneuver the Lois McClure with the centerboard down 2 feet; with that, she draws about 4 feet. The C. L. Churchill draws 4 ½ feet. Hmmm. Well, the tug did touch once, in one of those extra-narrow, lock-approach channels, but that was because we allowed ourselves to get a mite too close to the left bank with the tug on the port hip. No damage done. Steering in these narrows was not so easy, because our vessels took up most of the water in the canal prism, so we “felt” the bottom, and the schooner would sometimes want to take a sheer for no apparent reason.
At times, the river widened to a half mile or more, with extensive marshes in the shallow coves, one of which was simply called Big Marsh. At Smith’s Falls, we moored to a fine wall in Centennial Park, the park having been dedicated in 1967, 100 years after the Confederation of Canada. We were right in the middle of the town’s festival of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. A crowd was taking full advantage of exhibits, games, and music, music, music. The next day, the Lois McClure herself became one of the exhibits, and we attracted 550 of the holiday-makers.
At the Rideau Canal Museum in Smith’s Falls, we saw a fine exhibit on Durham boats. These were watercraft about half the length and width of the Lois McClure that were used on the smaller canals in their early years. The name came from that of a Pennsylvania manufacturer, said to have developed the type in order to move his products to market. The boats could be rowed with up to four men standing up to push on sweeps. With a fair wind, they were sailed with a gaff sloop rig that could be folded down to go under low bridges. They had huge, shallow rudders with long tillers for good maneuverability at slow speed. They were quite similar to the much older river boats of the Loire in France, but there is no known connection between these French craft and the Durham boats.
On the 13th, we started a three-day passage from Smith’s Falls to Kingston, at the end of the Rideau waterway, on Lake Ontario. First, we went up to Newboro, which is at the summit of the waterway. This trip began the really beautiful part of the Rideau, probably the stretch that had so inspired the European canal veterans on the Oasis to give the Rideau top billing of all the canals they had explored. We crossed Lower Rideau Lake, passed through the 100-yard-wide gap at Rideau Ferry into Big Rideau Lake and travelled its 13-mile length, towing through the spectacular Rocky Narrows, with 450-foot cliffs on each side. Then up through Narrows Lock into Upper Rideau Lake and through its lower arm to another long, narrow, approach canal to Newboro Lock. We moored for the night on the wall just above the lock, for this would be our first down-lock on the Rideau. These lakes are full of islands, harbors, and coves, much resembling the famous Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River, minus the current. Many of the Rideau’s rocky, tree-covered islands have a clearing with a handsome house peering out from among the foliage and a nice boathouse right down on the water, perhaps with the gleam of varnish showing in its open doorway from the side of an old runabout or the transom of a lapstrake pulling boat. We could easily have gotten lost in these lakes without our excellent Canadian Hydrographic Service charts. Actually, I would love to have gotten lost here in a small cruising boat for a month or so.
Our second day of this trip took us from Newboro to Jones Falls. Erick Tichonuk, back on board for the Rideau leg, had the first trick at the schooner’s wheel, and so took her among the islands of Newboro Lake and conned her through the Elbow channel, a tiny cut around Goat Island and, with a 90-degree turn, through the peninsula that makes Scott Island an island. With the Oocher on the bow, and at dead slow speed, he managed to get the vessels through without touching anything. Then it was across Clear Lake, through another tiny cut, though this one was straight at least, and along the south shore of Indian Lake to Chaffey’s Locks, across Murphy’s Bay to Davis Lock, and through Sand Lake to the narrow passage, including the extremely narrow, curvy one at The Quarters, to the first of four locks at Jones Falls, where we moored for the afternoon and night. Whew! A challenging, gorgeous day on the water. We all felt so lucky to be on this trip.
Our afternoon at Jones Falls was a highlight for us canal buffs. We saw: a video at the Visitors’ Center, reminding us, among many other things, of the human cost of building the Rideau Canal, some 500 lives, many of them to a form of malaria caught when working in the swamps; the staircase of three locks in a setting of sloping lawns; the old lockkeeper’s house, built in war-remembering days as a fortified structure with slits for gun-firing and heavy shutters for the windows; a working blacksmith shop; and a whispering dam. The 60-foot-high dam had an unusual structure for the year 1828, with vertical stones forming a huge, horizontal arch bowed against the water, so that its pressure would squeeze the stones together for strength and watertight integrity. About twenty-five years ago, folks playing around this old dam suddenly heard each other’s voices all the way from one end to the other. We tested the feature and were amazed at being able to converse quietly along its length of 350 feet.
On August 15th, we left Jones Falls for Kingston. We descended the locks we had been admiring, traveled the length of Whitefish Lake, survived Murphy’s Narrows, went through Little Cranberry Lake, and approached the swing bridge at Brass Point. The lockkeeper back at Jones Falls had warned us that this bridge had a narrow opening. We approached the opened bridge gingerly, but it looked no narrower than the locks we’d been through, so we reasoned that we could negotiate it as if it were a lock. But the bridgekeeper did not agree. As she looked at this big canal boat with a tug on the side bearing down on her bridge in her second week on the job (we were to get well acquainted), she thought, “No way!” and quickly communicated her fear to us in a sharp yell. We had to use a little extra backing power on the tug to stop in time. She shut her bridge. We backed off and sent the Oocher in with a long measuring tape. The report came back on the radio: “Thirty-three feet.” Enough. The Oocher crew persuaded the fledgling bridgekeeper to reopen. We crept through without touching. Our relief was easily matched by that of a bridgekeeper who could keep her new job.
After towing half the length of Cranberry Lake, we turned off into the small Cataraqui River and went down through its locks at Brewer’s Mills and Washburn. This brought us to the River Styx (I’m not making this up). Well, the Styx is pretty weird. It’s one of those wide rivers with a narrow channel down the middle, and the channel is buoyed much narrower than it needs to be, as if vessels crossing the Styx need to be kept very much on the straight and narrow. We stayed carefully between the forty pairs of buoys on the River Styx. It was a relief to enter Colonel By Lake and good to see that the brilliant engineer had gotten his due, because instead of accolades when his canal opened in 1832, he was falsely accused of misappropriation of funds.
Our last four locks were at Kingston Mills, and the Rideau proved that any canal can be an obstacle course. What with waiting for traffic coming up, it took two hours for us to get down through and back into the Cataraqui River. It was 7 p.m. before we slid in to a tight berth at the Kingston Marina in Kingston’s Inner Harbor. We tied up in the shadow of a huge 75-ton-capacity crane.
Next day, we used the monster to step our masts and lift the mainsail and foresail, with their booms and gaffs into place. Ahhh. A schooner again. And the day after, we shifted berth into the outer harbor of Kingston and moored to the Holiday Inn, or rather to the pier on which the hotel is perched.
In Kingston, we had nearly 400 citizens on board, and they seemed especially knowledgeable about things marine. Perhaps that’s because you can stand on the Kingston shoreline, a waterfront that has witnessed much maritime history, and look out to a straight sea-horizon, across Lake Ontario. We looked out there too, with the knowledge that our schedule called for crossing the Lake, a trip a sailing canal boat was not built to take.
When last I wrote, the Lois McClure and her crew were about to proceed down the Rideau Canal from Ottawa to Kingston. Traveling this historic waterway southward reveals a canal very much like it was in 1832. The stone locks have never been expanded and the five-foot depth-of-canal is unchanged. The same narrow twists and turns that challenged the mariners of yesterday navigating steamboats towing barges or timber rafts are still the course. That said, the further we traveled on this canal the more enchanting it became. In Merrickville, the community hosted us for a grand evening reception at one of the large blockhouses built in contemplation of continued war with the United States. It felt a bit strange to reflect on the origins of the fortification so rooted in conflict but now “hosting the enemy” is a clear acknowledgement of our strong national ties. Our next stop at Smith Falls revealed a city in the wilderness and spoke of the canal’s commercial impact to this once frontier community. However, when we left Smith Falls for Kingston, the canal became even more like turning a page back in time.
The twists and turns of the canal were part of the charm and part of the challenge. It spoke of the British Royal Engineers’ focused military goals to connect the Ottawa River to Kingston on Lake Ontario for the next war. The canal did not have to be straight, it just had to allow troops and supplies to bypass the vulnerable St. Lawrence route. Each lock we passed had its own unique history, but the locks at Jones Falls proved to be in a class by themselves. Everyone we spoke to along the way had said that Jones Falls would be the high point of the canal and that the remarkable series of locks, turning basin, and stone dam was a triumph of engineering. The site was even more remarkable because of the 1877 Kenny Hotel, a still operating connection to the 19th century “back to nature” fishing and boating era. But what really made Jones Falls a true time capsule was the written record left by Peter Sweeny, the first Jones Falls lockmaster, His “Diary” written from 1839-1850* was a present to me from my fellow crew member Jean Belisle. The journals provided a picture of life along the new frontier waterway as well as a glimpse of steamers, barges and rafts that typically began navigating the system in late April and continued until late November or early December.
*The Sweeney Diary: The 1839-1850nJournal of Rideau Lockmaster Peter Sweeney. Edited by Ken Watson. Friends of the Rideau. Smith Falls, Ontario, 2008.
Our crew had heard so many positive descriptions about Jones Falls that we were able to make some modest adjustments of our travel schedule so that we could spend an afternoon and evening there while en-route to Kingston. Jones Falls, like the rest of the canal, is operated by Parcs Canada and in addition to the well maintain canal infrastructure, this site includes a working blacksmith shop and an interpreted “fortified” lockmasters house where Peter Sweeny penned his journal. The flight of locks separated by the turning basin was so beautiful you could have convinced me that the designers laid it out to maximize its presentation and not for utilitarian purposes.
The 60-foot high stone dam was, at the time, a marvel of engineering and still serves today to create the canals required water levels. After a short but remarkable stay at this oasis in the woods, the next morning the crew prepared to embark for our final leg to Kingston. Saluted by the other boaters at the bottom of the flight, our sendoff included a talented bagpiper playing us off to Kingston, the fortified town that had served as British naval headquarters on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. Arriving at Kingston on the canal and Lake Ontario was like emerging from the wilderness into the city.
Descending down the final flight of locks at Kinston Mills for a short transit on the Cataraqui River we arrived at Kingston Marina which is also the home of Metalcraft Marine, makers of high speed patrol, fire-rescue and work boats. We had arranged to put up our sailing rig here for our stops at Kingston, Sackets Harbor and Oswego. Rigging Lois is a time-consuming difficult job but when it was completed we received another unexpected gesture of community support. The rig was installed utilizing the marinas big stationary crane operated by Sandy Crothers, the marina manager. It was a multi-hour and complicated job, but when it was finished Sandy informed us that after talking with the other marina and Metalcraft principals, they had decided that they appreciated our outreach mission enough that they had decided to waive all our fees. The crew was all deeply touched by this unexpected gesture of generous support.
Kingston, Sackets Harbor and Oswego are all important locations in our War of 1812 commemoration story. Kingston had been the British naval base on Lake Ontario which competed with its American counterpart at Sackets Harbor in what has been called “The Battle of the Ship Carpenters.” In these two naval shipyards, the race to advantage in size produced ship-of-the-line warships capable of carrying over 100-cannon. The Naval Commodore’s on both sides of Lake Ontario produced impressive squadrons that only sparred but never came into decisive action. At war’s end, some warships were sold, some were broken up and others sank destined to become subjects of our modern nautical studies. Both Kingston and Sackets Harbor still contain the tangible legacy of this impressive shipbuilding effort and in 2013 shipwrecks from the war will be featured in a new book edited by Kevin Crisman entitled Coffins of the Brave: The Nautical Archaeology of the Naval War of 1812 on the Lakes.
After our rigging was installed, we moved to our public venue on the Kingston Waterfront next to the Holiday Inn. Our community partner was the Maritime Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston who had also invited me to do an evening lecture on shipwreck management. The lecture was well attended and I talked about the 1776 gunboat Spitfireand the 1812 Confiance Anchor Project, as two examples of current management case studies. Our public days at Kingston Harbor were busy and satisfying as many people showed up to learn more about the War of 1812 and the Rideau Canal system built in its aftermath.
When our time in Kingston was concluded we prepared for crossing of Lake Ontario and while the crew hoped this might provide an opportunity to unfurl the sails and show our schooner at its best, we were cautious. We have a reference from Captain Bartley’s crossing from Oswego to Kingston being towed by the tugboat Charly Ferris back in 1886. He described the wind being moderate on the day he crossed, and “there appeared to be no sea,[but] there was a long heavy swell from the west [and] the boat rolled to her scuppers…” The conditions for our crossing did not line up the way they needed to and we had to be content towing ahead with our beloved C.L. Churchill and crossing the big lake with our schooner under tow. Our passage to Sackets Harbor was uneventful with calm wind and seas, but when we set out from Sackets Harbor to Oswego we recreated Captain Bartley’s experience in that although we had little wind to speak of, the swell was very impressive and at times the Churchill “rolled to her scuppers”.
Sackets Harbor was one of our important War of 1812 commemorative stops. In addition to the naval activity there, it became an impressive complex of fortifications built to protect the naval shipyards. After the war, the stone Madison Barracks were built to strengthen the US position for the next war. Happily, the next war never came and the huge warship New Orleans being built on Navy Point was never finished and instead became a curiosity for travelers. Today Navy Point is a private marina and the Madison Barracks have been adapted to private housing. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) operate the historic site of the military fortifications.
I found that upon entering the historic harbor I experienced a warm and familiar feeling about returning to Sackets Harbor. In the mid-1980’s, fresh from completing our study of the US brig Eagle in Lake Champlain, Kevin Crisman and I had gone to Sackets to see if we could locate the remains of the US Brig Jeffersonwhich was reported to be sunk within the harbor. We were successful and that discovery led to a multi- year study were we had the help of Sackets Harbor historians Bob and Jeannie Brennan. Bob and Jeannie had been our community liaison and hosts but I had not been back to Sackets harbor in more than 20-years and wondered if Bob might still be there. We had not been in town very long when Bob and Jeannie made contact and we arranged to meet down at the boat. It was so good to see them both and we exchanged many recollections of our time there. Bob had made it possible for us to find much needed housing for the crew and had provided us with much historical information.
While we were reminiscing, Jeannie reminded me that Bob’s father had actually been born on a canal boat based out of Kingston, NY. She recalled that in those days if a baby were born on the boat it was typical to register the baby in the next community the boat landed. In this case of small world stories, the Brennan’s next stop had been Burlington and Jeannie made me copies of Bob’s father’s birth certificate which told us his “Place” of birth was the “Canal boat G.N. Waters.” To make the small world smaller, our contact at Sackets Harbor was NY OPRHP Site manager Constance Barone, who is Bob and Jeannie’s daughter.
We arrived on a beautiful day and tied up at the town dock and park and almost immediately began talking to people. We had the time to explore the historic sites, Visitors Centers and museums that make Sackets Harbor such an interesting place. One big change from our dive project days is that downtown Sackets Harbor is now the venue of an impressive collection of restaurants and one GREAT ice cream shop that Jean and I frequented almost every night. The Ontario Place Hotel were great hosts and provided the crew with a place to shower…no small kindness to a traveling crew. By the time we opened on the weekend, the word of our presence had spread in many conversations and translated into an extraordinary weekend with a turn-out of over 1700 visitors!
At Sackets Harbor I was very pleased to be asked to do a program about the shipwreck in Sackets Harbor and other stories on Saturday morning. It was set for the gazebo in the town park right next to the dock and an enthusiastic crowd attended. I was able to simply look across the harbor to the orange buoy and explain to the group that it marked the resting place of the 20-gun American brig Jefferson. The Jefferson had been built by master shipwright Henry Eckford one of the nations most talented builders. It had been Eckford who had performed miracles in building many of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet that achieved victory at the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. As I toured the OPRHP Sackets Harbor Battlefield site I was very pleased to learn that information from Kevin and my studies were incorporated in the exhibit at the Battlefield entitled “Life Aboard the Jefferson”. I also was very gratified to preview a new exhibit that is scheduled to formally open next May about the Archaeology of Sackets Harbor, which features our work on the Jefferson. All in all, Sackets Harbor had to be one of the most wonderful and rewarding stops in a tour. I hope we can go back!