Owen P. Merrill – Trials and Tribulations of being a Sodus Point Sailor

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In 1986, Owen P. Merrill documented the trials and tribulations of being a Sodus Point sailor in the early part of the 20th Century in  a piece called “The Great Lakes”.


The  Great  Lakes


Owen P. Merrill

(as told in 1986)

Over three hundred and fifty years ago, the early French explorers looking for a new route to China and the spice trade found this incredibly rich region; and these immense bodies of clear, fresh, sweet waters.  It – the Great Lakes region _ was very rich in furs and fish, and timber, and copper and iron ores.  They never found the way to China, but they made a highway of the Lakes and the connecting and tributary waters.  As soon as their discoveries became known in France; colonists were sent out, and the fur traders followed.  The colonies grew, and commerce moved in; and came and went on the Lakes; in all types of vessels; canoes, rafts, sailing vessels.  Then came steamboats, side-wheelers and propeller types.  A canal was finally dug to by-pass the rapids at Sault-Ste. Marie, and the iron and copper trades opened up.  Steel ships were built, and larger and deeper locks built as ship sizes increased -2-3-4-5-600 footers, as the demand for ore increased with the population.  And then came the Seaway, with larger locks, and ship sizes increased over 700 feet, and now there are 2 locks at the ———

which are over 1000 feet long.  And ships over 1000 feet long.  For many years a cavalcade of ships went up and down the chain of Great Lakes.
At one time close to 500 ships of American registry sailed the Lakes, but the size of the ships increased and fewer ships were required.  The older and smaller ships were scrapped, and the numbers decreased, until now, in 1986 there were only 47 ships of American registry actually running on the Lakes.  Our steel industry is lost, and probably won’t come back, because the owners tried to compete with modern technology with old, worn out plants. And will probably lose some more when Brazil opens up their new mines and steel mills (financed by Uncle Sam).  We are really, as world trade is concerned far down on the list of productive nations.  The number of ships expected to run on the Great Lakes in 1987 is not expected to increase much, if any.  The month of November, 1926, was an important month in my life.  I was at that time 2nd assistant engineer on the steamer “Penobscot”, operated by the Miholson Steamship Co. of Detroit.


The Penobscot


We had been scheduled to take a load of cars to Duluth, load grain there, and hold it on winter storage at some Lake Erie Port.  The str. “City of Bangor” of the same line, was supposed to take a load of Ford tractors to Fort William, Ontario, Canada (now called Thunder Bay) and then load storage grain for Goderich, Ontario.  For some reason, the “Bangor” could not meet her schedule, and the “Penobscot” took the tractors to Fort William.  We arrived at the lake-head just before a terrific storm broke.  One day after we left Detroit, the “Angor” loaded the cars for Duluth.  She had to go to the opposite end of Lake Superior, and was caught in the storm.  The cars were in the lower hold, and it could not be flooded for ballast, as was customary with light boats.  After a hectic battle with the storm, she finally crashed ashore on Keweenaw Point on Lake Superior, near Copper Harbor.
I have heard the story from the chief engineer, Charles P. Sampson, who made his home on North Fitzhugh Street, in Sodus Point, N.Y. for a great many years.  Also from several other crew members, with whom I was shipmates at various times, in later years.  It must have been a long, nightmare of a night.  They had no lights, the auxiliary steam line had broken off when she hit the rocks.  The fore and aft life- line was unusable, it was so cold that seas washing over against the after cabin froze over the windows without breaking the glass.  Some of you may be thinking port-holes not windows- but she was an old wooden cabined boat, and had windows which slid up and down in the cabin wall.
And there they were, rocking with every wave, and expecting to slip off into deeper water with every wave.  Several men told me later that even the trees on shore wobbled, till their bodies became re-adjusted.  Daylight finally came, and they could see where they were.  From the upper pilot house, using binoculars they could see the lighthouse at Copper Harbor.
The life boats were just masses of ice, and they had to be chopped clear before they could make their way ashore and started to walk through deep snow across the Keweenaw Peninsula to Copper Harbor and the lifeboat station there.  It must have made some procession, 34 men strung out through the woods and snow.  The first night they made big fires, to cook and keep warm.  The last 2 men to come in were Jimmie Flanagan and his partner, Ben Swanson.  Capt. Bill Mackin asked Jim what he had done with the tin box Flanagan had been carrying for him.  “Oh, hell, Cap; I threw it away under a pine tree a couple of miles back there.”  “You dam fool, Jimmie, there was over $5000. in that box, the next pay-roll.” Flanagan and Ben turned around and went back for the box and brought it in to the fire.” They all ate supper, like a cook-out, and retold everything they could remember, till they fell asleep.  The next day they arrived at the lighthouse in the afternoon and of course were taken into shelter. The lightkeeper had killed a deer a couple of days before, and his wife fortunately had baked a batch of bread that afternoon, and with what provisions they had carried with them, they fed royally. She made more bread the next day.  They just about cleaned up the deer before they left.  The keeper opened up the emergency supply room, and passed out woolen socks and shirts and underwear to everyone that needed anything.  One of the 2 passengers who were getting a free ride to Duluth, a fairly rich man, was caught trying to fill up his bag with socks, but they were taken from him and passed out to more needy ones. It took quite a long time to get transportation.  (I think they all had to go to Duluth to testify at an inquiry about the wreck.) by the Steamboat Inspection Service.  Then they scattered to their homes, mostly Detroit, for the winter.  Jim Reid, Sarnia, Ontario, (old friend of Mr. Sampson) of “The Wreck master” book fame was hired to remove the cars from the holds and drive or ship them to various destinations.  He came aboard the “E.C. Pope” where Mr. Sampson and I were fitting her out in the spring.  He told us he had just returned from the wreck. She had to be abandoned as a total loss. The winter ice floes had torn the side out of the engine room, and the engine was held up by only one column and hanging from the main steam pipe.  All of the auxiliary machinery (pumps, dynamos, benches, what have you, were gone completely.  The crew members were allowed a small amount of money for clothing and tools lost ($300.), which some took, and quit sailing altogether.  Some went sailing again in the Spring. Some, like Jim Flanagan and Ben, took their money over to the corner saloon across from the dock office, and started drinking (boot-leg hooch).  Ben never did come out alive, poor fellow.  Others lived to ripe old age, like Mr. Sampson, who kept on sailing until the end of World War II.  God Bless them all, wherever they are.
In 1940 or 1941 we sat down to a small table in Smith Fish Co. dining room in Port Washington, Wisc., and on the wall next to our table was this same ring buoy.  Our waiter noticed me reading the descriptive note attached to it and started to tell me about it.  I had a hard time explaining that I was the man who had given it to the sailor on the Smith Fish Co. tug which had picked us up.  But we all had a great time during the afternoon, for they specialized in fish dinners and hot German potato salad served along with Milwaukee beer.
During the season of 1927, Mr. Sampson and I became very well acquainted, because the “E.C. Pope” was an old wreck of a job, run down and dilapidated, and only carried 2 engineers.  The office had been told by Captain Mackin that “Charlie had said he was through sailing” so they didn’t bother to confirm it, and left him off the appointment list, until finally he called them.   The only job left was the “Pope”.  So there we were, for 2 of the hardest years of work I ever put in and I learned more and got more general experience in those 2 years, than I did in the next 10 years.  We stood 6 hours on watch, and 6 hours off, seven days a week from March through November and then worked harder laying up the ship for the winter, and draining everything and over-hauling and fitting out wherever we could.  I told him one day, “I’m not going to quit, and let anyone say an old man out worked me, but if you ever go up those stairs, I’ll be right on your heels.” Anyway, we both hung on, and when the company finally bought a new and bigger boat, we both were shifted over to it, namely “Str. Senator”.  It wasn’t the plum some thought it would be.  Steamship operators planning on selling a ship don’t spend a lot of money during the last year or 2 they own it.  The crew knows it will be sold, and just does enough to keep it running.


The SS Senator


And the crew hadn’t done even normal up-keep work.  The boilers were a mess.  The winter ship-keeper had opened a bulk-head door in the lower engine room for a grain storage inspector, and an avalanche of grain swept him back into the engine (room).  Finally, the doorway plugged at the angle of repose.  The elevator crew abandoned about 200 bushels of grain and left it there, agreeing to buy it back from the ship keeper if he cleaned it up.   He hired a couple of roustabouts and cleaned out the dry grain.  Then he took off, seeing that the fit- out crew was aboard.  So, in self-defense, we- 3 engineers – 3 oilers- had to clean the wet stuff out of the bilge, before it could start sprouting and stinking.  We spent Easter Sunday, face down in the bilge, scraping sour mash, vomiting into it and cleaning that up.  It all had to be hauled up in 5-gallon buckets and dumped into the coal pile, where it was burned up.  We finally got to a point where we could go ahead and fit out, thought we had to “cut the grass” in the lower engine room several times that summer.  But she was a pretty nice job until we laid up in the summer because of the annual shut down of the auto plants for change of models.  I didn’t like the job to which I was transferred, and insisted on going back on the “Senator” when the cars started coming.  We did well in September and October, until Oct. 31, 1929.  We had loaded 256 Nash cars in Kenosha, I had come off watch at 6:00 AM and was eating breakfast.


A Nash Automobile

Capt. Kinch, his daughter and her husband were eating and visiting still at the table.  The steward came in and asked permission to wait for some bread and small articles he had ordered.  The captain agreed, saying it would give them a longer visit.  There were 2 or 3 other slight delays before we finally got away from Kenosha.  I turned in to sleep.  We ran into dense fog on the lake.  There was a small wave forming.  I must have awakened when the ships crashed.  We were sailing from west to east about 25 miles from Milwaukee.  The “Marquette” was coming south from Escanoba.  She hit us in the middle, and as we had no water-tight bulkheads, she filled immediately.  I was dressing when the chief came along and said to hurry out on deck as we are going down.   Don’t forget your life preserver.  I hustled out.  We were listed so far then I was walking with one foot on the ship side and one on the cabin side.  By the time I had reached the forward side of the coal bunker the ship was submerged.  So, having heard of ships creating a suction when sinking, I walked off and started swimming. I had a hard time staying upright.  And had to roll over and swim around and face it.  There had been no suction.  The watch on duty had gone to the lifeboats, but the port side boat had swung out as she listed.  And the starboard boat had fallen inboard against the davits, and there was no time left, anyway.  She was under the surface and out of sight in about 6 to 8 minutes. I remember seeing the Marquette’s port lifeboat hanging vertically by one falls, right under the discharge from her air pump and the starboard boat was still on the chocks, with 3 men in it.  Those three men were survivors from the “Senator” who had jumped on her anchor and climbed through a hole in her forecastle and ran aft to help launch a boat.  I had trouble keeping  upright, as there was a little chop on the water.  I came upon one of the large wooden loading skids, and hung onto that.  I could hear voices, but I couldn’t see anyone until I turned around again, and there a fireman, Duane Precious, facing me.  We both asked at once, “How long have you been here, I thought I was alone?” we had to stop swimming and pushing toward the “Marquette”, because she was swinging around and going on her way to Milwaukee.  Just about then we came upon what had been the after-cabin roof.  Several men were on it, and we climbed aboard, then a couple more showed up.  When I first got on the roof someone discarded a round, cork ring buoy, which I held onto in case it might be needed later.  Then, there was nothing but silence, except our own voices.  Dense fog or snow distorts vision tremendously.  We tried shouting in unison, but no help showed up.  After maybe 15 minutes, someone shouted “Here comes a ship”. “No, it’s a car-ferry!” “No, it’s a fish tug”, which picked us all up. One of the tug crew asked if he could have the ring buoy, which I gave to him.  Everyone was cramping up to some extent.  One of the coal passers, a big fellow from Georgia, was still clinging to the pipe railing on the roof.  He said, “I can’t get up. Help me up, will you?” I tied heaving line around my waist and went back into help him, and had to pry his cramped hands off the rail.  Then we pulled him up on the tug.  The tug had picked up 2 men before they reached us, but one had passed away after being saved.  The tug had a Diesel engine, and a small oil- fired steam boiler, to heat water for fish processing or cleaning up, I don’t know for sure.  The chief was out on his feet, clinging to the railing around the cylinder heads, and I tried to pry his hands loose so I could remove his wet coat.  I could get 2 fingers loose, but no more, finally his coat split and we got it off and hung it on the boiler to dry.  The tug was cruising slowly around looking for survivors, and in a short while he came to his senses, and immediately demanded his coat.  After a little arguing I went and got it.   He dug into a pocket and pulled out several envelopes full of money.  He had been keeping it in his room for crew members, for safe keeping.  The first thing he said was “Here, give this to the ones whose names are on the envelopes – if they ‘re here.”  All five of the named men were there, and believe me they were surprised and happy, as they figured they had lost their summer’s savings.  It was getting dark by then, so the tug took us into Port Washington, Wisconsin.
We went up to the main hotel, and the manager was making guests double up to make room for us.  I heard him tell one man, “I don’t care if you’ve been here since the place was built, you are doubling up tonight , or getting out.”  I saw the sheriff give a man some money, and tell him to go get some whisky.  The fellow was a little leary, said he didn’t know where to go.  The sheriff mentioned a name and said to go to him, you always do go there.  If you don’t, I’ll throw the keys away the next time you’re arrested.  He got the whisky.  Reporters were around by then, and so I was the only one who knew all the crews’ names and home towns (I had to fill out employment cards when a man signed on).  I stayed back and made out a list to be sent to the company and the papers, which were telephoned as fast as I gave them.
The reporters were busy passing out bottles or what have you to get stories more freely.   Everyone had a hot bath and whatever they could eat.  Most were hungry, as the ship went down before dinner was served. Then we all straggled off to bed, 2 in a room, and probably talked most of the night.  I know I did, with my roommate, the 2nd mate, Harvey Micholson.  In the morning, only a few Milwaukee papers came to the hotel, and they asked me to take one and read it to the crew.  As I read the report, I could hear remarks like “who in hell said that-  that’s a damn lie”  –then I came to “and Mr. Merrill further said….” And then I blew up.  That’s when I learned not to believe all you read in the papers.  I’ve had some other proofs since then, also.  Then we all had to go to Milwaukee for an investigation by the Steamboat Inspection Service.  The only persons on the Marquette who told the truth were the 1st mate and 1st assistant engineer.  They were out of a job in the Spring.  Our captain and first mate were both drowned. And our 2nd mate was a green, 1st year officer, and in the testimony was practically accused of placing the Senator across the Marquette’s bow, so that the owner (his uncle) could collect insurance.  A total of nine lives were lost, which would all have been saved (except for the porter) who ran back into the room to get a life preserver for the lady 2nd cook.  The door must have swung to and closed him in to drown.
The day after the wreck, the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. (which is composed of several small companies each owning a few boats) – promptly sold the Marquette from one little company to another in their group, thus limiting the amount for which they could be sued.  The captain of the Marquette had his license suspended for 6 months – and restored by the head of the inspection service in Washington in time for him to get home from Florida and fit out his boat.  I think he got a larger boat to sail in the spring.  Mr. Sampson and I were back in the spring, tra-la- and the DEPRESSION was on.  We both got bounced around for several seasons as times very slowly picked up after war started in Europe.  Mr. Sampson kept on sailing till the end of the war then retired.  They rang up “Finished with engines” at his home on North Fitzhugh St..
I became a chief engineer in 1937, and we were laying in Cleveland Harbor at anchor when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  I had already found out my ship was being sold, so rather than be bumped back to 1st assistant, I accepted an appointment with the American Bureau of Shipping, and spent the war years travelling and moving from Sodus Point (I rented my house) to Ohio and West to Denver, after a spell of commuting 3 times a week from Chicago to Denver on the Zephyr.  Then I was moved from Denver (the boiler contract was completed) back to Saginaw, Michigan then back to Detroit and then back to Sodus Point.  Then I started sailing on salt water, and made voyages from the Gulf of Mexica to Poland and all around the Mediterranean until 1948, when I came back to the Lakes until 1961, when 61 Lake ships were scrapped, leaving hundreds of licensed men out of work.  Then I worked at Newark State School (now Newark Development center) until 1971, when I had to retire because of N.Y. State law.  So here I am today, thankful to be alive and as well as I am.  I thank you all for your attention and patience and hope you enjoyed my story.
Owen P. Merrill


Note added in 2019:
Owen P. Merrill (1901-1992) is buried along with his wife, Anna S. Merrill (1904-1977) in the Sodus Rural Cemetery.  Believe lived in Sodus Point, at least, in 1952. This story was written in 1986; therefore, Mr. Merrill was 85 years old at the time.


Diving on the SS Senator