THE BONES OF THE SCHOONERS
by George Wakefield
In 1918, as young lads along the river in Vermilion, Ohio, we scooted around Tom Ball's shanty, his boats and the old lime kiln. It was our heaven beside the river, climbing on piles of lumber in the shade of the apple tree. Those were adventurous years. The artifacts around us were things that men before us had left as remnants of their crafts, heady stuff for imaginative kids.
One piece of the past, I recall clearly, was a challenge to balance and walk along. It was, I later found, a mizzen boom from a schooner. It was massive. We walked atop it amid squeals as we lost our balance. We never realized that the simple artifact was a last vestige of many schooners built in the harbor between 1810 and 1876.
Of course, there were durable ship carpenters' tools and a few wooden pulley blocks lying around the country-side, but you had to be a schooner buff to spot them. On the whole, schooner parts were rare, and our mizzen boom was by far the largest.
Another evidence of shipbuilding was one I actually fell into at a very young age.
At the foot of Huron Street was the launching slip for the hulls constructed at its head. There was a dock along the north side where a rowboat docked in a nice quiet berth off the main stream. At age four, I spied this little rowboat and promptly crawled aboard. I reached for the water too far at the outboard side and away I went into the water! A passing native saw me and pulled me out.
Across the river where the Yacht Club stands today was a row of piles with their tops just clear of the surface. They appeared like a row of soldiers along the shallows of the marsh side of the stream. In later years, it occurred to me the pile "fence" was a barrier to prevent vessels from wandering off channel into the shallows of the marsh. I envisioned schooners navigating the stream on their own power of sail or momentum alone, not having much maneuverability, so the fence was useful and worth the cost of pile driving.
Another trace of the schooner years was a disguised shoal on the west side of the lighthouse pier. In fact, it was a storage ground for schooner ballast which provided the required bottom weight for sailing vessels coming in light or going out light - conveniently sized and shaped flat stones that originated in the limestone of the Bass or Kelleys islands. Just the stuff for hands to carry aboard and stow alongside the keelson and centerboard box.
For many years, the jagged bones of a shooner lay on the bank across the river just south of the Yacht Club lagoon. They were removed when Lew Wells developed the marsh into a real estate venture. Kids played around it at the bank side, and with low water, I recall the keel, keelson and extending ribs projecting right and left like bones from a vertebra. One item in particular was the iron forged gudgeon spiked to the after end of the keel piece, the socket for the rudder pintle. I should have removed it as a souvenir.
After 1840 when the government pier was installed and the harbor entrance became deep and stable, shipbuilding took off in all its intensity during the clamor for ship bottoms. Vermilion became immersed in construction of schooners 50 to 150 feet on deck, the workhorses of the lakes. Chatter in bars and general store was alive with vessel news: "How is the Burton Parsons' South American coming along?" "Will they finish Alva Bradley's Lewis Cass this winter?" "How about Goodsell's Birmingham?" The answers were important because the town was living off ships. The clatter at the riverside resounded throughout the village and valley with steel on iron and cking hammers clanking along many a long seam.
In winter, farmers supplemented their slack by hauling timber out of the forest, and skidding the long, heavy logs through town to the shipyard. Consequently, the townsfolk lived and breathed ships. The day for launch and christening would bring the whole town together for homespun parties on nearby lawns. Every launch meant a great day in Vermilion.
It has been years since the last schooner, William Stone, moved down the ways at the Vermilion launching slip. Those fleeting years have left fond memories in the wake of those grand vessels, the sailing ships that hauled the cargoes before the steamers arrived.
George Patterson Wakefield (1910-2001) was an inventor and lighting engineer who was also the historian of Vermilion, Ohio. His book, Lure of the Lakes, a collection of his columns about shipping, sailing, boating harbors and characters on the Great Lakes, was published April 2001 by Rappahannock Press, Urbanna, Va.
Reprinted with permission from "Inland Seas" – The Quarterly Journal of the Great Lakes Historical Society. © The Inland Seas Maritime Museum of the Great Lakes Historical Society.