Aboard a Collier in Northern Seas

H.J.C. in Evening Post January 1 1908

Aboard a Collier in Northern Seas

H.J.C. in Evening Post January 1 1908

Aboard a Collier in Northern Seas

H.J.C. in Evening Post

FROM Boston to Montreal in a coal boat didn't sound very at tractive to me. When the sentence was first pronounced. I had in mind pictures of the Russian conscripts bound for Siberia. Nevertheless the suggestion accompanied an invitation so cordial that I didn’t hesitate to accept. I even looked forward with pleasure to being shot, bag and baggage, into the bunkers from a coal chute, and could hardly await my turn in the stoke hole to earn passage. Perhaps I was prejudiced—it may be? Paying six and a half dollars in good U. S. A. for the privilege of burning a ton of anthracite every five weeks in winter is not conducive to favorable impressions in the coal line. But be that as it may, my ideas on coal boats were badly warped, for by the time the French-Canadian pilot had brought us alongside the wharf at Montreal I would gladly have exchanged my berth in the Pullman for New York with any man bound back for Sydney in the Catalone.

In the first place, steamships in the trade are not called coal boats. I probably confused them with the flyers on the Erie Canal. On the boards at Lloyds the coal-carrying ships are rated “colliers,” which is certainly much more impressive, and in keeping with their size and cargo capacity. The fleet of English and Norwegian colliers chartered by the Dominion Coal Company is a fine collection of steel ships, averaging in size the proportions of an ocean “liner,” without, of course, her cabin accommodations. Where the mail steamship is built exclusively for the passenger traffic, and so designed, the colliers’ carrying capacity runs to hold, even bunker space being cut down for cargo. The Hektor, of Drammen packs away 6,600 tons every time she puts out of Louisburg on the Cape Breton coast for Boston. She was leaving the latter port, light, when we boarded her, and no sooner was she under way than the crew was busy scrubbing and washing down decks to remove all traces of the dust left in the unloading. When they had finished, she was as clean as a model man-of-war. The bridge, wdth the captain’s cabin, was amidships. Immediately aft of it on the main deck was the galley, the engines, and the boilers; aft of that the quarters of the first, second and third mates, and the engineers, while the crew was quartered in the fo’castle, way forward and under the bow.

In the Norwegian ships the master lives apart from his officers, even to messing by himself. Besides his own quarters there is an extra stateroom, the main cabin, an office and a bath, with a storeroom and the steward’s pantry, all under the bridge, and as cosy and comfortable as a modern New York flat. Capt. Eitrim took great comfort in his quarters. In him we found a vigorous personage— a combination of sailor, philosopher, student, and playwright, who smashed another of the landlubber’s illusions. He reads Ibsen and writes plays. One of his brothers at home is a professor, and another an author. The captain himself was educated at the University of Christiania, shipped before the mast upon graduation, got his mate’s certificate at nineteen, and ‘was a master at twenty-two. The book shelves of his cabin hold works on history and philosophy, navigation and some verse. These are nearly all in Norwegian.

On the bridge the captain is a bluff Norwegian sailor, and his crew steps lively at commands delivered tersely in his native tongue. There is formality, too, in the intercourse between the master and the three mates, a seemingly severe distance which permits of little or no sociability. This official gulf is apparently a part of the ship’s discipline which prevails more on German and Norwegian vessels than aboard Englishmen. Under the severe exterior of the officer there was the kindly sympathetic nature of the friend. The Hektor’s master was the champion, adviser, and physician of every member of the crew. The ship has no surgeon, and in an emergency the captain has power to do as he thinks best.

“I flatter myself I can prescribe as well as many of these doctor fellows,” said the captain one day on the bridge, “and I helped reduce a fracture once, but when the bone knit the man’s leg was two inches short and it had to be broken over again. I was a junior officer then and the captain bossed the job. It sounds brutal, doesn’t it?—but we did the best we could. That was in the days of sailing vessels, and we set the leg during a gale.”

From Boston Light the course of the Dominion Coal Company’s colliers is almost due east until they reach a point outside of Cape Sable. Before dark of the first day we had dropped the land under the horizon and did not pick it up again until the morning of the third day. Fogs abound off the Nova Scotia coast, and the steamships give it a wide berth. But on this trip, with the exception of two thick banks, we had delightfully clear weather with a great round moon at night. We passed a school of whales spouting, but too far in the distance to present a good view. Fishermen were thick off Nova Scotia. We met them first in the fog, much to the disgust of the master, who kept the bridge all night long, running his ship at half-speed and keeping the whistle going at minute intervals. Not being familiar with the Norwegian tongue, I could not gather the drift of the master’s remarks as we slipped through the silent fleet, some of the schooners not even showing a light at the masthead. Translated freely, the captain’s thoughts must have been expressive and to the point. Between puffs of his short briar pipe, with Norwegian intervals, they went something like this :

“Those fishermen, they give me gray hairs. I’d rather damsight be among icebergs ! Y ou can feel icebergs, if you can’t see them! Look! Here’s one now !”

And far ahead through the fogshrouded moonlight a shadowy thing was seen.

“Starboard a point,” growled the master to the man at the wheel.

The Hektor’s whistle gave a hoarse blast and the fishing boat with a wee small light coddled in the bows passed rapidly astern, the clatter that came up from her deck telling plainly the crew’s alarm. When we said good night the captain was still pacing the bridge, watchful and alert, eyes and ears strained for more trouble. In this mood he was so different from the student and philosopher that I went to sleep trying to put myself in the place of one of those fishermen, tossing around outside. What if I were suddenly run down by the Hektor? Would I prefer to go to the bottom or be picked up and brought quailing before the master? There isn’t any doubt but that the scholarly captain of the Hektor has plenty of good red fighting blood in his veins. We learned afterward that he was decorated by the German Government for taking a ship up the Pei Ho to Tientsin in the Boxer campaign, and at another time presented with a seal ring and an engrossed testimonial by some mandarin for saving fifty lives during a gale in the China Sea.

The next morning the Hektor steamed for four hours through another thick fog bank. During this time the ship’s course had been almost due east, and keeping well off the cape before pointing north to Louisburg. Not before we had the Gut of Canso off our quarter did a sight of land appear, and then it showed in a pretty bit of sunlit coast, the weather holding bright and clear by day with a gorgeous moon at night all the way to Louisburg Harbor. We passed in about an hour before midnight. The wind had dropped and .the sea was calm. So still was it that we could hear the bell in the engine room of the tug that came to meet us while she was a quarter of a mile away. Louisburg harbor is a small harbor, but strongly protected from the sea by a nanow entrance. The land-locked water looked like a quaint little old mill pond tucked away behind an abandoned stone quarry. One searches in vain for signs of the fortifications built by the French, and reduced by Wolf in 1758. History tells us the English soldier laid the old town in ruins and the thoroughness of his job is attested by a few remaining mounds—all that is left of what was once the strongest fortress on the Atlantic coast. The new town is on the other side of the harbor, about a hundred houses gathered around the big coal pockets, the railroad terminal and the wharves. Gen. Wolf would have conferred a great favor on his countrymen had he been less thorough in his job.

From Louisburg a single track railroad runs across the upper end of Cape Breton Island to Glace Bay and Sydney, the two towns on the northern side. Glace Bay is the mining town whence comes Canada’s greatest supply of bituminous coal ; Sydney is the terminal of the Intercolonial Railroad, has a magnificent harbor, large piers, wide streets, comfortable homes and modern business blocks. A thriving steel plant has followed the coal industry here and with the by-products of the two, the electric power and illuminating comparu es, the telephone, telegraph and wireless systems of communication, banks, newspapers, and an electric tramway, Sydney bids fair some day to outrival Halifax as the chief port of the Maritime Provinces. Summer is short up here, but beautifully fine and clear, and autumn brings another period of bracing but equally glorious weather. The winter is long and the ice which closes the harbor is Sydney’s toughest problem, but the progressive inhabitants are confident in the belief that with mechanical and steam devices they will eventually maintain an open passage to the sea all winter long.

Peary and his polar expeditions often put in here to “bunker,” which means to coal, and in passing it may be said that the Cape Breton sailormen do not put much stock in either Peary or the achievements of his ship and crew. Some of them are even skeptical of the explorer’s claims to the longtitude reached, and there is general criticism of his trading trinkets and junk for valuable furs with the Eskimos. Ships of all nations come in here to coal. Whether they are tramp ships, warships, yachts, or coasters, along the piers the one word “bunkers” covers them all. Barring the ice in winter Sydney Harbor is a magnificent one, and, naturally, the chief sport of the town is sailing. The Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club has some able craft, and its sailors are of the deep-water school. One yacht, the Gloria, a fifty-foot sloop, owned by J. K. L. Ross, met and vanquished everything in her class in the joint regatta of the New York Yacht Club, the Eastern Yacht Club of Marblehead, and the Royal Halifax Squadron off Halifax two years ago.

There is a wealth of sea stories in this port; stories of the mines, of big game, and of the people themselves, rugged Scots for the most part, who thrive on the hardy life of the island. It is said that there are so many “Mc’s” and “Mac’s” on the pay rolls of the big industries that abbreviations like “Micky,” “Big,” “Red,” “The Runt,” “The Slugger,” etc., have come to be used in place of the Christian names in order to distinguish the “Mc’s” and the “Mac’s” apart. X

Leaving Sydney I was fortunate in securing passage on another Dominion collier—the Catalone of London, Capt. T. L. Glover, a bluff and hearty Englishman from the tip of his toes to his honest, clean-cut face. We cleared the pier at sunset on a Friday laden with 6,000 tons, but with the hatches down and deck cleared it would have been difficult for a stranger to name the cargo. The English colliers are not quite as large as the Norwegian, although built especially for the trade. Their engines and boilers are aft. Only the captain’s bridge and cabin stand above the deck between the after quarters and the anchor chains forward, leaving all the other deck space clear save for the hatches and derricks. Capt. Glover’s wife and two children live with him abroad the Catalone. The captain and his wife, the first, second and third officers and the pilot mess together, making a jolly family. Besides this, in nice weather there is a cricket game going on deck every afternoon, in which the engineer and his assistants join, the whole party entering into the sport with much vim. The balls are made of oakum, canvas and hemp, and the player who knocks one over the side has to quit play and immediately make another. It is great fun, this ship cricket. Through the afternoon, and following tea into the soft twilight of these beautiful autumn days, the game would be going on, the Catalone in the meantime ploughing her way steadily across the Gulf of St. Lawrence for the mouth of the river. The Englishmen apparently take the Nova Scotia coast less seriously than the Norwegians. Anyway, they seem to get more sport out of the life up there and mingle much more freely with one another.

“A bit of relaxation ain’t a bad thing,” said Capt. Glover. “We don’t have it all smooth sea and sunshine, you know. It gets pretty bleak up here in winter. Fogs and rain and sleet and snow make it nasty then, and I say, be merry when you can !”


The captain didn’t tell me so, but from photographs in the cabin, and from what the mates said in an occasional burst of confidence, it is not at all unusual for the colliers to get caught in the ice. Last winter at one time there were five or six of them waiting a week outside of Louisburg harbor for the wind to change and clear the channel, so that they could get in to land. When the river opens in the spring, the colliers are always the first ships to venture through to Quebec, and they have literally to feel their way for a passage, sometimes going in through the. Gut of Canso and around Prince Edward’s Island, and again outside Cape Breton and under the lee of Newfoundland.

Gaspe looks not at all inviting as it looms over the horizon to the northwest. It is dark, cold and bleak. Under its great towering heights a line of white fringes its base. Presently, with your glasses, you can make out the lashing, tumbling surf, and almost hear its roar. Practically all through the year this is a leeshore and a bad one. Captains give it a wide berth. We picked up the headland with our binoculars in the afternoon of the second day out. As we steamed farther in .towards the mouth of the river, the land grew into mountain peaks, between which we could see deep crevasses and dashing cascades. On this cold, dark coast the passenger also sees the first of the church spires which line the St. Lawrence like telegraph poles along a railroad. One never gets out of sight of a church spire going up this river. More often there are half a dozen of them in sight. Each collection of cottages on either bank has its church spires. The edifice is always the largest and handsomest in the community and occupies the most conspicuous site. There are more double spires than single ones, and each spire built was apparently an attempt to over-top its neighbor. The houses in Quebec Province are very picturesque. White is the universal color, and stone the material. Chimneys are wide, and the eaves low, while the roofs are painted a rich, warm red. Some of them, no doubt, stand as they did when built by the early French settlers. The river narrows very slowly as you approach it from the ocean. Gaspe was plain to the naked eye on the second evening from Sydney, but it was the morning of the third day before Point de Monts was to be seen to the north. Sunday we met another Dominion collier bound light for Sydney, a C.P. & R. freighter passing out for Liverpool, and the night closed down with a storm brewing in the northeast.


At Father Point that afternoon the Quebec pilot took the bridge for a continuous watch of eighteen hours to Point Levis, where he was relieved by the river pilot. The Quebec pilot was a gray little man, with a sad, almost pathetic face. He smoked a big, black pipe, wore a heavy overcoat, and the first thing he did when he came on the bridge was to go inside the wheelhouse, close the windows* and turn on the steam. Vizny would talk, but it was only by asking questions that his French-Canadian tongue was loosened.

Was the pilot married?

“Oh, yes !”

One hears this expression all over Canada—Scotch, English, French, Canadian. It is inflected like the blase American phrase : “Oh, very well !”

—in a sort of “go as far as you like” manner. Continuing, the cross-examination questions and answers ran like this :

“How long have you been married ?”

“ ’Bout eighteen year.”

“Got any children?”


“How many?”

“Oh, sixteen.”

“Well, I say, that is a family !”

“Oh, yes. Perty goot. My sister, she got twenty-four!”

The helmsman who took the trick with the pilot was a French-Canadian lad from Quebec, a pilot’s apprentice, and he kept his post while the ship had headway from that hour until we reached Montreal. Going up the river heavy, we had to come to anchor twice, and this gave him a rest, but it is not unusual for these lads to stand this trick for twelve and eighteen hours at a time. It is said that pilots limit their apprentices to pilots’ families, and notwithstanding the size of the same, the occupation has never yet been over-stocked, owing to the increase in steam navigation of the river. Ordinarily steamships have to go in under Father Point both to drop and to take on their pilot, but the coal company, in order to save time, carries each pilot through from Quebec to Sydney and back again.

On this day, Sunday, the Catalone had made a good run, and by nine o’clock at night we had passed the mouth of the Saguenay and were logging over ten knots an hour towards Quebec. Between ten o’clock and daylight we steamed ioo miles. Monday morning bright and early we emerged from the south channel, close to Orleans Island and dead ahead from out of the mist appeared Point Levis. The sun appeared almost simultaneously, and as the Catalone cleared the Island and came into the broad stretch of the river the Falls of Montmorency glistened in the sun to our right. A moment more and the heights of Quebec loomed into view. Out in the river lay a C.P.R. packet, with her rails lined with immigrants for the Northwest, and on shore at their piers were the mail steamship Empress of India and an Allan liner ready to sail for England. The current of the river is very strong in the cut between Quebec and Point Levis, and steamships move slowly against it. Taking advantage of this, opposite the old town, the Montreal pilot came out in a skiff and dropped down alongside, changing places with the Quebec pilot, who went ashore. Passing under the walls of the fortress towering high above us the Catalone came to anchor opposite Wolfe’s Cove, to wait for the flood tide before attempting to cross St. Nicholas Bar. The Montreal pilot brought news of the falling of the Quebec bridge, and far up the river with the aid of binoculars we could just make out the ruins.

After a wait of two hours, the pilot ordered the anchor up, and the Catalone again breasted the current. We passed the wreck of the bridge, and a desolate looking mass it proved to be, although to one who had not seen the half-finished structure before it fell, it was difficult to comprehend the extent of the catastrophe. A few hundred yards further along the pilot showed signs of great agitation. He would pace the bridge, then pull out his watch, study it, put it back again, and glue his binoculars on* a giant semaphore erected high on the south bank, talking the meanwhile to the helmsman, in French. It appeared that on this semaphore should have been displayed the signal that high water had set in, which, interpreted, meant that deep draught ships could proceed. But the signal was not there, and, according to the pilot’s figuring, high water had set fifteen minutes past. Whatever was wrong, the pilot confident that his own calculation was correct, kept steaming ahead and the Catalone went over without even a bump.

“That fellow,” muttered the pilot, referring to the .semaphore keeper, “he do as he pleases, O yees! He thirty minutes late, one day. Brib’ly he niver put up de ball but he hear me whistle with 6,000 ton of coal, and he yank it up damquick. Verry nice of him ! What you call accommodatingl”

Curious to learn if this pilot would prove any exception to the other French-Canadian river men in the size of their families, I engaged him in conversation somewhat as I had his comrade below Quebec. Was he married ? had he children ? how many? etc. I forget his answers in detail, but I remember distinctly he said he had eighteen children, and the oldest was married and already had a family of two or three.


From Quebec to Montreal it is about 116 miles, and a steamship laden can make it against the current well under twelve hours, providing she gets high water on the shoals and can cross Lake St. Peter by daylight. The Catalone did neither. We were held in check at St. Nicholas and reached the lake at nightfall, being compelled to anchor at Fort St. Francis until daylight. Behind us were two ocean steamships caught in the same predicament. The St. Lawrence is said to be the best-lighted channel of any river in the world : but while the river is wide and roomy, the channel itself is narrow and winding, so narrow, in fact, that in Lake St. Peter there is barely clearage when steamships approach head on. On both banks the country is dotted with farms and small towns, the names—Portneu f, Dechambeau, Crondine, St. Anne, St. Jean des Chaillons, Bastican, Sorel, St. Pierre des Besquets—signifying their origin, as well as present inhabitants. Lake St. Peter is twenty-one miles long and nine miles wide, and we entered the narrow channel which runs its length at five o’clock in the morning, passing several lumber tows and sailing craft before we came out at the head. Sailing on the St. Lawrence, that is, commercial sailing, is confined to the ancient batteaux. These strange looking boats are about sixty feet long, with high rounded bow and stern, and carry one great square sail set amidships. A man and a boy form a crew, and progress up or down the river is dependent absolutely on a fair wind. Without it the batteaux are compelled to anchor and wait. Sometimes the skipper does not get a favorable wind for weeks at a time, but when it does come, with his great wide-spreading sail, he fairly bowls along. . To see a batteaux coming bow on from a distance one would think it a full-rigged ship.

Near the head of the Lake we passed a fleet of them with their mudhooks down waiting for a fair wind to blow them towards Quebec. The river is very narrow at this point, near Sorel, and on either side are wide stretching green bottoms on ■which were feeding countless herds of horses, cattle, and sheep. These it seems are not owned by any one, two or three grangers, but are the property of the farmers for miles around, who bring their stock to this pastureland and set them free to graze, trusting to each other’s honesty in getting back their own when they come for them before the fall freshets set in. Sorel is a bustling little town, but once beyond that the country side settles again into a quiet succession of whitewashed stone farm houses with red roofs. Sleek cattle graze along the river banks and the churches continue to raise their spires toward the sky. After winding miles through these quiet scenes more traffic is noticed on the roads, the houses and hamlets begin to thicken, and then suddenly around a bend in the river rises the smudge over Montreal. The weather was thick and a thin mist of rain falling on the day we arrived. It shut out the surrounding landscape, and drove the landlubber below decks, where dinner kept him busy till the Catalone pushed her nose under the coal pockets, her voyage at an end. Then it was hurry ashore and off to the Windsor Station, where the American baggage piled high on the platform testified amply to the rush of vacation end and the growing popu^ larity of fair Canada with her neighbors across the line.