When Caulkers’ Mallets Rang
There was a day when the city of Saint John built the finest ships in the world
My attention was attracted by some boys at idle play In, an old deserted snipyard on the shores of Courtney Bay. I stopped and gazed a moment, then decided to go round By the path I trod in childhood to that old familiar ground. There was little to rern nd me of that br ight and prosperous day W hen the caulker's mallet echoed on the shores of Courtney Hay.
TWENTY years have passed since those lines were written; to-day the last vestiges of the olden time have vanished.
There is nothing to remind one that this old port on the Fundy shore— a city of hills and spires and quaint narrow streets by the dockside— was once the home of the stateliest ships that sailed. From here a white fleet winged its way. a fleet made by the sturdy shipwrights of Saint John, builded in great part of fir and spruce.
of pine and hackmatack from our native hills.
Too, these ships were laden with our lumber and, decks-awash. they slipped their hawsers from wharf or mooring-buoy, sailed on wide-flung pinions out the harbor and headed down the bay to test the workmanship that went into their building against the wild surges of the north Atlantic.
None of the tall ships sail to-day, so none are a-homing. The men who fashioned them are dead and gone, the voices that cheered them as they slid down the greasy ways and tossed the baptizing water into foam . . . those voices long are still, save a few, a very few. The shipyards are waste places along the lonely shore. Where once two thousand men swarmed on the ribbed keels of great vessels like ants in the skeletons of giants, the children play and their merry voices sound where of old the crisp, short blows of the caulker’s mallet, the thud of the axe and the drone of the saw filled the air with the noise of a mighty symphony - . the building of the ships. At night the wild-gulls cry over the barren flats and snipe and fishers perch on rotting driftwood.
Here Í3 tragedy', pathos, romance. Here is desuetude. But, perhaps, in the lone night-watch they pass . phantoms, white-winged wraiths, the ghosts of old ships.
What of the square-riggers of Saint -John and their builders! Mayhap, in some forgotten ports, old hulks or decrepit barges, their timbers sodden and decayed, their history' long unknown are remains of 3hips that we have builded. And there are a few of the builders . . . men who saw the last of the square-rigged vessels, men whose old eyes are wistful, questing, haunted. They are aged men, jealous of the past. They are lonesome old men and strangely shy.
They have lost something that they will never find till they', like their ships, have lifted anchor and crossed the harbor
But, betimes, there comes here a square-rigger, some Dane or Norwegian, to load deals. Once she has hove in sight beyond the breakwater and rounded the bell-buoy at the harbor-mouth the gray old men pop up like g romes, their eyes light, their gnarled hands shake, they a~e garrulous. The pa3t comes back. The younger ones can share their pleasure; they cannot understand it. But
LOUIS ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM
who that is bred of the sea does not thrill to the wide, lofty spars, great yards from which royal and tops’l belly, the proud, high-flung bowsprit, the racy sweep of the keel? Real seamen swarm up the shrouds, shouting as they furl the sails with deft, easy hands; singing a deepsea chantey while they work. How dingy look the cargosteamers with their squat, dirty funnels and stubby masts; the colliers that lie sullenly at the coal-pockets! The world has gained in wealth and convenience from the steamers, the clock of the ages has been jumped ahead, but with the passing of the tall ships we have lost . . . Look in the old ship-worker’s eye. Hear him speak of bygone days:
“Ships and shipyards!” He was an old sail-maker who spoke to me. “ T’hell with them, lad! Let them rest
... let the dead lie easy. They’re gone ... all 0’ them.” There was something, whether the trembling of the hand that held his pipe or the gleam of reminiscence in his eye, bade me be not discouraged.
“Who cares about ’em to-day?” he demanded. It was a defence-mechanism. Suddenly, bony fingers gripped my knee, his face was close to mine —with long grey beard and glittering eye. He spoke almost fiercely: “D’ye know we built the biggest, the best and the strongest ships that sailed? Our ships were famous and us as built them known the whole world over.
“See there!” He pointed through the window of his sail-loft, now given over . . . 0 tempora, o mores! ... to the making of tents and hammocks. “Along that shore, the back shore of the harbor, they built ships.
. . . No little schooners, mind you, but great vessels; two thousand Specially built, they were;
And never a
tons, some on ’em. masterships by master-builders, plank laid crooked, never a spike or bolt that wasn’t placed honest. They was made like fine watches, by men who knew every little trick and twist o’ the ship-wright’s trade. Here in this shop we made the sails for ’em. Along this same street the chandlers and outfitters, riggers and the like was located. Saint Johnbuilt clippers, ye might know, brought,a better price on the other side than the Quebeckers, the Nova Scotiamen and the rest because they was outfitted better. The name for honest work, ye see.
“Along the Straight Shore yonder, David Lynch built the Rock Terrace and the Alexander Yeats. In them times the Yeats was the last word in ships. Ye can’t say any one of our ships was the finest . . . we sent out hundreds 0’ the best. Many’s the time I seen ’em in the stocks, seen ’em slide down the ways and take to the water. ‘Soft-wood ships’they called our vessels . . .” He spat contemptuously . . . “But they was none better because them as worked with them loved the trade an’ took pride in their job. Their hearts was in the work and heart and hand pulled together.
“In seventy-two or thereabouts, d’ye know, eight hunnerd an’ twenty vessels was owned in this port, worth close to eight million dollars. A dollar was a day’s pay then. In the ’sixties, four hunnerd square-riggers entered Saint John every year, most o’ them built in our own yards. We was prosperous them times. Riggers, sail-makers, sparmakers, hull-blacksmiths, rigger-blacksmiths, corkers....never wondered where we’d get work to do, but just how we could finish what lay to hand. At night a thousand men on that empty shore there from Portland to the Falls would drop axe and mallet and saw, leave the growing keels and scramble up the hills. Eleven hours and more a day the ship-laborers worked for four or five shillin’ . . . from six in the morning to eight at night, from sunrise to sundown, ye might say. There was work for all hands. Everywhere, ships was bein’ built . . . along the Straight Shore and in coves up the river beyant the falls. At Courtney Bay was many yards, at Ten-mile Crik, Saint Martin’s and Quaco
. lumber bein’ squared, shaped, softened in the steam-boxes; keels bein’ laid down; ships bein’ decked over, havin’ their masts stepped, their spars made ready. The smell o’ raw wood, pine and spruce, full o’ balsam; smell 0’ tar and oakum. A thousand different noises like towers o’ Babel bein’ built. Carpenters, sawyers, corkers . . . skilled men all. Ships bein’ launched ... so many that no one outside o’ them as did the buildin’ paid any heed to ’em; too common a sight, part o’ the day’s work. Them times . . . none o’ us ever dreamed a day would come when there’d be nary a ship to build . . .
“But we build ’em still,” he continued with a twinkle in his aged eyes. “Many afternoons, when business is slack, Tom Busby, a boss-corker he was, and Alf Fulton, a whipsawyer, and me, we sit up here in the loft and build a ship from the shapin o’ the timber to the settin’ o’ the to’ gallant yards. We build a good many o’ them.
“I’ll tellyesom’thin’ queer that I’ll bet ye never heard on afore: I said Alf Fulton was a whiosawyer. Now, ye may never have set eyes on Alf, but ye’ve seen plenty like him . . . He’s cross-eyed!” Then, with all the gravity of the elder Weller . . . “Did you or anybody else ever see a whipsawyer as wasn’t cross-eyed ... a whipsawyer that worked as lower man in the pit? .
No one ever did. Every whipsawyer I ever seen was looking two ways for Sunday.”
“But why . . .?” I interrupted. Here was a theory that, by tracing strabismictroublesto whipsawyers would be a great boost to optical research. “Why should that be? As I understand it, the whipsaw was five or six feet long. One man worked above and one below in the pit.”
“O’ course. But I’m tellin ye the whipsawyers as worked in the pit wore a veil to keep the failin’ sawdust outen their eyes. And never a one o’ them as didn’t squint or was cross-eyed like, and so was their relatives. Here’s Alf Fulton now. Ye see?”
The sail-maker’s statement was borne out in truth by the appearance of a bent old man with an added crook in his neck, who had no trouble in looking at both of us, an eye to each. This personage produced a venerable cuddy pipe and with a muttered greeting that sounded most unpromising seated himself on a dusty heap of tarpaulins.
“Young feller wantin’ to find out about ships, Alf” said the sailmaker. Then, turning to me:
“Alf can tell ye more about the trade than I can, much as I’d like to. He worked in the yards and helped build a good many hookers.”
The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Sawyer
I KNEW he was passing the onus on to the cross-eyed whipsawyer. It is a favorite trick of the old-timers: the next fellow always knows more. I did not mind, for in Alf’s face, like a weathered figurehead, I saw signs of many a forgotten tale. Nor was I disappointed. Alf’s father, he told me sullenly, had been rigger-blacksmith and had worked on the famous Marco Polo herself.
“The Marco Polo was the best known ship ever launched from our shipyards,” said Alf, “built down by the Ma’sh Crik (Marsh Creek). A clumsy-looking devil she were, sir, and gave the builders, James Smith built her, ye know . a heap o’ trouble. The way her timbers was shaping towards the stem, it looked as if they’d never meet and the master-builders was thinkin’ they’d have to cut a piece off her. But no; it worked out all serene, though she was always pretty sharp. Mebbe it was that as made her so fast. She could outsail anything built in her day. When they lanched her . . . the crik, as ye know, is pretty shallow even at spring tide and the Marco Polo was a ship of two thousand tons burthen . . . when they lanched her, she tore across the crik and got stuck in
the mud on the farther bank. That wasn’t so bad, for all hands thought she’d stand up when the tide went out. Instead, she keeled over and everyone said as how they’d never get her off and she’d lay there like a stranded whale till doomsday; said Smith was a fool to build such a big drogher in a little mudhole like the crik. But a few weeks after they hauled her off without much trouble.
“That was a ship! Somthin’ almost human about her. She was built of hard-pine, oak, hackmatack,spruce and fir. And, mister, she was built to last. She made her first v’yage, to Liverpool, in fifteen days,. A while after that she was bought for the Australian trade, overhauled, fastened with copper instead o’ the iron Smith had put in her, and her bottom was sheathed with copper. Ye know, in the southern seas worms and barnacles eat up an uncoppered bottom. There wasn’t much ye’d call beautiful about her; she was too big and awkward-like, a sort of big-boned racehorse; but speed . . ! On her first
Australian run she beat a steamer by a week, doing the run in sixty-eight days. She could make over three hunnerd and fifty miles a day; did even better, they say. On her trip back from Australia she took seventy-six days. She was the fastest ship in the world.
“She was an Australian packet for fifteen years; then, after the way of ships when they grow old, she took to trampin’. The last flag she flew was the Norwegian and it seemed all she wanted was to get back home and cast her old hulk on the shores she hailed
from. She staggered with a load of timber through a wild gale in the Gulf and piled up on the rocks of Prince Edward Island. For a matter of thirty-two years sha proved the kind o’ work that went into her building an’ yet she was no masterpiece ... at least so said them as worked on her. But of all the ships that went off the ways in this port there weren’t none to equal the Marco Polo.”
Old Salts in Drydock
A FEW old-timers, the love of ships still strong in them have found employment of a kind at the great drydock in Courtney Bay, where they may look about them and vision the glories that have been. I found one, a ship-carpenter with a proclivity for yarning, who rose at once to the bait. Yes, he had seen many ships'lanched’ and was not loath to ‘lanch’ himself into a rambling
account of the time when wooden shipbuilding was in its heyday.
“Tools?” said he, “All we had was the ordinary carpenter’s outfit, an’ a derrick was all in the way of equipment, and, o’ coorse the steam-box, where the timber was made pliable before it was taken on the keel to be bent. Then we had the rain-staff, jacks, clamps an’ the like. But we could do more with an axe than ye'd ever imagine. I seen a carpenter split a whiplash clean as a die with a single overhead swing. They could trim an’ shape timber better than a machine can do. Those men knew their trade. An' most o’ them knew more than just their own job: except the corkers and whipsawyers . . . they never could an’ never would do anything else but cork or saw. Strong men, sir. I recalls a borer, seen him work till late Saturday night drilling a tunnel with an inch and three-eighths bit: no light job. Sunday hewentoff an' fished all day in the rain an’ walked ten miles to be on hand for his drilling on Monday morning. You don’t get men like that now.
“Wages? A dollar or two a day was good pay. No unions to speak of, though there was strikes aplenty. The men formed in factions when they wanted to kick for more money, but mostly we w?as a contented crowd. No, we never kept much track 0’ the ships we worked on. Our job was to build ’em an’ set
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’em afloat. They belonged to the sailors then. Pretty hard to find crews for all on ’em, too. Sailors’ boarding-houses an’ crimping joints flourished. I saw an old house bein’ torn down the other day an’ up in the rafters was . . . what d’ ye think? ... a secret room where they hid the shanghaied men.
“How long did it take to build a ship? We could do it in two months. Often we had to build against time, when every day over the date set by contract meant a loss for the builder. But then, too, we often built on spec, an’ the work might be held up for lack of money. Yes, we could turn one out in next to no time. Ye may have heard o’ t'he Dusty Miller? She was built in eight weeks from the layin’ o’ the keel to the day she sailed out past Pa’tridge Island. She lasted more ’n forty year.
“Me, I was a ship-carpenter. Started in to work when I was seventeen. For a while I was a corker, but I left it. Ever see any corkers? A very peculiar and secret class o’ men, sir. There’s one has a shanty further up along the shore. Ye’d hear somethin’ worthwhile from him if ye can get him to talk. He knows a lot more about it than me. Just ask him, as a sort o’ starter, when the Mary Ann Mattabon waslaunchedat Courtney Bay. Ye’d better write that down. If it’s one o’ his talkin’ days he will give ye an earful, but I warn ye corkers is no ordinary men.”
The Corkers’ Caucus
A FTER this mysterious counsel I went 2* with some forebodings to interview the corker, one Jed Trimble. His cabin was on the edge of a swampy tract near Little River, a location he might have chosen designedly, it later occurred to me, when I had listened to his unwilling recital.
To aid me in approaching the aged corker, the ship-carpenter had dictated a note to me. I had a suspicion that he could not write himself and that the man I took the note to could not read. But the ship-carpenter considered it highly important. It ran as follows and so I read it to the corker:
‘Dear Mr. Trimble: Please kindly
tell bearer when the Mary Ann
Mattabon was lanched at Courtney
Bay. Yours truly, Ned Barker.’
When I had read this to the corker he looked impressed, but angry.
“That wa’n’t her name a-tall,” he muttered. “An’ she never was lanched in the Bay; sommeres along the Back Shore, I guess. Us old uns ain’t got much memory for facts. Some days we’ll see things clear and be able to give ye dates and measurements; other days we can’t tell ye nothin’. To-day f’rinstance, me own mind’s a blank. Can’t recall a single thing. But Ned’s all wrong about that ship. She were never called the Mary Ann Mat . . . What was it? . . . Mattabon, and she were never lanched out here. But I can’t tell ye nothin’ about her.”
This seemed final, but I was becoming used to the profound ways of old shipworkers. They all had around them the hard shell of the years. They were embittered, many of them, by being deprived of what was more to them than a mere means of livelihood. Their work had no little of the appeal that an art exercises on those who devote themselves to it.
“You were a caulker, Mr. Trimble?” I ventured. “One of the men who swung the mallet. Caulking was a little art all to itself, wasn’t it?”
Silence for a long minute. It was near sundown and in the swamp near by . . . boomp-boomp,boomp-boomp. . .steady, tapping, ceaseless notes of the giant-frogs . . . tenor notes, faintly shrill and clearcut as the tapping of many mallets.
“Hear that?” said the old man, moving his arm as though he wielded the mallet. “Hear that tap-tap-tap? Years ago ye’d have heard that . . . thousands o’ mallets from morn till night. But the frogs’ note is not so full o’ music like as the sound made when the mallet hit the corking-iron to drive in the oakum.”
“Just like an ordinary mallet, this mallet of yours?”
He looked at me, a mixture of anger, pity and contempt in his watery eyes.
“Ordinary mallet . . . hmph! A corker’s mallet was made as delicate as a fiddle. Tuned it was . . . tuned to a certain pitch.”
I realized that I was talking to an artist about the instrument of his art. It were well to be deferential and a little awed.
“Do I understand that they were made so as to give a certain vibration?”
“T’ be sure,” he returned pettishly. “Two holes was bored in them, small holes; one near the handle, t’ other near the ring. Then a key-hole saw was put in to jine the two. The mallet was no good unless it had a good spring to it and rang true. An’ for a corker to pick a mallet was just as hard a job as for a fiddler to pick a right fiddle. Had to test ’em and make ’em ring. They was no ordinary mallets, indeed.”
It was so. Sometimes, rarely of late years, I had heard that crisp, clear, ringing sound as the wooden mallet descended on the caulking-iron. There was beauty in the sound, a finer, subtler beauty than in the resonance of the sledge on the anvil. Where were the Verdi’s and Mascagni’s of those days that they passed over this glorious motif of the caulker’s mallet?
The old man was listening to the tireless orchestra in the swamp. The tapping of the frogs conveyed more to him than to me, yet I could vision the restless rise and fall, hear the steady tap-tapping of the wooden hammers . . . ‘Ou sont les neiges d’anj,an?’
“Good-day, Mr. Trimble,” said I.
“Eh . . . good-day, lad. That weren’t her name . . . The Mary Ann Mat... I can’t think o’ it right now. One o’ my off-days, I guess.”
The Raster-Builder Recalls
THAT evening I sat with a man of a type that is almost extinct, for which, sad to say, little has been done to give it the immortality it deserves. He was a master-builder.
In his deep, clear voice he spoke of pine and oak and hackmatack, of iron and copper. And he talked of them as though they were intimate and loved things. Looking at him, straight and strong under the load of his three score and many more,
I felt that something of the strength and permanence of those kingly woods and metals had entered into him through the hands that shaped and welded. There was little of the sea about him. His hair was iron-gray, his features strong, kindly of eye, humorous of moutn. His was a manhood made very full and rich by the wholesome nature of his life’s work.
“You spoke,” he said, “of the ship Rock Terrace and of a picture you had seen. I’ll tell you a little story of that picture: Just about the time she was
completed the photographer was brought over to the Lynch shipyard to make a picture of her. The men had to quit work and stand still for a considerable time while the plate was being made. Well, finally it was done. The man in charge, headstrong and conceited he was, asked the photographer how the picture had turned out.
“ ‘I think it should be good, sir. Light was fair enough.’
“ ‘Let me have a look at it.'
“ ‘Why, I couldn’t do that. It would ruin the plate!’ ” protested the photographer.
“ T want to see that Dicture. Just one I
look. That won’t hurt anything, I guess!’
“ ‘All right,’ said the photographer, exposing the plate. ‘There it is.’
“‘Good. Fine. Now cover it up again.’
“For answer the photographer took his hand and rubbed the plate hard. ‘That’s the end of it, sir. You will have to have another made. You may know how to build ships, but you don’t know a thing about a camera.’
“The first ship I worked on,” continued the master-builder, “was a brig called the Summer. We finished her and saw her sail away. No one ever heard of her again.
“I began in the shipyards when I was a mere boy. I liked the work and I wanted to get ahead. The only school, however, was that of long experience. I got hold of some books on building and studied them at night when my work was done. Then came my chance to lay down a vessel. It was nervous work and I spent a good many sleepless nights thinking and planning, for it was a heavy responsibility. But she was a success and after that, with more confidence in myself, I undertook the building of others.
“Ah, it was a man’s work that! Perhaps, when you look at those pictures of ships in the stocks, you feel that there was a lot of romance and color about work in a shipyard. There was. From the ground a platform ran up to and along the length of the keel. This was called the browstage and I’ll tell you that in walking up to those greatscaffoldings of giant timber, the ships, you got a queer thrill. There is something almost human about a ship. Sailors feel it, especially those who sailed in the windjammers. And we who built them felt as if we were making a living thing.
“We developed our own systems of building, of bevelling and fastening. When the trade fell off, due to the iron and steel ships constructed on the Clyde, our methods were unused for a period of almost thirty years. Then, during the war, came what they called the revival of wooden shipbuilding . . . The raising of a ghost, I thought it. A few of us old men were called upon once more to take up axe and mallet and climb about the keel, even if we were a little less lively than we used to be. I was summoned to the Back Shore where they planned to lay down a four-master and there I met a marine-architect they had brought from the States. He told me his system, modern you might expect. But, I give you my word, it was inferior and in many ways far behind the methods we used in the old days at Courtney Bay.
“I helped with the building of that schooner and another. It was hard going; most of the labor was unskilled. All the old ship-carpenters, caulkers, blacksmiths, who could hobble that far, came and went to work. Something pathetic about them, you know; picking up their tools . . . tools they had never thought to use again. The raw hands took to the work very well and by the time we had finished two ships we had a fine crew at work. But then the revival ended, and if ever again they attempt to build a ship along our shores there will be none of us left vigorous enough to help. Indeed, we are only a handful now. And we are out of tune with the present. That was a grand past we knew and we still like to live in it.
“In those days there was scarcely a single business that didn’t depend upon the shipyards. There were some interesting methods of payment in kind, too, and one of them I recall particularly. In winter the men were hauling logs to a builder. As the loads would be brought in and checked he would pick up a chip, white and clean as paper, and give the lumberman an order on my father’s store.
I can still see myself on Saturday night with a great armful of these chips going to the builders to redeem their promised amounts. Primitive? Yes, but it worked.
“One day, during the war-time revival,
I was waiting with some other men for a car to take me to the Straight Shore where we were working on the Dornfontein, fourmasted schooner. While we waited we were talking about a difficulty we had met in getting skilled men for a delicate bit of work. There was, to my knowledge, only one man in the city capable of doing it. Him I had last seen as a youth in his father’s shipyard.
“ ‘Tom Braithwaite,’ I said, ‘is the only man in Saint John who could fill the bill.’
“ ‘Yes. And that’s me,’ cut in a voice that sounded like a croak. I looked around. Right at my elbow was an old man leaning on a cane. When I had seen him last he was a boy.
“ ‘Time passes,’ said I. It was never brought more forcibly home to me.
“He was just one of many who lost their means of livelihood and never seemed to find another that satisfied. You see, we all had built ahead . . . visions. A man can’t leave work that means so much to him and take up a different trade with the same zest— certainly not a man who built ships.
“The harbor of Saint John was a great sight in those days. Hundreds of squareriggers in tiers at the docks and anchored in the stream at mooring-buoys, loading lumber mostly. And such loads they took before the Plimscll marks worried them. The holds would be packed with shorter deals and the longer wood made the deckload. With a cargo of wood they could not sink, so they loaded them with all they could hold, caulked the bow and sternports and sent them out.
“The ships came here in ballast . . . ballast of iron-waste, rock and sand. It was dumped at what they still call the Ballast Wharf, out by the foul-grounds. Some years ago when they were digging there for the sugar refinery foundations they found great i-ron horseshoes that had once adorned the hoofs of draught-horses in England.
“There was another branch of the work, a really artistic one. . . the carving of figure-heads. John Rogerson was the great man for that. He turned out some fine specimens of wood-carving. A few years before he died—he was a very old man—he was told that a coppersmith had found an old figure-head among some junk in his loft. Rogerson, interested at once, hurried off to see it, wondering greatly what it could be, whose work, and how it happened to be laid in that neglected spot.
“Up to the loft he went with some other men and the figure-head was dragged forth. The old woodcarver looked at it and ran to embrace it.
“ ‘My Mary Queen of Scots!’ he cried, almost shedding tears over his long lost darling.
“There are some excellent ship-models in the city, too, some in the Natural History Museum, but many owned privately. They should all be gathered into one marine collection. Too little has been done to preserve what few relics there are of the palmy days.
“Here is something that almost slipped my mind: it is a forgotten fact that the water from which we obtained the steam for the steam-boxes was heated in kettles made of wood. Interesting, eh, and almost incredible? It is fact. The kettles were made of ordinary wood, pine was often used. Built in the shape of a box, they were caulked tight. Those wooden kettles lasted three or four months in spite of the tremendous heating they received. Steam-pipes led from them into the box where the timber was softened.
I can’t tell you anything about the ships I built. Many sailed under foreign flags; we couldn’t, if we had wanted to, follow their wanderings.
I left him then, alone with his pipe and his musings beside his quiet hearth . . .