Tougher than hardtack is what the Canadian lake sailors say of Captain Norman Reoch who's at the wheel of the world's greatest fresh water fleet

FRANK HAMILTON October 15 1949


Tougher than hardtack is what the Canadian lake sailors say of Captain Norman Reoch who's at the wheel of the world's greatest fresh water fleet

FRANK HAMILTON October 15 1949


Tougher than hardtack is what the Canadian lake sailors say of Captain Norman Reoch who's at the wheel of the world's greatest fresh water fleet


THERE IS not the slightest doubt among seafaring men that Captain Norman James Reoch, general manager of Canada Steamship Lines and salty skipper of the largest fresh-water fleet in the world, is tougher than hardtack.

A hulking Cardiff-giant of a man with a short thick neck, small red-rimmed eyes, battering-ram fists and a voice like the boom of thunder, he has in the past three years battled his way to national prominence as the fighting skipper who has sworn to blast the Canadian Seamen’s Union from the Great Lakes.

Reoch’s swaggering role in this violent inland naval affray reached its climax in July, 1948, following four months of scrapping between striking CSU men and strikebreakers, which saw about 75 of the former arrested on charges ranging from trespassing and assault, watching and besetting, to hurling stink bombs. Finally a CSL ship’s officer opened fire with a shotgun on six CSU men who boarded his ship at Sarnia, wounding five of them. When the newspapers asked Reoch for comment he chortled: “Winging five out of six is pretty good shooting.”

This quip was given wide publicity, Reoch became quite proud of it. and still repeats it frequently, adding that, he promptly rewarded Chief Engineer

Melville Murphy who did the shooting with a promotion, a raise in pay and a bonus.

Reoch, who was at that time operating manager for Canada Steamship Lines, got his own reward for keeping company ships running despite the strike when the post of general manager was created for him in April of this year.

At 42, this rough-and-ready former freighter captain is the acting chief executive of Canada’s biggest inland shipping firm and a new kind of star in the Canadian big-business galaxy. He bears little resemblance to the popular notion of the cautious Canadian businessman as he bosses his fleet of 60 passenger and freight vessels, plus CSL’s attendant luxury hotels, shipyards, coal docks, grain elevators and buslines. He runs this varied, $40 million business much as he used to captain a ship, which is a unique experience for the 104-year-old company and its 7,500-odd employees, about half of whom are landlubbers.

Scornful of red tape and the niceties of business diplomacy, he cut short the long-winded apologia of one senior CSL official with an abrupt, “Tell me what you want in one sentence—then get the hell out.”

It is useless to attempt to capture in public print the full gunpowder flavor of the Reoch speech, which is normally so bursting with lower deck expletives that he registers a distinct air of strain in female company and his public relations department is terrified at the thought of the general manager being asked to address a women’s club.

Brawn — and Brains Too

Canadian seamen from the head of the Great Lakes to the deep waters of the Saguenay River have spread the reputation of the redoubtable Reoch ever since the days when he skippered a grimy CSL freighter in a masterful manner which inspired his crew to dub him “Captain God.” His inclination to silence complaints with a swift powerhouse right rather than with placating talk spurred others to call him “Skipper Sin.”

Although he appears to revel in his reputation as a tough guy the captain on CSL’s bridge has given many demonstrations of smart headwork along with his penchant for slugging it out. At 23 he became one of the youngest men ever to win his masters’ papers on the lakes. When first pulled off his ship to be CSL’s shore captain in Toronto in 1942 he promptly bearded company directors in their Montreal den to insist CSL be equipped at considerable outlay with the best modern navigational and safety devices.

Upon becoming general manager this year he took a quick look at CSL’s three summer hotels and pulled a rightabout switch in their control which, in one season, has already cut expenses and upped efficiency. His direction of CSL’s big battle with the Canadian Seamen’s Union also showed Reoch to possess tactical skill.

Whether operating with brain or brawn his violent jousts with the CSU have won him the reputation in many of the higher labor circles as a strikebreaker par excellence and Trade Union Enemy No. 1.

“I’m Proud of My Part’*

At a special Trades and Labor Congress conference in Ottawa last year a huge float was paraded through the streets showing a Frankensteinish monster labeled “Reoch” gleefully lynching a poor little guy called “labor.”

The president of Canada’s other major labor group, A. R. Mosher of the Canadian Congress of Labor, calls Reoch “not only one of the most dangerous but one of the bitterest enemies of organized labor in this country.”

On the other hand, Capt. R. Scott Misener, boss of the Sarnia and Colonial Lines—one of CSL’s largest rivals— but a doughty ally in CSL’s union battles, pays tribute to Reoch “for his foresight in realizing from the start that the organization of the Canadian Seamen’s Union represented a Communist attempt to sabotage shipping on the Great Lakes.”

Reoch himself has heartily admitted to being a “union buster” where the CSU is concerned. Says he, “I like the title. And I’m proud of my part in ridding the country of this Redinfested group of agitators.”

In 1946 the CSU called a strike for an eight-hour day touching off 28 days of bitter dock and canal-side fighting in

which 100 were injured and 200 (all strikers) jailed. The CSL capitulated, abandoned the 84-hour week and accepted the union’s demands. But before the shipping season had properly opened the following spring the CSU got a double-barreled surprise. Pat Sullivan, the union’s ardent leader since its formation in 1936, suddenly quit, announced himself a reformed Communist and denounced the CSU as a Communist - front organization. The ex-Communist emerged as leader of a company union called the Canadian Lake Seamen’s Union, an organization generally denounced by Canadian labor.

During the 1947 campaign against the CSU Reoch hired a special train to haul Sullivan’s men from Montreal to Welland, also employed chartered planes and trucks to rush needed men to man CSU-deserted ships. Once in an attempt to run a gauntlet of picketers he hid men in the trunks of automobiles. He himself traveled upward of 2,000 miles a week as the action shifted from front to front.

Reoch to the Rescue

Newspaper stories and pictures again and again reported that CSU pickets boarded struck ships armed with heavy wrenches, iron bars, and other weapons with which to convince Sullivan men of the wisdom in going ashore. Early in the show Reoch charged the strikers with wielding baseball bats and promptly armed all CSL ships with shotguns, revolvers, tear-gasguns and steam hoses. He also provided buckets of steel punchings for crews to throw back at stone-tossing pickets who lined canals and locks.

The climax was the Sarnia shooting. In this case court evidence indicated that the boarders had been unarmed; but the wounded strikers went to jail for six months and the Chief Engineer Murphy went free with a judicial reprimand.

Reoch passed many an all-night vigil on a canal bank when action was at its peak. When strikers tied up a CSL boat in the Soulanges Canal he rushed there, boarded the ship and personally took it through the canal without mishap.

By the time the 1948 season opened Sullivan had vanished from the scene and his organization had been neatly swallowed by the Seafarer’s International Union, a powerful AFL union from the United States which was quite happy to expand into the vacuum created by the flat refusal of CSL and the Misener lines to do business with the Canadian Seamen’s Union.

While the short 1946 strike alone is estimated to have cost CSL upward of $1,500,000, the 1948 campaign ran on all summer and proved the most violent yet. A single item on the 1948 bill was $200,000 in damages to CSL ships, for which the firm is suing the union.

Altogether more than 100 men were badly beaten, 300 union members were arrested and 200 of them went to jail. In most cases the charges amounted to trespassing, and, under the Canada Shipping Act, none of the strikers were allowed trial by jury.

It is a constant source of amazement not only to CSL personnel but to the union that through all thus violence and bloodshed the towering figure of Captain Reoch lumbered unscathed. His life has been threatened many times and he gloats over the anonymous telephone and mail threats to “get him.”

“I’m ready for the dirty rats!” he growls with an ominous, rumbling chuckle. “Let ’em come!” He makes no bones about the fact that he keeps weapons on hand at his 11-room stone house in Montreal.

“One day,” Reoch says, “a CSU man came into my office to threaten me. My door is always open—anyone can come in. Before this unprintable had finished balking, 1 brought one up from the deck and laid him out cold. Then I picked him up by the seat of the pants and bodily heaved him out the office door.”

Another time at a railway crossing Reoch and CSU president Harry Davis

(Sullivan’s successor) found themselves in opposite cars waiting for the trains to pass. Davis thumbed his nose at the purpling captain who roared his rage and pawed for the door handle just as the Davis car pulled away.

When the CSU strike this year spread to ocean ports, sparking unauthorized strikes by dockworkers in Britain, Reoch sat in to advise the deep-sea operators, and CSL’s legal brain, J. A. Mathewson, became their official representative in labor negotiations.

Meanwhile, Reoch can claim victory on the lakes in that he has kept his ships operating despite the CSU’s best efforts. Moreover, the issue of the CSU’s Communist control resulted in its withdrawal from its parent body, the Trades and Labor Congress, early this fall and there seemed little doubt it was steadily losing support in union circles. Yet as the 1949 season drew to a close the much-beset CSU still had contracts covering seamen on probably half the ships sailing the Great Lakes.

While by now the CSU is almost

everywhere conceded to be led and dominated by Communists, non-Communist trade union leaders find it difficult to swallow Reoch’s sweeping contention that its 12,000 members are all Reds. Says TLC president Percy Bengough: “Absolutely wrong . . .

the rank and file are merely sailors.” Says A. R. Mosher, president of the Canadian Congress of Labor: “Anyone who claims that all or even most of the thousands of sailors who are members of the CSU are Communists is crazy.” Says Reoch: “The CSU is nothing but a gang of Red rats.”

There are undoubtedly many in the pro-labor camp who believe that CSL’s bull-voiced, nail-chgwing Reoch is a natural born union hater to whom the alleged Communist control of the CSU was a Moscow-sent weapon with which to beat down the demands of his lakeship crews. Countering such charges, Reoch can point to the fact that CSL has been doing business with other unions for 10 years without benefit of skull cracking. Biggest of these is the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees, which represents some 2,500 of CSL’s employees ashore through a complex system of contracts covering various classifications of work in various ports from Quebec to the Lakehead.

First Words, “Ship Ahoy!”

“We’ve had to resort to conciliation boards two or three times and have held strike votes more than once,” recalls Frank Hall, Canadian vice-president of the brotherhood. “CSL is out for CSL and we’re out for the men, so our dealings haven’t been all sweetness and .light. But generally speaking our relations have been good and our freight handlers’ wage rate is higher than comparable rates paid our members who work for the railroads.

“Since 1945 we’ve dealt directly with Reoch himself. We’ve found him a hard fighter for CSL but a square shooter.”

Hall is as strong a Red fighter within the labor movement as Reoch is on the bosses’ side. He is generally credited with arranging the introduction of the Seafarers’ International Union as a rival of the CSU just as Reoch decided he’d had enough of Pat Sullivan’s hastily organized group.

It was natural that Norman James Reoch should grow up to love the sea. Born on a stormy October night in 1906 in the little northern Ontario town of Nottawa he is a third-generation sailor. His Scottish-born grandfather sailed the Great Lakes before him. So did his father, Captain James Reoch, who retired from CSL last yëar after 46 years’ service.

Norman Reoch’s earliest recollections are of sailing homemade wooden boats in a tub of water, and going for rides on his father’s big freighter. At 12 he could steer the big ship unaided. As a youngster he imitated his father’s rolling gait, and he still walks with a list today. He learned to say “Ship Ahoy!” almost before he said “Daddy.”

The second of five children, Norman Reoch turned out different from the rest. His brothers and sisters all went through university and got their B.A.’s. His two sisters became highschool teachers. His older brother is a Presbyterian missionary in Peking, China, and his younger brother an executive in an American insurance company.

“I was a good student and I liked school,” Reoch modestly says today. “I matriculated from Collingwood Collegiate when I was 15 and that summer I signed on as a deckhand on a a ke boat. I was supposed to go back to school in the fall but I just didn’t show up. Instead I shipped out on an ocean-going tramp steamer.”

Summers he sailed the lakes, winters the seas. He visited almost every country in the world except Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. When he was 22 he spent a winter ashore (working in the rug department of Raton’s Toronto store) because he was going through the Masons—todaÿ he is a Shriner.

A year later he left the rugs to take out his master’s certificate and it was not long before he had his first command, the CSL freighter Kinmount.

In 1942, after 13 years in the wheelhouse, Reoch was made CSL shore captain at Toronto. The next year he was promoted to marine superintendent and in 1945, operating manager at Montreal. Besides keeping the ships moving Reoch’s job was to handle the union. He did it so effectively that when in April of this year CSL directors urged ailing, 78-year-old president W. H. Coverdale to delegate most of his authority to a younger man, Coverdale called for 42-year-old Reoch.

When Reoch entered the board room the president stretched out his hand. “Glad to shake hands with the new general manager,” he wheezed. It was the first Reoch had heard of it. It was also the first time CSL had had a general manager.

Reoch’s appointment came as a great surprise to the staid directors and it met opposition. But besides Coverdale (who died this summer), Reoch was vigorously supported by hawknosed lawyer J. A. Mathewson, a K.C., and former provincial treasurer of Quebec province. The company needed a strong hand on the helm, he argued. Reoch had strength, youth, vigor and integrity. The directors agreed.

Reoch took over with a bang and lost no time swabbing down the decks. His first orders were to cut drastically long-distance telephone calls (“Everyone is talking too unprintably much and not doing enough. What’s all this gabbing about anyway?”), insist that everyone be in at 9 a.m. sharp (“Or I’ll soon know the reason why!”), and instruct his secretary to leave his door open (“Anyone who’s got a beef or an idea can walk right in and tell it to me personally.”). Today, the phone bill is lower, everyone is at work on time (though Reoch introduced a half-hour cut in summer office hours), but few, if any, have taken advantage of his open-door policy.

Since he first became a desk-lashed sailor in 1942 Reoch has been bullying the company’s board of directors and, making them like it. He started by journeying from Toronto to a Montreal board meeting to which he had not been invited. He wanted CSL to install gyro compasses on all its ships. The directors suggested that magnetic compasses were sufficient and hinted that Reoch should return to Toronto. Reoch proceeded to explain ships and the value of navigational aids, banging the table with a hamlike fist for emphasis.

He got his gyro compasses.

If the directors thought that they’d

seen the last of him they were mistaken. Before long he was back insisting that powerful sirens be installed on CSL boats. He got them. Four years ago he wanted echo sounders (which reveal the depth of the water and the contours of the river bottom). Three years ago he plugged for typhoon whistles. Two years ago he demanded radar. He got them all.

Last year he installed ship-to-shore telephones on all CSL ships and he frequently phones captains of ships on the lakes from his home at night.

All this adds up to greater efficiency and safety—today CSL boats have every safety and navigational aid boasted by the Queen Elizabeth. Reoch claims these expenditures have paid off by increasing the value of the ships and reducing insurance premiums.

The CSL fleet itself has increased too. This season two new superfreighters, the Hochelaga and the Coverdale (built in CSL yards at Collingwood and Midland, Ont.), were launched. The largest vessels ever to be built in Canada, each is 640 feet long, can carry more than 18,000 tons of coal and more than 575,000 bushels of wheat. All crews’ quarters are airconditioned and recreation rooms are provided. A new passenger boat is presently being built.

“Ave Maria” in Ship Jazz

Despite the fact it now costs $4,000 a day to run a CSL boat (in 1939 it cost $2,000) CSL profits have steadily increased. In 1947 it grossed $19244,582, an increased of $3,547,679 over 1946. Last year the gross take increased another $3,559,737 (1948 net earnings: $2,088,105.11).

In his office on Montreal’s Victoria Square Reoch knows exactly where each CSL ship is at all times. Most of his time is spent juggling his 51 freighters around (their territory is 2,000-odd miles of Great Lakes, St. Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers). CSL also operates nine 550 - passenger cruisers.

Although the company runs sevenday luxury liner cruises on the Great Lakes its most famous, and busiest, passenger trips are down the St. Lawrence and up the Saguenay—the River of the Deep Waters. More than 60,000 people a year (mostly American tourists) take the Saguenay cruise, weep at the sight of the searchlighted statue of the Virgin atop 2,000-foot Cape Eternity while the ships’ jazz orchestras grind out “Ave Maria,” and happily plunk $85 or more apiece into the company’s coffers.

Those who sail in the Quebec get an added attraction in the person of Captain C. H. Burch who bears a striking resemblance to Winston Churchill and who has been decked out in a uniform similar to Churchill’s wartime naval uniform (complete with cigar).

With employees Reoch is usually blunt, direct, brutally frank. He seldom wastes a word. For example, although he has been known to drink many of his captains well under the table, he insists that his men totally abstain while aboard ship by periodically issuing the curt admonition that “whisky and water don’t mix.” Recently when an old captain whom Reoch had warned about deep-sea tippling fell off the wagon and simultaneously attempted to knock down the Lachine Canal lock gate with his ship, Reoch hurried to the scene and personally took the undamaged boat on through the canal. Then he brought the old skipper ashore, sobered him up, and took him home.

The next day he told him in an unexpectedly mild tone, “Well, skipper, I’m sorry to see you go. The cashier has your cheque. Good-by and good luck.”

Some Wrestling and Some Poetry

Reoch can take it as well as dish it out. He proved this in 1937 when he was still skippering a lake freighter. On his 109th and last voyage of the sevenmonth season, doctors in the next-tolast port of call ordered him hospitalized for an immediate operation. His legs were badly swollen with varicose veins.

“To hell with the doctors!” he trumpeted wrathfully when a CSL official told him. “All they know about is too unprintably many pills!” And he promptly weighed anchor.

He brought his ship through the last canal on his feet, his teeth stubbornly clamped on a steel boiler punching, sweat pouring down his massive red face, his bloodshot eyes blazing with fierce determination. Afterward he grudgingly submitted to the operation.

While today the captain’s health is good, desk work and the complications of his sprawling business occasionally depress him. When this happens he grabs his hat and goes for a long ride on the highway in his new Buick which friends say he drives as though the devil were after him.

He always drives his car to and from work, sometimes lends it to his wife for an afternoon’s outing. He married Winnipeger Mary Martin in Toronto in 1928. They have three children: Mary Lou, 18; James, 16; and Norman Jr., 12.

Nights when he doesn’t bring work home from the office he goes to wrestling matches (his favorite sport). Other pastimes are hockey, baseball, football, hunting and fishing. He also reads poetry.

Reoch gets up at 7 a.m. each morning, eats a giant-sized breakfast (he j tells everyone he is never hungry and is a light eater, but he has been known to eat three steaks), and arrives at his office promptly at 8.45. There are usually between 200 and 300 business letters waiting for him. He disposes of these by emitting a series of grunts, snorts and derisive puffs, all interpreted by his secretary as meaning “no” or “file—no comment” as the ! case may warrant. Some he hurls back j for reply with a curt “yes,” “why” or j “when” and on a few he scribbles a i short sentence for his secretary tc I incorporate into the answer. He seems j j to get more done in an hour than most j j businessmen do in a day.

Yet it is plain that Captain Reoch,

! fearless though he is, feels extremely j self-conscious out of uniform. He has his suits made in Toronto but they fit 1 him so tightly he usually seems to be I bulging out at the seams. Although he j is dressed like a fashionable business| man he cannot help looking like a farmer in his Sunday best.

There is one compensation. He has a weakness, almost amounting to tin obsession, for garish, multihued ties which he could not wrear when in uniform. He has 400 of them, flashier than Bing Crosby’s shirts.