Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor and reporter and was well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times” called "On the Waterfront."
His first article for TI Life was written in January 2015 and since then, he has written a half-a-dozen others. He is a voracious researcher and TI Life readers benefit from his interesting findings.
This month Richard presents this article that he discovered written by the late Roy E. Fairman, (1883-1961). Fairman graphically describes shipbuilding days on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It first appeared in the “Syracuse Herald” on February 1, 1946).
Not so long ago, but not that many people now living, can recall the time, winter was about as busy as summer, at almost every Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River port from Alexandria Bay to Oswego.
Whereas in summer, passenger, freight and fishing vessels, in fleets, plied in and out of these ports; in winter, the principal activity was the construction of boats and ships, to take the places of the ones, which through long usage, had become unseaworthy.
In the middle of the 19th century, shipyards were operated in almost every village along the River and many of the staunchest sailing schooners and steam barges, ever to ply the Great Lakes, were built from nearby oak forests, at Oswego, Alexandria Bay, Cape Vincent, Three Mile Bay, Chaumont, and Sackets Harbor.
Virtually every type of craft slid down the ways in these shipyards. Lighters, sailing scows, two and three-masted schooners, steam tugs and barges - sometimes as many as a score, carried on their sterns the names of one of these places. As the oak forests disappeared and steel construction began to replace that of wood, the shipways gradually ceased to operate and were dismantled. The Frank Phelps’ Shipyard, at Chaumont was the last to survive and as recently as 46 years ago was still going full blast. It is the only one, of which traces still may be seen.
If you visit Chaumont today, you will find an old sawmill, on lower Chaumont Bay, and two or three other buildings, all in a state of advanced decrepitude. If you look carefully, you may see one or two old boilers, and maybe an unfinished wooden rib, which never became a part of the anatomy of a ship.
A half century or less ago, this shipyard vied with stone quarries and lime kilns, as a source of employment in the then busy village. Scores of farmers, with their teams, went into the forests, at a time when work was slack on the farm, and cut timber and hauled it to the shipyard of the late Capt. Frank D. Phelps, a former fisherman, and later an upper lakes sailor and shipmaster.
These logs were allowed to season, during the entire summer following, for green timber is not conducive to good shipbuilding and there was always a big pile of seasoned oak, ready for the sawmill, when shipbuilding began at the close of the navigation season each fall.
Operation of the sawmill, which fashioned from the logs, ship timbers and planking, called for another gang of workmen, none of which, except the head sawyer and the engineer, needed to be skilled. Ship carpenters were relatively few in number, but they directed the work of other carpenters, who were skilful enough to use a broad-axe or adze and to wield a small sledge hammer, used in spiking the planking to the ribs.
Besides the carpenter, who found the shipyard work lucrative, at a season when house and barn building was suspended, the force included caulkers, painters and a large number of unskilled men and boys, who assisted in various ways. In all, the shipyard sometimes employed nearly 100 hands.
On several occasions, during school vacations, I worked in the old shipyard, but my work called for little or no skill. Captain Phelps owned a little old chestnut horse, which he called "Tom," a former trotting racer who had been noted , not only for his speed, but also for having a tendency to think he knew more than his driver, a trait which he never quite threw overboard, as long as he lived.
My job usually was that of valet to old Tom, who was used to "snake" timbers and planks from the tail of the sawmill, to the part of the yard where they were fashioned into the parts of the boat under construction, or to haul big stones across the frozen surface of the bay, to be dumped into a hole in the ice, to make a foundation on which the keel of the ship was to be laid.
Fastening a big log chain, around the timber or stone, I guided the horse by leading him, but there were many times when it was debatable, whether I was leading him or he was leading me. He seemed to think the carpenters had picked a poor spot, in which to fashion the timbers, and on more than one occasion, insisted with no little energy, of hauling them to some other place.
Once, at least, when hauling stones as close as possible to the hole in the ice, he insisted on getting closer than I had intended and pushed me over the slippery surface, so that I fell into the ice cold water, up to my armpits.
Many widely known Chaumont men, and others who became well and favorably known in other places, were my co-workers in that shipyard. Of the Chaumont men, Capt. Pearl Phelps, younger brother of Frank and a skilled sailor and boat builder in his own right, and Howard Reed, a nephew, now custodian of Lyme Central School, are about the only survivors.
Among those who have passed on were Leon Phelps, another survivor; William Wallace, Elias Wallace, Ward Bovee, Timothy Bevins, James Allen, later for many years a contractor and President of the Chaumont Board of Education; William P. Horton, Amos Grooms, Jesse Dunham, Sherman Wallace, Fred Fisher, George Silver, Damon Silver, Edward Hayes, Orville Fish and Edward Fish.
Among others, who earned their first money in the old Chaumont shipyard, are such men as Edward Dennison, now postmaster at Sackets Harbor; William Riordan, merchant and President of the Board of Education, at Mannsville; Dr. Frank Bovee, dentist in Washington, D.C.; John Knapp, a Philadelphia, Pa. architect, and Charles Dunham, for many years an official of the Jefferson National and the Watertown National Bank.
Vessels Built by Frank Phelps, Chaumont, New York
§ C. A. Cole, steam tug, 57 tons, 70' x 15' x 7', 1921. Used as a fish carrier. Built for Claude A. Cole of Main Duck Island, Picton, Ontario, and Cape Vincent. Engines came from the wreck of the steamer John Randall. Later converted to diesel. Abandoned on Amherst Island in the 1930s. Scrapped 1947.
§ Emma, two-masted schooner (US#135602) 1882 29 tons, 57' x 15' x 5', 1882. Lengthened to 75' x 16'1' x 6'5" 57 tons. Built for Frank D. Phelps. Abandoned about 1907, and left to decay in the pond at Chaumont.
§ Frank D. Phelps, steamer (US#200234) 192 n.t., 85 g.t., 90'5" x 20' x 8'1" 1903 Fore and aft two-cylinder compound engine. Built on the hull of the steamer Cyclone originally built in Cleveland in 1883. Original dimensions, 96' x 20'8" x 8', 86 g.t., 45 n.t. Used by Phelps for his personal use. Subsequent owners included People's Milling Co., Chaumont; Alexander McDougall (Duluth, Minn.); Northern Fish Co.; and John Roen of Charlevoix and Sturgeon Bay, Wisc. Cut down to a barge and engines salvaged in 1924 for use in steamer Marcus Roen. Abandoned 1928.
§ Hinckley steamer, (US #96578) 211 g.t., 177 n.t., 114'4" x 24' x 11'7", 1901. Screw propeller, fore-and aft compound, two-cylinder engine. Built for Augustus R. Hinckley of Cape Vincent. Deepened by 3'7" in 1920. Sprung a leak and put ashore to keep from sinking. Broke while cargo was being removed, off Stony Point, Lake Ontario, July 29, 1929.
§ Isabella H., steamer (US#2133102) 248 g.t., 141 n.t., 100'8" x 25'9" x 11'1", 1915. Built as combination passenger and package freighter McCormick by Alan Kirby Shipyard, Grand Haven, Mich., 1887. Original dimensions 106' x 24'7" x 8'. Purchased by Hinckley and rebuilt at Chaumont. He had the forecastle built up and a steel A-frame mounted forward to replace wooden one. Foundered in Oswego Harbor Sept. 28, 1925, in 30 feet of water.
§ Jessie, two-masted schooner (later barge) (US 46564) 1900, 256 g.t., 209 n.t., 127' x 25' x 10'8". Built for D. C. Wheeler, Oswego. Later owners included Hinckley and General Electric Co. Abandoned 1922. (Reportedly used as a barge on the Barge Canal).
§ John S. Parsons, three-masted schooner (US# 76999) 115.26 g.t., 109.50 n.t., 92'7" x 21'4" x 9'4", 1892. Converted to steam barge, 1896; to tow barge by 1910. Owned by Frank Phelps. Foundered off Oswego, Nov. 24, 1913, and broke up.
§ Lena L., sloop, 10 g.t., 1896 42' x 11' x 3'. Built at Three Mile Bay. Owned by D. Silver, Chaumont.
§ M. G. Phelps, steamer (US 213393) Launched Dec. 23, 1914. 99 g.t., 73 n.t,. 100" X 21'5" X 4'6". Built for Jay W. Robinson, Auburn, N.Y. Sold later to Traverse City Navigation Co., Grand Haven, Mich. Scrapped 1932.
§ M. I. Wilcox, sloop, 1 mast (US#92579) 28 g.t., 1894 61' x 16'3" x 4'1”. Owned by S. Failing, Point Peninsula (near Chaumont) used as a hay scow.
§ Northern Lights, 2 masted schooner 39 g.t., 65' x 17' x 6' 1899. Captain William R. Sheeley, Cape Vincent, owner.
§ Uncle Paul, barge, 1900, 67 g.t., 80' X 22' x 5'. Adams & Duford, Chaumont, owner.
§ Uncle Paul No. 2, barge, 94 g.t. , 1909. Augustus R. Hinckley, owner.
Compiled by Richard Palmer
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