“The master of a vessel within the limits of any canal shall not allow passengers or employees on such vessel to throw coins, money or things of any description to persons along a lock or canal.”
“St. Lawrence River Pilot” 1955 edition
You could say it’s in his blood.
For Captain Leath Davis, born and raised on Wolfe Island, there was no question about his chosen vocation.
“My dad was Captain Henry Davis of Hall Shipping,” he said, “So I shipped out during my summer holidays in 1947 as a deckhand with the Hall company.” And, being a Davis, he took to the job – pardon the pun - like a duck to water. “In 1948 I was a watchman for two months and in ’49 a deckhand again for two months.” He has never looked back.
Captain Davis can trace his Wolfe Island roots to the pioneer Hitchcock family who obtained a charter to start a ferry service to Kingston from Wolfe Island. Ferry pioneer and War of 1812 veteran Thomas Davis was also an ancestor. His grandfather and great grandfather were lighthouse keepers living way out on Lake Ontario on Pigeon Island during the navigation season. “My grandfather kept the light at Pigeon Island for 31 years,” he says proudly. “His father had it for 15 years before that. I have a piece of the glass from the original light that was dismantled in 1912.”
Simply put, young Davis followed a family tradition of sailors. He also followed his family into the Hall Shipping Company where he would remain for most of his sailing career. “I left school in 1950,” he said, “and sailed two years as a wheelsman. After that I was two years as third mate followed by two years as a second mate. I attended the navigation school here in Kingston in the wintertime at Queen’s in the off season writing exams in the spring. After that I sailed for four years as first mate. I did my Master’s certificate at the Dominion Marine school in Toronto during ’55-’56. And then I went on the Coalfax in the spring of 1960 as master.”
Today, at 78 years of age, Captain Davis well remembers the canal days of the river before the coming of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power project. In those days there were 28 locks with several narrow canals to transit between Montreal and Kingston.
Upbound from Montreal, was the Lachine canal which ran for 8.7 miles. This overcame the Lachine rapids. Then the Soulanges canal which ran for 14.6 miles after crossing for 16 miles Lake St. Louis. This canal overcame the Cascades rapids, Cedar Rapids and Coteau rapids. From there, a stretch through Lake St. Francis for 31miles until the Cornwall canal which ran for 11 miles. This canal bypassed the Long Sault rapids from Cornwall to Dickinson Landing. After that came the Farron Point canal for 1.2 miles avoiding Farron Point rapids to the Rapide Plat canal for 3.8 miles to a four mile stretch of open river until the town of Iroquois. There, you entered the Galop canal for 7.3 miles overcoming the rapids at Pointe aux Iroquois, Point Cardinal and the Galop. There are only 7 locks today.
“Lewis Kiell from Wolfe Island went with my uncle Bill on the Keybell,” Davis remembers. “He started out as a deckhand. That fall they asked him how he liked sailing. He said he didn’t know. All he did was walk from Cardinal to Montreal. But that’s the way it was. When you were a deckhand you did a lot of walking, carrying lines that were heavier than you were.”
When Leath Davis shipped out with the Hall Corporation in that summer of 1947, there were ten ships in the fleet. All St. Lawrence River canallers. His father Henry and uncle Oliver Davis were captains of two of them. “My dad went from the Walter B. Reynolds to command the Meadcliffe Hall. My uncle Oliver was on the John H. Price,” he remembers. “In fact, uncle Oliver died aboard the Price. They were sailing just below Cornwall Island when he had a heart attack and died. Uncle Oliver sailed the ol’ paddlewheel Wolfe Islander for a year and then he went back on the canallers. He ended up on the Price around the time dad transferred to the Meadcliffe.”
The George Hall Coal company was established in 1883. As they expanded into the pulp and coal trade by the turn of the century the company had steamers rather than the current tug and barge combination of shipping. Later, in 1922 six firms which were George Hall Coal and Transport Company, Frontier Trading Company, St. Lawrence Marine Railway Company all of Ogdensburg, New York and the George Hall Coal Company, Black River Shipping Company and Black River Pulpwood Company of Montreal were amalgamated as the George Hall Coal and Shipping Corporation of Montreal and George Hall Corporation of Ogdensburg. Most of the ships were small, wooden and second hand.
Later that year, four new class of canallers were ordered from the Fraser Brice and Company from Three Rivers, Quebec. These new ships were 258 feet long with a 43 foot beam and a draught of 20.5 feet. They were the Frank A. Augsbury, Walter B. Reynolds, Edward L. Strong and John C. Howard.
After World War II, the fleet expanded with the addition of five new steam canallers followed by seven diesel canallers. In 1956 they branched into self unloading trade by acquiring the Coalfax.
With the new seaway, the canallers were becoming obsolete. Hall lengthened some and sold others. A new seaway sized ship, the Leecliffe Hall was built followed by others at almost a ship per year during the sixties. In 1960 there were 23 ships in the fleet.
On September 5, 1964, a collision between the new Leecliffe Hall and Saltie Apollonia below Quebec City sank the Leecliffe. “I was sailing the Halifax on my way to Sydney, Nova Scotia,” Davis remembers. “I picked up six alive and nine bodies from the foreign ship.”
In the pre-seaway period, Davis well remembers his training on the river as a wheelsman. “We didn’t have radar when I was a wheelsman,” he said. “The year I went third mate we had a set aboard. We had a hard job convincing the skipper it was any good. He was watching it when something crossed the screen. It was a seagull. ‘What the hell good is that thing gonn’a be,’ he said. We had our ranges and marks in different places too. Keep that house in line with that barn, that sort of thing. Another time, ol’ Captain Bill Smith said, ‘Steer on that fir tree. I said, that’s not a fir tree, cap. He said, ‘It is so... it’s fir steerin’ on’. And when you met a ship in the canal; you just steered right for him, then at the last minute you both veered to the right just missing each other by as little as three feet between. If you veered too soon, you got sucked into the bank.
“This one skipper, Captain Ross Sinclair, he didn’t need to be ‘spotted’. He had good judgment and knew right where he was all the time. The only time you had to ‘spot’ him was stem on to the dock. Some of those guys just had it, you know?”
Spending a season away on the boats was not for everyone. Leath remembers it well. “It was hard to be away from the family,” he said. “Harder on the wife than the husband. It was a way of life. You were brought up to the fact that it was the way it was. Now when a crew tells me that they have been away for two or three months... big deal! Years ago you left home in mid April and got home maybe, before Christmas. Time off might be for just a day or two. Very seldom you got anything more.”
Captain Davis became Vice President of Operations for Halco, as the company was now called, later in his career, spending his time ashore rather than afloat. Two tragic fires aboard first, the Cartiercliffe Hall on Lake Superior and then the Hudson Transport in the Gulf with loss of life in both cases, as well as the economic downturn of the 80’s proved too much for the company. It was the end of Hall Shipping as that decade came to a close. Leath moved on.
“I retired at 65,” he said. “that was as Manager of Operations from Ontario Northland after 14 years. After I retired I spent two and a half years down south on the casino boats in Florida. Summer in Boston and winter in Florida. Tough life.
“Two years ago I did a job for Halifax harbour and we put in a bid for re-doing the former ferry Norisle. But it wasn’t accepted...”
How does he feel about the business of shipping now? “Well, other than this year, it’s bigger ships and smaller crews. Unions have backed off a lot on crew sizes.” Would he recommend this type of work for a young person starting out now? “Well, yeah, I would. Personally cause I always enjoyed the job and the life. But now, nobody wants to be away from home. Wives don’t want to be bringing up kids alone but the wages are still very good. My son Rick is a ship’s captain sailing out on the Gulf of St. Lawrence right now.
“I wasn’t smart enough to realize that I worked more days from the 15th of April till the 20th of December than the guy who was workin’ 12 months of the year, gettin’ a couple of weeks off here and there,” Davis laughed.
“Hey, if the wife can’t let you out of her sight... it ain’t gonna work!”
By Brian Johnson, Captain, Wolfe Islander III, President, Wolfe Island Historical Society
Brian Johnson is a regular contributor for TI Life. He is also hard at work putting the finishing touches on his first book: Ferry Tales from Wolfe Island. This story was first published by Captain Johnson as an assignment from the Kingston Whig Standard as a series in celebratoin of the 50th Anniversary of the St. Lawrence Seaway which started on February 16, 2009. There were eleven stories. The story submitted here, first published on November 28, 2009, as "A family sailing tradition".
TI Life thanks Captain Johnson for sharing these wonderful stories with our readers.