Toronto Telegram, Oct. 29, 1932
Schooner Days LIX (59)
By C.H.J. Snider
White Oak of Oakville
In Collin's Inlet, up in Georgian Bay this summer, lay an old hulk, weathered, sun-blistered, in the last stages of decrepitude.
Her bulwarks were missing in spots. Her decks were going. Wild sweet clover had seeded and blossomed at the heels of her windlass bitts. The mighty paul-post, once stout enough to stand the strain of a thousand tons on the towline, was hollow with decay. The windlass barrel, which had wound in hundreds of miles of dripping chain-cable in its time, was cracked and splintered like a dried-out keg. The iron hoops which had once bound its strength now hung all slack and aslant.
Her sides were scored and gouged with half a century of hard usage, splintered by projecting wharf-spikes, sharp angles of stone-faced canal banks, iron-faced stems of butting tugs, the scrape and swing of oaken fenders.
Manifestly, a tow-barge too old for further towing. But surely something was stirred in memory by the drooping shoulders of those bows and the long straight line of her coveringboard, white against the blistered black of her side.
She had certainly once been "a vessel," as we lake sailors used to distinguish sailing craft from all others. Yes, twisted and bent, but still unmistakable, there were the channels and chainplates which once had spread the shrouds of lower and topmast rigging. Chainplates in the old style, too, round iron, hand-forged, bent and doubled around deadeye and channel bolt, and reinforced by backlinks.
She had been square-fastened, also, four hand-wrought spikes through every plank into every frame. One could trace the ordered rows of the squares, thousands of them in each blistered side. And surely that could continue a Simpson sheer, that carried the covering-board along with so little curve and still such grace, until it boldly sprung up to the bows!
A midship timberhead stuck up through the old rail like the last remaining fang of an otherwise toothless centenarian. It emphasized the wide spread she had had between the spars – another characteristic of the fore-and-afters John and Melancthon Simpson built on the banks of the Sixteen Mile Creek sixty and seventy years ago. How many, speeding over the Oakville bridge on the Hamilton Highway now, give a thought to the schooners that sailed from this little brown river to Chicago or Cape Town or Gananoque or Germany when Canada was young?
Hallmarks of Halton County were all about this dotard of the deep.
On the stern could be deciphered the name White Oak.
The old White Oak of Oakville! To find her here, hundreds of miles from her birthplace, forlorn decrepit, but recognizable, sixty-five years after her launching!
Half a century ago the White Oak was known everywhere lake water flowed. She was not the largest, but she was the finest, of the fine fleet of Oakville sailing vessels owned by the great clan Chisholm, and she embodied a sturdy pioneer family's pride in a name and pride in their soil.
Col. George Chisholm, father of the Chisholms to the fore at the time of Confederation, was the original grantee from the Crown of the great block of land between the Sixteen and the Twelve Mile Creeks, with its two harbors of Oakville and Bronte, and all the oak forests between. He was named by the Mississaga Indians, whose hunting grounds his lands had been, White Oak, alike from the uprightness of his dealings and of his stature, and from the characteristic timber of his domain.
It was not by accident that Miss De la Roche evolved the Whiteoaks as a family name for her Jalna saga of this vicinity, nor was it from idle fancy that the little harbor at the mouth of the Sixteen Mile Creek was christened Oakville. Trafalgar Township, in Halton County, grew the finest white oak on the shores of Lake Ontario – and the finest of that went into the schooner which Geo. K. Chisholm, son of the original colonel, launched on the very first day in the life of the Dominion of Canada, July 1st, 1867.
So hand-picked was the timber for this vessel that another fine schooner, the Kate, christened after Miss Kate Chisholm, was built from the surplus, and still another, the Wood Duck, was built from the remainder. Fine strong vessels both, small, but grand carriers for their size; both broken up years ago. But the White Oak long remained the toast and boast of every waterfront bar from Dickenson's Landing to Skillagalee.
She was a clinker to sail. They tell stories of her making three round trips in a week between Oswego and Toronto, loaded each way, grain out and coal back. Hard to believe, for a twelve-hour passage to Oswego (one hundred and thirty-five nautical miles) was not made once in a blue moon, and loading and unloading in the White Oak's time was a matter of days, not of hours. But that's what they say.
You could crack it to her until she was piling up the water in high furrows on both sides, and it was streaming in through the hawsepipes and flooding the deck as high as the hatch coamings. It was this ability to carry sail and keep going which made the White Oak known all over the freshwater highway from Superior to the sea.
She was not big for her time – 14,000 bushels would choke her hatches – but the quickness of her passages made her a good earner even on the long runs from Chicago to Kingston in the grain trade, or in bringing down the "red iron ore" of the old lake song.
The White Oak only measured 110 feet on deck, and 24 feet 8 inches beam; 9 feet 5 inches depth of hold, and 180 tons register.
She was hard driven by hard drivers, for although she had many masters she never fell into the hands of an easy-going or timid skipper; and the good white oak and charcoal-iron the Simpsons put into her stood up nobly under half a century of hammering.
Coal heavers and grain trimmers would mutely wave their shovels at the big dark patch on the underside of the pine planks of her deck near the after hatch. Nobody talked about that. It was blood. It was where one of her captains, in peril of his life, had emptied his revolver into a drink -crazed sailor who drew a knife on him while the White Oak was coming down the Welland Canal. But the White Oak never had the reputation of being a haunted ship.
John and Melancthon Simpson, who had built the Sea Gull which went to South Africa in 1865, were the master builders for this Chisholm masterpiece, and at the end of the last day of June, 1867, she stood ready for launching.
All Trafalgar had been searched for soft soap to lubricate the launching ways. The county had been combed for the. hundred-foot pine trees for her masts. G. K. Chisholm paid $100 apiece for them. On that first Dominion Day morning they looked like the lifted spears of the heavenly host. Their topmast trucks were crowned, not with the customary white balls, but with blocks of pine turned to the shape of acorns and covered with gold leaf.
Those who have never seen a schooner's spars close-to will be amazed to learn that these "acorns," looking no larger than golf balls when aloft, were of such size that the cup of the oak nut was as big as a dinner plate.
The acorns, setting a new style in sky-tickler millinery, should have given a hint at the name to be bestowed, but everybody argued that the Chisholms, prominent and patriotic, would have named her New Dominion, in honor of this new Confederation, as she was being launched on this public holiday to celebrate it. Everybody knew that the name had been chosen, for it had been painted on bow and stern, but boards had been nailed over each place where it appeared.
When the Simpson brothers gave the signal, the tattoo of spike-mauls and sledges driving in the wedges and knocking away dog-shores sounded like the drums of a regiment.
"There she goes!" was the cry. Miss Chisholm smashed the champagne bottle fair and square on the stem, and, with a mighty roar of displaced water, the schooner plunged into the Sixteen. In the cheers and the clatter nobody had heard the christening name; and the crowd gasped when the carpenters, knocking away the screens revealed, not "New Dominion," but "WHITE OAK of OAKVILLE."
G. K. Chisholm had chosen well. Four other schooners were launched on the lakes at this time and every one was named "New Dominion." It was like when the strange minister asked Brother Smith to lead in prayer, and five men got up at the prayer meeting; and when he hurriedly explained that he meant Brother John Smith, two sat down and three more arose.
Appropriately, the White Oak took to the water as white as a bride at the altar. But (not unlike some brides, either), her paint soon changed. She was a hard-worked schooner, urged all over the Great Lakes by various captains; grain from Chicago, iron ore from Duluth, coal from Oswego, lumber from Toronto, were all at times her cargoes. In the iron-ore trade she was painted red; Capt. Dave Reynolds recalled her one December in Lake Michigan, grain laden for Kingston, so glazed with ice she looked like a glass bottle. Her hull was green then. Capt. J. Dix, of Kingston, who bought her after a few years at a fat figure, had her in white; but he finally painted her black, in spite of her name, and black she was thenceforward to the end of her days, black with one band of white at the coveringboard emphasizing her straight sheer.
Capt. James Quinn, of Oakville, brought her back from the foot of the lake in 1894, and he gave her a flaming red petticoat to set off her black beauty.
Jimmy Quinn, who died only last year, was the heaviest sail-dragger of all the White Oak's masters, and he rigged her with such sailor's torments as a maintopmast staysail, with a flying staysail from the main cross-trees to the deck, inside the foresail, and a jib-o-jib or blue-devil outside the jibtopsail. When he ordered a new mainsail from Sopers, in Hamilton with blocks of pine [ ]ton, and they asked "How many lines of reef-points, two or three?" he answered, "None at all. When the White Oak can't carry her whole mainsail no other vessel can carry any."
That is the way he sailed her.
Perhaps it was the "heft" of that reefless mainsail that finally took the heart out of the White Oak, and perhaps it was being sold off her native Lake Ontario, She never seemed the same vessel after she sold out of Oakville the second time, in 1900, and taken to Lake Huron. It was not long after that when she was heard of as being waterlogged somewhere near Southampton; and then her, spars were taken out and she was used for towing in Georgian Bay.
And so she now lies in Collins Inlet.
THE WHITE OAK'S windlass, which wound up miles of anchor chain in its time.
THE WHITE OAK, as she is and as she was, with a closer-up of one of the acorns she grew at her topmast trucks.