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"May the Black Dog cross your deck!"

Toronto Telegram, October 2, 1943
Schooner Days DCX (610)
By C.H.J. Snider

Half drunk, wholly sore, he spat that out, red with rage and reeking with whisky. He had been fired by the Old Man as soon as the Azimuth's shore lines bighted on the spiles. He had committed many nautical misdemeanors, crowning them by jibing her all standing and springing the main gaff. He had beaten it forthwith to Andy Tymon's, at Church street and the old Esplanade, got his courage reinforced, and come back for his clothes and an argument.

The skipper, big, fat, good-natured, was immediately three hundredweight of fury.

He pounced on his late mate like a rhinoceros on a rat. He dragged him to his knees with a one-hand grip on his throat and swung back the other fist like a pile-driver, taut knuckles showing oddly white through the sunburn.

"Take it off!" he snapped. "Take it off, or your own mother'll never know you again by the look of your face!"

The mate-that-was went white with fear and blue with choke. He feebly threw out both hands and tried to nod his head.

"Sure," he gasped, "it's off. I couldn't put it on, anyway. You know I'm not a warlocky, Finn!"

"All right," said the master of the Azimuth, "but to prove what you say you'll come along with us next trip yourself. Not as mate, but in the fo'c'sle. You're not worth the salt on your porridge, but I reckon you won't go so far as to drown yourself to spite me."

"I was only foolin', Cap'n"

"By cracky," rumbled the mountainous skipper, in the tone of a squall fading out to leeward, "if I told the boys you'd threatened the Black Dog they'd tear you limb from tree. To think of the blather of the likes of you scattering the Azimuth and her whole crowd along the front of some man's farm some dirty night! Take shame to yourself for thinking of it."

"Honest, Cap'n, I didn't mean it" mourned the sobered one, ruefully feeling his Adam's apple. "I couldn't a put the Dog on ye if I tried, and I wouldn't try if I could."

That was all. The Azimuth went her ways with a fished main gaff and nothing happened until, full of years and patches, she was sold for a decent figure and became a floating coal dock down Kingston way.

How the curse came

FIFTY or sixty years ago it was not healthy even to talk about the Black Dog of Lake Erie along the waterfront. The hint that the animal had been seen aboard was enough to empty a schooner's forecastle, even with the towing-out hawser laid along for the tug and the shorelines cast off. The threat to bring the beast was a threat of death; deserving of death, in the simple logic of the men who drove the lake trade when canvas was king.

The curse may have come about this way:

The I.G. Jenkins was a white American fore-and-after in the grain trade between Chicago and Kingston, in 1875.

She was sliding down Lake Erie one quiet night with a full moon, just enough breeze to keep her sails asleep. It was in the middle watch, and as peaceful as only the lakes can be on a still night. The mate and the lookouts were conscientiously improving the shining hour by sleeping in separate patches of shadow, carefully sheltered from the moon. The helmsman, the only man awake in the ship, was humming a broken tune from a Chicago dance hall and staring at the bubble in the compass and wondering whether compass alcohol would be any good as a refill for the dwindling bottles of hooch bought in South Clark street.

Suddenly he let a yell out of him which brought the mate and the lookout back from dreamland with a jerk and turned out the watch below as though the Jenkins were on her beam's ends in a squall. In a moment the helmsman was surrounded by half a dozen excited questioners, all asking, "What is it? What is it?"

"The Black Dog!" he gibbered, "the Black Dog! It came up over the weather rail in the moonlight, all black and bristling, and not a hair of it wet, and it walked across the deck and over the lee rail and into the lake without a splash."

Capt. Brown, plain John Brown, of Oswego, N.Y., had been boiled hard in his native state, and could spot D.T.'s a mile away.

"See if this'll make a splash!" said he, frisking the sailor's hip pocket as neatly as a detective landing a gangster's revolver. Overboard spun the bottle. "Cook, make him some coffee, strong enough to float the kedge anchor! And you, blank you, get to your bunk and keep your conversation hatch on as soon as you've stowed what the cook gives you, see?"

The ex-helmsman's perceptive faculties were quickened by a swift kick, which would have wrecked his corn-juice container had it remained in situ. He saw stars, moons and comets. Before the powerful Java brought blessed relief, he began to see enormous black dogs running up the rigging. But the captain's own dog, Ponto, who had been whimpering in the captain's room during the uproar, paid no attention to these visionary rivals. He had been unconscious of the first spectre, proving that dogs, like beauty, must be in the eye of the beholder.

The memory of the night stayed with the wretch until the I.G. Jenkins towed into Port Colborne two days later, and got her square-sail yard a-cockbill and her jibboom topped up and catheads and davits folded back for canalling down to Lake Ontario.

Those were the days of the open bar, and the Chicago seer was soon surrounding Canadian rye and surrounded by Canadians listening with awe to his account of the moonlit portent of Lake Erie, the black dog as big as a bull (by this time) which had crossed the I.G. Jenkins deck with lolling tongue and eyes of fire and disappeared without a splash.

After the third round the animal had grown to the size of an elephant, and the narrator marveled that it had not capsized the schooner. He returned on board and tearfully besought all hands to leave the ship and save themselves from the wrath to come. It was a Sign, he insisted, a certain Sign.

The captain bestowed a second well-directed kick, which lifted the prophet on to the dock. He hurled his dunnage bag after him and told him not to dare to show his face again.

But at Port Robinson the poor devil again appeared and begged the captain and all hands to tie the schooner up and abandon the voyage and so save their lives. He was driven off with a volley of blasphemy and belaying pins. But at every stopping place, as the I.G. Jenkins slowly stepped down to Lake Ontario – there were 26 rungs in the ladder then, and horses towed the vessels from lock to lock – he would bob up, wail his warning, and dodge.

His last appearance was when the tow-horses were being unhitched after she had been dragged across the pond above Muir's drydock, at Port Dalhousie. The captain was so annoyed by his persistence, and the crew were getting so worried by it, and talking of quitting, that he sailed right out into the lake as he was, with his jib-boom still hanging in the burtons which had topped it up to let the loaded schooner into the locks without spearing the head-gates.

It blew hard that night from the sou'-west, a fair wind for Oswego and home, for the I.G. Jenkins.

She had plenty of time to get her jibboom rigged and headstays all set up before it came down heavy. The late Magistrate J. J. O'Connor, of Port Arthur, from whom these facts were gathered, was a sailor before the mast in the schooner Magdala, Capt. Farewell, of Oshawa, at this time. It was November, 1875.

"I was in the Magdala, upbound from Oswego to Toronto, the same night," said he. "We had a lively time in the November sou'-wester. Touched some high spots, but weathered the gale in good shape, double-reefed all round. The Magdala was a smaller vessel than the Jenkins, and we were light, where she was loaded. Of course it would be in her favor that she had the wind behind her, while we had to beat against it. We did not hear of her loss until days afterwards. She foundered in Lake Ontario that night, somewhere between Port Dalhousie and Oswego. The story of the man of the Jenkins, and what he saw, or thought he saw, went the rounds and created a revival of sailors' superstitions which did not fade for many a day.

"It got particularly wide circulation, for at the end of a fortnight of westerly gales, seventy-five sailing vessels lay in Kingston harbor, grain-laden from the upper lakes; and, of course, the crews visited, and every forecastle was filled with the story of the Black Dog. Capt. Henderson, a marine artist, made a picture of the whole fleet leaving Kingston when the westerlies let up."

The morning after

The late John S. Parsons, well-known ship chandler, told Schooner Days a few years ago that many Oswego schooners were in Port Dalhousie when the I.G. Jenkins hurried out to her fate, and some had left the port ahead of her, for home. One of these was the Nevada, almost a duplicate of the Jenkins, although she and her twin, the Jamaica, cost the hitherto unprecedented figure of $60,000 to build. The Nevada and the Sam Cook got into Oswego next morning by the skin of their teeth, for the wind had gone from southwest to northwest and blew a living gale. It raised an appalling sea down on the Oswego corner of the lake.

The brigantine Montcalm couldn't make Oswego with the Sam Cook and the Nevada, and had to run down the lake, and into the River St. Lawrence, and fetched up at Cape Vincent. Her captain reported that he had been in company with the I.G. Jenkins as far as Thirty Mile Point, but had lost touch with her when the gale struck.

She never arrived. They watched and waited for her and for other Oswego vessels – for the canal was crowded with the down-bound grain fleet. They sent tugs up the lake when the gale abated. The tugs went all the way to Port Dalhousie, and there found the rest of the fleet, windbound. The breeze had fallen light and ahead after the gale, and the other schooners waited for weather. Some were towed home by the Oswego tugs, some sailed down.

But not the Jenkins.

A dingy dog came ashore at Sheldon's Point, some miles up to the westward of Oswego. He was a strange dog, the farmer noted, and he seemed all in. His hair stuck to his sides as if glued there, and he dragged his hind legs as though paralyzed. It was days before he was brought to town, and then he was recognized as Capt. John Brown's dog from the Jenkins.

This poor brute was all trace ever found of the Jenkins and her crew of seven. It was supposed that, running before gale with the sails on the port side, she got in under the land, in the effort to avoid jibing over, as the wind hauled to the westward, and that so she had struck on the Ford shoals, four miles above the port. Here the Twilight and the Vienna and the Agnes Hope and many another vessel had got aground. The first two were got off. The Agnes Hope of Hamilton, sailed by Capt. James Savage of Picton, had been abandoned in a sinking condition by her crew before she drove in on the shoal and broke up. If the Ford shoal so near Oswego was the scene of the Jenkins's end, it is strange that no wreckage from her was washed in around her home port.

The Oswego schooner Gilbert Mollison had been lost on the Ford shoal the year before. The Jenkins was so much like her in appearance, that each schooner had been nicknamed the other's "ghost." They were now ghosts indeed. The Nevada, the other "ghost," went down in Lake Erie not long afterwards.

Where the Black Dog was kenneled

The Black Dog of Lake Erie was believed (by some lake sailors) to be the ghost of a Newfoundland who had perished in the Welland Canal, He was knocked overboard from the vessel to which he belonged while she was locking through, and left to drown in the lock by a cruel crew who jeered at him for being from salt water and reputed to be such a good swimmer. Surely, they said, a little canal water couldn't hurt him.

Poor Newfy's first revenge was to seal his vessel tight in the lock, so that the crew broke their backs heaving her out with the capstan when the lock filled. She was a close fit for the sides, as many of those Old Canallers were, and the body of the drowned dog jammed in behind the lock gates so that they could not open properly. Afterwards ill-luck followed the schooner, like the Ancient Mariner's Albatross. How the crew expiated their offense is not known – unless they all went to the bottom with her – but the story grew of this poor dead Newfoundland coming up over the rail of any ship which he chose to haunt, walking across the deck, and disappearing over the side. Sure portent of disaster. Why he chose Lake Erie for his spiritual reappearances instead of the Welland Canal is something the superstitious never explained, but the dog, or his story, was not limited to that lake. Schooner Days has heard of him prowling nightly past South Bay Cemetery, in the Bay of Quinte, and around Presqu'isle, before the Bay begins. He was well but unfavorably known from Skillagalee to the St. Lawrence. He was blamed for the disappearance of the Mary Jane, Capt. Flanagan, and of the E.P. Dorr at the same time, in the fall of 1881.

Passing Hails

Double entry

This week came a letter from Mr. Isaac G. Jenkins of Royal Oak, Mich., recalling two Lake Ontario vessels well known in schooner days, and mentioning a song about one of them which the writer would very much like to have. By the writer is meant Mr. Jenkins, but the compiler of Schooner Days would very much like to have "Shandy Maguire's" poem, too, and calls on all sail lovers to help. Here is Mr. Jenkins' letter:

In my old home town of Oswego, N.Y., I was inquiring for a copy of a poem written by "Shandy Maguire," the subject of which was the loss of the schooner I.G. Jenkins. Mr. Edgar V. H. Hobble of the Paladium-Times suggested you might help me find a copy.

"The boat was owned by Mr. Oliver Mitchell, I believe, and named for my father, who was a miller and lumber dealer in Oswego in the early days. She was lost with all hands, which inspired the poem.

"If I find it and you have not seen it and would be interested I would be glad to send you a copy.

"Yours very truly,
803 West Farnum,
Royal Oak, Mich."

The strange fate of the schooner I.G. Jenkins is given on this page. It may explain a superstitition rife on the Great Lakes for seventy years and perhaps longer. Or does it?

The other vessel mentioned inferentially by Mr. Jenkins in naming the owner of the first schooner is the Oliver Mitchell, a stranger seen only once on the Toronto waterfront by Schooner Days. This was at the foot of Scott street, at the beginning of this century. She was a black two-masted schooner with a half-clipper bow, or cutwater knee under the bowsprit. But for that she might have been taken for one of our "Old Canallers" like the Albacore and her sisters in the Muir fleet of "A" vessels. They had plumb stems, the better to fit the canal locks. But the Oliver Mitchell was not from a Port Dalhousie or St. Catharines yard but from the St. Clair river, having been built at Algonac, Mich., by Navagh in 1874. Navagh was also an Oswego builder, and the vessel was named after and probably, owned by Mr. Mitchell the Oswego owner of the Jenkins. She was 136 feet long on deck, 26 feet beam and 13 feet deep in the hold and registered 320 tons. She had passed to the Canadian register by the end of the century, being owned in Prince Edward County by Jacob Ackerman at one time. Seemingly the transfer did not stick, for in 1914 Herbert Hulme owned her and she hailed from Port Huron, Mich. In the Great War she was re-rigged as a 3-master with square topsail and raffees by a Scandinavian and taken to salt water, where, it is understood, she made several Atlantic passages to England and France in the height of the shipping boom while the United States was neutral. She never came back to the lakes.

(Caption) The Oliver Mitchell, named after a friend of the namesake of the I.G. Jenkins, was on both registers, Canadian and American, and went to the ocean on war service. The picture shows her after being re-rigged with three masts. Originally she had only two, and no square-sails. Some old sailors identify this photograph as that of the St Lawrence, Capt. Channor, but others are equally certain it is the Oliver Mitchell as re-rigged.

(Caption) Ghost of a ghost ship – the Gilbert Molison is said to have resembled the I.G. Jenkins so much that each, in life, was called the ghost of the other. They both met death within a twelve-month, here told.

(Caption) THE Nevada, another duplicate of the I.G. Jenkins, made Oswego the morning the Jenkins left Port Dalhousie. The Nevada was lost later in Lake Erie.


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