Toronto Telegram, December 24, 1932
Schooner Days LXVII (67)
By C.H.J Snider
The Horse Boy
Being an attempt to expound a dead-and-done institution of early sailing days on the Great Lakes.
It was always a mystery of the old lakers how the horseboy managed to put in his time.
The horseboy was hired, on the ship's books, to "help the cook and hold slack."
That in itself was enough to keep most youngsters out of mischief, if the cook knew his or her business, and the crew theirs and they always did, but it was only the beginning of the horseboy's occupation.
The horses he had to look after were neither of the pipe variety nor Flemish, but flesh-and-blood quadrupeds that ate like elephants and drank like whales and behaved like mules. It takes a sailor to understand the foregoing joke, but the diagram for the benefit of the layman follows: –
"Horsepipes" were the eyeholes through which the cable led from the windlass to the anchor, and the word was always spelled but never pronounced "hawsepipes. " "Flemish horses" were properly Flemish hawses, slung under the yards beyond where the actual foot-ropes terminated at the lifts. The horseboy had nothing to do with either.
The gale of laughter having subsided, let us proceed to consider what he had to do.
Up to sixty years ago most of the old lakers of canal size carried their own horsepower on four or more feet. The horsebox was a regular structure in their bluff bows, located under the forestay and abaft the windlass. To get into the forecastle the watch had to heave a horse or two aside before reaching the ladder. The horses lived in this little stable on deck, and the crew lived in what was fondly known as the boar pen below. If there was a bunk or a shelf in the forecastle too short for a man and too small for the stowage of spare chain or odd gear it was allocated to the horseboy.
He was an "idler," and did not have to stand a watch. That did not mean, however, that he escaped the routine of four hours on and four hours off which was the lot of the sailors. At the call of "All hands!" he turned out with the others, day or night. He was given one particular sail to look after: a batwing, or royal, if the old barkie sported these delights. It was always some sail farthest from the deck, where the old shellbacks couldn't or wouldn't climb.
At any hour, light or dark, the Old Man would growl: "Call that horseboy to shake out the royal, and get it on to her!" or "Clew down that lee raffee and rout the horseboy up to furl it!"
And in those days of hard driving, when days meant dollars, light sails would be shaken out and set and furled and set again a dozen times in a watch if the Old Man or Mr. Mate felt like it.
Whether he was roused out earlier and often or not, the horseboy had to shake a leg when the middle watch ended at 4 a.m. He had to feed, water and currycomb the old Dobbins which had been cribchewing all night, solemnly tacking in their box every time the vessel tacked, so as always to ride head to wind. He had to clean out and sluice down their stable, broom it out, and give them fresh-straw. Then he would stumble aft to draw water for the cook and peel potatoes.
If in the interval any major operation had to be performed, such as wearing or tacking ship, or that blessed fourth quadrilateral of canvas on the foremast, the royal, had to be set or furled, the horseboy had to hop to it. He always had a fine appetite for breakfast.
Many of the old timers, even of less than canal size, were barquentine rigged and there was method in this madness. In these "barques" there was no foreboom to partition the space between foremast and mainmast, and the deck there was kept clear for the horse capstan. This was a stout spindle of wood, like a section of a mast, with a long bar radiating from it. A plank track encircled it, protecting the deck. Whenever any heavy hoisting had to be done, such as heaving up the anchor or making sail, a rope or chain messenger was run to the cable or halliard and wound around the capstan barrel. Then the horseboy hitched on his trusty steeds to the "yardarm" or projecting bar of the capstan, and away they went. A shorter bar, called the whip-arm, at right angles to [the] long one served to move the outside horse so that he could not turn aside. Well trained horses would step over the messenger and its slacks as neatly as sailormen but – all seagoing stallions were not well trained.
They had gangways down the deck, too, in the old timers, particularly the timber droghers, and when they were loading or unloading square sticks of timber the horseboy and his charges worked from dawn till dark, and often by lantern light.
Unlike the sailors, they got no time for lighting their pipes, for the stern moralists of schooner days did not encourage smoking by the young, either man or beast.
The horseboy would hook on his team to the quill-fall and go ahead and quill up the forty-foot stick of dripping oak until it was level with the sill of the timber port in the vessel's stern; then he would switch over to the pennant and snake the big stick into the hold or along the deck, where the crew would finally bed it with canthook and crowbar. Man-killing work, horse-killing work, boy-killing work.
Some canallers saved their horses for heaving in timber, and chain cable, or hoisting canvas. When they locked in to the Welland Canal the horseboy would be sent ashore with them, and they would kick up their heels and snort contemptuous remarks at the canal horses, with their galled shoulders, waiting with drooping heads while the towline was being hooked to their whiffletrees.
There were big horse-barns at Port Dalhousie and Port Colborne, where the drogher nags boarded and fattened up between voyages. One team might be put ashore at Port Dalhousie, when the vessel was upward bound for Georgian Bay or Toledo or Sheboygan for timber, and another team that had been resting for a fortnight would come aboard at Port Colborne, to go up the lakes with her, load timber, and come back with the vessel. Between Dalhousie and Colborne the craft would be towed from lock to level and level to lock by the poor drudges whose life it was to be
"Pullin' dem boats from de dawn to sunset,
Gittin' no rest till de jedgment day."
But this was in "luxury ships," where captains cared for their crews and horses, and refused to have their noble Bucephaluses twisted out of shape dragging on the long cross-pulling towline, or where owners would spare the money for canal help. Many of the old droghers had to walk through from Ontario to Erie with their own horses, and it was the horseboy who had to hoof it along the bank behind them.
How he used to treasure the mishaps, and accidents and delays which "hung up" traffic for fifteen minutes or fifteen hours, while mates cursed and captains raved and lock-tenders sang psalms!
They always came to an end too soon. It would be, "Where's that horseboy? Go ahead, you blank-dashed-asterisked-exclamation point! What d'ye think them horses is overboard for? Trainin' for the Queen's Plate?" – and so the line would tauten and the schooner begin to creep, and her topped-up jibboom would go spearing around the bend.
There was no rest on lake or land for the horseboy. He was always at it, till two ugly looking customers came along and relieved him. These were the "iron sailor" and the panting tug.
The "iron sailor," black, round and bottle shaped, was just a steam hoisting engine with an upright boiler; otherwise a donkey engine. It was on into the '90's when he established himself abaft of the forecastle head, just forward of the fore-rigging, and he promptly kicked horses, horsebox and horseboy overboard, and sometimes one or two sailors as well. It was soon realized that the donkey engine was the best man in the ship, and crews were cut down accordingly.
The steam tug had already done much to lighten the labors of canalling and even before the iron sailor appeared the canal horse had ceased to exist save as a part of speech, connected with gall and nerve by the preposition "of." But, of course, by the time the tug and the donkey had settled down to business all the horseboys were either dead or presidents of steamship lines, given to reminiscing on what good times they had as boys on $12 a month.
"Them wuz the days."
(Caption) The Horse Boy on the Job.