An Act of Charity At Fair Haven

An excerpt from Ariadne’s Death order the book  from on line gifts at


In the 1890s the port of North Fair Haven on Little Sodus Bay was still an important terminal for the coal trade and shipped anthracite to various Canadian ports. Steamers and schooners alike sailed in to load at its railroad trestle located on the bay’s northeast corner. One of the ships that occasionally visited Fair Haven then was the three masted canaller Sir. C.T. Straubenzee, under the command of John Williams. This story of seamanship comes from a collection of C.H. J. Snider columns gathered and edited by Robert Townsend to tell the captain’s biography. (Captain John Williams; Master Mariner, Odyssey Publishing ISBN 0-9683798-5-0).


Williams was truly a master mariner. He first went to sea at age nine aboard a tiny ketch owned by his father. He retired in 1927 from the bridge of the 12,000 ton freighter J.H.G. Hagarty. The first vessel he sailed on, the Brig Rover, was perhaps named with tongue well in cheek. Snider says her name was the vessel’s most impressive feature, for she was shaped like a shoebox and the only square sail she ever flew was a bit of canvas laced to two poles and set from her deck. She was fifty feet long and could carry twenty cords of firewood or forty tons of stone.


Williams went on to command and become part or full owner of several lake schooners before making the difficult transition to the command of a bulk freighter in the early 1900’s. This career move might be somewhat akin to an early bird pilot of biplanes adapting to jet engines. Not many schooner men did it. But those who knew Williams personally said he had the combination of caution, smarts, and courage that a good seaman needs to survive. The best sailors take chances when need arises, even as they make some of their luck with good leadership and shipkeeping.


On this day, Captain Williams was alongside the trestle with a full load of coal bound for Toronto. His schooner, an old timber drogher built about thirty years before, could carry about 750 tons. But she was waiting out a brisk northwest wind. The little harbor tug came alongside to see if the captain wanted a tow out onto the lake. The tug captain, unlike Charlie Ferris or James Pappa of Oswego, was an employee of a large company.  His boat was owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad and was used to shift vessels around the trestle or tow them in and out of the bay. He may not have had quite the same attitude as the Oswego tug men had towards the level of risk he was expected to take on the job. Williams (who was waiting for a fair wind to save the fee of a tow) declined his offer telling the skipper he’d wait to see if conditions might become more favorable for sailing.


As the two captains talked, a small two master was fast approaching. She was yawing about in the heavy seas and wind, perhaps a bit over canvassed and as she entered the steeper confused seas near the entrance she took a sudden sheer to port and missed the lee pier. Caught in the shallows behind the jetty she quickly drifted onto the sand and gravel and began bumping on the hard bottom.


She signaled for aid, but the tug skipper told Williams “I’m not going out-he owes me from three other tows and besides it’s blowing too hard. Let him sit until it goes into the west. Then he can kedge himself off or I might give him a tow.”


“But,” objected the Straubenzee’s skipper,” he might be in pieces by then.” 


“Well pull him off yourself if you feel so strong about it”, answered the tug captain.


“You’ll lend me your tug?”


“Not on your life!”


“Very well,” said Captain Williams  “I think I will try to pull him off myself.”


And with that he sang out to his crew to prepare to cast off, leaving the tug man to stare wide eyed in amazement.


The old canaller had a steam powered hoisting winch for heaving anchors, raising sail, or for other heavy jobs. Her crew used this to start the ship moving with a spring line and then after she coasted out into the bay, they dropped an anchor and hove her up close to it. They then raised the three lower sails, ran the kedge out to windward again with their yawl boat, and pulled her out further. With head sails and the raffee aback they pulled her head around to starboard and out she went, close hauled and deep loaded with coal through the long narrow north south channel formed by the piers.


There was no room to tack in that channel. She had to make it in one shot, but this she did, gathering speed and holding up with no leeway. Once out in the windswept lake, the real fun began. Williams ran his vessel well offshore and to windward of the stranded schooner. He then dropped two anchors well apart and ran out the chain until he was considerably closer to the beached vessel. Then he dropped all sail and sent a couple of crewmen in the yawl boat over to the stranded ship with a lightweight messenger line. The little ship quickly sent over her best hawser on the messenger and soon the line, nearly a quarter of a mile of it, was stretched taut between the two ships.


Williams took a strain on the line with his steam-powered capstan, watching bearings ashore and using a lead line dropped over the side, to see if his ship was dragging. Then he slowly began pulling his own vessel forward towards her anchors even as the smaller schooner also applied tension with her own windlass. Now the little ship on the beach would either come apart or come off-if the hawser held.


It did. Inch by inch the little schooner’s bow came around and then she was dragged over gravel and sand into deeper water. As the slack came on, the line was shortened and soon the two-master was hove up close under the Straubenzee’s stern. Thanks to the quick action of her rescuer, she wasn’t even leaking too much a quick check of the pump wells showed. Some of William’s crew helped her get enough sail on to get her into the harbor. Within a few minutes, she had roared down the channel and was gliding into the trestle, without the aid of a tug.


Captain Williams hoisted his own sails and hove up his ground tackle and set off for a long beat up the lake. And, he told Snider years later, the wind switched around to the south and gave him a grand run to Toronto. Perhaps Aeolus, god of the lake breezes, approved of this gutsy and well executed rescue of one schooner by another