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Songs of Great Lakes Ships and Shipping

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A harbor with small two-masted ships at the dock and a steam boat in the lake in the background. A man can just be seen working behind the nearest vessel.
The Harbor, Mackinac Island, Michigan, ca. 1906. The schooner on the left is the Sofie Fourniea, built in 1897. The one in the foreground is the Silver Chief, built in 1898. These are examples of the two-masted schooners that were the most common working vessels on the Great Lakes in the 19th century. The steam-powered paddle touring ship Chippewa can be seen in the background. Detroit Publishing Company collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //

In 1938 Alan Lomax embarked on his first solo recording trip, available on the Library of Congress website as Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings. Among these recordings are songs of the local history of ships and shipping on the Great Lakes. One of my mother’s brothers and his family lived on the Upper Peninsula and I remember a trip up there when I was a child and the experience left a strong impression. To stand on the shore of Lake Superior is in no way like standing on the shore of a lake. The Great Lakes are inland freshwater seas, with waves, tides, and a capacity for  extremely dangerous conditions in bad weather. So I am intrigued by the songs of people who lived and worked on these North American seas in the 19th and early 20th century, preserved on early sound recordings.

Lomax was able to collect several songs from Beaver Island, Michigan, in the north end of Lake Michigan and about 38 miles from the Straits of Mackinac. One of these songs, “The Gallagher Boys,” tells of a small fishing boat that attempted to make it home to Beaver Island from Traverse City in a storm in 1873. The ship went down with all three crewmen. Lomax talked with two singers of a part of this song, also named Gallagher, about its history. Dominic Gallagher learned the song as a boy. Although one of the men on the boat is also named Dominick or Dominic Gallagher, it is not  clear how they are related, but it seems that they may be. There are many Gallagher families on Beaver Island, so he may not have been closely related to them.  Then another speaker, probably Andrew Gallagher, explains that his Uncle Roddy stopped Dominick Gallagher from going home on the boat. He wanted to go home as his wife was ill. But Roddy first tried to persuade him that the weather made it too dangerous, then physically restrained him from getting on the boat, saving his life. Listen to the song and the discussion on this recording. [updated 2019]

Another version of this song, sung by John Green, also of Beaver Island, is also available in this collection.

Small sailing vessels like the fishing boat in this ballad were best suited for the Great Lakes in the 18th and 19th centuries, although they were vulnerable in high seas. Two-masted schooners, smaller boats, and ships built with a low draft could get in and out of ports, through rivers, and sail over shoals where larger ships could not. The passage between the shallowest lake, Erie, and Lake Huron was dangerous even for small vessels and was not passable for large ships at all until dredging began in the 1860s, and dredging continues to be needed to keep the way open today.

A song about the John Bigler, a schooner built in 1866, comes from the period when canals made it possible for some ships use canals to go from Lake Erie to Lake Michigan. It tells the story of the ship sailing from Milwawkee, Wisconsin, to Buffalo, New York, as a remarkable journey, as it would have been when this was newly possible. The ballad has many variations and has been collected many times. It seems to be related to various British songs found on 19th century song sheets (broadsides) such as the “Grimsby Fisherman” available at the link from the Bodleian’s Broadsides Ballads Online. Listen to “The Bigler,” which begins one minute into this recording:

The Bigler was not a fast ship, a beautiful ship, or one that stood out historically. It was a “lumber drogher,” an ordinary working schooner, built with a rectangular deck to haul lumber and other cargo. What makes the song about this ship delightful is that it tells of an ordinary working ship and its crew, trying to make a living on the lakes, and tells their story with a bit of humor. The last verses that tell of the ship getting stuck in the mud while being towed through the canals is likely a true story. The ship made the local papers in one instance when it was stuck in the canal for two days waiting to be towed off. Some versions have verses making fun of the ship for being slow, though this version, sung by Asel Trueblood, tells the story in a straightforward manner. Trueblood says that he learned it as a sailor “a good 50 years ago,” and that he saw the Bigler many times and once “walked her deck.” The Bigler sank with a load of stone in September 10, 1884, 54 years before this recording was made so Trueblood would have been a young man when he last saw the ship.

A sailing ship.
This example of a three-masted Great Lakes schooner is the Hattie Hutt, built in Saugatuck, Michigan in 1873.

As the northern Midwest was settled and railroads built to major ports, commerce on the lakes brought resources to other parts of the country. Sailing ships carried goods and raw materials such as grain, lumber, and ore to  growing cities on the lakes.  The ballad, “Persian’s Crew,” remembered by John Green, has been said to be about different shipwrecks that do not match the story of the ballad. There have been several Great Lakes ships named the Persian or Persia, with one of the ships called the Persia commonly named as the source of the ballad. But if we stick to the information in the ballad, that the Persian sank with all hands in lake Huron, then it is likely that it was the schooner Persian. She was carrying a load of wheat and was near Presque Isle when the schooner E. B. Allen attempted to pass and collided with her on September 16, 1868 (described in Chicago tribune. (Chicago, Ill.), 03 Oct. 1868, image 3. See column 6, Marine News. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress). The E. B. Allen went on, as its captain believed that the Persian would make it to shore. All ten crewmen went down with the ship. This incident caused controversy at the time because the weather was clear and the Persian had the right of way. The popular feeling that this incident was a needless loss of ten lives likely helped to motivate the creation of the ballad. Ironically the E. B. Allen sank in Lake Huron in a collision with the schooner Newsboy in fog in 1871, but the Newsboy stayed by the damaged ship and was able to rescue the crew.

As I looked through newspapers and articles mentioning the ballad I came to see the 1868 event as the inspiration for the ballad. I found a reference to an article by folklorist Norm Cohen in the New York Folklore Quarterly (vol 25, December 1969, pp. 289-296). I was pleased to find someone who had reached the same conclusion I had about the historical ship named in the ballad. He also found a book of verse that could be the source of the lyrics. Patrick Fennell self-published a book of his verses in 1886 (Recitations, Epics, Epistles, Lyrics and Poems, Humorous and Pathetic) that included “Loss of the Schooner Persian on Lake Huron” (on page 145, available online from New York Public Library at the link). At first glance this may seem to be a different lyric, but the ballad s sung by John Green has some of the same lines and the subject of each verse is the same, though in a slightly different order. There is only one verse that is found in the lyric by Fennell that Green does not sing. I see two possibilities, one, as Cohen suggests, is that the ballad in wide circulation is based on Fennell’s publication. But Fennell wrote his lyrics about ten years after the event, as Cohen estimates. A popular ballad may have existed before that and became the basis of Fennell’s version. This kind of thing has happened before, but this is hard to prove unless a dated earlier version turns up. What I hear in Green’s version is a song that is in the vernacular of seamen of the time, while Fennell uses the language of sentimental poetry popular in his day.  So either Fennell rewrote  a folk version,  or the folk edited Fennell’s version to their liking.  See what you think:

“Red Iron Ore” is another ballad from the days of sail, recounting the voyage of a ship picking up iron ore from Escanaba and carrying it to the steel mills. At the end of this recording Asel Trueblood explains to Alan Lomax that the song “Red Iron Ore” was used as a drinking song among the sailors in his day. The song does not mince words about the difficulty of the work the crew faced, “But we looked like red devils, our fingers all sore. We cursed Escanaba and their damned iron ore.” There are a number of versions of this song that name different ships, and it is easy to imagine verses being added or modified with the names of ships of interest at the time it was sung. The ship the sailors are on in the song is usually named as the E. C. Roberts, a ship that hauled various types of heavy cargo, such as coal, grain, and iron ore, but the name of the ship is not in the version Truebood sings.

For Trueblood another ship mentioned in many of the versions of the song, the Minch, is important in some way, though it is not clear how. After he sings he tells Alan Lomax, “The name of that boat is what counts, get a record of it. The Minch.”  There were several ships named for various members of the Minch ship building family. In the days of sail, two possibilities are the Charles P. Minch and the Sophia Minch, as both hauled iron ore among other types of cargo. The Sophia Minch might be especially remembered by sailors of Trueblood’s generation. She was hauling a load of iron ore when she was caught in a gale during the night of October 31 and November 1, 1883, and was in danger of drifting into the rocks. Two tugs came to the rescue but were not able to keep her from drifting, so at 4 AM the boat was scuttled in a desperate attempt to save her from certain destruction on the rocks. Saving the crew during the storm was one of the most remarkable rescues of its day. (See these news clippings about these events in the Maritime History of the Great Lakes database.) The Sophia Minch was raised in 1899 after several previous attempts failed. She was repaired and sailed again for about 20 years afterwards. Trueblood was born in about 1862 or 1863, so these events occurred during his lifetime. Since “the name of that boat” was so important to Trueblood, my guess is that the story of the Sophia Minch might be what he was thinking of — certainly it is one of the great historic tales of the Great Lakes.

A ship with an enclosed hull and a cabin above the hull. Some men stand on the roof of the cabin.
An example of a whaleback ship. Built with a hull that slopes over the top of the ship and plates on the deck that enclose the cargo, these ships were used to haul heavy cargo such as ore, stone, and coal. They were powered by steam or towed as barges. No photographer named, 1899. Detroit Publishing Company collection, Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress. //

“The Clifton’s Crew” tells a story from the age of the steam ships.  The danger of hauling ore, stone, and heavier cargoes, whether in the days of sail, steam, or modern ships is that the weight of the cargo can endanger the ship. The SS Clifton was a whaleback freighter (pictured left) whose captain was Emmett Gallagher. It went missing while hauling stone from Sturgeon Bay to Detroit on the night of September 21-22, 1924. The ship simply disappeared in a gale overnight on Lake Huron. For some time there was no trace of the ship or a clue about what happened to her. Families of the crew hoped that the ship had made for an isolated port to wait out the storm. She was declared lost when bits of wreckage were found on September 26. A ship clock was found stopped at 4 AM. The wreck was not discovered until 2016.  It seems likely the  ship was simply overloaded and so it may not have taken a large wave to sink her.

For local people the lost ship was haunting. The captain and two other members of the crew were from Beaver Island, so this community was especially hard hit. The song “The Clifton’s Crew” originated in this community.  Here is the ballad as it was sung for Alan Lomax by Patrick Bonner:

The advent of gas powered ships and gas tankers brought new dangers to the lakes. Gasoline tanker ships were a relatively new way to move fuel in the 1930s, so safety standards were still developing. In November 1936 the tanker J. Oswald Boyd became stranded on Simmons Reef as she approached the Straits of Mackinac in Lake Michigan. Fortunately the crew was rescued but there was some urgency in rescuing the ship before winter set in as both ship and gasoline could be lost. But attempts to free the ship failed. So the prospect of gasoline to salvage brought the Marold II to the stranded ship. On New Year’s Day, 1937, the crew of the Marold II salvaged gasoline from the J. Oswald Boyd by removing it into barrels and taking these aboard their ship. No one knows what happened next. There may have been accidental spark from metal striking metal, or perhaps simply restarting the ship’s engine caused gas fumes to ignite. The Marold II exploded and all five members of its crew died in the blast. Attempts to reach the burning ships cost another man his life. This was a fresh tragedy in the minds of the singers who performed the song “The Wreck of the Marold” for Alan Lomax at the beginning of this recording (note that the singer says “in the year ’36,” but it should be ’37). Edward McCauley says that he and a group of his friends came up with the lyrics.

These stories and the songs that relate them, sung by people who themselves worked on the lakes and, in some cases experienced the event first hand, bring history to life for me. The lives of the people who worked on the lakes, their pleasures, hardships, and, in some cases, tragedies, are illuminated by the songs in a way that history books rarely accomplish.  Listening to these singers, I feel I am in history, experiencing it through the singer’s memories. I hope these songs bring history to life for you as well.

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