At the moment I’m finishing an article on the 1909 Great Lakes sailors strike and got to thinking about a number of issues related to the roles of captains and owners in the authority of the vessels they sailed. One notable individual is James Owen of the Henry B. Smith that sank in November 1913 on Lake Superior during the deadliest storm on the lakes. Owen took the Smith out of Marquette harbor while the storm was going on, and apparently without having the ship fully prepared to face the conditions then on Lake Superior. The decision to leave would prove tragic as the Smith never arrived in the Soo or any other port for that matter, instead coming to its final rest on the bottom of Lake Superior where it was discovered in 2013.
Having read about shipwrecks since I was a small boy, the Smith’s loss and the captain’s decision to sail figured heavily in my mind. Nearly every book that touches on the story notes that Owen had been her captain since launching and that her sailing had questions surrounding it. These run from Owen being drunk, to a mysterious threatening telegram from the owners, or that he simply was overconfident and made a terrible choice. These books also focus heavily on technology, the design of the ship, and what were the actual conditions at sea. These topics match with the literature as a whole with a focus on the technical piece of Great Lakes bulk transport. The human side of the business is largely unexplored, particularly for the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Teaching research to undergraduates is a challenge, particularly when it seems like so much history is treated as a given” fact”. How to find information, especially when having to really dig to track stories, is an alien concept even with the world of knowledge at their fingertips. I read an interesting article that addressed how so many authors often uncritically accept information that may seem correct, or be unchallenged. That can come from a host of reasons, and it while suspicion is warranted, it should not make one a ranting paranoiac. It also touches on the issue of confirmation bias, the acceptance of a “well-known” author, or even a simple choice not to check into the topic and ask some questions. It also matters to the Smith and James Owen.
While reading the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I came across the launching of the Henry B. Smith in 1906. Her captain, for her maiden voyage a month later, was listed as C.C. Balfour, not Owen. Odd. I checked both the Great Lakes Red Book that lists captains, and then searched more newspapers through the NewsBank database. While Owen commanded the Edwin Holmes and brought out the new Salt Lake City in 1907, he apparently did not command the Smith until 1912. Interestingly, while the Smith was a fine command, it was not the Hawgood’s newest or finest ship. It is also worth noting, that in many fleets, captains did not automatically get the vessel they commanded the year before and were moved around, something the Hawgoods did as well.
Owen, during 1913, had also suffered a series of delays in sailing, something that appeared in the “Marine News” section of many newspapers, particularly the Plain Dealer and the Duluth News-Tribune. The reasons for possible pressure on Owen are often treated as if there are “mustache-twirling” owners or sensational stories by anti-company newspapers. But there is more beneath this simple set of explanations.
In 1903-1904 two separate strikes were conducted by the Masters and Pilots Association against the Lake Carriers’ Association (the main vessel owner trade association). The captains and mates within the M&P union not only struck over wages, but also over vessel operation policy, decisions about crews, and about summary dismissals for various infractions. The LCA fought the M&P with Harry Coulby, the head of U.S. Steel’s Pittsburgh Steamship Company and head of the LCA, stating the group’s principle objection: that captains as agents of the owner, must represent their interests, and not answer to some other organization. By June 1904, the M&P lost and eventually disbanded. In the aftermath a growing number of companies imposed age limits for captains, generally around 40, and the International Shipmasters Association (a fraternal group – not a union) pushed to have limit upped to 50-60. Owen by 1913 was (according to the 1910 Census) around 60, or if born later was still within the discretionary range.
When looking at tonnage contracts signed by vessel owners, notably the Wilson Transit Company, the contracts have both amounts and also penalties for not meeting that commitment without extenuating circumstances (such as lack of demand, negotiated release). These penalties could be quite stiff, and as vessel owners operated on a tight set of margins, any loss was a major issue. Further, some of the discussions of the decision to sail speak of “risking an expensive boat” and while true, it also ignores the startling number of collisions and sometimes questionable decisions made to maintain schedules. It runs along the lines of “use your best judgment, but….” The defeat of a professional group for captains, similar to those for engineers and physicians, meant that Coulby’s belief was essentially the operating philosophy.
While the public pronouncements of the LCA are certainly reasonable, the operation of their policies reveals something very different. For those interested in how the “Welfare Plan” operated, please see my 2011 article in The International Journal of Maritime History. It covers the October 1916 sinkings of the James B. Colgate and the Merida on Lake Erie. What is said in public and what is said in private are very different things.
Very little of this is addressed in a formal sense. The sources are heavily scattered and piecemeal, requiring vast amounts of time and effort to uncover them. They lie in collections untapped, sites not visited, or questions not asked. There is far more to the bulk freight system than technical issues. While cargo could be unloaded more efficiently, some carriers were unloaded sooner than others either by getting there sooner, or because of a specific set of arrangements. Any delay by captains could upset a very structured timeline, particularly as the precision dance of timetables became stronger in the years following the 1909 strike. This system of vessel reporting, unloading, contracted cargoes, loss of power by captains, and the intangibles of a sophisticated transport network.
Does this exonerate Owen or cast blame on the Hawgoods or the LCA? No, it does make the point that there is a great deal more to examine regarding a system that we think all aspects have been examined. It also means that in our research we need to push beyond the comfortable frame of reference or oft used sources to consider where it might take us.