Warehouse F

Scotty Cursed The Skipper

The Unseen Enemy
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Great Lakes Ghost Story

The following story probably isn't true. Yet it is a fine yarn that appeared in the New York Sun on Aug. 20, 1883, and was reprinted as fact in several newspapers in waterfront towns around the Great Lakes.

I say the story probably isn't true because there never was a schooner named the Erie Board of Trade, and during my years of research as a Great Lakes historian, I never found the name Jack Caster among the rosters of lake pilots. There is truth in this story, however. It's value lies in the intricate detail the story-teller uses to spin his yarn. For example, it is obvious that he personally knew the way sailors lived and worked on a Great Lakes sailing ship in 1883. He understood the tugs and pulls of the Niagara River on ships anchored off Black Rock, an old community long ago absorbed by the City of Buffalo. He knew the way schooners tacked against the westerly trade winds when sailing from Buffalo to Chicago. And he was familiar with the practice of hiring tugboats to pull a string of sailing boats against the currents of the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers while passing from Lake Erie to Lake Huron.

There was a schooner named the Chicago Board of Trade in those days, and I suspect our story teller either knew this boat very well, or may have worked her decks. And who knows that a red haired man named Scotty didn't die in an accidental fall from her mast?

The setting for this story was the waterfront at New York City. Several old "salties" were lounging in front of a ship chandler's store, telling ghost stories. One old man sitting on an anchor stock started his yarn:

"I saw a ghost once," he said. "I saw it as plain as I ever saw anything. The captain of the schooner I was on and the man in the waist both saw it too. There wasn't a drop of liquor on board. It happened up on the lakes, and I reckon you know the captain. It was the talk of the docks the whole season."

"I know a Capt. Jack Caster of Milan. He's the only fresh water captain I'm acquainted with," answered the ship's chandler.

"He's the man," the old sailor said. "I heard him speak of you once. It was a little over ten years ago. I was before the mast then. It was at the opening of the season and I was in Chicago. . ."

The story teller told how he arrived on a canal boat and got a chance for better pay aboard a three-mast schooner, the Erie Board of Trade. "The Board of Trade was as handsome a craft as ever floated on the lakes. She'd carry about 45,000 bushels of corn. Her model had as clean lines as a yacht. As I came down the dock with my bag under my arm I had to stop and have a look at her. The old man saw me at it. He was proud of her, and I thought afterward that he rather took a fancy to me because I couldn't help showing I liked her looks."

The sailor said he remained aboard the schooner for two trips to Buffalo and back to Chicago, hauling grain east and returning with coal. He said the pay was good. . . two dollars and fifty cents a day. . . and everybody was fed well. "But the old man made it hot for us. There wasn't any watch below in the daytime and we were kept busy painting her up on the down trip and scrubbing the paint off again on the passage up." For this reason, most of the crew quit the ship at Chicago after a single trip and new people had to be hired. "I'd seen worse times than what we'd had, and when I got my pay I asked the old man if he'd want any one to help with the lines when the schooner was moved from the coal yard to the elevator. He said he reckoned he could keep me by if I wanted to stay, so I signed articles for the next trip right there."

Among the new men signed aboard for the second trip was a redheaded Scotsman appropriately nicknamed Scotty. "The captain took a dislike to him from the first. It was a rough time for Scotty all the way down. We were in Buffalo just 12 hours, and then we cleared for Cleveland to take on soft coal for Milwaukee. The tug gave us a short pull outside the breakwater and we had no more than got the canvas on to the schooner before the wind died out completely. Nothing would do but we must drop anchor, for the current, setting to Niagara River, was carrying us down toward Black Rick at three knots an hour.

"When we got things shipshape about docks the old man called Scotty and two others aft and told them to scrape down the topmasts. Then he handed the boatswain's chairs to them." He said Scotty complained that the rope to his chair was worn. "The captain was mighty touchy because the tug had left him so, and he just jumped up and down and swore.

"Scotty climbed the main rigging pretty quick." But Scotty had no sooner rigged his chair to the supporting ropes and put his weight on it, and the chair broke away, plunging him to his death. "He fell all bunched up till he struck the cross-trees, and then he spread out like and fell flat on the deck, just forward of the cabin on the starboard side. I was kneeling beside him in a minute and so was the old man too. Scotty opened his eyes and looked at us. Then in a whisper, he cursed the captain, and his wife and children and the ship and her owners. It was awful. While he was still talking the blood bubbled over his lips and his head leaned over to one side. He was dead.

"It was three days before the schooner got to Cleveland. Some of the boys were for leaving her there, but most of us stayed by, because wages were down again. Going through the (Detroit and St. Clair) rivers there were four other schooners in the tow. We were next to the tug. Just at the big bend below Port Huron a squall struck us. It was too much for the tug, and some lubber cast off the towline without singing out first. We dropped our bower as quick as we could, but it was not before we'd drifted astern, carrying away the headgear of the schooner next to us and smashing in our own (life) boat. We were a skeary (sic) lot going up Lake Huron and no boat under the stern.

"There was a fair easterly wind on the lake and we got out of the river in the morning. We were standing across Saginaw Bay during the first watch that night. I had the second trick at the wheel. The stars were shining bright and clear, and not a cloud was in sight. In the northwest a low dark streak showed where the land was. Every stitch of canvas was set and drawing, though the booms sagged and creaked as the vessel rolled lazily in the varying breeze.

"I had just sung out to the mate to strike eight bells when the captain climbed up the companionway and out on deck. He stepped over to the starboard rail and had a look around, and then the lookout began striking the bell. The last stroke of the bell seemed to die away with a swish. A bit of spray or something struck me in the face. I wiped it away, and then I saw something rise up slowly across the mainsail from the starboard side of the deck forward of the cabin. It was white and all bunched up. I glanced at the captain and saw he was staring at it too.

"When it reached the gaff, near the throat halyards, it hovered over it an instant, and then struck the crosstrees. There it spread out and rolled over toward us. It was Scotty. His lips were working just as they were when he cursed the captain. As he straightened out he seemed to stretch himself until he grasped the maintopmast with one hand and the m'zzen with the other. Both (masts) were carried away like pipe-stems. The next I knew the ship was all in the wind. The squaresail yard was hanging in two pieces, the tophammer was swinging, and the booms were jibing over.

"The old man fell in a dead faint on the quarter-deck, and the man in the waist dived down the forecastle so fast that he knocked over the last man of the other watch. If it hadn't been for the watch coming on deck just then, she'd rolled the sticks out of her altogether.

"They got the head sails over, and I put the wheel up. In a minute it seemed we were laying our course again. The second mate was just beginning to curse me for going to sleep at the wheel, when the mate came along and glanced at the binnacle. He said the ship had laid a course on the other tack."

The story teller said he left the ship as soon as it reached Chicago, which was a good thing to have done. He said the Erie Board of Trade sank on its next trip.