LORAIN’S PORT – now and then- Renee Dore

July 17, 2008 at 10:25 pm 9 comments

Visit Lorain Port Authority for more information http://www.lorainportauthority.com/calendar/portfest.shtml

Lorain Port Authority

It is Port Fest time once again in Lorain! This weekend, crowds of visitors to the city’s Port at the mouth of the Black River (on the south shore of Lake Erie) will be sampling summertime foods from vendors. They will be listening to music, riding a two-masted schooner sailing ship, touring the Lighthouse and perhaps taking a ride down the Black River.

There will be an added attraction overlooking the festivities this year. It is a carved wooden replica of a ship captain “keeping watch” over the crowd near the Black River Landing Train Station. With his beard appearing to be blowing in the stiff lake wind and his eyes keenly squinted as he steers his ship with hands firmly grasping the wheel, he is a reminder of some of the many honorable and brave ship captains who once sailed from this important Lake port.
photo Henery Hawk

Although their lives were lived long ago in a bygone era of Lorain’s history, the importance of their endeavors should never be forgotten.
early  ship building
A man who lived during that important time here in Lorain was William Wickens .We are all fortunate today for his insight in writing a descriptive book capturing what life was like during the 1800’s here. He must have been so proud of being a part of the transformations the city was undergoing that he wanted to preserve it on paper for generations to come.

He had a way of presenting his information that reading it today makes the reader seem like they are back in that time actually walking the streets and meeting the people whose stories he brings to life. One section of his book does just that- introduces the reader to some of the residents as it is written on pg. 105:

“Let us look in on the Lorain of 1893 and see some of the prominent men of other days as they walked the streets of the Village. There they are: lake captains, small merchants, a doctor or two. Some are living today, but most have passed on.”

The Lake Captains:
It’s a perfect time to spotlight some of these men and bring them out of the pages of this book and share what was so thoughtfully written about them. Also mentioned are the men who were involved with other port activities such as shipbuilding. There are many and each of their life stories could make for separate articles, but this article will mention a few-some with names familiar in Lorain’s history. Most lived in Charleston Village very near the harbor. They chose this area for convenience to the port, their ships and the harbor. Many homes are still here today.

Captain Henry Wallace: as written by Mr. Wickens

-“There is probably no more respected shipmaster on the lakes in”93 than Capt. Wallace. No honorary title: – he is a worthy master of his ship.” Captain Wallace immigrated to America in 1850 from the Emerald Isle arriving in Black River at the age of 22. He began working in the shipyards on the Black River. He sailed the lake for 28 consecutive years as captain and had the reputation for excellence and care in handling his vessels. He joined with Thomas Gawn and built the schoonerThomas Gawn in 1872 that served the lakes for 54 years. As he gathered wealth he became part owner in steel and steamer ships: “Robert Wallace”, sailing vessel “David Wallace named after his brother who farmed land just west of Lorain (at that time). He was mentioned as one of the best known mariners of the town.

Captain Wilford
Capt. Thomas Wilford: He was written to be a prominent member the maritime circle on “93 in Lorain. He had been sailing the lakes (inland seas) for 34 years at that point. He was an immigrant coming from Northamptonshire, England in 1841. His family moved to Amherst, but he became fascinated by the boats at the Black River. He began to sail and worked his way to captain. He married Fannie Gilmore: Fannie Gilmorethe daughter of Capt. Alanson Gilmore. In 1884 he was sailing the “John M Osborne” on Lake Superior with his wife and their 2 daughters, hauling ore and pulling to other ships one being the Thomas Gawn just mentioned above. The steamer “Alberta” collided with the Osborne in a fog. Captain Wilford commanded the Alberta to keep forward and not back up. It gave Captain Wilford precious minutes to gather his family and crew before the Osborne sank taking a few crew members with her. His family returned safely to Lorain within a week. The Captain continued to sail but eventually became part owner of larger ships.

Mr. Wickens referred to Capt. Wilford “as one of the prominent men of the town and worthy seaman”. His home is still located just south of the original Masonic Temple building on Washington Ave.wilford home

Capt. Alexander McPhail: he was born in Scotland in 1831 at Greenock. He began his life as a sailor at the age 14 following the path of his father who was also a sailor. Mr. Wickens write that Alex served on vessels for 7 years sailing from Liverpool, England and Glasgow to the West and East Indies. It said that his young career took him around the world “as a man before the mast. He was a real sailor of the briny deep”. After his ship docked in Montreal in 1851, he turned his desire to the commerce of the Great Lakes and preferred freshwater sailing. He came to the Black River in Charleston Village in 1852 and from then on it was his home.

Mr. Wickens writes that he was a Captain and had sailed from Buffalo to Chicago on his own vessel, eventually sailing the entire chain of the Great Lakes. 1893 found Capt. McPhail a widower of 2 years and being a well known man in the community.

Capt. Robert Cowley: per Mr. Wickens

:” Capt. Robert Cowley was another maritime personage whose name was a synonym of good seamanship”.
Capt. Cowley’s parents came from the Isle of Man to Cleveland in 1828 and he was born in 1839. His father was a shipbuilder and Robert also learned the trade. He learned to sail and did that primarily in the summer months.
He came to Charleston Village in 1861 having lived in St. Louis and New Orleans for a few years. In 1864 he enlisted in the Navy during the Civil War. He was involved in the blockade of the West Gulf with Admiral Farragut. Cowley was on a gunboat that was torpedoed during the attempt to capture Mobile, Alabama. Cowley escaped death while half of the crew had been killed.

Upon his return to the Village here he sailed the lakes in the summer and helped build ships in the winter. He married Celia Lyons, daughter of W.S. Lyons, the shipbuilder of Charleston Village.

In 1899 Capt. Cowley was sailing from Buffalo to Duluth in horrible weather conditions according to a report in the “The Times”. Capt. Cowley stood atop the Pilot House for 35 hours before reaching Duluth going without rest and little food. The Capt. And crew had experienced stormy weather for the entire trip with temps reading 8-10 degrees below zero with snow falling the entire time. The boat was completely covered in ice and Capt. Cowley’s coat and cap had to be broken with an iron bar to release him. He never made another trip in those conditions again. He was age near 60 years old when he made that journey.

He then retired from sailing and became a city inspector in Lorain and was a member of the county board of visitors. His son was an accomplished physician in Kentucky. He also made his home in Charleston Village/ Lorain.

Capt. Alex Porter: He was the son of Nathaniel Porter and was born in Charleston Village in 1843. He was one of 8 children- the Porter family being well known in this community. He first sailed when he was 14. In 1859 at the age of 16 he was a seaman on the barge “Pierson” and sailed from Cleveland to Liverpool, England. And back via the Welland Canal.

ED NOTE ( in coming days I will be re running the Porter History as written by Maureen Smith)
Porter House 503 Washington

How exciting and daring that must have been on a small ship at that age. By 1893 he had been a lake captain for 25 years and had sailed all of the great Lakes carrying wheat, ore, coal and timber for cargo. He and his 2 brothers owned and sailed a popular ship on the Great Lakes called “The Three Brothers”. The ship had been built by H. D. Root in Black River.

These are just a few of the men who risked their lives sailing on the Great Lakes from the small community along the Black River. Mr. Wickens writes” It is such characters as these that we have been describing who made Lorain such a famous harbor town”.

Other captains: Richard Thew who became the creator of the famous Thew Shovel and Plant.

Capt. Quartus Gillmore-son of the early settler Gillmore
Capt. Alanson Gilmore- came to Black River in 1812
Alanson Gilmore

Capt. Edmund Gillmore– brother of Quartus

H.D. Root—sailed the lakes for lake for 13 along with his brother Samuel, then began building ships in Lorain

Capt. James Connolly– began sailing early then became Lorain’s the keeper of the Lighthouse in 1871.
Lorain Lighthouse 1836 Lorain Lighhouse 1875

Capt. William Jones– sailor and prominent shipbuilder in Black River

Enjoy the festival and remember those who did so much to shape Lorain’s harbor and make it a place of industrial and commercial distinction on the Great Lakes.
Lorain Harbor 1894 Lorain Harbor 1894

steel 1927 Steel Docks 1927

Renee Dore, Portside
Charleston Village / Co Chair CVSI

Entry filed under: city of lorain, history.

Eagles and Trains- Link- ups please DAY-GONE- IT!!!!!

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. denise caruloff  |  July 19, 2008 at 5:11 pm


  • 2. renee dore  |  July 19, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    And that is just a fraction of the stories about these men, their ships, their wrecks, their families, and their businesses they started here. It’s enough to make up a small museum here so people could come and learn about Lorain’s nautical past. Renee

  • 3. Loraine Ritchey  |  July 19, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Renee even formatting the story I found links to names and websites that told more about this town…..amazing that it seems people outside know more about Lorain’s maritime history and give it more respect than we who live here…Loraine

  • 4. renee dore  |  July 19, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Loraine, thank you for adding the photos and links- lots to read! Renee

  • 5. denise caruloff  |  July 19, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    It is nice to see people taking the time to share…that is alot of info. I am not one for long stories, but i do appreciate the time that went into this story.

  • 6. DAY-GONE- IT!!!!! « That Woman’s Weblog  |  July 20, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    […] days behind you than in front of you – one day is nothing to waste. I had planned to go down to the Port Fest, relax on the hammock and finally finish a book, deal with more travel items and take the Appledore […]

  • […] Porters” for Charleston Village Society Inc. Renee Dore’s excellent article on the Captains of the Port reminded me that we had more information. It was of course rumoured by at least the Lea and Perrins […]

  • 8. sharon rado lalak  |  July 23, 2008 at 5:01 am

    Thanks for all of the wonderful information on Lorain, Ohio, where I was born. I believe my grandfathers help build the U.S. Steel.

  • […] July 13, 2010 ED: NOTE Just a reminder to check out Renee Dore’s article on Lorain’s Port Then and Now- somethings have changed – the Capt is now at Settlers’ Watch but a worthwhile read about this old Port of Lorain https://thatwoman.wordpress.com/2008/07/17/lorains-port-now-and-then-renee-dore/ […]

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