Friday, September 12, 2008

Chaumont Was Once Noted for Shipbuilding

By Richard Palmer
A few rods west of the south end of the "long bridge" which spans the lower bay at Chaumont, there is a rocky point, shaded by locust trees which have gained footholds in the crevices, as have woodbine, sumac and other vines and shrubs, forming a tangles mass which covers much of the ground.
To a casual observer, there is little or nothing to indicate that the place was ever much different, but a little exploring will reveal relics of an industry that employed many men and converted the point into one of the most bustling spots in the North Country.
Long after the last vestiges had disappeared, old timers in Chaumont could vividly recalled the point is still known as the "shipyard," though no ship has been constructed there for more than 100 years. All of the men who wielded adze or broadaxe or mall shaping and assembling ship timbers have long since passed on.
Shipbuilding at Chaumont dates back to to the early days of the 19th century as it does at almost all other Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River ports. In the era when cisco fishing provided a livelihood for the majority of families in the village, the waters were white with the sails of fishing sloops, most of them built by the men who sailed them.
Then, in almost every barn each winter, the carriage floor: was converted into a workshop where a sloop or skiff or punt or "sharpie" was in process of construction. As limestone quarries were opened and developed and lime kilns erected, demand for boats to deliver their products to other lake ports was created.
By that time square riggers had pretty well passed out of the lake picture, but a long line of scows, lighters, sloops and two and three-masted schooners, and in later years, steam barges and tugs, were built in Chaumont Bay and for many years a dozen or more craft of these types carried the name of the village on their sterns.
Of all the men who built ships at Chaumont down through the years, the most widely known was the late Capt. Frank Phelps, who for a long period operated this shipyard previously referred to.
Although Captain Phelps had very little formal schooling - he didn't learn to read or write until taught by his wife - he was a mechanical genius if there ever was on. A blueprint meant nothing in his life, but he could build a "model" and from it lay out and construct a staunch seaworthy craft capable of riding out the worst of the severe storms which frequently sweep over Lake Ontario.
He became a bread winner at an early age and for many years fished in Chaumont Bay or followed the lakes as a sailor before the mast, where he gained the reputation of being one of the most skillful pilots and mariners on the entire Great Lakes chain.
He was a sturdy, well built man of medium height, and possessed great strength. Sober and industrious, he never looked for trouble, but when it was forced upon him, he usually was able to take care of himself.
In his younger days, an upper lakes sailor's life was a strenuous one and his calling had no place for weaklings. One day in Buffalo, he and two other members of the crew, visited a "tough" waterfront saloon while on shore leave. They had been paid off that day.
A crowd of waterfront hangers-on apparently knew this for they ganged upon the trio in a back room of the saloon. Phelps picked up a chair and began moving a swath toward the sidewalk, calling upon his mates to follow. Men went down like pins hit by a bowling ball. Then he emerged through the front door, all that remained of the chair were a leg and a rung, but the sailors were unharmed and their money was intact.
He retained his great strength well past middle age. His shipyard was a boyhood haunt for many. On more than one occasion, two men could be seen struggling unsuccessfully to lift a long end to sawhorse of buttress for shaping,when Captain Phelps would "happen along," motion them to one side, stoop, pick up the timber and place it in the desired without a word having been spoken.
Captain Phelps' early ambition was to own a schooner of his own and the first craft to slide from the ways in his shipyard was the "Emma,"a small three-master, which he named for a favorite sister. He later built for himself the "John S. Parsons," which he subsequently cut in two, connected the two parts with a 20-foot midsection, and converted it into a steam barge. he built and operated two steam tugs, the "Gouverneur Phelps," named for his father, and the "Frank D. Phelps,: and constructed a large number of craft for other persons.
His mechanical skill was not limited to ship design or carpentry. It extended to virtually ever other marine field. Never being burdened with too much money, he was forced to practice economy. Marine engine are rather expensive. So, for his steamboats, Captain Phelps usually "picked up" two or three old engines, tore them apart, and from the usable material, built an engine as serviceable as a new one.
Many years later, one could wander around the old shipyard, perhaps spotting an old wagon wheel which once helped to bear logs from the woods. Here and there might be remains of a partly shaped ship's "rib", gray and weather-beaten, and in another place a piston rod, discarded during the process of some engine construction,stlll standing, as if Captain Phelps and men who worked for him ought to emerge from the weather-beaten shop - silent - waiting again to echo with sound of saw and axe and spike maul and caulking mallet as it did in a far-gone time.
Recall that small army of workmen. There were Capt. Pearl Phelps and Leon Phelps, his younger brothers, skilled in their own right; William Reardon, latter one of the leading citizens of Mannsville; Edward "Ned" Dennison, once postmaster at Sackets Harbor; Timothy Bevens, James Allen, Amos Grooms, William P. Horton, William Wallace, Jesse Byam, Ward Bovee, Harry Horton, Alton Brooks and many others who helped to make the little point one of the most widely known shipyards on Lake Ontario.

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