0Lake Erie is not a peaceful inland sea. Even a seaman who had seen the worst the world’s oceans could throw at a ship quickly learned to respect her unpredictable waters.

Captain Alexander McNeilledge, who created the first sailing chart of the north shore of Lake Erie in 1848, had this bit of advice for the captains who sailed the lake in his day:

When you are anxious to have a good lookout kept, you must keep it yourself [author’s emphasis]. Running for the land, or being anxious to make a light in stormy, hazy, or thick weather, let your officers be never so good, be at the head of it yourself, and of course you will pay more attention, having it on your mind and being the responsible man.

McNeilledge’s book and chart are a revealing look at the life of a sailor on Lake Erie in the early days of settlement. It was a time when small communities, including Port Dover, where the old captain ended up settling down, were just beginning to emerge from untracked wilderness. The end of the War of 1812––the last great conflict between Canada and the emerging industrial powerhouse to its south––had brought a lasting peace to the region and cleared the way for the towns and cities that today line the shore to take root.

McNeilledge, who was born in Greenock, Scotland, in 1791, had spent much of his career on the ocean. His exploits are the stuff of seafaring legend: he first went to sea as a cabin boy at the age of eight, was shipwrecked on Long Island in 1807, saw the Duke of Wellington in Lisbon, and even caught a glimpse of Napoleon Bonaparte, the deposed emperor of France, in exile on the island of St. Helena in 1817. Even what he might have considered the more humdrum aspects of his time at sea are thrilling by modern standards. The captain covered huge swaths of the globe, sailing to ports as far afield as China and running a naval blockade off Buenos Aires. And, for good measure, he endured robbery and plunder at the hands of pirates on the storied Spanish Main.

It is not hard to imagine, then, why McNeilledge was drawn to the quiet Canadian hinterland after such a frenetic career at sea. He first came to Port Dover in 1832, largely at the request of his brother, who had rebuilt an old mill in the town where, he hoped, Alexander could help him by serving as clerk and bookkeeper. Some time later, McNeilledge decided to expand his repertoire by dabbling in farming, as well.

But the life of a landlubber, predictably, could not hold the attention of the old captain for very long, and soon enough he heard the call of the freshwater ocean that now lay in his backyard. And, try as he might, McNeilledge couldn’t resist. Soon he was back out on the water, sailing along both the north and south shores of Lake Erie on numerous ships and making a name for himself among the lake’s growing fraternity of captains. Back on dry land, McNeilledge was a colourful figure in tiny Port Dover, where he produced a number of mementos, including drawings of ships, ports, and other images of marine life. During his spare time, he could usually be found down at the harbour, overseeing the comings and goings of the many sailing vessels and sharing tall tales of the sea with his fellow captains.

Still, even though he had experienced much during his long saltwater career, McNeilledge knew not to underestimate Lake Erie. Even in these early days of settlement, its temperamental nature was well known to those who sailed the lake or lived along its shores. The very existence of his chart and narrative about the many hazards of sailing the waters off the north shore speaks to the fact that the old captain spent a good deal of time worrying about his fellow sailors out on the lake. And he had good reason. Since the Welland Canal had opened in 1829, more and more ships were clogging Lake Erie, their holds stuffed with the food, stone, and lumber that were desperately needed to fuel the construction boom. Not surprisingly, the increased traffic brought with it more and more shipwrecks –– and a higher toll in human lives. Of his chart, McNeilledge says simply: “The courses and distances will be found to be pretty correct for any stranger to go by, and will often ease the mind of the man having the charge.”

The Shallow Sea

Lake Erie is the second smallest of the five Great Lakes by surface area (only Lake Ontario is smaller) and the smallest by volume. Its southerly location gives it a climate that is downright tropical in summertime, prompting tourists from around the world to flock to places like Point Pelee, Long Point and the Lake Erie islands. Not as well recognized is the fact that Lake Erie is along the same latitude as northern California and Rome, giving the fertile farmland surrounding it a long and relatively moderate growing season. The rich soil produces bountiful harvests of a staggering variety of fruits and vegetables, not the least of which is grapes, the key to the region’s growing winemaking industry.

Fishing has always been a cornerstone of life on Lake Erie. While recreational angling now dominates along the southern shore, the Canadian side is home to one of the largest commercial freshwater fisheries in the world. But it has always been a difficult way to make a living. From time immemorial, fishermen have dealt with Erie’s notoriously brutal weather and extremely perilous working conditions as they toil, often fully exposed to the elements, on their cramped boats, or “tugs” as they’re commonly known. Worse, as industrialization took hold in the region, overfishing and pollution bedevilled the industry, putting a strain on the already narrow profit margins of many small fisheries.

Eileen Lowe, whose husband, Andy, operated the fish tug M & K out of Port Dover, notes just one of these calamities in her journal entry of April 1, 1970: “Disaster for fishermen––ban on export of perch, pike from Lake Erie––today … Mercury poisoned fish must be drawn down here from Lake St. Clair … News very dark for fishing industry.” At other times, the sheer cost of running one of these sophisticated machines threatened to bankrupt fishermen, as Lowe notes in her January 22, 1968, entry: “M & K had trouble with engine … Cost $4,000 … We have to raise $2,000 collateral … Always something.”

Despite all these difficulties, commercial fishing remains vital to Lake Erie, and a visit to the harbour towns along the north shore will likely reveal an impressive array of fishing boats in port.

Part of the explanation for Lake Erie’s famed dark side can be found in its geological makeup. With an average depth of only nineteen metres, Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes. This very lack of depth makes for waves of legendary ferocity when high winds and storms hit, which they do frequently, particularly in the spring and autumn months. Another reason is simple location; its southerly position puts Lake Erie on what could be called a fault line of weather, a place where both warm southern air masses and cooler air seeping down from the arctic move through quickly, and frequently collide. The result of these actions can be swift and deadly as gale-force winds and even waterspouts seem to rise out of nowhere. Even those lucky enough to be on shore have reason for concern, as the howling wind can literally push the water clear across the lake, causing low water levels at one end and massive increases at the other. (The record difference between the eastern and western end of the lake during one of these phenomena is 4.88 metres.)

Watching one of these storms blow ashore is like having a front-row seat for an awesome spectacle, as the crests of the waves, pushed high by the rising bottom as they approach the beach, are literally blown into a hissing spray by the high winds. It is at these times that I have said a silent prayer of thanks that I wasn’t out there, fighting for my life on a ship that has found itself in the grip of Lake Erie’s fury. But, as we shall see, the lake’s past is littered with the stories of those who haven’t been so lucky.