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CHARLES DOBIE : GENEALOGY
DOBIE

SAILING ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
SIXTY YEARS AGO

By William Currie Dobie

This article is transcribed from The Thunder Bay Historical Society Fifth Annual Report; Papers of 1914, pages 35-38. I only have copies of the four pages mentioned, and have no knowledge of any other contents of the report, but I've seen complete copies of this and other annual reports, both in the Thunder Bay Museum, Fort William, Ont. and in the Toronto Reference Library. -- Charles Dobie.



Address by Mr. W. C. Dobie, before the Art and Literary Club, Port Arthur, Tuesday, November 27th, 1914.

William Currie Dobie
William Currie Dobie

I have made no notes on this subject. I merely trust myself to a good memory. A good memory is a very good thing to have.

As a matter of fact, it is 65 years since I crossed the ocean. Sixty-five years ago in August my father, Uncle William and Aunt Betty, my mother and my sailor uncle, Captain Dobie, made up their minds they would come to America.

It is a revelation to many to know that, in spite of the great strides made of late years in steam vessels, there are still today 55,000 sailing vessels as against 47,000 steam vessels.

If you were living in the old country today and wanted to come to Canada, you would have nothing to do but go to the ship's office and ask when the next ship would sail. You would be given your ticket, told to go down to such-and-such a dock at such-and-such a time on such-and-such a date, and you would find your stateroom ready for you, replete with every modern convenience. You would have nothing to do but get your baggage aboard, go to the stateroom and sail away, with meals served four and sometimes five times a day. Amusements and all kinds of games would be provided. The palatial steamship would be equipped with saloons, gymnasium, reading room, and even roof gardens, which were not even thought of in the days I am going to speak of. We did not have any such things, and even steamers were few and far between, for the first steamer carrying passengers on the Atlantic was Cunnard steamer from Boston in 1844, and I am going to talk about what occurred only five years later -- in 1849.

As a matter of fact, at that time there were just two passenger lines crossing the ocean, and they were paddle-wheelers. We can cross the ocean now in from five to eight days. Those boats used to cross in 18, 20 or 25 days, and such slow time was a good passage in those days.

My people made up their minds to go to America, and the first thing to be done was to find a vessel. The vessel lay in Liverpool docks, and we lived in Birkenhead opposite Liverpool, across the river. Anyone in Birkenhead in those days (there was only one dock there then -- the Morpeth dock) could see ships lying there, and in the rigging or the shrouds would be a board stating that the ship was preparing to make a trip to carry so many passengers from such-and-such a port, and would sail on such-and-such a date, and that by applying at such-and-such a ticket office the fare would be accepted for coming across the ocean. At that time the fare was 3 Pounds for an adult, and for children 12 years of age 1/2 price -- $7.50. That is what it cost to take me across the ocean, as I was only a boy of ten years, and though I am not supposed to remember very much at that young age, still I may tell you that my memory is quite clear on the events of that ocean voyage. When I begin to talk to you about things that I can remember 65 years ago, people think I am drawing on my imagination.

Our party consisted of 15, my father and mother, five of us, Uncle William, Aunt Betty and five children, and my sailor uncle, who was a bachelor. He used to be in the India trade which ran passenger ships. The next thing, after booking our passage, was to get supplies for the passengers who were going aboard. You may think 3 Pounds was very cheap fare, but they only provided us with water, fire and a bunk. Then there was nothing left for a single man to do but go up town and buy a chunk of hard tack, and, if married with a family to provide for, he would get several bags of this hard tack. The longer these hard tack biscuits were kept the better they used to be, for in order to make them palatable we used to soak them during the night in fresh water, and then we would split them and fry them in pork gravy, when they were very palatable. All the cooking utensils, which outfit had to be bought, were made of tin and sheet iron, because crockery would not last long on a ship which might roll from side to side, therefore everything had to be of iron and sheet tin so that it would fall about in a storm and not break.

People had bed ticks and they would buy a bundle of hay and also pillows, placing the hay in the ticks for bedding. We had butter and a few potatoes, remember that it was August, and we had some cheese which did not keep very well. The reason why so many of the sailing ships carried passengers was that emigration was very large. In the year I speak of there were 59,000 left the port of Liverpool, mainly for the U.S. The reason for that excessive emigration was the Irish famine, in other words, the potato crop in Ireland failed, upon which the peasantry depended for a livelihood, and fever followed, and none of them had anything left on which to support himself.

A ship would come in to Liverpool from a foreign port, discharge cargo at one of the docks and then prepare for passenger service. Two tiers of bunks were put up. If any of you have ever been out in a lumber camp in the woods, you will know what these wooden bunks are like. Just a bare board and nothing more, with a partition down each line of bunks marking them off and marking each bunk off from the next.

Well, the $15 a head was paid, and we all went on board. We went to our palatial stateroom and found the bunks allotted out to the passengers. A partition was put up, as I have said before, and we could only go to the middle of the deck. There were 247 passengers aboard that ship, and it would probably be as big as the America which runs from here to Duluth; the boat would not be any longer and not as wide. The captain's cabin was at the stern, the next part was called the second cabin, and the next part was the steerage, which the passengers occupied who were carried across the ocean at a cheaper rate than the second cabin passengers. Forward of that was the forecastle, where the sailors slept in their hammocks. There were 30 sailors before the mast. The boat was a good ship and passenger ships had to carry double crews.

The ship provided nothing but fresh water, fire and a bunk. An emergency store of provisions was kept in what was called the lazarette. This store was put there in charge of the bosun, and nothing was to be given out from that store except by order of the captain, in case of disablement of the ship, shipwreck, baffling winds, etc.

On the date of sailing, we crossed from Birkenhead on a ferry boat. We got aboard our ship lying at the Princess dock, and we had a glorious time. It was a novelty. I well remember the bags of hard tack biscuit and ate one, and put two more under my pillow so that if I awakened in the night hungry I would have something to eat.

Well, we hailed out of the dock in good time; weighed anchor in the middle of the river waiting for the tide to cross the bar, for vessels drawing 25 feet of water had to wait in those days for the tide. Things are different now: it is dredged out. The neap tide in Liverpool is 13 feet, the spring tides are from 25 to 26 feet. The morning of our sailing the anchor was taken up. Thirty men did the work, all by hand, no steam winches or windlasses then, and they worked to the tune of an old chanty, raising the anchor by main strength, not by machinery. One fellow, picked out by the rest as a singer, would stand up and would sing to the men who were doing the work. They would walk around singing in unison, and then the leader would improvise on the song. One of the songs was "Heave away, boys, we are bound for the Rio Grande."

Then, after a while, away we went for the mouth of the river into the Irish Sea. When we got near to the mouth of the river sails were hosted under the direction of the mate. The captain did not say a word to the sailors; he spoke to the mate and the mate gave the orders to the sailors. We came round the south of Ireland with a splendid wind; we were running on the port tack along the coast. I was on the quarter deck; I don't know how I got there. Mr. Collins, the first mate, said: "Say, boy, aren't you getting sick?" I did not know I was sick until then. I said, "Yes, sir." He said, "You had better get down below." So down I went and went to bed. I fell asleep, and probably would have been all right, but my two brothers came rushing down and said to me, "Come up and see Holyhead." They hauled me up on deck and up the stairs we went, and then, well, I glanced over the bulwarks. I then got downstairs and crawled into a lower bunk, and did not go on deck again for ten days. Part of that time is a blank to me.

On board there were, as I have said, 247 passengers, 30 men before the mast, the cook and his assistant, the cabin boy, three mates and the bosun. The names of the chief officers were: Captain Barril, First Mate Collins, Second Mate Woodside, Third Mate Griffiths, Bosun Barnes.

All the way across we had lovely weather. We never reefed a top sail from the time we reached the Irish Sea until we anchored in New York harbor. One of our amusements was rolling from side to side, down to the bulwarks on one side and down to the bulwarks on the other side with the roll of the ship, and another amusement we had was climbing the shrouds.

At the time we were getting near the Gulf Stream a flying fish came aboard. It was about 10 in the morning and, after the first gasps of astonishment, there was a rush for that fish, and I remember an old gentleman who had a son whose name was Jonathan, captured it. From flying fish it soon became "frying fish". We were on the lookout for whales but we did not see any extraordinary fish except this flying fish I have mentioned and schools of porpoises. We had read at school about whales, walruses, dolphins and seals. All we saw, though, was schools of porpoises or sea hogs, and of course gulls and Mother Carey's chickens.

The fresh water was in casks down in the lower hold. Water was served out once a day, and the cask was brought up out of the hold and water served out so much to one person for whatever purposes he wanted it. After we were about 10 days out at sea the water became putrid. Then the odor from the cask, if the wind happened to be blowing "across", was awful. Then the water became good again. After a little while it gets over that putrid taste and smell and becomes perfectly sweet. Then, if it is kept longer it putrefies again, and again gets better, and then you can take the cask of water round the world for years and it stays sweet. We had no condensing machines on board that ship.

We had three deaths on board the ship -- a man, a young unmarried woman and a child. Most of you have read accounts of a burial at sea. The person dies; the officer notifies the bosun, and the body of the deceased is measured. It is sewn up in a canvas, with a weight at the feet. When the time comes for the funeral to be held, the captain makes his appearance with the Prayer-Book in his hand. A plank is set, with the long end reaching over the side of the ship, and the body is laid upon it. The ship is stopped and at the words, "We therefore commit his body to the deep," the body slides down into the ocean. There was no doctor on the ship, nor a surgeon, though there was a medicine chest aboard in care of the captain in case of necessity.

The most we ever made was ten miles an hour, with a very fair wind and a fresh breeze. I remember looking over the bulwarks at the phosphorescence of the water. Phosphorescence is caused by millions of small fish which are phosphorescent, and something like fireflies that we have here at night. The whole thing seems to be a mass of glittering fire. The ocean is never at rest. There is always what we call the ocean roll, however calm it may be.

We got near the banks of Newfoundland, and there we were becalmed two days. There is nothing more exasperating to a sailor than this. He hates a dead calm worse than a bad storm. We were coming along, and one morning we got up and the lookout man gave the alarm, "Sail ho! dead ahead." It was about six in the morning. We could just see the topsails of that vessel over the horizon. Then a buzz began, and questions began to be asked, "Is it a ship?" "Is she coming in our direction?" "Shall we go near enough to speak to her?" It was four o'clock in the afternoon before we passed her. The usual form of salutation is as follows: "Ship ahoy! What ship are you? Where are you from? Where are you bound for? How many days are you out? What is your latitude and longitude?" One reason for the last question is so that in that way they could check each other's reckoning and see if either was wrong in his figures.

We saw only three vessels on our trip across the ocean, no steamers. One morning I was up and saw a little boat near our ship: it was a little schooner. I asked one of the sailors what it was, and he said it was the pilot boat. We were then about 150 miles from New York. As soon as the pilot came aboard he took charge. Whenever the pilot comes aboard a ship he is the master of the ship until the vessel gets into port. He is supposed to know where the shoals and reefs are, and the currents. At last word came from the pilot, "We will be in New York tonight." The people went down into the hold; there was great excitement; like the children of Israel getting out of Egypt people came up with their ticks and their tin dishes and threw them into the sea. For a mile at the stern in the wake of the ship there was nothing but a streak of straw and tin dishes. The whole of the ship was buzzing that night.

We were awakened next morning by the rattle of the chain cables, and we cast anchor off Staten Island, where the quarantine station was. Word was passed round that the doctor and his assistant would be on board at 9 a.m. We had to wash our hands and faces and look pretty. One man on board named Mr. Johnson was very anxious as he had illness on the way out. The doctor came along in due time, and we stuck our tongues out, not in an impertinent way but because he asked us to. We then were at liberty to go forward, and saw a tug coming down to anchor. She fastened on to us and towed us to the landing stage. We saw a sloop of war that had just come in from California, and we were at rest 30 days after leaving Liverpool. Mr. Neil MacLean of Port Arthur, known to most of you, came across the same year I did, and he was 13 weeks on the trip. It was an exceptionally fine and fortunate voyage for us.

I saw and tasted water-melons for the first time in New York. My father and uncle went up town in New York and carried back a big water-melon. I ate a little too near the rind and was not very well after it. In the evening we went aboard a little vessel, then we went up the Hudson and up to Albany. I remember seeing the Palisades there quite well. I saw my first mosquito there, that night on the boat. While the navigation on the Albany river was very smooth I got sick. The water-melon referred to was the cause. I could not look another water-melon in the face for many years. Railways were not exceedingly plentiful in those days; they were like steamers. A great deal of traveling was done then up the Erie canal by canal boat. On the canal boat by which we traveled there were 70 passengers. The vessel was not very large and the accommodation was not very good. It took us eight days from Albany to Buffalo by mule power. Three people had to be taken off the canal boat at Rochester with cholera.

We got a small steamer at Buffalo for Port Stanley on the other side of Lake Erie. We were in Canada -- the land of promise. The question was, who would go down and tell our friends of the steamer's arrival? My uncle went, and the second day after he left he returned with a party of our friends and relatives, and on the 43rd day after we left Liverpool we were with our relations and friends in Canada.

P.S. -- With his family Mr. W. C. Dobie settled later on at Sullivan, Ontario.


Mr. W. C. Dobie came to Canada September, 1849, moved to Owen Sound in October, 1854, and to Bruce Mines in September, 1860. He came to Port Arthur in June, 1872, and was appointed Police Magistrate on October 1st, 1890, a position he still occupies. He has been a resident of Thunder Bay for over 42 years.

--End of transcript--


[Additional information added by Charles Dobie:]

William Currie Dobie, the son of John Dobie and Isabella Russell, died 13 Nov. 1928 in Port Arthur, Ont. His "Uncle William and Aunt Betty" must have been William Currie Dobie and Elizabeth Coulthard, who settled in Ekfrid Township, near Glencoe, Ont., where many of their Dobie cousins had already settled.

A notation on some census records included in the "Percy Dobie papers", says of the above family: "Went to Canada Autumn 1849, ship "Cogdan". However, W.C. Dobie's obituary in the Fort William Daily Times-Journal refers to the ship correctly as the "Richard Cobden".


November 17, 2006 -- The mystery of William's bachelor sailor uncle "Captain Dobie" was solved when all US passenger lists became available on the Ancestry.com website. He turns out to be Alexander Dobie, age 35. This gentleman demands further research.

March 26, 2011 -- The complete passenger list has been transcribed and posted on my history website. The original films of the list may also be viewed there, and original lists of passengers landing in New York City between 1820 to 1891 may be viewed on the familysearch.org. website. On their main page headed "Discover Your Family History", click on "USA, Canada and Mexico", then click on "New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1891". Presently you can only browse the images, but I assume that LDS volunteers are transcribing them, so an index will eventually be available.




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