Descent from an ancestry whose members built and sailed ships from Salem, Newburyport, and Nantucket two hundred years ago, and even down to the early days of the nineteenth century, ought to give an hereditary bias toward a sailor’s life, on waters either salt or fresh. A score-and-a-half of men of my name have “died with their boots on” at sea, from the port of Nantucket alone. They went for whales, and the whales got them. Perhaps their fate should have discouraged the sea-going instinct, but perversely it had the opposite effect. A hundred men are lost out of Gloucester every year, yet their boys are on the “Banks” before they are fairly weaned.
I was born at Niles, Michigan, on the historic St. Joseph River, which in those days was of considerable importance commercially. Scores of keel boats plied between South Bend and the mouth of the river at St. Joseph, on Lake Michigan. Keel boats drifted down the river, and after unloading were towed back by little steamboats, about eighty feet long by eighteen feet beam. These were propelled by side wheels attached to a single shaft, driven by a horizontal engine of indifferent power. These steamers towed four “keels” upstream at the rate of five or six miles an hour. The former had no upper cabin answering to the “boiler deck” of the Mississippi River boats—only a roof covering the main deck, with the passenger cabin aft, and the quarters of the crew forward of the boiler and engine.
It was, I suppose, a quarter of a mile from my birthplace to the river bank where we boys of the neighborhood went to