“Dad couldn’t swim a stroke.
His line always was: ‘If I fall in, I figure I’ll learn’!” -Mike Hogan
Springtime in Kingston has always drawn everyone to the harbour front.
It could be the welcome warm rays of a returning sun finally penetrating winter’s heavy layer of snow and ice. Or, most likely, it’s the smell and taste in the air; that aura surrounding the waking St. Lawrence River after her long hibernation. For school kids, any field trip away from the classroom is a special treat.
Mr. Main’s grade eight class from Victoria School was taking advantage of a particular warm afternoon in the early spring of 1977. If you remember, that was after a particularly hard winter for Kingston. And the brand new Wolfe Islander III ferry.
The class was taking a trip to Wolfe Island on the new boat. One of the pupils, Mike Hogan, was very excited, because he was taking his three buddies, Tim, Randy and Paul up to the navigation bridge of the big ferry to see his dad at work. Mike’s dad was captain of this big, brand new ferry. He couldn’t wait to show it off.
“Whad’da ya mean it has no steerin’ wheel?” said Tim Franks. “What’s he steer with?”
“You wait’n see, Franks,” Mike replied. “There’s two steering columns. They steer the propellers.”
“Aw... you’re full of it, Mike!”
Just then, the big ferry rounded the corner of the dock, coming in fast. Young Mike knew immediately something was wrong. The ship continued to come around and was heading for the side of the dock.
“Everyone! Hang on to something!” Boomed the familiar voice from the ship’s intercom. “We’re gon’na hit!”
Mike closed his eyes as the ship bounced off the tires and headed sideways toward Fort Frontenac. Mike’s whole class watched in horror as the big ferry drifted helplessly away from the pier. People on the dock were out of their cars. She came to rest almost parallel to the front of the officer’s mess of the fort.
“Hey Hogan!” yelled Paul Haden to his classmate. “Yer ol’ man forget where the steerin’ wheel was?!”
That incident happened 38 years ago this spring.
The captain himself would relive those moments over and over in his mind for the rest of his life. On the good side, there was no damage, no one hurt and the ferry returned to service just a few hours later. The problem? Nothing major, just a tripped breaker!
This spring marks the fifteenth anniversary of the passing of a local marine legend. He, himself would shake his head, wondering what the fuss was all about. Captain Harold Joseph Hogan departed port on February 15, 2000. It was indeed, the end of a nautical era for our region.
In marine circles today, Toronto to Montreal, you only have to mention his first name and everyone knows who you are talking about. If you ask around anywhere near ‘the boats’ in Kingston, the name ‘Harold’ invokes images of canallers, package freighters and coal fired steamboats. You can also see the peaked cap, shaking up and down while he looks at you over the tops of his specs as he starts a steamboat ‘tale’! Back in the day, all you had to do was ask the ol’ man (respectful title for captain): Would you like to go for coffee?
Once seated, with your cup in hand, you were off on a ‘Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River maritime adventure’! Don’t speak, just listen. The Captain is talking. Between chuckles... tips of his hat... looking over his specs and a pained expression – you didn’t know for sure if he was actually in pain or laughing – you too, became a part of Kingston’s marine heritage, actually re-living the voyage; for no one told a tale like Captain Harold Hogan. Maybe you didn’t know it then, but later on you would count your lucky stars that you were there.
The month of March is the time when most Great Lakes sailors are preparing for their upcoming season of sailing. The long winter sabbatical is over. In every Great lakes port the sleeping ships are becoming hives of activity. Supply vehicles, electricians vans and dockside cranes are lining the piers alongside the boats. Just like Kingston harbour some seventy years ago. In 1945, commerce was picking up the pieces from wartime activity and the shipping industry was in need of sailors.
Seventeen-year-old Harold Hogan, battered suitcase in hand, stood for a moment on the old Gildersleeve pier at the foot of Queen Street and looked up at the name painted on the bow: “Canadian”
it read. Down the ship’s side was painted “Canada Steamship Lines” in bright white capital letters. Yesterday the young man had applied aboard for a job. Tentatively he knocked on the door to the captain’s office. “Come in!” came the abrupt reply. “Who in hell are you?!” said the man seated at the desk. He was dressed in a dirty boiler suit and surrounded by a cloud of pipe tobacco smoke.
“I’m lookin’ for a job, sir.”
“The hell can you do, dockie?” the captain asked, without looking up from his desk.
“I can work.”
The captain looked him over. Just a young greenhorn. “Hmmm. See ‘bout that.” He tapped his pipe into the ashtray. “Awright. Get your junk collected and report aboard tomorrow to the mate at the first bell. That means 08:00. Got it?”
“Yes sir. I’ll be here.”
“An listen. You don’t work out, bud, or yer a drunk or somethin’ yer off at the first lock, ya hear? Or wherever I boot ya off. Got it?
Hogan nodded. “Yes sir.”
“Okay now, get out. I’m busy.” With those words became a lifetime love affair with the sea. Or in this particular case, the lower Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. And the boats.
The SS Canadian was a typical St. Lawrence River canaller. Built in 1907 at Newcastle-on-Tyne England, she was one of the first of full pre-seaway size ships to be operated in the general cargo trade for CSL. Filling the smaller locks of the St. Lawrence her dimensions were 255 feet by 43 feet wide with a draught of 26 feet 6 inches. Young Hogan learned the loads and Plimsoll marks until he could do it in his sleep. Which there was very little of, once underway.
And it was incessant work. Standing long watches on the lakes and little to no sleep once on the river heading to Montreal. From Prescott to Montreal the river leapt over eight different sets of rapids and then widened into two lakes: Lake St. Francis and Lake St. Louis. Passing through six canals and 21 locks which meandered around the violent waters the ship would ‘fall’ 226 feet. The deck crew literally ‘walked’ their ships from here to Montreal. Stopovers were usually coal covered piers with heavy soot covering the crew almost head to foot. “I don’t know why,” Hogan said in an interview. “I just took a fascination to it – never lost it either. I still like working on boats.” A stint aboard canallers SS Ontario No. 2 and SS Renvoyle followed.
Passing exams for third mate certification, Hogan’s next appointment was aboard the SS Acadian as third Mate in 1949. A similar ship, he was promoted again after another set of exams he became second mate on the Mapleheath and here he stayed until 1952 when he was transferred to the City of Kingston. Under different captains and first mates, young Hogan would be drilled constantly in memory work. Remembering ‘marks’ and approaches to locks and harbours, by night as well as by day; converting magnetic headings to compass courses; different methods of loading cargo and storage. “What I liked about it,” he told me one day, “it was like old home week, passing through the old towns and villages. We got to know all the lockmasters and we ran through people’s backyards.”
In 1954 Hogan passed exams for First mate and found himself back aboard the Canadian. What followed were a plethora of ships: the City of Toronto – 1955, Edmonton - 56, Lethbridge – 57, Penetang – 58, Beaverton – 58 and Glenelg late in 58.
During this time the St. Lawrence Seaway was built reducing the locks from 21 to 7. It also involved massive flooding and towns being moved so the river had to be re-memorized, especially in the area below Prescott to Montreal. New marks, leading lights and transit lines appeared and these, too, had to be memorized. The watches aboard remained the same: four on – eight off, around the clock.
“Whatever you do for a career, make sure you love what you’ll do,” said Mike Hogan, Harold’s son. “You’ll be doing it eight hours a day until you’re 65 so you better find something you like. I did. As anyone who met dad knows he was a pretty straightforward man. He didn’t encourage me, he didn’t discourage me. He allowed me to find my way, though the road was incredibly bumpy at times.”
Today, Mike Hogan and his wife Chris live in Toronto. Mike is a talk show host at TSN radio in Toronto. “I do play by play for the Toronto Argos and am VP of the football Reporters of Canada. I started at CKWS in 1983. I also worked at CKLC before heading to Toronto with stops in Ottawa and Barrie in between. I started doing the Argos games in 2000, so dad never got a chance to hear me. I know he would have got a kick out of it, even though he wouldn’t know a touchdown from a goalpost,” he laughed.
So just when did a roving sailor have time for a family? In 1960, Harold married Barbara McQueen and son Mike soon followed in 1963. Still on the Glenelg, each sailing season was getting harder and harder. And then luck struck!
A new carferry, the Romeo & Annette joined the Wolfe Island ferry ‘fleet’ in Kingston and experienced captains were suddenly needed.
On July 19, 1965, Harold Hogan was appointed captain of the MS Wolfe Islander and shortened his nautical Great Lakes/St Lawrence River travels to three nautical miles from home. Wolfe Islander Ken White joined him as mate. “I never heard the same story twice,” White told me years later, “well... maybe the same story, but always a different version,” he laughed. The two would remain sailing together for more than twenty years until both were promoted from their positions. Ken became captain of the new Wolfe Islander III which had been in service since 1976, replacing the other two ferries, while Harold was promoted to Senior Captain of Ferry Operations and moved ashore. However, that job did not take him off the river.
In 1974, a former navy Fairmile ‘sub-chaser’ was purchased and renovated for passenger service to run through the Thousand Islands. She was christened the Olympia and the new company, Kingston and the Islands Boat Line was operating from the Crawford dock, sharing the pier with the MS Wolfe Islander. Within an hour of her arrival, Captain Hogan asked if they needed a relief captain to help. He was hired on the spot. Grinning from ear to ear, ball cap pulled low over his eyes, Captain Hogan found himself among the lost channels and islands he knew so well during his canaller days. “I still remembered a few short cuts through some of the channels,” he said. “One guy said, ‘I’m lost cap – where the hell are we?’ an’ he’d been goin’ through here for years!” – much laughter.
In 1975, the company built a replica Mississippi sternwheeler at Summerstown, Ontario. When it came time for delivery, they turned to the veteran riverman himself. No problem, he had a couple of days off from the ferry. Gripping the spokes of the huge steering wheel as he backed her out, Hogan fell in love with the Island Queen III. The relationship would last the rest of his life.
After retirement from the Wolfe Island Ferry Service Hogan became the senior captain for the Kingston and the Islands Boat Line. He supervised the purchase of the Island Belle soon after as well as the Le Bateau Mouche which became the popular Island Star.
In October 1999 the Wolfe Islander III was scheduled for a major mid-life refit at Heddle Marine in Hamilton, Ontario. Selected as master for the trip was, of course, veteran lake pilot Captain Harold Hogan. It would be his last trip.
“Dad died in February 2000,” said Mike Hogan. “He initially went into the hospital in the fall of ’99 to have a gallstone removed. He was still working as hard as ever and we sat down one afternoon at Kingston General Hospital after his surgery talking about the next summer and how maybe he should think about stepping back a bit. He agreed. He’d never leave the waters on a permanent basis while he was healthy enough to sail, but he was smart enough to start taking a little off the throttle.
“He had never been to Boston or New York City. We had made rough plans to visit the two cities, explore the harbours, visit the USS Constitution in Boston and go to a game or two at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. Some of my fondest memories as a child surround trips the two of us took to see the Expos at Jarry Park, then Olympic Stadium. I was really looking forward to the planned trips but sadly, we weren’t able to take them.”
We rookies learned a lot from the ol’ man. He never hesitated to share his knowledge and experience with any of us. If you were willing to listen and learn, you ‘absorbed’ a treasure trove of nautical knowledge you wouldn’t get from any textbook. Stood up for a date many years ago, I simply spent the remainder of the evening in the wheelhouse of the Wolfe Islander with mate Ken and Captain Harold. I soon forgot all about the ‘date’ and the girl. I was hooked. This is where I wanted to be. And I had made up my mind; this is what I wanted to do.
Marine historian, teacher and mate Ron Walsh worked with Captain Hogan for many years on the Island Queen. “If he called me, and said ‘Ron, I need a mate,” Walsh said, “I never hesitated. It was always, always a pleasure to walk aboard and work with such a gentleman. It really was.”
Oh yeah, it certainly was. He was ‘the best of the best’!
Brian Johnson, Captain, Wolfe Islander III
Brian Paul Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island Car Ferry, “Wolfe Islander III.” He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating 20+ years as Captain. We often see him pass-through the islands as Captain of the “Canadian Empress.”
Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area, he has written for the “Kingston Whig Standard,” “Telescope Magazine,” the “Great Lakes Boatnerd” and the website:“Seaway News”.
Brian co-edited “Growing up on Wolfe Island”, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Mystery Writer’s Festival, held on the island every August. To see all of Captain Johnson’s articles for TI Life, Click Here.