By Skip Gillham
Article courtesy Inland Seas Quarterly Journal


RENVOYLE, part of the original set of photos given to me by John H. Bascom.

Introduction by Al Hart:

Many of our readers are familiar with the name Skip Gillham. Inland Seas asked the GLHS member to reflect on his 50 years of writing marine history, how he became interested in the ships of the Great Lakes and how this has developed in the past half-century.

Looking back, I can reflect on how the influence of others developed my personal interest in the ships of the Great Lakes. I grew up in Toronto, once a very busy port with lakers and pre-seaway salties coming and going on a regular basis. I was an only child and, when my mom got sick in the mid-1940s, my dad would take me out for a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Our habit was to go to High Park, a large grass and forested area in the west end of the city, to feed the animals such as the deer, buffalo and a camel. We would then drive along the lake to see the boats. My dad had a notebook where he recorded the names of the ships that we saw and this routine carried on for a few years. When my mom succumbed to her illness, life changed. My father re-married a widow with three children and we moved into their house in the suburb of Etobicoke. Weekend afternoon activities became sports with family and neighbors but I remember regularly reading the Toronto newspaper features "Shipping On The Lakes" the Toronto Star, "On The Waterfront" in the Toronto Telegram and even "Vessel Movements" in the Toronto Globe & Mail. My interest was still there even if I was not going to the docks every weekend. Sadly, these three columns have long since disappeared.

One afternoon my dad, who worked in insurance, came home with about 18 ship photos that had been given to him for me by an insurance colleague John H. Bascom. I now had the start of my photo collection. The only ship in the group that I had ever seen was the RENVOYLE, a regular trader in and out of the Canada Steamship Lines docks at Toronto, so that became my favorite ship. I still have all of those original photos. Mr. Bascom, and later his son Jay, have been a great encouragement to me and set a standard for careful research, keeping records and preserving photos. That set me in the right direction for a time when I too would be writing about the ships.

Another influence in these early years was our neighbor George R. Donovan Jr., who managed Lakeland Tankers, a Canadian subsidiary of Cleveland Tankers and Ashland Oil. He graciously invited my dad, step-brother and I to go to the docks one evening and board the company tanker MAKAWELI, which was unloading. It was my first time to board a lake ship. I only wish I had had a camera.

MAKAWELI in the Welland

MAKAWELI in the Welland Canal on November 12, 1955. First ship I ever went aboard. Jay Bascom photo.

By 1960, I was out of high school and attending the University of Toronto to obtain a degree in history. By then I had a cheap camera with points earned earlier for getting new customers on my newspaper route. I spent three summers working at a day camp at Centre Island, across the bay from the downtown core of the city, and each day we rode the ferry to and from the island. I always had my camera along and was soon taking photos of the ships I saw at the docks or on Toronto Bay. These photos were added to the ones that Mr. Bascom had given me years earlier.

In 1963, I graduated from U. of T. but had decided to pursue a second degree in Physical Education at McMaster University in Hamilton. This required more money than I had been making at the island. I thought about my longtime interest in the ships and began writing the oil companies about a summer job. The replies were encouraging and came from Imperial Oil, Shell Oil and Porter Shipping but the first with a concrete offer was my old neighbor Mr. Donovan. He had a position open as an oiler on his second tanker, the LUBROLAKE. I climbed aboard in Lock 8 at Port Colborne in the early morning hours of May 13, 1963, and I was off on a life changing adventure. The opportunity to sail gave me a chance to see new parts of Canada from the perspective of the water. I marveled at the beauty of the Thousand Islands, the impressive skyline of Montreal as we departed the Seaway for the first time, the farms along the lower St. Lawrence and the towns centered around the parish church just like the school textbooks had described. Perhaps the most inspiring was the magnificent Saguenay River when we headed to Chicoutimi to unload one of the various grades of fuel we carried that summer.

The weeks went quickly and when I left the LUBROLAKE in Kingston to take the bus home, I not only had the money for the next stage in my education, I had also gained an education about the geography of my country. What followed was my last and most enjoyable year as a student, a career as a high school teacher that spanned 33 years with an additional ten years as a volunteer coach in my sports of cross country, and track and field. I had another discovery that summer - the ships my dad had recorded in his notebook were disappearing. What became of them in this new era of the St. Lawrence Seaway was a question I wanted to answer. Somewhere, I stumbled upon the journal Telescope of the Great Lakes Maritime Institute and discovered I could get a monthly magazine about the ships of the Great Lakes. I joined immediately and was soon sending them Toronto news and seeing my name in print.

I took a photo of the French Line freighter MARQUETTE at the Toronto dock at the foot of Yonge Street in July 1960 and sent that to Telescope when that ship caught fire in the Atlantic on July 21, 1964. They printed it in the July 1964 issue. I was getting hooked. Telescope also published my first article "Reprieved Canallers" in their January 1965 issue.

I began my teaching career in the town of Waterford, Ontario, but came home to see my parents many weekends and occasionally found time to visit the Toronto waterfront. My first fall as a teacher, with a day off for Remembrance Day, I journeyed to the Welland Canal for the first time to take photos of ships. My collection was beginning to grow.

I discovered that Upper Lakes Shipping printed a newsletter called Ship-Shore Digest and I was fortunate when they added me to the subscribers list. Lou Cahill, through his public relations firm Ontario Editorial Bureau, produced the publication and he soon became a good friend, a great help and a wonderful encouragement in future projects.

The LUBROLAKE at Montreal

The LUBROLAKE at Montreal when I was part of the crew in May 1963. Skip Gillham photo.

Two other friendships developed at this time. I began corresponding with George Ayoub and Dan McCormick, and exchanging news and photos. Both were a wonderful influence and a great example of keeping ship records. Dan and I both coached cross-country running, so he organized the Can-Am Invitational Cross Country Meet at Massena, New York, in 1970 so we could get together. I took some of my team and this provided me with an opportunity to meet Dan and his family. The fall running event continued into the mid-1980s, and when I meet my athletes from that era, they still talk about those races.

Towards the end of our trips to Massena, Dan had retired and the meet was now called the Daniel C. McCormick Invitational Meet in his honor and I was thrilled when my son earned a ribbon with Dan's name on it. I also have Dan to thank for choosing me to be his successor as Regional News Editor for Steamboat Bill, the quarterly journal of the Steamship Historical Society of America. I assumed that position in 1973 and remained in that capacity for 37 1/2 years, a total of 150 columns, before passing the torch to Mark Shumaker in 2011.

MARQUETTE at Toronto

MARQUETTE at Toronto in July 1960, the first photo I ever had published.

During one of my canal visits in 1965, I came across a gentleman hiking down the canal road with a briefcase. I had heard about Rev. Cameron Orr and the Welland Canal Mission while I was onboard the LUBROLAKE and had gone to summer camp with two of his sons. Although we had never met, I was pretty sure that this hiker was the chaplain, so I stopped and offered him a ride. He accepted and, after chatting, he told me he was about to board the steamer BLACK BAY in Lock 3 and asked if I would like to join him. I did not take long to answer. I was impressed with the chaplain, his interest in and concern for the sailors. That meeting began an association with the Welland Canal Mission that still lasts. They invited me to join their Board of Directors in 1970 and two years later, they elected me President of the Board. I have been re-elected every two years since and continue in the capacity of President to this writing I remain impressed with the work of the mission that dates from 1868 and the fact that only four men have served as chaplain in the 146 years since the mission began. They have indeed been "four men, called of God, to a lifetime of service" to the sailors and their families.

In 1967, a chance meeting under the Bluewater Bridge in Port Huron with marine photographer Paul Michaels was another of those important moments, much like the day John Bascom sent photos home with my dad. Paul sold ship photos so I began filling the gaps in my collection of the ships I remembered but, of which, had not yet obtained photos. I would order photos from Paul almost monthly and he and I became good friends for the rest of his life.

Now married, my wife and I moved to Vineland in the Niagara area in 1968 to continue my teaching career at Beamsville D.S.S. I discovered that the local St. Catharines Standard newspaper had a column called "Ships That Ply The Lakes" each Saturday. I read Capt. Geoffrey Hawthorn's feature, which had begun in 1956, and continued until he died in July 1969 at the age of 73. I applied to be his successor and persistence paid off as I had to write the editor three times before it was decided that I should continue the series. I recall my eager anticipation of seeing my first story on the Parkdale when it appeared on March 14, 1970.

I have now written well over 2,000 "Ships That Ply The Lakes" columns in the Standard; have surpassed 1,500 in the Port Huron Times Herald, which began on a seasonal, but now year-around, basis, in 1973; over 1,000 shipwreck columns in various West Niagara area weekly papers; and many hundreds more during my run as a columnist with the Dunnville Chronicle, Port Colborne News (now Port Colborne Leader), Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin, Midland Free Press, Goderich Signal Star, Sarnia Observer and Thorold Niagara News. At present, I am in eight different papers per week with six completely different stories as my Thorold column also runs in the Pelham News and Inport News. I also write a regular column for Mariners Weather Log, have contributed stories to a variety of other newspapers, historical journals, corporate publications and the News Channel of the "Boatnerd" website.

My contact with Upper Lakes Shipping through Ship-Shore Digest opened my eyes to opportunities to write for other companies and this has included close to 40 years with Canada Steamship Lines doing a feature called "Yesterday's Fleet" in their newsletter CSL World. I have also done stories for Fednav and their publication Spanner as well as for the Misener and Paterson fleet newsletters.

My first book, Ships Along the Seaway, was published by Stonehouse Publications in 1972. I produced four books in this series and, with the help of the aforementioned Lou Cahill, I teamed with the late Al Sykes to write The Pulp and Paper Fleet: A History of the Quebec & Ontario Transportation Co. in 1988. This opened a new concept for me of doing corporate histories. While some I did on my own, it also led to teaming up with some well-known marine historians and photographers to do books for Stonehouse Publications, its successor Riverbank Traders, as well as Vanwell Press.

When I retired from teaching in 1997, my wife and I created Glenaden Press to begin producing our own books. These have included various fleet histories, shipbuilding and shipwreck books as well as The Visitors Guide to the Welland Canal. But we have also done some community history, one on the history of the summer camp we attended, our church's anniversary, the history of the Welland Canal Mission, some family history, family genealogy, sports statistics books, family travels and a ten-volume series called Birds and Nature for my grandchildren. All of these limited-edition booklets are only done in small press runs of about 25 copies or less and given to friends and family. For those who have wondered, the name Glenaden Press comes from Glenaden Avenue, the name of the street where I lived in Etobicoke.

I am fortunate to have worked with outstanding marine historians and photographers who served as co-authors in my various books. These have included Jay Bascom, Ron Beaupre, Bruno Boissonneault, Tom Brewer, Dave Bull, Steven Duff, Buck Longhurst, Mac Mackay, Dan McCormick, Skip Meier (in a book not yet published), Gene Onchulenko, Gerry Ouderkirk, Don Revell, Alfred Sagon-King, Vern Sweeting, Al Sykes, Dick Wicklund and Garnet Wilcox.

PARKDALE, inbound at Port Colborne

PARKDALE, inbound at Port Colborne, on September 2, 1968, the photo used in my first "Ships That Ply The Lakes" column. Photo by Skip Gillham.

I must also express thanks to my "spy network" who have provided me with news, photos and information over the years. Anything I may have accomplished could not have been done without the long-term and consistent help of the individuals already mentioned throughout this write up as well as others such as Barry Andersen, Jim Bartke, Rene Beauchamp, BillBruce, Jeff Cameron, Bob Campbell, Michael Cassar, Marc Dease, Terry Doyon, Alex Duncan, Jeff Dwor, Steve Elve, Hubert Hall, Alfred King, Ken Lowes, the Marine Room of the Milwaukee Public Library, Selim San, Jim Sprunt, Robert Walton, and many, many more in years gone by and in more recent years. To all, I say thank you for helping me over the past 50 years.

I must also say thanks to the who have purchased my various books to keep the publishing venture going. It has meant a lot to have orders for the next book from people I have never had the privilege of meeting but whosenames were recognized as former customers. I thank each one. I have been fortunate to have a good pension so I did not have to write books for profit. Good thing! My goal has been to pay for the cost of printing each book and have enough left over for the next one. From the beginning, this has worked for Glenaden Press.

On board the SAGUENAY with Rev. Cameron Orr

On board the SAGUENAY with Rev. Cameron Orr in 1971. Rev. Cameron Orr photo.

Lastly, I extend thanks to my wife Carol and our family. I have been able to use photos from five generations of family beginning with an old image taken by my maternal grandfather M.O. Hammond, who was a well respected journalist and photographer in his day, plus those of my dad, wife, two brothers-in-law, two sons, both daughters-in-law and, as of 2014, five grandchildren. I am truly thankful!

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