The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


July 8, 2012

‘Perfectly fearless’

Laughing Jimmy Owen of Geneva faced life’s greatest storms with a smile and a dance


‘Corporate pressure’

Owen was employed by Acme Transit Co., which was owned by William A. and Arthur Harrison Hawgood of Cleveland. The Hawgoods held Owen in high regard and entrusted him with their newest vessels (there were eight of them in the fleet). Owen was the only captain that the Henry B. Smith had known. The 13-year-old vessel was built in Lorain and was 565 feet long and had a beam of 55 feet. She was 6,631 gross tons and 5,229 net.

“Beesen’s Marine Directory” described the star of the Hawgood fleet as “one of the staunchest steel vessels on the lake.” Jimmy Owen had good reason to believe in the invincibility of his boat and his skills at handling her.

Based in Cleveland, the ship was no stranger to Ashtabula. A 1910 photo postcard shows the Smith with the old swing bridge in the background. That was a good year for Owen; he was, by every measure, a successful Great Lakes captain. He kept the Smith in the water and on the move, essential to making money for its owners, for no vessel makes a profit when it is tied up at dock or behind the breakwater awaiting a storm to pass.

The 1913 shipping season, however, brought a plague of problems beyond Owen’s control. It seemed as if every time he arrived at a lower-lake port, the Smith was a Johnny-come-lately and had to take its place behind a long row of vessels. Other times, mechanical failures at the docks prevented loading or unloading the Smith. During these waits, which could amount to three or four days, the boat continued to burn fuel and required insurance and maintenance. And its crew members continued to eat, and rather voraciously at that.

There also seemed to be an abundance of fog in congested shipping lanes that year, especially whenever the Smith was in the neighborhood. Prudent captains could do nothing other than drop anchor and wait, a scenario the owners despised as much as having their ships idle at port.

By the time November 1913 rolled around, Owen was a worried man under great pressure, the kind of pressure familiar to any person who has to answer to “corporate.” There were rumblings that Owen, unless he could make up for the dismal performance up to that point, would be looking for another vessel, perhaps a fishing tug or aged freighter, come spring. It took only one bad season to get knocked from the corporate pedestal.

Thus, it was with great personal interest that Owen had one eye on the weather and the other on the loading chutes of the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railroad the evening of Nov. 7, 1913. Both were dismal sights. The weather was getting worse by the hour and the forecast for a sou’wester seemed an understatement. The cold weather had frozen the ore in the hopper cars and made loading the Smith difficult and time consuming. When the storm struck Marquette with its full fury the morning of Nov. 8, loading was suspended and the dock workers sent home. Standing in the Smith’s pilothouse, Owen must have felt as if he were passing his final days there ... and indeed he was.

Perhaps, also, as Owen watched this dismal scenario, his mind went back eight years to the sinking of the Iosco, which Owen had once sailed upon. In a September gale, the Iosco and schooner Olive Jeannette foundered on Lake Superior while loaded with iron ore destined for a Lake Erie port. Twenty-six sailors perished as the Iosco’s captain, Nelson Gonyaw, attempted to find shelter among the islands east of the Keweenaw peninsula.

Soon it would Owen’s turn to face a scenario similar to that Gonyaw experienced on the same lake and with the same cargo. Turning his face toward the wind, Owen laughed; he would do better, he would deliver the goods, and restore his good name with the Hawgoods.

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