The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Currents

June 3, 2012

Jumbo legend

Great Lakes sailor who had a legendary appetite enjoyed hobo amenities at Conneaut

Kelsey’s Run rambles through the flatlands of Conneaut Township Park, carving graceful curves in the grassy area just north of Lake Road and slipping quietly under the two stone bridges in its final stretch toward Lake Erie.

  Nearly a century ago, this sylvan scene was pocked with shanties and other crude shelters assembled from whatever discarded hatch covers the seamen who lived here could carry “home.” These “jungles” were a fixture at virtually every port on the Great Lakes, but it has been said that Conneaut’s encampment was among the most exotic of the lot.

A gas line that passed through the area provided fuel for cooking and warmth — a hole drilled through the pipe was all that was needed to access the free utility. According to Dwight Boyer’s “Strange Adventures of the Great Lakes,” the Great Lakes hobos who made the oasis their home hounded the bakeries, butcher shops and benevolent residents to scrounge up their daily bread, meat and vegetables. Dairy products were easily acquired by lagging behind the milkman by a few houses and helping oneself to what he left on the porches that morning.

Of all the Great Lakes hobos who encamped and dined on this spot, none is as legendary as Jumbo Lynch. Weighing in at around 365 pounds, Jumbo certainly could live up to his name on the attributes of girth and weight alone.

“He was so big that he would completely fill up the door into the fire hold, like a tennis ball in a kitchen drain, but he moved about pretty lively when the porter rang the meal bell,” recalled Gordon Hagadone, who was a cook on the Great Lakes for 42 years and is quoted in Boyer’s book.

But it was his jumbo appetite that gave him a name that became so associated with his being that everyone forgot what was his “real first name” was. Some of the old sailors recalled it as “Al”; other said it was Henry, Herman, James, Vincent or Patrick.

While Boyer’s story focuses on Lynch’s sailing days, according to a short article in the June 1954 Railroad Magazine, Jumbo Lynch spent some time riding the rails before signing on Great Lakes vessels as a fireman.

“Tom Rooney swears this one is true,” states the article. “He used to know this big guy named ‘Jumbo’ Lynch, a native from Ontario, Canada, who walked off his job on the Rock Island in the switchmen’s strike of 1909 and thereafter worked for years aboard ships on the Great Lakes. When ice closed the navigation season Jumbo would ride around the country on phony railroad-union receipts, for he was a bogus member of all orders and could beg the brothers out of meals, lodgings or hard-earned cash.

“He had a trick card-case with various compartments, each containing a traveling card and receipts of a lodge: Trainmen, Switchmen, Fireman, Engineers —  Jumbo had them all. Approaching a prospect wearing a Trainman’s button, for example, the big fellow would present his BRT credentials; but if the man wore no insigne and was of doubtful value, the parasite would question him somewhat like this:

“ ‘Are you a Trainman?’

“ ‘No, I’m not,’” the fellow might reply. ‘I wouldn’t belong to that outfit. I’ve carried a Switchmen’s Union card for 20 years.’

“Thereupon Jumbo would flip over his SU card and say: ‘You an’ me, brother,’ and the prospect was usually good for fifty cents or a dollar. But woe unto any man who was beguiled into loaning Jumbo his ‘pie-book,’ this being a card or booklet good for a certain number of meals at a given restaurant.”

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