Fish Tugs of the Greatest Lake
My Last Trip On The Preble
Walter B. Krackowski
The thawing weather that started the last week of March continued on into April. By the end of the month, we still had honeycombed ice in the bays, but all of the snow as gone. All of the bigger fish companies had been fishing since about the second week of April, and I was getting pretty anxious to get back fishing, but it seemed that everybody already had their crew.
Now, Charley Ahlgrim was a seventy-year old, white haired, soft spoken, sweet old man, and a life-long fisherman. He was the man that sold the Vernon to Lyle McDonald in 1949.
He was thinking that his fishing years were about over, but he must have really missed fishing because of the fact that he had two old wooden fishing boats pulled up on the beach, west of his ice house, for years. His ice house, dock, and net shed were on the south shore of West Bay, straight north of Parmer and Pearl Masse's house. He decided to make one boat out of the two and then start back fishing.
Now, the one boat named Preble was a thirty-foot, fantail stern, forward controlled, gillnet fish tug, built around 1910 as a gasoline-powered vessel. The other boat was a forty-foot long pound net boat. It had an open deck, with only a little pilothouse at the bow. She had no engine, and was named the Flying Cloud. Charley had patched up the hull by bolting one-inch by eight-inch oak boards on the outside, over the old, rotten, planking at the water line. He then cut out the front of the forward control pilothouse and added the small pilothouse that he had removed from the Flying Cloud to the front of the Preble. This made the Preble look somewhat like the southern states Navy warship, the Merrimac.
He then moved the steering wheel to the raised stern, fantail deck. Above the wheel he cut a hole through the top of the house. Over this hole, he built a box, approximately three feet square by two feet high, out of old used lumber. It had a rectangular cutout hole on each side of it, which would serve as windows, but without glass. (It was like steering with your head in a birdcage!) He was an outstanding, and respected, fisherman, but he didn't know much about boat building or carpenter work. The Preble ended up looking like something a kid would make.
The one thing Charley did that was smart was to put a small, four-cylinder, Universal, gas marine auxiliary engine, with shaft and propeller, into the Preble. The original main engine must have been changed to a big, 1927 four-cylinder Brennen gas marine engine. The lifting machine was a starboard lifter that was powered by the main engine.
Charley hired only one man to fish with him for the 1951 season, that man was Bob Miller.
Bob was also known as Cockeyed Bob. He was a very colorful character. He used to say, "I'm the only guy in Grand Marais that can lay on his back and look down a well!" Bob only worked for Charley that one summer. In 1952, Bob got a job working for the Township. In hearing that Charley had a job opening, I stopped at his dock and asked for the job.
He said I could have the job, but that it was still April and that he only fished from May through August, because the Preble couldn't buck any heavy weather. The first week in May I went to work for Charley. He was great to work for, very quiet and respectful, even to a sixteen-year old kid. We wouldn't leave the dock before eight o'clock a.m., and not until after Charley had checked on the weather forecast.
Now, Lake Superior has what is called a bank, which runs parallel to the south shore, about five miles out. From two miles out, from the harbor entrance to the top of the bank, the depth runs a consistent ninety feet. From there, the depth drops to somewhere between three to three hundred and fifty feet, within a distance of less than a quarter-mile. All distance on the lake is measured by knowing the speed of your gait, multiplied by the time run. The Preble only ran about six m.p.h. on her gait, so if we were going to set a gang of nets on the bank due north of the harbor entrance, we would note the time on the ship's clock, then run thirty-six minutes due north. That would put us at the top of the bank.
I might add that this particular course was one of four that Charley always fished. Another spot was "Chummy's Hump." That course was northeast by north or thirty degrees magnetic for fifty-two minutes. The next spot was due north of Second Creek (Sable Creek), its compass course being northwest one-quarter west, or three hundred and ten degrees magnetic for forty-two minutes. The last spot was "Mary's Hump," which was about midway between Second Creek and Au Sable Light. That was our longest run. The course was west-northwest, or two hundred and eighty-five degrees magnetic for fifty-two minutes.
Now to make sure we were at the right spot, I would take some soundings with a sounding line. The Preble didn't have a fathometer, an instrument that reads the depth electronically. The only navigational instruments we had were a ship's compass, a Big Ben alarm clock, and a logbook.
For most of the bigger fish companies, a box of nets was three hundred leads long, which is twenty seven hundred feet long, and they set sixteen boxes to a gang. A box of nets on the Preble was two hundred and twenty leads per box, which was nineteen hundred and eighty feet long., and Charley only set five boxes to a gang. We would lift, and set back, one gang per day, setting back half of the gang with wet nets and half of the gang with fresh, dry nets. The reason Charley only fished four gangs is because he wouldn't let his nets fish more than four nights before lifting. This way he never had any soft or spoiled fish, like some of the bigger outfits had.
Our days on the lake were mostly short days. Like I said, we wouldn't leave the dock before eight a.m. and were never in later than four p.m. And for this Charley paid me eleven dollars a day. That was real good pay, as the bigger companies were paying twelve or thirteen dollars a day, for a lot longer day that included handling a lot more nets. As it turned out, I only worked for Charley for about three weeks.
Bill Traeger had just put a new Chrysler Crown marine engine in his boat, the forty-two foot H.M. Squatter, and he wanted Russ to fish with him on shares. But they needed one more man. So, Russ asked me if I was interested. I told Russ, for shares, I sure was, but that I couldn't leave Charley cold and that I would try to find a replacement for myself. I saw Allen Hebert one night and he said he was interested in fishing for Charley in my place. So, I asked Charley if he was agreeable and he said he was, but that I should make one more trip with him, along with Al, to see that he could catch on. The last trip I made on the Preble was one I'll never forget.
With Charley, Al, and I, the Preble left the dock around the usual eight o'clock hour, and ran to our furthest run, "Mary's Hump." We picked up the buoy around nine-fifteen. We had lifted about three boxes, with two more to go, when a stiff south wind started to blow. We kept lifting, and the wind kept increasing. By the time we finished lifting, we'd put an anchor on the ending buoy line and let it down. Usually we would tie back on, but this time the seas were running at least six feet high, and the wind was blowing harder with each passing minute.
At this point we had close to three hundred pounds of lake trout in fish boxes, about one hundred pounds of ice, two boxes of dry nets, and five boxes of wet nets that weighed about two hundred and fifty pounds per box. Besides having water in the bilge from lifting nets, we were taking on water from every crack and opening in the Preble's old, dilapidated house, as the seas were running as high as eight feet, with breaking whitecaps.
Just about then the old Brennen engine started smoking. It had lost its cooling water suction. The suction pipe went from the engine cooling water pump through the hull, just about a foot below the water line. So, when the boat would drop into a trough between two seas, the suction inlet would come out of the water, causing the pump to lose its prime. Charley shut the engine off, and the boat lost her forward momentum, and fell into the troughs, which were now being blown out past the bank and headed for Canada. Allen had been steering when the engine had to be shut off, so he stayed at the wheel. Meanwhile, we kept taking on more water in the bilge. Charley told us to start pumping.
Now, for a bilge pump the Preble had a primitive-looking device that was stowed under the raised fantail deck. It looked like it had probably been made by George Lowder. It was made out of galvanized tin, in the size of a piece of three-inch pipe. It was about five feet long, and had a leather foot valve at the bottom end and a six-inch funnel at the top. About six inches down from the bottom of the funnel there was a three-inch spout at least fifteen inches long. It was soldered at a right angle to the pump body. The piston part of the pump was a one-inch by one-inch piece of oak, with a deep vee-shaped leather cone attached to the bottom end. When in the down position, the one by one oak rod stuck out past the top of the funnel by six inches.
I inserted this pump down through a hole in the fantail deck, just outside the stern door opening, which was there for pumping purposes, and I started pumping. By this time we had almost two feet of water in the bilge. It had started sloshing around the sides of the main deck as the boat rolled.
Charley took the box-like cover off the little Universal auxiliary engine and said, "Golly, I haven't started this engine yet this year!. Now, this engine didn't have an electric starter. It had a magneto for spark and a carburetor with a gas line running to the main fuel tank with a shut-off valve on it. Charley opened the valve and put the choke on, and started to hand-crank it. After only about five or six flips of the crank, the engine started! After letting it run a minute or so, he threw in the clutch and Al brought the boat about, quartering her into the head seas on a course heading for the harbor entrance. By this time we had been blown away from the bank by over a mile, into deep water.
Charley changed a few fouled spark plugs on the old Brennen, primed its water pump, started it, and put it in gear. We ran both engines all the way in until we were entering the harbor. The old Preble, running with both engines, ran along at about eight miles an hour after we had her pumped out. Al spelled me off on the pump about half way in. For a while that day, I was sure I would get to see Canada, not knowing at the time that later that year, it would become a reality.
After my last trip on the Preble, I went to work on the Squatter, with Russ and Bill Traeger. Allen stayed on working for Charley. A couple of weeks later, Charley had a massive heart attack, and died. Al, being the person who knew where Charley's nets were set, got someone to go with him, and went out and pulled the nets. Someone also put the Preble on her cradle and pulled her up on the beach.
In 1960 I was asked if I would dispose of the Preble, as Irv Propst and I had been tearing down, and disposing of, a lot of old buildings around town at the time. So, Irv and I pulled out the engines, lifting machine, shafts, propellers, rudder, fuel tank, and ship's wheel, all for scrap. We then had the township fire department on stand-by as we burned the fifty-year old remains of the Preble.
Read more from Walter B. Krackowski: The Squatter Goes To Canada