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A PERILOUS ADVENTURE:  Trip With the Island Mail

From Reference (12) - see Bibliography

Most persons who read the newspapers take a lively interest in exciting tales of dangers and escapes told by adventurers in remote western wilds, in mountain fastnesses, among Alaskan glaciers, or mayhap with train robbers on the night express, with floods, earthquakes, blow-ups and blow-outs of all descriptions.

As "distance lends enchantment," so a glamour of romance is thrown upon these distant occurrences, investing each detail with an abnormal interest, while oft-times within one's immediate neighborhood perilous ventures and hair-breadth escapes from danger and death are made but never recorded. No better illustration along this line could be cited than is furnished by the United States mail service in operation between the Lake Erie islands and points on the mainland during the winter season. Few occupations, indeed, could be fraught with more real hardship and precarious undertaking, and only the hardiest of that hardy race of amphibians who inhabit the archipelago, will incur the risk and, responsibility attaching to the position of mail carrier, despite the very liberal pecuniary inducements offered by Uncle Sam.

The experience of a "landlubber" who once got stranded upon the islands, is one among scores of stories which might be related in connection with the island mail service. The adventurer, who lived in a thriving inland city, had been necessitated by urgent business to visit Isle St. George-the most northerly of the Bass group.

Fresh from the noise and enterprise of busy streets the little lone isle wrapped in its wintry environments appeared to the stranger most desolate and forlorn. He had intended remaining over night only, but in two hours after his arrival a nor'easter, one of the heaviest that ever struck the islands, swooped down with a fury that sent people flying to their houses, birds and animals to coverts wherever afforded, and made the fisherman's cot, wherein the visitor had taken refuge, rock upon its foundations. The wind blew a sixty miles an hour gale, and the lake, which had been frozen over, was broken up by the mighty sweep of the hurricane. The sea was tremendous. By its force, masses of ice were lifted and flung high upon the shores to weatherward, when drenched by surf and frozen together, they formed vast solid ridges and ranges of ice hills, arched, pillared and corniced like the facade of a northern iceberg, and rising in places to a height of forty feet. Spray swept in showers across adjacent lands, coating heavily with ice rocks, trees, shrubbery and all objects within a hundred yards of shore. Snow blew in horizontal lines. The roar of the wind and crash of the ice were terrific, and the scene presented was one of sublimity.

For three days the stranger was storm-bound upon the island. Anxious ones at home awaited his return, wondering at his long absence. Damaged by ice, the wires of the telegraph cable would not work and he could send them no message, and so on the third night the storm having abated, he resolved to seize the first opportunity of escape from his forced exile.

The carrier left on the following morning with the mail - long delayed - and our adventurer was duly on hand ready to accompany him as a "passenger" to the mainland. The mail-boat, gotten up to order, was a solidly built yawl with an exterior covering of sheet iron, and furnished with short, narrow runners.

A motley crowd gathered at the island postoffice to see the carrier off with his party, and down the frozen ice banks they were soon plunging to the lake. The passenger, U. S. mail pouch and expressage were stowed in the stern, while the carrier and his assistants attired in water-tight suits and rubber boots managed the boat.

The entire network of inlets, bays and channels was packed throughout with heavy ice drift. The surface was frozen, but not sufficiently to bear a man, so that a passage for the boat had to be broken and cleared with pike poles. It was hard work and tedious and the distance between Isle St. George and Middle Bass seemed interminable. Lines of drift four or five feet deep barred the way at some points across which - it being impossible to force a channel - the boat was drawn and pushed, all the men disembarking for the purpose, save the passenger, who being unused to the situation was ordered to keep his seat as the surest means of keeping out of the way.

The ice was most treacherous. The waves had broken, pulverized and rolled it into perfectly round balls of all sizes from a lemon to immense spherical bodies many feet in diameter. These ball-like masses were liable to crumble beneath the feet at any moment. There were deep holes and fissures where water appeared and crumbling ice obliged the men to hastily grasp and climb into the boat. The surface, too, was broken with icy knobs and sharp spines rising high in places, and here even the passenger was required to land that the boat might be gotten over with less exertion. The experience was new and novel to the stranger. It was likewise depressing and made him wonder vaguely whether he would ever see home again. In fact he would have parted with a snug sum to have been safe once more on the mainland.

Middle Bass was reached; two men and a team were waiting to convey the party to the postoffice, where another mail pouch and more expressage were shipped. They were soon again on their way toward the eastern extremity of Put-in-Bay. The channel between these islands was even more difficult of passage. The ice had been wildly tossed and deeply drifted. Contorted images of mottled marble menaced, and berg-like masses confronted them. Approaching shore, the drift rose several feet above the lake surface. It was full of seams and cavernous hollows, and a mass giving way the boat suddenly reared and plunged bow foremost into the opening. The passenger, mailbags and express matter were as suddenly shot from stern to stem, where they lay in a confused mass. Two men went into the water to the girdle, the other to his neck. Then and there was a squirming time, but men and boat subsequently fished each other out, and got righted, and wet, cold and hungry, they reached shore about noon. Here the mail boat, by which they had crossed, was left for the return trip. At this place a second iron-sheeted boat like the first had been left on the beach, which the carrier had purposed transporting to the opposite side of the island to connect between Put-in-Bay and the peninsula; but the boat had disappeared, having been buried ten feet deep under the drift ice which ridged the shore. Fortunately the exact spot where it lay was known, and although the men protested against the long, laborious task the carrier insisted upon digging it out. Axes, picks and shovels were procured from adjacent houses, and after two hours' hard work the boat was dragged forth. With mail bags, pike poles and passenger, it was loaded upon an islander's wagon and conveyed to its destination.

At the Bay village the man who had taken an involuntary bath exchanged some of his wet garments for others furnished, and dinner with hot coffee was partaken of with a relish. Here the third and heaviest mail bag was received with more expressage. Two more "passengers" anxious to reach the main shore wished to join the carrier, but were intimidated by reports of the bad going and gave it up. A crowd saw them off. The day was wearing along and the carrier hastened, realizing something of the difficulty yet ahead. Several miles of lake were still to be gotten over, with the prospect of having to break and force a passage the most of the way.

The ice was found to be in a most precarious condition. In many places it was too tough to break without great effort, yet not solid enough to bear men and boat, and was constantly crumbling beneath their feet.

To make matters worse, the wind freshened and began blowing a strong gale from the west. Clouds which had skurried about early in the day thickened, and snow began flying, with prospects of more to follow. The passenger grew seriously alarmed; he was also benumbed with cold, and to keep from freezing begged to be allowed a part in wielding the pike poles and propelling the boat. The wind continued and the ice broke and began running heavily before it. Angular masses ground their sharp points against the boat's sides with a force, which, but for its iron mailing, would have shattered it. Midway of the channel they got fast in a running drift and were carried eastward several miles before they could extricate themselves. One of the men had broken in and was wet to the shoulders, while the others were nearly exhausted. To intensify the unpleasantness snow began falling so thickly as to entirely blot from view the land. The carrier felt in all his pockets for the compass which he usually carried, but found that he had forgotten to bring it. Twilight was then falling and darkness came on apace. Lights were invisible from shore and the party realized that they were lost on the running ice, in the night and whirling snow. They were nearly dead from fatigue but struggled on, not knowing whether they headed shoreward or out into the open lake. While assisting in working the boat through a tough gorge our hero, the landlubber, got into the water over head and ears, and being less dexterous than his companions narrowly escaped being carried away under the ice. He was badly frightened and more dead than alive, but a heavy dose of brandy from a pocket flask served to restore him. There was no moon. Clouds shut out the starlight and wind and snow cut painfully. In this sad dilemma an idea struck the carrier. The wind had been blowing from the west and was probably in the same direction.

"Why not steer by the wind? " This suggestion was acted upon. Another hour passed when to their intense relief the snow ceased falling and a light became visible. Shouts were sent up and soon an answer came back and lanterns twinkled close by. The carrier and his party were helped ashore by men who came out to meet them. They did not know their whereabouts, but found that they had landed a few miles beyond the point for which they had aimed.

A steaming hot supper served before a rollicking fire in a shore dweller's kitchen reanimated the exhausted party, and an hour later they were whirled away to the nearest depot, arriving just in time to catch the outgoing express.

Our landlubber was undoubtedly the happiest and most thankful man on the train, but the island mail reached Sandusky too late that night for delivery.

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Revised: 21 Jul 2008 07:50:04.

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