The Work of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise

Tag: 1928 Page 1 of 4

Archie Has At Last Discovered a Use for Radio

July 7, 1928

The Little Woman Gets Her License

February 25, 1928

This image went with a story by Merrill Denison about his wife getting her driving licence.

February 26, 1928

Found – A $2 Bill, Owner Please Call at Post Office

January 7, 1928

$2 in 1928 would be $34.50 in 2023.

“Everybody Happy”

When they get to the Mad River I want them to dump the concrete boulder containing my ashes into the Hawthorn pool.

By Charles Vining, September 8, 1928.

“Let us,” Gregory said, “do something different now and then.”

“All right,” I said, cautiously.

“For example,” Gregory said, “if you’re going to interview somebody why can’t you have one about me for a change?”

“That’s too different,” I said. “We couldn’t go interviewing each other like that. It wouldn’t do.”

“Why not? What’s wrong with me?”

“Oh, you’re all right, Greg, and I like you, but you ought to be more of a public figure for an interview. You ought to be a financial magnate or a statesman or a railway president or something. You’re not even a golf champion or a visiting politician.”

“That’s just it,” Gregory said. “All our interviews are about the same kind of people. Rich or important. I’d be different.”

“How do you mean?”

“I’d be interesting.”

“That would be nice of you.”

“Do you know why?”

“No. But I suppose it’s something about fishing.”

“Not at all. I’d be interesting because I’m average. I’m like all the other people on the street. We’ve got the idea that people want freaks or heroes, but they don’t. They want people like themselves, that they can understand.”

“That’s bunk, Gregory. I suppose you think that’s why people like the colored comics.”

“Certainly. Exaggerations of themselves.”

“Well,” I said. “I’ve just had lunch with Fred and I don’t feel like arguing any more to-day. Anyway, we couldn’t have an interview about you, Greg. There wouldn’t be anything to ask you.”

“What do you usually ask people when you interview them?”

“Depends on the people. You have to ask them the things they know about.”

“You could ask me about the newspaper business, Charles.”

“All right. Mr. Clark. What do you regard, Mr. Clark, as the most serious problem of the newspaper business to-day?”

“That’s easy. The growing intelligence of the public.”

“And what is the solution, Mr. Clark?”

“I would make every editor pass his matriculation exams. Those who fall would be transferred to the business office.”

“Yes, that would look fine in an interview, Greg. You’d be getting your salary held back and then you’d blame me. Here’s a thing I’ve often wondered about you. Greg. Why are you in the newspaper business?”

“I May Be Minister of Fisheries”

“I’m not sure. But I think I went into it because everybody told me that the newspaper business leads to so many other things.”

“Where do you think it’s leading you?”

“Well, I’ve become Fishing Editor. I may be minister of game and fisheries some day.”

“For heaven’s sake, let’s keep off fishing. That’s one reason we could never have an interview about you, Greg. It would be sure to end up in a lot of tripe about trout. Why don’t you try to think about something else?”

“I do. Fishing is only my hobby.”

“If I were to ask you what is the most interesting thing in life, what would you say?”

“Not fishing. My wife and children.”

“Oh, you’ve been reading what Mr. Taschereau and Arthur Meighen said. That’s what they said.”

“I didn’t know that, Charles, honestly I didn’t. What should I say?”

“Yourself. That’s the most interesting thing in life to you. Your wife and children are interesting because they affect you. What’s your great object in life, Greg?”

“Object. Do I have to have an object?”

“Well, if you’re going to be successful you do. If you don’t know what you want how are you going to get it? Edison says the object of life should be to be happy. Are you happy?”

“Sure. I’m happy. But I want everybody to be happy.”

“Pollyanna. Awfully nice stuff for an interview.”

“No. If everybody’s happy they won’t be making trouble for me. That’s why I try to make everybody happy, Charles. When you see me, strutting round here and making a fool of myself that’s what I’m trying to do.”

“How do you mean?”

“Why, I’m letting people feel superior. They look at me and say to themselves they’re glad they’re not a queer nut like me and that makes them feel happy. I often let people feel superior so they’ll be happy. Then they don’t bother me.”

“That’s a fine philosophy for a young man. Haven’t you any ambition, Greg? I thought you told me a long time ago that you were going to write a book.”

“So I am. When I’m forty.”

“What’s it going to be about?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m going to do it when I’m forty.”

“How old are you now?”

“Thirty-six. I wouldn’t tell you that in an interview, though.”

“It’s high time you were doing something. Do you work hard at your writing?”

Gregory looked around the room.

“Yes,” he said, lowering his voice. “But I don’t want anybody to know it. It would spoil everything. I make them think I can’t work.”

“Do you work hard at your writing?” I asked. Gregory looked around the room. “Yes,” he said, lowering his voice. “But I don’t want anybody to know it.”

Has His Funeral All Planned

“How do you work? I never see you work.”

“I work all the time. I work walking along the street and sitting in Child’s. I’m always thinking about people and imagining about them and trying to understand them. On the street car I look at the man opposite me and think all about him. I’m never idle.”

“Oh, that,” I said. “But I mean work.”

“That’s work,” Gregory said. “Work means working at your job, doesn’t it? Well, my job is to understand about people so I’ll know what they like. The easiest part for me is sitting at the typewriter. But I wouldn’t want anybody to know about that, Charles.”

“Say, Greg. Do you mind telling me how you ever got to be a major in the army?”

“By not getting killed. I spent two years in an infantry battalion and kept from getting killed. They couldn’t help making me a major because there wasn’t anybody else left.”

“Were you a dug-out king, or what?”

“Well, I was pretty good in the dug-out. Adjutant for six months.”

“Oh. Adjutant. They probably had to promote you to get you out of the job.”

“Sure. They’ll find out anybody in six months, but I did pretty well. And apart from that, Charles, I was a champion. I wasn’t particularly athletic before the war but out there I was the champion of our whole brigade. There was only one other serious contender. I could jump higher, duck quicker and lie flatter than anybody in the brigade, even our colonel. And another reason I didn’t get killed was because I never got on a horse unless I absolutely had to.”

“Do you ever think about dying now, Greg?”

“Yes. I’ve got my funeral all planned. I’m going to make my will conditional on being buried the way I want.”

“What do you want them to do?”

“I want to be dressed in my fishing clothes, waders and jacket. Then I want them to lay me out with a rod in my hand and all my other rods, and flies and reels spread out round me. Then I want them to cremate me and all my things and put the ashes in the centre of a great big concrete boulder. The boulder will be put on a truck and all my fishing friends will soberly follow the truck up to the Mad river. When they get there I want them to dump the concrete boulder into the Hawthorn pool. And that’s all.”

“An awfully nice idea, Greg. Will you have anything inscribed on the boulder?”

“No. It will be just under the water in that pool, and all the trout will get in the shadows of it.”

“But nobody will know it’s there.”

“Certainly they will. Every good fisherman knows where the big boulders are in the pool he’s fishing. And all my friends will fish in the pool and they’ll come along and say, ‘There’s, Greg out there; I think I’ll try a cast there.’ They’ll never forget me that way.”

Doesn’t Believe in Judgment

“Why do you pick the Hawthorn pool?”

“Well, that’s where I’ve had my best fishing in the Mad river. And the pool really needs a big boulder anyway.”

“Don’t you think you’re liable to have trouble digging yourself out of that boulder on Judgment Day?”

“I don’t believe in Judgment. I got away from the idea of Judgment in the war. I knew old Jim-, a wicked carousing devil with blue eyes and an orange moustache, but brave and true and gay. How could he be Judged? How could the other men I know be Judged? And if they can’t be Judged, how can you or I?”

“Do you believe there’s life after death, Greg?”

“I think so. I hope there is; I’ve got some friends I’d like you to meet, Charles. I hope everybody’ll be there together. Everybody happy.”

“Even your colonel?”

“Yep.”

“And the governor-general?”

“Yep.”

“I thought you weren’t very keen about governor-generals.”

“Oh, they’re all right.”

“Didn’t I hear you saying the other day wo ought to do away with the governor-general in Canada?”

“Well, I was probably talking to some colonial. I wouldn’t make a fuss about doing away with the governor-general. He does no harm.”

“Would you like to see Canada get out of the Empire, Greg?”

“No, why leave the Empire? It does no harm to be in the Empire. I don’t think we need to leave the Empire any more than England or Scotland does. We’re all right. Canada is free. Canada has her own flag. Some people can’t see it and, I don’t know what it looks like myself, but I know it’s flying, right at the top of every mast.”

“Do you think Canada is ever likely to be annexed by the United States, Greg?”

“I’ll tell you what I do think. I think that within fifty years the United States will be annexed by Canada. I think the United States is heading toward the worst social disaster in human history through the breakdown of law and Justice. They’ll come to Canada to get our law and justice to save them.”

“Well, prophecy is safe, Greg. By the time it happens you’ll be up there in your boulder with the trout.”

“That would be pretty hot stuff for the interview though, Charles. What do you say?”

“Oh, we’d better forget that interview idea, Greg. If people were to read some of the things you’ve said they’d think we’re both nutty.”

“No they wouldn’t. I’ve given you some pretty good answers. You ought to write it.”

“That Sort of Thing’s Libelous”

“Well you know, Greg, an interview isn’t just a bunch of questions and answers. There’d have to be a description of you. Do you think you’d like that?”

“That’s all right. I’d help you with it.”

“No you wouldn’t. If I were going to interview you I’d interview you and it would be accurate and truthful.”

“What would you say, Charles?”

“I’d just tell what you look like. Five feet two inches tall, tously hair, large head, small face, green shirt, red tie, baggy clothes, shoes need shining, pockets always bulging with old letters which are never answered, hat over one ear, small glittery blue eyes behind a screen of long straight eyelashes, humorous terrier brows, acquisitive nose, hard mouth if you’d take off that straggly moustache, loud voice, big stride, glad hand, fine telephone manner, ready promises but-“

“Say,” Gregory said, “that sort of thing’s libelous. You’d get the paper into trouble. That’s my character, not my appearance. And it’s not right anyway.”

“Certainly it’s right. And I’d have to give an estimate of your character if the interview were going to be any good at all.”

“You don’t know my character. I’d have to tell you that.”

“You never ask a man his character when yon interview him. You have to estimate it. But I know yours already.”

“I’ll bet you don’t.”

“I know it better than you do, Greg. You never know your own character. You only know what you like to think it is.”

“Oh, is that so?” Gregory said.

He said it noisily, but I detected a furtive alarm.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well?” Gregory said.

“There’d have to be something about your habit of procrastination. And your fixed rule of never keeping an engagement on time, no matter how important it is. And your methods of wangling things. And the way you mismanage money. And your artfulness in bluffing things you don’t know anything about. And-“

“Look here, Charles. I thought you were my friend.”

“So I am, Greg. I’m just proving it. I know you, and still I like you. I’ll tell you, Greg. If you really want this interview I’m willing to do it.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize it would mean so much trouble for you, Charles.”

“I don’t mind that, Greg. In fact, I believe I’d like to do it for you.”

“No. Charles,” Gregory said. “I wouldn’t think of bothering you with it. Let’s go over to Child’s and have a talk.”


Editor’s Notes: I make an exception on this site and include another author’s writing in the event it is about Greg or Jim. Charles Vining was one of their colleagues on the Star Weekly.

Arthur Meighen was a former Prime Minister of Canada. Louis-Alexandre Taschereau was premier of Quebec from 1920 to 1936.

This Explains That Detour Over on the Town Line

June 9, 1928.

British American Motors Ad

June 2, 1928

When a Steam Bubble Burst

April 21, 1928

This illustration accompanied a story by Frederick Griffin on a railway that was discontinued.

When the Tempest Breaks

December 1, 1928

By Gregory Clark, December 1, 1928.

This is the Time of Danger for Four Thousand Fishermen On Ontario Lakes

For four thousand men of Ontario this is the time of danger and grim omen.

Out of the northwest, any night or day now, may come without warning a gale that will turn to a blizzard and a tempest that will turn to a hurricane.

And when it comes, these four thousand must at once go forth and place their lives in jeopardy.

We think of sailors as being the men who now must walk with circumspection. But the great lakes fishermen, as far as the perils of their craft go, are in a class by themselves. When this November storm season comes, a whole department of government goes into action to warn and safeguard the sailor. But in their isolated fishing stations the fishermen do not receive meteorological notices.

When the blizzard comes, the sailors steer their ships for shelter. But it is when the hurricane breaks that the fishermen have to leave their little harbors and go forth to save their fortunes.

Despite the fact that one-third the surface of Ontario in water, we are landlubbers to the core in this province, and we do not grasp the extent and range of the fishing industry which is not only a great wealth producer, but one of the most colorful and romantic features of Ontario life.

We do not understand that a fisherman has an investment of fifty thousand dollars or more entrusted out there in the gale-swept reaches of the northern lakes to the cruel mercies of wind and wave.

One pound net, fresh from the makers, costs $600. When that pet is fitted and laid, anchored and buoyed, with all the infinite labor that we will shortly describe, its value, as it stands there off some rocky point, is in the neighborhood of $1,500. Many fishermen have the maximum number of these large pound nets, which is ten. That makes $15,000. His steam tug costs around $25,000. His three or four smaller gas boats total up another thousand or two. His fish-houses, ice plants, wharves, pile-driver and all the rest of the impedimenta necessary to netting fish from the water in paying quantities, run up to an unknown average, but they will bring the whole far above fifty thousand dollars all told.

And a storm can ruin it all. The terrible storms of last year came the second of December, and fortunately most of the fishermen had their nets safely hauled ashore and stowed for the winter.

But a storm that is a storm can take those costly nets and not only wreck them but utterly destroy them. They will not be seen again. Three years ago, that great August storm ruined many men and brought others close to ruin. Nets swept away, boats wrecked and smashed, lives lost.

34 Million Pounds of Fish

It is to try to save their property that the fishermen have to go forth when all the rest of mankind run for port. Epics are for the time being out of fashion in literature. But when the deeds of men once again transcend in popular fancy the psychoses of flappers male and female, then someone with the gift may find the material he is seeking along the north shore, from Killarney westward over the wide sea, amid white cliffs and gray sullen water where, curiously enough in this advanced day, men lie in port in fine weather and only go out to their task when the storm gods stream along the sky.

Ontario’s four thousand fishermen take their fish in a number of different ways. The pound netters and the gill netters require big outfits to lay and handle the nets. Last year there were about 1,300 pound nets, some of them belonging to big outfits that had ten, and some in singles and twos and threes belonging to more modest fishermen.

Over seven million yards of gill nets were used in the great lakes, from the St. Lawrence to the Nipigon last year. Try to picture yourself setting just a hundred yards of gill net down into three hundred feet of water, all properly leaded and buoyed, and then imagine seven million yards.

A hundred thousand hooks were also licensed last year. These are the long lines set in deep water, with hooks every two feet or so along the line, baited with small herring. Only a little outfit is needed for this kind of set-line fishing, and sometimes it gets very big results. A few seines, hoop-nets and lesser tackles are used by individual small fishermen.

These four thousand fishermen use over three million dollars’ worth of nets, boats and other plant. They own 118 tugs, over a thousand gas boats and launches and a thousand sail and rowboats.

On Lake Ontario is, strangely enough, the biggest fishing community, for while the lowest lake of the chain is naturally supposed to be fished out, from a commercial point of view, there are immensely rich fishing banks at the eastern end of the lake, down past the Bay of Quinte and the outlet to the St. Lawrence. Over 870 men are employed, mostly gill net men with gas boats, and their take of fish does not rank with other regions, being only around $400,000 a year.

Lake Erie and the Georgian bay each have about 750 fishermen working on them, counting the north channel as part of the Georgian bay. They both have something like 35 big tugs operating, but Erie has over 550 pound nets while the Georgian bay men have only a little over 200. Their take of fish both run over six hundred thousand dollars each.

Last year, altogether, they took over 34 million pounds of fish out of the great lakes. By far the greater part of this was sold to the States, shipped by highly-organized shipping service to New York, Chicago and other cities.

The biggest catch was of lake trout, seven and one-half million pounds, with whitefish at six millions, herring and the two kinds of pickerel at over five million pounds.

Many of these fishing outfits are located at out-of-the-way corners of the great lakes. And none of them is more picturesque than those along the north shore of the Georgian bay and the north channel.

The Fisherman’s Daily Routine

Just at the close of the season, when the phenomenal spawning run of the lake trout and whitefish were on, we visited Killarney. On Joseph Rocque’s tug, we went out and watched them lifting their nets and going through the daily routine of the fishermen’s life.

Rocque has eight pound nets. A pound net is a complex and elaborate affair. It cannot be set anywhere. Its location has to be a specially selected one, somewhere along the deep shores where the trout and whitefish cruise by in their eternal pilgrimage in pursuit of the herring.

Out from the shore is run the lead, which is a strong net sometimes several hundred feet long and as deep as the water is. The first of Rocque’s nets we visited had a lead three hundred feet out from shore, and its depth was eighty feet all the way. It reached from the bottom of the lake to the surface.

This immense spread of net was supported every forty or fifty feet by an immense wooden spar, made of as many spruce poles as were needed, spliced strongly together and driven by a pile-driver into the sand at the bottom of the lake. Then it was guyed with strong ropes attached to regular ships’ anchors, attached to each upright pole. Rocks were fastened to its bottom to hold it trim and upright so that all the fish that came along that shore, on reaching the net, could not pass under or over it, but had to follow it outward until they got into the toils of the pound.

Try to imagine the task of setting that long lead, eighty feet deep and hundreds of feet long. without the services of a deep-sea diver. Against current and tide, wind and weather, that lead has to stand trim and true from spring until late autumn.

The lead runs out to the pound. Two other great fins of net reach outward, called the heart, to prevent the fish from swinging outward round the “pot” – as the pound is called by the fishermen – and these also are anchored and guyed in place.

The “pot” is simply a huge bag of net, square, thirty-five feet to a side, and eighty feet deep. or shallower or deeper as the water requires. Just an immense sort of landing-net.

In the side of it, facing the long lead out from shore, is a small opening, about three feet square, framed with metal. The fish that come feeling their way along the lead bump up against either the outer net wall of the “pot” or else the out-flaring wings of the “heart,” and in due time, such is the doggedness of fish, they discover this opening which they think is the way out. But it is, alas, only the way in.

Every two days, the fishermen come in their tugs, towing a sort of small fish barge. They run alongside the “pot,” three or four men get into the smaller craft, and taking one side of the great bag, haul upon it little by little, the bag is shortened and they have at the surface a thrashing and floundering netful of fish.

Then with hand-nets they scoop the fish out of the shortened bag into their boat, rejecting the under-sized ones and tossing them back, unharmed, into the water. That is one beauty of pound nets. They do not injure the fish as gill nets or hooks do. And furthermore, if great storms come up that prevent the fishermen taking the fish from the nets, they are in no way spoiled, swimming freely about in the big space of the bag. Whereas, in gill nets, if the eaten is not attended to within a certain reasonably short-time, the fish die and spoil. That is why, when you buy fish, you should look for those that show no net marks on them, by which they strangled and slowly died, or were half dead when taken from the nets, but try to get the firm fish that were leaping with life when taken out of the pound nets and promptly killed.

Nets Thousands of Yards Long

For as soon as the net is lowered again into the water, the barge comes alongside, the fish are thrown up aboard the tug into waiting boxes. And while the tug steams to the next net to be lifted, the fishermen clean the fish right on deck and have them ready to be immediately packed in ice on reaching the home wharf.

“How big do the hauls come?” we asked Joe Rocque.

“They vary from day to day. Some hauls we will take only a box or two of fish, but other times, almost a ton of trout and whitefish will be lifted. Record hauls for one pound net would be something over two thousand pounds. Maybe nearly three thousand.”

It takes about halt to three-quarters of an hour from the time the launch arrives at the net until it sets forth to the next net. In foul weather, the time may be much longer, for in handling the nets, nothing must be done that will endanger its security or tear the net. Home from the nets, the fish are promptly packed, a hundred pounds to the box, in chopped ice to await either the steamer that calls regularly for the shipment, or to be taken by the fishermen themselves to the shipping point. The north shore’s catch is picked up by a regular steamer service of the Dominion Transportation Co., carried to Owen Sound, where refrigerator express cars await the fish to be rushed to New York.

From the water in Georgian bay to the market in New York city, it is only thirty-six hours.

The gill nets outfits use nets hundreds and perhaps thousands of yards long, narrow four foot nets, that have lead sinkers on the bottom edge and wooden or tin floats on the top edge. And these are sunk down into all depths of water, even to 300 feet, where they rest, upright, on the bottom. And the fish, swimming along the bottom, run their heads into the meshes of the net and are caught, gilled. They run in as far as they can go, try to back out and are caught by their gills.

These gill nets can be lifted by hand from small craft, and are also lifted and laid by donkey-engines aboard steam tugs. No more than in the case of pound nets do the gill nets have to be taken out of the water. They are raised to the surface, the fish freed and taken out and the net is re-set in the depths.

This has to be done at all seasons. In the late fall, when the silver horde of whitefish and herring are on their spawning run, they come right inshore into ten feet of water and less, on to the shoals to spawn. This season is also the season of storms. But the gill net fishermen make their mightiest haul at this time. They set their nets in shallows. This naturally means grave risk, for nets in shallow water are likely to be torn to ribbons in a gale. On Fitz William island the fishermen camp along the beaches, their watch-fires burning all night, while the men lie ready to take to their boats at the first hint of a November gale, to let them and roll them up aboard, until the gale abates.

On other fishing grounds, such as Papoose island, out from Killarney, the fishermen stand by their nets as much as possible, ready to lift them.

A Risky, But Free Life

At no time is it not a dangerous business and in the fall it becomes a decidedly risky one, because then to save your property you must risk your life, or preserve your life ashore at the risk of losing your outfit.

Lifting and rolling up a gill net, even if it is miles long, is a simple task compared with putting a pound net away at the command of winter. The huge bag of the “pot,” the vast expanse of long and deep lead, have to be lifted and at the same time freed from the eighty-foot poles, from the anchors, rocks and guys. The spliced poles have to be freed from the bottom where the pile-driver sent them, and the anchors lifted. The whole huge apparatus is hauled ashore to dry. Then it is repaired and rolled up and carried back to the fishing station for the winter. Joe Rocque employs eight or nine men on his eight nets during the setting and final lifting, and four or five men during the season while taking the fish. The winter is spent in these remote little villages repairing nets, cutting timber for new ones, repairing boats, building fish boxes and doing the heavy work that prepares for merely the dangerous and fast work of the harvest season.

They make good livings. We heard of some outfit-owners along the shore who cleared, over and above their expenses, twenty and twenty-five thousand dollars cash last year, which was a good year. Yet this year has not been good. The catch has been poor. Bad weather has prevailed. One storm can wipe out the better part of the handsome cash profit.

No motor car has ever left its track at Killarney. It has no movie or other modern attractions. The men who own these investments of many thousands of dollars and who sometimes clear as much cash as would make a good-sized Toronto business man take a winter trip to Europe or Florida at least, go about in their soiled overalls, unpretentious men, who put their winnings right back into the pot.

The day we went out first with Joseph Rocque it had blown all night and morning, but had eased off in late afternoon. The north Georgian bay was sounding its deep call, the call that has filled countless sailors with forebodings. The sky was dark and the clouds tied raggedly above the heaving water.

Watching the sky, Rocque finally said he would lift three of his nets, those beyond a partly sheltered arm of the north shore. He himself, boss of the outfit, had the wheel of the steam tug and drove it heaving out into the dark sea.

The gulls rose up from nowhere and pursued us in ragged, veering platoons. An eagle joined them and flapped heavily along in the hope of picking up a fish that might have been gilled in the great bag. A few are. It was a sort of Landseer sky, moving and grim.

“It’s a free life,” we cried from the shelter of the wheel house. When city men are slightly awed by the wild spaces of the elements, they mask themselves in a great reverence for freedom. “It’s picturesque and you never know when you have to move. It’s a free life!”

“That,” called Rocque from the wheel house, “is why we follow it.”


Editor’s Note: $50,000 (the cost of the whole investment in fishing) in 1928 would be $830,000 in 2022.

Sky Climbin’

Up each of these bare, grim steel beams sticking into the sky, shinnies a girder.

By Gregory Clark, September 8, 1928.

Human Spiders Who Weave Steel Webs in Clouds Are Inoculated to Height.

“What are you doin’ with your good pants on?”

The boss of the steel men stares curiously at the young man who has just come into the shanty.

“I’m quittin’ the job.”

The young man in the good pants looks straight at the boss. Above the shanty looms the colossal structure of the new Royal York. The air is filled with the shouting of the crane’s engine, the far tattoo of rivetters, the warlike sounds of steel going up.

“What you quitting for?”

“I lost me balance,” says the young fellow in the good pants. “I need a little rest up.”

“Get your pay Saturday,” says the boss. “Fired, you get paid right now. Quitting, you get paid Saturday with the rest.”

“See you later,” says the young man, walking out.

This young chap was a climber. A bridgeman. A steel worker.

One of his jobs, besides carrying planks, is to walk three inch beams in a gale of wind three hundred feet above the earth, with the earth glaring up at him beneath his feet and nothing between.

We’ll say they have got the sixteenth storey of spidery steel up. The cross pieces all laid. Then they set up the uprights for the seventeenth storey. Dozens of steel beams sticking up into the sky.

How do they get the beams of the seventeenth laid across those uprights?

With the derrick, you say.

Sure, with the derrick. The derrick hoists the giant steel beam up into the sky and lowers it slowly gingerly.

But who is there to take hold of it, to guide it to fit snugly on the bleak tops sticking up? Who Is there to pin it into place ready for the rivetters?

Why, a couple of climbers.

Up each of those bare, grim steel beams sticking into the sky shinnies a climber. He takes hold of the upright with his arms and his legs and climbs it to the top. There he clings, a hundred, two hundred feet in the sky, with the wind blowing and the earth far below sort of holding out its broad arms, and there he clings while the derrick men, with much waving of gauntleted arms, ease the vast swinging beam down, down, an inch at a time, until the climber can guide it to its pocket, slip in the pins, and then slide down to what he thinks is terra firma again.

One Mistake is Too Many

Thousands, tens of thousands of Toronto people have been watching the bridgemen on Toronto’s great new skyscrapers the last few months. Every once in a while the crowd standing back and staring skyward seemed to be thicker than usual. That was when a climber was shinning up a beam to make a joint. That was when the supreme stunt of the steel worker’s life was being enacted. Maybe you were not lucky enough to see it.

What does it feel like to be perched on the tip of one of those uprights waiting while an unseen derrick guides a couple of tons of steel towards you through the sky?

“It feels all right,” says the climbers, one and all. They are alert, nervous men – not stolid as we had expected.

“But how about nerves?”

“Eh?”

“How about being afraid of falling?”

“How can you fall when you’re hanging on?”

“But you might slip.”

“Sure. We might git hit with lightning.”

And they look at each other with that puzzled look that men exchange when they are tied up in conversation with somebody who doesn’t understand the a, b, c of things.

For Hughie McGovern, the superintendent of the steel men for the Dominion Bridge Company, who put up the bones of The Star building and the Royal York, assures us that there is nothing to climbing.

“You see,” he says, “in steel work you start at the ground. No, below the ground. With the foundations. Then you go up one storey. Then two. Then three. And so on, day by day, week by week, doing the same things forty feet below ground, forty feet above ground, and so on up. And you get used to going up gradually. If you went up that way you wouldn’t mind being up a couple of hundred feet. It’s because you are down here on the flat all the time that you feel giddy up high.”

And he is right. Those human spiders climbing about their steel web in the sky are inoculated to height. The runner does a hundred yards to begin with. Then stretches out. The soldier is put under fire little by little until he can stand a pandemonium. The climber goes up a beam at a time and as forty feet does not seem much higher than thirty feet, so hundred and ninety feet is not much different from two hundred feet.

Yet, as a rule, these climbers only make one mistake. And one is too many.

The lad in the good pants who said he lost his balance and thought he would take a rest gave us a hint of what four hundred deaths per year amongst steel workers in America means. He merely staggered for an instant. Luck was with him. He caught his balance and did not take the plunge. But he quit the job for a while, maybe forever. Because in most ventures in this life you can make more than one mistake. You can make many mistakes. But the steel worker can only make one.

“It still is a venturesome career,” said the junior Mr. Evans of the Dominion Bridge Co. “But safety laws and insurance company interests have done a great deal to take out the old daring. For example, in the Royal York job we are using ten thousand dollars’ worth of planks alone. Fifteen car loads of heavy planks. As one floor goes up we follow with the planks, making a floor right underneath the up-going steel. In fact, you will hear real bridgemen, the elite of steel men, complaining bitterly about raising a little steel and then spending a whole day hauling planks. But if a man falls off the steel nowadays he only falls a few feet to the planks below.”

And a foreman who permits his men to take chances, to ride the beams as they swing through space on the derrick, or to engage in any of the short cuts is soon in trouble. For the insurance companies keep their eyes on steel work, not to mention the management of the companies who have to pay their dues to the workmen’s compensation funds.

The way the workers get to the top of these tall structures is not by elevator, but by leg-work. They go up the ladders that roughly connect one floor to the other. You climb twenty ladders to get to your work and you would be ready to quit. That is how steel workers get to their jobs in the morning. They go up, a long monkey chain of them, ladder after ladder – ladders made of a bit of scantling with cross pieces made of any old waste bits –

And there is no planking except on the second to last floor! Is it any wonder that when necessity brings a steel worker down to earth during the day he wants to ride up again on a derrick load of beams? Or on the “ball.” The ball is the large iron counterbalance that comes down when a load goes up and goes up when the line comes down. A good man can stand on it and get a free ride to the top when nobody is looking.

Yet all the planks in the world do not cut much ice when the upright beams that have to be shinned are the corner beams, hanging sheer hundreds of feet straight above the world.

“How does it feel, really, when you find yourself clinging with arms and legs to the top of a beam on the corner, say, twenty storeys up?”

“It feels just the same as when you are clinging to a beam thirty feet up. You got a good hold. That’s all there is.”

“Yes. But you’ve got to use at least one hand to guide the cross beam that’s coming in and pin it.”

“One hand. You can use two hands. Haven’t you got your legs wound round?”

“And a – a wind blowing?” we asked.

“Wind swings the beam on the derrick, maybe. But it don’t bother us.”

“Doesn’t it feel queer to look down?”

“It would to you. But not to us. We’re used to it. It would feel mighty queer to us if the boss said go and git a story for The Star Weekly.”

Indians Make Good Climbers

The Dominion Bridge crews are made up of British-Canadians, Indians, French-Canadians, Americans and various nationalities from all the world. Bridgemen come in all varieties.

“What’s the good point about Indians?” we asked Hughie McGovern, the boss.

“They make great climbers and rivetters. The Caughnawaga Indian reserve is just across the river from the company’s main plant at Lachine. The young fellows come and get jobs with us when they are sixteen, seventeen. They start early. That’s the secret of good steel workers. A man of forty never got into the steel game. Indians are a quiet and easy-going race. They don’t get worried or excited. That makes them good at steel.”

“What is the biggest hazard in steel work? What is it the boys talk about around their lunch? Is it fear of falling?”

“No,” said Mr. McGovern. “As long as it’s solid the boys don’t care if it is three inches or six they’ve got their feet on. The big fear in this business is that something will fall.”

“On them?”

“No. You see, everything they work with is heavy. Tons of steel. Well, if you have a ten ton crane lifting a fifteen ton piece something might give. If everything is bolted up tight and the crane is lifting something well within its capacity and radius there is nothing to worry about. The fear that disturbs a steel worker is that something is going to give way or fall or slip. As long as everything is solid they don’t worry. They’ve got their feet and their hands and they know they can trust them.”

But when something does go wrong there are lot of small cars headed somewhere the next day.

For example, when anybody does all of the steel work everybody quits for that day. The whole job goes into a curious kind of industrial mourning.

The steel workers are nomads. They go where the steel is. A big company like the Dominion Bridge that has series of jobs laid out from end to end of the country keeps its crews together in almost army style. But they mooch along from job to job on their own, and in their own cars. Sometimes with the family aboard.

“Married men make good steel workers. They’re more careful.”

But there is a good deal of superstition and understanding in the game. If a man quits because he thinks the job is jonahed or has a jinx on it the foreman is not going to be nasty about it the next time that man comes for a job on another location. Every man is allowed his opinions as to jinx.

“Do many men quit as the result of nerves?”

“Yes, there is a regular proportion who quit,” said Mr. McGovern. “We don’t always know the reason or inquire it. A fellow makes a slip or comes near falling and he is entitled to quit. In fact, we don’t want nervous men on the job. They not only can’t perform their own jobs, but they make others nervous, too. So when a man quits he knows best.”

Have Faith in Their Feet

The seeing of an accident is one of the best reasons for a man quitting. If a man falls there are usually a few witnesses, and whether they lose their own nerve or whether they really believe in jinx they take it as their right to quit if they feel like it. But the majority of climbers are cool-headed fellows with supreme confidence in their own plain ability to look after themselves, and they carry on the next day, walking their beams, climbing their spidery minarets, as confidently as ever.

Nowadays falls do not always spell the end. A fall of ten or fifteen feet to the planks that are following faithfully below means a broken leg or arm more often than a broken neck.

“And they get pretty good at catching hold of things as they fall,” said Mr. McGovern. “There are lots of close shaves, when man slips and catches hold of the beam and hauls himself back on.”

And does that man quit? No. His hardest lot is to bear the kidding of his friends up aloft. They want to know if he is getting old. Or drinking too much, or the wrong kind. They suggest he change the brand.

A few brief conversations with climbers as they file past the pay office wicket, a little self-conscious at being asked absurd questions:

“Did you ever come near a fall?”

“Sure,” says an Indian. “Yesterday. I slip on a banana peeling on King St.”

And a big laugh at the expense of the press.

“Sure, I’ve fell,” says an Irish lad. “But I hit on some loose planks and only broke some ribs.”

Another said he had teetered once up a hundred feet on a bridge, teetered and swayed, with his arms waving to recover his balance, and for several seconds, he doesn’t know how long, he faced death on rocks far, far beneath. Then he recovered his balance and sat down. He wondered if he would ever be able to stand up on a three-inch beam again. Even to get back to solid structure so as to make the earth at last. But the foreman yelled at him and he got up and walked ahead with his job and it has never bothered him again.

“Beams ain’t slippery,” he said. “And once you know your feet they ain’t going to play tricks with you. So you’re all right, ain’t you?”

The worst that most of them had to say was that in their careers, a derrick had given way, or a piece of steel scraped some skin off them.

“But those were in the little hay-wire outfits, not the big companies.”

The little hay-wire outfits are the small companies that have not got the equipment to handle big stuff. And no steel man wants to have anything to do with hay-wire.

So when you stand on solid pavement and watch these men moving quietly and confidently about on remote and tapered structures in the sky you need not try to imagine they are in fear of their own hands or feet betraying them, but that the steel itself or the slow swinging cranes will do the falling.


Editor’s Notes: The Royal York Hotel in Toronto was completed in 1929 and is 28 storeys tall.

“Jonahed” refers to Jonah in the Bible. It also means jinxed.

It’s Done in Various Ways

September 1, 1928.

This illustration went with a story by Ceasar Smith, a regular contributor to the Star Weekly in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It made fun of what a woman looks for in a car, compared to a man.

Page 1 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén