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Captain James Thomas Reid (1870-1958)
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By Sarah Creswell and Tom Flint, P.Eng.

With only informal engineering training, he pioneered shipwreck salvage and made history on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast.

Born in 1870 in Alpena, Michigan, Tom Reid preferred listening to the stories of workmen to attending formal school classes. So when his father, Jim Reid, was summoned to the Straits of Mackinac in 1876 to help set afloat a barge, the Plymouth, that had hit rocks, Tom tagged along. This job was the beginning of the family wrecking and towing business and also represented the first formal interest in engineering showed by Tom, an interest that was secured by personal experience in the field. After the Plymouth, the Great Lakes became Tom’s obsession. By the time Tom was 15, he had gained some business knowledge and responsibility, as well as some informal engineering training, which together readied him to enter the profession. With Tom’s help, the family business grew to acquire a tug company that gave Tom a secure role within the company.

His rule of the tug company allowed him hands-on experience with the lakes and ships. He thrived on disaster and crises situations that gave him opportunity to showcase his skills. One such case, an explosion in the harbour in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, caused him to form the Maritime Wrecking Company, as he was allocated 30 of the 150 ships in the harbour to salvage, a job that took three years. Years later, in 1949, at a pier in Toronto, Reid supervised and saw to completion the salvage of the ship Noronic, which would be the last job he took at 79 years of age. Tom Reid died in Florida in 1958.

On a sub-zero temperature night in February 1870, men were working in silence at great speed to complete the house of Captain James and Eleanor Profit Reid before the arrival of their first son, due shortly. The house had to be moved because the previous owner reclaimed the property, as Jim had failed to secure the deed. Neighbours helped Jim Reid jack up and move the house off the property before the previous owner could get an injunction. It was during a heated battle that they first heard the cries of Tom. Born in 1870 in Alpena, Michigan, he was the eldest child of seven that Jim and Eleanor would have.

Having no interest in school and working in a local sawmill, Tom piled edgings for 10 cents a cord. Instead of attending classes, Tom preferred listening to fishermen, tugmen and woodmen, learning and understanding what motivated these men.

In the spring of 1876, Jim Reid was summoned from St. Ignace to assist the desperate Captain of the Plymouth, which was sent into the rocks at the Straits of Mackinac. Placing oil barrels in the disabled craft, he laid timbers across her beam, jacked the barrels down by bracing them and succeeded in floating the barge. That incident began a wrecking and towing business that made history, not only on the Great Lakes, but further east on the Atlantic coast. Tom felt a stirring as to what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. The lakes were Tom’s obsession. School, because it did not teach about the sea, was a waste of time in Tom’s opinion.

One winter day, the sleigh in which Tom was riding broke through the ice and began to sink. The horses choked on the ropes that hung around their necks. Tom, appalled at the sight, jumped from the sleigh. The crew stopped their sleighs and gathered around quickly, bringing coils of rope and another sleigh, which had a block and tackle secured to its back. The horses began to swell and float. This device made their rescue possible. After the horses were laid on the ice, they began to move. They were alive!

This incident showed Tom the vital value of air power that could float a horse. And if magnified enough times, it could float a ship. This principle would dominate his life in the work he chose to follow.

His father’s entire assets as to general equipment at that time were a 12-inch pump, rafting booms, tugs, horses, a sleigh and wagons to run four camps. By the time Tom was 15, he had learned to assume responsibility, and experience readied him for frequent crises. He met the demands of circumstance on the tug, in lumber camps and on rafts. Rafting was the stop-gap, but salvaging was his objective.

In Dollarville, a small town 70 miles northwest of St. Ignace, his aptitude and love of the lakes made him invaluable to his father, though his father would never admit it. By 1887, Tom, at age 17, was already a vital part of the organization due to his great physique, self-reliance and proven ability beyond his years.

Hearing about a tug company for sale, Jim Reid investigated and made a deal. The property included four lumber camps, which Tom managed. This made a solid place for him in the Reid enterprises. Tom’s self-assurance was not without earned experienced backing him.

Tom learned early on that a fellow who could play a fiddle, banjo, harmonica or Jew’s harp was a valuable asset aboard a raft during long hauls. Delays in rafting to be made up were never days wasted. Crews would gather in available log cabins after general cleanup, and the dancing and drinking would begin. Tom was not interested in this. Clean clothes were generally a problem during long hauls. So Tom lined a barrel with staves, fitted a rod through it, caught a piece of line around the shaft pulley on the main shaft of the engine and threw in soap and water. Despite the horrendous sound it made, the clothes came out clean.

In September of 1889, while he was taking a rest in a clearing from looking for skilled men, Tom first saw his future wife, Dr. Heumann’s daughter Anna, ride by on her horse. Soon, he was at her door courting her. The affair progressed slowly. Clara, Anna’s sister, died unexpectedly, and this postponed the wedding plans for at least a year. She longed to marry him, though. As Anna’s younger sister discussed her own wedding plans, Tom took Anna for a walk to show her the house he had bought. It was not as grand as her sister’s, but Anna liked it. They were married quietly when Tom was 24 years old.

In 1898, after the birth of his only son and second child, the Canadian government passed a law forbidding the rafting of logs to the U.S. for processing. This struck the Reid company hard, as it was running many millions of Canadian logs per year. Jim Reid wrestled with this problem. Then, he decided to move to Sarnia and carry on business as usual under the name of The Reid Wrecking and Towing Company of Sarnia. By 1903, it was their full-time business.

These were the days before radar, radio navigation and communication, and not all the seaways were marked by buoys and lights, which eventually put them out of business. The incidents generally occurred in bad weather with limited visibility, particularly in the winter. Typical simple jobs would be lightening the load of a ship and then pulling it off the sandbanks, but usually the ship would hit rock and become holed. This would require a patch and a diver to patch it. Then, the water would be pumped out of the ship, and the ship would be towed to dry dock. If the cargo was to be saved, a barge with a crane mounted to it (called a wrecker) would be brought alongside to remove the contents. This required a lot of skill, as it often had to be performed under bad weather conditions.

If the ship was too badly damaged, pontoons were sunk alongside the ship and connected to it. Then, they were filled with air until they rose to the surface, which would bring the ship up, too. Another type of work was righting ships that had rolled on their sides or upside down with cables from tugs.

By Thanksgiving of 1906, baby Virginia, their fourth child, was one year old. Anna and Tom counted their blessings. Anna’s health improved; Virginia was a healthy child; Clara gave them no worries; their boy Thom showed splendid promise; and Helen was slowly outgrowing her physical difficulties. They were living on Military Street in Port Huron, when a party was being planned. Unfortunately, Tom got called away.

One of Tom’s passions was the automobile. When his finances improved, he bought a Packard, the finest car available. While taking it home on the icy roads, with snow banked high along the curb, Virginia came racing towards him. She slipped and went under the wheels. Thankfully, she was not seriously harmed. But in those few seconds, Tom aged years.

In 1913, Tom was 43 years old. He wanted his son Thom to be able to take over the business someday. So he took him with him. It was also a sad time for Tom, as his father died and he was left to handle his father’s dealings as well.

One of the more unusual jobs the company did was the removal of a reef at Jackfish Bay in Lake Superior that was a hazard to navigation. They accomplished this by placing 25 tons of dynamite underwater and blowing it up. Unfortunately, in the process, a large number of fish were killed, and the enormous waves created by the explosion increased the effect of a storm already raging.

In December 1917, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, two ships collided in the harbour. One of them was filled with wartime cargo of TNT. A fire broke out and the TNT exploded, causing widespread damage to the ships as well as the city. Of the 150 ships in the harbour, Reid was assigned the salvage of 30, for which he formed the Maritime Wrecking Company. Using tugs, a wrecker with a clamshell bucket, pumps, hydraulic jacks, pontoons and other equipment sent from Sarnia, they salvaged the ships. The work went on 24 hours a day, despite adverse weather conditions and submarines prowling outside the harbour. It took three years to complete the cleanup.

In 1925, Tom’s daughter Helen, who had always been in frail health, died. In the same year, his brother Will passed away. He had been helping Tom in his business. Thom was married; Clara eloped to Chicago; and Virginia, although living at home, was often out socially. Because of his work, Tom was also seldom home, and this left Anna alone much of the time. Unfortunately, Tom was away during the holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. Bad weather seemed to cause shipwrecks during those times.

In 1929, the same year Tom’s mother died, the stock market crashed, causing the Great Depression. Tom was urged to join a powerful Canadian merger of four salvage companies along the St. Lawrence Seaway called Sin-Mac Lines. Tom sold his house in Port Huron and moved to Toronto because his territory was enlarged due to the merger, although he was still active on the Lakes. Anna never recovered from this move.

Throughout the ’30s, they were still quite busy. One job was to remove a locomotive that had fallen into the Welland Canal due to signalling mistakes when the lift bridge was still in the raised position.

In 1940, the Reids returned to Anna’s beloved Port Huron, down the street from their original home. At 70, Tom went to Chicoutimi to supervise the salvaging of a 10,000-ton ship. He caught pneumonia and was hospitalized. Because of Anna’s failing health, Thom made the journey from Chicago to see him. Despite protests from the hospital staff, Tom signed himself out, refusing to acknowledge the passing of time.

Anna’s health was continuing to deteriorate, and she died in 1942. Tom’s longtime friend and partner, Louis Meyers, a diver, had a serious accident, which left him a semi-invalid for the rest of his life. Both incidents took their toll on Tom. The following year, the doctor forbade him any further business activity.

In 1947, he supervised and saw to completion one last job, the salvage of the ship William C. Warren. In 1949, the Noronic, a passenger ship, caught fire and burned at a pier in Toronto. He went to inspect the ship for salvaging, but realized that at 79 years of age, his days of work in the salvage business were over.

In the early 1950s, two of his children, Virginia and Thom, died. Clara was now the sole child left. Tom learned through a long, hard lifetime to put up a stalwart front. Tom died in Florida in 1958 at the age of 88, with Anna’s bible beside him.

Copyright © 2009 by Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario. All Rights Reserved.
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