Four Boys & One Excellent Adventure

By Bruce Armstrong
Photos By The American Boy Magazine

In the fall of 1898, young Ken Ransom and three school friends set out to sail around the eastern half of the United States, blazing the trail that would become known as The Great Loop.

Photo of an Erie Canal journey

In the 1890s, St. Joseph was the second busiest port on Lake Michigan, and young Ken Ransom grew up sailing and studying the commercial boats that frequented the harbor. He knew nothing about riverboats, though, and had never been within 800 miles of saltwater when he began planning to circumnavigate the eastern United States. His "Eureka!" moment came in the autumn of 1897, while he was building a boat for himself in a shed on his parents' property. Thumbing through an atlas, he realized he could sail his boat through Chicago to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico. Sailing around Florida and up the East Coast would bring him to New York and the Hudson River. The Erie Canal would bring him back to the Great Lakes and to St. Joseph. The journey would be a great adventure, and he'd see the rivers and saltwater firsthand. His account of the voyage, on which this story is based, was serialized in The American Boy Magazine, running monthly from February 1900 to May 1901.

He needed both a boat and a crew to make this voyage, so he recruited three high-school friends, Frank Chauvet and cousins Art and Clyde Morrow. All four boys were 18, and after much discussion, their families consented to the journey. Captain Ransom had his crew.

The Voyage Of Gazelle

After nine months of sweating, shaping, and fitting Michigan white-oak boards to Ken's design, they launched the boat on August 4, 1898, and christened her Gazelle. She was a gaff-rigged yawl, 30 feet long overall, 22 feet at the waterline, with a nine-foot beam and three-foot draft with the centerboard raised. The cabin was 14 feet long with six feet of headroom. The coal oil-fueled galley was forward. Two berths were forward, two aft. Lockers and personal storage were under the berths. Tables for dining and writing were hinged to both sides of the centerboard well.

The crew spent two months fitting out and provisioning Gazelle, equipping her with the latest navigation gear available — compass, barometer, thermometer, lead line, and binoculars. On October 30, in late afternoon, Ken and his crew sailed for Chicago. The Chicago River still flowed into Lake Michigan in 1898, so Ken arranged for a small steam-powered tugboat to tow Gazelle south through Chicago on a 100-foot tether, which nearly ended in disaster. A grain freighter had grounded on a shoal mid-river, but there was room enough to the right, between the freighter and the bulkhead, so Ken signaled his tow to go through. The little tugboat was just clear when the freighter began to shift toward the bulkhead. Gazelle scraped along the side of the freighter, and it looked as if she'd be crushed. With only three feet to spare, the freighter grounded again, and Gazelle escaped.

The tug dropped Gazelle at the 96-mile-long Illinois and Michigan Canal. The crew picked up steam-powered tows that covered half the distance, but for the rest of the 48 miles, they hand-towed the boat in shifts of two before joining the Illinois River at LaSalle. Their sail on the Illinois River was idyllic. The weather was good and they reached the Mississippi River on Thanksgiving Day.

From St. Louis, they telegraphed news of their safe arrival back to their anxious families and mailed home the letters that each boy had written every night after supper. The families forwarded mail and the money the boys needed to resupply. The newspaper carried a story about Gazelle's intended journey, and Ken spent hours talking with the river men about their boats and what his crew would encounter on the Mississippi.

Ice & Oysters

The winter of 1898-1899 was one of the coldest on record in the Mississippi River valley, and the Great Blizzard of 1899, as it came to be called, set record-low temperatures that still stand today from New Jersey to Texas. South of St. Louis, the boys had their first — and worst — encounter with ice. Gazelle was stuck mid-river in a pool between two sandbars, and they had to wait for the weather to warm to release them. Trapped for days, they ran out of coal oil, their only source of heat, then ran low on food. After eight anxious days, enough ice melted, the river level rose, and they escaped.

The hungry boys pulled into a sheltered cove and shot rabbits to eat. Desperate for supplies, several times they made the 10-mile hike inland to Commerce, Missouri, the nearest town, telegraphing home for money. Art Morrow became seriously ill, weakened by the numbing cold and short rations. He was delirious and ran high fevers. No doctor was near, so they cared for him as best they could. Their money arrived after six days, they restocked Gazelle, and continued downriver. Art slowly recovered but, try as he might, he couldn't carry his share of the load for the rest of the river trip.

When the boys stopped in Memphis and visited a plantation, Ken studied the loading of cotton bales on paddlewheelers. In Vicksburg, they visited the national cemetery and memorials marking Civil War battles. In Natchez, they endured another ice storm that saw temperatures drop to -5°. Fierce winds blew river spray onto the boat, which froze into ice so thick it threatened to sink her. The boys frantically chopped ice from the boat with hand tools during the worst of it.

Gazelle arrived in New Orleans on February 21, 1899, and her crew celebrated by splurging on a bushel of oysters, looking forward to a feast, only to see the oysters flying all over the streets when the paper sack they were in soaked through and fell apart. Ken threw off his jacket, tied the sleeves together, and loaded the oysters inside.

Photo of the John Gomez cabin

The crew lost one of their own when Clyde Morrow got a message from his family that he was desperately needed back to help on the farm. On May 1, 1899, down one man, Gazelle departed New Orleans and worked her way east and south along the Gulf Coast, while the boys fished and gathered sponges with the working boats along the way.

Disaster nearly overtook the crew on Sanibel Island, which was farmland in 1899. Ken and Frank rode their dinghy to the farmer's dock, followed a path through thick mangroves, then cut across the gnarly mangroves to the beach. They spent the afternoon swimming, running races, and tossing seashells — happy to be in such a pretty place. As the sun set, they looked for their way back to the boat, until realizing they'd failed to mark the spot where they came onto the beach. They searched for the path until darkness fell and spent a miserable night on the beach — cold, dehydrated, hungry, and beset by hoards of mosquitoes.

At dawn, they washed all the blood from the mosquitoes off and renewed a desperate search through the mangroves, knowing they were in trouble in their weakened, dehydrated state if they were unsuccessful. A dog turned up on the beach and saved them. They threw small shells at him until he ran away, leading them back to the path and Gazelle.

Photo of the Gazelle under way

An Encounter With A Pirate

In Florida's Ten Thousand Islands, noticing smoke rising from one of the keys, they rowed their dinghy over and encountered a woman tending a cook fire. She welcomed them into a small hut where they met the legendary John Gomez. Born in Portugal in 1781, Gomez was a brother-in-law and former shipmate of the pirate Gasparilla. Abandoning piracy, Gomez fought under General Jackson in the Seminole War of 1837 before settling on Panther Key. By then he was 118 years old and still vigorous. He took great interest in Gazelle and gave the boys loads of invaluable navigation advice about the area. They would have been sad to learn the following year that Gomez, one of the most fascinating people they met on their epic journey, drowned shortly after their visit, caught in his net while fishing alone.

After sailing around the tip of Florida, Frank went swimming in a tidal pool near Miami at low tide and discovered he was sharing it with an unhappy shark, which he fought until Ken could reach him in the dinghy and haul him aboard. The boys came in from the Atlantic at St. Lucie Inlet and sailed north on the Indian River. The boys were strong, resilient, and driven at this point. When they reached the Haulover Canal on June 2 and found it badly silted, they decided to reopen it themselves. Taking one-hour turns in the water shoveling and using the anchor as a kedge, they slowly pulled Gazelle forward using the windlass. After three days of backbreaking work, they entered Mosquito Lagoon.

Into The Open Sea & Home To Michigan

Gazelle sailed back into the Atlantic at New Smyrna Beach and spent July sailing north in the open sea. Sure, they were nearly run over by a large yacht sailing south at night with no running lights, and they experienced several severe squalls at sea, but they encountered no hurricanes, as the first Atlantic hurricane of 1899 did not form until August. On August 1, Gazelle came in from the Atlantic to the shelter of Beaufort, North Carolina.

They sailed north inside the barrier islands that today form Cape Lookout National Seashore, passing through Core, Pamlico, Croatan, and Albemarle sounds, arriving at Norfolk, Virginia, on August 12. Gazelle sailed north up the Chesapeake, through the C&D Canal and Delaware River, to Philadelphia, spending several days visiting the historic sites before continuing north to the Delaware and Raritan Canal. They crossed New Jersey via the canal and headed for the bright lights of New York City and a week they'd been looking forward to all year.

From New York, they sailed the Hudson River to Albany and inquired about buying a transit permit and arranging a tow through the Erie Canal. But funds were woefully short by then, and the prices asked were way beyond their means. Our intrepid lads bought a horse, harness, and enough feed for the canal transit — for $10. They named him Step Lively, and he towed Gazelle the length of the Erie Canal from September 20 to October 10. When they reached Buffalo, Ken sold him for $3.

Fighting stiffening fall breezes, Gazelle sailed westward the length of Lake Erie and around November 1 sailed into Lake St. Claire and the Clinton River, just north of Detroit. Ken's Uncle John had a farm on the river, and they put Gazelle on the hard for winter. In just over a year, they'd circumnavigated the eastern United States, leaving from and returning to Michigan. Ken and Gazelle crossed their wake the following spring when he sailed her back to St. Joseph. Ken never used the term Great Loop in his writings about the trip, nor did he set out intending to blaze a new trail. He was looking for adventure with good friends. Undertaken in a homemade sailboat, on a shoestring budget by four young men with their eyes on the exciting horizon ahead, the voyage was an epic accomplishment. 

Bruce and Susan Armstrong completed their Great Loop voyage in 2008, and published the story of their four-year trip in Coming Full Circle: A Voyage On America's Great Loop. They live and boat in Naples, Florida, on a World Cat 250DC.

— Published: August/September 2015


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