Abaco Life Magazine

Abaco Life, An Island Magazine


The Way it Was

She was a ship, a headquarters and a home:
The Robert Fulton remembered in Abaco

By Dave Gale

As I looked toward the western horizon from Elbow Cay on a clear and sunny mid-morning in 1959, I thought I was seeing a mirage, a ghost ship. I had never seen a vessel so big in Abaco . It was much too big to ply the waters of Abaco Sound.
At the time I didn’t know just how big she was, but even at three miles distance, as she was being towed south along the eastern shore of Sugarloaf Cay, she loomed disproportionately large. Gleaming white, the morning sun reflecting on her massive superstructure, she had the long low profile of a river steamer.
I jumped into a speed boat and zoomed over to investigate. I was even more surprised to find that the apparition was, in fact, a side-wheel lake or river steamer. The large black letters on her pilot house and on either side of her bow shouted, ROBERT FULTON. Robert Fullton
I was brought up a short walk from Long Island Sound and a Harley ride from the Hudson River, and I knew that the Robert Fulton had been in the Hudson River Day Line fleet, which operated day-excursion steamboats – 4000 passengers each — up and down the River. I saw those steamers and I may have even seen her. But why was she here in Abaco? It wasn’t long before I found out. The boat was to be used as home base for the Owens-Illinois lumbering operation soon to start on Abaco at Snake Cay.
Being involved with the Newhope Lodge, back then the only hotel in Abaco besides the New Plymouth Inn on Green Turtle Cay, we had been hosts to the survey crew from Owens-Illinois, although they were operating under a different company name. I was hired to run the launch for the somewhat mysterious crew for a week or so a few months before the big steam boat arrived. The survey crew refused to tell me why they were surveying, or for whom, but when they wrote the check to pay for their lodging, food and services, I nearly croaked when I saw it was from a pulpwood and turpentine company in Jacksonville, Florida. While in the U.S. Navy, I had been stationed in both Jacksonville and Pensacola, Florida and I knew what an awful, all-pervading stink came from pulpwood plants.
Reacting to my obvious and serious dismay, they explained the company was actually the National Container Corporation, and that the new timbering operation would only be shipping the timber to Jacksonville for a few years, making it economically unfeasible to build a pulpwood plant here in Abaco. I heaved an enormous sigh of relief.
Nevertheless, nothing had prepared me for the arrival of the 346-foot steamboat Robert Fulton. The line had operated day excursion steamboats like her on the Hudson between New York City and Albany in upstate NY from 1880 to 1948. It was a seasonal but highly successful business. The Fulton was built in 1909 to replace the company’s steamer, New York, which had burned and sank at her dock that year. In their haste to be ready for the coming season, they used their basic1880 plans to build the Fulton. They put in a 3850 horsepower 1887 walking-beam coal-fired steam engine which, it appears from the records, they had in storage, and which was later converted to oil to make steam. On the main deck, her salon had the motif of a formal Italian garden in white, gold and green. The overhead effect between deck beams was of the sky. Vines, palms, plants and caged birds completed the décor. As their newest steamer, she was the queen of the fleet.

Fulton is key to “Fishyback”

The line closed operations after the 1948 season, and in September of that year, the Robert Fulton made the last regularly scheduled trip by any steamboat from Albany to New York City, and in so doing closed an era on the Hudson River. Her new owners altered her interior and sailed shorter excursions for six more years. She was waiting to be scrapped when National Container Corp. (later purchased by Owens-Illinois) bought her and saved her from the ship-breaker.
The company had leased the timber cutting rights on Grand Bahama, Great Abaco and Andros, and they had an unusual plan for the Robert Fulton which gave her a new lease on life as a movable base of operations. She was towed to a Jacksonville shipyard, where they removed her 30 foot diameter paddlewheels, the walking beam on the upper deck, the three big smokestacks and 500 tons of engine equipment. For her new role, she was fitted with a general office, apartments, a supermarket, an infirmary, a schoolroom, a snack bar with a soda fountain, a dining room, laundry, lounges for television and a movie theater. Many of those things did not exist at the time on Grand Bahama or Abaco, and the movable base for the shipping of pulpwood from overseas was unique in the timbering industry, as Owens-Illinois developed much of their equipment around the new concept.
The new Bahamas operation, dubbed “Fishyback,” was an amphibious pulpwood logging venture the likes of which the world had never seen. The inspiration was the brainchild of C. G. “Mac” McLaren, formerly of National Container Corp., and it made history in the logging industry. Two barges incorporated into the plan, and somewhat less than creatively named Pulpwood No. 1 and Pulpwood No. 2, were the largest flat deck sea-going barges afloat at the time. A barge load averaged 1,640 cords of wood weighing 5,500 tons. The “Fishyback” Bahama experience, on three separate islands, lasted for 17 years, during which time Owens-Illinois shipped two-and-a-half million cords of Caribbean Pine to the Jacksonville paper mill. The Caribbean Pine on Abaco, Grand Bahama and Andros was, at this time, second growth and of poor quality. First growth pine, which is very hard by comparison, had been cut for building lumber about 30 years earlier.
By 1960, Owens-Illinois had shipped to Jacksonville all the timber that Grand Bahama had available, and the Robert Fulton was towed to Snake Cay, about seven miles south of Marsh Harbour on the mainland of Abaco, where she would once again act as a home base.

Attention Fulton shoppers

For those of us who lived on the outer cays of Abaco, the most interesting feature of the old converted steamer was her supermarket. It stretched almost 200 feet along the entry level deck, accessed by a dock and a gangway. Primarily for the 400 or so Owens-Illinois employees based at the Snake Cay facility, it was also open to the public and carried about 2000 different items, including meats, groceries, vegetables, patent drugs, fabrics, various household items and furniture. It was the first time I remember fresh milk and ice cream being regularly available in Abaco. Customers and clerks were separated by a sort of chain-link fence which ran along the center of the long counter. The clerks had a foot of counter space on their side of the fence while we had a much smaller portion of counter on which to rest our shopping list and elbows. We had no idea what might be stored in back, except for what we could see down the narrow aisles which trailed off out of view. There were no signs or lists of what might be available, nor was there a line to stand in: you just walked aboard, stepped up to the fence, and tried to catch a clerk’s eye. We spoke our orders, one item at a time, through the fence, and we discovered a small tip to the clerk was a nice gesture for all his running back and forth; a gesture which usually paid off on your next shopping adventure, a routine resembling the old parlor game “Twenty Questions.”
Purchaser : “Do you have any cereal?”
Clerk: “Yep.”
“What kind do you have?”
“Have to check. What kind do you want?”
“How about Cheerios?”
“Lemme see.” He walks away from the fence to go searching in unseen isles. After a few minutes, “Nope, don’t have Cheerios.”
“Any Raisin Bran?”
“Lemme see…Ah, no, I don’t think so, but we got oatmeal.”
“Oh, I can’t stand that stuff. How about Wheaties?”
“Yep, I know we have Wheaties.” He disappears again and comes back with a small box of Wheaties.
“That’s an awfully small box, don’t you have a larger one?”
“Lemee go look.” Away in the isles he goes and comes back with a large box of Wheaties.
“Swell. Do have any jam?”
“Yep. What kind do you want……………..?”
That’s the way we all remember it. Folks came by car from Marsh Harbour or, like us, by boat. All over the dock were pallets for pulpwood. We could not imagine things so big. An empty pallet weighed 2 tons and 38 tons when loaded with pulpwood. Giant LeTourneau fork lifts moved these monsters with less trouble than picking up your cat. When empty and stacked two high (almost 30 feet), and many rows deep, they looked like a permanent building. A friend once tied his speed boat to this seemingly immovable object and went shopping with ruinous results. When he returned, both the “building” and boat were gone. Looking more closely, he spotted his boat on the bottom. A giant fork-lift had moved the pallets and the operator had unknowingly picked up the boat, which dangled by its bow line until the line broke, dumping the boat into the basin.

The Fulton as a live-aboard

For the Owens-Illinois staff, living aboard the Robert Fulton was a memorable experience. The boat was outfitted with 12 one- and two- bedroom apartments for families, and about 10 single or double bachelor cabins. In addition to the grocery store, there were dining areas, a movie theater and a so-called “proprietary club,” a package liquor store that was open for 30 minutes a day. Staff live-aboards could buy and keep their bottles there to make themselves a drink, but there was no actual bar. It opened at 5:30 pm, and when the dinner bell rang precisely at six, it closed tight.
Dave Ralph and his wife, Kathy, who are today the editors and publishers of The Abaconian newspaper, met as single staff members aboard the Robert Fulton during the Grand Bahama Island phase. Kathy, who taught school on Grand Bahama, was the first single woman to be hired in the “Fishyback” operation. She was given a small apartment with a kitchenette aboard the Robert Fulton while at Snake Cay. Bachelors, like Dave, had maid service in their tiny rooms aboard the boat, but married couples who had larger apartments did not.
“The single men ate only at 6 am, noon and 6pm, which started with the ringing of a bell at the dining room door,” Dave recalls. The seats were assigned, he said, and if you didn’t sit down at your regular seat, the burly guy whose seat you were in would threaten to toss you over the side. The plates were upside down and the food was on the table to be passed around. There was silence except for polite requests to “Pass the potatoes, Pass the butter.” There was no lingering, and while it was all you could eat of wonderful food, when you were through you were expected to be gone.
“The couple who cooked were from a lumber camp out west,” remembers Dave. “They used lumber-camp rules, ran a tight ship and had their way about everything.” With the exception of Dave, who was office staff, the men were heavy equipment operators, foremen and boss mechanics. Each man scraped his plate and turned in his utensils at a designated place after eating, to avoid finding his dirty plate still there at the place he left it when he came for his next meal.
At first the Robert Fulton remained afloat, tied to the Snake Cay dock, rockin’ and rollin’ when the wind piped up from the northeast. The office staff had to tie their rolling swivel chairs to their desks to keep from careening across the office. The Fulton’s riveted hull began to leak so badly that after a year a decision was reached to fill in the space around the old hull with rock and earth, landlocking the boat. By then, she was 52 years old. Cars and trucks could now park all around her and she could never sink.
In 1967, Operation “Fishyback” was completed on Abaco Island, the tugs and barges having made 768 round trips of 734 miles each between Snake Cay and Jacksonville, Florida, delivering over one-and-a-quarter million cords of wood to the mill. The pulpwood operation was then moved to Andros Island, but alas, the Robert Fulton could not leave her landlocked station to continue services at Owens-Illinois’ third timber-cutting site in the Bahamas. Instead, she suffered the indignity of having her wooden portions burned and metal sections cut apart, junked and buried in what was left of the forest. The hole she left at Snake Cay was filled and graded to become part of the docking area for the next Owens-Illinois project in the area – sugar growing and refinement, a story for another time.
Today, walking the wharf at Snake Cay, one would never suspect that a grand old lady from the Hudson River once lived in this very spot.

EDITORS NOTE: Bruce Werner, a frequent Hope Town visitor on his trawler-yacht, Lady Jane,is researching the Robert Fulton, as well as other boats significant to Abaco’s history, for the Wyannie Malone Historical Museum in Hope Town. Dave Ralph, Jay Wise, Carl Diaz and many others are contributing to Bruce’s work, which was generously provided for this story. I was here when the Robert Fulton arrived and throughout its years at Snake Cay, so I have taken the liberty of providing my own personal slant on this episode of “the way it was” in Abaco.

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©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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