shipbuilder John Martel looked on with pride as the schooner Kate Kelly slid into the water at Tonawanda, New York. Described by a contemporary newspaper as being “of medium size . . . good model and general build,” the schooner possessed two masts, a square stern, a figurehead bow, and measured 126 feet long, 26 feet wide, and 10 feet deep. Her primary cargo would be grain, but the schooner could efficiently carry coal, iron ore, wood products, or any other low-cost bulk cargo.
The Beers was a nearly identical vessel to the Kate Kelly. (Photo: Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
During a career that spanned 28 years, the Kate Kelly had several owners, most of them associated with the Lake Ontario trade. She was a canaller, one of hundreds of vessels built to fit through the locks of the second Welland Canal, the narrow artificial river that connected distant Lake Ontario with the other Great Lakes below Niagara Falls. Most of the canal locks were just 26 ½ feet wide, 150 feet long, and 9 feet deep. This left the Kate Kelly with less than four inches of clearance on either side when transiting the canal.
John Martel built the Kate Kelly for Lewis Ryerse, a Buffalo ship owner. The vessel changed hands several times soon after it was built, until James Keller, Edward W. Parmalee, and Captain Robert Hayes bought it Sept. 30, 1867. Captain Hayes, who had only a one-eighth share in the vessel, took command, a post he would hold for nine years. The three owners changed the vessel’s homeport from Buffalo to Oswego, New York, the most important U.S. port on Lake Ontario. The Kate Kelly would call Oswego home for the next twenty-five years.
Hayes and his associates employed the Kate Kelly to carry grain from western Michigan ports, particularly Chicago, to Lake Ontario ports, most commonly Oswego and Kingston, Ontario. The vessel could hold 18,000 bushels of corn and over 19,000 bushels of wheat. Sailing west from Lake Ontario, the schooner frequently carried coal and occasionally picked up odd cargoes such as railroad iron. The schooner sometimes made the westbound trip light, depending upon a good grain charter to make a profit.