The Inland Mariners: Tennessee

Johnny Burris








The H. Lee White arrived for winter lay-up at Duluth’s Port Terminal on New Years Day, January 1, 2002, coming to a stop alongside the East Warehouse building. Only a thin layer of ice coated the harbor, not even enough to call out a tug to break a track. By January, unless you’re clinically insane, everybody is in a hurry to get home. Bags and boxes, TVs and stereos are already packed, ready to shove into a car or taxi and get on the road. The deck crews, usually the last to arrive in the spring, are the first to go home in the winter. Before the engines are even completely shut down most are on their way to the airport, or behind the wheel of a car without a glance behind to the ship left at the dock. The engine crew is the next to go after shutting down engines and machinery, emptying water lines, and finishing up a long list of maintenance items for the shipyard gangs. The galley crew is usually the last to leave, staying on to cook for the engine crew, stripping the rooms of linens, getting the spring grocery order ready for their return. Into the midst of this maelstrom of activity steps the ship keeper, the person who will tend this 700-foot box of steel for two and a half to three months.

* * *

It’s just before eight o’clock on a Friday night, a month into winter lay-up. The last of the winter work crews have slowly left the ship, heading back to motels or home for the weekend. An Alberta Clipper has been running in all day off the Canadian Plains, funneling wind gusts over forty miles per hour towards the twin ports of Duluth-Superior. The winds, at sustained speeds of 20 to 30 miles per hour, cascade like a waterfall over the hill at Duluth, increasing in speed as they head east across Lake Superior. Big flakes of dry snow whip in circles, moving again and again before finally landing. As the clipper moves in, temperatures begin to fall, and the warnings go up for dangerous wind chills.

On the H. Lee White, tied to its berth at the Duluth Port Terminal, ship keeper Johnny Burris finally settles down on a chair in the ship’s galley. He lights a cigarette and dials home on his cell phone. Ship keeping is not new to Johnny. In 1970 Johnny worked the “winter gang” for Cleveland-Cliffs aboard the Champlain and in 1973 he took his first official ship keeping job, living with his wife and their newborn daughter aboard The International at the Sturgeon Bay shipyard. Since then Johnny has kept ship nearly every winter, even after his official retirement from his steward’s position.

The ship groans and creaks in the wind, the steel mooring lines vibrating as the cold air whistles around them. The ship has been restless all day and before Johnny barely has time to say hello the ship is suddenly plunged into darkness. Johnny instinctively heads for a drawer that contains an emergency flashlight. If the shore power is disrupted, the emergency power generator should come on line within a couple of minutes. Johnny can hear the relay click, but the generator isn’t turning over. What’s worse is that Johnny can no longer hear the vibration in the steel cables that hold the White to the dock. The White is not only black as night, it is eerily quiet. Johnny is a veteran sailor, and as he heads for the outside deck he feels and senses something unusual that makes him quicken his pace; the ship is moving. Even a novice ship keeper would know this is not a good feeling. Winter ships are not supposed to move.

“I don’t think I’ve got much of a story,” says Johnny at the close of a conversation we had one wintry afternoon in Duluth. Having spent the better part of thirty-four years working aboard ships on the Great Lakes Johnny Burris is surprisingly humble. It has taken me a long time to write this story. Just as there is always a time to hear a story, there is also a time to tell a story. As the first snow of the season lands around me, quietly covering the past months of sun and warmth, it is time to think about the life and work of a man that is so intertwined with summer sailing and winter ships. Maybe I took it to heart when Johnny told me he didn’t have much of a story to tell. I first met Johnny Burris aboard the H. Lee White where he was winter ship keeping. I can still recall Johnny, introducing himself and his wife Marcia in the pilot house, looking like a latter day pirate with a small dog perched upon his shoulder. “They call me ‘Tennessee.’”

Johnny’s story begins in Jellico, Tennessee, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains along the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. Jellico was founded as a mining town, its name taken from a seam of high quality bituminous coal known as Jellico Coal. As the coal ran out and little future remained in mining, Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky became poverty stricken. “Destitute” is the word Johnny uses to describe the Tennessee of his youth. When the deep mines shut down in the late 1940s there was little choice for Johnny’s family except to move on. Johnny’s father and his oldest sister moved north to Cleveland to find work, sending for the rest family shortly after.

Cleveland in the late 1940s was a bustling, hard working city; a gritty place like Jellico, only much larger. At the end of World War Two Cleveland was a center of heavy industry, a mainstay of coal; iron ore; oil; shipping; and manufacturing. Steel mills lined the upper reaches of the Cuyahoga River. Away from the river the automotive industry provided thousands of jobs for men and women, including the newly arrived Burris family.

Johnny left school at an early age in Tennessee and didn’t have much interest in returning to school by the time he got to Cleveland. When he turned 18 Johnny sought his place in the factories of Cleveland, finding work at the Brook Park Foundry. A lack of experience and seniority made it tough for him to hold a steady job and lay-offs were frequent and disruptive. Johnny’s landlord, a superintendent with the Great Lakes Dock & Dredge Company, suggested he try sailing and offered to set him up with a friend to get his Seaman’s card. With nothing to lose Johnny jumped at the chance for a job as deckhand on the steamship Pontiac. Johnny quickly discovered that he didn’t like being away from Cleveland and soon returned to the automobile factories.

After three weeks in Cleveland an uncertain Johnny decided to go back to the boats, this time shipping out on the Adam E. Cornelius, for Boland & Cornelius of Buffalo, New York. Instead of working on deck Johnny started out in the galley as a porter making $1.67 an hour. The work on the boats wasn’t ideal, but it was steady. This time Johnny stayed on the Cornelius, returning to Cleveland only during the off-season to pick up part-time work in the factories.


* * *

In 1968 Johnny shipped out as a porter aboard International Harvester’s The International. Johnny, working as the night porter, caught the attention of the Chief Steward on The International, a fellow named Niles Stibbs, from Algoma, Wisconsin. Niles wanted Johnny to learn the 2nd Cook’s job and offered to teach him everything he’d need to know to be successful. “Niles, I can’t even spell potato” pleaded Johnny. “I don’t even know how to make the menu up. I’ve never done this work before.” It was to no avail. Niles saw beyond Johnny’s deficiencies and quipped “Yeah, I don’t know how to say “tater” either!”

Johnny spent the next ten years working in the galley on The International during the regular sailing season, then taking relief jobs on other ships, working in the deck department or in the engine rooms when The International went to lay-up. “I wasn’t even going to stay on that ship,” recalled Johnny. “When I went on there I was only going to stay, whatever came first, the paycheck, or Cleveland. I wouldn’t have this job today if it hadn’t been for the old steward on The International.”
The steamer The International was built in 1923 at the Lorain yard of the American Shipbuilding Company. The vessel was launched as the William H. Warner, sailing for the next decade under the flag of the G. A. Tomlinson fleet. In 1934, the 586-foot vessel was purchased by the International Harvester Company. The normal trade route for The International was from South Chicago to Escanaba or Marquette. The vessel carried a crew of 36 men when Johnny sailed aboard it, most coming from Chicago, or the upper peninsula of Michigan. In later years The International would make occasional trips to the Upper Republic Steel Mill in Cleveland.

The Wisconsin Steel mill was located along the Calumet River, at 105th Street and Torrance Avenue in South Deering. The history of the steel mill can be traced back to the 1875 era Joseph H. Brown Iron and Steel Company. In a chronicle of Chicago’s East Side industrial heritage Rod Seller writes, “In about 1900 the mill was taken over by the Deering Harvester Company which merged with the McCormick Company and formed International Harvester Company and in 1905 the name of the mill was changed to Wisconsin Steel” (Sellers 2003).

Niles began teaching Johnny the 2nd Cook’s job, and Johnny for his part learned to cook. “He was the old fashioned cook, and all the guys would beller at the way he made coffee. He wouldn’t let anybody make coffee but him. Well, we could put the water on the stove for him,” laughed Johnny. “He would boil the water and then he would just take the coffee and dump it in there, and then put eggshells on top of that.” Niles would let the grounds soak down into the hot boiling water, before straining it into an urn. “That was his way of making coffee,” Johnny recalled. Ell Barclay, an assistant engineer on The International, used to complain almost daily about the coffee. It didn’t make any difference to Niles. “He didn’t change till the day he left.” Over time Johnny learned to make breads and pastries as well as to respect Nile’s culinary abilities. “He wasn’t a fancy cook or anything like that. Everything he made was very tasty. He was good. The guy was an excellent cook in my view.”
In addition to learning to cook, Niles taught Johnny the fine art of diplomacy when dealing with officers and crew members alike. “A lot of times, the forward end and the after end would fight amongst each other, or the captain didn’t like the chief, or the chief didn’t like the captain.” Johnny and Niles would often find themselves caught in the middle of someone else’s bickering, with nothing to do but wait until it blew over. “If I was friendly with the captain, the chief would be mad. If I was friendly with the chief, the captain would be mad. You know what I mean? Or, if you’ve got two friends aboard the boat and they don’t like each other, well, if you’re talking with one or the other you can cut it with a knife.”


* * *

In the mid 1970s the AMO (American Maritime Officers) began to organize the mates on The International, but not the galley staff. By chance, when one of the mates decided to not vote to organize, the union needed to find another vote. The AMO offered Chief Steward Niles Stibbs a deal to work a set number of days in trade for full benefits, and an early retirement. It was a sweet deal for Niles so he put in his time and was able to retire. Johnny, as the ship’s 2nd Cook, and the ship’s Porter, remained in the SIU (Seafarers International Union) as non-licensed union members. Johnny would not be eligible to join the AMO until he attained a Chief Steward’s job. When Niles Stibbs retired he was replaced with an out of work AMO cook from one of the U. S. Steel ships while Johnny was forced to remain as 2nd Cook.

The 1970s also saw new diesel-powered ships began replacing the older steamers on the Great Lakes. These ships are arguably more comfortable than the old steam ships. Heat is available year-round, on demand, without having to build steam up, and in summer air conditioning is available for all the rooms. The ships have cable TV, and many are now equipped with satellite systems. The living quarters are all located at the aft end so that the crew no longer has to make a long walk from the forward end back aft to the galley, as in the old days. In short, they’re very efficient; very convenient. In Johnny’s estimation they are more comfortable, but they have also changed the face of the men and women who work aboard them. “You can go out on deck and there won’t be anybody there. They’ve got satellite TV today; everybody’s got their cell phones so they can be talking to their wife right in their room. They don’t leave the rooms.”

“Years ago on those old boats everybody would be sitting out on the hatches, like when you’re going through the Soo Locks. Everybody’s out there bullshitting and having a good time. And it’d last, you know, in the summertime till it got dark for the people that weren’t working. It was a good time in those days. You could sneak a beer out there and drink it in a cup where it was undetected, as long as you weren’t holding a bottle.”
Great Lakes sailors used to enjoy a reputation for being a heavy drinking crowd. Today, changes in regulations and the responsibilities that go with the enormous expense of operating a ship have drastically curtailed the former carefree days of the sailor. Ports where the docks were close to downtown were always favorites: Rogers City; Escanaba; Conneaut; and Ashtabula. “Cleveland wasn’t that great ’cause you’re down in the Flats and it was three hours up the river you know. It wasn’t bad when they had the grocery boat that would come out and pick you up.” South Chicago was a favorite for the crew of The International because the ship made port every week and it was easy to get around. Johnny recalled some of the colorful names of the tavern proprietors in South Chicago. “You had Peckerhead Kate’s. That was up on Chicago Avenue. I think it was Chicago Avenue; and you had Horseface Mary. She’d take you to the whore houses and wait for you to bring you back to the bar. The guys would stay upstairs there in the winter time. She’d kind of support the guys in the winter months, and collect off of them in the sailing season.” Superior and Toledo were also known as good ports for entertainment for sailors when they were off the ship.

For many years the shipping companies didn’t offer unemployment during the off-season, creating a flood of sailors looking for factory work during the winter months. The International would usually winter at the steel mill in South Deering, the home of International Harvester’s Wisconsin Steel mill. In many instances the vessel would shut down earlier than most of the other ships on the Great Lakes, finishing its season when the mill at South Chicago had enough taconite pellets to last for the winter. Rather than look for work on shore Johnny would bounce around to other boats, such as the Charles M. Beeghly, or the Irvin S. Olds, working as a deckhand or in the engine department as a wiper.

When those ships finally stopped running Johnny returned to South Chicago to work in the steel mills. The personnel manager at Wisconsin Steel knew that sailors were usually hard working men trying to support their families, and those working on the International Harvester ship were given preference. “We’ve hired you guys in here before, but the minute that whistle blows you guys leave us and go back on the boats.” Johnny found the schedule disagreeable, working split shifts, one week at night, one week in the day, and on call twenty-four-seven. “He was right,” said Johnny. “When the whistle blew, I went back sailing.”


* * *

The late 1970s and early 1980s were transition years for Johnny. The U. S. domestic steel industry was in recession, causing mills to close and eventually forcing a number of the fleets working on the Great Lakes to either drastically reduce the number of ships they operated, or go out of business. Unfortunately in some cases it was both.

International Harvester sold its lone remaining ship, The International, in 1977. At the start of the 1978 sailing season Johnny began looking for a new job when an opportunity for a Steward’s position opened aboard the steamer Cliffs Victory. “It was the only boat I was ever on where a cook an office, and a bedroom.” It didn’t last long. “I was only on there twenty days.” Johnny spent the remainder of that transitional season aboard the Charles M. White, holding the Steward’s job on there, hoping that he would get back to the Cliffs Victory. Johnny’s hope for a permanent Stewards position with Cleveland-Cliffs vanished in the spring of 1979 when Cliffs laid up most of its vessels, going out of business the following year.

In 1979 the American Steamship Company became Johnny’s permanent home when he signed aboard the Consumers Power as Chief Steward. “May 15. I’ll never forget it. It was real warm. The ship was in Toledo; and it was late getting out. That’s the reason I remember it so well. That’s my seniority date with the company too, May 15, 1979.” Johnny recalled with ease his start with ASC that spring. At ASC Johnny finally gained status in the AMO, but joining the officer’s union also meant starting at the bottom of the seniority list. Johnny was unable to land a permanent Steward’s position for several years as the fleet rode out the steel recession. With a new ship, a new fleet and new friendships to make, in many ways it was like starting over.

In 1982, after two seasons as a relief cook Johnny worked only thirty days before the recession idled many of the boats. That summer, instead of cooking, Johnny worked aboard the American Mariner as a “ship keeper” until the vessel sailed late, in November. The following season shipping on the lakes began to return to normal. Johnny worked full time on the John J. Boland (2) and by 1985 found a more permanent home for many years as steward aboard the Charles E. Wilson. At some point in his career with ASC Johnny worked on nearly every vessel in the fleet, from the old steamers like the Detroit Edison, the Nicollet, and Joe Young, to the new river class of vessels, the Wilson, the American Republic, Sam Laud, and St. Clair, to the thousand-foot ore carriers Indiana Harbor and Belle River.

* * *


For a Steward, the start of the shipping season is usually the most hectic time of the year. “Fit- out” means coming aboard before any of the crew has arrived. In addition to food preparation the steward is responsible for running the “hotel services” on the ship. Items that needed attention at the end of the last season, such as mattresses and chairs, are replaced. Linens are distributed to all the rooms on the ship. Food supplies for the galley are loaded aboard, inventoried and stowed in the pantries, freezers and refrigerators. The galley crew readies the engine department’s rooms first because they are the first members of the ship’s crew to arrive. Once the engine crew has arrived the vessel is full of extra people such as inspectors from the Coast Guard and the ABS (American Bureau of Shipping); shipyard workers finishing up projects; office personnel; and medical personnel doing physicals. Once the deck crew arrives the work in the galley is disrupted by additional preparations like fire and lifeboat drills, taking more time out of an already hectic day.

“What you’re doing as a Steward, you’re fixing daily meals, like a restaurant. A restaurant has two choices daily for special evening meal, they have a luncheon special, and they have a supper or dinner special. This is what we’re doing every day.” When Johnny started out the “traditional” menu was more rigid, with certain nights of the week reserved for a particular food. Saturday night was always Steak night, a “tradition” which eventually changed to Wednesdays. “It was Saturday night’s steak night, and Friday night’s fish night, and Sunday was always some kind of chicken. Like for me, on Sundays for lunch I would have burgers and fries, and chili hot dogs, and a chicken soup. Well, you have a salad bar now,” conceded Johnny. “That just came in the later years, a salad bar. For supper I’d have either a baked chicken or a fried chicken, or turkey or something of that nature.” Everyone who has ever been aboard a ship on the Great Lakes for any length of time would agree that you’d have to be a very picky to go hungry.

A long day is part of the routine for the galley staff on a ship. The day typically begins around 6:30 in the morning when tables are set for breakfast, menus are written for the day, and breads and rolls are set to rise. For Johnny an average day was broken into three main meals. “Breakfast was from 7:30 to 8:30; one hour. Then you could knock off about 9 o’clock for an hour, 9:30 to 10:30. I never did, but that was legal. The porter did ’cause he could get away, but with my job I had stuff in the oven that I had to watch, so I usually didn’t. Then we’d work from 10:30 to 1. Then we’d knock off from 1 until 3:30, and then you come back and work till 6 to get your day in.”

During an average breakfast on a lake boat in the early 1980s the galley would go through about three dozen eggs, and four to five pounds of bacon. “Some guys would order three and four times,” recalled Johnny; before people became more concerned with health and high cholesterol. The galley would go through an average of three gallons of milk per day. Lunch is usually the smallest meal on the ship. “If you’ve got a guy that works from 4 to 8 in the morning there’s a damn good chance he isn’t going to be up for lunch, so you won’t see those guys.” If a sailor was in his home port he was more likely to be at home than on the ship. Dinner is always the largest meal on the ship, with roughly 18 to 20 out of the crew dining. If the ship was at the dock Johnny could always expect family and friends to be dining as well. “You get more people off the street than you do the crew,” he laughed. “It is the damn truth.” Certain vessels in the ASC fleet even earned a reputation for frequently having guests at dinner. In a sense, the number of dinner guests also reflected on the quality of the food prepared by the Chief Steward.

Periodically, depending on the ship, guests of the company would take short trips. These trips, a mix of pleasure and business, were most often reserved for customers of the company. Guests aboard the ships at the dock are a part of life, but guests aboard the ships mean different things for the crew. When Johnny sailed many of the crew didn’t care for the passengers that would ride for a week during the summer months, and for the most part they were able to avoid much contact with them. The galley staff, whether they liked passengers or not, were in a position of having to interact with them on a daily basis. Johnny could never understand the fascination these passengers had with the boats. “They kind of come on a boat expecting all this glamorous stuff and it’s just not there. These ships are made to haul cargoes. You know what I mean?” Although Johnny would admit to be “uncomfortable” with passengers, it was part of his job and in looking back he manages to have some good laughs over some of the escapades that went on aboard the ships.

One such trip earned Johnny a certain amount of notoriety within the fleet for his culinary skills, and diplomatic finesse. Ned Smith, the president of the American Steamship Company, while taking a trip aboard the H. Lee White ordered chicken noodle soup for lunch one day. Johnny remembers the 2nd Cook coming back all flustered when the president sent him back to the galley for more soup. “He says, ‘I’d like to have another order of that. It’s real good, but there isn’t enough chicken in it. Make sure there’s some chicken in it this time.’” Johnny always liked Mr. Smith and knew him to be a pretty good joker, so he personally went out to the dining room to discuss the situation. “Well,” Johnny told Mr. Smith, “purchasing wants me to cut down on the chicken and give you more noodles. It’s cheaper” he joked. “I’m just trying to protect your company.” Both men had a good laugh and Johnny returned to work in the galley as Mr. Smith finished his lunch. Johnny thought he had gotten off pretty easy this time, until a package arrived in the mail couple weeks later. Johnny was clearly puzzled as he looked at the package. “It’s all wrapped up, and it’s from the president of the company,” he explained. “I opened it up and there’s a rubber chicken in there.” By this time the story had gone around to all the ships in the fleet, as well as the home office personnel. Several weeks later the fleet safety director was aboard, and more than innocently inquired about the rubber chicken. “He wanted to know if I still had it,” said Johnny. “I said, ‘It’s up there in the room.’ He asked, ‘Would you bring it down here and pose for a picture for me?’” It was time to turn the tables on Mr. Smith so to speak. The safety director wanted Johnny to hold the rubber chicken over a pot on the stove so he could take a picture to send back to the office. “That’s the story behind that chicken,” laughs Johnny. The photograph of Johnny and the chicken are still featured on the American Steamship web page under the employment opportunities section for stewards.



The winter of 2001-2002 was an unusually warm one, particularly at the western end of Lake Superior. A winter ship keepers, for his or her part, love the ice because it keeps their ship snug to the dock. A winter like this one, with little or no ice, makes a ship keeper a little nervous. There’s too much play in the boat to ever let them feel comfortable. Without the firm layer of ice to help hold the White to the dock that winter the strong winds had finally gained momentum, pushing along the 700-foot length of hull until it began to move away from the dock. While Johnny sat in the galley the power line connected to the ship snapped and the gangway ladder fell, slamming hard against the hull.

Johnny quickly reached the deck, opening the door to a blast of cold air hitting him square in the face. Before he crossed the deck Johnny could see what he already suspected, the ship was no longer alongside the dock. The steel mooring line forward of the aft winch had snapped. All that was holding the ship to the dock was the anchor chain, now played out thirty feet from the dock. With no power to control the mooring winches Johnny could only assess the situation before reaching into his pocket for his cell phone to call for help. In a matter of hours a crane and several workers had arrived to put the ship back at the dock. It was some time after 2 a.m. before Johnny was finally able to get some sleep.

In the summer of the year 2000 Johnny officially retired from his job as steward, serving his final cooking days aboard the George A. Stinson. He still keeps ship in the winter time but admits it gets harder to leave his home in rural northwest Wisconsin when the snow starts flying.


© 2003 Patrick Lapinski (all rights reserved)