The short history of a Vermilion ship captain

Captain Stone

By: Rich Tarrant

In 1839 a man named William B.H. Stone, his spouse Eliza and three children moved here from a small town called Port Burwell on the northern shore of Lake Erie in Ontario, Canada. The newly incorporated Village of Vermillion – with two “ells” – of 1839 had even at that early time likely acquired positive reputation about the Great Lakes as a thriving port and shipbuilding town. It must have been a lively place where persons with appropriate skills and initiative were welcomed and could immediately find work. And thusly Mr. Stone, who found work as a cooper, took up residence here.

Coming of age in such environs, surrounded by families of sailors, ship’s carpenters, and shipping merchants, it should surprise no one that by the age of 17 years James, the youngest of Stone’s three children, took to the sea. Actually he went to work for his neighbor, Alva Bradley. Bradley had distinguished himself as Master of the 15-ton “Olive Branch” running trade from the islands to Lake Erie’s southern ports; then the 47-ton schooner “Commodore Lawrence.” When he left the lakes he partnered with a man named Ahira Cobb to build vessels in Vermilion. Thus, it is very likely that young James admired Bradley’s successes on both land and the lakes. And the young man thrived.

In 1864 Stone took the helm as Master of the schooner Challenge. His first steamship was the Joseph S. Fay. In an obituary written about him that appeared in “The Marine Review” in December of 1911 it was said that he “was known from one end of the lakes to the other as one of the most experienced navigators that had ever sailed on the lakes”.  In fact, during Captain Stone’s 37-year tenure as a Bradley employee underwriters were never called upon to pay a claim on any vessel under his care. In 1898 he was appointed as government supervising inspector of steam vessels for the ninth district and superintended the building of the steamers R.P. Ranney, City of Cleveland, Maurice D. Grover, the Pasadena and the Hesper.

Captain Stone married Sarah Frances Parsons in 1863. She died in 1891 at the age of 50 years. Together they had three children: Lewis, Mary and Burton. Lewis followed in his father’s footsteps and by the time of the elder Stone’s death was master of the Samuel Mather (built in 1906). [Note: Sarah’s father, also named Burton, was another well-known Vermilion ship master and light keeper.] Following Sarah’s Stone married another lady named Sarah (McCauley) in 1902.

Most records of his working life emphasize the fact that during all the years he worked for Alva Bradley and his successors it was “without interruption by sickness or other cause,” for even one day. On Wednesday November 22, 1911 he was at his office in a government building in Cleveland and was apparently quite well. The next day was Thanksgiving. Following his attendance at a church social on that day he was stricken by an attack of “acute indigestion” – and suddenly he was gone. He was 75 years, 2 months and 13 days old. And thus one of the best navigators on the Great Lakes charted his way back home to rest – in The Village of Lake Captains.

Ref: The Vermilion News 11/30/1911; The Sandusky Register 11/25/1911; Marine Review 12/1911; United Church of Christ Congregational Photo archives.

Vermilion resident Rich Tarrant has agreed to share many of the photos and stories he has acquired from the former Vermilion News and other local sources with the readers of the Photojournal. Rich is the youngest son and a grandson of the late proprietors of The Vermilion News (1897-1964). Readers may email him at:



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