March 1995

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Ice Fishermen

on the St. Lawrence River


Edwin N. Harris

For three winters in the early 1950s I became an avid ice fisherman, and with like-minded companions made four or five trips each winter to Eel Bay in Westminster Park on the St. Lawrence River, just north of the American section of the Thousand Island Suspension Bridge, near the Canadian border. There we caught large numbers of Northern Pike and Yellow Perch.

The pike were too plentiful to suit the New York Department of Conservation so each fisherman was allowed fifteen "tip-ups" in hope of bringing their numbers under control. Northern Pike are such fierce predators they were decimating both pan and game fish. I caught three weighing twelve to fifteen pounds each, and one day Joe Glomboski, my usual companion, saw another fisherman with a thirty-two pounder. It was not unusual to catch pike with legal sized (ten inches or more) Small Mouth Black Bass in their bellies.

Joe Glomboski was an all-year outdoorsman, and devoted almost all his spare time to hunting and fishing, especially since he lived as a bachelor after his divorce from his first wife. He worked in a maintenance field division of Eastman Kodak which meant he also worked out of doors. Born and raised on a farm, I too liked being out under the sky in the construction industry, but now, married and with two children, could only get away a few select weekends for fishing, most often in winter. Joe, about forty, a strong man of Polish descent, often complained about his bad heart, but his associates, noting how active he was, chose to smile tolerantly and discount his moaning protests as a slight case of hypochondriasis.

Joe had other ice fishing friends, but for three years I became his most steady companion. After about three years I gave up ice fishing, mostly because of too many close calls with sub-arctic weather conditions. Traveling from Rochester in Joe's station wagon one morning, with zero visibility in a snow blizzard, we crashed into a heating oil truck as we were approaching Watertown. Most of our gear stowed in the rear of the car came flying into the front seat, drenching both of us with water and flapping golden shiners, the bait we carried in a ten gallon galvanized metal water can.

Joe's large Labrador Retriever, "Biff," too dumb to be perturbed by the jolt, had also landed in the front seat and was amusing himself by chasing the squirming shiners in my lap and around the front floor of the car. Only good luck kept the five-foot long stainless steel ice spuds stored in the rear from spearing one of us. Joe's primary concern was to save the precious bait we had purchased from a Norton Street shop in Rochester. We managed to get them back into the few gallons of water left in the bait can.

The wagon was towed to a Watertown garage, and while Joe and I repaired to a tavern for sandwiches and beer, the mechanics pulled the fender away from the front wheels and wired the headlights back to near their original position. Joe drove the probably illegally equipped wagon to Clayton, New York, where we spent the night at Bill Cassidy's Riverview Inn, that grand old landmark, with its great wide center staircase to the second floor, which had served travelers for so many years.

Joe and I prepared our own breakfast in the large kitchen, for Bill made it clear that he would "be damned if I'll get up at your ungodly hours just for two crazy guests."

At dawn the next day we were on the St. Lawrence River ice, where the temperature was not particularly abnormal at twenty-two degrees F. below zero. Why not? We had managed to save most of the shiners and thought it would be pitiable if we wasted them. This trip did not break my spirit, though I was beginning to feel gnawing doubts about the sanity of the operation. It was the next trip that did it.

This time we bought four dozen golden shiners from the Norton Street dealer at four in the afternoon, and talked of their perfect size, five to seven inches long. They were lively, just right for luring Great Northern Pike. We left for Clayton and Cassidy's at once, planning to arrive by around 9 p.m., get some sleep, and be on the ice shortly after dawn the next morning.

We were spudding ten inch diameter holes through about eight inches of ice shortly after dawn. I stopped to regain my wind, studied the sky and walked over where Joe was doing the same. "Joe, have you noticed how the temperature has risen in the last half hour—could we be in for a change in weather?"

"Yeah, Ed, I've been watching the sky get darker when it's supposed to be getting lighter. It could get nasty. What do you say we just open a few holes for now and see what happens?"

There was hardly a breath of air stirring and I thought to myself: "If we had any brains we'd get out of here." Of course fishermen often leave common sense at home. I set up five tip-ups over the holes, placing the reel of chalkline mounted on the vertical shaft under water so it would not freeze, and set the red flag, that was fastened to a spring steel broom splint on the other end. Last, I set the triggering device so that if a fish tugged the line and turned the reel a half turn, the flag would fly up waving in the air, and whoever saw it first would yell, "Flag up," whereupon Biff, Joe, and I would race across the ice, unless, of course we saw other flags to tend.

That morning we had crossed the American segment of the suspension bridge, riding it to where it lands on an island before continuing to the Canadian segment. In future times the bridge would be the end of Interstate Route 81. Just past the bridge, we had turned right on a narrow little road that wound through heavy woods, back to the river past a few empty summer cottages, to come finally to a small inlet from the river. We had been to the spot only once and were none too familiar with the area, and were probably the only two people there.

Now we both studied the sky nervously. While the air was perfectly still and warmer on the ground, high above, the still darkening clouds were scudding across the sky at great speed. I allowed as how I didn't like this, and that just maybe we should make a move. Suddenly we heard a thundering roar of approaching wind, and the crack and thump of a falling tree that told us we were in trouble. We did not know how bad until we ran from our position on shore onto the river to grab the tip-ups where we heard crashing noises from up river, and stopped to look.

We were horrified to see something we had heard about in old fisherman's tales, but never really believed. The frozen river was being peeled of its ice into large blocks that were literally tumbling and flying directly toward us. As we fled, we looked back to see only thrashing water and bouncing ice cakes where we had just abandoned our tip-ups. Frightened, we jumped into the station wagon, to start our escape, and in a short distance found the first tree across the road. With Joe at the wheel the wagon groaned its way around this and other trees. Several times he had to take it far into the woods, and I cautioned, "Let's not get hung up on a stump, please Joe." When we finally emerged onto the main road, I said, "Escape Number Two, but we haven't crossed all our bridges yet. There's a big one ahead and I think there is something wrong. Why are there state and county dump trucks loaded with crushed stone being tied to the side rails of the bridge? The deck is undulating!"

Then to myself, "Good God, Galloping Gertie, again."

"Joe, did you ever hear of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State?" Joe had not.

I had worked around bridge construction and since my interest had never waned, I subscribed to the Engineering News Record even through the years when I worked as a craneman at the Despatch Shop's steel fabricating plant in East Rochester. From the magazine I had learned the details of the Tacoma Bridge failure. Of course it was several times longer than this span.

Suspension bridges are characterized by three essential parts—cables, towers, and anchorages. The cables, which provide support for the bridge, consist of rope-like strands of prestressed twisted wire. The towers provide a fastening point for the cables and a support for the deck. For anchorage, the ends of the cables are embedded either in massive blocks of concrete or in bed rock.

With the success of colossal spans, along with many other smaller ones, it seemed that the problems associated with the failures of early suspension bridges finally had been overcome. However, in 1940 a 2800-foot suspension bridge across the Tacoma Narrows in Washington dramatically proved otherwise. Even before it was opened to traffic in 1940, there were large up and down movements in the structure. Though minor remedial efforts were helpful, the roadway still occasionally vibrated vertically as much as four feet from its normal position, causing the bridge to be nicknamed "Galloping Gertie."

On November 7, 1940, while exposed to a wind of 42 miles per hour, the bridge deck suddenly changed its vertical oscillation to a violent torsional one. Under this severe twisting action, the roadway ripped from its hangers and plunged into the water below. The only loss of life was a pet dog. Fortunately for scientific inquiry, the breakup of the bridge was recorded by the motion picture camera of an observer.

The failure was caused by insufficient stiffners in the main girder allowing aeroelastis flutter. An exmple of aeroelastis flutter is the flapping of a curved Venetian blind metal slat when air rushes past it. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was rebuilt in 1951 and still stands.

When Joe and I drove onto the bridge across the St. Lawrence we found it twisting and galloping as if it were a thirty-foot-wide ribbon in a stiff wind, thoughts of Tacoma Narrows persisted in my mind. I did not think it wise to speak of it to Joe at this time.

Crossing the bridge gave the most unusual sensation I had ever driven in, something like a wild roller coaster ride on tracks that were moving. The town and state workmen looked at us with disbelief, for the highway had been closed for some time, and they waved us through with violent arm motions. We had driven onto the roadway past where the closing barricades were positioned, and were the last car on.

We stopped at Cassidy's to pick up a few belongings we had left there, and to take a little tranquilizer at the bar. Here we heard that the wind had gusted up to 85 miles an hour. When we started for Rochester, flying branches, together with the wind pushing the wagon around, convinced us to hole up in Henderson Harbor in a closed cottage owned by Joe's girl friend, Eleanor.

The harbor community was without electric power and the restaurants were closed, and so we spent a dismal night with only a few candy bars from our gear, and with no working phone. During the evening I told Joe the Tacoma Narrows bridge story. He was impressed. "Glad you didn't tell me before I drove across this morning, Ed."

The next morning we drove in tired silence until we neared Rochester and I spoke. "Joe, I have concluded the fish are just not worth all we go through. You know I am supposed to stay alive to care for my wife and two kids. Let's just say this will be my last trip for a while."

"I can't say that I blame you. It's OK Ed, but I''ll miss you."

Joe found other partners and continued the trips until he died at home from a heart attack one evening while playing with his only child, borne by his second wife, Eleanor.

© 1995, Edwin N. Harris
Index of stories by Edwin Harris
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