My Account

Just About Me - Captain Leo Parks Corkum

Capt. Leo P. Corkum 1919Capt. Leo P. Corkum ca. 1950

Captain Leo Parks Corkum was born 1889, the son of James Wallace Corkum (born 1861 in Pleasantville, NS), and Mary Ellen Parks (born 1864 in East LaHave, NS). In 1924, he moved with his family to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
 
Capt. Corkum sailed the following schooners: Benevolence; Irene M. Corkum; Maxwell F. Corkum; and the Irene Mary. He also sailed the beam trawler, the Promotion.
 
Captain Corkum died 18 March 1971 in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.  
 
As dictated Christmas 1970 by Capt. Leo Parks Corkum of Lunenburg, N.S.

 

I am an old man.

Although the later part of my life has been very leisurely, the best years of my life were without much fun, but plenty of hard work and deprivation. So I think of myself as I watch the young people, especially the early teenagers, enjoy yourselves, live good clean lives, laugh and play then when the time comes to work give an honest day's work for an honest day's pay.

Now the English or spelling won't be correct - how could it be? I only went to school ‘till I was twelve then only when there were no more chores. I was born June 25th 1890 [ed: other records say 1889].

My father [ed: James Wallace Corkum] was Captain of a three master schooner and sailed practically all round the world.

Anyone would have said that ours should be a good life, but it didn't turn out that way.

It all began one winter day (I was only a year and a half old) when my mother [ed: Mary Ellen Parks] went across ice to take a short cut to visit a neighbour. She fell and injured her hip. Whatever happened I don't know, but to the day she died she walked with a cane and was in pain.

When my father arrived home the doctor suggested that a sea trip may help my mother. She joined the ship at Saint John, N.B., and sailed to Quebec to load lumber for Santos, Brazil. The ship was the Tyree. The trip to Brazil took eight weeks.

My mother left the ship to stay up in the mountain where it was cooler. There were other ships there and quite a few women and children were all together.

At Santos, there was an epidemic of yellow fever. My father and several of the crew contracted it. All the crew survived, but my father died [ed: 18 January 1892, age 30] and was buried there A Captain Spurr took over command of the Tyree and the vessel returned home with the flag at half-mast.

At the time I did not know anything of financial matters. Life insurance was unheard of and I realize now that my mother, with two children, had to struggle along some way. My father's wages, until his death, with possibly a couple hundred dollars, was all we had.

My uncle decided we had better move in with him and my grandmother permanently, which we did. Then and there my childhood ended.

I started school. There was always plenty for me to do. I cut kindlings, carried in the wood and woe betide me if the wood box was not always full. I carried water, fed the pig, milked the cow and put it in the pasture. Then I scurried down the road to school. After school it was the same thing over again.

My uncle always dried fish for the salt bankers, but with me to help each year, added a few until he was handling as many as any two men.

Many a time I would look longingly at the other children who sailed toy boats or paddled along the shore.

When I was twelve I was determined to go fishing. My uncle said wait a couple of years. I was too young. I was actually working for a home for my mother and sister and myself. I was big for my age and as strong as a young ox.

Every week I would row across the river to the oil factory and deliver dozens of suits of oil clothes and return with another load for the next week. The sewing machine was hardly still. My sister and my mother were continually stitching. I don't think it paid much but those days a little went a long way.

When I was thirteen I got myself a job as a flunkie on a fishing vessel. My pay was $10 a month and any fish I could catch by myself from the deck of the vessel.

I never, never forget those first weeks on the vessel. My bunk was right up in the bow. The vessel would slop up off a wave and I would meet the deck. On the way back I would slop back on the bunk. Oh how sea-sick I was. I prayed to die.

The crew in their rough way were kind to me making me eat pilot biscuits by the dozen. When I was able to get around it was "Here boy, quick, - look alive - get me this - get me that."

Suddenly I was alive once more and could run around that vessel like a monkey. I watched everyone and everything and a few times went out in a dory when one of the men was laid up sick. I never missed a chance on a blowy day to fish from the deck. All the fish I caught had a cod line tied around the tail. They were all salted together and when the time came to unload the catch I had quite a pile of fish. I am sure many of the men tied quite a few lines on fish tails for me. The fishing season lasted from the first of March till the end of September. In that six months I earned exactly $99. How proud I was! I was surely a man.

That summer while I was away my sister [Eva Mary Corkum] was a victim of spinal meningitis and died July 7, 1908. It was just my mother and I now.

All winter I pleaded with her to get a place of our own and finally we rented three rooms at $20 a year. From age fourteen I was the man of the house. With mother's sewing I earned enough to keep us and what we had we paid for and what we could not pay for we went without.

The next year one of the men said he would take me in a dory with him if the skipper said yes. Well it was agreed and I became one of the co-adventurers on a fishing schooner. That meant an equal share whether a lot or a little.

For the next few years I did not have to ask for a chance on a vessel. I was asked. I was a hard worker and I only went with a skipper who was a driver. In the winter one of the men nearby offered to teach me navigation. I studied how to take a sight, how to figure a position. The more difficult the task the better I liked it. Remember, all we had was a compass, a chart, a sextant, a dipsy lead, the sun and the stars. Now mind you I couldn't operate the push button system on the million dollar fish draggers today, but if by chance everything blacked out I could find out exactly where I was and get safely home just by dead reckoning. That's something the young skippers on the draggers today couldn't do.

After the next year fishing I went to Saint John and signed on as seaman on a three master. This was for the winter coastwise trade. Anything for a little more money and experience. Money mostly, for I was determined to get a vessel of my own. Just before we sailed the mate was taken ill and the Captain asked me to go mate. So I signed on as mate with the princely salary of $45 a month.

I really had a lot of cheek. We were loaded with lumber for New York then loaded coal for Bath, Maine then back for another load of coal for Yarmouth. In New York I really splurged. I bought a clock. It looked something like a church and cost $2.50. Now this clock ran for years and after I moved to Lunenburg we kept it on the kitchen mantelpiece. The funny thing about the clock was it would vibrate every time a vessel with a Fairbanks Morse engine went in or out of the harbour. At no other time did it vibrate. As there were only two vessels with that class of engine it was easy to tell who it was. Sure enough it never failed.

After my first winter on the three master the Captain pleaded with me to stay, but for me there was nothing but fishing.

Those days to own or have a vessel built you had to have a guarantee that you could sell 64 shares. There were always 64 shares - no more, no less. When I was nineteen I started out with a proper form from the customs officer to see what I could do.

My uncle loaned me the money for one share for which I was to pay the regular rate of interest. My aunt also loaned me the money for a share, both of them taking my note. I had money enough for three shares. The shares ran around $25 to $50 each. So with five shares booked I started the rounds. Some laughed at me; others signed up for one or two until I had the sixty-four. My next job was visiting the different shipyards. Where I wanted it built they were booked for a year and I couldn't wait a year.

My first vessel the Benevolence was finally launched and I was, at not quite twenty, a fishing skipper. From then on I had no name, I was either "The Skipper" or "The Old Man".

On my first trip leaving the harbour I ran onto a ledge and had to be towed off. At least there was no damage. Then going into Halifax harbour to get the compass adjusted I decided to dock without the use of a tow boat. I had too much headway on and the bow sprit went right in through a window of a building on the wharf tearing out all the rigging. That required a few days and money. One of the crew threw his clothes on the wharf. He had bought a share. He told me he must have been crazy to think a young 'whipper-snapper' like me could sail a vessel. Of course he used stronger words than that. I quickly got a man in his place and we sailed for the Grand Banks.

I guess I was just plain lucky from then on for practically every hook in the water produced a fish and I landed three full loads that first year. When the year's take was finally settled each share holder got $72 on their $50 share. I really felt like a king when taking the checks to each share holder except to the one man who had left me. He finally met me and asked how we had done. He knew only too well. I told him his check was at the house and he could get it any time, if he thought it was worthwhile.

That year of 1910, my vessel had paid for itself. I sailed that vessel one more year and ordered a new one. In 1913, I was married.

I sold the Benevolence for almost twice what it cost. The new one was on contract so it did not cost much more than my first one.

The Irene M. Corkum was a good vessel and that first winter I got a charter to take a load of dried fish to Portugal. The previous winter I had taken a couple of days to go to Halifax to write for a ticket. Now I was a certified Captain with a ticket for deep sea and foreign trade.

The trip to Portugal was ideal. Trade winds all the way and after twelve days without hardly shifting a sail we arrived at our destination - Oporto. Our return trip we were salt laden and it was a different story. Head winds - tack one way, tack again, never making headway. Finally, after forty eight days, we sailed into Lunenburg. We were almost starved and the only water we had was what we could catch from the sails when it rained. The vessels all blew their horns for we had long been given up for lost.

However life went on and I had to hurry to get ready for spring fishing. Again the fishing was good but the presence of submarines kept some of the vessels in port. The Arras, the government patrol boat spoke to us one day and told us of a submarine near by and to hail all vessels sighted.

We had no radio, no ship to shore phones - we were on our own. As we were almost loaded I decided to run for land. I hailed the first vessel we sighted but I think he thought we just wanted him to move as he was on an abundance of fish. We sailed on but that afternoon the sub appeared beside the vessel I had spoken to. It gave them time to provision their dories and then shelled the vessel until it sank. The men had a hard row about one hundred fifty miles but the weather stayed fine and they all landed safely. Other vessels were not so lucky.

The next winter I went to Halifax to load flour for Newfoundland.

On December 6th, 1917 we were just getting ready to start the day's work when I surely thought the end of the world had come.

History books can give you a better account of the Halifax explosion that I ever could.

Why we weren't blown to pieces I do not know. The shed on the pier disappeared, flour was everywhere, iron and wood and bodies were falling around us but aside from some debris on the deck we were untouched.

The cook fed dozens of people and when night came the cabin and forecastle floors were lined with men just as grateful as we were for a place to sleep and to know we were spared.

We were there for another week waiting for a load of flour and what sights we saw.

In the States it seemed they were always a little ahead of the Nova Scotians with ideas. A new type of vessel was being tried out called a beam trawler.

Promotion landing fish at Lahave At this time in Shelburne a large beam trawler was being built on speculation so the manager of the firm from which I sailed persuaded me to try it. I sold the Irene M. Corkum again making a nice profit and became the owner of the Promotion. It was twice the size of the Irene M. Corkum. 

This was a different type of fishing altogether. All the men stayed on deck and a huge net was towed, hoisted on board and the fish dumped right on deck. No small dories, hooks, or lines. I went to Boston and sailed on their draggers for a couple of months while the Promotion was being readied.

I was the first Lunenburg skipper to start this new venture.

The fish caught were to be landed fresh and that meant every week we would be in port. On our first trip we loaded in three days. The men nearly killed themselves trying to gut the fish and store them in ice before the net load was again dumped on board.

On our second trip more fish than before were lifted up from the bottom and dumped on board. The men waded almost to their wastes[sic] through fish. The cook and cookee came out of the forecastle to help get the fish stowed away.

I will never forget it. The first day of September 1919, thick of fog and dead calm. We heard this steamer coming. We blew the horn and all the men shouted. In less time than it takes me to write it, the bow of the Promotion was completely cut off. We just had time to cut the life boats loose. I saw the men were all in the boats. I had time to grab the vessel papers and I just stepped off the wheel house into a life boat and the Promotion was gone.

There were twenty-three men in two boats and thousands of dead fish. We yelled as hard as we could and again heard the steamer. We were scared they would not see us and run us down so kept yelling. Some of us could not talk properly for days. After they stopped we rowed alongside and found it was a huge ocean liner the La Lorraine bound from New York to La Harve, France. They threw over a landing net and after much difficulty we were all safely on board.

The captain immediately had a message sent to the owners so even though the Promotion was gone our folks knew we were all safe.

After being landed in France the Canadian Consul made arrangements to send us to Liverpool in England. We were a sorry looking bunch. A kind priest on the La Lorraine took up a collection for us and we had enough money to buy each man a shirt, cap coat and shoes. 

Leo Corkum (2nd from right) and 16 of his 23 crewWe did not arrive back in Canada until December. Thousands of immigrants and many thousands of troops were being returned to Canada and everything was booked solid.

I then had to go to New York to the Admiralty Court with a claim for the Promotion. At least I had no trouble as passengers liners were not allowed to travel over the shallow waters of the Grand Banks and that rule is still good today. We received 100% damages plus value of the fish and the men each received a sum for personal losses.

Once again I was a skipper without a vessel. I was able to buy back the Irene M. Corkum that I sailed for another five or six years.

Then our son [ed: Maxwell Fred Leopold Corkum] was born [February 7, 1920] and the need of a house arose. We decided to buy in Lunenburg. I bought two lots right on the harbour where I could see every vessel come and go. [224 Pelham Street]

In 1923 our present house was built and paid for.

The next year I had another vessel built - the Maxwell F. Corkum named after our son. 

The Maxwell F. Corkum

The Maxwell F. CorkumThis vessel was destroyed by fire off Labrador in June 1971*

We were still under sail as only one or two vessels had installed power.

Some years were good; some not so good, but on the whole I was satisfied. One thing I never had any money on hand.

The minute I had a few dollars more than we needed to live on I would buy another vessel share. I worked to make money and made the little money I had work too.

In August 1927, were fishing off Sable Island when the glass [barometer pressure] suddenly began to drop. I must say in all my thirty-nine years as a skipper I never saw anything like it. I blew the distress signal and the dories hauled their trawl as quickly as possible. The first men on board helped hoist sail and the remainder we picked up under sail. It was a nice morning with just a nice breeze. We sailed away from Sable Island as quickly as the wind would take us.

Everything was lashed fast and the wind started. The mainsail and foresail were lowered and the storm sail set none to soon. The wheel was lashed firm and everyone ordered below deck. Then the hurricane struck.

Only those who were in a similar situation know the awful fear and the terrible pounding. Most of them never told about it for they did not survive. It lasted about an hour. Not a word was spoken. Twenty-five [men] waiting for what? Then a great silence seemed to fall over the vessel. I opened the companion way hatch and looked out.

Beautiful blue sky, flat calm and the deck of the vessel as calm as if it had been holly stoned by a navy crew greeted my eyes. Not a dory or a shred of any kind of sail remained. The booms were as clean as if no sail had ever been there. White sand filled every crevasse.

Without hardly a word being spoken extra sails were brought out and set in a manner and I steered a course for Canso.

We kept a sharp lookout but did not sight another sail all that morning. We had seen five other vessels fishing in the distance.

Seven of the Lunenburg vessels with all hands were lost in that dreadful hour. Several American vessels too went down. Sable Island - the Graveyard of the Atlantic had claimed some more victims.

Well, here I sit and think if those days of wooden ships and iron men. How truly the name fitted.

I [now] watch from the window as the young men with hair flying down their backs and their high heel boots walk past out to the new fish plant to join their million dollar boats as crewman. Would I have hired one of them? I just guess I wouldn't. But just suppose I was their skipper and I appeared in my good clothes as I did many a time from say 1911-1920. A celluloid collar that had me nearly choked, a waxed moustache (my pride and joy), a bowler hat and a walking cane. They would fall over backward and die laughing. The only difference is that at that time we were all the same. There weren't two types like we have today. When I said we sail we sail at nine believe you me they were all there at one quarter to nine. I never had to round up the crew from the speak easies (there were no taverns).

I wonder how the men stood it. The bitter cold, the dories bobbing around in the fog or snow storms, dressing fish in the freezing cold, fish frozen as stiff as boards. No toilet facilities, you want to try sometimes to sit on a frozen bucket on a frozen icy deck. I wouldn't know where you could even try such an experiment such as that today.

Today you set the automatic pilot and sit back listening to the radio and watching the loran. If you don't go to sleep the radar will show you if any other boat is near. Still there are collisions. Many a time I lay my ear on the rail of the vessel listening for the horn on the light ship - a couple of men always in the bow trying to look through the freezing snow for the welcome light that soon appears. Wooden ships and iron men. How true. But I am beginning to ramble on. I guess it’s not the long hair or the high heeled shoes or even the celluloid collars that makes a man a man. He just is or he isn't.

Maybe you are getting tired of the ramblings of an old man, but its only August 1927 and by the grace of God, my crew and I were spared from that hurricane the like of which was never known before or since.

So the years passed. Land a trip, hurry and refit and go again. I made several trips to the West Indies in the winter taking salt fish to Barbados thence to Turks Island for a load of salt and then home.

I am sure many times when Saint Peter was reading the Book of Life he must have skipped a page or two. My name was surely there. I did not live through all these years without sickness. I remember once on the Grand Banks I had such a severe pain I thought surely this was the end. I headed for Halifax as quickly as the sail and wind would take us and I was soon in hospital with kidney stones.

The mode of fishing was changing again and I had my last vessel built. This was the Irene Mary a good ship with full power. Modern fish plants to quickly freeze the fresh fish were being built all along the coast. Now the days of the one to three month trips were over. 

Irene Mary A landing date and time was set and I had to be there on the dot. This was a real grind. Land fish, take on ice stores and fuel, settle up the trip, pay the men and get out again. Few times we were in over night. I remember one year we landed forty-two trips so you can see there was not much time wasted.

I kept a record all my life.

Then another war came. There was no let up -- only matters were much worse. Halifax harbour was filled with convoys of all kinds and a gate set up across the harbour mouth to keep out any foreign submarines.

At a certain time the gates were closed and many a time we were thoroughly cursed by the coast guard who had to open them for the lousy fishermen as we were called. I still consider we contributed greatly to the war effort by bringing in millions of pounds of fish. It wasn't that we were paid more for our fish for the price didn't increase for years.

Fishing was about the same but the problem was getting to port and out again. How I dreaded those convoys. Some times we were lucky and passed through them in daylight but when we got in them in stormy weather nights how I dreaded them.

Again I think Saint Peter did not wear his glasses for on one particular occasion the men reached out and actually touched the side of a steamer. One day we were fishing along the edge of the ice and saw quite a few planes circling overhead. Little did we realize that hiding under the ice was a U-boat. Darkness was good to both of us. We each shifted in the dark and got safely away.

Again sickness hit me and I was rushed to port and hospital with a ruptured appendix. I guess the time came when the iron in me began to rust. I did sail for a few more years after the war then decided I had had enough.

I finally sold the Irene Mary and came home for good.

You wonder if I have any regrets.

My greatest regret is that I could not spend more time with my family. But that was the way of life we fishermen were all accustomed to. Our wives had the sole responsibility of the children and home. No matter what we regret or would wish to undo we cannot go back a minute.

Trusted Sources:

1. J. Christopher Young, Ph.D.

2. *One of Last Schooners Destroyed by Fire

     By Courtesy The Canadian Press, June 14, 1971

ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. (CP) - The 150-ton wooden schooner Maxwell F. Corkum, a survivor of the last days of sail, was destroyed by fire off the Labrador coast Monday.

Her crew landed safely in Cartwright.

Details were scanty, but shipping sources here said the vessel, built in Lunenburg in 1925, was engaged in the salmon fishery.

The Maxwell F. Corkum, owned in St. John's, was one of the few vessels of her kind still afloat.

She was built originally as a Grand Banks fishing schooner by Smith and Rhuland, who also built the racing fishing schooner Bluenose.

[Ed. note - Capt. Leo Corkum, who had this vessel built for him in 1924, died three months before this schooner was destroyed].

Story Location: 
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada