Memories of the Depression
By Howard Huggett Seven News, November 2, 1979
October 29th was the fiftieth anniversary of a day that will live in the memory of the western world for a long, long time Black Tuesday, October 20th, 1929, or 16 million share day, as it was called on the New York Stock Exchange. On that fateful day began the stock market crash that was the dramatic prologue to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Many of us who went through that terrible time in Canada are still around and remember it all too well. Lots of stories have come out of those days, stories that illustrate what that depression did to people. Many of those tales have been recorded in books or articles, but plenty more have never been told. They should have been, and I am sure that a number of our readers have a story they could tell.
In the depth of the depression, in 1934 and 1935, I worked for two seasons on an oil tanker belonging to Imperial Oil. Oil tankers paid the best wages on the Great Lakes, and even a lowly deck-hand, which is what I was, received the magnificent sum of 50 dollars every month. That wasn’t all we got, because there were three meals a day and a bunk to sleep in when we have the time. You see, lake freighters spend a lot of time going to canals and arriving at and leaving ports. They did this at all hours of the day and night, and whenever they did the deck-hands went on duty. Most of the rest of the crew worked in shifts, and they put in only 12 hours a day, or 84 hours a week! We averaged something over 90. There was no organization worthy of the name of union on the lakes in those days.
Our pay worked out to about 12 cents an hour for a lot of unpleasant and repetitive work, but we were glad to have a job – there were others waiting for a chance to take our place. One of the spots where they waited was known by the charming name of “The Lousy Acre.” This delightful spot was located at the eastern or lower end of the old Lachine Canal, where the freighter traffic from the Great Lakes reached the ocean port of Montreal. Because of the great volume of freight moving through the area the canal had double locks there, one for up-bound steamers and the other for down traffic. Between the locks lay “The Lousy Acre”, and here was the best place to try for a job on a ship. The locks were deep and it took a long time to “lock through”, so there was ample opportunity to make inquiries.
Up-bound ships were the best, because they were leaving port and might be short of crew member because someone had had enough of sailing or had stayed too long in a bar not mention other places. So there were often a few hopeful waiting around “The Lousy Acre,” and they sometimes slept there. They probably had no where else to go, and I can remember seeing them stretched out on the dusty ground, with only newspaper between them and the cold earth and another paper to shield them from the even colder air of a chilly late September night. Remember, this was in the middle of downtown Montreal, then the wealthiest city in Canada. Its wealth due to the large part to the great volume of freight traffic that went to and from in ships, ships in which these men had worked. This was their reward, permission to sleep in the ground. What’s more, the poor devils washed their blue denims in the Lachine Canal. If you have never seen the water of that ditch, I can tell you that it was the color of the Blue Danube: dirty brown.
But the best part of my recollection of those days was that on occasion we were able to feed some of those unfortunates from the ship’s stores. In the evening the cooks were off duty, and there was always food on the galley table for crew members on watch or deck-hands who might be on duty. If someone came around to look for a job when we were “locking through” during the evening or the night we could at least find him something to eat. While one deck-hand kept the look-out for the captain another would nip down to the galley, slap together a sandwich of cheese, meat or whatever handy, and pass it to him on the sly. We had to be careful because both the captain and the head cook were very anxious to keep down the cost of meals. As I remember, they managed to keep it down to about 22 cents a sitting per man.
When these hand-out were taking place I used to look around at the towering shapes of the grain elevators that dominated the skyline around this area. The grain in those elevators had been brought there in ships, worked by men like the ones we were feeding so stealthily. They had earned their share of the food, but we could not give it to them openly.
That’s my most basic impression of the Great Depression. What’s yours?
This article was published in Seven News, Volume 10, Number 10, November 2, 1979