When the legend becomes fact print the legend – Part III – Gossypium Herbaceum


Botanical rendering of the cotton plant

Cotton was first grown in Texas by Spanish missionaries and a report of the missions at San Antonio in 1745 indicates that several thousand pounds of cotton were produced annually, then spun and woven by indians settled there. In 1820 Moses Austin, with the aid of the Baron de Bastrop, successfully petitioned Governor Antonio María Martínez of Spanish Texas to allow an American colony. After his death his son, Stephen F. Austin, would be the one who would bring the American colonists to the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas and – having settled in the rich farmlands between the San Antonio and Brazos rivers – they had begun cotton farming almost immediately after their arrival. By 1849 the State of Texas reported production of 58,073 bales and by 1852 Texas was in eighth place among the top ten cotton-producing states of the nation. By 1859 the yield had leaped to 431,645 bales and some 20 years later 2,178,435 acres produced 805,284 bales. The 1889 census reported 3,934,525 acres producing 1.5 million bales. The cotton crop in 1900 was more than 3.5 million bales from 7,178,915 acres.  From several thousand pounds to over 1,750,000,000 in a century and a half left little doubt that cotton was king.

Cover from the sheet music for one of the most enduring songs of America

We last left John Young in the 1870 Census working as a carpenter in New York. The Galveston Daily News dates his arrival in Galveston from 1871 and we know he was there by 1876 because we have the record of his marriage to Mary Ann Adams at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The first time we find him listed in a Heller’s Galveston Directory is 1878 when he is identified as a screwman living on Post Office Street between 28th and 29th Streets. We find him in the 1880 Census – having moved to a house at 392 Water Street – now with wife Mary and daughters Anna age 3 and baby Florence age 1.

In going through census records we have found various members of Margaret Edythe Young’s family having been employed as cashier for an ice house – places that actually manufactured, sold and delivered tons of ice on a daily basis to businesses that had to keep seafood fresh for shipment as well as to homeowners who may not have had electricity let alone refrigerators (but who did have ice boxes) – and apprentice fountain pen makers. There is no longer much demand for these professions and the job of being a screwman has disappeared as well but in its day it was highly skilled labor and its practitioners were very well paid. Before we go further we need to digress a little and discuss cotton and shipping in order that the reader can better understand what was involved.

A standardized bale of cotton

Cotton was an incredibly labor intensive operation from plowing and planting to picking by hand by workers stooped over the relatively short plants and towing a heavy sack of bolls behind them. The sacks were dumped into wagons which were taken to gins where the cotton was processed to remove the parts that could not be used for cloth – but were used for many other things – and it was then compressed into bales for shipment. It was these bales that the screwman worked with. Referencing the drawing above the dimensions of a bale were:

  • Net Weight – 500 pounds
  • Length – 54 to 55 inches
  • Width – 20 to 21 inches
  • Bulge – 33 inches
  • Volume – 17 cubic feet
  • Density – 28 pounds per cubic feet

To simplify this let us say that a screwman had to work with something that was two feet thick, three feet wide and five feet long and weighed 500 pounds. In the 1870’s he would have had to deal with hundreds of these and by the 1900’s he would have had to deal with thousands of these to load a ship.

Ship ELISSA in her current mooring at Galveston - photos of the vessel by author

Since John Young worked as a screwman from about 1875 to about 1885 the cargo ships he worked on would have largely been sailing ships which were still far more economical to build and operate for bulk cargoes until well in to the twentieth century. Typical of the type of ship they may have loaded is the Elissa which is now moored at the Texas Seaport Museum  and owned by the Galveston Historical Foundation. She is just over 140 feet long by 28 feet wide and has a deep draft of 10 feet 6 inches [how much of the ship is underwater when she is fully loaded].

Cargo hatch of ELISSA, note capstan in background, this along with the boom and the mast was the cargo handling "crane" for the ship. This one small hatch was the only opening in the deck for a cargo hold that ran 75-80% of the length of the vessel.

The pinrail - this rail runs from stem to stern on both the port and starboard of the vessel and every line that supports or controls the masts for any purpose is starts here.

She could carry about 430 tons of cargo but there are tons and there are tonnes and then there is cubic.  Dependent upon the type of cargo that she was designed to carry she might have cargo holds with space totaling as little as 15,000 cubic feet or as much as 30,000 cubic feet. At 500 pounds per bale this would limit her capacity to between 822 and 1,816 bales in cubic terms while in weight terms she should be able to carry at least 1,848 bales. Technically the screwman is a servant of the vessel used to maximize the vessel’s earning capacity, in economy of space, in carrying the greatest possible volume and weight of cargo and their specialized ability ensured an increase in the bale capacity of a ship by 10 to 15 percent, a skill critical to the profitable operation of the shipper.

This picture, taken inside the hold, shows the frames of the ship as they bend to form the curve of the bilge. Fitting rectangular bales into curved spaces was the essence of the screwman's art.

From inside the hold looking up the hatch coaming which was used to keep the deck rigid at the opening. There were removable girders to facilitate loading and unloading cargo but when the ship was ready to sail they were put back in place, planks were secured over them and a waterproof tarpaulin was secured over the planks to keep the cargo dry during long voyages.

Anyone who has only seen the huge sleek hulls of container ships that load and discharge in truckload and trainload quantities containers that are packed and unpacked miles from the dock and require a mere handful of workers housed in cranes operating from computerized stowage plans that can move the equivalent of a full cargo for the Elissa in about 10 lifts taking less than an hour can not imagine how the waterfront looked or worked in 19th century Galveston.

Members of Screwmen's Benevolent Association No. 2 loading a ship at Galveston from the NYPL digital archive.

First of all the ships would have been totally different. The Elissa would had been a medium-sized sailing ship but there would have been sailing ships there of less than 10 tons all the way to steamships of up to 2,500 tons. There would have been paddle wheelers like the Colonel and many others that carried cargo. Except for steam-driven winches on the largest steamships there was no power machinery. Trains or wagons delivered cargo to warehouses where it was moved by men using hand trucks. When the ship was being loaded it was moved by hand truck to the dockside where it was lifted on board the vessel using tackle attached to the same masts and booms that carried the sails when she was at sea. Once the cotton was lowered into the cargo hold the screwmen set to work.

A deckload river steamer of the type used to carry small cargos between Houston and Galveston and up and down the many rivers of Texas. Drawing as little as three feet of water they didn't need cargo screwman but were the workhorses of the inland trade.

These men packed the cotton bales into the cargo hold using screwjacks that literally screwed the bales into place. The cotton screwman’s skilled status was predicated on judgement and strength. Each ship had a different sized and shape hold – and the size and shape could vary within a single hold based on the contours of the hull. The ability of screwmen to adjust to these differences and maximize the load is what ensured their skill status and their high wages. The association, early on, brought about the standardization of wages at five dollars a day (and later six dollars a day), a working day of nine hours (seven on Sunday or at night). By 1875 most regular screwmen were association members  and the association was the largest and strongest labor organization in Galveston. Membership grew from little more than 100 in 1876 to 250 in 1880 and about 325 in 1891.

Just as wood gave way to iron, iron in its turn gave way to steel and with it came multiple decks and the ability to haul cargoes of 5,000 or more tons of cotton that had been compacted at the Moody Compress and no longer needed screwmen.

But 1891 was also the high water mark of the association and the beginning of its decline. When the association celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary its evolution from a benevolent society to a union was complete. During the 1890s certain developments marked the twilight of the association’s quarter-century of successful labor organization. Cotton became an expanding Texas crop and each year a greater number of men was needed for the screwmen work crews; larger and more rapid steel ships began to undermine the actual economic value of cotton screwing. The closed shop went out in 1901, as did, in 1904, the rule limiting to seventy-five the number of bales that could be screwed by a gang in a normal workday. It was the introduction in Galveston of the high-density cotton compress in 1910 that ended the need for screwmen, and by World War I the screwmen were no longer a part of the necessary work force.

John Young had moved up from screwman to stevedore in 1885 – of which more anon – and had branched into a variety of other marine endeavors – also of which more anon – but his first maritime job in Galveston had been as a member of an Irish screwman gang and while his wife and daughters might become lace curtain Irish the old man was as tough as a shillelagh all the days of his life.

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