Captain Leverett Goldsmith: The Possibilities of Lake Serpents

by Kathy Warnes

In June 1860, the 40th year of Captain Leverett Barker Goldsmith’s career on the Great Lakes, he saw his first lake serpent off Fighting Island in the Detroit River. He had been piloting a steady course at the wheel of his schooner, the Nevermore, when he spotted a lake serpent approximately 75 feet long and five feet wide with a dark brown back, deep green sides, and a dingy white belly. It had small, green, glistening eyes encircled in red, but no fins or bumps and it slithered its slim body through the water. Captain Goldsmith watched the lake serpent through his mariner’s glasses, trying to decide whether or not to believe his own eyes.

Captain Leverett Barker Goldsmith of Conneaut and Kingsville, Ohio, had heard rumors and whisperings that sailors had seen lake serpents  had been spotted cavorting in the Great Lakes. Newspaper stories of the time reported sea serpent sightings in all of the Great Lakes with skeptical over and under tones.

With the help of his Baptist upbringing, Captain Goldsmith had built a solid reputation for honesty and integrity, but he had never experienced a lake serpent. Lake serpent stories were as old as Captain Goldsmith and his maritime career. Twenty-five years earlier on May 13, 1835, the Detroit Democratic Free Press, recorded a lake serpent sighting on the Detroit River. The story described the lake serpent as approximately 75 feet long and five feet wide with a dark brown back, deep green sides, and a dingy white belly. It had small, green, glistening eyes encircled in red, but no fins or bumps and quite slim.  Concluded the Free Press, it floated down the Detroit River “stretching forward at full length as if to exhibit himself for the gratification and astonishment of his beholders,” before disappearing into the depths to be seen no more.

Despite past lake serpent sightings and the parallels to his own life, Captain Goldsmith pondered and then decided.  Busy with his career, and of a pragmatic turn of mind, Captain Goldsmith decided to anchor his lake serpent sighting in the back of his mind.

The Captain and His Family

The Detroit River, the strait connecting the waters of the Great Lakes, shaped Captain Goldsmith’s life with his lake serpent sightings discretely in the background. Born in Pomfret, New York, on March 4, 1820, he sailed the lakes as a cabin boy by the time he turned twelve in 1832, and he had worked his way to ships master by the time he turned twenty years old in 1840. He sailed every season on the Great Lakes except one for 55 years, perhaps the season that Ashtabula County historian William W. Williams noted in his 1878 History of Ashtabula County that Captain Goldsmith kept a store in Kelloggsville, Some sources show Captain Goldsmith and his family settling in Ashtabula in 1844, but census records place his home port more often in Conneaut and Kingsville.

On December 5, 1839, Captain Goldsmith married Sophronia Maria Runnels who hailed from Mentor, Ohio. The couple eventually had seven children and Moina W. Large in her History of Ashtabula County traces their lives. James Leverett Goldsmith was born April 4, 1841 in Conneaut and died in August 1842. Minerva Goldsmith was born in 1843 in Conneaut and grew up to marry William Gilbert Travers on December 24, 1860 in Ashtabula.

Charles William Goldsmith was born December 10, 1844, in Conneaut and grew up to be a Great Lakes captain like his father. His son Leverett became harbor foreman of the Pittsburgh & Conneaut Dock Company at Conneaut.

Henry Lake Goldsmith was born November 5, 1847, in Conneaut and as an adult operated a grocery store in Cleveland. Cecelia Rebecca Goldsmith was born on September 27, 1849, in Kingsville, Ohio, later married Charles Benson, and spent the later years of her life in Cleveland. Jeanette Emeline Goldsmith was born February 21, 1852, in Kingsville, later married Arthur Hawke, and also spent the later years of her life in Cleveland. George H.  was born August 13, 1860, in Conneaut and married Nella Bovee in Kingsville Township in November 1884. The 1910 Census lists his occupation as sailor on the Lakes.

The Captain and his Crafts

In the early 1840s, Captain Goldsmith’s began his career as master by sailing the schooner called the Alert, and next the schooner Columbus. During the 1840s he also commanded the Minerva, and then the Florida, which wrecked at the end of the 1844 season. He briefly captained the schooner Algonquin, one of the first ships to pioneer the Lake Superior trade. In November 1851, Captain Goldsmith and his steamer Hudson helped rescue a cargo from a wrecked ship and in July 1853, he served as first mate of the Queen of the West.

In 1855, the Captain commanded the Empire State, the first steamship he ever sailed and the next year its owners removed the Empire State’s engine and put it into a new steamer called the Western Metropolis,  The Western Metropolis, the City of Buffalo, the Michigan Southern, and Northern Indiana were four fine passenger vessels sailing between Cleveland and Buffalo and sometimes Buffalo and Toledo, sometimes between all three. They did an immense trade and passenger traffic up to the era of the Lake Shore Railroad when the railroad bought them.

During his years on the lakes, Captain Goldsmith sailed as mate one season on the schooner Albany which was lost about two years after she was built on a voyage between Mackinac and Sault Ste. Marie in the days when schooners carried passengers. She had on board at the time the vessel went ashore about 125 passengers all of whom were taken off. The owners abandoned the vessel but several years later with better wrecking facilities the Albany was gotten off and her new owners operated her for 25 years. In 1857, Captain Goldsmith was involved with a Cleveland built vessel called the Scotia which he rigged. Other ships he captained included the propellers Buffalo, Idaho, and Hendrick Hudson and the Jay Cooke.

The Buffalo Daily Courier recorded that Captain Goldsmith commanded the new propeller B.F. Wade in October 1862 and for the remainder of the Civil War, he served as master of the Western Metropolis, a passenger vessel with a route between Buffalo, Chicago, and Duluth. The 1870s added the Jay Cooke and the steamer Alaska to Captain Goldsmith’s roster of ships he commanded.

 Captain Goldsmith to the Rescue

Captain Goldsmith rescued two cargoes and crews in November 1851. The Buffalo Daily Republic reported that Captain Goldsmith and his steamer Great Western, arrived in port, bringing a portion of the cargo from the wreck of the steamer Atlas. He reported that he believed that it wasn’t possible to salvage the Atlas. He successfully pumped out about two feet of water, but he couldn’t lower the level any further. He stated that the wind of yesterday didn’t disturb the wreck, and perhaps he could save more of the cargo in a damaged state.

In the same month, the Morning Express of Buffalo reported that Captain Goldsmith and his steamer Hudson took off the crew of the schooner W.D. Tollcott promptly and safely.

Over two decades later, the Sandusky Daily Register of September 5, 1873, highlighted Captain Goldsmith’s part in the coroner’s inquest into the capsizing of the barge Colorado and the drowning of three men in Sandusky Bay. Captain Leverett B. Goldsmith of the steamer Jay Cooke, being duly sworn stated:

Am master of the steamer Jay Cooke. The wind was blowing down the bay, blowing quite hard, from about southwesterly direction. Got ready as usual to start from the Baltimore & Ohio dock. Gave orders as usual to let go the tern line. Second mate aft and first mate forward, same as usually. Had position in place on pilot house. Last whistle had blown. Cast off stern line. This was about fifteen minutes to seven o’clock.

The Second Mate sung out, ‘all gone, all clear aft,’ as he usually does when there is nothing in the way. Sprung her off by the heat line, then commenced backing. At this time my attention was drawn to see if there was anything in the way astern. Saw everything was clear. At that time looked a saw a fish boat coming in from a northeasterly direction. I couldn’t make out exactly what direction she might take to pass us at the time. While watching her I became satisfied she would make her course between the barges where I wanted her to go (meaning the Cooke). At this time having left the fish boat, I became satisfied we had gone far enough astern for the bell to stop and the engine stopped. Just then heard a hallooing- a tremendous hallooing. The wind was blowing so hard and there was so much noise I couldn’t exactly hear what was said. After this hallooing, I saw a man on the barge to the north of us, think it was the Colorado. Thought I heard him say, ‘a boat couldn’t make out exactly what.

Thinking we were going back into a boat, I immediately rang the bell to go forward, but the boat ran back the length of her rudder to her wheels Then the steamer was lying still. The next thing I saw was the boat bottom upwards, and the men swimming in the water on both sides of the boat. We immediately threw down wooden life preservers around the men in the water, but all seemed to be able to take care of themselves except one, and we threw a heaving line to him which he caught in his left hand.

Immediately after that the man was hauled into a small boat which came from the barges to rescue the men in the water. The rest of the men laid around or swam until picked up by the other boats and rescued. We then discovered a man hanging onto the wheel. He was also picked up by the boats. We laid still until all the boats aside were out of the way and then moved ahead.

Was not aware at the time that anybody was drowned. I saw the First Mate walking along on the port side at the time of the accident. Could not see the Second Mate from where I stood. Should think the distance between the Cooke and the Colorado when we stopped was about 150 feet. Second Mate is a sober, trustworthy man. L.B. Goldsmith, Master of Steamer Jay Cooke.

 Captain Goldsmith’s Second Serpent Sighting

In November 1883, Captain Leverett Barker Goldsmith stood at the wheel of the Morley studying the acrobatic lake serpent through his glass. There was always a possibility of sighting shipwrecks in the notoriously dangerous waters off Long Point in Lake Erie, but in the navigation of his career, he had almost forgotten about lake serpent sightings.

 Previous lake serpent sightings and Captain Goldsmith’s sterling reputation still didn’t deter the Detroit Post and Tribune of Saturday November 25, 1883, from printing a skeptical lake serpent story under the headline, “What Kind of Stuff Do They Drink?”

At this point in his career, the captain served as master of the Wabash steamer Morley and on November 22, 1883, he had anchored the Morley under Long Point in Lake Erie to ride out a fierce Lake Erie storm.

As he stood watching the tumbling waves, Captain Goldsmith spotted what he first thought to be part of a shipwreck in the middle of the dancing waves. He grabbed his powerful binoculars and discovered that instead of being tossed by waves, the living “ship” moved through them with the speed of at least five miles an hour. It raised its barrel sized head out of the water and used its arms or wings measuring about five feet and its two tails to move through the water fast enough for the waves to chase it. The captain identified the lake serpent’s color as orangish brown, and his steward, a man by the name of Brown, also viewed the sea serpent and verified Captain Goldsmith’s observations.

Captain Goldsmith and the Progress

In October 1880, W. H. Wolf and Thomas Davidson of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, built the Progress as a Bulk Freighter and she was launched on October 12, 1880. By August 7, 1884, the Detroit Post noted that the steamer Progress, Capt. L. B. Goldsmith, master, recently went from Cleveland to Escanaba and return in less than five days. On the down trip she carried 1,820 tons of ore and towed the steamer S. P. Marsh, laden with 1,000 tons of ore.

The Marine Record of October 2, 1884, reported that the steamer Progress, which had been making rapid trips between Cleveland and Escanaba left for Buffalo where she loads coal for Milwaukee, a brief change in her sailing for the past month or two. She would have gotten away Monday but for the breaking of an eccentric to her engine, one of the few slight mishaps she has ever had. Her master, L.B. Goldsmith, is one of the most successful if not the oldest commanders on the lakes.  The former is evidenced by the good time his vessel has made this season, and the significant fact that while the ship Progress hails from Milwaukee, her master’s home is in Kingsville, this state. (Ohio). “That he is now 64 years old and has been sailing since he was age 12, undoubtedly establishes his claim as one of the oldest men on the lakes.”

The Kingsville Tribune published in Kingsville, Ohio, one of Captain Goldsmith’s home ports, told the story of his next voyage in July, 1887, when it reported in his obituary that he died as he lived, at his post. On Friday, July 22, 1887, at midnight as the Progress approached the dock on the Detroit River at Oakland, Michigan, Captain Goldsmith clutched his bell rope and didn’t release it. Eventually, the engineer observed that something was wrong with the captain’s bell signals. Going to the pilothouse, he found Captain Goldsmith lying unconscious, felled by a stroke, his hand still grasping the bell rope.

The engineer called for help and the crew carried the captain to the house of his old friend W.D. Hart near Oakland, Michigan. Eventually, his wife Sophronia and son-in-law A.E. Hawk arrived from Ohio to watch over him. Captain Goldsmith remained speechless until he died the following Tuesday, July 26, 1887.

Sophronia Goldsmith and A.E. Hawk accompanied Captain Goldsmith’s body to Kingsville and his funeral service took place on Thursday, July 28, 1887 at the Baptist Church where he had been a member for several years. Pastor C.A. Raymond preached from Second Corinthians 5:4.

Said one man who knew Captain Goldsmith intimately: “He was an ideal commander and a Christian gentleman. had a loftier scorn of anything petty, mean, or dishonorable. His voyages were remarkably exempt from disaster. Other seamen might regard this fact as due to the captain’s sagacity or good fortune, but he ascribed the praise for Him alone whom the winds and waves obey. “

Captain Goldsmith, his wife Sophronia, and some of their children are buried in Lulu Falls Cemetery in Kingsville, Ohio.

Lake Serpents and Lake Legacies

The writer of his obituary in the Kingsville Tribune concluded that Captain Goldsmith was universally esteemed as one of the ablest and best. Commanding in person, a master of his craft, alert, sagacious, courageous, and fertile in expedients in the time of peril, he was also winning in address, genial, fun loving, courteous, with a large warm heart – a man to admire and trust in calm or storm.

A few days after Captain Goldsmith’s death, another lake serpent appeared in Lake St. Clair. The Windsor Evening Record dated July 29,1887, said that Captain Ed Donahue; George Marks of Detroit, the brewer; and Frank W. Andrews and his wife of New Baltimore all stood in the bow of the Hattie, watching a lake serpent swim past. Frank Andrews reported that “it was nothing but a tremendous black snake, but he was 16 feet long at least, and swam with his head out of the water about a foot.”

Captain Leverett Barker Goldsmith would have examined the lake serpent with his glass, determined its gender, and followed it through calm or storm.

Download this PDF for the children’s fiction story of Captain Goldsmith and the sea serpent in the Detroit River.

Captain Goldsmith,