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Bringing Back River Memories

The story  in the November issue of TI Life caught my attention.  It began when William J. Elliot’s story Bridge or Ferry?  related how a deck hand had written home to his parents telling them he had received a wage increase.   That deck hand was my grandfather and the story prompted me to leave a comment. Susan Smith, the editor, suggested I tell some more stories. Since then I  discovered more family history and collected dozens of photographs and memorabilia. 

As a  child I spent summers in Ogdensburg with my grandparents, Philip Napoleon and Mary Tyo Jellie.  They lived one block from the River  and across from the old Shade Roller plant. I have several memories from those Summers: exploring the River's edge and the old piers, fishing, and enjoying my uncles, John and Paul Joly, who lived in the 'Burg way back then.  

The memories most dear to me are the times I spent with my Grandfather.  He was so proud to show-off his first born grandson to the River captain community in the 'Burg, and I benefitted from that with many ship tours.  I remember one time in particular. 

My grandmother and I had walked down to the River, at the end of the Adams street, and I was promised a "surprise" when I got there.  I was five or six years old.  We waited for probably 15 or 20 minutes....  Suddenly out in the channel, a big tanker that I had been watching, came to a complete stop, and honked its air horns!!  It was my grandfather piloting that ship that day, and he ordered the ship to stop and salute his grandson!

My grandmother had tears in her eyes and I had a big smile for days! 

My family and I, and my brothers and sisters and their children vacation in the Thousand Islands every summer.  We dutifully make a pilgrimage to the spot where my Grandparent's house once stood -  look out onto the River and remember. Not sure what memories the others are recalling, but mine is of that day when I was saluted by a ship as big as I'd ever seen...and more importantly, by my Grandfather.

This past winter I received a number of photographs. A cousin sent a stack of letters from 1933, ‘34  and ‘35 from my grandfather, written at his various ports of call around the Great Lakes to my grandmother in Ogdensburg. 

One letter tells the story:  While anchored in Buffalo in 1933 my grandfather came ashore and was suffering the effects of diabetes....he was weak, and disoriented, but knew enough to check himself into a hospital.  The doctor in charge put my grandfather on a starvation diet (possibly, the standard diabetes treatment then, I guess), 1/2 pint of milk in the morning, 1/2 pint at night, to bring his blood/sugar numbers back to normal!  The diet lasted a week.  And while at the hospital, and with his doctors approval, my grandfather walked down the street to a dentist and had all his top teeth removed.  He claimed later, that during his visit to Buffalo he was able to take care of two medical problems.......and return to his ship without missing a beat.  

My family lived in Gloversville, NY back in the late 50's.  A week or so after school ended, I was driven to Fonda, NY where the nearest train station was located, placed on the train with 1 piece of luggage, and told, in rather a stern voice by my father, not to move until I saw Grampa.  Now this was 1959, and although the world was much safer, and simpler -  I remember being somewhat apprehensive!  My father told me many years later that he and my mother always felt safe doing this.....he said he "knew" people.  My parents made sure I was watched very closely by train officials, and the conductor, even though at the time, I felt like I was very much alone.   Kind of like children traveling today via airlines.  Airline personnel, and stewardesses keep a keen eye on children traveling alone.  Still in the 1950's the world was a much different place.   

I remember taking my father words literally, and not moving more than an inch or two for three plus hours.   I stared out the window and watched as rural Central NY went by.  I remember the train stopping a couple of times, and passengers got on, and some got off.  But I stayed glued to my seat, almost afraid to look anywhere else but out my window.   Suddenly, after one of those stops, and still staring out the window, I heard a very deep, and very familiar voice say, "Excuse me young man, is this seat taken?"  Of course, it was my Grampa.   He wore a Captain's hat with a strange emblem on the front.  My grandfather sat down beside me, and I remember to this day sliding over close to him, finally allowing myself to relax! Big, strong, and handsome, and smelling like pipe tobacco, and mint.  I was safe.

While my grandmother cooked most of the day, my grandfather was free to spend the days with me.  I walked downtown with Grampa to catch a movie one time.  And when the movie let out, we got a ride home aboard a working local freight train, delivering goods from the City docks, to the Shade Roller plant across the street from Grandpa's house.  The train went slowly along the River, and the conductor slowed down and let us jump off when we reached lower Adams St.  The conductor and my grandfather were best friends.

Other times, my grandfather and I would go down to one of the piers along the River and fish the day away.  Almost as much fun as fishing, was catching night crawlers the night before.  As the sun was setting over Canada, my grandfather and I would give the lawn a good soaking.  Later that night, in the dark, with a flash-light and a coffee can, we'd pluck the worms from the soggy grass by the handful.  At the pier, my grandfather would sit me down, wrap my legs around one of the huge ship cleats, and set me up with a pole.  My grandmother always packed a lunch for us, and when we got thirsty, I'd have an Orange Crush, and Grampa would have a Ballantine.   We always had a stringer of perch to bring home.  Grampa would clean the fish for dinner, and I'd tell my grandmother about the one that got away. 

After dinner, we all would sit out on the porch to watch the River.  My grandfather would call out the names of the ships as they went by, and tell a story or two about each captain.  He would tell us stories about storms on Lake Ontario that he had seen and and the time that a ship he was a mate on, ran aground in Alexandria Bay.  I figured my grandmother must have heard these stories a dozen times, but she looked at Grampa and listened like she was hearing them for the first time.   I guess most children my age wanted to be firemen, doctors, or policemen, when they grew up.  I only thought about being a be a ship's captain on the St. Lawrence River. 

My favorite photograph of Philip N is pictured with a post card he sent to me in Gloversville, NY, on May 13, 1953 – I was 7 days old.  My grandfather introduced himself to me via the post card, and hoped “I had the looks and disposition of my mother; the humor and wit of my father; the determination of my grandmother and my Uncle Ralph; a voice like my Uncle John; manners like my Uncle Paul; and the patience of himself.”  This post card is the most-treasured remembrance I have of him.

By Philip Jellie

Philip Jellie was born in Gloversville, NY, and currently resides in Manchester, NH with his wife Barbara, 3 cats, and dog Bella.  He has been involved in the construction trade for over 30 years as a painting contractor.  He enjoys fishing and vacationing at the St. Lawrence River, photography, and cycling.

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


William (Bill) Elliott
Comment by: William (Bill) Elliott ( )
Left at: 7:58 AM Monday, April 15, 2013
This shows that you do not have to travel far to enjoy the St. Lawrence River amd that is why I would never move from here. Stories of about growing up are the best. Remembering the times spent with family, you can't ask for anything better. Thanks for making me remember.
Mary Joly Stein
Comment by: Mary Joly Stein ( )
Left at: 10:21 AM Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Great essay! From the youngest cousin to the eldest. Thanks so much for this Phil! This was a wonderful way for me to connect to a fascinating grandpa I, sadly, never got the chance to know.
Lyse McDonough
Comment by: Lyse McDonough ( )
Left at: 2:33 PM Tuesday, December 31, 2013
My mother was Lorraine Brown of Ogdensburg and her sister Evelyn was married to John Joly in around 1956.
I spent many wonderful summers in Ogdensburg and on the River with my Family. This article brought back some great memories...thank you!
My question is, who changed the name from Jellie to Joly ? (both jovial names)
Jewel LaComb
Comment by: Jewel LaComb
Left at: 11:17 PM Sunday, December 21, 2014
Just stumbled across this article while doing some research on line. My Mother was Katherine (Katty) Sharland LaComb and she lived just down the hill from the Joly house before she was married. She always spoke fondly of the neighbors esp/ the Joly (s) and the Jerkovitches. This was a great read/ Thank You for sharing.
Mary Keenan
Comment by: Mary Keenan
Left at: 4:54 PM Friday, August 11, 2017
What a wonderful read!!!!!!I met Msgr.Paul Jolie when I came to Ogdensburg with my husband,Joe Keenan,who taught at Wadhams Hall Seminary,and was a colleague of Monsignor.He was a very interesting conversationalist and very smart.I became friends with John Jolie and his wife Evelyn.His son John was a student and good friend of my son Joe.I also knew the rest of the family.And I remember meeting Monsignor's mother once and thinking what a beautiful woman she was.Thanks for sharing this wonderful memoir.