“I’m like my father was. Not much formal education but there’s very little I can’t learn.” Wilfred C. Bilow, ‘God’s Big Acre – Life in 401 Country’
Gananoque, Ontario. March 24, 1975. Yeah, the date is etched in my memory.
Parking my car, I got out with my lunch pail and trod through half a foot of late March snow, plodding my way toward an ancient, two-story, waterfront building, almost devoid of paint, and my new job at GananoquPostse Boat Line. The expanding company needed new mates and lucky for me, I had just been hired. It was early spring fit out time for the boats and the work, I knew, would be cold – no, very cold, very dirty, and the days would be long. Very long. The man I was to report to would be inside. Hopefully, maybe he wouldn’t.
I’d heard of this guy. He had a reputation as being ‘tough as nails’. Everyone in the local marine industry from Picton to Prescott either knew him or of him. Most feared him. But everyone, as I would later learn, respected him for his knowledge. Now it was my turn. As a young 21-year-old, green as grass rookie, I wasn’t looking forward to meeting Mr. Wilf Bilow. According to the rumour mill, one sideways look, they said, by you or from him to you, and you’d be fired. Or maybe worse. To my right, inside a huge, steel-sided warehouse type building, the noise was deafening. Grinding, hammering, sawing, and shouting went on incessantly, as I walked by. The company was building a new boat. Or ship, designed to carry 500 passengers. Other than the passing lake freighters, she’d be the biggest tour boat the area had seen since the passenger cruisers from the turn of the century. By then, I was at the door and timidly pushed it open and went inside. The foreman – my new boss – was at his workbench, welding helmet raised, cigarette glowing at the side of his mouth, about to join two pieces of steel together. “Watch yer eyes,” he ordered, not looking at me.
“Good morning, uh, Wilf, my name is . . . ”
“I know who ye are! Watch’er eyes I said!” He dropped his helmet and blinding light suddenly filled the small room. Thus began my relationship with a hard nosed, cussing, stubborn, no nonsense, S.O.B. of a man who I would learn to admire. And even like. Slowly.
“Dad was really a diamond in the rough,” said daughter April Healey upon the recent death of her father, Captain Wilfred C. Bilow. Wilfred and Lorna had three children, Shelley, April, and Wilfred Jr. “Although tough to work for, those who could see past the rough exterior eventually had nothing to worry about. But boy, if you gave him a reason to be angry, look out!”
“Dad grew up in a family of seven kids,” said daughter Shelley Green. “They didn’t have much money, so dad left school early and followed his father into the shipyards. There, he worked from dawn until dusk and was a very quick learner. You had to be. Your life depended on it in that place and in those days.”
“I was fourteen when I met Wilf,” remembered Chris McCarney of Gananoque Boat Line (GBL). “That was 1968, the year Wilf started at GBL from Canada Dredge and Dock Company in Kingston. My dad Hal sent me there for a summer job before he became a partner in the company. Boy, this guy scared me. He was 30, right out of both the Kingston Shipyards and CD&D and he was as tough as any New York City stevedore or ironworker! Well, shortly after, the Miss Gananoque twisted a crankshaft in her Cummins V8 engine. You better be ready to go to work, he said to me, when the boat hobbled in on one engine. We never stopped until the job was done.”
The GBL at the time owned several single deck, single engine, tour boats that badly needed a mechanic to keep them running during the season. And a carpenter of sorts, to keep them afloat when someone hit a rock . . . by accident . . . someplace. And a welder to repair the ancient marine rail and/or steel cradle to haul the boat out, and possibly to weld a broken strut while replacing the propellor when someone hit a rock. By accident. Someplace.
“Once he started repairs on a boat, he wouldn’t stop, said McCarney. The brand new Thousand Islander IV ran up on a rock, in the early summer of ’78. Pulled off and towed to the repair shop, she was flooded forward and the back end lifted by crane. Wilf and crew, me included, worked around the clock to get her repaired. He never stopped or took a break that I knew of. Patched up, inspected, and painted, she was back in service in record time.
“Another time, a few years later, I was captain of the Canadian Empress on her inaugural trip to Ottawa, up the Rideau,” remembered McCarney. “We never made it. Just before Kingston Mills, we struck a rock that was further into the channel than it was marked. We hit. Hard. Water started coming in, fast.” The brand new, fully loaded with passengers, Canadian Empress was in trouble. McCarney notified the shore crew by radio that they were in serious trouble. By luck, they were standing by the first lock to ensure everything went smoothly. Including Wilfred Bilow.
“We made the dock at Kingston Mills. Tying the ship up, the crew followed their drill and began evacuating the passengers,” said McCarney. “Wilf was running down the dock. Man, I was never so glad to see anyone in my life!” Jumping aboard, Bilow quickly made his way to the engine room. “He knew just what to do,” remembered McCarney. “Replumbing the main engines, he used them for direct bilge injection, keeping the incoming water under control. The first lock was opened and we made our way in where she was raised to the second lock, shored up and repairs made.” Chris paused for a minute. “He could think on his feet. Man, he never got excited. Calm, cool, and collected every time. That was Wilfred.”
Jason Clark, president of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines and owner of the Canadian Empress today, well remembers that terrible incident forty years ago. “Wilf Bilow was our go-to guy many times over the years. He knew our boat well, as she was built in Gananoque at GBL’s yard. Plus, he himself placed her engines just so during her construction. He knew that engine room very well. A real spot-on trouble-shooter. Not long ago, he cut and placed a new vent while we were between trips in Kingston. Sitting on the edge of the dock, I noticed he had sat on a wad of chewing gum while working. As he leaned forward, that gum stretched out almost two feet! Tell him? Not a chance. He still scared me!”
“You had to earn Wilf’s respect,” said Matt Harper. Today, Matt is the Director of Marine Operations and Facilities for Gananoque City Cruises. And Wilf Bilow’s replacement after the ol’ man retired. “I started at the repair shop like everyone else and was told to ‘keep my head down and my mouth shut’,” he said. Very slowly, Harper remembers, he was accepted and even became apprenticed to the master tradesman. “I went from fearing him to being mad at him and then respecting him more than anyone else I had ever met,” he said.
“Retirement wasn’t easy for dad,” said April. “After mom died in 2017, he mellowed a lot. He would talk to anyone who would listen and loved to recant old stories. He died at 83 years of age, standing up, refusing to use his cane, and made it clear he ‘weren’t goin’ to no nursing home!’”
“I wouldn’t have traded my time with him for anything else,” said McCarney. “He scared the hell out of you but was the first guy to help you if you needed it. With anything.”
“Those were huge boots to fill,” said Harper. “There are days now where I wish I could say ‘hey Wilf, how would you handle this?’ Love him or hate him, you had to listen to him. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s having a rye and listening to some old country music.”
Beneath that gruff façade that many of us saw through, beat a heart as big as a Thousand Islander diesel engine. If you needed help, Wilf really was there. Something broken – anything – he could fix it. My car included, one quiet afternoon while we were out on the boats. Wilfred Bilow touched a lot of young lives in his working man’s life. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay was truly his motto. I certainly hope we lived up to that. I sure hope I did.
You can finally lay your tools down now, ol’ friend. Yeah, we became buddies, later on, we really did. Hey, I’m sure everything works in heaven, so they tell me. But ‘They’ll’ know who to call if, heaven forbid, maybe something isn’t working quite right, someplace . . .
Header photo: Captain Wilfred Bilow by John Reeves, 1986
By Brian Johnson, Former Gananoque Boat Line Captain, MV Thousand Islander
Brian Paul Johnson was one of five captains of the Wolfe Island ferry Wolfe Islander III. Retired now, he worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation Eastern Region Ferries for more than 40 years, recently celebrating 34 years as captain. He has also recently retired as captain of the St. Lawrence Cruise Line's Canadian Empress. TI Life is grateful to Capt. Johnson for sharing so many articles with us. This article has also appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard and on various Facebook pages.
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