Sunday, 25 March 2007

Chapter 27 1902 – 1906 Business, Pleasure and Dominica

Chapter 27 1902 – 1906 Business, Pleasure and Dominica
Although I felt certain there were commercial possibilities in the Dominican sulphur there were a lot of obstacles to be overcome. It could not be refined like the ordinary sulphur of Sicily and elsewhere for it was mixed with fine powdery silica sand or ash and if melted it combined with this to form a greenish worthless mass. Neither could it be extracted by a still. It was because of this that the deposits had never been worked although there had been several attempts to do so, but all had failed. However, I was convinced that there must be some way of extracting the sulphur and in order to carry on my experiments, I had several hundred pounds of the material sent me from Soufriere.
Even when I finally succeeded in separating the sulphur from the gang there was no certainty that the process which worked on a small scale would be equally efficient on a large scale. The next great difficulty was to form a company and raise the necessary capital. However, when, after a deal of finagling, I managed to secure a letter from the Cooper Chemical Company stating that they would purchase all the sulphur of the same grade as my sample, which we could produce, I managed to get several financiers interested to the extent of investing $25,000.00 which was only a fraction of what was really needed. As a result, we had to be satisfied with buying second-hand machinery and equipment, none of it being just what I wanted.
However, needs must when the devil drives, as the old saying is, and having sold my photographic business we moved- literally bag and baggage to Dominica, taking Benito with us, and burning our bridges behind us.
It would be a long story to tell of the innumerable failures, disappointments and troubles we had. None of the natives had ever seen machinery, none were mechanics and none were really good carpenters.
It was necessary to train them individually but eventually we had good craftsmen, excellent pipe fitters, mechanics and carpenters. But as there were no words in the patois for innumerable articles, they overcame the difficulty the usual way, adding a "la” to the English names. Thus a wire nail became a "wire clew la", a boiler was a "boilerla", a monkey wrench a "monkey wrenchla”, etc.
It was month before the plant was ready to test out and our limited capital was getting perilously low.
Never will I forget the day when our first run of clear sulphur flowed from the tanks into the moulds. The process was a success, we had sulphur over ninety-nine percent pure and the future looked rosy indeed. Strangely enough the process I had evolved was exactly the same process invented by Dr. Frash in extracting sulphur from the subterranean deposits in far-off Louisiana. The only difference was that while he forced steam into the earth and forced the molten sulphur upward, I forced steam into huge iron tanks and forced the molten sulphur downward, yet neither of us even knew of the other's existence.
Once having succeeded it did not take long to accumulate some two hundred tons of sulphur and to arrange for a steamship to call at Soufriere for our first shipment. And none too soon, for our capital was exhausted. But I had authorization from the Cooper Company to draw on them at the rate of twenty-one dollars per ton against Bills of Lading which saved the day.
It was a simple matter to load the MANOA. So deep is Soufriere Bay close inshore that the ship anchored in sixty fathoms with her stern moored to a palm tree on shore. Then an overhead cable-way was rigged, the sulphur was sent aboard in half-hogsheads, and in a short time all was below decks and the ship steamed away. Little did we dream that our real troubles were yet to come.
The second-hand boiler gave out and precious time was lost repairing it. The water of the stream was so impregnated with chemicals that it clogged the feed pump and even the injectors, and we were compelled to use a home-made, hand-worked force pump to feed the boiler. Two of the big steel tanks showed leaks and were so eaten away by the sulphur that they were dangerous, but by sheathing them inside with hard wood we continued to use them despite the risk. And then our best tank blew up. Luckily no one was injured, although one of the men who had been standing on the top of the tank was blown fifty feet in air and landed in the accumulation of tailings far down the hillside. Fortunately for him the fine sand - almost like flour - was soft and cushioned his fall, although the force of the explosion had torn his clothes to tatters.
We were now reduced to one tank and the boiler was likely to give out altogether at any time. Handicapped as we were our output was very small and our only hope lay in assuring adequate capital, which, I felt, would be simple once the backers had proof of the success of the undertaking and realized that our misfortunes were the result of makeshift equipment.
As I alone knew all the details of the process and hence could not leave, my associate - who was acting as Treasurer of the Company, sailed for New York, armed with all necessary documents, to raise the needed funds. But no word from him ever came back and, eventually, I discovered that he had secured the capital and had promptly decamped with it.
In the meantime I was managing to produce sulphur on a small scale and was shipping it to Barbados and Trinidad, thus managing to keep things going. But at last the boiler was finished, the last tank was ready to burst at any moment and I gave up.
Even if, from a business standpoint the undertaking had failed, still I had demonstrated that the sulphur could be produced at a profit of over twelve dollars per ton. But in the meantime the Union Sulphur Company of Louisiana had been producing vast quantities of sulphur and controlled the market. Even with adequate capital and equipment it would have been hopeless to try to compete with them and our project was abandoned.
For another year I remained in Dominica, earning my livelihood by collecting birds and other Natural History specimens, many for the Tring Museum of Baron Rothschild. I also made a very large collection of corals, gorgonias, crustaceans and other marine invertebrates for my father. Many of these proved to be species new to science and for some time after my return to the states I was busy making drawings and photographs of the specimens.
During the time we were in Dominica several palatial yachts visited the island. There was James Gordon Bennet with his warship-like yacht LYSISTRATA and his several guests, among them Lady Maxwell and Baron and Baroness Van de Velde whom everyone on the island mistook for Vanderbilts. Before he left Mr. Bennet appointed me special West Indian correspondent for the New York Herald.
Another visitor was Morton H. Plant whose guests aboard his big ocean-going yacht were Lord Athlumley and Mr. Henry Colt of the Colt Firearms Company. Mr. Plant was far more interested in the problems of housekeeping, the prices of food and the costs of living on Dominica than in the natural scenic beauties of the island. But he was also keenly interested in the lime orchards, the Botanic Station and in tropical horticulture in general. He was a short, exceeding stout man with a florid face and thoroughly enjoyed a joke even if on himself.
On one occasion I was driving him up the Roseau Valley road when we met an unusually pretty colored girl staggering along under a huge bunch of bananas in the tray upon her head. "Please, sir, ease me down.” she panted.
Stepping from the carriage I helped her lift the heavy load from her head and she stood resting, leaning against the roadside wall. Of course we also were obliged to wait, for it would be as necessary to "ease her up" as it had been to "ease her down."
"Come here, my pretty girl", cried Mr. Plant, holding out a shilling, "Here's a present for you."
Then, as the girl approached and reached for the coin: "Now give me a kiss my pretty girl." he said.
The girl stepped back and shook her head. "Eh! Eh!" she exclaimed, "No, M'sieu. You is too red and too fat."
Plant shook with laughter. "You're the first woman who ever dared tell me the truth,” he chuckled. "And here's a Crown for being so frank about it.”
We were also honored by the arrival of the U.S. cruiser Des Moines - the first United States war vessel that had visited the island in fifty years. As the acting United States consul was a drink-sodden, uncouth Scotchman who detested Americans and, moreover, hadn't the least idea as to the proper procedure, he asked me to take over. So I boarded the Des Moines, paid my respects to Captain McCracken and learned that his main reason for stopping at Dominica was to give his men a few days ashore where they were reasonably safe from the evil temptations presented in the larger, more popular islands. Our home was surrounded by several acres of land with broad lawns and countless mango and other fruit trees and I suggested that the men make themselves at home, put on a baseball game and gorge themselves on our fruit. The idea proved a great success. The men were served limeade, coffee and light refreshments and had a glorious time, and not a single case of drunkenness or disorderly conduct was reported by the police.
Captain McCracken was really a dear soul. A naval officer of the old school; somewhat oldmaidish perhaps, but a stickler for discipline and etiquette, yet withall on almost friendly terms with every member of his ship's company, all of whom fairly worshipped him. But he had no political pull despite the fact that he had frequently distinguished himself and should have been promoted for he had risen no higher than the rank of Commander. The cruise on which he visited Dominica was his last. Upon his return to the states, he was retired and before he died was made a Rear Admiral, which must have been a great consolation in his last moments.
My life, as I have already mentioned, has always been filled with unexpected events and our return trip from Dominica proved another surprise.
I was at the steamship Agent's office, arranging for transportation, when the skipper of the TRINIDAD came in. "What are you doing?" he asked after greeting me. "You don’t need tickets, we left our first assistant engineer in the hospital at St. Lucia and Eddie (the Chief Engineer) will be tickled to death if you'll take his place."
Naturally I jumped at the chance. Eddie Yuhl, the Chief, was an old friend of many voyages. I loved machinery and was at home in the engine room and the duties of First Assistant were, unless some unexpected trouble developed, very light indeed, consisting mainly of standing watch, keeping records of propeller revolutions, boiler pressures and other data, and seeing that the firemen and second assistant didn't shirk. But fate had still more in store for me on that voyage. Scarcely had I got settled and had donned my officer's cap when the Captain summoned me, informing me that the Chief Steward had suddenly become ill and asked if I thought I could handle his job also. After consulting with Eddie and finding that matters could be so arranged that the hours did not conflict, I became acting steward.
I thoroughly enjoyed my job as a steward. I had great fun planning meals, making out menus and suggesting dishes that had not been previously served. Moreover, I taught the chef how to prepare island products in Creole style. As I was still a passenger when not serving in the roles of assistant engineer, or chief steward, I managed to find out the dates of various birthdays, wedding anniversaries and similar events and in each case a special dinner was served with fancy menus as souvenirs. One of the passengers was a wealthy ex-cow-puncher and rancher whos birthday was due in a couple of days. I decorated the menus with Indian designs and various objects of cow-country such as saddles, spurs, pistols, stirrups, etc. I then drew a rope encircling the menu. One end being held by a figure in chef's costume with the loop at the other end about the body of a cowboy. The menu itself as nearly as I can recall was as follows;
Hors-d’Oeuvres Wild West
Frijoles a la Mexicana
Trout a la chaperejos
Grilled Kingfish Six Gun

Pork tenderloin- Open Range
Fricasse de Poulet- Chuck Wagon

Roasts- Viandes
Ribs of Beef, Latigo
Filet Mignon aux Baked Spuds

Succotash – Trail Style
Petits Pois – Green Peas Haeblamore

Sourdough biscuits
Apple pie a la Hacienda
Assorted Pastries
Welsh Rarebit a la Remuda
Nuts and Raisins
Cocktail, Red Eye
The dinner was a great success.
The fact that I sometimes appeared wearing the cap and insignia of the engineering department and at other times that of the stewards' department must have pulled some of the passengers as well as some of the crew. Then one day as we neared New York the purser asked if I could manage to find time to help him with his manifests and other duties, so for a few days I became a member of the pursers' staff. That was too much for one of the passengers. Stopping me as I hurried across the deck he demanded; "Young man, are you every officer aboard this ship? I have been expecting to see you wearing a captain's gold braid next."

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.