The 'Sign of the Ship' tourist home & residence . . .

Historic residence rolls over with time . . .

        Information in these recollections of the ’Sign of the Ship’, #59 Lakeshore Drive, Morrisburg, is via a variety of sources, including long-time friends of a certain age, and a few who might be on the far side of a certain age. Most of the sentences here are composed of memories and experiences enjoyed around this home, and its occupants during our childhood, the St. Lawrence Seaway years. Local historian extraordinaire, James Jordan as always, has provided and verified dates and early history notes. Mr. Jordan too threw in a number of valuable anecdotes concerning the residences mentioned, simply to encourage our recall, we believe. 

        Recently, after some digital sleuthing, we located Judy Carr Johnson, the eldest of the Carr gang, who has generously provided a lengthy document and some wonderful photographs, reminders of experiences gathered while growing up with her four brothers (Peter, David, Charlie, John) and a sister (the youngest - Laurie) in this Morrisburg family.

        The Carr’s home of year’s past, one of Morrisburg’s oldest, located at #59 Lakeshore Drive, has been demolished in the past several weeks. The residence was officially identified as “The Sign of the Ship” by most long time families residing in this village prior to the St. Lawrence Seaway’s geographical re-aligning. It has since that time been, simply, the Carr house.

        Judy’s notes appear in italicized text and are followed by her name on each. Those words not italicized are Bill Laurin’s, who authors this web site, and who grew up around the Carr home on Lakeshore and just around the corner at 38 First Street, before and after the St. Lawrence Seaway project was completed.


        Originally, this water front Morrisburg home along Canal Street served as a farm house when constructed by a Mr. George Cook in 1810. It was purchased by a Mr. Henry G. Merkley some years later, eventually sold again, this time to Ben and Mabel Carr. The Carrs also owned ‘The Ship’s Mate’ at #22 Lakeshore Drive in Morrisburg. Mr. and Mrs. Carr operated both locations as tourist homes during the time the famed foot doctor, Mahlon Locke, who was drawing thousands of people to the area every day with his miraculous ability to cure a variety of ailments.


        “With the war of 1812  looming at the time of construction, instead of installing windows on the second floor so as to take in the the south facing vista over the water, there were gun slits in each of the two rooms on either end of the south facing wall and no openings at all in the middle room. That middle space was where the gun powder was stored. Putting the powder room smack dab in the upper middle of the house on the water side when the conflict was expected to come from that direction doesn’t make much sense, but that was the story that was handed down in our family.” 

        “It was a post and beam style home with a wide central hallway running straight through the house, from the front door to the back door, with two large parlors on either side. Each of the parlors was fitted with a fireplace. The kitchen, at the front of the house to the east of the front door, was small and dark. There was a large back kitchen in the extension on the east side of the house that contained a walk-in refrigerator. Our mother was convinced the refrigerator would kill one of us, so she had the door removed.” - Judy Carr Johnson. 


        We knew the home the entirety of our life time, simply as Carr’s house.

        Through the past 67-plus years the house stood at the foot of Meikle Street, along the south side of Lakeshore Drive. The structure, lacking its large summer quarters, had been moved to rest on a new foundation during the seaway construction. Raised by Hawthorne Movers for the relocation in 1957 the building that had towered over the bank of the St. Lawrence River for 147-years was  transported approximately 65 yards north and some distance east to its the new footing. It is interesting to note the owners of the day had the forethought to consider future land values. In placing the home close to the east side of the current property the opportunity to develop the land between parcels #59 and #63 was created, although to date is not severed.

                At the time of the home’s construction there was no canal between the house and the St. Lawrence River. The local portion of the Williamsburg Canal’s series of locks wouldn’t begin construction until 1844 and they were expanded and rebuilt at Morrisburg in 1899, opening with a new Lock 23 at the foot of Lock Street in the downtown area in 1903. This lock not only provided a long and deep, safe navigation route around the river’s boiling rapids, it required the construction of a retaining wall along the canal’s north side. The retaining wall butted up against the base of the porch overlooking the river side at Carr’s house, leaving little to the imagination that should even a minor earth quake occur . . . 

      The canal retaining wall, constructed of huge stone blocks, ran the length of Morrisburg’s waterfront (near Morrisburg’s current Beach to Cassleman’s Creek) prior to the seaway development. Today the same wall can be viewed, (depending on the fluctuating water level) starting at the west side of Augusta Street on the east to the west property line along Morrisburg’s waterfront at the home of Rodney and René VanAllen. Previous to 1957’s seaway construction of Lake St. Lawrence, the wall stood some 15 to 18-feet above the surface of the water. Unknowingly at the time of design the plan created what would eventually become a frightening descend for youngsters learning to swim from floating docks along the waterway.


        “My paternal grandparents, Benjamin and Mable Carr bought the house and ran it as a tourist home during the time of Dr. Mahlon Locke, the famous Williamsburg foot doctor. Perhaps they were the ones who named it “The Sign of the Ship.” The 3-story brick house further down Lakeshore (what was then Main Street) where my grandparents lived was called, “The Ship’s Mate,” so I always wondered if they bought the house on the water side first, but I never asked.”   - Judy Carr Johnson. 


         Ben and Mabel Carr’s son Langton, his wife Elma and their gang took up residence in the home sometime before 1950. It was through our parents’ friendship with the Carrs that we too came to know each of them and their home so well. We developed a familiarity with the building prior to the St. Lawrence Seaway construction. Langton Carr and Art Laurin were avid duck hunters and fishers, and their wives, Lillian Laurin and Elma Carr enjoyed  a long-standing friendship. We hung out at Carr’s every day through most of our summers. We played the familiar yard games of our youth, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, tree climbing, throwing rocks at passing ships, running to the north side of then Main Street to sneak into the orchard there and steal apples, stockpiling them as ammunition for upcoming, near daily apple fights among our group of friends. 


        “ While we were growing up rooms in the main house were rented every summer, often to the same people year after year. That explains why there were four bathrooms for the five bedrooms on the second floor of the house. Two full, and two half baths. Three of the bedrooms at the back were large. The boys’ room held four beds at one time and settled on three beds when the two older boys were awarded their own room. There was always room for friends.” - Judy Carr Johnson. 


        The entrance to the property previous to 1957 was semi-circular, packed earth and gravel, and stone pillars topped with ornate brass work guardedly overlooked the east and west entrance and exits. Huge maple trees lined the drive, and several more dotted the lawns. A number of the one-time familiar tourist cottages were located along this route.


        “Eventually, our growing family gradually squeezed the summer folks out of the main house and consigned them to the long extension added/renovated on the east side. This extension held the back kitchen, a room many of the older houses boasted. These back kitchens were installed so the hours long cooking to provide meals for guests would not over-heat the rest of the house during the summer months.”

        “There was a full bathroom, a small, finished kitchen with an icebox, and two rental rooms. Behind those rooms, on the water side, were two long covered porches, one screened, and the other glassed in. Prior to the seaway coming to Morrisburg the house was very grand. On the water side were French doors that led to a glassed-in porch looking out over the canal and the river where my grandmother served meals to local town folks as well as to travellers and guests.” 

        “Lillian Laurin told me a funny story of those times. She said as a young woman she worked at the ‘Sign of the Ship’ when meals were served to town folks as well as to tourists. She recounted an evening when two of Gracie Meikle’s aunts, people of some importance in our town, were coming to dinner and bringing friends. They were to have chicken, but when they arrived it was discovered that the chickens were still frozen. Lillian said all the help was terrified of my grandmother although she reportedly never raised her voice to any of the staff. Lillian explained the scene in the kitchen was frantic, while the women ran warm water over the chickens until they were thawed enough to cook. Meanwhile hors d’oeuvres were prepared and served while Grandma Mable entertained the guests in the dining room. In time the chicken dinners were served, and the company went home satisfied. Things moved at a slower pace then.

        “The largest fireplace in the house was in the glassed-in porch. We had a Frigidaire in our kitchen in the main part of the house. It had a set of double doors and a coil on top, although I recall a smiling man with big arms bringing the blocks of ice, gripped in a pair of ice tongs, into the kitchen used by the summer renters.” 

        “The Seaway may be remembered fondly by some, the planners perhaps. It was many years in the making and it did at least allow some of the great lakes boats to travel in both directions on the St. Lawrence River. It’s not remembered fondly by me, and it was a traumatic event to the elderly who were forced to leave their homes and villages. Morrisburg was more fortunate than neighbouring Iroquois and some smaller towns that were buried forever by the flood of water levels. It was the original character of the town was destroyed. The new town center appears very well cared for, attractive even, but it is totally different from the town we grew up in. One must drive along the old Highway #2 through Prescott and Brockville, view the buildings that remind me of the way our town appeared in the 1950’s.” - Judy Carr Johnson.


        To our age group the actual demolition of Morrisburg’s commercial sector was a fascination authored in the crashing buildings as they collapsed under the wreckers equipment. In the aftermath, giant piles of rubble were burned, then smouldered for days. At the end of the construction worker’s day we climbed onto the parked equipment and imagined ourselves at the controls demolishing structures in a game of unintended havoc. Hide and seek was endless and completely on a new level when we realized the “it” person would never think of where to find you while you were ducked inside the inner wheel of a giant house mover.


        “The house was less grand once it was moved. It was still a sturdy and well-built structure, but it stood by the road alone and unadorned. Gone now were two pillars of natural stone between the sidewalk and the road, topped by wrought iron mountings, that now fronted nothing. They once marked the entrance to a circular driveway surrounded by maple trees.”

        When the house was finally settled in its new location my mother, Elma, and a local carpenter, Mr. Baker, who lived in Mariatown, undertook a major renovation of the downstairs. The old kitchen became what today would be called a mudroom, or coatroom, and the big parlor on the east side of the house that overlooked the river became a large, sunny kitchen. The French doors remained, and they now led to an open side porch; the south-facing windows let in a lot of light. The slivery floors, were more than 100 years old when we lived there. They’d been painted a few times and were a great source of splinters as we slid and careened around the first floor in our sock feet. Eventually the floors and wainscoting were sanded to show their original knotty pine. Mother had them sealed, not stained, the pale wood lightened the interior of the house.”  - Judy Carr Johnson.


A post card from Randy Veinotte's collection of Morrisburg memorabilia . . .
A post card from Randy Veinotte's collection of Morrisburg memorabilia . . .

        As most young people of the day experienced, we were always happily seeking new adventures. It was around the time of the relocation of the Carr home that the BA gas station/auto repair garage located immediately to the east became of interest. Today, the residence in that location is owned by Mick and Yvonne Mabo and is sided by Bob Stewart’s yard. But the garage in our day was operated by Lorne Brown, and then Percy Markell. And in our eyes, Percy Markell was a God-send!

        Our gang of boys dwelled on Percy’s every word while he told us an endless variety of jokes. He encouraged us to take part in menial tasks and spent an abundance of time making our very existence a happy, loving and incredibly fun experience. And he sold pop and candy, making sure all, money or not, at least shared some once in a while. Pocket money was rare in those days, and by the time we were getting out of bed the milk man had already made his rounds.

        Percy eventually hired Dave Carr to pump gas in the day when station operators took care of their customers. Tourism was brisk following the flooding of the river and area gas stations, motels and camp grounds enjoyed a brisk business of new found money. 

        West of the Carr house was Merkley’s barn and home. As young people we would stop to watch Craig Merkley putter with his vehicles, one of which was a late 50’s early 60’s Harley Davidson model. The bike was robin’s egg blue with a white leather saddle and fringe trim on the bags, and we thought it was beautiful. Craig was verbally impaired, although he made every effort to show us what he was working with. 


        "Of the many trees surrounding the property there was a favoured, giant willow standing down by the water. It was old and enormous, and even as adults our arms wrapped only halfway around the trunk. The willow was a famous among our friends. Its wide and sturdy branches started low enough to the ground for children to climb up and sit inside the tree. We gathered the long stringy vines in bunches and swung like Tarzan in our games. After the river flooded and rose to the shoreline the water’s edge was many feet deep and we joined with our friends to swing out over the water on those vines and plopped right into the river.”  - Judy Carr Johnson.


        We passed Percy’s garage daily, on our way to swim at Carr’s waterfront after the completion of the seaway construction. What had previously been a treacherous pre-seaway climb to the eyes and minds of eight-year-olds was now a simple navigation over a short decline of boulders, and a dive into the most beautiful, slowly meandering, mile-wide waterway on the planet. Our eyes captured it as endless.

        We spent every summer for an unknown number of years staring at the half-mile-away floating giant ships traversing the river. Our new world turned over the habits of our past summers, and of spending afternoons swimming in exactly the same location. But now no one was having to exit the water to safely allow a passing ship the right-of-way. Like black and white.


        “My mother found that people regularly went out on the water, but many didn’t know how to swim. I don’t know how many children she taught, dozens and dozens for sure. Elma Carr used to joke that people would drop their children off at our house in June and pick them up in September.” 

        "Elma had a methodology. First, we paddled around in a shallow area called the cribbing (the top of the original canal wall), sternly warned away from the drop off along it’s outer edge that was, as I recall, some 14-feet deep. It was well over our heads so whether it was 12-feet or 100-feet made no difference to a non-swimmer. When one of us became comfortable paddling in the cribbing, my mother tied a rope around our middle and walked around the dock taking us securely out over the deep water.” 

        "As Elma believed things were going well, she would loosen the rope and announce joyously, “You’re swimming!” At that point the child on the other end of the rope, visibly terrified, would begin to sink, quickly being hauled in by the rope.”

        "I don’t know either how many of our friends were included when our Mother drove us to Prescott for our Red Cross certifications, Beginner, Intermediate, Senior, and the final Life Saving badges. I do know there were many! I remember our Life Saving badge test well. The water was very rough that day and the waves were larger than usual. I was towing someone and trying to keep their head from going under.”  - Judy Carr Johnson.



        We recall Elma Carr introducing us to the art of swimming. It was in the pre-seaway canal. And during the pep talk in preparation of our first solo, while Elma Carr was arranging a rope knot around our middle, our mind flashed on the question of how long it had been since we’d had our last bite to eat. 

        In those days everyone believed that not waiting a full hour following a last bite of lunch ensured a life-ending experience, involving excruciating muscle spasms, making breathing and muscle use impossible, and drowning. 

        Elma convinced us to take part in the swimming rope exercise, inside we were dying in fear, while on the outside we simply went through a lot of gut wrenching fear as we slid off the dock into that bottomless, muck coloured flow of death. Elma was a registered nurse and to her that hour was law. She insisted on the full hour, leaving us all sitting on the wall of the canal counting the minutes until we could reenter the water.

        In actuality, we went into what surely appeared to be some kind of a hand-paddling seizure, seemingly standing fully erect in the water. Our feet were pumping like we were riding a high speed bicycle. So intense was our effort to remain of this world in keeping afloat, witnessing onlookers rolled in laughter. Then we climbed back up on the dock, all cocky don’t you know. “There’s how you do it boys!” But I remember too carefully mouthing the words under my breath.

        Under Elma’s guidance those fears disappeared almost immediately. Within a few afternoons, diving off the dock, and poo-pooing the idea of exiting the water when a large freight boat was approaching were tossed aside forever. A few weeks passed, and more than once, on a dare, we swam into the canal, and during a somersault put our feet against the side of a passing boat, pushing off to return to the safety of the dock. Everyone thought the move to be one’s initiation into the sacred ‘big kid’s’ crowd. However, we’re pretty sure of our recollection, and in correcting that previous statement we might offer that we still believe there was considerable distance between the soles of my feet and the side of any ship during our turn at those somersaults. But we’ve kept those facts to ourself in the many times we’ve shared memories with the old Carr crowd.


        “Down the street from our home, our friends, the Barclays, had the first TV in our end of town. The entire neighborhood of children piled into the Barclay home on Saturday mornings to watch Hop Along Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and on Sunday evenings to watch the Disney hour. I remember being shushed as I cried and sniveled over Dumbo’s rejection.”

        “I spent a lot of time at the Laurin’s on First Street. I was even quarantined out of my own home once when mumps were diagnosed there, and I temporarily moved in with them. Another time the girls had to vacate their large room because I was sick and couldn’t go home. Lillian served me ginger ale, a rare treat.”  - Judy Carr Johnson


        The Carr home was more than a family home to many more than our circle of friends during those early years. The door seemed forever open. We can’t recall anyone ever suffering an excessive scolding for being out of sorts. Elma had her rules and she had a way of explaining them that most experienced no hard time in understanding. Elma made everyone feel like they were an equal.

        It was, quite simply, her way.




        “I was in Hawaii when the letter arrived. My mother said she was taking my youngest sister Laurie and whoever else was still at home and moving to Long Sault to be closer to her work at the Cornwall General hospital.” 

       “How can she leave the willow tree?” was my first thought! “ - Judy Carr Johnson.


        The large property changed following the completion of the seaway development. The open space on the west side saw the Meradian family build the home where Bill and Bev Smith reside today, #65 Lakeshore Drive: Steve and Laura Lynn Cassleman constructed the home at #63 Lakeshore Drive where the Broad family currently resides: Dallas (Merkley) and Bob Auckland built the house at #67 Lakeshore Drive where Davie and Susie McIntosh live: and the one time Merkley farm house immediately west of the Carr property back in the day, located at #69 Lakeshore, houses the Serendipity B&B. The one time, roadside barn long gone, was replaced by an architecture from another day .

        There remains a river stone created wishing well on Carr property, temporarily somewhat obscured by the remnants of a dock construction currently in the works. And, we’re told a residence is in the planning stages.That wishing well was on the north-east corner of the home prior to its seaway relocation. Its continued presence on the property sings in a sweet melancholy of memories to the many, many children who spent years of afternoons experiencing an always open welcome and an always exciting childhood in and around the Carrs and their home.

        It was not uncommon to walk into the Carr house, unannounced. Not only would there forever be a fresh loaf of bread, opened, and on the table in the east side kitchen/eating area of the house. There was too an open jar of peanut butter with a knife sticking straight up, in and out, of the jar, right beside the bread. Just in case one arrived hungry, as the matriarch living here knew children often did. She left them to find such solutions on their own, the slightest bit of encouragement in place.

        Elma would have already walked down to the river. She would be relaxing following long hours of work, and getting her mind in order to tend to her own brood.

        On more than one occasion, while approaching the river bank quietly, one could witness this swimmer extraordinaire. She would be floating on the surface of the water as only Elma Carr could do. Not a muscle moving other than those required to breathe. This was Elma Carr, Matriarch of the Carr home, perfectly enjoying her element. 

        She and her home were the Sign of the Ship to so many!