3 Generations of Great Lakes Captains

James E. Lawless, my third great grandfather, was a captain on the Great Lakes in the late 1800’s. His time on the water ended tragically in 1900 when his barge sunk… I’ll post that full story later on.

The Lawless/Coen families have roots in the little town of Vermilion, Ohio. My understanding is that James was quite well-known.

When going through photo albums and newspaper clippings, I found this really cool snippet:

In 1967, Captain Donald Lawless, my 1st cousin 3x removed, donated a framed composite photograph to the Wakefield Marine Museum in Vermilion, OH. The image has a title printed on it: “Three Generations of Great Lake Captains” and it depicts Captain Donald Lawless (the one donating the piece), his father Captain Fred E Lawless, and Fred’s father Captain James E Lawless. I also came across a photo of this piece in one of the photo albums we have.

There was one thing about this discovery that was HUGE for me. Up to this point, I had no images of my 3rd great grandfather James E Lawless. Given his life span, that isn’t entirely unusual (1839-1900)… As soon as I saw that he was in this piece, I HAD to see if I could find it and get a hi-res copy of it for my records.

I started at the beginning… the museum it was donated to still exists (but in a different building, I think). I reached out to them and explained who I was and what I was trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, the person I talked with didn’t have any knowledge of the piece, records of transferring ownership, or anything else. They suggested that I try one of the universities nearby… that the school also holds archives pertaining to maritime activities on the Great Lakes.

So I followed that tip. Once more, I didn’t find what I was looking for. A little frustrated and unsure of where to go next, I tabled this quest and moved on to other things for a while.

Periodically I like to jump on Google and repeat some old searches… you never know what’ll show up. Well, in December 2018 I did just that. I Googled the title of the piece: “Three Generations of Great Lake Captains.”

I was seriously expecting to once again find nothing, but it must have been my lucky day! One of the search results pointed to a listing on eBay for a piece of the same title, which appeared to be what I was looking for. I excitedly sent a message to the seller asking about the piece… and if there was any wiggle room in the price.

He explained that he got the piece from an estate sale in Florida, but that there was nothing else among his purchases that seemed related. And he very graciously lowered the price since it would be going to a good home.

A few days before Christmas I bought it and waited anxiously for its arrival.

I told no one about it until one day this giant box showed up on the front porch. I quickly (and carefully) tore the box open and started inspecting my new prize.

The image looked the same as what I saw in the newspaper clipping and in the photo album. There was no extra writing or marking on the back, or any other clues as to where it had been. After a few moments I looked a little closer at the frame it was in.

It. Was. The. Same! So either this was the exact piece that was donated in Ohio… and it somehow made it out of the museum, to one of my grandparents’ wall, to some unknown owner, to an estate sale in Florida, to me. The other possibility is that more than one was made… one for the museum, one for the family… etc.

From the family photo album… the quality of these images is definitely not the best.

My grandparents are no longer living, so I couldn’t reach out to them for backstory or insight. I just have to imagine its journey. And now I have an image of my 3rd great grandfather to add to my tree! To this day it is the only one I’ve come across.

Next, I plan to remove the dust cover and get a good hi-res scan of it before re-framing it. That’ll give me a chance to preserve the image in my digital records and it’ll give me the opportunity to look for any hidden markings.

This is it! Freshly unwrapped.

I’m still a bit in disbelief that it found its way to me. What are the chances? This just goes to show that you shouldn’t give up on your efforts… and that sometimes walking away and returning to try again can yield amazing results.

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