Captain William Austin was a man of energy and built the first schooner along the river in 1812. She was the FRIENDSHIP, a schooner of the times, about a fifty footer registered at 57 tons in Cleveland in 1817. Solomon Parsons built the second schooner, the VERMILION, in 1814 and registered in Detroit at 36 tons about 40 feet. Where these ships were built is not exactly known but the builders chose a flat place along the riverside. This most certainly had to be near the foot of Huron Street where the later shipyard stood when ship building became the main industry in the village. Small schooners were ideal for scudding along the lake shore bringing in supplies from Buffalo and other ports. They were as large as the natural river bars would allow and enough cargo capacity to supply the needs of the early settlements. The schooner was the "work horse" and a very important transportation means in the opening of the vast Great Lakes Country. They reigned supreme until a new form of transportation arrived along shore - the steam railroad.
In 1840 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished building the two piers at the mouth of the river which provided the bar depth builders needed to take crafts to sea. Thus began the "Golden Age" of ship building on the river, in tune with the great demand for shipping on the lakes. In a period of 36 years 48 large lake schooners were built. This provided jobs and growth for the community. The harbor was a beehive of activity and the sound of the maul on caulking iron was a musical note that rang throughout the valley.
One very interesting ship built in the Golden Age was the screw steamer INDIANA built by Burton S. Goodsell in 1848, the only screw steamer built in Vermilion. In June 1858 off Marquette, Michigan on Lake Superior she went down with a cargo of iron ore. Her loss was a mystery and was not explained until the Smithsonian Institute raised her in 1979; she had lost a blade from the four blade propeller and the subsequent vibration opened her wooden seams causing water to rush in and extinguish the boiler thus allowing her to sink. The Institute now has a fine exhibit in Washington, D.C. of the engine, boiler, propeller and other artifacts recovered in the salvage. The engine represents the finest original marine steam power plant in the country. This explains why the Smithsonian was anxious to recover the engine. The "Vermilion Display" is a permanent monument to ship building in Vermilion. No other city can boast such an honor on the lakes.
With the abundance of fine fish in the lake plus the need for food, the early settlers took to the lake and shore with small boats and seines to reap the easy harvest. Soon they were sailing in deep water using gill-nets, trap-nets along shore to satisfy the market demand for fresh and salted fish. With the arrival of the trains the markets quickly expanded to the big cities. To meet this demand the steam tug emerged as the champion catcher of tons of delectable white fish, herring, pickerel and perch. Then came the powered net puller in 1900 making the steam tug the most efficient and profitable fishing method. The golden years were from 1890 to 1945 when the fish harvest on Lake Erie peaked making a lucrative livelihood for thousands of fisherman. Vermilion was home to the following commercial fish companies and their tugs:
Before the steam tugs, sailing boats were used for gill-nets and pound nets. This period consisted of the very first commercial fishing around the port in the years between 1820 and 1880 when steam tugs began to appear in number.
In the 1860s and 1870s considerable sandstone was shipped out of the harbor in schooners or barges. Two quarries, Brownhelm and Berlin Heights, shipped stone by rail to town where it was switched to the docks running from Exchange to Toledo Streets. Steam derricks transferred the stone from cars to the ships. Prominent quarry operators of the period were: Orange A. Leonard & Company, Summers & Harteep, and Worthington & Sons. Much of the building stone was used in rebuilding Chicago after the big fire there in 1871.
Another lifeblood industry was lumbering. Prior to 1861 a large quantity of forest products, such as staves, ships' timber, firewood and furniture was shipped from the area. During the 1860s and 1870s a shortage of suitable timber developed in the immediate area surrounding the town. This made it necessary to import raw material. Throughout the period large quantities were shipped into the port in schooners from the upper lakes to be manufactured into sash, doors, blinds, molding, dressed flooring, siding and a variety of other related products. N. Fisher & Company was the largest dealer. They operated two scows (old schooners). Their steam mill was at the corner of Sandusky and Liberty Streets, the southwest corner. In 1876 Fisher & Company leased the lumber mill to J.C. Gilchrist & Company. They left Vermilion to establish a large steamship company. Some of their relatives stayed in the lumber business and are now operating in the Seattle country.
Sometime around 1840 a lime kiln was built along the riverfront just north of Huron Street. The exact location is several feet north of Dr. Stack's house on the lakeshore. This furnace was a typical burner with a square sandstone base supporting a large iron stack. Limestone shipped down from the islands was loaded at the top with a skip-hoist that ran from the dock to the stack top. Horse power was used to hoist the stone cart. The burning flooded the town in a northeast wind with burning wood tinged with a lime aroma but the natives accepted the haze as a fact of life. The burnt lime was used to plaster many a house along the south shore of Lake Erie.
About 60 feet north of Huron Street along the riverfront were two stone foundations, round in shape 10' in diameter and 2' high. Around the foundations the ground was tinged red, the sign of iron ore. These two furnaces were the first stacks of the Geauga Iron Company of Painesville built in 1828-30. They had a dock and warehouse nearby on the river. Later they moved back on the ridge as the Huron Iron Company west of the State Road. This business operated for many years until coke made charcoal furnaces obsolete. The Huron Iron Company ceased operations in 1865.
In 1916 there were two yachts docked permanently in the river owned by Vermilionites; one was the IONA, a 35' glass cabin cruiser and the other was TOBERMORY, a 45' bridge-deck cruiser. Later, Harry Hewitt owned the NOMAD, a 36' powerboat he docked by the bridge. These three were the only pleasure boats in the steam in those days. Prior to those years the Rocky River sailboats would race to Vermilion on Labor Day for the annual "Big Time" in the little fishing port. Many a yarn was coined about the big mosquitoes that buzzed along the river.
In 1916 the Vermilion Boat Club held their first South Shore Regatta, which attracted sailors from Toledo, Sandusky, Rocky River and Cleveland. Headquarters consisted of a tent in front of the waterworks. Free ice-cold lemonade was served to all yachtsmen. Many a river kid with the spirit of the day immediately became yachtsmen. It was a day to remember for the thousands of spectators that lined the docks and piers.
Currently the river supports some 8,500 yachts, small boats, many of them sail, which indicates some 350,000 passages. Sail for fun has replaced sail for work.
Aside from ship building, lumber, commercial fishing and the stone trade providing jobs along the riverfront, there have been several substantial enterprises formed in the town over the years. These have been basic living and growth industries essential for all communities: