OSWEGO, NY – While exploring the coast of Greenland last summer, Yves Hubert of Plougastel-Daoulas (a city near Brest, France), discovered a piece of Oswego’s history.
“I sailed along Greenland’s east coast this last August and landed in an old US military installation in the Ikateq Fjord,” he told Oswego County Today. “Between 1941 and 1946, it was a weather station coded Bluie East 2 and a relief airdrome during the Bolero operation (conveying P-38 between Newfoundland and Scotland). Standing proudly, since 65 years, there is a FitzGibbons boiler.”
The wooden building that housed the boiler disappeared due to bad weather or reutilization by the Inuits (a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the region), but not the boiler, he pointed out.
The boiler was built in 1941.
“We sailed from Iceland on an 18-meter ketch. The crew was 12. The crew was amateur sailors with the owner of the boat, an ex-merchant navy officer,” he said. “Ikkatteq (old spelling: Íkáteq) was a small village in the Sermersooq municipality in southeastern Greenland. It was abandoned in 2005.”
The skipper had sailed once from Iceland to Greenland and visited the US weather station, Hubert said, adding, “I’m a history buff and after I returned in France, I searched for its story.”
Hubert said he’d “be pleased if I can find the type and a picture of the model. Characteristics, dimensions or drawings would be wonderful.”
And so, his search took him to the Port City and John G. FitzGibbons.
“It is interesting that Yves contacted me. I am the great-great-grandson of Patrick FitzGibbons, the man who started the boiler company in 1868 here in Oswego,” John said.
While his family left the direct ownership of the company shortly after 1900, John said he is very interested in the continued resurrection of the boilers.
“Over the course of a year, I still receive many calls from people, all over the country, looking for boiler parts and equipment for their FitzGibbons boilers that remain in daily use,” he said.
Not that long ago, he received an inquiry from a monastery in California looking for parts.
It’s not that uncommon for architects and engineers from Baltimore and Washington and other places to contact him with questions regarding the boilers. Schools, churches and brownstones are other examples of places seeking help with their FitzGibbons boilers, he added.
“As a kid I really didn’t have much interest in boilers,” John admits. “But, of late, I have much more interest in the history surrounding the old family business.”
Patrick FitzGibbons had previously worked for another early Oswego entrepreneurial family – the Kingsfords, in the machine shop at their starch factory, John noted.
“I know that the boiler factory was used during World War II for army tank manufacturing, I wasn’t aware of the boilers’ contribution to the war effort until I received Yves’ email,” he said.
His great-grandfather sold the boiler business in the 1920s, thus ending the family’s association with the boiler works, he said.
FitzGibbons has replied to Hubert and hopes to receive any photos or materials that he might have.
Hubert said he has a text and pictures from an American soldier named Bob Baxter (from Boise) who lived in the base in 1945/1946. And he also has some official US texts about the building of American bases in Greenland.
“My search also includes materials still noticeable such as Dodge trucks, generator group and two boilers, a big Johnston one in a hangar and the FitzGibbons one in a wooden shack, he said.
FitzGibbons said he is enthused about spreading the story about the boiler and Oswego’s past.
He also recalls what one family member once told him regarding the extreme longevity of the FitzGibbons boilers.
“If, after 65 years you’re still getting calls about parts for the boilers – you did something wrong. You should have been getting calls to replace the boilers before this,” he said with a laugh.
“I’m heavily involved in caritative, historic and scientific associations. In the 1990s, I was a member of www.hazegray.org and helped in translating the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships from the book (8 volumes) to Internet,” Hubert said. “At this time, I had many American contacts from old sailors or from their families. They were very happy to have remembrances of their dads’ ship.”
He is still in contact with Robert Blackman, of Matamoras, Pa.
“He was onboard Redwing (ARS-4) when she was mined near Bizerte, Tunisia, in June 1943. She was conveying four little tugs and inshore minesweepers for the Free French Navy,” Hubert said. “I was able to give him pictures of these ships under French colors and our relationship began. He is now an old man (85) and we exchange gifts and family news for Christmas.”
“I sailed with my family for 25 years, but my wife doesn’t like the cold seas,” Hubert said. “She sailed in Norway, Sweden and Finland. We rented a boat there, crossed the Channel about 10 times but she failed to cut the Arctic Circle.”
“Now, with some chaps, I passed the Horn Cape, sailed twice in the Svalbard Archipelago, sailed from Northern Norway to France and last year from Greenland to Iceland,” he continued. “I hope to sail along the Alaskan Coast. Some French sailing boats (one in 2009 and one in 2011) are transiting the passage north of Canada from Labrador to Bering Sea with a return by the Panama Canal. I fear I’m too old now for this travel.”