The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
The Black Dog of Lake Erie: Schooner Days XXX (30)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 10 Oct 1931

Full Text

Here is, if not explanation, at least illustration, of the Black Dog superstition which once prevailed on the lakes. It is from the recollections of J J. O’Connor, J. P., District Magistrate for Thunder Bay, who was a lake sailor and a good one, forty years before he was elevated to the bench.

The Black Dog of Erie may have entered the complex of the lake sailor when the Mary Jane vanished. That was one of the strangest things of the many strange things which have happened on fresh water.

For all her W. W. Jacobs' name the Mary Jane was a real vessel, an old lake “barque," built by Louis Shickluna at St. Catharines in 1862 She measured 345 tons register and was 135 feet on deck, 23 foot beam, and 13 feet deep in the hold. Thomas Register of 1864 lists her as “stranded at present," but she came back into service. Tommy O’Brien used to tell of how she was rebuilt in Toronto at the mouth of the Don, and left there with the carpenters and caulkers still working on her decks, one season when the ice went out particularly early. She got through the canal — the Welland, of course — with its first opening. The spring was still so little advanced that they were caught in a snowstorm on Lake Erie. And there he was, reefing the square topsail in the blizzard on a Good Friday, of all the days in the year.

The Mary Jane survived that. Some years later she was lying in Port Colborne with the tug alongside, her hold full of cedar posts and cedar posts filling her deck as high as the upper deadeyes of the rigging She was waiting for a fair wind up Lake Erie.

At last the flies at her trucks stiffened and straightened out with the first faint whispering of an off-shore slant.

“Sheet home the foretopsail and let go your lines" sang out the Old Man. The tug belched black smoke, and she began to move out of the pier.

While her starboard fenders were still scrubbing the stringpiece, a shaggy black Newfoundland poked a head “with lolling tongue and eyes like coals of fire," above the cedar posts on the port side, shambled across the deckload, and leapt ashore.

“Now, where did that brute come from?” asked Tinny Garner. who worked in the elevator. “Them posts is twenty feet above the water, and he musta come up the side end over them like a fly!”

“From the wheelhouse of the tug alongside, of course, ” said his practical mate.

“Well, where did he go to? ” gasped Tinny, gaping from their perch among the grain bins. “He just seemed to touch the dock and go outa sight.”

“After a cat, ” was the logical answer.

The air which had wafted the Mary Jane out, died away soon after she dropped her tug and for hours she lay there in the blazing sunshine, between Port Colborne and the Mohawk light, becalmed like the ship of the Ancient Mariner. An in-bound propeller passed her close, and hailed her. Workmen coming out of the elevator at noon saw her shimmering in the heat. Coming back with the one o’clock whistle, they could not make her out. They wondered at that, for there was still no wind.

They thought it strange that she should have caught a puff that would carry her beyond the horizon in an hour unless, of course, the heat was playing tricks with the visibility.Mirage often does that. It will distort images to the vanishing point, as well as exaggerate them out of all proportion.

But the Mary Jane was never seen again. There was no storm, no squall, no anything to account for her not arriving at her destination. Many a vessel has been lost with all hands on the lakes. Usually evidences of the tragedy are all too plentiful. But from that day to this no one has ever seen anything of the Mary Jane. She could not have disappeared more completely if the bottom had dropped out of Lake Erie and taken her with it.

Fire, or collision with a hit-and-run steamer has been suggested. But no collision could sink a schooner with a corklike cargo of cedar posts. Even if they had swollen and burst her hull open, as happened to the Eliza White, and to the Arctic, surely enough of her spilled cargo would have been strewn around the lake to suggest a wreck. And such a blaze as she would have made would surely have been sighted.

The Mary Jane’s disappearance is as great a mystery as that of the Marie Celeste. All the details of her departure from Port Colborne were, of course, carefully dissected in every bar from the canal to the Burg” — Ogdensburg on the St. Lawrence. Even the Newfoundlander came in for mention.

The C. T. Jenkins was a white American three-and-after in the grain trade between Chicago and Kingston, in 1875.

She was sliding down Lake Erie one quiet night with a full moon, just enough breeze to keep her sails asleep. It was in the middle watch, and as peaceful as only the lakes can be on a still night. The mate and the lookouts were conscientiously improving the shining hour by sleeping in separate patches of shadow, carefully sheltered from the moon. The helmsman, the only man awake in the ship, was humming a broken tune from a Chicago dance hall and staring at the bubble in the compass and wondering whether compass alcohol would be any good as a refill for the dwindling bottles of hooch bought in South Clark street.

Suddenly he let a yell out of him which brought the mate and the lookout back from dreamland with a jerk and turned out the watch below as though the Jenkins were on her beam’s ends in a squall. In a moment the helmsman was surrounded by half a dozen excited questioners, all asking “What is it? What is it?""

“The Black Dog!” he jibbered, “the Black Dog! It came up over the weather rail in the moonlight, all black and bristling, and not a hair of it wet, and it walked across the deck and over the lee rail and into the lake without a splash.”

The captain had been boiled hard in his native Kankakee, Ill., and could spot D. T.'s a mile away.

“See if this’ll make a splash!” said he, frisking the sailor’s hip pocket as neatly as a detective landing a gangster’s revolver. Overboard spun the bottle. “Cook, make him some coffee, strong enough to float the kedge anchor! And you, blank you, get to your bunk and keep your conversation hatch on as soon as you’ve stowed what the cook gives you see?”

The ex-helmsman’s perceptive faculties were quickened by a swift kick, which would have wrecked his cornjuice container had it remained in situ. He saw stars, moons and comets. Later, before the mule’s kick coffee brought blessed relief, he began to see enormous black dogs running up the rigging.

The memory of that kick—and that bruise—stayed with him until the C. T. Jenkins towed into Port Colborne two days later, and got her squaresail yard a-cockbill and her jibboom topped up and catheads and davits folded back for canalling down to Lake Ontario.

Those were the days of the open bar, and the Chicago seer was soon surrounding Canadian rye and surrounded by Canadians listening with awe to his account of the moonlit portent of Lake Erie, the black dog as big as a bull (by this time) which had crossed the C. T. Jenkins deck and disappeared without a splash. After the third round the animal had grown to the size of an elephant, and the narrator marvelled that it had not capsized the schooner. He returned on board and tearfully besought all hands to leave the ship and save themselves from the wrath to come. It was a Sign, he insisted, a certain Sign.

The captain bestowed a second well-directed kick, which lifted the prophet on to the dock. He hurled his dunnage bag after him and told him not to dare to show his face again.

But at Port Robinson the poor a devil again appeared and begged the captain and all hands to tie the schooner up and abandon the voyage and so save their lives. He was driven off with a volley of blasphemy and belaying pins. But at every stopping place, as the C. T. Jenkins slowly stepped down to Lake Ontario — there were 26 rungs in the ladder then and horses towed the vessel from lock to lock—he would bob up wail his warning, and dodge.

His last appearance was when the tow-horses were being unhitched after she had been dragged across the pond above Muir’s drydock, at Port Dalhousie. The captain was so annoyed by his persistence, and the crew were getting so worried by it, and talking of quitting, that he sailed right out into the lake as he was, with his jib-boom still hanging in the burtons which had topped it up to let the loaded schooner into the locks without spearing the head gates.

It blew hard that night from the sou’-west, a fair wind for Kingston for the C. T. Jenkins.

She had plenty of time to get her jibboom rigged and headstays all set up before it came down heavy. And besides, with the fair wind her jibboom was not an essential spar. The late Magistrate J. J. O’Connor of Port Arthur from whom these facts were gathered was a sailor before the mast in the schooner Magdala. Capt. Farewell of Oshawa, at this time. It was November, 1875.

“I was in the Magdala, upbound from Oswego to Toronto, the same night, ” said he. “We had a lively time in the November sou’-wester, touched some high spots, but weathered the gale in good shape, double-reefed all round. The Magdala was a smaller vessel than the Jenkins, and we were light, where she was loaded. Of course it would be in her favor that she had the wind behind her,while we had to beat against it. We did not hear of her loss until days afterwards She foundered in Lake Ontario that night, somewhere between Port Dalhousie and Oswego. The story of the man of the Jenkins, and what he saw, or thought he saw, went the rounds and created a revival of sailors’ superstitions which did not fade for many a day.”

“It got particularly wide circulation, for at the end of a fortnight of westerly gales, seventy-five sailing vessels lay in Kingston harbor, grain-laden from the upper lakes; and of course the crews visited, and every forecastle was filled with the story of the Black Dog. Capt. Henderson, a marine artist, made a picture of the whole fleet leaving Kingston when the westerlies tie up.”

Has anyone a copy of the picture?

Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type:
Item Type:
The "C. T. JENKINS" in this story was in fact the ISAAC G. JENKINS.
Date of Publication:
10 Oct 1931
Personal Name(s):
O’Connor, J J.
Language of Item:
Geographic Coverage:
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.6201165762202 Longitude: -79.594288390625
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.795555 Longitude: -77.905555
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.90012 Longitude: -79.23288
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.20011 Longitude: -79.26629
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.03342 Longitude: -79.21628
Ron Beaupre
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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The Black Dog of Lake Erie: Schooner Days XXX (30)