Queen of the North
Schooner Days VII (7)
District Magistrate J.J. O'Connor's account of the forest monarch he met in his youth when his schooner put into Port Burwell in a Lake Erie gale.
This Tom Wrong, whose bones grinding in the breaker were a grim warning to us when we made the plunge for the piers of Port Burwell in 1874 had been the pride of the place, and her crew were Port Burwell men.
That was why the women wailed and wrung their hands when it looked as though we were going in the Tom Wrong's tracks with the Bermuda - and why the men gave us a cheer when we didn't.
The Tom Wrong tragedy, had been a cruel one, leaving widows and orphans and heavy financial loss.
The vessel was a three-masted schooner of 210 tons register, an old lake "barque," originally the propeller S.E. Ives, built by William Jones of Cleveland in 1853, Tom Wrong, who was one of Port Burwell's leading citizens - I understand he was or had been mayor of the town - had bought the hull from the Americans ten years before, rebuilt it, rigged it as a sailing vessel and changed the name and registry, renaming her after himself.
I had often heard of the Queen of the North, and it was fine to see her follow us in through the smother of that sou'wester which brought us to Port Burwell, and learn that this was the redoubtable "belle of the bush" that Collingwood people talked of.
The Queen of the North was a pure product of the days when Ontario bristled with forests, and "the North" began at Lake Simcoe. Sir John Franklin's jumping off point for the Arctic was Holland Landing, remember.
No finer white pine or oak ever grew than used to break the backs of the sandbanks in Simcoe county, on the shores of Georgian Bay. For years the post of surveyor for masts for the British navy was one of the treasured offices in the area, and many a million feet of sawn lumber began a voyage down the Nottawasaga River which ended in Europe.
The Nottawasaga itself, ambling along parallel to the beach of the bay for miles, was an ideal spot for building and launching ships. Its only drawback was its wilderness setting, for wilderness the river-mouth remained long after the gallant Nancy took refuged there and sank in flames, her flag flying amid American cannon balls. Small craft were built in the river mouth, among them a sloop by the McAllister's, and the plumb bob they used was cased from bullets, picked up after the Nancy battle.
Somehow settlement never took hold at the Nottawasaga mouth until the summer colony idea popularized it, and that was not till this century. Sixty years ago, when the river rang with the raftsmen's shouts, the only sign of development was VanVlack's mill and hotel down by the old wooden bridge near the mouth. Van Black used to catch sturgeon in nets in the Georgian Bay and keep them in a pool like cattle in a pound, and sell them on the fin to the Indians for ten cents apiece.
My friend, Captain M. C. Cameron, when in there with the tug George Watson, in 1871, to gather up a raft, and could not find a soul stirring in mill or hotel. Finally he roused a woman, who was up to her elbows in soapsuds in the hotel kitchen. She told him that "Everybody in the place had gone up to the second line, Collingwood way, to see the horse race."
Capt. Cameron had to have hands to get his rafts out, so jumping to the shore he plodded for an hour until he came on a crowd of nearly three thousand people, mostly men and mostly hilarious. They were lined up for half a mile on the hard sand beach, and the sulky races were in full swing. A Dr. Bolton's horse, from Collingwood, the favorite, dropped dead as it neared the line in the lead.
Nottawasaga mouth had a spur of prosperity in the War of 1812, when it was the depot for supplies for Mackinac and the Northwest, portaged overland from Toronto. A permanent post was established up the river, but abandoned some years after the war, its garrison being moved to Penetangushene in the early 1850s, the location of the Georgian Bay end of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway that had all the north agog. Three survey parties investigated the possibilities of three different terminals. One of these was conducted by the late Sir Sanford Fleming, of Collingwood. Penetangushene and the Nottawasaga were in fierce rivalry.
There is still to be seen near the river mouth the outline of the hull of a centreboard schooner of about 110 foot length, her shape marked by the stumps of her ribs in the smooth sand. The uninformed used to take this for the wreck of the Nancy, but although very old, it is of a more modern vessel, a monument to later strife.
In 1852, when prospects of the Nottawasaga being chosen as the terminal port seemed strong, some partisans of the Hen-and-Chicken alternative, as Collingwood was nicknamed, bought or chartered the schooner H.B. Bishop to go to the south of the Nottawasaga River to load. As she mightn't get out once she was loaded she was to anchor off the mouth and the cargo would be lightered out to her.
The time was well chosen. The westerlies set int and the bay was in a tumult. Prospective shippers, if any could not send their goods out, and the schooner lay outside at anchor until a particularly vicious westerly drove in over the sandbars and up to the beach. The wreck gave the Nottawasaga terminal project such a black eye - that Collingwood had no difficulty in capturing the prize.
This, at any rate, was the story current in my time in the schooner fleet. As it all happened before I was hatched I cannot voice for the truth of it. But it would be interesting to get the rights or wrongs of the case from some of the Collingwood old timers.
For fifty years Nottawasaga relapsed to the status of a sturgeon pond. In the spring it would be filled from bank to bank, from the bay bar to the Ox Bow, with squadrons of sawlogs. The raftsmen used to moor their booms to the stem and sternpost of the sunken Nancy far up the river at the spot they called the Battle Ground without knowing why, and to the ribs of the Bishop at the ever shifting mouth. Each freshet made a new opening but in general the mouth travelled farther and farther to the northeast.
All around were the endless woods, solemn, sombre, plumy pines, scented cedar and hemlock, and, more inland, rugged oaks. In spite of all the axe did every winter, each summer seemed to find their ranks undiminished.
Such was the setting which came the Queen of the North.
Her keel was laid a few yeas after the Bishop's "Awful Warning." Perhaps she was intended to offset that.
But as proof of the Nottawasaga bedbug a real shipping port she tarred, Her timbers, gleaming yellow from adze-blade, bleached to grey and weathered over before her planking was completed. If she was built in the bush, she was also well seasoned. She lay a year unfinished.
At length, John Potter of Oakville took on the task of completing her. Potter built many lake schooners and was adept at finishing what proved to too hot and too heavy for those who had begun it. "Folly Castle," sobriquet of his imposing home in Oakville, commemorated that. The folly had not been Mr. Potter's. The castle was.
Potter brought his gang of shipwrights and caulkers and riggers from Lake Ontario, built a camp like a lumber shanty; and the clinks of his caulking irons and the thuds of his spike mauls drove the cranes charging over the sturgeon pool. Adam Dudgeon, later mayor of Collingwood, worked at the building and so did the father of John Birnie, lawyer of that town.
The day came in 1861, when the bush-built ship stood ready for launching, gleaming in the fresh green paint amid the stumps fo the trees from which she had been framed, planked and sparred.
Collingwood made high holiday. The steamer Clifton, Capt. Smith, with her tall funnels, brought a large excursion and had no difficulty in entering where the Bishop had kept battering at the door. The countryside had been searched for soft soap. The ways were greased. The ship took the plunge, with a splash of white foam that left the river bottom bare for a moment and stirred the Nancy in her grave.
Mrs. McWatt, wife of the mayor of Collingwood, performed the christening ceremony. When the champagne burst on the bows, then words she uttered were "QUEEN OF THE NORTH!" There being nothing to eat at Nottawasaga beyond the shipwright rations except, possibly, the sturgeons, and nothing to sit on but stumps, the excursionists clambered aboard the Clifton again, steamed off to Collingwood, and dined and danced till the sun came up the next morning.
They had reason to rejoice, these old timers of Simcoe county; in this first year of the American Civil War. The ship launched at last was one to be proud of The Queen of the North was 123 or 125 feet long, 23 feet, 2 inches beam, and 10 feet 8 inches deep in the hold.
She was "full canal sized," as the locks of the Welland Canal then went. She registered a number of tons varying between 293 and 347 - why, the marine registrars along can tell - and her capacity was 420 tons of coal, or 14,000 bushels of wheat, or 260,000 feet of lumber, and a 10-foot hold.
She could take more, much more, but the Welland Canal draft was then limited to 9 feet, though a $5 bill might get you through sometimes loaded to the nine-feet-two or even nine-feet-six. She was "AE" in the insurance registers, the second highest rating on the lakes, and $11,000 was the valuation placed on her.
When she came plunging past the pier heads that day I first aw her in Port Burwell, she was a three-masted schooner, for she had been re-rigged in 1872 when the Georgian Bay Lumber Company bought her. But she was rigged by Potter as a brigantine and an impressive sight she must have been then, with four tapering yards crossing her foremast and squares of canvas crossing her format and squares of canvas rising in a graceful pagoda.
George H. Wyatt, of Toronto, was the first purchaser of the Queen of the North. Christie Kerr and Company, of Toronto, the Georgian Bay Lumber Company, of Waubashene, and Henry Jackman were succeeding owners.
She was sailed for years - from the beginning, I believe - by Capt. Peter Thompson, a Norwegian salty, famous on the lakes. It was he who sailed the Edward Blake to England on a Toronto charter.
Thompson was in her when she was brigantine rigged, and he was in her when I first saw her. He kept her very smart. She was in the grain trade between Chicago and Collingwood snd the lumber and timber trade to the Lower Lakes.
I have seen two old "protests" with his name attached. Capt. Jas. McConnel has them. One is for damage to rigging and straining of the vessel in a May Day gale of snow on Lake Michigan, in 1866, with 16,890 bushels of rye from Chicago to Collingwood; and the other is for splitting his mainsail and loss rigging in an eight-day passage between the same ports in the fall of the same year, with 17,084 bushels of corn.
These loads, 3,000 bushels beyond the vessel's capacity on 10-foot draft, for which she was built, show what those poor lake wagons had to put up with when they were new and strong, and driving skippers were out to make big freights. What wonder that the Queen of the North had to be re-rigged and rebuilt eleven years after launching!