Schooner Days, LVII (57)
It is going on forty-five years since the Blanche of Colborne vanished with all hands. Yet still Cat Hollow men stare hard towards the Scotch Bonnet of moonlight nights, to catch, if may be, the gleam of her bone-white hull under the proud arching of her silver-sable sails.
The Bonnet is a little block of an island outside of Nicholson's, off the Prince Edward County shore. It flashes nightly across the water to the tall lighthouse at Presqu'isle, where the bay runs up to Brighton and swings east to the Murray Canal, replacing the old Carrying Place, which once afforded access to the Bay of Quinte. Colborne and Cat Hollow are to the west of the little peninsula which gives Presqu'isle its name. A famous corner for wrecks, since the government schooner Speedy's finding of the Devil's Hitchingpost there in 1804. The Belle Sheridan's was another famous wreck near by, eighty years afterwards. Among them all the Blanche's will be remembered long, both from the mystery of it and from the completeness of the tragedy it involved.
IT was fitting out time, in the spring of 1888, and Captain John H. Henderson, of the schooner Blanche of Colborne, was outward bound from his winter home in Cat Hollow. Colborne lies inland from Lake Ontario, a little town of importance, named after the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, whose name was later tagged on to Gravelly Bay on Lake Erie; making it Port Colborne, to some confusion with the Ontario place. From Colborne a road winds down to Cat Hollow, the settlement by the shore, which has since become the village of Lakeport. Officially vessels from this vicinity hailed from the Port of Cramahe, but Cramahe or Cramaha was only the Highland name for the township. Harbor there was none. Once they had to scuttle the Katie Eccles where she lay loading at the pier there, to save her from pounding to pieces in a westerly. Schooners did a brisk trade in grain and lumber from the two wharves and storehouses at Cat Hollow, but they wintered in Cobourg or Brighton, sheltered in the Bay of Presqu'isle.
Capt. Henderson's bag and his seaboots and oilskins had gone on before, and he was striding uphill through the thawing slush to meet the Brighton stage. This would carry him to where the Blanche lay, shimmering in her new white paint, at her winter quarters in Presqu'isle Bay, eight miles away.
At the hill crest, Captain Henderson turned. He untied a parcel he had held tightly in his young brown fist. A pair of heavy woollen socks sprang from the released covering. They were gay and hand-knitted sailors' socks, the kind that keep sea boots from "drawing the feet." He whirled them high above his head.
"Goodbye, mother, goodbye!" he called, in a voice of spring gladness matching the cheery chirrup of the roadside robins.
At a door down in the Hollow a grey haired woman waved a freshly ironed apron or pink and white checks. Tears brimmed her eyes. Captain Henderson could not see them. But he could see, or believed he saw, the glad smile behind them. A sailor's eyes are keen. A lover's eyes see farther. Johnnie Henderson was a good sailor and a loving son.
Then he went over the hilltop and out of his mother's sight, and out of the ken of the small boy who passed him, whistling. It is from him comes this tale, 44 years afterwards. He is Harold Batty, and he helps get out the Port Hope Guide. The facts are his. Whose the telling does not matter.
Two months later, Capt. Tom Matthews was swinging down the lake in the old Fleetwing, a low straight black-and-green schooner then in her prime. Older Toronto folk may remember her when she used to bring stone for the cribs of the Eastern Gap, in the 90's, when Capt. "Mack" Shaw had her. Younger Toronto folk may remember her putting in here in distress one August day in 1906, when she was on her very last legs. Her sheer was hump-ed then, and her mastheads sprung, and she had a permanent reef in her much patched mainsail. She had been to Charlotte with a load of cedar posts, arid ran for shelter here in the light half of a summer gale, with 18 inches of water in her hold and her crew in despair. She was owned then in South Bay, and after she limped away for home with moderating weather no one on the waterfront here knew what became of her.
In 1888, however, the Fleetwing was still a good vessel, ad her master was proud of her. Capt. Matthews was Harold Batty's uncle. Mrs. Matthews. Harold Batty's aunt, was the cook of the Fleetwing. Capt. Matthews had with him as mate James Henderson, of Cat Hollow, a brother of Capt. John, of the Blanche. Jim Henderson later became captain of the steamer Macassa and carried thousands of Toronto and Hamilton passengers between those two ports. Poor Jimmy is no more now, and his well-known command went to the bottom of Georgian Bay two or three years ago under the name of the Manasoo.
At midnight on May 27, Capt. Matthews was called to relieve the mate, it being the custom in lake schooners for the captain to stand watch at night. In salt water ships the second mate does this work for the Old Man, and the latter only turns out when he feels like it— which is pretty often.
Capt. Matthews glanced at the barometer and it seemed to him the glass had dropped materially, since he had gone below. He emerged to find a perfect moonlight night, with a fine steady breeze blowing and the schooner gushing along ater. The Scotch Bonnet was winking away in north-north-west, about five miles distant.
"I haven't been drinking, Jimmy, but my eyes must be playing tricks on me," said Capt. Matthews to his mate, as the latter prepared to go below. "I thought the glass was away down, but I come up to as fine a night as man ever set eyes on. Wait a minute till I have another look at her."
He popped into the cabin. The glass was assuredly "down." The mercury had sunk even while he was talking.
He emerged in a moment. All hands were now on deck, standing by for the order "Go below, the port watch."
"Get the gafftopsails and jibtopsail off her," shouted the master to the waiting mate. "Haul the flying jib down too, and we'll reef the mainsail!"
"What's wrong, captain? " asked the mate, amazed.
"Plenty," said Capt. Matthews. "The glass is down all right, as if the bottom had dropped out of it, and I never knew her to fool me yet."
With a rattle of complaining blocks, hoops and downhauls the light sails were clewed up and furled, and the main sheet was hauled aft for reefing the mainsail, when a vessel hove in sight.
"It's Johnny, in the Blanche. He's got a load of screenings from Oswego for Brighton," commented Mate Henderson.
"He may make it before anything hits him, " agreed Capt. Matthews. "Two hours will about put him inside Prequ'isle Light. Look at him come!"
The Blanche was booming along, her sails sharp black and white in the moonlight, wing-and-wing with the breeze, a white roll of foam sparkling like diamonds before her white bows. She had a saucy sheer, and she swam towards them like a snowy swan in a hurry.
Capt. Matthews hailed "This is a fine night, Johnny!"
"Yes," hailed back Capt. Henderson, "It's a dandy. We're making hay while the moon shines. Is everybody all right?"
He could not understand the Fleetwing shortening down in such fine weather. His question showed it. Capt. Matthews called something about the glass having dropped suddenly. Capt. Henderson, now almost beyond earshot, hailed back, "Good-night Tom! Goodnight Jimmy!" and vanished from sight and hearing.
Half an hour later the squall struck without notice from the northwest. It was a gagger. The Fleetwing was not a stiff vessel. She was a shoal American bottom, built at Wilson, N. Y., near Niagara, in 1863, for Capt. Quick, and she capsized and drowned her crew while he had her. After that she had her masts shortened, and passed into Canadian ownership.
She rolled down under this squall till they thought they'd lose her, although she was already shortened to the reefed mainsail, foresail, and staysail. She came through safely. The same squall must have caught the Blanche with every stitch set, her booms guyed out to the soft southerly "feeder" that was bringing on this tiger out of the northwest. It must have driven her clean under, for nothing was ever seen of her or her crew after she passed the Fleetwing.
MONTHS afterwards the lake gave up one body. It had been battered by so many weeks of tossing that it was quite unrecognizable. Even the clothing had been torn from it. All except the boots and socks on the swollen feet.
They brought the pitiful pieces of knitting to a grey-haired woman in Cat Hollow. She dried her hands on a pink-and-white checked apron before putting on her glasses. The pink-and-white checked apron had faded with many washings, since fitting out time in the spring. So too had the grey-haired woman's eyes, since Capt. John H. Henderson passed over the hill.
She looked at the socks and her fingers shook as she held them.
"Yes," said she, "it must be Johnny. I knit them."
One tombstone in Lakeport, gives the names of all the village sailors lost in the Blanche. They are
CAPT. JOHN H. HENDERSON,
WILLIAM SEED, mate.
WM. E. HAYNES, before the mast.
ANNIE SMITH, cook.
The other man before the mast was William Auckland. He came from Trenton, on the Bay of Quinte.