Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Shipwrecked at at 9 -- Never Again: Schooner Days CCCCXXIX (429)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 13 Apr 1940
Full Text
Shipwrecked at at 9 -- Never Again
Schooner Days CCCCXXIX (429)

By C. H. J. Snider

NEXT MORNING the Rover herself appeared at the Williams' front gate, for their old home at Kew Beach ran down to the water's edge.

Joseph Williams, senior, was a visionary but a practical one. He saw, in this tangle of marsh and softwoods, a park which might be to the infant city of Toronto what Kew was to his native London. But it had to be cleared before it could be used, and the clearing of it meant the supply of fuel for steamers, locomotives, factories, stores, residences -- everybody burned wood in 1866. Every wharf had its woodyard where the steamers fuelled and waggons or sleighs loaded maple, beech, pine and softwood for the woodyards, whence it was delivered cut and split for the stoves and furnaces.

There was enough fallen timber around Kew Beach to warm all Toronto. The Leslieville brickyards had used some for their kilns, and George Munroe was cutting on his property; so Joseph Williams, the practical visionary, had bought the Rover in Port Credit to extend the export trade of Kew Beach.

It was a good, wholesome, homely trade, and young Johnny, aged nine, was proud of his part in it.

There was the Rover, looking like a queen to him, though her sails were patched and her bottom was a sidewalk, and her little cabin was just another box like the ship herself. His father moored her close to the beach; they could see her through the trees from the front window of their log house.

Wood had already been cut and piled here and there in the clearings of their place. They carried it down in four-foot sticks and piled it into a big open scow, built like the Rover in a smaller scale, and without a deck, and ferried it out to the Rover, snorting at her anchor as the day's breeze made.

Tom and Johnny, eleven and nine, stayed there to stow the wood in the hold once it had been tossed on board, while Joe and his father went back for more. When it came on to breeze and raised a sea that made it impossible to shove off the laden wood-scow (propelled by one oar thrust over the stern, by an operation known as sculling) two of them might remain on board, with orders to "cut and run" if the wind came in too fresh, and two others would "cut and pile" ashore.

If the Rover were driven on the beach in moderate weather it wouldn't matter much, for she was flat-bottomed and took the sand easily. But it might mean a day's work kedging her off, if she bedded in and had to be freed with shovels. And she might be caught there in a blow and break up. So when her anchor would not hold they used to get her under weigh, loaded or not, and run up to Toronto, or down to Highland Creek, or the Rouge, or Frenchman's Bay, for shelter.

In Toronto their objective was Taylor's wharf at the foot of George street. This was handy to the wood-market up on Front street beside the City Hall, and it was often crowded with little coasters bringing their cargoes a few miles, as the Rover did, wriggling through the breach in the Island shore which later became the Eastern Gap; or with big fellows like the Sea Gull — the white brigantine, that went to South Africa from Toronto with lumber and buggies and dry goods, and came back with a cargo of cordwood from Kingston, after unloading arrowroot and ivory in Boston. The Sea Gull carried 200 cords of wood; the Rover 20.

The breach the lake had made in the Island shore was a godsend to little craft like the Rover, working from the eastward. It was their shortcut, instead of beating all the way up to Gibraltar Point on the Island, and then working two miles to the northward in Humber Bay, to weather the Queen's Wharf channel (marked then by the new red lighthouse past which a hundred thousand cars now whizz daily) and so into the harbor from the west end. Then they would have two more miles to go down the Bay, before reaching the wood wharves around the old mellow red brick city hall.

The breach was made on the 13th of April, 1858, but as little Jack Williams was not quite thirteen months old at the time he wisely said nothing about its importance. The lake burst through the low sandbar, sweeping away trees and the hotel, wharf and outbuildings of the Quinn and Herson families and cutting a gap fifteen hundred feet wide. On May 31st two schooners of some size, the Highland Chief of Frenchman's Bay and the Eliza of Toronto, drawing five feet of water, gingerly worked their way out through the new passage, saving five or six miles by not having to use the old Western Gap exit. Next season there was enough water in the new gap for the Kingston and Toronto steamers to use it, and the harbor commissioners buoyed it. But for years it was unlighted and uncertain, the greatest depth shifting with every storm, and few vessels dared try it at night. The channel was not dredged to uniform depth and 400 feet width, and cribbed and lighted, until 1892, although a pier was begun ten years before. Filling the gap cribs was a lucrative trade for the Rover and other stonehookers and larger vessels like the Fleetwing, Garibaldi, British Queen of South Bay and Starling of Picton, long after the cordwood trade had vanished with the coming of coal.

Fortunes were not made in the wood trade, but there was a living in it. With luck the Rover might make a trip a day to Toronto, for two or three days running. But then there were the headwinds, and the sea on the shore making it impossible to load, and the weather making it impossible to get the wood out and down to the Beach. A trip a week through the season would be more like it. And the soft wood only sold for $2 a cord, though the time came when good maple fetched $8.

Little Jack Williams learned to boil potatoes, clean and fry fish and bacon, and make tea properly for his father and brothers. He also learned to "hand, reef and steer" and to cut and pile cordwood. The Rover was heavy on the tiller, but young Jack became a good helmsman that first season. A liberal education for a child of nine.

And there were the little mishaps and freaks of fortune. There was the time they got up to Toronto too late to unload, and father and Tom and Joe went back home to cut, leaving the Rover on the west side of the slip from Taylor's, to wait her turn, with nine-year-old Jack in charge. Some smart aleck came down the wharf and saw the water shining in the slot in her centreboard box, and rushed up to Charlie Goldring's hotel on the Esplanade with the news that the Rover was full of water and sinking.

She could not sink with her cordwood cargo, but she might burst with its swelling. So all the bar turned out to do Joe Williams a good turn, and they piled her deckload on the dock, and then every stick out of the hold, finding her bottom bone dry.

Young Johnny told them there was no water in her, for she had two pump-wells, one in each bilge, and they would have shown it; but the deed was done, and they all went back to the bar, very thirsty and not well pleased. When Capt. Williams and young Joe and Tom came back they were still less pleased. They found their cargo piled out on the wrong dock, and many a hint at how hard the salvagers had worked to save it. But it was they who had to reload it, cross the slip, and pile it all out again—a day's work lost.

Joe was hurt that fall and had to stay home, so father and the other two boys carried on. They had done well, and could afford a new mainsail, which the Rover assuredly needed. On a grey day in November they started for Toronto, loaded deep and with a big deckload. The Rover was a most unhandy box to get to windward, and when the breeze freshened from the southwest she just went back and forth in her tracks and made no progress at all. So Capt. Williams had to give her sheet; and it blew so hard, and there was so much sea, that he had to run as far as Frenchman's Bay before he could go in for shelter. There they lay several days with westerly winds, till they got an east slant and started for Toronto again.

As they drew out of the bight in which Frenchman's Bay lies the sea was higher and higher and Capt. Williams smelled snow. Not liking either circumstance he headed back for the bay against the new wind, but the Rover's clumsiness made it impossible to regain anything. She wouldn't even tack, that is turn around against the wind. They had lost the little punt they carried, and he was afraid that if the hooker were driven in on the Highlands they would be unable to get off her alive or climb the steep banks.

So he tried to run into the mouth of the Rouge, where there was plenty of water once you got inside, but, then as now, a shifting channel, with a gravel shoal and a sand beach to port and a high bank and boulder bar to starboard. Capt. Williams kept off from the boulders, and the Rover touched on the gravel bar. She tailed around, head to wind, and sagged sidewise into the breakers, a few rods from shore, the rising sea bursting over her and playing havoc with her deckload.

Capt. Williams did not lose his head. To leave his new mainsail thrashing about in the gale meant the loss of the sail even if the Rover was not wrecked completely. So he climbed on top of the cabin to get gaskets around it, and while he was working so a sea washed him off over the gaff. His children could see him carried up the lake by the wash of the breakers. The next sea eleven-year-old Tommy dived from the deckload. He grabbed a cordwood stick as he went and rolled up on the beach with it.

"You left the Rover ahead of me, father, but I got here first," was his greeting as he helped his dripping parent out of the undertow.

Above the rage of the wind father and son could hear the indignant roars of little Jack. He was wet and cold and frightened; but still more angry that the other two should leave him behind. He could swim.

Capt. Williams, with a sailor's foresightedness, had a ball of marlin in his pocket, and by searching the beach he found an old bolt. Wading out as far as he could in the undertow abreast of the Rover, he whirled the bolt and threw it. It dropped aboard, and the nine-year-old grabbed it. He was already sailor enough to know what to do. He made the marlin fast to the end of the peak downhaul, and unrove that good long rope and made it fast around his little waist. Help had come down and a man ran out into the water to get the end of the rope and began hauling him ashore. He was dragged out like a little wet puppy, and his father, with Tommy following, carried him up to old Mr. Brown's house on the Cowan farm on the high bank. Here the kettle was boiling on the fire, and father mixed punch with the hot water.

"I wouldn't give it to that child, " said old Mr. Brown doubtfully.

"I don't want him to get his death-o'-cold," said the ex-color-sergeant of the 100th Regiment.

So Johnny Williams had his first, and almost his last, drink of liquor. As a captain he always had it aboard for emergencies. As a good sailor he saw to it that these emergencies did not arise often.

When they all got dried out they began the long trudge home—fourteen miles along the Kingston road.

The wind lulled, the sea died down, and they got back aboard the Rover in a few days and threw out the cargo from the hold and got it piled up on the beach, too, well above high water mark. Then they hove the lightened Rover off the beach and hauled her into the creekmouth, up close to the railway bridge. Here they stripped her and left her, coming back for her and her cargo in the spring.

This was the nearest our future master mariner ever came to shipwreck in sixty years in steam and sail.

By work like this Joseph Williams and his sons cleared their homesite, kept their mother and sisters in comfort, and had $400 saved up by the end of four years.

"I so often think of my parents," says the youthful Johnny, now in his eighties. "They worked hard, and had a hard time raising a large family. But it was a happy time."


From a painting by Owen Staples presented to the present City Hall by the late John Ross Robertson the old red brick city hall is the building with the cupola and pediment to the left. St. Lawrence Market shows to the right, with wood wharves below it. The schooner is Capt. Thos. Kidd's Sophia. In the foreground is the old Peninsula Packet horsepower ferry, which survived to within fifteen years of the time of the Rover's wood trade of 1866.

Looking West Over Old Toronto of the 1860's Wood Wharves of Old Toronto Waterfront

Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
Date of Publication
13 Apr 1940
Personal Name(s)
Williams, John
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.8175 Longitude: -79.0925
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.80012 Longitude: -79.11628
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.65011 Longitude: -79.3829
Ron Beaupre
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Shipwrecked at at 9 -- Never Again: Schooner Days CCCCXXIX (429)