Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Ghouls on the Beach: Schooner Days CCCCXXXVI (436)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 8 Jun 1940
Full Text
Ghouls on the Beach
Schooner Days CCCCXXXVI (436)

(Johnny Williams, our Master Mariner-to-be graduates from Scows to Schooners]

By C. H. J. Snider

THE DUNCAN CITY rounded the lighthouse on the 14th of November, 1875, in a confused sea which told eloquently how the east wind had fought the snow through the night. Lake Ontario was still all torn up. Down the Island shore, a single mast slanted seaward above a humpbacked white hull, pounding in the surf somewhat beyond the Eastern Gap. It was the Olive Branch of Oswego, her back broken, her prettily curved body with its rounded quarters and clipper bow painfully dissolving into splintered planks and ribs jagged with protruding spikes.

She had discovered the land through the snow at eight o'clock that Sunday morning, and hauled out to weather Gibraltar Point. In the trough of the sea her foremast went by the board, leaving her unmanageable, for she could not set any sail on the mainmast which would permit the vessel to steer. Her captain kept her running along parallel to the shore for another two hours, but a heavy sea swept her deck and tore away her only boat from the davits. At ten she struck a quarter of a mile west of the Eastern Gap.

William Ward, George Garaux, Dennis O'Malley and David Ward all Islanders, hurried to the rescue. So did Tom Tinning, from the city side, with the tug Clarke, and James Simmons, Pat Finnegan, Albert Medcalfe, Thos. Hastings, John Morley and Billy Montgomery, for a crew. Tom Tinning, who saved two hundred lives in his time, was the captain of the government volunteer lifeboat crew, a rival of the Island volunteers. Both organizations were exceedingly sketchy, with little help from the Dominion Government and no cost to the city of Toronto. A third crew of volunteers, headed by Pat Honan, Mike Leonard and Jim Foster— how the Irish used to throng the waterfront when there was dangerous work to be done! — manned the tug Jones, and borrowed a boat from the propeller Shickluna, owned by Sylvester Brothers, wharfingers, at the foot of Church street. Capt. Sol Sylvester was aboard the Olive Branch, coming home from Oswego as a passenger. Tinning's lifeboat was a metal one, bought in 1872 to replace the wooden one provided by the Harbor Commission in 1857, the year Johnny Williams was born.

By the time the others reached the Island beach William Ward, that hardy fisherman, had swum out with a line and rescued three men and the woman cook from the Olive Branch. The crew, huddled on the forecastle head, had floated a hatchcover off on the end of a halliard. After many efforts Ward succeeded in reaching this floating hatch with his line. Honan and Foster waded into the undertow with ropes around them and helped land the two remaining men who were hanging in the rigging. Thus everyone was dragged ashore, wet, frozen, exhausted, but alive—including Capt. Sylvester. He told the compiler of these records about the wreck himself, forty years ago.

This Olive Branch was owned by Bond and Co., of Oswego, and Capt John R. Preston, her master. There was a Canadian Olive Branch, built at Picton and lost off the False Ducks five years later than the Oswego vessel, and under more tragic circumstances. Olive Branch has always seemed to the writer an over-sentimental name for general use but it was once very popular. At this time in the life of Johnny Williams there were thirty-seven Olive Branches on the British Register of Shipping.

Young Johnny Williams and the Duncan City crew knew nothing of what was going on as they went plunging past the disintegrating wreck, for they were too far out to see it, but they heard as soon as they got their mooring lines out on the Queen's wharf—and more too. It was McCorquodale's tug that berthed them at the sheds Col. Bunker, of Oswego, had built for P. Burns & Co. They had had a glimpse of another white hull in the breakers two miles farther east. It had two masts, and they were standing upright, as though the vessel were still afloat. At any rate she was still above water, and lifting to the billows.

This was the third white collier which had left Oswego in company the day before, the Fearless, of Toronto. She, too, had found the shore early in the morning while the Duncan City was heading out into the lake and safety.

Captain Wm. Ferguson had sounded as he drove along, and when he got ten fathoms he anchored. He did not know where he was exactly, but by the time run and the sand he brought up on his lead he knew he must be near Toronto. It was a dangerous thing to do, to anchor a laden vessel in a gale on a sandy shore; she might either drag on to the beach or swamp in the sea running. But there was clay under the sand which made good holding.

The Fearless rode safely until noon. Then she commenced to drag in the cross sea, tossing and rolling fearfully. By afternoon she was bumping the bottom with such force that her masts threatened to jump out of their steps. It seemed only a matter of minutes that she would hold together. She was Captain Ferguson's own property (along with John Bishop of Niagara) but he decided to abandon her while he could still save the lives of his crew. He took a long look at the quarter mile of wild white horses tossing their manes along the great stretch of wind-whirled sand at the foot of Carlaw avenue, and calculated the chances of his yawlboat coming through that boiling pot alive.

"Perhaps, " said he, "we can make it. Get the boat down!"

The crew, who had taken refuge in the cabin to avoid being washed overboard or crushed by the falling masts, gingerly lowered the yawl from the davits, and fended her off from being crushed against the schooner's counter.

"Two men stand by that painter, commanded the captain. "Don't make it fast but hold it in your hands and slack off and haul it back as the strain comes or eases. If you don't the boat will capsize in the seas. Ladies first. Come on, missus!"

The cook of the Fearless, a motherly body, was helped up on to the rail and told to jump into the tossing boat.

"I can't!" she wailed, eyeing the gap which ranged from a foot to a fathom as the yawlboat rose and fell. "Who's to catch me if I slip?"

"I'll catch you, " promised Capt. Ferguson, getting into the yawl himself and preparing to receive the woman. "See how easy it is! Wait till I tell you, then jump. Ease off smartly there!"

A big sea was bursting. Its crest threatened to engulf or capsize the yawl if the painter or connecting rope was allowed to become taut. While the men were slackening it the crash came, hurled the boat back, and tore the rope out of the crew's hands. The captain was adrift in a sixteen-foot boat, in a breaking sea, without an oar to steady or control the craft, for the oars had been taken out, to be passed down later as soon as men were there to use them. He flung himself into the bottom of the boat and drifted for forty yards. Then another bursting billow overwhelmed the craft and she turned bottom up. Wm. Ferguson was never seen again.

It was getting dusk now, on this short November Sunday. Tom Tinning and his cohorts, Billy Ward and his, Pat Honan and his, came plunging across Ashbridge's Bay with the lifeboat, breaking through ice and bulrushes and open water.

A great crowd had already gathered—among them such ghouls of the Brooks Bush gang as had not been hanged or scattered by the murders of young Thomas Soole and John Sheridan Hogan, M. P. P., sixteen years before. John Brown had been hanged for the last crime, but while he was a gangster he was the wrong one. His life was sworn away by two of the women who themselves did the deed. Brooks Bush was up Logan avenue a quarter of a mile above Queen street, and was still a lair for these robbers. They mingled among the crowd with an eye on watches and open pockets; also what ever might wash up on the beach. That is believed to be the reason why Capt. Ferguson's body was never found. The yawlboat from which he was drowned was rolled in half a mile to the westward of the wreck, and the same set of sea and undertow should have brought him in at the same place, living or dead. Perhaps it did. The Brooks Bush gang was believed to have murdered him if he reached shore alive and to have stripped his body in the dark and buried it in the sand and shingle of the shore. Some day yet a skeleton may be eroded by the waves in a period of high water along the front of Simcoe Park. Capt. Ferguson had $360 in his clothes, his freight money for the trip, when he jumped into the yawlboat of the Fearless.

The only light for this deed darkness that November night was a huge bonfire lighted half a mile down the beach abreast of the wreck. The lifesavers had tried and failed. Tom Tinning was a brave man, but he said the surf was still too high. It was his boat, or he was responsible for it, and his crew, and there was nothing to do but wait. William Ward hit him a clout in the head and said he would take the boat from him. Tinning got up from the sand and the two fought with bare fists for fifteen minutes. At last Ward said, "Let's finish this aboard the Fearless!" Tinning said he would make the try, but he was not going to risk anyone else's life. Volunteers insisted on going with him. Four climbed into the boat and all the others ran her out into the water, till the seas burst over their heads. The boat vanished into the darkness and got a hundred and fifty yards when it swamped. Tom Tinning and his men were just able to make back to shore.

All night the bonfire blazed and the beach was watched opposite the schooner. When Monday morning dawned the stout old Fearless was still discernible. She had held together through twenty-four hours of the lake's blitzkrieg, and was about to give up the ghost. Ward and Tinning joined hands and fought their way out to her in a second effort. They picked everyone off — Robert Short, the mate; Eliza Clarke, the cook; James McMillan, Wm. McTaggart, Samuel McLean and Charles Lintock, sailors. They had sheltered all night in the cabin in water up to their waists. Mrs. Clarke and Lintock were almost dead from their sufferings. Soon after her crew were landed the Fearless burst asunder but she remained a wreck on the shore till the ice tore the remnants of her apart. Johnny Williams and his brother Joe visited her in the December moonlight a month later, after she had been stripped of every thing, by the lake, or by salvagers or by plunderers. Her gutted hull was a grisly cenotaph to her dead captain.

Much credit was given Capt. Fitzgerald for bringing the Duncan City through safely where two others perished. The reflected glory fell on his crew. It was a feather in young Johnny Williams' cap that at eighteen he had played a man's part in a manly crowd. Moreover, he had graduated from being a scow sailor. The Brothers was a scow, the Jenny Jones was a scow, the Rover was a scow. The Mary Ellis was not, but she was too small to count for much. "Real vesselmen," as they called themselves, sailors in carvel-built craft of normally moulded form, jeered at scows and scow sailors, and with some reason. Many of the sailing scows were awful traps, fit only to coast from shelter to shelter, although some of the lake scows were fine large vessels, square-rigged and three-masted. Even so, sailors, in small two-masted "vessels" turned up their sun-burned noses at the biggest of the flat-bottomed, butt-ended "scowhegians, " as they called these homely square-built craft. To have made good in a "vessel," as Johnny Williams had, was a step up in marine society. One of the differences in the Duncan City, apart from the fundamental one of build, was that she steered with a wheel, which was the "opposite way" to the tillers of the scow era. Young Johnny learned that "Hard up!" with a wheel ment "Hard down!" with a tiller, and "Port!" meant "Starboard." Very confusing to the young sailor and bewildering to the landsmen. In those days all helm orders were" given as if the vessel were steered by a tiller, that is, the reverse of the direction it was desired that the ship's head should go. Now, by law, all helm orders are given as for a direct wheel. "Port!" means turn the wheel and the rudder and the ship's head, to port, and so on.

Maurice Fitzgerald was promoted to the command of the Jessie Drummond, the big "barque" that had gone across the Atlantic, after this episode. William Ward, according to waterfront myth, was offered a knighthood by Queen Victoria, but modestly accepted a cork belt instead of the Order of the Garter. This was only gossip. Ward did receive the richly deserved Royal Humane Society's medal, and a gold watch from the Toronto Gun Club. Tinning was also suitably rewarded. Many resolutions of the City Council and other important bodies testify to his frequent exhibitions of heroism, and he was presented with among other things, a silver setting for waves moulded in glass, forming a flower stand. He was a son of Richard Tinning, wharfinger and millwright, who was an alderman of Toronto in the early days.


TOM TINNING'S FLAG, presented by the Prince of Wales for Tinning's great victory in the Lachine regatta, 1860. It is treasured by his son, W. K. S. Tinning, chief clerk, Toronto Customs.

TOM TINNING, champion oarsman of Canada, in the 1860's.

THE LATE CAPT. WM. WARD, fisherman and lifesaver.

Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
Date of Publication
8 Jun 1940
Personal Name(s)
Williams, John ; Tinning, Tom ; Ward, William ; Fitzgerald, Maurice
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.6404209355549 Longitude: -79.3715703491211
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.621111 Longitude: -79.378611
Ron Beaupre
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
WWW address
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Ghouls on the Beach: Schooner Days CCCCXXXVI (436)