Maritime History of the Great Lakes
When the "Jessie Breck" Rolled Over: Schooner Days CXLIX (149)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 25 Jul 1934
Full Text
When the "Jessie Breck" Rolled Over

Schooner Days CXLIX (149)

MRS. THOMAS MACKIE, young wife of the new captain of the lofty Kingston timber drogher Jessie Breck, left her father's home on Plum street in the Limestone City with a light heart on Saturday, May 17th, 1890. Her husband's ship had been sighted from Portsmouth, flying homewards on the wings of a strong sou'wester.

The Jessie Breck was manned entirely with Wolfe Islanders, and half of these were Mackies, with homes around Marysville on that long stony island which splits the St. Lawrence between Kingston and Cape Vincent. The captain's wife, who had been visiting her parents in the city, hurried forth in glad haste to catch the ferry for Garden Island, which snuggles close to Wolfe; for there, at the timber coves, the Jessie Breck would moor to unload her cargo of heavy oak sticks, which would be formed into rafts for Quebec.

Mrs. Mackie's heart was light with the buoyancy of relieved anxiety. She and Tom had married as soon as he was twenty-one and got his mate's papers. That was thirteen years earlier. Only this last winter he had passed his examination and gained his captain's certificate. He had been first mate of the Jessie Breck before, and on the first of this March he had started to fit her out as captain.

This voyage had been a long one. As soon as the Breck was fitted out he had to take her to help raise the wrecked steamer Armstrong. Every vessel concerned in that job had met disaster. The schooner Gaskin had been sunk at Brockville through one of the pontoons running through her bottom. The steamer McArthur, which assisted in the raising, was burned to the water's edge at Collins Bay. The "Armstrong hoodoo" had become a byword on Lake Ontario, and idlers had coined the rhyme:

"The Breck's

The next."

It was a silly saying, but it added to the anxieties of young Mrs. Mackie over her husband's first command.

The Jessie Breck was only now completing her first voyage. After helping raise the Armstrong she had gone on to Toledo on Lake Erie, to load square timber for Garden Island. Mrs. Mackie's anxieties had been increased by the report which had reached Kingston that one member of the crew had left the schooner in the Welland Canal because she was leaking so badly. Those timber droghers were often heavy on the pump, because the great sternports through which they loaded were under water when the deckload was piled on.

The Jessie Breck was still a young vessel—she was built in Port Dalhousie in 1873 for her owners, Breck and Booth, of Kingston, and they had spent $2,000 on her only last season, after she had been dismasted in a gale. She had never lost a man.

But a year before this, almost to the day, the timber drogher Bavaria, of Kingston, Capt. John Marshall, had gone down off the Galloo with all hands—eight, the same as the Breck carried. Capt. Mackie, mindful of this, had, before sailing, taken out insurance in the Ancient Order of United Workmen, and had persuaded one of his brothers, Joseph, who went as mate, and was also a arried man, to do the same.

All this had made Mrs. Thomas Mackie very anxious, and it was with a glad heart that she had hurried out on the first word that two schooners had been sighted away up the lake, running for Kingston, and one was sure to be the Breck. The other, it was thought, was the Grantham, in the same trade.

When she got to the waterfront she found the waves washing over the wharves, even in the shelter of Kingston harbor, and a gale blowing which made the Pierrepont ferry's passage to Garden Island problematical. Out beyond Nine Mile Point Lake Ontario was herd after herd of white horses, all in a lather; and in that smother, miles away, she could catch a glimpse of two dancing dots, one of which bore all she prized most in the world.

As a sailor's wife, Mrs. Mackie knew that her relief was premature; her husband's ship was not yet in port, and had still a bad half-hour ahead. But when the ferry at last reached Garden Island and its sheltered water she was not prepared for the frantic dismay depicted on the faces of all the Wolfe Islanders who had hurried across from Marysville.

The Breck and the Grantham were both lost, ran one story.

No, it was contradicted; one vessel and disappeared, and the other was still to be seen battling the gale further up the lake.

No, came the report again, both vessels could be seen, but one was on her beam ends. Which it was none could tell.

Workmen in Booth and Breck's yard had sighted a schooner which they were sure was the Jessie Breck, climbing the backs of the huge rollers under a press of canvas, with another big schooner miles astern of her. She was laboring frightfully, and while they were adjusting the focus of the long yard telescope she vanished. They sent a message to Capt. Booth in Kingston. He besought every tugman in the harbor to rush and investigate, but no boat could face the roaring sou'wester.

Telephones were a rarity at this time, and Capt. Booth fell back on the telegraph, and wired to Garden Island, where the timber tug Hiram A. Calvin lay ready to drop down the St. Lawrence with a tow. She cast off her lines and ploughed across to Kingston, picked up Capt Booth from the huge crowd gathered on the wharf, and shouldered her way westward into the angry lake.

When the Calvin got as far west as the Batteau Channel between Wolfe Island and Simcoe they saw squared timber floating. A man ran up the Calvin's rigging—she had a tall foremast—and sighted something awash about three miles above Horseshoe Island. Further out in the lake they could see a schooner laboring under storm sail, but making good weather of it. This was the Grantham. Off the Horseshoe it was blowing heavy, and the sea was running high, but the wreck lay outside the breakers, with her spars pointing towards Simcoe Island. Something was holding her; she was not driving in with the seas.

The Calvin pushed her bluff bows through the rollers and came up with the wreck. She was lying on her side, so far over that her rudder was out of the water, swinging to and fro as she rolled.

There was no question of it being the Jessie Breck; Capt. Booth could read the name on the stern.

Her masts were under water, but with each roll they would whip up, displaying dripping sails, fully set, but split in long ribbons of black wet canvas. Then whack! They would roll under again, with the crash of falling oar-blades, beating the lake with impotent lashings.

The deckload of timber was gone, some of it floating loose to leeward. The bulwarks had been washed out. The deck had burst up. The cabin had been torn away, or shoved off by the shifting deckload. The yawlboat was gone. Even its davits had disappeared, under the battering of the sticks of timber. There was no sigh of any one, alive or dead, on that dismal wreck, wallowing in the trough of the sea. And there was not a cent of insurance on her.

The Calvin searched the lake for miles around for survivors clinging to plank or spar or timber, or cast up on any of the islets which here crowd the foot of the lake, and found no one. On lonely Snake Island, in the mouth of Kingston harbor, a light blazed forth as she her side, so far over that her ruddersteamed slowly back when darkness settled. This gave hope that some castaways had reached land; but when the island was explored not even the blaze could be discovered.

There was no hope left.

The Jessie Breck had drowned her entire crew:

Thomas Mackie, Wolfe Island, captain, in his 35th year.

Joseph Mackie, Wolfe Island, his brother, mate, 30;

Marian Mackie, Wolfe Island, their sister, cook, 28;

James Mackie, Wolfe Island, another brother, sailor, 24;

William Mullins, Wolfe Island, sailor, 60, leaving a widow and three orphaned daughters;

John Mullins, Wolfe Island, sailor, his son, 20;

Donald McDonald, Wolfe Island, sailor, 20, but a veteran of two previous shipwrecks. He was in the Norway when the Bavaria was lost, and in the Clara White when she was burned.

The eighth lost in the Jessie Breck was either Frank George, a French or Italian sailor who shipped out of Kingston, or the man who took his place, if, as was supposed, he was the one who left the schooner in the canal because she was leaking.

Before the captain could get back, from Mrs. Frank Dunlop, wife of the lighthouse-keeper on Nine Mile Point, above Kingston, poor Mrs. Mackie had learned the last details of the disaster.

Mr. Dunlop had watched the schooner, through his telescope, and learned that she was in distress. Leveling the glass for his wife he called to her to keep watch while he ran to send messages for help. The vessel, waterlogged in the great seas, was staggering under a press of sail to reach, if possible, the bar which thrusts out from Horseshoe Island. A mile more, ten minutes longer, and she would make it.

Through the powerful glass Mrs. Dunlop saw what happened as plainly as though it was going on in the lighthouse. Four men were pumping for dear life, their arms going up and down at the backbreaking task like steam pistons, though they stood in water up to their waists, in the well of the deckload. One or two others, perhaps the captain and one of his brothers, were grinding at the wheel, exerting all their strength to square the vessel away before the following seas, but in spite of their efforts she would broach-to on them, and almost roll over. Yet they would hang to the spokes, neck-deep, and swing her off again. She would careen down till she seemed on her beam ends, and then, recovering herself through the efforts of those master hands at the helm, would square away out of the trough and rise upright and shoot for a quarter of a mile on the crest of a boiling breaker. Then, falling back into the trough, she would lurch over sidewise again, and again recover her feet. Then she would suck back into the trough once more and almost roll over, and again they would recover her feet.

In the hope that she might prove more manageable under shortened canvas two other men, probably Capt. Mackie's brother the mate and a sailor, went to lower the mainsail and the flying jib. Just as they did so the vessel, full of water, rolled down for the last time.

She never came back.

Her spars went completely under water, and for a moment Mrs. Dunlop could no longer see her, she was so far submerged. Then the deck load floated off and she rolled back a little, and the horrified watchers could see five men, four clinging the rail and one clambering into the rigging.

Another lurch, and the vessel almost disappeared. Mrs. Dunlop then saw three men on the rail, making their way aft along the side towards the cabin. The man in the rigging was still there. He was waving his hat towards the shore. For three-quarters of an hour she watched them, as the hulk disappeared and reappeared. One by one they vanished. The man in the rigging was the last to go.

When the gale died out on Monday the Hiram A. Calvin and the tug Chieftain got alongside the Jessie Breck. When she capsized one of her anchors had broken adrift. By chance it took such a grip on the limestone bottom that they had to send a diver down to get it free. That was what had been holding the wreck and keeping it from drifting on shore. After the anchor was released the two steamers towed the waterlogged hull into Kingston Harbor.

All one winter, forty years ago, and more, there lay at the foot of old West Market street, here in Toronto, a red-oxide hull without lines or spars. She had manifestly been a full-rigged schooner in her time, for the chainplates for foremast, main, and mizzen were prominent in her sides. It was evident, too, that she had been a timber drogher, for she had hinged ports in her stern. A lot of work was done on her in the winter, new decks, new bulwarks and new cabin, and in the spring she blossomed out with the name "H. M. STANLEY" in yellow letters on bow and transom. Stanley, the explorer, was still in the height of his fame.

Most appropriately, the refitted H. M. Stanley followed the ice out of the bay on a hundred fathom towline astern of a dark brown propeller or steam-barge bearing the name Africa upon her chubby cheeks.

The pair never came back to Toronto. The Africa was lost in the fall of 1895, with all hands, thirteen in number. She fell into the trough of the sea and went down, parting the towline. The H. M. Stanley came out alive through the gale which swamped her consort, but was driven on the beach of Lyall Island in the Georgian Bay.

"Told you so," was waterfront comment. 'Takes more than change of name to change a Jonah. The Armstrong hoodoo is strong yet."

The H. M. Stanley was the hull of the Jessie Breck, renamed.

And a staunch null it was, despite the hoodoo; for, as late as 1925, the "H. M. Stanley, formerly Jessie Breck," appeared in the Dominion marine register as a barge owned by the Morden Transport Co. in Midland, Ont.

The Brecks were for many years one of the great ship-owning families of Kingston, and the firms Booth and Breck, and Calvin and Breck, were widely known as ship builders and timber dealers. The Calvin enterprise, based upon Garden Island, exported millions of feet of oak and pine, and even built square-rigged ships on Lake Ontario for sale in England. Some time soon you shall hear of their barque Garden Island, and her ventures abroad.

The three-master Jessie Breck commemorated one of the Breck daughters. The two-masted Marion L. Breck commemorated another, or possibly her mother.

The Marion L. Breck was rebuilt at Garden Island in 1863, and was in commission as late as 1907, when she was lost on the Bear's Rump, in Georgian Bay, with a cargo of brick. Her bones are still visible there. She was a venerable vessel, for when she was re-christened in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Breck, seventy years ago, she was already on to her first quarter century. The Marion L. Breck was originally the brigantine William Penn, built at Garden Island by H. Roney in 1840 or 1842 for the firm of Calvin and Breck according to Thomas' Marine Register of the early '60's. Her dimensions are there given as 298 tons register, old measurement; 127 feet overall, 23 feet 5 inches beam, and 11 feet 9 inches depth of hold; deep for her length and time.

The Jessie Breck, built ten years after the rebuilding of the William Penn, was 13 feet 6 inches on deck, 23 feet 4 inches beam, 11 feet depth of hold and 364 tons register


Mrs. W. Boyd, 84 Centre street, Kingston, Ontario, writes:"I am a reader of The Telegram and enjoy Schooner Days. I have an old Kingston paper of 1890 telling of the wreck of the Jessie Breck about nine miles from Kingston. If you would like to look it over you are welcome."

Thank you Mrs. Boyd. Herewith is what we know of the Jessie Breck, helped out by the Kingston Whig and Schooner Days records.


Justice must be done the master of the vanished Maggie Hunter, whose mysterious fate was recounted in last week's Schooner Days.

"He was no wild man from down near the foot of the lake," said Mr. W. T. Gray, of Kendal avenue, to The Telegram, "but a fine, burly, good-natured Irishman, born near Loch Crew in West Meath, near Dublin. I knew him well, for he came out to Canada about the same time as my grandfather, who arrived here just before the Mackenzie Rebellion.

"Captain Frank Nixon was his name, and he lived west of Spadina avenue, on a little street south of College. He may have had a fine flow of language when occasion demanded it afloat, but he was a man of good education and refinement, and great personal charm and I've listened for hours to his stories of the sea without hearing one word that would make a lady blush. He was one of the best.

"I've often heard him boast there was no place he would be afraid to go with the Maggie Hunter. He was immensely proud of his vessel, and his confidence, as it turned out, was his ruin.

"For years after the Maggie Hunter was lost there used to be a drawer or shutter from her cabin - I forget which, for I was only a boy then, and this was sixty years ago - on view in the bar-room of the hotel at the southwest corner of Peter and Queen streets. It had been picked up after the vessel vanished. The place was kept by a man named Hunter, and I think the lost schooner was named after his wife or daughter."


The JESSIE BRECK lying in Port Dalhousie among an upbound fleet in the 1870's, shortly after she was launched. Near her, to the left, is the steam-barge Africa (then painted white, later brown), which, although not connected with the Breck at this time, towed her twenty years later when she became the barge H. M. Stanley.

The MARION L. BRECK, snowed up in Heron Bay, on the north shore of Lake Superior, during the C.P.R. construction days of 1883-84. With her are several vessels intimately connected with that great work in the wilderness, carrying supplies for the camps, contractors' plant, and material for the first railway to span the continent.

Schooner GRANTHAM, which survived the gale in which her consort the Jessie Breck capsized.

Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
Date of Publication
25 Jul 1934
Personal Name(s)
Nixon, Frank
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.200555 Longitude: -76.465555
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.15012 Longitude: -76.5161
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.22976 Longitude: -76.48098
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.190833 Longitude: -76.543055
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.18342 Longitude: -76.4327
Richard Palmer
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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When the "Jessie Breck" Rolled Over: Schooner Days CXLIX (149)