The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Gananoque Reporter (Gananonque, ON), Oct. 28, 1882

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Three Years' Wrecks, Burnings, and Loss of Life

Nearly 500 Human Lives Lost

Though the consideration of the danger resulting from the overcrowding of steamboats has been forced upon the attention of the Department of Marine and Fisheries for a number of years, and means have been suggested to prevent such a state of affairs, no rule has yet seemed sufficiently elastic to suit the conflicting interests of owners on the one hand and the travelling public on the other, or to reconcile such interests to the various conditions of navigation. An approximate rule, based on the length and breadth of the vessel, has been recommended, but as no two vessels of like dimensions in this respect would have the same stability under a load of passengers, it has not been adopted. Several steamboat owners in this port claim a safe capacity of 1,500 passengers, but have not life-saving appliances for the fourth of that number. In fixing a limit to the number of passengers to be carried on any boat, it is but reasonable to suppose that the public should demand life-saving means for each person within that limit. One thing especially should be prohibited, that of overcrowding the upper and promenade decks, as the danger is sufficiently great in the generally unsatisfactory condition of the vessels without enhancing it by overcrowding or overloading. A noticeable defect in the construction of nearly all the lake steamers is that the engine-room is not sufficiently connected by combinings or substantial bulkheads. As at present constructed the combinings are very shallow and the sheeting of inch pine, instead of being made of heavy pine or oak, or better still, of iron, so as to be able to stand the force of the sea after the gangways are washed in by the storm. Such a defect as that remarked caused the collapse and foundering of the steamer Asia, with its accompanying loss of life. There is also great danger of the vessels taking fire from the proximity of the wooden combings to the boiler, the distance between the two being only 18 inches. The firing is all done from the front end of the boiler in the majority of lake boats, the back head being never visited except when requiring cleaning, and as sparks frequently are emitted from this part, the danger of communicating with the inflammable pine combing, eighteen inches distant is imminent. The City of Winnipeg and Manitoba took fire from this defect in construction, and at a less recent period the City of London and Mary Robertson, all trading to Georgian Bay ports.


A brief mention of the more serious disasters to Canadian vessels during the past three years, within the limits of the West Ontario Division, extending from Whitby to the head of Lake Superior, will be appropriate under present circumstances, and will convey to the public an accurate idea of the appalling loss of life which has during that period distinguished travel on our waters.

Losses for 1882

The following are the losses so far during the present year on the waters within the limits mentioned:- The steamer Manitoulin, of the Great Northern Transit Line, took fire when about four miles from Manitowaning on the 18th May. The vessel became a total loss, and twenty-five persons, passengers and crew, lost their lives. The vessel was valued at $35,000, and was only running on her third season. On the 10th June the steamer Vanderbilt was discovered to be on fire when opposite Meldrum Bay, Manitoulin Island. The vessel was beached, and became a total loss, but the passengers and crew were saved.

A vessel supposed to have been the schooner Nellie Sherwood foundered on Georgian Bay on the 20th of September, all on board being lost.

The steamer Picton ran ashore and was wrecked on the night of the 20th September. The crew were all saved.

The shocking disaster of the steamer Asia, with the loss of all on board with the exception of two, is too recent an occurence to require any detailed mention. However it may be proper to state that the loss of life resulting from her wreck could not be much under 120.

Disasters in 1881

The fearful disaster at London on the 24th of May, 1881, by the upsetting of the pleasure steamer Victoria, and the loss of 181 lives was the result of overcrowding the boat beyond her capacity to bear up under such a load. With 200 persons equally distributed on the main and upper lakes the vessel would be safe, with 400 she would be dangerous, and with 600, the number stated to be on the vessel, the majority of those being on the upper deck, the wonder is that she did not upset immediately on leaving the wharf. From the shape of the hull, a flat-bottomed scow, if loaded down under the wharf's edge, there would be little tendency to right if the guard got below the water, which it did soon after leaving the wharf.

The propeller Columbia, of the Collingwood and Chicago Line, foundered off Port Frankfort, Lake Michigan, on the 10th September. The cause of this disaster was not reported. Two boats, one with eight and the other with nine persons, got away from the vessel as she was going down, and of those seven were saved, the others being drowned on the surf. It was not ascertained how many were actually lost in this disastrous affair.

The propeller City of Winnipeg was burned at Duluth on the 19th of July. The engineer reported that the fire started in the wood pocket at the port side of the boiler, at 3:30 a.m. He at once gave the alarm and the fire pump was turned on, but the fire having too much headway all efforts to quench the flames were unavailing, and in a short time the steamer was burned to the edge of the water, four persons who were unable to escape perishing in the flames.

The propeller Jane Miller was lost on Georgian Bay on the 25th of November, with passengers and crew, the entire number being supposed to be about twenty-five or thirty persons. The details concerning the loss of the vessel were exceedingly meagre, as she seems to have gone down with all hands.

The steamer Lake Erie was sunk by collision with the steamer Northern Queen on Lake Michigan, opposite Poverty Island, on the 24th of Nov. during a fog and snow storm. The Northern Queen struck the Lake Erie stem on abreast the smoke-stack. The shock broke the steam pipe near the chest, the escaping steam scalding Wm. Forbes a deck hand, so severely that he died seven hours after the accident. The Lake Erie sank two hours after the collision in deep water fifteen miles from shore. All the hands and passengers on the Lake Erie were taken on board the Northern Queen, but while the latter was making the entrance to Manisque harbour she struck the pier and became a wreck.

Whilst the tug Prince Alfred was on her way from Goderich to Sarnia in July a plug in one of the boiler tubes blew out, causing the death by scalding of a fireman, the son of the engineer, Benjamin Filteau.

The loss of the steamer Waubuno on the Georgian Bay in 1879, with the consequent loss of life is still fresh in the minds of the public, and the more recent loss of the propellers Zealand and Simcoe in November, 1880, the former with all hands lost and the latter with a loss of twelve out of a crew of seventeen.

Loss of Life For Three Years

During the past three years the loss of life on Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Superior through accidents to steamboats and other vessels has amounted to 470 persons, a greater number than those lost during the entire twenty years preceding. Twenty years ago there were but 46 steamers in Canada, Upper and Lower, and the number is now 800. Of course any comparison of the loss of life during recent years with those preceding, without taking into consideration this great item of increase in the number of vessels would be apt to mislead; still the loss of life yearly for the past three years is disproportionate to the rate of increase, large as it is.


The following is the number of vessels lost or broken up during last year:- West Ontario, Huron, and Superior District, 11 vessels, 2 paddle and 9 screw; East Ontario, 5 vessels, all of them screw; Montreal, 2, 1 paddle and 1 screw; Quebec, 3 vessels, 1 paddle and 2 screw; Maritime Provinces, 4 vessels, 3 paddle and 1 screw; Manitoba, 2 vessels, both being paddle; British Columbia, 4 vessels, 2 paddle and 2 screw.

A second officer who has sailed the lakes for fifteen years, generally on schooners, stated to a Globe reporter last evening that he left his vessel recently owing to her unsound condition. She has been inspected by a Government Inspector who has hesitated about granting her a certificate, being well aware of the rotten condition of her timbers, but his hesitancy disappeared as the captain and part owner transferred something from his pocket to that of the Inspector, who made out the certificate without further demur. The whole transaction was witnessed by the mate, who as soon as he secured his wages left the vessel. The timber was in some parts so decayed that it was friable to the touch and would not hold a nail. Such defects were, however, covered by putty and paint so as not to be visible. [Toronto Globe]

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Oct. 28, 1882
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Rick Neilson
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Gananoque Reporter (Gananonque, ON), Oct. 28, 1882