The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, NY), April 10, 1927

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Many Mysteries hang on Sinking of The George A. Marsh

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest -
Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum.

The song of the pirate bold as related by Robert Louis Stevenson promises to resound over Ontario's billows in the vicinity of Sodus in the coming summer. A chest of gold said to be emerged in a shallow portion of the lake in that neighborhood is expected to be the object of a search by numerous fortune seekers. All the allurement of the old time treasure hunt is offered, and no doubt will recall to the minds of many the passing of the black spot, Long John Silver, Black Dog, Captain Flint, and other romantic figures of fact or function.

The recent death in Harrah, Oklahoma of John Wesley Smith, and the apparently well authenticated fact that he formerly was the skipper of the ill-fated schooner George A. marsh, has revived the stories which were current among seafaring men who made their living on the Great Lakes prior to a decade ago, that in shallow water, near Sodus, likes submerged a chest of great value, and that the locality of the treasure was lost with the sinking of the schooner George A. Marsh and the long accepted belief that Captain John Wesley Smith had foundered with his craft.

Mystery with Mystery

The story of the sunken treasure is a mystery within mysteries. What was the conversation between Captain John Wesley Smith, of the George A. Marsh and the captain of the good ship, City of Dresden, just before the Marsh set sail for Kingston, Ont. , on what proved to be its last voyage in August, 1917? How did Captain Smith who was mourned for lost, turn up in Oklahoma, where he died early this year? Did a German bomb send the Marsh to Davy Jones's Locker?

All figure in the weird tale of Captain Smith, who has a number of friends in this city among the old freshwater tars. Included in this number is Jacob Ackerman, of No. 35 Atkinson street, who saw Captain Smith shortly before he ran up the jib and topsails on his final voyage.

The schooner George A. Marsh had spread her canvass to the winds on August 8, 1917, bound from Oswego to Kingston, with a load of 500 tons of coal. A few hours out she ran into a furious squall, and after battling with the elements for a number of hours, foundered off Pigeon Island in the night with a loss of eleven lives. Neil MacLellan and William Smith were believed to be the only survivors. George Cousins, another member of the crew, reached shore on a floating case but died of exposure soon afterward.

But where is this lost treasure? No living man is in possession of that knowledge, it is believe, although it is believed that it lies in shallow water somewhere between Sodus and Oswego.

Read what Don Smith, a young Oshawa, Ont. , man has to say on this subject.

"My father warned Captain Smith not to venture out on the voyage from which the ship never returned. 'There is a bad storming and your schooner has only sails, whereas we have steam,' father told Captain Smith.

"It was about noon of the day when the big storm broke and I was lying on the deck of my father's ship, the City of Dresden and Captain John Smith of the Marsh was there, too. He seemed greatly worried about something when my father came up.

Would Split Fifty-Fifty

"The began to converse in low tone and I heard mention of a large sum of money, I believe it was $50,000, that was in the lake. I could hear them wrangling about it, and then heard Captain John say they would split it fifty-fifty. As I was only 16 years old at the time, I was not interested a great deal in the controversy until I heard my name mentioned.

"My name was used in connection with the recovery of the treasure and I gathered that I had been selected to dive for it upon our return from the trip we were to make that day. I became interested, and imagined all sorts of things about finding hidden treasure.

"But Captain Smith never came back. For that reason, I am anxious to get in touch with Horace Smith, son of Captain John Wesley Smith, who I believe is now living in Toronto. It is my hope that he may find something in his father's possessions that will give us a clue to the whereabouts of the submerged treasure. At the present the only clue is that it lies on the American side, as we were to seek it on our return. "

Not only is the exact location of the treasure a mystery, but also is the manner in which it happens to be there. Had Don Smith been more interested in the conversation between the two captains, he no doubt would be able to shed some light on this phase of the story. Today, he professes to know nothing of the original source of the treasure and cares less. His chief concern lies in finding something that will give him the key to the present location. But to return to Jacob Ackerman.

"You know," said Ackerman, "there's something peculiar about that money but if Captain John Wesley Smith ever said the money was there, it's there to be sure as you're a foot high. The captain wasn't an imaginative person. He was a man of few words, but when he did say something, he knew what he was talking about.

"If the sinking of the George A. Marsh had happened five years later the money might easily have been accounted for through the activity of the rum runners and hijackers that now navigate the waters. Of course there has always been some smuggling going on, but Captain Smith, himself was never a party to any of it. he was as square a shooter as ever trod a deck. For that reason, I doubt if the treasure was ever involved in illicit trade. If it is there, I prefer to believe that it is the life earnings of some old navigator who boarded his money and didn't believe in banks and who may, upon his death bed, have advised Captain Smith of its location. "

The news of the death in Harrah, Oklahoma, on February 22d of this year of a John Smith, connected him with the skipper of the ill-fated schooner, through a Masonic connection. But how did Captain John Smith escape the wrath of the storm?

"All the others were supposed to have drowned. If Captain Smith did escape it, it is not likely that he would have cared to face the consequences of what might have been seemed mistakes in judgment, nor would the skipper of a British ship care to face his old friends and explain how he had been saved while his wife and five children, another woman and three members of his crew were sacrificed to the wrath of Ontario's waves. "

Horace Smith, son of the dead captain, firmly believes the man who died in Oklahoma was his father. "My father was an excellent swimmer," he said, and as he had navigated the waters where the boat went down for years, it is quite possible that he was able to locate shore. There were only three of us left after the tragedy, Margaret, William and me. Margaret married Neil MacLellan shortly after the wreck. "

The connection between the John Smith who died in Harrah, with the skipper who was believed to have lost his life in the storm ten years previous was made by Ben Wilson, of Harrah Lodge, F. and A. M. , who was the confidant of the man now dead. The story of the meeting of the two is simple.

"One day a man came to me in Harrah," said Wilson, "poorly clothed, friendless, and without funds. He told his story in a simple, straight-forward manner, and his name, but little of his past life. he said he wanted to start for the folks back home, but mentioned no one's name. Being impressed by the man's candor, I staked him nearly ten years ago, and before he died, he was completely out of debt and had his business in first class shape. he ran a flour and feed business, owned an ice dock, and had a freight line to his property and seven trucks on the road.

"A short time ago he again came to me as his confidant, and said: "Ben, I am failing in health and I wish you to do another favor for me when I am gone. Please notify Miss Margaret Smith of Belleville, Ont. , as well as the Masonic Lodge of that city. I also wish you to guard as zealously this secret as you have done the others in the past. "

The above story was related by Horace Smith, who declares the description of the dead Harrah man clearly resembles that of his father, with two exceptions, the color of the hair and the weight.

"Father's hair was black, but the John Smith of Harrah had gray hair. That would be natural as ten years have elapsed since the disaster and his disappearance. The John Smith of Harrah was heavier than Capt. John Wesley Smith, but there again, I believe father would take on weight after retiring from the rigid life that he led on the lakes. "

According to advices from Harrah Mrs. Neil McLellan, as Miss Margaret Smith, was named sole beneficiary of the dead man's estate, which is valued at $3,000. Let Neil MacLellan, one of the two known survivors, relate the story of the last voyage of the George A. Marsh.

"We left the Big Sodus* at about 9 o'clock in the evening with a cargo of slack coal for Kingston. The night was clear. The George A. Marsh was a windjammer of about 140 tons register,# carrying a net cargo of about 450 tons. She was a typical style of the inland water ship of that time, a three master, carrying a foremast, mizzen mast, and main mast with the usual rig of mainsail, jib and topsail. She rode easily coming out of the harbor and directed her course to Kingston. She carried a crew of five, three deckhands, a mate and a skipper. The skipper's family were also on board.

"For three hours we enjoyed good weather, but a terrible storm broke out at midnight. The skipper, judging discretion the better part of valor, ordered the crew to shorten sail. It was about this time that the leak was discovered, a leak so persistent no effort on the part of the crew seemed able to stem it. The pumps were immediately put into action, but could not keep up with the inrush of water.

"For five hours we battered toward port. Finally as a precaution, the under part of the weather bulwark was slashed away to allow free running to the waves. Shortly after, the skipper decided to try and beach his vessel on Pigeon Shoal, where everybody could be saved.

"But the end came sooner than was expected and the water-logged vessel running with both booms out on the port side, rolled right over to port and foundered. There were two boats but neither had been prepared. The vessel was about forty rods from shoal water when she foundered.

"In the wild confusion which ensued when the vessel suddenly went over, it is very hard to say exactly what did happen. Some say a German bomb may have caused the disaster, but I believe this was due more to the fact that it was during the war period. I remember one boat, carried on the deck, hammed under the boom and then got free. I managed to seize Greta Smith, a 12-year-old daughter of Captain Smith, and tried to save her. With Bill Smith, I managed to get to the top of this boat, to which we also pulled Captain Smith's dog.

"The ship foundered at 2 o'clock, and it was 9 o'clock in the morning that Benjamin Wemp of Amherst Island about fifteen miles off, saw the boat and with the help of fishermen led in the rescue work. We had drifted before the wind for seven hours. But poor little Greta Smith was lifeless from exposure. "

Media Type:
Item Type:
*Other accounts state the vessel left from Oswego.
#Records show the vessel, built at Muskegon, Mich. in 1882, was 205 net tons.
The passenger steamer "City of Dresden (C. 126197) Built at Walkerville, Ont. , 1872, 193 tons, 93x23x9 wrecked near Port Rowan, Ont. , Lake Erie, Nov. 18, 1922.
Date of Original:
April 10, 1927
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement:
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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Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, NY), April 10, 1927