The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Belle Wilson (Propeller), C80953, aground, 15 Nov 1886

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The BELLE WILSON Ashore - A Thrilling Experience In A Snow Storm On The Lake
      Caught in a Snow Storm - Losing the Rudder - Attempting to Steer With a Drag
      Heroic Efforts of the Captain and Crew
      Driven Back Repeatedly When Close to Port and Finally Beached at Ford's Shoals
      Early Sunday it was reported that the well known Picton steamer BELLE WILSON had gone ashore at Ford's Shoals about four miles east of the city. This was corroborated by the appearance of Capt. James Collier, who had walked in from the scene of the wreck and gave the first account of the transaction. This morning a Times-Express representative went to the scene of the disaster. He found the WILSON lying on a gravelly beach at Ford's shoals, head on to the beach and lying easily. She was at the west end of the shoal with about five feet of water amid ships and so near the shore that in quiet weather she could almost be boarded from the beach. The roads by which the scene of the disaster could be reached were execrable, especially in the city, where they should have been the best. The Times-Express man got aboard by the aid of the breeches buoy which fitted him very closely, and his course from the shore was watched with much interest by the spectators on the shore and on the barge. Arriving on board Capt. James Collier and mate Andrew Bougie of Picton were found and readily gave information in regard to their thrilling voyage.
The BELLE WILSON, loaded with barley at Napanee and Deseronto, carrying 11,800 bushels left Deseronto at 1 p.m. Friday with a crew of eight men, all of Picton, and Mrs. James Collier, as cook. The wind was northeast when they sailed, no snow, and clear weather. They ran to the eastward until under the lee of the Main Ducks. The wind had freshened and was blowing hard. At 6:30 p.m. the rudder post was carried away, below the ducks and the casing. The steamer was then between the Main Ducks and the Galloup's and the snow was coming in blinding clouds and it was freezing hard. The crew bent a foresail and tried to keep her away but shortly after the foresail blew out.
At this time it was blowing a perfect gale and nothing could be seen through the clouds of blinding snow. A jib was bent and they tried to keep her head off and the rudder being disabled, they rigged a drag with 600 feet of line and a log, and tried to make it serve as a rudder, the engine working all right. When they had arrived within four miles of Oswego as nearly as they can make out - for it was impossible to see anything - they tried to make the harbor but failed. They then got her head to the sea and ran up the lake about ten or twelve miles from this port when they came about again under the jib and made another effort to reach Oswego. At 3 p.m. on Saturday they saw the shore and something which they now think was the windmills on the boulevard.
The steamer was close in shore and they tried to work off but not succeeding in this, let go the big anchor at 5 o'clock and it held. They let out chain and worked the engine all the while and the steamer rode quite easily until 3 o¦clock Sunday morning when the chain parted. Just before this happened they could see Oswego light plainly. When the chain went they started down the lake and again within three miles of port when the steamer swung around and in spite of all they could do started up the lake.
It is thought that at this time the line on the drag got entangled with the crew and rendered the drag useless. When near Ford's shoals they let go the anchor, but this also failed and she broached to and went on the shoal, which is a flat rock with about four feet of water. They got a boat under the lee of the steamer and got Mrs. Collier on board with the crew and everybody got safe to land.
What was their surprise as they started for the shore to see the steamer rise over the reef and come rolling in and they had scarcely landed when she was also on the beach and soon lay at ease, the water dashing over her. We cannot close this account without saying a word for the actors in this adventure. Captain Collier was everywhere and did everything possible to save his vessel. Mate Bougie says he has sailed thirty-seven years and has never encountered such a sea or storm as that through which the WILSON passed. The men had nothing to eat from Friday night to the time she struck. Mr. Charles Goyette, the engineer, stood at his post for 18 hours without sleep or food and it is due to his heroic efforts as much as any man on board that the crew reached shore alive. The engine worked continually until just before the steamer went on the shoal.
The BELLE WILSON has traded between the Bay and this port so long she is well known. She is owned by Capt. James Collier, James Gillespie, Walter Ross and Stewart Wilson of Picton, and is valued at $10,000. There is no insurance on the hull. The cargo is badly damaged and Captain Collier things it is valued at $10,000. There is no insurance on the hull. The cargo is badly damaged and Captain Collier thinks it is all wet as the bulwarks were stove in and for a time the sea made a clean breach over her. Others who have looked at the wreck think that a portion of the barley will be found all right. It is impossible to say at present whether the vessel can be got off but at the the time the representative of this paper left her she was apparently in good condition. If the sea does not get up an effort will be made to get her off at once.
      Oswego Daily Times - Express
      Mon., November 15, 1886

The Wreck Of The Belle Wilson - A Thrilling Story by Captain Collier - Thirty-Six Hours Drifting on the Lake.
Early yesterday morning word was received at this city that the steam barge BELLE WILSON was ashore on the beach inside Ford's Shoal about four miles west of this city. The sea was very heavy and it was impossible to do anything to relieve her. The crew consisting of Captain Collier and seven men and the female cook reached shore in the yawl.
A Palladium reported visited the scene of the wreck this morning. The captain and crew, with the exception of the cook, were aboard preparing dinner. The boat lies with her bows about twenty five feet from the shore. A long line has been made fast to a tree and over this has been rigged a sling by means of which the Palladium reporter was hauled on board the barge. Captain Collier made the following statement:
We left Desoronto at 1 o'clock P.M. Friday. The wind was blowing fresh from the nor'east, but the weather was clear and we saw no sign of snow. About 9:30 while between the Ducks and Galloups, the rudder post twisted off below the decks in the casing. We immediately set the foresail to help her off and got her before the sea. We had just begun to move off nicely when a blinding snow storm set in, the gale increasing to a hurricane and in an hour and a half after the foresail was set it was hanging in tatters from the gaff.
We then bent and set a jib with the hope to get her before the sea. She would not steer and we took a seven and a half inch hawser, six hundred feet long, to the end of which we tied a big log of wood, and passed it through the after shock block, with which we endeavored to steer her. The engines were kept constantly working just enough to keep her head to the sea. Several times during Friday night she got into the trough of the sea and she rolled and pitched terribly. I never experienced such a night, and never want to again. The snow was falling very thick and soon the decks and rigging were covered with ice. To add to our hardship the exhaust pipe and whistle pipe on the boiler broke off filling the cabin with steam. I don¦t know where we were at daylight Saturday morning. About 11 o¦clock we got the around and headed her for about where we thought Oswego ought to be. About three o¦clock the snow cleared away for a minute and we picked up land above Sheldon's Point.
We could see trees and a large wind mill. I could not tell whether we were on the east or west side of the river. We were pretty well pretty well in, and I gave orders to point her up the lake and try and keep her off the shore. It was useless trying to fetch the harbor in our condition and I thought if we could keep her off the shore it would be a much as we could do. About five o'clock Saturday afternoon I let go the big anchor about six miles west of where we went ashore.
About 10 P.M. the wind shifted around to the northwest and was blowing fully thirty-five miles an hour. We kept the engines constantly working to ease up the chain, but it was no use and about three o'clock the chain parted. We could see the light at Oswego plainly and I thought I would try and get near the harbor. We worked her down until about three miles out and a little west of the harbor when in trying to get her around she took the wrong cant and was going for the shore. I managed to get her head around into the sea and worked her up to about two miles off the shoals. The whistle was kept constantly blowing for assistance but even if it had been heard no tug could have lived in the sea that was running. About 4 a.m. yesterday morning the line with which we had been trying to steer got foul of the wheel and the engines had to be stopped. The second anchor was then dropped, but held for only a minute or two, when the chain parted and we were carried helplessly along towards the shoals which we struck about 5 a.m.
      As she struck the shoals the seas washed over her and smashed in the bulwarks on the starboard side, and tore the doors off the engine room, filling the fire place. After she struck she came side towards the beach and we launched the yawl on the lee side and got ashore, the barge following quickly after. The crew were worn out with work and had they not gone ashore when they did the could not have weathered the storm but a short time longer, as the fuel was nearly gone.
      The captain and mate speak of the highest terms of the engineer, Charles Goyette of Kingston. The crew had not eaten a mouthful from the time they left Deseronto until they breakfasted yesterday morning at Fruit Valley.
The WILSON is owned by Capt. Collier, James Gillespie, Walter Ross and Stewart Wilson of Picton. She was valued at $10,000 and was uninsured. The cargo consisted of 11,800 bushels of barley consigned to Gaylord, Downey & Co. of this city. it was insured. The WILSON is lying easy today and Capt. Collier thinks she can be got off when the wind goes down.
      Oswego Palladium
      Monday, November 15, 1886

Salad For Saturday - The bravery and the reckless daring of the average lake sailor has long been proverbial and many a thrilling tale has been printed of his exploits. They laugh at danger, and so fascinating is the life they lead that is very rarely that they can be inducted to give up their avocation and settle on land, even after they have earned a home and accumulated enough wealth to keep them and their families from want.
The lake sailor's life differs from that of the ocean tar in a great many respects. To begin with, their calling is far more dangerous. On the ocean, when a ship is overtaken by a violent storm there is plenty of room in which to maneuver. She can run before the gale for days and weeks if necessary, while on the lake, shelter must be found in a few hours' run. There are sunken reefs, rocky coasts, many small islands and harbors that are difficult of entrance.
Vessels are sailed on the ocean scientifically. On the lakes not only the Captain, but his officers and crew must know every island, every light, the exact location of every reef - every rod of coast, ever point of land - and they must know it as familiarity as they know the rooms and passages abut their homes. One cannot go aboard of a lake vessel and learn navigation by the use of charts and instruments as is don on the ocean. The required knowledge can only be obtained with months and years of active experience.
While a lake captain could take his vessel to the ocean and with a little study, ship a green crew and sail his vessel to England, France or China with perfect safety, so far as a knowledge of the water is required, it would be simply impossible for a salt water captain to come to the lakes and navigate them with a green crew. I do not mean to reflect upon the abilities of the ocean sailor, but the fact is that the lake sailors are far ahead of them in the qualities that go to make up the real sailor.
Very many ocean seamen regard the lakes as little fish ponds. Often these fellows come up this way "on a lark" to show our "land-lubbers" how to sail. They invariably return with increased respect for the lakes and lake sailors. A good many years ago an ocean captain was engaged to command a new vessel that had been built at Oswego. he came here full of bluster and exhibited contempt for the lakes.
The vessel he was to command was very staunch and strong. I believe he brought part of his crew with him and the rest he made up from among lake sailors. One fair day he sailed for Toronto with a cargo. After getting well up the lake a storm came on. It found the ocean captain with all his canvas set, and, so great was his contempt for lake winds that he refused to shorten sail, believing that his vessel with his good management could withstand anything. The lake sailors knew the treachery that lurked in the storm clouds, which continued to increase in blackness, and they remonstrated with the captain.
He became furious, it is said, and refused to guard against the force of what he termed an ordinary ocean sailing breeze. Well, to be brief, the result was that a puff of wind more heavy than the rest, capsized the good vessel and all on board except two persons perished. That ended salt water experiments on this lake for the time. The wind may blow with greater force on the ocean at times than on the lakes and of course it "kicks" up a heavier sea. But at the same time there is less danger from the wind or the sea on the ocean. On the lakes the wind is puffy and does not blow as steadily as it does at sea. And then the waves follow each other in quick succession.
If a deeply laden schooner on the ocean happens to be engulfed with a big wave, and have tons of water poured upon her decks, she has plenty of time to shake it off and recover before the next swell comes along. On the lake it is different and that is why so many of our deeply loaded craft founder. A six, ten, or twenty foot wave rolls onto a vessel and before she can rise from the trough of the sea and throw off the water, another, and perhaps to or three big rollers come aboard of her. If a deep laden vessel happens to broach-to in a heavy sea the chances are very much against her recovering herself. The deep, long swell of the ocean is far from being as dangerous as that stirred up on the lakes by a 40 to 50 mile gale. But I have drifted away from what I intended to talk about when I began. I could not help but admire the courage and dare-devil performance - I cannot call it anything else - of those Canadian sailors who faced that terrible storm of wind and snow a week ago tonight in their attempts to cross the lake. It required considerable spunk to tow out of a snug harbor into one of the blackest of nights in the very teeth of a blinding gale of wind and snow; with the thermometer below the freezing point and with huge white-crested waves rolling in, tossing the little ships about in a manner calculated to appall the stoutest heart.
It would be impossible to put on paper a true picture of the night and the situation on board those vessels. Go out in the street and face a storm of frozen snow, driven along at the rate of 40 or more miles an hour. That is bad enough. But imagine yourself on the deck of one of those schooners, towing out in the face of that storm where there are no trees and no buildings to curb the force. The vessel careens over almost on her beam ends, the wind whistles through the rigging with a wicked sound and huge clouds of spray thrown into the air as the vessel plunges into each on-coming wave, blows into your faces and freezes to everything. The din of the storm is terrific.
You cannot see twenty feet ahead out into the darkness and the lights from the town behind you are quickly shut out. Above, behind, ahead, all over, is an inpenitrable blackness. That was about the situation that night. Was it not quite an undertaking to start in search of a harbor 60, 70 or 100 miles away under these circumstances? It is any wonder that out of so large a fleet, the storm brought disaster to some of them. Had you been on board one of these vessels the adroitness and quietness with which the sailors managed them would have astonished you. The captain did not have to stand on "the quarter" with a big trumpet, bellowing out his commands above the fury of the gale. No big, burly mate stood about with his big boots to repeat the commander's orders and accompany them with a kick at a seaman. None of that. You could have been obliged to keep your ears wide open to hear a single voice.
Every man knew his place-his duty. Everything goes like clockwork. They are all brave, hearty, hardy fellows and such scenes as I have described, that would terrify an ordinary person, are not regarded with the first tinge of fear by them. Of course sailors who man the vessels trading between Oswego and Canadian ports are not subject to as much hardship as those who sail the upper lakes, but they take great chances and it is not often that these Canadian skippers are caught "in a hole." The greater number of them are young men who have sailed all their lives, and they have earned their papers by years of experience and not through favoritism. When a man obtains a license to sail a vessel in Canada he must be thoroughly qualified in every respect.
One of the best sailors that ever walked a deck is Captain "Joe" Parsons who sails the schooner HERBERT DUDLEY of Kingston, Ont. his vessel is one of the staunchest afloat but I am afraid that Captain Joe will ask too much of her some time. A few years ago Captain Parsons made two trips between this port and Kingston after winter had set in and after the lights along the lakes had been extinguished for the season. he made the ventures against the protests of his friends, but luck favored him and he came out all right.
A week ago today he crossed the lake from Kingston to Oswego in a heavy northeast gale and blinding snowstorm. he astonished all the sailors in port by sailing swiftly into the harbor just at dark, when the snow was so thick outside that one could scarcely see a vessel's length ahead. A less competent man could never have found the harbor in such a storm and the slightest miscalculation would have wrecked the vessel. He left the wharf at Kingston while the gale was at its height, and it is said that his wife and friends entreated him not to attempt the passage.
Joe thought nothing of the trip and spoke of it in the hearing of the writer in the most commonplace manner. A week ago tomorrow hundreds of people stood upon the shore and watched a large fleet of these little Canadian vessels enter the harbor. The sea was tremendous and at times nothing would be visible to the watchers on the shore except the topmasts. Nearly every vessel came into the harbor more or less damaged, but the sailors could not see anything in the performance to attract hundreds of people to the beach.
They did not seem to realize the danger they had passed through. Everyone of these Canadian captains is the hero of many a thrilling episode. The plucky fight made by Captain Collier to save his steamer, the Belle Wilson, in the furious storm of last Friday and Saturday, shows that he is also made of good metal. His steamer was heavily loaded with barley and the steering gear gave out when fifty miles out from Oswego. With a forty-mile gale behind him, in the midst of a thick snow storm and heavy seas dashing over his vessel, most men would have made for the nearest beach, intent if possible on getting himself and crew safely ashore.
But not so with Captain Collier. he rigged a drag over the stern of the steamer, similar to those sometimes used by disabled ocean steamships and attempted to find Oswego harbor. In the darkness and the blinding storm this was impossible. Captain Collier, from Friday night until Sunday morning, waged the pluckiest kind of a fight against the elements in an effort to save his ship and her cargo. It was useless to attempt to anchor and the only hope lay in keeping her out in the lake until the storm let up sufficiently to allow them to be seen by the tugs in the harbor. With a fierce gale blowing on shore, nothing to steer with except an old log hanging over the stern, every wave raking the steamer fore and aft, and the roar of the storm drowning every commanded, this was no easy task. Several times during those thirty-six hours the steamer was almost in the breakers, but by extraordinary exertions she was headed into the storm again, and then, by putting on all steam, would work out some distance before sheering toward the shore again. After the crew had worked in this manner from Friday until Sunday morning without food, the steamer went ashore in spite of their efforts. She nearly foundered a score of times and had she not been a staunch vessel could never have lived as long as she did. Captain collier will probably never have another such experience and live.
Speaking of the wreck of the BELLE WILSON reminds me of the thrilling experience through which Mr. L.L.Sherman passed while attempting to get an account of the mishap for his paper, the Times-Express. Mr. Sherman drove to the scene of the wreck at Ford's Shoals in company with a Palladium reporter. The bow of the steamer was some distance from the shore and the sailors had rigged a "sling" on a rope fastened from the steamer to a big tree on shore. When one of them wished to land, he fastened himself in the "sling" and his companions hauled him ashore by means of a small rope worked through a pulley. It was not a very pleasant performance, and when the reporters reached the shore, in order to see the captain, they had to be hauled on board in the same manner. The Palladium man went first and reached the wreck all right. Mr. Sherman regarded the "sling" with a good deal of suspicion.
Tremendous waves were rolling on the beach and the rope was not very high above them. The weather was extremely cold, and a bath was not at all desirable. It was by more good luck than anything else that prevented the Palladium man from getting a thorough ducking, but after he had mad the passage safely, the sling was returned to the shore and Mr. Sherman climbed in. he is not much of a sailor and in getting in he tangled the ropes all up in his arms and legs. The sailors on the steamer were signaled to ¦haul away_ and the news gatherer began his perilous trip. he reached about the middle of the rope in safety when the sling became ugly and refused to budget another inch.
Mr. Sherman hung in mid air with the huge breakers rolling under him. He had a cigar in his mouth but he bit the end off in his desperation and it fell into the lake. His hair raised up until it lifted his slough hat off and that blew away inshore toward a swamp. The wind twisted him around and tangles the ropes worse than ever. Suddenly a huge wave larger than the rest pushed the barge a little nearer shore. The rope slackened, and the same wave reached up to Mr. Sherman's middle.
There was a wild shriek and still a louder and wilder one as the next wave reached up still higher. If ever terror was depicted in a man's face it was in Mr. Sherman's as he yelled lustily for help. What would have happened had not a sailor shinned out on the rope, hand-over-hand, and untangled the reporter will never be known. He says the near wreck can go to blazes for all he cares.
      Oswego Palladium
      Sat., November 20, 1886

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Reason: aground
Lives: nil
Remarks: ?
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Geographic Coverage:
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.45535 Longitude: -76.5105
William R. McNeil
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Belle Wilson (Propeller), C80953, aground, 15 Nov 1886