TRAGIC TALE PAINTS PICTURE OF KINGSTON PAST.
Editors note: A stroll through Cataraqui Cemetery by Kingston freelance writer, Peter Hamilton, brought about an
observation which led to several weeks of intensive research. The result of a story that reflects the Kingston of over one and a quarter centuries ago, a community much smaller and, in many ways, much more closely-knit than it is today.
The past 151 years have been harsh to the Gaskin family monument standing in Section E of Cataraqui Cemetery. Its weathered Doric column rests upon a badly cracked and crumbling base.
One has to strain to read the inscription offereq as a warning to the living and in honour of those who perished in one of the worst boating tragedies in this city's history. a tragedy little remembered today.
On Thursday, Aug. 14, 1851, at 10: 15 a.m., the yach JANET, left the port of Kingston under clear skies. On board.
were 35 persons. Most of the group consisted of young people in their '20's from some of Kingston's more eminent families, such as the Mills and the Steacys. They were guests of a Mr. Jenkins, ship chandler and sailmaker of Kingston, and were bound on a pleasure excursion down the St. Lawrence River. The JANET was a new ship especially
built for an upcoming regatta. Her weight was a litte over 19 tons and her sailpower was comprised of a single reefed mainsail and jib.
After a five-hour leisurely cruise, the JANET proceeded toward French Creek. Half a mile from the American side of Wolfe Island, she was suddenly struck abeam by a squall coming down the St. Lawrence.
The crew of the JANET desperately attempted to work the helm but to no avail. The jib sheet would not let go and the vessel careened over. Within three or four minutes she sank stern first in 20 feet of water.
Suddenly, a joyful occasion had been transformed into a living nightmare. Nineteen guests had gone to a watery
Seven of the survivors clung to five or six feet of the yacht's mast that jutted out .of the water. The nine survivors swam to shore.
Two boats from Wolfe Island arrived at the disaster scene within 15 to 20 minutes of the sinking and rescued those still in the water.
An American steamboat, the NIAGARA, helped to recover four of the bodies and bring one of the survivors Captain Gaskin (who lost his wife, sisters, nephew and niece in the accident) and news of the tragedy to Kingston.
Early Friday morning, a Mr. Gildersleeve sent the British steamship, the PRINCE OF WALES to the scene of the accident to assist in the recovery of the bodies. The steamer returned at 3 p.m. and eight bodies were carried to their homes through a dense crowd of sympathizers.
A judicial enquiry was held at city hall. After viewing the bodies, authorities released a statement saying death was by drowning and the rest of the victims could be buried without further delay.
By Saturday, five more bodies had been recovered and brought to Kingston. The city's normal acitivity came to a standstill. Shops closed, vessels in 1he harbour had their colours at half-mast, church bells tolled at intervals throughout the day.
Because of the number of deaths, the burials of the deceased were staggered throughout the day to enable the mourners to attend all the funerals.
The Daily British Whig Called the accident a catastrophe and said. "Every person in the city felt the calamity heartily and bitterly; for every person had lost some dear friend, if not a kind relative."
Many witnesses were called when the Coroner's inquest resumed after the burials. There were almost as many theories as to why the boat sank, as there were witnesses.
Some believed the ship's jib-sheet failure to let go, along with the shifting ballast of iron ore and gravel, caused the disaster. Others, including the ship's builder, believed the JANET was overloaded; she was built to carry six persons safely, not 35 which would render her unmanageable. There were others who held that the ship seemed capable of carrying the group without problem, but with the number of people crowded into the cockpit, the controls could not be managed and that confusion and fear caused 1he loss of life.
The coroner's jury concluded that yachts of the description, of the JANET were unfit for pleasure excursions. By August 20, the last of the bodies had been found and buried.
A month to the day later, the mayor and aldermen released a statement of thanks to the crews of the NIAGARA, the schooner REINDEER, the PRINCE OF WALES, HENRY GILDERSLEEVE; and to the schooner TOM DICK, which had its decK load removed so It could, assist in the recovery of the bodies Thanks also went to the four soldiers of the garrison of the Commissariat and, finany, to the inhabitants of Long Island (Wolle Island) and CIayton for their assistance.
Like the neo-classical monument to the " Gaskin family with its disintegrating stoneworK and fading inscriptions, the memory of this disaster that changed the lives of so many Kingstonians is fading as well.
Where hundreds of mourners once paid their respects in this area of Cataraqui, few people now venture.
from Kingston This Week
Wednesday, September 1, 1982