The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Daily British Whig (Kingston, ON), 21 May 1853

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p.2 The Burning of the Ocean Wave

The British Whig is engaged in the task of publishing all the melancholy facts connected with the loss of the Ocean Wave, as they are revealed to the Coroner's jury. The first day's evidence on the inquest chiefly referred to the share which the steamer Scotland had in the matter. We must say, that it appears entirely to exculpate the master of that vessel from the charge of inhumanity and negligence which was made against him. He came up to the scene of the disaster just as the schooner Emblem was starting for Kingston. The captain of that vessel (Belyea) was hailed from the Scotland, and asked what vessel was burning; he answered, and said in addition, "stand in for the shore, as I have heard cries, and you may pick up some person." Three witnesses, however, swore that these words were not heard on board the Scotland, and Mr. Thomas Oliver, the purser of the Ocean Wave, who was on board the Emblem, said to Captain Belyea, that he did think that he could be heard, and the captain agreed with him. It is also stated that the morning being fine and the water smooth, any person floating between the wreck and the shore might have been seen from the Scotland, that the captain did look with his glass, and seeing none, he continued on his course.

Crowded as our columns are we make room for the evidence, in full, of the captain and second mate; the former was up and the latter was on duty when the fire broke out, and are therefore, able to tell more than any of the other witnesses. Judging from their evidence there does not appear to be any doubt as to the origin of the fire. The mate says that sparks from the chimney were flying freely at the time, and that the hard wood which was burning makes very hard cinders, which might fall on the vessel in stead of passing astern. The fire broke out, not within the saloon, as was at first disposed, but on the promenade deck. In the light wood-work on this part of the vessel, covered in paint, a cinder must have found a lodgement, and after smouldering awhile and spreading under the upper timbers, the flames burst forth with such speed and violence, that the efforts of the Mate to extinguish them were altogether useless. We will not now enquire whether all was done that could have been done by the officers of the vessel, to prevent its total destruction. In moments of extreme excitement like that, they are indeed few who can command at once all the faculties of mind and body. Very many men, perfectly competent to perform their duties at ordinary times, by peculiar circumstances are totally unfitted for their discharge - yet it is only by trial under such events, that their capacity can be ascertained. We must not judge too harshly of persons circumstanced as were the officers of the Ocean Wave when the fire broke out. There is another part of the enquiry, however, the pursuit of which will lead to more important results, and to it we call the attention of the public, and of all steamboat proprietors more particularly.

Judging by the evidence, it appears perfectly plain that there was nothing in the nature of the accident to the Ocean Wave which rendered it inevitable, nothing which might not have been prevented by proper precautions. Sparks fell from the chimney, and the fire not being observed, the boat was destroyed. The facts themselves indicate either that sparks should not have been permitted to fall on the deck, or else such a watch should have been put upon them as would have prevented any injury to the vessel. It is perfectly possible by the use of network coverings to the tops of the chimneys to prevent the issue of cinders, and it is also possible by a vigilant watch to prevent these cinders, which are generally very light and soon extinguished, from doing harm. If there had been a watchman at that part of the Ocean Wave when the fire first broke out, he would have had no difficulty in extinguishing it with a bucket of water. Why there was no watchman at that part of the boat, we are not informed by the evidence. The Mate mentions that he did not see the "special watchman" at the time of the accident, but we are not informed if his post of duty was on the promenade deck. This officer appears to have feared some danger from the sparks and to have examined the promenade deck before the fire broke out - sufficient evidence that a watchman was required there, and also that none had been provided. The mate's station was on the look out at the wheel-house, he returned to it as in duty bound, the cinders were unwatched, and the flames extended. The conclusion is necessary that sufficient precautions were not taken for the safety of the vessel and the lives which it bore. Captain Twohy of the Passport, gave his evidence before the inquest. In cross-examination, by Mr. Rowlands, he gave it as his opinion:-

"That had a proper look-out been kept on board the Ocean Wave, a fire originating from a spark on the hurricane deck could not have progressed so far as to have enveloped the vessel in flames from side to side, and rendered all escape by boats hopeless."

Captain Twohy also said that he knew of nothing in the Ocean Wave to make her more liable to take fire than any other vessel of her build, and the necessary result is that almost all the steamers on the lake are subject to exactly the same accident as the unfortunate vessel, and that her fate should be viewed as a warning to all. It will be for the benefit of the proprietors to give some assurance to the public that the danger by which 34 (sic) persons lost their lives will, in future be guarded against. If people believe that the ordinary incident of the fall of a spark on the deck of a vessel may lead to their instant destruction, there will be few travellers on our Lakes save those who are compelled by necessity of business. Our steamers have generally been admirably well managed, their commanders have been of a highly respectable class, and but few accidents have occurred attended with the loss of life. The Ocean Wave is in fact the first great calamity which has befallen a Lake Ontario steamer, and we are therefore more startled to find upon what very unsafe ground we have been resting. The absence or inattention of a watchman might at any time have sent many more to their death than suffered in the Ocean Wave. In some of the American ports we believe that steamers are compelled to carry the chimney gratings to avoid the danger of fire to the buildings on shore. We think that it is now time for the Canadian Legislature to compel all vessels in our waters to do the same, in order to avoid danger to the boats and those that they carry, as well as the shores which they approach. A large warehouse in Kingston was, a short time ago, set on fire by steamboat sparks, and in Prescott, still later, an accident occurred of the same kind. An act appears to be the only effectual remedy for the evils whch arise from this cause.

As to the particular case of the Ocean Wave, we trust that the Kingston Coroner, and his jury will continue their investigation, by which they are doing the public good service. [Globe]

* The above remarks from the Globe are pertinent, and such as the British Whig would have made, were not the Editor the Coroner.

The attendance before the Coroner's jury, of Captain Henderson of the Georgiana, or that of any of his crew, has not yet been obtained, owing to the almost impossibility of summonsing them. From the Chatham Planet, it would appear Captain Henderson has also made public his statement as follows:-

That about 1 o'clock in the morning he discovered a light to windward about 4 miles off. Was at first uncertain whether it proceeded from a fire on shore, or from a burning vessel. He showed it to the 2nd Mate, and after a minute's examination concluded it must be a Steamer on fire. The Georgiana was immediately hove around, and made for the spot. When within the distance of a mile the burning vessel was distinctly visible, the shrieks of the unfortunate persons on board and the noise of the steam clearly heard.

Having got near the Ocean Wave, Captain Henderson discovered the Emblem hove to, at a short distance to windward. He hailed and asked why the Capt. had not dispatched a boat in aid of the sufferers, and requested no time to be lost in so doing. At this period the vessel was completely enveloped in flames, rolling upwards, and curling over the sides to the water's edge, rendering it impossible to discover any object on board. The Emblem immediately lowered her boat, while Capt. Henderson brought his schooner to anchor, and sent out the long boat with the 2nd Mate and two hands. Supposing the Georgiana too far to windward, the anchor was tripped and she dropt down with(in) a few cables' length of the burning vessel. The long boat then made for the stern of the Ocean Wave, when nine persons were discovered hanging near the water's edge, of whom one was already dead. The Purser was among the number, and though again and again requested by Mr. Terroll to come into the boat, he peremptorily refused, 'till all were saved, and it was only then he allowed himself to be rescued from his perilous situation. Such conduct as his - brave and self-denying in the hour of danger, nobly and generously devoted to the safety of others regardless of his own - should not be soon forgotten, but be made the subject of public testimony of approval, and be gratefully remembered by those whom he assisted to save from death in its most awful and agonizing form. The Mate then pushed off for the Georgiana, and having put the Purser and the seven passengers on board, he returned again to the wreck; Capt. H. gave him a rope and told him to throw it any he might discover on board the Ocean Wave, in case the flames would prevent him from approaching sufficiently near to lay hold of them. He then took off Mrs. French, and requested Capt. Kuyer to come in, who refused to do so, 'till his wife could also be rescued. At this time the smoke was so thick around the boat that Mr. Terroll had to push off for fear of being suffocated. He immediately returned and got Capt. Kuyer and his wife on board and brought them to the Georgiana. Mrs. Kuyer was dreadfully burned. The boat then pushed off a third time, for the wreck and rescued the only remaining two that could be discovered; thirteen persons were thus snatched from inevitable death by the daring intrepidity and unwearied perseverence of this one man. The Leander came alongside after all were off, and remained near the Ocean Wave 'till she sunk. This was about 9 o'clock A.M. The Georgiana also hovered around 'till the same hour, hoping to be able to save some who might still chance to survive amid the burning ruins. Capt. Henderson is unable to say whether the Leander picked up any as he could not get within speaking distance. The Capt. of the Georgiana offered to take the few whom he and the crew had so nobly saved to Kingston, but finding that the Emblem was bound for that Port, he put them on board that vessel and proceeded on his course.

-son born to wife of Capt. Putnam of steamer Ottawa.

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21 May 1853
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  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.22976 Longitude: -76.48098
Rick Neilson
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
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Daily British Whig (Kingston, ON), 21 May 1853