The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
British Whig (Kingston, ON), 8 Nov 1897

Full Text



Foundering of the Steamer Idaho on Lake Erie.


In Wild Rush Of The Sailors From Bunks.

Buffalo, Nov. 8th - The steamer Idaho of the Western Transit Co., caught in the fierce sou'wester on Friday night, foundered in eight fathoms of water at 4:30 o'clock on Saturday morning, twelve miles above Long Point which juts into Lake Erie from the Canadian shore about sixty-five miles west of Buffalo.

Twenty-one men were aboard of the Idaho when it went down, and nineteen went down to death. Eight hours after disaster the steamer Mariposa of the Minnesota line picked up the two survivors of the wreck, one the second mate, the other a deck hand, William Gill, who were clinging to a spar, and brought them to this port on Saturday night. Both men were in a state of mental and physical collapse.

The Idaho left Buffalo at 2:30 o'clock last Friday afternoon laden with package freight for Milwaukee. The gale caught her before she reached Long Point, but Capt. William Gillies decided that he could weather the storm, so instead of seeking shelter east of the point the Idaho went on. It was not until she had passed the point by a dozen miles that the captain saw his folly. He tried to head the Idaho for a place of shelter. In turning the old wooden steamer careened and a great wave burst over her decks and quenched her fires. Caught in the trough of the sea and helpless, the Idaho sank stern first. The crew, heedless of the captain's orders to go into the hold, dashed for the life boats at the bow, but another wave swept them and the boats into the storm, and they fared no better than the sailor whom they had trampled to death in their wild rush from the bunks to the deck.

The two who live to tell the story were at the bow when the Idaho began to sink, lowering the anchor. The second mate took in the situation and as the bow rose into the air he sprang for the roof of the deck house, calling to Gill to follow him. From the deck house roof they gained the spar and scrambled to the crow's nest and there the Mariposa found them in the morning.

The following are the names of sixteen of the nineteen men who lost their lives: Alexander Gillies, captain; George Gibson, first mate; William Clancy, chief engineer; John D. Taylor, steward, Buffalo; Nelson Skinner, first assistant engineer; Louis Gilmore, watchman; Richard McLean, wheelsman; Robert Williams, wheelsman; A.J. Richards, lookout; Henry Thomson, lookout; Conrad Blanker, fireman; William Gregory, fireman; John Healy, assistant steward; Frederick Miffort, oiler; Edward Smith, deck hand, Rochester, N.Y.; M. Bell, deck hand. The names of three of the men drowned are unknown. One was a fireman, one a deck hand, and the third a porter. The hailing place of most of those lost is also unknown to the steamer's owners. The names of the two men saved are Louis Lajorce, jr., second mate; William Gill, a deck hand, living at 137 Kent street, Rochester, N.Y.

Buffalo, N.Y., Nov. 8th - William Gill, of 137 Kent street, Rochester, was one of the two men saved from the wreck of the Idaho. He is a swarthy well-built man, twenty-three years old, and he has sailed the lakes from this port since he was a youth. He signed as a decker on the Idaho last Friday morning and went out with the boat in the afternoon. He is single and lives, when he is at home, with his parents. He is more intelligent than the average sea-faring man and his story of the disaster was told to a reporter with accuracy and straightforwardness. He was seen yesterday in the cabin of the steamer Mariposa, which boat saved him from death. His story follows:

"The wind was heavy when we left here at 12:30 o'clock on Friday afternoon, but we anticipated no danger, and we thought, at least, that we could run into shelter if the weather got heavier. The sea was big, and she struck us pretty high before we had gone many miles, but so far as we knew our craft was staunch, and, as I say, we looked for no serious trouble. We made poor time, owing to the run of the waves. They struck us forward.

"We hove by Long Point, I judge, about nine or ten o'clock at night, and there was some talk of running of running under the lee of the point for shelter. The captain had a look about, examined the boat and found everything all right and he said we should go ahead. There was no danger, he said. Some of the crew thought different but it was not their place to say so and they took it as any sailor must.

"The waves at this time were hitting us mighty strong, but the boat held her own; and, save for a little wash that went down the hatchway there seemed to be no difficulty. The sky was as queer looking a thing as you could have imagined. The clouds were unusually black, and once in a while the moon would peak out and light up the sea. The wind was almost south as I recollect, but it kept gradually swinging around till it got almost in the west. We got a mile or two above Long Point when things began to look dubious. The captain said keep going and so we had to. We went about as fast as a duck could walk and the engines worked harder every minute. We were about twelve or fourteen miles above Long Point when all hands began to get frightened. Pretty quick we began to ship water and part of the crew were ordered to the pumps. The sea seemed to rise higher every minute and the roaring of the waves made me believe that we got out of our course and had run on a reef. After a little more time the water began to get into the engine room and the fire hold and then, of course, the danger began. I heard the captain, standing forward, call out to the first mate, whose name I can't remember, 'Turn her and get back under Long Point.' This was what we were glad to hear. The sailors took their places, the engines were let out and the boat began to whirl her head lakeward. The waves were monstrous, and it did not need an experienced eye to see that we must get about quickly or go down. Trying to wind around in a sea like that running at that time is one thing that a sea-faring man cares little for. We knew that if we got into the trough of the sea it would be all day with us. Several men were left at the pumps to keep as much water out as they could, and the rest of us watched things to see how we veered.

"We had got our nose pointed diagonally with the seas, when a roller that was a good deal higher than usual swept over us, and swung us into the trough so quickly that we were switched around like paper men. I have no doubt that this one sea carried some of the crew off into the lake. I heard a scream and a howl as it was skimming along our decks, and I also heard the cracking of the front of the deck house and the smashing of some of the cabin windows.

"Once in the trough the waves had fun with us. They tilted us first one way and then another and a good deal of water found its way into the engine room and the fire hold. The captain managed to make himself heard between two waves and he ordered all hands to the pumps. I was one who went. All of us were there but one watchman and the wheelmen. We pumped so hard that, despite the cold and the drenchings we got, we stripped off all our clothes but our coats and pants. We pumped and sweat and pumped and sweat and we were holding our own pretty well. All this time we were buffeting about in the trough, and two or three times I was thrown off my feet. Once all of us were upset and the mate cautioned us to be men. Of course this was unnecessary and still it was right.

"The captain held on the deck in some way and every few minutes looked down on his fellows and asked us if we were holding our own. We replied that we were, but knew we weren't. The water was rising and surely was getting at the fires. If it got into the fires we knew everything was over and we worked as I never worked before.

"On top of all this, and when we thought we might possibly get the craft back into her course, as she should be, one of the pumps gave out. With an oath the first mate ordered idlers to the other pump and warned us to do our best. To make matters still worse the second pump clogged and there we were.

" 'Get the fire buckets and bail for all your worth,' commanded the captain from above and in a moment all the fire buckets available were in the firehold and the men were using them with all their strength. This proved unsuccessful, too. The water poured down on us and inch by inch, right before our faces, it crept up on the fires. Once we held it down and decreased its depth perhaps an inch, but in an instant, and when we were just feeling encouraged, a wave rolled the length of the deck and dropped down tons of water. We could hear it splashing in the engine room, and it kept rising on us till we were in water to our knees. Still we bailed with the buckets, picked ourselves up when the rolling of the ship threw us down and tried to make the best of a bad matter.

"It was an hour after we had turned about that we decided bailing was of no avail. The water was bound to get in at the fires. The firemen threw in coal and kept the beds as red and as fiery as they could, but the water bubbled up closer and closer and finally made a dark line at the base of the fires. In a moment the black line got higher; in ten minutes it was making the fire bed look like a dying fire, and soon afterwards but a small blaze flickered above the water; that was the end. The men rested and while they did so the fire saw its last. The water had conquered it.

"About this time the captain appeared again and ordered most of us forward to get out anchors. We made our way to the forepeak, clinging to the rail or the deck house, or creeping along or sliding up to the rails and ducking when the waves swooped over us. I came near being washed overboard before I had gone twenty feet, and in hanging on to the roping of the side rail I was straightened right out. We all got safely to the front, though.

"Bear in mind that during all this time it was dark. There was not a sign of anything to illuminate. The reflection from the fire hold was no more to be seen and the lights in the deck house and the cabin were out. The boat was rocking and swaying like a hammock, and the waves were washing her length without the slightest resistance. Every one sent her careening and frightened the crew, so we felt like taking at once to the small boats. But it was stick or die, as no small boat could live in such a sea. We got the port anchor out all right and it found bottom. The captain hoped that she would right herself when the anchor caught. She did not do it. We could feel the anchor dragging along and it did not seem to impede the progress of the craft at all. We went round like a great big tub and it was mighty hard work to do anything.

"A few minutes later the starboard anchor was dropped, and that found bottom. It held us a little, and looked for a minute as though our stern would swing and leave our head pointed into the sea. We did get half way around, but another of those whoppers rolled down on us, skimmed past the rigging and left us again stranded in the trough. At this time, while the wave had a lull for a moment, the captain's voice sounded out: 'More line on the port anchor.'

"He expected that if more slack were thrown out the anchor would catch and hold, when the slack was drawn. We were busy at this. Part of the crew were busy with the other anchor, and several of the crew were in the hold when the waves began to sweep over us faster than ever. They did not stop long enough to hear a voice. The captain could be seen once in a while standing forward, but the rolling of the ship would send him sprawling, and he would disappear. Not ten minutes after this the stern of the boat began to go down. Everyone felt it and everyone felt as if they were being electrocuted. It was a queer feeling. The bow rose up and a big wave sloped over the stern and bounded against the uplifted bows, sending a shower of spray that rose nearly a hundred feet in the air.

"At this critical moment a strange thing happened. Imaginative people would say it was intended so we could see one another's misfortune. As I have said, the sky was as black as ink. The clouds were big lumps and they went dashing along like soldiers. All of a sudden a light was

(continued on page 4)


thrown over the scene. I looked up, meanwhile hanging onto the deck house with all my might, and there was a big break in the clouds and the moon was looking out from the hole. It looked like a big silver ball, and the clouds for a long distance on every side of it were made light. To the west you could see that great monstrous rollers, crested with foam, five feet or more high, were galloping toward us. As far as you could see there was nothing but waves. They seemed to be higher than we were. Pretty quickly the cloud got in front of the moon and then it was black. Just as the final light disappeared I saw a man trying to make his way forward. A roller was running toward him and when it was about ten feet from him the light went out and it was all dark again. It was the gloomiest scene I ever saw.

"Just what happened aboard the boat after this I can't tell. You couldn't see anything. Once in a while you would hear a voice, sounding as though it were away up in the hills of Canada. What it said I could not tell. I suppose the friends were shouting back and forth. I had no friends in the crew, and I picked my own course. Everyone was hollering, I guess, but no one apparently knew what anyone said. Four or five of us were in the shelter of the fore peak, we had to do something pretty quick for, as I have said, the stern of the boat was sinking. She made one big dip while we were deliberating what to do and we were washed from our position. Smith, the lookout, a Pittsburg man, the second mate and myself came near being washed overboard, but we caught hold of the fenders and saved ourselves.

"I don't know what became of Smith. I guess the poor fellow was washed overboard. The waves doused us, and when they passed Smith was not to be seen. He had not hollered or I should have heard him. I was all alone. The stern took another dip and I was then forced from my position and I dropped down on the end of the deck house. Right above me, climbing up the rigging, was the second mate. He looked down and said to follow him. I started. The first thing I did was to stick my hand through a pane of glass and cut myself. I got hold of the rigging, however, before the waves got the best of me and I went up slowly but surely. The second mate was just ahead of me. The water was all over us part of the time and it was cold and hard climbing. Finally we got out of reach of the waves and then stopped. From our perch we saw the stern of the boat sink and sink until she hit on bottom. Then the bow began to lower and before long the whole thing was on bottom and the waves were pouring over her as if she were a log.

"I did not see anybody. I thought I saw some of the crew trying to get one of the small boats from the davits, but I was not sure. And if they did they would have been swamped as soon as they put off. One of the waves that came down on us would sink the best small boat that was ever made. The second mate said he saw a man carried off in the hollow of a wave. I did not see any such thing and I have an idea he was imagining.

"The boat sank very quickly after she started. I supposed that we would have company in the rigging but we were the only two there. Some of the others I dare say tried to make it, but were washed away before they got to it.

"Along toward morning it began to hail. The spray from the waves dashed over us, and if we had not been wet it would have soaked us. I worked pretty hard in the fire hold, and when I reached the rigging I had on a pair of shoes, unlaced, no socks, a pair of trousers, with nothing under them, a jumper and a coat. I had no undershirt and no hat. I was clad fit to go on a summer journey, but when the temperature was low and the hail was hitting us, it was uncomfortable. Besides which I was wet to the skin. My friend, whose name I don't know, was clothed about the same as I was. We both suffered. But we knew we had been luckier than any of the rest of the crew, and we had this to be thankful for.

"When morning broke the sea was as heavy as ever and the wind was howling around us. I was below the mate and had my hands clasped around the mast. He was a little better fixed and could use both hands. There was an occasional piece of wreckage to be seen floating in the hollows of the rollers, but there was no sign of a man. We were then sure that of all the crew we were the only ones who had been saved. Daylight had not been with us an hour when we saw a craft on the horizon, coming down the lake. The mate actually smiled at the good luck. He took off his hat and waved it like a madman. The boat steamed on. We could see the smoke from her stacks rising and floating off in the wind. We thought sure her lookout must see us and we had not a thought that she would steam by. But she did. She went straight by and we were then downcast.

"After we had suffered two more hours another puff of smoke told us that another boat was coming and we tried a second time to be light-hearted. You can't imagine how we felt when she went on and on, and never turning her bows towards us.

" 'Our only hope is that some life saving crew hears of us. There is one near here, I think,' that is what the mate said to me after the boat had gone by. He was as sober a man as I ever saw. He was as brave as anyone could be and although he was suffering and almost freezing with the cold as I was, he seemed not to think that we would not be picked up. I was stiff. I dared not unclasp my arms for fear I would fall and be drowned. Our craft was lowering all the time, as her hull spread, I suppose and the waves got so they reached our feet.

"It was one o'clock about when we saw a third stack and a puff of smoke up the lake.

" 'This time,' said the mate, 'we must stop her or die.' With that he began to swing his hat. He told me to wave my arms, but it was impossible. The best I could do was to wiggle my left hand just the least bit, and this took all the strength I had and threatened to plunge me into the water. He did enough for us both and got some excercise for it. He waved toward shore also.

"Sure enough the puff of smoke changed its course.

" 'She sees us,' said the mate in a frantic voice.

"The next fifteen minutes were the most anxious ones I have ever spent. I watched and watched till my eyes ached. I could not believe that the boat was coming for us, but she was. Slowly she came on and on, and in a little while we could make out her hull. The rest was easy. The boat ran up to us and the captain tried to lower a yawl. It was smashed in a jiffy.

"Captain Root did mighty well. He tried twice to run alongside us, but the sea was too heavy. Then he tried to run head-on, but he missed. Four times his boat, the Mariposa, ran around us, and at last her nose bumped against me and the second mate. I found that I could not unfasten my hands. One of the men on the rescuing boat had to pull them off the mast like a lever, and two others hauled me on the deck of the boat. Then the mate got down.

"We got a change of clothes the first thing. Next we got something warm inside of us, and the next day my cut hand was fixed up. I feel pretty well knocked out just now, and who wouldn't?"

Second mate Laforce, the other man who was saved, told a harrowing story to the crew of the Mariposa. He said that in the rush of the men from the hold one of them, a watchman, was trampled to death. The crew were frantic to get out of the place. Six or eight, he said, must have been drowned like rats in the hold. They were not warned of the sinking of the boat. The first long dip of the stern was the first intimation they had that the final danger was at hand, and then they made a grand rush to get on deck. The hatchway was too small to let them through together, and the result was that one of them was trampled to death and several were left to drown.

The Idaho was one of the oldest steam vessels on the lakes. She was built in 1863, and during the earlier years of her existence she carried freight and passengers. A few years ago the Western Transit Co., the corporation which owned the boat, took her out of commission and she lay idle at this port until a month or two ago, when she was again put into commission. She was 220 feet long, 32 feet beam with a net tonnage of 906 and a gross tonnage of 1,119.

During the recent G.A.R. encampment the Idaho was used by the naval veterans as a stopping place. She was called the floating hotel. When the veterans left, the boat was repaired, painted and was put in shape preparatory to going into service. For a number of years it has been said by some vesselmen that the Idaho was not a safe vessel to face a rough sea.


J. Richardson & Son's sloops are up the Bay of Quinte for grain.

The tug Walker left for Oswego today with two barges to load coal.

The tugs Thomson and Walker arrived today with six light barges from Montreal.

The steamer Orion is all right and there was no occasion for alarm. She left Amherstburg on Saturday night.

The S.S. Bannockburn and consorts Selkirk and Dunmore arrived from Fort William yesterday with 170,000 bushels of wheat.

The schooner L. Rooney cleared for Deseronto this morning to enter winter quarters. The captain took James McCrate to assist him.

The schooner Fleetwing cleared today for Ogdensburg with a cargo of shingles. From there she will go to Oswego to load coal for James Swift & Co.

The steamer Hamilton passed down last night at nine o'clock. She called at Swift's wharf but was unable to take on any freight, being already laden down. Five hundred bushels of apples await shipment on Swift's wharf.


Idaho's Fireman Lived In Ogdensburg.

Rochester, N.Y., Nov. 8th - The unknown fireman that went down with the Idaho was named Richards. He lived at Ogdensburg, and was the son of Capt. Richards, of the tug Thomas Wilson, which plies on Lake Ontario.

Nelson Skinner, first assistant engineer, lived at Auburn. He had been an engineer on the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg road and the Lehigh Valley road, but left the service last August.

An Old Mariner's Views.

The steamer Bannockburn with consorts Selkirk and Dunmore came down the northern channel yesterday in making the harbor. In this channel, the better and safer of the two if properly marked, the shallowest spot is covered by four and a half fathoms of water; twenty-seven feet, and save for a small shoal near Snake Island light is free of danger spots. Capt. Geoghegan points out that a range light on the main shore to guide pilots from Nine Mile Point, would make the channel perfectly navigable and would do away with the necessity of using the dangerous southern channel altogether.

Returned From The Coast.

The schooner Queen of the Lakes arrived in port yesterday after putting in the season trading around the Bay of Fundy. The schooner left here last May in charge of Capt. Oliver, an old salt water sailor, who piloted her through to the coast without the least mishap. Capt. Oliver enjoys the distinction of being one of the limited number of pilots who can take a boat from the inland waters to the seaboard. The schooner was engaged in freighting iron ore, coal and general cargoes, and had a very profitable season. J. Richardson & Sons are the owners.

Media Type:
Item Type:
Date of Publication:
8 Nov 1897
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Geographic Coverage:
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.22976 Longitude: -76.48098
Rick Neilson
Creative Commons licence:
pd [more details]
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
WWW address
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.

British Whig (Kingston, ON), 8 Nov 1897