The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Daily Standard (Kingston, ON), 9 Aug 1917

Full Text





The Lost.

Captain John Smith, Belleville, aged 40.

His wife, aged 32.

Greta Smith, aged 12.

Jack Smith, aged 7.

Clarence Smith, aged 4.

Lorraine Smith, aged 11 months.

Mrs. Neil McLennan, Port Hope, aged 24 years.

George McLennan, aged 4 years.

Douglas McLennan, aged 7 months.

William Watkins, mate, aged 65 years.

George Cousens, sailor, aged 65 years.

The Saved.

Neil McLennan, Port Hope.

William Smith, Capt. Smith's brother.

The Vessel.

The three masted schooner George A. Marsh, of Belleville.

Scene of the Accident.

Lake Ontario, between Nine Mile Point and Pigeon Island.

This, in brief, sums up the sad story of the worst fatality which has visited lake shipping in this district for many a year which occurred shortly after five o'clock yesterday morning between Nine Mile Point and Pigeon Island, when the three masted schooner George A. Marsh of Belleville fell a victim to the terrible gale which swept over the lower lake and after battling against the fury of wind and wave for some time, went under carrying with her twelve lives and about five hundred tons of soft coal, consigned to the Soward's Coal Co. of this city.

The unfortunate victims of the disaster were Captain Smith, his wife and five children; Mate William Watkins, sailor George Cousens, and Mrs. McLennan and two children.

Mr. McLennan and William Smith, a brother of the dead captain, were rescued by Hugh McCaugherty and Ben Wemp of Amherst Island, who put out in a skiff to the rescue.

The survivors were in the water from 5:30 till 1:30 before they were rescued. The 14 year old daughter of Capt. Smith clung to an overturned yawl with the two survivors for over four hours before her strength and she was obliged to relinguish her hold, and thus perished.

Body Discovered

Shortly after noon today a body was discovered on the shore of the lake at Dr. Black's farm, and the local authorities were immediately notified. Coroner Mundell examined into the circumstances and decided that an inquest will be unnecessary.

The body is that of a boy about five years of age, and was dressed in an Indian suit, with combination underwear, and was barefooted. A piece of plank was found on the shore nearby, which might indicate that the body is that of George, the four year old son of Neil McLennan. Little George clung to a plank till within a half mile from shore and the plank found may be that one.

A telegram was sent to Mr. McLennan at Belleville this afternoon, informing him of the finding of the body.

The Smith family was not wiped out by the tragedy as was thought at first, as another son, Harold, aged about seventeen, is living at Belleville and was not aboard the ill-fated craft. A cousin of Captain Smith, Dan Smith of Belleville, came to the city today to seek information of the missing relatives.

The disaster happened during the gale which blew in the early hours of yesterday morning, and the result clears up the uncertainty which prevailed over the city yesterday when stories were afloat, none of which could be verified.

The news of the disaster reached the city by telephone message to The Standard shortly after five o'clock and the sad news spread rapidly. The fact that eight children lost their lives in the disaster added to the gloom which prevailed as the news became known.

Story of Survivor

N. McLennan, who was a sailor on board the ship and who, with the Captain's brother, had a most remarkable escape, told the Standard representative the story of the terrible tragedy. He was greatly shaken and almost prostrated by the shock and disaster - for his wife and two children perished when the boat went down. He told his story with hesitancy, for he was a sore-stricken man.

"We passed Oswego," he began, "about one o'clock in the morning and had a straight run over, for the wind was due south, almost directly behind us. There was a very heavy gale blowing, but the vessel had weathered many another such gale and we never thought anything about it. Some time in the early morning, however, before daybreak, we discovered that the boat was leaking badly, evidently having strained herself in the heavy sea, and was laboring hard. We tried to work the pumps but they could not check the flow of water, and we soon realized that unless something providential happened the vessel was certainly doomed. Accordingly all of us and our families were assembled on deck, ready for any emergency, but hoping always that we would reach shelter or a safe harbor before the boat went to her fate.

The Fatal Plunge

"Suddenly, about five o'clock in the morning when we were just one mile from Pigeon Island and in about twenty feet of water a wave much larger than usual caught us, the vessel gave a sudden lurch on its side, and then took a plunge downward, washing every soul overboard, and sending us all into the cruel, pitiless, hungry water.

Young Smith and I had earlier made ready to launch the yawl boat, and in fact were just launching it when the fatal plunge came. The yawl boat of coarse capsized, but we managed to cling to it, as did some of the others to the wreckage here and there, but in the end their strength gave out and Smith and I were ourselves fast giving out when we were rescued.

Headed For Pigeon Island

"When it was seen that the vessel could not weather the gale Captain Smith determined to make for Pigeon Island and beach the vessel. The water had meanwhile reached the forecastle floor, and was rapidly gaining, but we did not think the end was so near and were totally unprepared for the worst when suddenly, a huge wave struck us and the vessel keeled ever. The next wave caught the quarter and in a moment we were all in the water. The main boom struck and capsized the yawl as the boat went over and a few moments later I grabbed it and clung to it. This was about five thirty o'clock.

Victims Were Near Shore

"Mate William Smith seized it too, and it was then I caught Greta Smith and threw her across the boat. We also clung to the dog. I did not see either my wife, Captain Smith, or his wife or the children then, but shortly afterwards I saw my little son George, "Buster," clinging to a plank. Sometime later I saw George Cousens floating on some wreckage. They were nearer shore than we were, and I watched them in their grim fight against the seas which seemed to be increasing in violence every moment as the day advanced.

Cousens Clung On Till Nearly Ashore

Cousens managed to cling to the wreckage until he reached about a mile from shore when I missed him and I knew that he had gone under.

"Buster" was nearer in shore about a half mile out it seemed to me, and I was hoping he would be able to hang on, but another huge sea struck him and he disappeared. And here the disconsolate father broke down. He already knew that there was no hope for either his wife or his seven-months-old son, Douglas, and the reporter could understand his agony at thus attempting to describe the death of his oldest son.

The Hell and Horror of It All

"You cannot imagine the Hell and the horror of it all - to see your loved ones go down before your very eyes and not be able to lend them a helping hand from the doom that engulfed them. And then you can imagine the further Hell when for six long hours we struggled in the water, clinging to the overturned yawl boat - for you must remember it was not until 11:30 o'clock that we were rescued, while the vessel had gone down about 5.

"What made the situation worse - if indeed it could be worse - was to see that dear girl, Greta Smith, the oldest daughter of the Captain, who had clung to the boat with us for some hours, finally give up the fight and with a smile on her face go down to join her parents and her brothers and sisters at the bottom of the cruel lake. When the vessel lurched and finally took her last plunge, Greta Smith was thrown into the water alongside of me. When I came up she was still near my side and I grabbed her and helped her to the yawl boat, which was floating some distance away, bottom up. How William Smith reached the yawl boat I do not know, but he was there when we two reached there. This was about five o'clock or thereabouts.

Terrific Struggle For Life

"Imagine, then, our struggle for life to cling to this boat in a driving, terrible sea, with the wind rising higher and higher and dashing us about almost as corks. And, imagine, then the awful pathos and terribleness of it to see the strength slipping away from plucky, dear little Greta - the strength ebbing and ebbing and we trying to cheer her up, while, God knows, we knew not the minute we would drop off ourselves. Finally, the end came. As near as I can judge it was about 10 o'clock, after having clung to the boat for nearly five hours, that she smiled her last goodbye at us and without an outcry or a word of complaint she relinguished her hold upon the boat, and sank never to appear again to our eyes. Oh the tragedy of it, the tragedy of it!

Were Finally Rescued

"It was about an hour or so later that help came to us from the two Amherst Island residents who came to our rescue - and not a moment too soon, for we were thoroughly exhausted and I do not believe we could have held on many minutes longer. I tell you it seemed good to us to reach land again and touch old Mother Earth once more."

"It is a terrible, terrible tragedy and it seems more like a nightmare to me - a bad dream - than a reality. I cannot realize it now, and I suppose I will not till I go to my empty home and find the dear ones there no longer."

W. Smith's Story

William Smith, brother of the dead captain, referred but briefly to his terrible experiences. "I have been sailing for many years," he said, "but this experience was my worst. The seas dashed us about like chips and it was all we could do to hold on. Poor little Greta put up a brave fight but it was too much for her. No one will know how it fared with the others, but I guess they were sucked down with the ship, which seemed to melt into the waves.

"My brother was always classed as a first-class navigator, but the leak was too big for us to beat and the water-logged ship wasn't equal to the fight."

Survivors Badly Used Up

Both the survivors were badly used up in their battle with the waves, their limbs being badly bruised and scraped by striking the yawl boat. Both were lame and stiff this morning after their trying experiences.

They paid a warm tribute to the treatment given them by the residents of Amherst Island, and to the splendid rescue effected by Hugh McCaugherty and Benjamin Wemp. Their strength was about gone when their rescuers reached them, and they could not have held on much longer (unreadable line)

Perhaps the most distressing feature of the whole terrible affair is that this was supposed to be a pleasure trip for all on board; for it was the first time this year that the Captain's wife and family or Mr. McLennan's wife and family had been with them. The weather, however, had been so delightful for the past three weeks that, somewhat against their will - for Mrs. Smith was very much interested in furnishing the new home they had built - they were all prevailed upon to go; and those who saw them set out from Belleville say they were the jolliest, happiest party imaginable and were looking forward to a glorious time. That the disaster should have occurred on this, the one and only trip which the wives and children took, seems indeed a remarkable fatality.

A Pathetic Incident

A pathetic incident in connection with the tragedy is that Capt. Smith had just built a new home in Belleville and only last week just previous to their departure for Oswego his wife had ordered the new shades and curtains for the house. This information The Standard learned last night from one of Belleville's leading merchants from whom the goods were purchased, and who happened to be in Kingston and reading the Standard's bulletin at the time the news of the terrible accident was received.

Sailed by Chance to Kingston

How slender a thread upon which the lives of all these unfortunates depended is strikingly emphasized by the revelation that it was just by the merest chance that the ill-fated vessel sailed for Kingston.

As a matter of fact it was intended that she should sail from Oswego for Belleville with a load of hard coal, but after waiting around for this coal at Oswego for ten days and finding none of it coming through - on account of the coal shortage on the other side - Capt. Smith decided to wait no longer and accordingly on Saturday night last he called up Mr. John F. Sowards of the Sowards Coal Co., of this city, and asked him if he could give the vessel a load.

Mr. Sowards thereupon ordered Capt. Smith to go to Sodus for a load of soft coal - some 450 or 500 tons - to be delivered here at Rockwood Hospital. This Captain Smith said he would do, and that is the last Mr. Sowards heard of him or the vessel till he learned, through The Standard, of the terrible tragedy. Mr. Sowards says Capt. Smith was a fine man of about 45 years and a most careful and competent sailor and he says the storm must indeed have been a terrible one to send the ship to the bottom.

The cargo was insured so that the Sowards Coal Co. will suffer no financial loss.

The Ill-Fated Schooner

The ill-fated schooner was about thirty years old and was rebuilt fifteen years ago. Captain Smith owned a half-interest in her and the remainder was owned by Belleville people. It was always considered a seaworthy vessel, but the strain of the heavy sea in Wednesday's storm proved too much for it.

Had Been In Other Disasters

According to reports Capt. Smith had been in a number of marine accidents before, but none of them had heretofore been attended with loss of life. At one time he had been in a wreck on the lake and at another time - some half dozen years ago - the steambarge which he commanded, was burned, catching fire on the lake. The crew was saved by beaching the boat on the main deck (sic). Indeed the star of ill-luck seemed ever to pursue the captain, until now it has set forever for him.

United In Life, Now In Death

What adds to the shocking character of the tragedy is that most, if not all, of the men and women who went down to a watery grave were old friends and neighbors who had for many years lived in the southern part of Belleville. The Smiths and Cousens families were, indeed, related by ties of marriage and more than one generation of them had worked together and sailed together, for their men, as they grew up, took to sailing as naturally as a duck takes to water. As cabin boys, as deck hands, as mates, as captains and as owners, they had sailed the waters of Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte in sail and in steam craft - sloops, schooners and steam-barges - they had earned a hard-won living for themselves and their families, and no one could truthfully say that they were other than able seamen and honest and manly.



The nearest approach in this vicinity to the disaster which occurred yesterday morning in the sinking of the George A. Marsh, happened a little over ten years ago when the schooner Jessie Breck was sunk near Nine Mile Point in a storm somewhat similar to that of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. The Breck was loaded with timber and was headed for the upper lake when one of her hatches gave way and she commenced to take water rapidly. She went down quickly and the entire crew of ten, including Capt. Maskie and his two brothers of Wolfe Island were drowned. The Breck was owned by Mr. Luther Breck, Capt. Booth, and Capt. Maloney of this city. Old mariners in recalling the disaster stated that it was the only one in recent years to occur in the vicinity, and the death of Capt. Maskie and his brothers was greatly mourned in the city where they were very well known.

The Wreck of the Picton

Another lamentable disaster which occurred several years ago on Lake Ontario was the wreck of the schooner Picton in which Captain Sidley and his crew, all from Belleville, perished. After a heavy western gale, which caused a great roll of a sea, the schooner Annandale, with coal for Kingston, left Charlotte on a Sunday, heading for the lower gap. The Picton, which was a very old craft, left shortly after with coal for Belleville, heading for the upper gap, and was consequently almost in the trough of the sea. She was seen from the Annandale to be laboring very heavily, and when a few miles from land she foundered. The Annandale reached Kingston safely, but was badly shaken up.

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9 Aug 1917
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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.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Daily Standard (Kingston, ON), 9 Aug 1917