Maritime History of the Great Lakes
The EMERALD Mystery: Schooner Days XIII (13)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 25 Apr 1931
Full Text
The EMERALD Mystery
Schooner Days XIII (13)

Magistrate O'Connor's mention last week of big profits in the "last trip in the fall," when he was a sailor, was seasoned with the reminder that there were big losses, too. This recalled to another "sailor of the sail" living in Toronto something which happened twenty-eight years ago, but is still fresh in the minds of such vesselmen as survive.

1903 was the year the Polson works at the foot of Frederick street completed the $150,000 steel dredge Sir Wilfrid for the Dominion Government. She left Toronto for the seaboard one summer day in tow of two tugs. Her sixty- foot spuds stuck up like chimneys. Spuds are great timbers which are lowered to the bottom to hold the dredge in position while at work. In a hot whiff off Port Hope the $150,000 dredge, topheavy with her hoisted timbers, went over on her side. In a few seconds the tugs had nothing but chopped tow lines. She had filled and sunk in deep water.

The fall of 1903 was remarkable for its long trips. The St. Louis took twenty-two days to bring 700 tons of coal from Fairhaven: and when Will Wakely, of the S. H. Dunn, was talking with me about the two weeks the Emerald had already taken for her trip there the only concern we then had was that Frank McMaster's freight would not allow any profit.

Everybody on the waterfront wished big moustached Frank McMaster well.

He had taken hold of the Emerald when she was on her penultimate legs, and made a ship out of her again. She was an old time “barque” built in Port Colborne in 1872 for the timber trade: 139 feet on deck, 24 ft. beam and 12-ft. in the hold. Plumb stemmed, blulf-bowed, square and deep, with hinged ports in her stern and under the counter for taking in the square timber, and stave-ports in her sides. Her original double-topsail and topgallantsail, on the foremast, had been displaced by squaresail and raffee. Her mizzenmast got shaky at the head and was stiffened by extra spreaders in the crosstrees. The foremast went at the heel and had to be sawed off and blocked up six feet on the keelson. It had been fished at the head. Her bowsprit was about done.

Most of her life the Emerald, as was natural from her name, was painted green, with a red bottom. She was that way during the long time she was one of the Mathews Line with her name and their's in yellow letters on her quarter. When McMaster got her he painted her white, from the water up.

She looked like a plain white ghost, for McMaster had no money for frills. Every dollar the schooner earned for him went back into her; with the result that three years after he had commenced paying for her he had her "clear,” her insurance standing was raised and she had won back into class A2, the highest then enjoyed by any lake schooner. She was a rare example of the come-back an example only possible through diligent thrift and hard work.

By the end of 1903 her hull was good. Her spars still passable. Her lower sails were new. During the fall Frank bought a timber for a new bowsprit. He carried it lashed on deck, intending to unship the old one and rig the new when he laid her up for the winter.

Everybody on tie Emerald was a zealous worker, from cook to captain. The former, a Mrs. Wright was earning a living for her two little children In Oswego.

Capt. McMaster was Deseronto born: had sailed all his life, and at length bought this schooner and began payments on a home in Toronto to which he had just brought his family. He had three boys, the middle one, Walter, a dental student, going to college here. Walter was slender and dark-eyed; he sometimes sailed with his father, and he had gone with him on this Fairhaven trip, to help out. He did not want to do so. Something inside said no. But he went.

This last trip to Fairhaven for a "light” load of 600 tons of soft slack for the old Toronto Electric Light Co. at the foot of Scott St., had been undertaken on the possibility of a fast run making a nest-egg for the winter's overhaul.

The steam barge Van Allen came in the day after our talk. Van Vlack, her master, said the Emerald ought to be along any time. She had got to Fairhaven, loaded her soft slack, and on the way home had put into Charlotte at the mouth of the Genesee river, while a sou'wester blew itself out. When his steamer was loaded Van Vlack and McMaster walked down together to Ontario Beach to look at the weather. This was on Sunday. November 15th.

“I think I'll let her go while the wind is out." said McMaster, and save a tow bill." The southwest wind had slackened and backed to the southward.

"I'm going to wait for the sea to run down," Van Vlack said.

He had watched her drop out of the river, making sail to the puffing of her donkey engine and the yo-heave-ho of all hands. Starting an hour or so later with his steam barge, at dark that night he passed the Emerald off the Devil's Nose twenty miles on her way, and within 70 miles of Toronto. She was shouldering along comfortably in the dying sea, with the wind fair on the port quarter. There was a great friendliness among vesselmen in the lonely lake in the fall of the year, and the Van Allen blew a salute. The emerald answered with the shrill scream of her donkey engine whistle. Her lights were burning brightly, and all was well.

The wind shifted suddenly from southeast to northeast, and midnight, just at the time of changing watches, and blew fresh.

The Emerald did not arrive the day the Van Allen came in, though the wind held fair.

Two Toronto ladies sat at dinner together that November evening.

Both were captain's wives. The guest was Mrs. John Williams, whose husband had taken the schooner Sir C. T. Van Staubenzee down to Prescott with a load of grain. The hostess was Mrs. Frank McMaster.

Living in opposite ends of the city, but well known to each other, they were drawn together by common interest. Mrs. Williams knew that Mrs. McMaster, having only recently moved to Toronto, might be lonely. She felt that way herself, and made the five-mile journey from her own home at the Beaches for the sake of mutual comfort. There was the possibility, too, that Capt. McMaster might come in. He might even hare word of her husband. She knew and liked his jolly forthright manner, as did every one who met him. He was as good as a tonic.

Capt. McMaster was not there when Mrs. Williams arrived. The two women speculated, without anxiety, on when their men would be home.

That is, without special anxiety. Over every sailor's wife and mother hangs a sword while he is at sea; unseen, but not unfelt. The Van Straubenzee was not due for some days yet.

Mrs. McMaster was optimistic over picture postcards she had received from her son and husband posted in Charlotte. The Emerald was then safe there, on the way home. Mrs. McMaster felt sure she would be in that evening.

Mrs. Williams, more conservative, thought what the morrow might bring her. But on the chance of the captain's coming they waited dinner.

The clock ticked on.

At length, reluctant, they sat down to the meal, talking bravely the while.

The house was back a little from the street. It had a walk and side entrance generally used by members of the family. As the women chatted both heard brisk footsteps come up>the walk.

“Here they are now," said Mrs. McMaster.

She slipped back into the oven two plates, to have them hot for her husband and son, and ran to open the door.

A gust of November night wind. That was all.

Nor had the Emerald arrived by the next day, when the steam barge Seguin came in, having to go around the Island and take the Western Ga, because the sea was running too high for the Eastern.

The Seguin had seen nothing of the Emerald. Her non-appearance was by this time strange.

But the Electric Light Company got word that the Emerald was sheltering in Prinyer's Cove, away down in Prince Edward County, far from the telegraph.

By Saturday, November 25th, three weeks after the Emerald had first sailed from Toronto, the wind was fair from Prinyer's Cove, but no schooner topsails pricked the eastern skyline. The Van Allen had made another trip down the lake, loaded, and come back again, and Capt. Williams was back with the Straubenzee from Prescott, but there was still no sign of the Emerald.

Alarming news came. First a doubt that the Emerald had been in shelter in Prinyer's. No one could be found who had seen here there. Then the finding of a stanchion near the Gull Light, between Cobourg and Port Hope. The rounded post was the height of a timber drogher's cabin, a [ ] feet. Th[ ] to carry big loads of [ ] in their holds, all had stanchions the same height built on deck.

Capt. John Williams and brother mariners started at the Jetty on Fishermen's Island, just east of Toronto piers, and searched every fathom of the beach as far as Brighton. Much of that distance they covered on foot.

Wreckage had been found on farm beaches east of Cobourg earlier in the week, and had been burnt. A deck provision box with the Emerald’s name on it, and the new bowsprit, had been washed up near Cat Hollow; a broken foremast on Wicked Point in Prince Edward and a Brighton woman told of having seen a three-masted schooner disappear on the lake ten miles southwest of Presquisle Bluff on Tuesday Nov, 17.

Capt. Williams brought back a little locker door. Mrs. McMaster recognized the hinges. She herself had bought them.

What happened is impossible to settle. Wreckage was strewn between the Gull Light and Wicked Point a 60-mile stretch of the north shore of Lake Ontario.

Was she run down by a blundering steamer, as happened to the Oliver Mowat? Surely some dinted plates or crumbled stem would betray that story even were her slayer heartless enough to make no report on the collision.

Some thought her timber-ports, closed and caulked tight for years—it had been long since she had done any droghing—opened up in the sea. That is possible, for it was an ever present menace with the old lakers. But McMaster had blocked these very ports with pieces of oak at the beginning of the season.

Some suggested that the Emerald's precarious masts had carried away in a jibe, and had pounded holes in her.

Four silent years kept the secret of the Emerald, and it may be a secret yet.

In July, 1907, the lost dredge Sir Wilfrid was discovered. She was resting on the bottom off Port Hope, some miles to the westward of the Gull; sitting bolt upright, in seventy feet of water within a mile of shore. The tips of her sixty foot spuds came within twelve feet of the surface. Otherwise there was deep water all around her.

Salvage operations were begun. One of the divers said that near the sunken dredge was the hull of a large schooner. He would not say it was the hull of the Emerald. He said he, could not tell. If he saw anything at all down there in the gloom it is there yet. The dredge was raised. The hulk was left.

There is no way of telling that this was the Emerald if the diver could not. Many wrecks have strewn Lake Ontario's floor since La Salle's first schooner, the Frontenac, came to grief in 1678.

If the shadowy wreck was the Emerald's it was an amazing fatality that, with the diligent search being made for the lost dredge, this fine old vessel and her hard-working, well deserving captain and crew should find the one square foot in all lake Ontario that spelled death to them.

Because -- if this was the Emerald -- she spiked herself on the prong of one of those spuds.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
25 Apr 1931
Language of Item
Maurice Smith
Copyright Statement
Copyright status unknown. Responsibility for determining the copyright status and any use rests exclusively with the user.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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The EMERALD Mystery: Schooner Days XIII (13)