Maritime History of the Great Lakes
"Riddle of the Sands" Gave Collingwood Railway: Schooner Days CCCXI (311)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 25 Sep 1937
Full Text
"Riddle of the Sands" Gave Collingwood Railway
Schooner Days CCCXI (311)


LORD it did blow on the Georgian Bay last week!

A black shower and then a rainbow in the morning—"all sailors take warning"—then squall after squall from the northwest, sometimes just wind, sometimes with driving rain that felt like birdshot.

As far as the eye could see, from the dim bulk of the Giant's Tomb across to the concrete castle of the new Collingwood grain elevator under the royal blue stripe of the Caledon mountains, the Bay was a mass of frothing billows. Like a feather bed with the ticking ripped from the top. The long lathering lines of white foam all but concealed the pale green of the water.

The great crescent of sand which makes Wasaga Beach so popular in the good old summer time, with hundreds of motor cars, diving rafts, surfboards and launches, and thousands of bathers and sunbaskers, was deserted and bleak. Its only patrons were groups of young grey gulls, parked head to wind for a quick takeoff from the wet sand, and some snipe and sandpipers, trotting about the shallow wind-whipped pools, whirling away like dried leaves whenever they tried the air.

Ploughing along the soaking margin one came at length to the end of the ridge held in place by coarse grass, where the Nottawasaga river, after paralleling the Georgian Bay shore for miles, diagonals its way out and pours its forest waters into the Great Lakes chain.

Here, on the flat sandspit which it has marked for nearly a century, the outline of a large wreck showed sharply as when I saw it on my first visit twenty-five years ago. From stem to sternpost the waterline of a vessel of old Welland Canal size was still traced perfectly by the continuous line of timber ribs. We had just been looking at the remains of the Nancy, heroine of 1812, and the contrast was noticeable. This wreck was almost twice the length of the Nancy, but her ribs had not been as stout. They were cased in oak plank. This was of double the thickness of the Nancy's two-inch planking, but not as well-preserved as the latter, though the Nancy was sailing sixty years before this wreck came ashore. Rusted bolts of the back-links of a set of chainplates on the starboard side told a sailor that the ship had been a two-master. Ragged remains of a centreboard box, with the centreboard still in it, edged-bolted and cross-strapped with iron, stamped the wreck, old as it was, as nineteenth century. The Nancy, launched in 1789, shows no centreboard. This useful appliance for keeping a ship from drifting sidewise came into the lake schooners between 1840 and 1850, although it was used by the British navy much earlier.

The wreck has been a riddle to many a summer colonist at Wasaga Beach. Charcoal remains of their corn-roasts and council fires in the sand-filled hull proved the depth of their deliberations upon her identity and her fate. Like many another, she has shared the purely apocryphal glory of being the "payship of the British Navy, sunk to save her from capture by the Americans"—something which, so far as has been proved, never happened anywhere. Yet the legend persists.

While the wind screamed and the sand and spray stung the ears that listened, this is the story the gulls and the sandpipers told of the wreck as they plashed in the pools.

In the winter of 1850-1851 five survey parties explored routes for the Ontario Simcoe and Huron Railway, which eventually ran from Toronto to a northwestern terminal. The railway coach was then more of a novelty in Upper Canada than the Cambria was last week. Up to this time the province was entirely dependent upon water traffic and wagon roads for the transport of passengers and freight. The first railway train in Ontario panted from Toronto to Aurora in 1853.

These survey parties were seeking a route which would give a projected railway from Toronto connection with Chicago and the American West by a steamer service from some point on Lake Huron or the Georgian Bay. Toronto had been fixed upon as the beginning of the line and there was furious competition over what was to be the other end. Land speculators were just as keen in the 1850's as they were when Churchill, Prince Rupert or Port McNicoll blossomed on the map in our century. They had foreseen what Kipling phrased later, that fortunes were to be made by every man who knew where the next ten cities of Canada would arise. Some of them would stop at nothing to secure the selection of their own holdings as the chosen spot—or to prevent some other site being chosen.

Of the five survey parties, one, tried for a Lake Huron terminal, either at the mouth of the Maitland River, where the town of Goderich was rising, or at the mouth of the Saugeen, where the Spences and other hardy fishermen had built the huts which later became Southampton. A second tried for Victoria Harbor on Georgian Bay. A third went through with Meaford for its objective. A fourth explored the mouth of the Nottawasaga. And a fifth considered the possibilities of a terminal thirteen miles farther west on Georgian Bay, where an unnamed village nestled at the foot of the Blue Mountains.

The village was not quite nameless. It was faced by a few rocky islands, known to mariners as the Hen and Chickens. You will see advertisements in the old Toronto papers, advising that the schooner Sophia, or the steamer Ploughboy, perchance, will accept passengers and freight for the Hen and Chickens, sailing from Toronto on or about such and such a date, weather permitting. Later, when the town of Collingwood arose in the vicinity, the original settlement was known as the Old Village.

This was the spot which put up the hardest fight for selection as the terminal. Its strongest rival was the Nottawasaga mouth. I do not know whether this latter had been named Van Vlack by this time, or whether that came later, but it was already a settlement, and a depot of considerable antiquity. It was called Van Vlack in the great sawmill days, when rafts of logs by the mile were floated down the Nottawasaga to the big frame mill at its mouth, and the banks of the river rang to the bite of the axe on the tall pines and the whine of the saws reducing them to millions of feet of lumber. Van Vlack has now vanished and Wasaga Beach has taken its place, with summer hotels and cottages sheltering thousands in the season.

In the old days settlement at the river mouth was scanty, but for many years a few settlers had fished there for whitefish and sturgeon, cut timber, staves, and shingles, and grown a little grain on the sandy acres. It had been a depot since the War of 1812. when Noah Freer used to send the supplies of pork and flour and powder and uniforms for the northern garrisons up Yonge street, across Lake Simcoe to Barrie, and along the Willow Trail to the Nottawasaga. It was here that the Nancy was loaded for Mackinac, and it was here she was burned. In the next generation the McAllister brothers built a sloop here from timber cut on the banks, its ironwork forged from sword-blades and bayonets picked up after the Nancy battle, its timbers plumbed by a bob made from the lead bullets found in the sand. Here also later — later, indeed, than the time of this survey — John Potter, of Oakville, built the large brigantine Queen of the North, in 1861.

The Nottawasaga had continued as a depot for Government stores for some time after the War of 1812, with storehouses above the Oxbow, and others near the river mouth, until the greater establishment at Penetanguishene caused the removal of the stores, storekeepers and soldiers. The river had ten feet of water in it, ample draught for vessels of the time. Its shifting mouth, ever moving eastward under the sandblasts of the nor'westers on Georgian Bay, made it difficult of entrance. With modern equipment it would be no trick at all to dredge out and maintain a fine deep-water harbor in the Nottawasaga. Such a project was advocated as recently as ten years ago by the late Col. J. A. Currie, but the problem was a heavier one in the days when the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron was being surveyed.

Sir Sandford Fleming conducted one of the parties, presumably the Nottawasaga one, and was impressed with the merits of that route, as giving the shorter amount of rail haul. Length of line to be built was the objection at the time to the Lake Huron terminal suggestions. Frederick Cumberland conducted the Hen and Chickens exploration. The name Collingwood, commemorating Nelson's colleague — "See how that noble fellow Collingwood brings his ship into action!" — was suggested for the site by David Buist, as the survey party broke a bottle of whiskey on one of the rocks.

With the survey reports in, activity to secure the selection of one site as against the other rose to fever height. The tip went around that the Hen and Chickens place would be chosen. There was an auction sale of town lots on Front Street, Toronto, with eager bidders. The townsite boomed. Five steamers, including the fatal Lady Elgin, later run down in Lake Michigan, were secured from Buffalo and other American ports to operate on routes north and west from Collingwood as soon as the railway got there.

But the Nottawasaga route had stout partisans. The rumor came back that as this was the shorter line and the river would make a better harbor than Collingwood and be more easily dredged, the line was going there. Some Collingwood speculators were in a panic in 1852.

Then someone unknown chartered the large two-masted schooner H. B. Bishop of Buffalo to go to the Nottawasaga to load grain. The Nottawawasaga partisans hailed this with delight. The Bishop was one of the finest schooners on the Great Lakes at this time. She was 121 feet 10 inches long on deck, 24 feet 10 inches beam, 9 feet 5 inches depth of hold and registered 263 tons. She had been built by Fred N. Jacob, of the great wooden shipbuilding firm, Jacob and Banta, of Buffalo, in 1847. Opposite her name in the Buffalo Custom House register is the laconic entry, "Wrecked, 1852."

Nottawasaga added the chartering of the Bishop to their accumulated evidence that the Nottawasaga mouth was already a port, had been a port for forty years, and was the "logical location" for the great city which the new-fangled railway was sure to produce. They did not stop to examine whether there was a schooner-load of grain in all Nottawasaga Township. Maybe there was. But the H. B. Bishop could carry 18,000 bushels, and a thousand bushel crop was good going on the bayshore farms at this time.

The Collingwood claimants said nothing. Some of them looked black and tried to turn over their lots quick before the boom burst. Others seemed remarkably unperturbed. Or so the Nottawasaga proponents thought afterwards.

True enough, the H. B. Bishop did go to the Nottawasaga to load grain. As one of the new type centreboard schooners she could get into the narrow river-mouth without trouble on a quiet day with the wind from the north or east. She only drew four feet with the centreboard up. But if the farmers teamed enough grain to the river bank, to fill that nine-foot hold she would be drawing ten feet of water or more, even with the board up, or sitting on the bottom if there was not ten feet in the river. There was certainly not ten feet all through the entrance, so she could not get out.

The H. B. Bishop anchored off shore and waited for the farmers to ferry their grain out in bags, on scows or in the schooner's own yawl boat. Thousands of bushels had to be picked up this way along the shores of the Great Lakes before the harbors were developed. The grain could only be handled when the water was smooth, and a vessel might have to wait days or weeks to complete her load. At the first sign of an onshore gale she would have to weigh anchor and beat off to shelter, coming back when conditions permitted.

She was hanging on, out in Nottawasaga Bay, when a nor'wester like last week's broke on her in full fury. The Bishop's anchors dragged through the soft sand like the shares of a farm cultivator grooving the loam. Pointing west, with her useless anchors out to the north of her, she walked in broadside on. She must have had very little grain in her, for she drove up so high that her crew were able to jump ashore. Seemingly her centreboard was down when she struck and buckled under her. The remains of the lower part of it are still wedged in the box and the sides of the box are bulged out as though the board—really a dozen heavy oak planks, bolted together edge to edge —had pried it to bursting point when she struck the beach.

So far as is known no lives were lost in the wreck of the Bishop. But the schooner herself was a complete casualty. So was the Nottawasaga terminal project.

Nottawasaga claimants exclaimed bitterly that the schooner had been wrecked "on purpose" and scowled across the water at Collingwood as the author of a plot to discredit the possibilities of their potential port. The theory was propounded and spread that the trip of the Buffalo schooner had been engineered by those interested in the selection of Collingwood for the end of steel and that the wreck was a part of the plan to blacken the Nottawasaga internationally. Maybe they were right. Right or wrong, it did.

Collingwood certainly lost no time in pointing out the hazards of the Nottawasaga and the battered hull of the big Lower Lake schooner was impressive evidence. It was left there like a corpse hanging in chains, as a warning to all who plied the lakes. The treacherous sands which had trapped the pioneer bedded the wreck in so completely that she could not be released without a steam dredge, and they built up bars around her so that the waves could not break her up. When her bulwarks, decks and upper planking disappeared before the battering of the water, the shove of the winter's ice, and the baking of the fierce sun, her oaken ribs traced a gaunt warning in the - smooth sand.

As they do to this day.

Whatever the reasons for the wreck of the H. B. Bishop, her fate sealed all possibilities of the Nottawasaga being the railway terminal. Within a year steel was pointing its two inflexible fingers into the former nest of the Hen and Chickens; the Old Village was disappearing under the new Collingwood; a grain elevator was going up, and lake schooners by the hundreds and steamers by the dozen commenced to wear the well-known groove in Georgian Bay, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan between Collingwood and Chicago. Cordwood and lumber out; grain, pork, beef and flour back, were the cargoes for decades, all poured through Collingwood on to the clanging freight cars of the busy railway, for the short cut across Upper Canada to the sea.



Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
25 Sep 1937
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.4834 Longitude: -80.21638
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.60725 Longitude: -80.61081
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.536666 Longitude: -80.008055
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
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"Riddle of the Sands" Gave Collingwood Railway: Schooner Days CCCXI (311)