Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Hitting the Devil's Nose: Schooner Days CCCXXII (322)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 11 Dec 1937
Full Text
Hitting the Devil's Nose
Schooner Days CCCXXII (322)


ON the south shore of Lake Ontario, something more than twenty miles west of the port of Rochester at the mouth of the Genesee River is a high bold promontory much like the Hog's Back which marks the highest point of the Highlands of Scarboro on our own side of the lake.

This is the Devil's Nose, and although it is as prominent as the proboscis of the Old Boy himself it has been the scene of many shipwrecks, especially during schooner times. The reason for this is no mystery. While the headland is easily seen, the dangerous shoal that extends in front of it is invisible except in heavy gales when the seas break on it, painting it feather-white for a long way from the land.

This shoal is the result of hundreds of years of washing by waves and rains of the scowling face of His Nibs. Unlike the golden image in Nebuchadnezzar's dream this monument has a face of clay, and the red and blue and yellow mud runs down into the lake and settles under water in long tongued shoals, thickly sprinkled with the glacial boulders once embedded in the bank above.

Of the many vessels wrecked on the Devil's Nose, nearly all got there in foggy weather, or in snowstorms which hid the lad. Most of them resisted all efforts to get them off, because they were wedged on the boulders. When a real gale came along they pounded to pieces. So was lost the smart black schooner Undine, and the old timber-drogher Malta, last of the "barques" to carry stun-s'ls, and, going back to the beginning of time on Lake Ontario, the schooner York, soon after this city got that name from Governor Simcoe.

Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto gives a picture of her predicament, and quotes the Niagara Constellation, of 1799, saying that

"On Thursday last, Nov. 29th, a boat arrived here from Schenectady. She passed the York, sticking on a rock off the Devil's Nose. No prospect of getting her off."

The York, or Duchess of York as her full name appears to have been, is described as Upper Canada's first merchant vessel. This was her finish, before the nineteenth century began.

But some vessels have the luck of the devil, including his nose, and one of these was the steamer Henry R. James.

Consider her fortune, as related below by Capt. Wm. Stitt, one time master of her. She walked up and down the lakes for twenty years as a wooden package freighter, after the third Welland Canal gave fourteen-foot navigation between Ogdensburg and Duluth. Full of years and dividends she changed her name and retired to the honorable sinecure of car-ferrying down the river. But after the Quebec bridge ended that unexacting employment she blossomed forth again as a lake freighter, and ran slap onto the bridge of the Devil's Nose at twelve miles an hour. Any poor schooner blown on the bar at that speed would have disappeared into so much firewood before day dawned. But this lucky steamer chose a perfectly still night for her frolic and came off the reef without her rudder or propeller and with her back broken, but still all in one piece. After rebuilding she was sold as a war-baby for $160,000, which is probably double what she cost when she was launched. Seven years later, with war-freights only a memory, she was bought back by her old carferry owners for $70,000 and had about ten years of peaceful employment before she was tucked away for the night in the St. Charles River.

Capt. Stitt's story of how she got on and off the Nose follows:

"In 1910 the Quebec and Levis Ferry Company purchased two of the old Ogdensburg Line propellers, the 'James R. Langdon' and 'Henry R. James,' and cut them down and made car ferries out of them to transfer cars across the St. Lawrence between Point Levis and Quebec, P.Q. That was before the great Quebec Bridge was built, connecting the north and south shores.

"When the bridge was completed and in use the two car ferries, which had been re-named after the president and vice-president of the Quebec company, 'John S. Thom' and 'Charles L. Shaw,' were made over into lake freighters and went into the coal and pulpwood trade between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Great Lakes ports. The writer was appointed master of the 'John S. Thom.'

"Early in August we had loaded pulpwood on the 'Thom' at Cap Salmon in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for Ogdensburg, N.Y., had delivered our cargo and were enroute to Erie, Pa., for a coal cargo for Quebec City. Shortly after 4 p.m. on Aug. 21st we got away from Ogdensburg and proceeded up the St. Lawrence and passed out into Lake Ontario at 10.30 p.m. Weather was fine and a light N.E. wind blowing almost directly astern.

"At midnight we were out by the Main Duck Island and on our course for the Welland Canal and making about 12 miles per hour. At 11.45 p.m. the other watch was called and after taking their usual midnight supper took over control. Chief Engineer W. A. MacLaren and I went aft to the dining room and partook of our light lunch and coffee before retiring for rest to be ready for a strenuous day, putting the ship through the twenty-seven locks of the old No. 3 Welland Canal that separated Lakes Ontario and Erie.

"As usual, after returning to the forward deck we discussed the weather conditions, the prospect of a nice daylight run through the canal. It was a beautiful night with a clear atmosphere and the reflection of all the cities and towns on both sides of the lake showing up clearly. The Canada Steamship Company's passenger steamer was plainly seen pulling out of Charlotte and heading for Kingston.

"After the first watch had retired and things had settled down with all the officers on duty and following our usual course up the lake, the mate gave the wheelsman orders to keep a good course and should any down-bound boats be sighted on or near our course, report to him.

"It was a close, muggy night and quite warm and had a tendency to make one get drowsy, so the mate dropped down on the seat behind the big hand wheels and dropped off into a sound sleep.

"The wheelsman, left to his own meditations and with very little steering to do as the boat would keep her course almost alone, also got very drowsy and dropped off in a doze.

"The same thing happened the watchman up forward who was supposed to keep a sharp lookout.

"Thus the ship was left to herself with the watch asleep at their posts, unmindful that she was deviating from her course and gradually working her head towards the south shore and approaching that dreaded boulder patch just east of the Devil's Nose.

"In the engine room and stoke hold, the second engineer, oiler and firemen were attending their duties and between times going to the gangway for a breath of fresh air. On one of these visits, the second engineer spotted that big, prominent flashing lighthouse, so well known by mariners, Braddock's Point Light, seven miles west of the Charlotte piers. He called the oiler and remarked to him that he never remembered seeing it so close aboard when passing up the lake.

"Another hour passed and the second engineer and oiler were at the gangway again for a breather, this time they noticed the south shore quite close aboard and that the ship was heading for the bight just inside that prominent landmark, so well-known by all mariners, the Devil's Nose. It was just about 4 a.m. then and beginning to break day, and everything clear as a bell.

"Unless something was done at once the ship would soon be aground. They did think of stopping the engines and calling the captain and chief engineer to investigate the circumstances.

"But delays are always dangerous when in close quarters and the ship running full pelt at 12 miles per hour. It was decided to send the oiler up to the wheelhouse at last to call the mate and see what was wrong. Just as the oiler was ascending the ladder to the bridge the ship struck the boulders arid went bounding over them for a distance of several hundred feet and came at last to rest, minus her rudder, part of her propeller and with her back broken at midships.

"The shock was terrible and most of those who were off watch were thrown out of their berths and bounced around. The mate, wheelsman and lookout got a rude awakening, naturally, when the ship hit, and were very much awake by the time the ship came to rest. Considerable damage was done to the engines, which were running full at the time, as the propeller came in contact with the boulders and broke three of the blades off completely and carried the rudder away at the same time.

"The confusion was terrible on board as everyone came scrambling on deck to see what it was all about.

"One good thing was that the ship was not leaking and quite tight, but we were certainly well aground on the boulder shoal and directly in front of us loomed up his Satanic Majesty's profile.

"After the mate and his crew had explained the circumstances leading up to the disaster and accepted full blame for it all, we launched a life boat and made a thorough examination of the damage to the ship and the nature of the reef we were on. We rowed to the shore and in a summer cottage found a phone and got in touch with our owners, a wrecking company at Kingston and the insurance company, who had the ship covered.

"We were twenty-two miles west of the Port of Charlotte (Rochester) and this was on the morning of the 22nd day of August, 1917. The lake was calm and just a light northeast wind blowing, so we were in no immediate danger. Early in the morning of the 23rd, the Donnelly Wrecking Company arrived with pump, diver and wrecking equipment and commenced salvage operations.

"As the ship was empty and nothing could be unloaded to raise her from the reef she had to be carried bodily over the boulder bar into deep water several hundred feet distant and it was a big job as the 'Thom' was a big heavy boat 257 feet in length, 42 feet beam and had very heavy boilers and engines.

"After working all day of the 23rd, we finally had the ship afloat just before dark and we towed her into Charlotte for the night as the weather had turned bad and very threatening, with a fresh northeast wind coming-up.

"On the morning of the 24th we got away from Charlotte with the 'Thom' in tow of the wrecking tug 'Donnelly,' and after a very good run arrived at Kingston just after midnight. Not being able to get the 'Thom' on the Kingston dry duck for repairs, she proceeded on down the St. Lawrence River to Ogdensburg, N.Y., where she was hauled out on the Marine Railway, on Aug. 27th.

"After inspection of the hull, it was decided to make temporary repairs and take the ship to Quebec under her own power and give her a thorough rebuild. We got away from Ogdensburg on Sept. 9th, and after a very good run arrived in Quebec, at 9 p.m. on Sept. 12th. Dismantled the ship at that port and took it to Levis' dry dock for rebuilding, on Sept. 20th.

"After being thoroughly rebuilt during the winter of 1917-18 the 'Thom' was sold to a New York firm for $160,000 and taken down to that port and remained there in the coastwise trade for some seven years.

"About 1925, the old former owners, the Quebec and Levis Ferry Company, bought the ship back for the small sum of $70,000 and brought her back to Quebec and put her back again in the coal and pulpwood trade between the Gulf and upper lake ports. A few years ago she was abandoned and junked and laid away in the mouth of the St. Charles River at Quebec.

"The sister ship, 'Charles L. Shaw,' did not see as many changes as the 'Thom,' but was scrapped and abandoned when the Quebec bridge was opened for traffic and she finished her car ferrying trade between Levis and Quebec. The 'John S. Thom' and 'Charles L. Shaw' were the last of the old wooden freighters to go by the tooth of time."


1917—THE STEAMER THOM, EX JAMES, BREAKS HER BACK on the Devil's Nose and the crew come ashore for help.

1799—"LOSS OF THE YORK"—an illustration so captioned in the Landmarks of Toronto, Vol. II. The steep bank of the Devil's Nose shows on the right. The York was built at Niagara in 1792 and measured 80 tons—about the size of the Nancy. She is said to have been Lake Ontario's first merchantman, as distinguished from the "King's Ships" which were armed but carried passengers and freight as well as fighting men and munitions.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
11 Dec 1937
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.36867 Longitude: -77.9764
Richard Palmer
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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Hitting the Devil's Nose: Schooner Days CCCXXII (322)