Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Skulls and Crossbones, The EXPLORER of Goderich: Schooner Days CCCLXV (365)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 1 Oct 1938
Full Text
Skulls and Crossbones
The EXPLORER of Goderich
Schooner Days CCCLXV (365)


There was a ship, as the Ancient Mariner quoth.

This ship was the Explorer, of Goderich, duly documented somewhere still as schooner-rigged, two-masted, single-decked, and built at Chatham in Kent County, Ontario, in 1866; forty-eight feet over all, 160feet beam, 5 feet 6 inches deep in the hold, and 32.64 tons register. No different from a thousand other little hookers that have carried cordwood, lumber, grain, stone and mixed cargoes on the Great Lakes. Yet with the burden of a curse as weird in its way as the Ancient Mariner's itself, a curse which took nine lives to glut; or maybe eleven.

YOUNG Jack Earl and Danny Butchart came tearing into the Little Tub at Tobermory one windy afternoon fifty years ago with death's heads grinning from the gaff-ends and mast-trucks of their thirty-foot white mackinaw fishboat Orphan Boy. They had been out cruising for stray saw logs and had found something much more exciting.

"Real pirates, huh?" jeered Mortimer Vail, the carpenter. "I can see the skulls plain enough, but where's your cross-bones?"

"Over on Cove Island, in a cave at the east end," shouted the boys excitedly.

"Indians," said Mort, promptly. "Don't you young gaffers know it's seven years bad luck to rob an Indian grave?"

"How can you tell?" challenged young Earl.

"Well, everybody knows what happened on Manitoulin when they meddled with the skulls they found in the cave near Mississagi Light. It blew so hard they thought the lighthouse was going into the Straits, and it kept on blowing until the fishermen threw the seven skulls into water, and then it stopped."

"Maybe they ain't Indian skulls," hazarded young Butchart. "They was laid side by side, not in a heap like Indians.

"Whose would they be?" demanded Vail.

"How about the Explorer's crew? —or were they the skeletons found locked in her cabin when she was raised, all et away by the fish and covered with green weeds?" asked Jack Earl. "You made the plugs for the auger holes that sunk her, didn't you, Mort?"

"Yes," said Mortimer Vail slowly. "I made the plugs. And I think I know the auger that bored the holes. There's an auger hereabouts yet that fits them."

"Tell us all about the Explorer, Mort," urged Danny Butchart.

The carpenter was an authority on all that had ever happened in Bruce County. At least he was to the boys.

"That vessel," said he "was built down in Chatham the year of the Fenian Raid. Somebody in Goderich got her five or six years afterwards, and sent her up Manitoulin way with a cargo of machinery. I've heard it was sawmill machinery, and I've heard it was farm implements, and I've heard it was mill-stones, or grindstones, and it may have been them all. She was gone a long time. I don't know if the insurance companies got anxious, but they ought to have been if they had a risk on her.

"Long after she should have been back in Goderich her captain came ashore at Cape Hurd in her yawlboat. He said she was lost. He made out an affidavit. I didn't see it, but others said he said the crew had got hold of whisky and got blind drunk. They were helpless for days. It thickened up for a squall when they were twenty-five or thirty miles west-nor'-west of Cove Island in Lake Huron, and he called the gang to shorten her, down. Only one of them would turn out, and he staggered up with a wash basin in his hands, full of whisky. He said the Old Man had to drink it off before they would lay a hand to the sheets and halyards. When the Old Man threw the wash dish overboard the drunk staggered back to the cabin, he said, and locked the door.

The captain was busy downhauling the sails when the squall hit her, and over she went. He just got the yawlboat clear when the schooner filled and sank. He blew about Lake Huron, he said, until be made the land at Cape Hurd.

"Some said he said the schooner went down on the Shingle Shoals, some in deep water. Anyway she was gone and so was the crew.

"Next spring he started north from Goderich in a fishboat with another fellow, to go to Tobermory. Some said he was going to look for the lost Explorer. The fishboat struck the reefs inside Point Clark on the east side of Lake Huron, and sank. The Explorer's captain was drowned, but the man with him got ashore.

"It was your dad, Jack, that's dead and gone now, that found the Explorer. How and when is for him to say. He found her nowhere near the Shingle Shoals, but thirty miles nearer home, right here, almost in the mouth of the Tub, in sixteen fathoms of water, and he put a buoy on her. I know there was one there in '76.

"Three years later a diver from Meaford, named Charlie Farrah came up with a diving bell. Many had been looking for her, all around Manitoulin and the Georgian Bay for the story spread that her machinery cargo had been sold or traded for whisky, and that she was full to the hatches with the stuff, and that was why the crew got blind drunk. Everybody was hunting for the whisky, lying there at the lake bottom, maturing in the wood.

"Farrah couldn't do anything with the gear he had, and next year Harry Jex, of Port Huron, and a diver named Bob McCullagh, from Sarnia, went at her. And they got her up, and towed her into the Big Tub.

"There was auger holes in her bottom, seven on one side and nine one the other. I made the plugs to stop them. The holes had been made with a two and a half inch bit, the kind they bore sawlogs with, for towing. Who made them, and why, I don't ask me.

"And don't ask me what was in her cabin. I'm only telling what I know, and I didn't go down in a diving bell or the diver's suit. I only made the plugs, so they could pump her out when they got her up, decks-to.

"There was no whisky in her hold. Not a barrel, nor a bottle. And no grindstones. Nothing but a jag of beach stone, ten or twelve tons of ballast, perhaps. That was what sank her. She floated pretty easy when the diver got it out of her. But my dad, William Vail, did find a whisky barrel near the site of Tom Spear's mill, and there was a brand new sail rolled up in it.

"The Explorer was scrubbed off and caulked and repainted and sold to Judge Lewis, of Goderich, and Capt. Johnny Macdonald sailed her for a season or two. And then a Port Burwell man named Charlie Woods got her when John went into the barque Florence.

"The Explorer loaded salt and fishing supplies in Goderich for the fishermen of the Saugeen, and got caught in a fall gale and driven on the Greenock Shoals, outside of Stokes Bay and north of Lyall Island, and her whole crew was drowned again. There was another John McDonald, not the captain of the Florence, and Walter Crane and Malcolm Heale, all of Goderich. When she struck the shoals the crew took to the rigging and the people on shore could see them getting thrown out of the ratlines one by one every time a big sea would come, and then the spars went and she broke up, and that was the last of the Explorer."

Tobermory was as isolated, when this story was told, as Jan Mayen or Bear Island in the Arctic Ocean. There was neither telephone nor telegraph nor wireless—nor post office—and it was at the far end of nowhere, up terrible roads through the old Saugeen Peninsula of Bruce County. It was a double-barreled harbor of refuge, with its Big Tub and Little Tub, two coves into which storm-tossed schooners and steamers making the Cape Hurd passage, popped and lay moored to the limestone banks. They would be waiting for weather weeks, maybe, while mourning underwriters and expectant undertakers gave them up for lost, in the absence of all word. Only a few fishermen and lumberjacks had homes there, and its only claim to port status was the lantern Charley Earl, Jack's father, kept lighted at the top of a tall tamarac tree. Its lower limb-stumps were the ladder by which he climbed with his light.

Charley Earl, huge-nosed, stumpy, and 50 inches around the chest, was a Newfoundland whaler, a long way off soundings. He knew the needs of sailormen. No. 1 was a harbor to leeward, No. 2 was a light to find it by, No. 3 was something to eat. God had provided No. 1 in double measure with the two Tubs; the Mordens, who owned the United Lumberman, provided No. 2 with a small subsidy to Capt. Earl, and the ex-whaler provided No. 3. Charley Earl never sent any man from his door empty. They told dark tales about him, but the remembrance of his hospitality shines yet as shone his lantern in the top of the tamarac. He had only been dead a few months when his son and heir brought the Orphan Boy into port decorated like a South Sea proa after a head-hunting expedition.

"D'ye think," asked the practical Earl junior, "Doc Scott would maybe buy the skulls?"

"Ask him," said the non-committal Vail. "I wouldn't pay much for seven years bad luck myself."

So they "braced" Dr. Scott. What that medico did about the proposition was between him and young Earl; for Danny Butchart had been against the ghastly display from the moment of the discovery. He hadn't wanted to bring the skulls from the cave. Word went around that the doctor had said that three of the skulls were men's, and one was woman's, and three showed signs of gunshots and one had been beaten in.

The skull-crowned Orphan Boy's arrival was the talk of Tobermory for days. So was Dr. Scott's diagnosis that her decorations were relics of three men and a woman who had come to death by violence. It was only a few miles across Georgian Bay to Cove Island, and the fishermen went over to see the cave where the skulls came from. They found four skeletons there, side by side and headless. And they recalled, or believed they recalled, for they had no direct knowledge of the facts that the Explorer had had a crew of five, the captain, mate, two sailors and a woman cook, the first time she was lost. This crew, by the way, seems large for a vessel of the Explorer's recorded dimensions. It had to suffice for schooners double her tonnage. Tobermory men who still remember her think she was larger than the register shows, and that she was at least 70 feet long and capable of carrying 100,000 feet of lumber.

And then there had been her second and final foundering with all hands.

A grisly mystery, all through; and the more mysterious now, with the cobwebs of half a century over-lying the facts. Everyone directly connected with the Explorer has been dead this long time. Even young Jack Earl perished, with his bride, as if in fulfillment of the curse for "him who moves these bones," older than the tomb of Shakespeare. The Earls were lost in a sailing vessel on Lake Huron. The only survivor of those indirectly connected appears to be Danny Butchart, who did not approve of the Orphan Boy's disturbance of the skeletons in the first place, and who still would have had them left alone. He is a respected resident of Mount Dennis, on the outskirts of Weston, and was talking to The Telegram of the incident only last week—although the tale as here unfolded is not of his telling.



The E. COHEN—an unusual seagoing name—was owned in Oswego some seventy years ago. She was a brigantine much like the Sea Gull of Oakville, which went to South Africa, and later also found Oswego ownership. The picture of the Cohen is a venerable drawing in the great collection of John S. Parsons, ship chandler, of Oswego. Can anyone tell what became of her? She had nothing to do with the EXPLORER, whose tragic career is outlined in this number.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
1 Oct 1938
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 45.220277 Longitude: -81.7275
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.41224 Longitude: -82.18494
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 45.2898918052073 Longitude: -81.7093907299805
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.75008 Longitude: -81.71648
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 45.260277 Longitude: -81.665
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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Skulls and Crossbones, The EXPLORER of Goderich: Schooner Days CCCLXV (365)