Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Speedwell at Port Nelson: Schooner Days CCCCLXXI (471)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 23 Nov 1940
Full Text
Speedwell at Port Nelson
Schooner Days CCCCLXXI (471)

by C. H. J. Snider


CAPT. John Williams was offered a cargo of coal for Port Nelson when he had Speedwell, fifty years ago, and the obscurity of the little hole-in-the-bank did not worry him. Neither did the fact that the Speedwell was awkward and unhandy and the place was hard to come by, even then, with no lighthouse, tugs or harbor facilities. It had been a "port" for a long time, with its two splendid tall pines as a sort of day mark. It had shipped out grain and lumber and flour and apples, and had built many vessels, some small and some of good size. But even at this time its future as a port was behind it and the beacon pines had been cut down and the only wharf was on its way out.

All Port Nelson had achieved by way of wharfage was a stubby little pier sticking out far enough to tickle the two-fathom curve of the lake shore. The Speedwell drew 11 feet fully loaded, which might let her in at the pier end in calm weather.

The cargo offered for Port Nelson was an "out size," too much for one of the standard 300-tonners to try in one voyage and too small for the 750-ton "canallers" to be interested in. Besides, they were too long to lie at the little Port Nelson wharf. He loaded the 400-odd tons of coal required, and when they said, "Well, we've fifty tons of steam coal for the same place," he said, "All right. Dump it on deck and I'll keep it separate from the hard coal under the hatches." So off he sailed, with the Speedwell swimming scupper-deep.

Capt. Williams had a lot of luck. He admits that. Another vessel foolish enough or daring enough to load for Port Nelson would have been plagued with head winds, and when she at last got into that latitude there would be so much sea running, either up or down the lake, that she would not be able to dock, nor to anchor off while the sea ran down. She would have to go into Hamilton or Toronto for shelter, and try again. The hundred and eighty miles from Oswego to Port Nelson might take a month to negotiate on these terms, before she got her lines out on the pier; and then the wheelbarrow facilities for unloading and the necessity of having to heave off and run away every time the sea began to come in, might eat up another month. And the freight would not keep the schooner in groceries for more than a week.

No, Capt. Williams had luck and good management—-and relied on both. It was luck only that gave him a nice little southeast wind, which wafted him up the lake without delay and let the Speedwell approach PortNelson quickly and in smooth water that Saturday afternoon. After that the good management came in.

Near the pier the sails were lowered and the Speedwell went on under the accumulated momentum of her hull and 470 tons of cargo.

"Keep that lead going!" called the captain from the cabin-top.

The centreboard had already been hove up in the box, and the anchor was at the cathead ready to be dropped in deeper water from the yawl boat for kedging off. With all this coal in her the Speedwell was floating deeper than she had ever floated before, and every inch of water now counted.

The fathom depths came back from the leadsman — "And-a-half two!" "And-a-quarter two!" "By the mark twain!" "Quarter-less-twain!" That is, one and three-quarter fathoms — ten foot six. In the old days they had a queer ritual of hailing the "marks" and "deeps" on the sounding line. The line always gave a little less than the actual depth. For the lead on the end of it gave about a foot to come and go on. I remember the yacht Haswell, drawing 8 feet, sailing blithely into Port Whitby with the leadsman chanting just as blithely "And-a-quarter One!" Which meant seven foot six and was what the line showed. She didn't touch, either.

Simultaneously with the last call the Speedwell herself shouted "Eleven feet, and no fooling!" as her tough oak bottom scraped the moss off the little stones under her.

"Keep a-going, girlie!" Capt. Williams encouraged her. The pier was still a few rods ahead.

"All right, if you say so, boss," responded the Speedwell, who would talk to Capt. Williams but swear at everyone else. Grumbling louder than before, as the wet places between the stones of the bottom became fewer and shoaler, she said with a final crunch on the gravel, "Look here, mister, it's Saturday night, and I'm quitting."

And quit she did. Her starboard bow lapped the southwest corner of the pier end by about twenty feet. There was no need for a mooring line to hold her. She was resting fast on the bottom.

"When God made this place I'll bet it was Saturday night, too," said the mate, who could also understand what the Speedwell said, though she wouldn't speak to him. "He was in so big a hurry to rest on Sunday he left the Devil to finish it—and look at the job he made of it."

"None of that talk, now," said Capt. Williams sharply. He was too Keltic in ancestry to permit of an ill-omened word in a perilous place. And besides, the consignee of the cargo was a pious man, superintendent of the Sunday school, and more than that. "Get the hatches off and the trestles rigged and planks laid!"

Capt. Williams swung off on to the dock and hurried up to the office of Hugh Cotter, J.P.; the magnate to whom the coal was coming.

"Well, we're glad to see you captain, for we've been waiting for that steam coal," was his greeting. "Can we have it by Monday?"

"Get the men down quick and we'll throw it out of her right away," said he.

"You mean before supper?"

"This very minute."

"You're doing better for us than any vessel ever did before," said the delighted buyer.

"And I'm sweating inside harder than any vesselman ever sweat before," said Capt. Williams to himself, for he knew that, resting on the bottom as she was, the Speedwell would be pounded to pieces within an hour if the sea began to run in with a freshening breeze.

To his joy the stevedores appeared promptly with their shovels and wheelbarrows. Working with them himself, stripped to the waist, and with his own crew pitching in, they attacked the deckload from the forward end and got it on to the wharf over planks and trestles. The consignee was understood to be the Chief Templar of Temperance in the village, besides being a pillar in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, but Capt John slipped past him up to the old Royal Hotel across the Guelph line on the Lake Shore road and got a keg of beer down for all hands. The old gentleman did not seem to notice its arrival. Every shovelful of coal lightened the Speedwell by a few pounds, and soon they were able to heave her in farther along the pier, and get that breastline out and a spring from the after chock. After that the work went fast. By midnight all the deckload was off and they had made an inroad into the coal beneath the hatches. The lightened Speedwell was completely waterborne again, and could be hove off to the anchor out in the lake if the weather should change.

"All right, boys. We'll knock off for Sunday," said Captain John, as a further antidote to his mate's ill-timed reference to the Devil.

The longshoremen clattered home, weary and beery. Their week was over —- but not Capt. Williams'. Landsmen work from sun to sun but masters' work is never done. Though it was after midnight, the yawlboat was brought around to the schooner's port bow and the port anchor was lowered from the cathead and slung under the small boat. Then three shots of chain were loaded into it, bringing it pretty low in the quiet water, it is true. On the end of the chain was bent a good four-inch line. So burdened, the yawl was carefully pulled out into deep water, as far as the four-inch line would stretch. Then the chain was fed out over the stern as the boat continued her outward progress, until all the chain was out. Last the seizings that held the anchor were cast off, and this half ton of iron went to the bottom too, the yawlboat bobbing up like a cork with the sudden relief. The boat came back to the Speedwell, a strain was hove on the line to make sure the anchor flukes were biting, and Capt. Williams had a good wash, and turned in. He could sleep the sleep of the just till the Sabbath church bells rang, and longer if he wanted to, for not only was the Speedwell lying afloat in smooth water and good weather, but he had taken all precautions to haul her off and get away should the weather change.

The weather stayed fine and bright, and early Monday morning the work of unloading was resumed. Tuesday noon the Speedwell was cleared and ready again to sail. Lest she might catch her heel and damage her rudder in swinging when she hauled out to her anchor, Capt. Williams cleverly shifted the four-inch line to the after chock and so was prepared to haul her out stern first. The wind had come in from the eastward, a good breeze.

Capt. Williams had his cheque for the freight and was preparing to cast off when the consignee came down, shook him by the hand, and wished him Godspeed, repeating his compliments about the good despatch.

"And, captain," said he, "we've included in your cheque the price of that beer."

So off swung the Speedwell stern first from the little wharf until, having gathered some headway or rather sternway, the bight of the line was smartly led forward and brought in over the knightheads, bringing her head to wind and over her anchor. Soon the muslin was on her and she had left Port Nelson and its perils forever behind.

She beat down to Toronto, to load barley for Richardson's elevator in Kingston at the foot of the lake. And though she burned up a lot of lake water before she herself was burned in Toronto Bay in 1896, she never came back to Port Nelson again. She was the last vessel to unload there, for the pier itself was washed away soon afterwards.

Passing Hails

The Cupboard Was Bare

Friend E. J. Guy sends us this about the New Brunswick, which Mrs. Margaret Campbell Goodman, deep sea diver, and other salvagers, have been talking about raising for her timber cargo during the last five years. There is some guff in it, to be specific the "red flares of distress" and the "sailing under three masts" and the captain and mate who "rode her" (or should it have been "rowed"?) through the Great Lakes and over the Atlantic. But it seems to dispose of another hidden treasure myth by stating that the hull has been found empty.

The treasure ship of Lake Erie, the rugged and once glorious three-master schooner New Brunswick, is free to settle for eternity in her sandy grave five miles out from Wheatley, Ont.

For the New Brunswick, after 80 years, has satisfied the curiosity of treasure seekers who have dreamed of salvaging the cargo that went down with her in a pounding storm in 1859. Divers entered the hull of the ship recently and found only the broken ribs and empty hull of a proud ship that once sailed under three masts, the Detroit News reports.

The searchers closed forever the legend of the vast store of wealth in white oak and walnut that went down with the New Brunswick under the red flares of distress.

The New Brunswick was a schooner in the days when lumber was king in Michigan and Ontario. Her skipper was Red McTavish and her first mate was Buff Warren. Together they rode her through the Great Lakes and over the Atlantic to Liverpool. They carried a cargo of 18,000 bushels of wheat from Chicago, and the New Brunswick was the first in history to cross the lakes and ocean.

The New Brunswick rode through any weather, and the season was late in 1859 when she fought to the death with Erie's pounding waves and sheet-tearing winds. In the hull and lashed to the decks with chains was a fortune in timber which had been loaded at Wallaceburg, Ont.

Scores of farm and fisher folk watched her struggle from the shore, and darkness had fallen when she foundered and went down. In a mad night of rescue all hands were saved except a cook, who later died of exposure.


PORT NELSON NOW—The little concrete breakwater marks the direction of the old pier, whose foundations are now far out in the lake. The shore has been eaten back for a hundred feet, carrying away house, wharf, shipyard, and all that made a port.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
23 Nov 1940
Personal Name(s)
Williams, John
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.3322027593369 Longitude: -79.7767356085205
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
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


Speedwell at Port Nelson: Schooner Days CCCCLXXI (471)