Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Shooting Skiff Lifeboat Rescued Schooner Crew: Schooner Days DXII (512)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 13 Sep 1941
Full Text
Shooting Skiff Lifeboat Rescued Schooner Crew
Schooner Days DXII (512)

by C. H. J. Snider


WHEN Wm. Tinning, of His Majesty's Customs, was receiving birthday congratulations last week on becoming a seventy-niner and looking forty years younger, he avoided' self-glorification, but modestly permitted perusal of some newspaper clippings about his father, Tom.

The exploits of Tom Tinning, a famous oarsman of Toronto long before Hanlan, have been told in their time and place. That place is deservedly high, for Tinning's oars plied as successfully in volunteer "lifeboats" as they did in racing shells.

Apart from paying contemporary tribute to him, the clippings were of great interest in the light they shed on Schooner Days of eighty years ago. Then Toronto was a one-door harbor. You either got in through the winding, shifting channel at the Queen's Wharf, known as the Western Gap; and a thousand feet north of the present western entrance, or you stayed out.

The present eastern entrance, that foundling of the Dominion Government, was not in existence, and the annual ritual of dredging its shoals and taking them out into the lake to be washed in again, had not been installed.

Sometimes there was a channel, when the lake would break through into the Bay across what was known as The Peninsula, and sometimes there was not. Usually there was none. For years the peninsula would be dry if not high. The first recorded break-through was in 1852, but the industrious harbor commissioners of the day filled it up promptly with posts and planks, and loads of gravel.

"In the tremendous gale of Tuesday night week," wrote 'Ben Bobstay' to the editor of the Globe on Dec. 11th, 1856, eight days after the event, "the schooner J. G. Beard went ashore on the south side of the island, a few hundred yards west of the steamer Monarch. In this situation she filled, and her crew were compelled to take refuge on the bowsprit end, where they remained till morning, suffering of course severely from the violence of the gale.

"At an early hour on Wednesday morning, by the aid of a glass, they were seen by Mr. Thomas Tinning, son of Mr. Tinning, owner of the wharf at the foot of York street. Young Tinning, who is one of the best oarsmen in Canada, immediately pulled across the bay in his shooting skiff, hauled her across the island and in spite of a tremendous sea then rolling, launched her on the lake with the intention of rescuing the unfortunate sailors who were loudly invoking aid, and some apparently unable to hold on much longer.

"In this attempt Mr. Tinning was three times upset, and himself and his skiff thrown upon the beach. Though suffering severely from exhaustion and cold he made a fourth effort, and succeeded in getting under the schooner's bowsprit, whence the captain managed to scramble in, and with the end of a hawser they made for thfe beach, about 150 yards distant. Mr. Tinning, however, was so exhausted, that the skiff was only hauled ashore by the aid of some of those looking on, who had to rush into the surf for the purpose.

"The hawser was then made fast to a tree and hove tight, and having procured another and smaller line from the Monarch, Mr. Tinning succeeded, though with great difficulty, in rescuing all the crew.

"His attempt to pull through such a sea as was then running, with the few clothes he could keep on, partially coated with ice, and the certainty that any wave that did not actually throw him ashore would carry him out into the lake to certain destruction, was an act of no small daring, and surely merits not merely the gratitude of those whom he rescued, but the favorable notice of the public."

There is an appeal in this generous and accurate, if leisurely, presentation of a piece of news. It is in marked contrast to the splash which would be made to-day—if war news permitted—over a similar event.

The only thing in it not perfectly clear now, 85 years later, is the reference to the steamer Monarch. The wreck of the Monarch was as topical in Toronto in December, 1856, as the wreck of Nazi plans in Iran is to-day. This fine steamer had run aground on the island in the darkness of an early morning snowstorm on Nov. 29th, and her cargo had been scattered for a mile and a half westward along the island shore. This was on Saturday.

The following Wednesday, December 3rd, the Monarch broke up in the succeeding storm, the one which drove the J. G. Beard ashore. The second hawser mentioned was part of the Monarch's outfit, for attempts at salvaging her had been going on for three days. The episode of the J. G. Beard was apparently known only to a few until Ben Bobstay took his pen in hand.

Where the Monarch went ashore, and where the J. G. Beard followed, would be now about a thousand feet out in the lake, near the present Eastern Gap. The island has moved northwards that much. There was no Eastern Gap at all then. What was called "The Peninsula" commenced at Scarboro Bluffs and ran west as far as the old stone lighthouse still standing on Gibraltar Point. The Monarch's captain thought he was that far west, and turned northward in the darkness, to reach Humber Bay, and so drove on shore.

Where the Monarch struck was a sandbar with full-grown trees, houses, a soap factory, hotels—Privat's and Quinn and Hansons—and an amusement park on it, with a wharf to which excursion steamers came from the little city of 30,000 inhabitants. The "amusements" were crude. One of them was the spectacle of shooting a bear with a candle from a rifle. The candles came from the adjoining soap factory, and bruin's death came from invisible pellets preceding them.

All of this is now deeper under the water than the patrons of the bear-baiting are under the sod, The site of the hotel, wharf, and factory is now a thousand feet out in the lake. The boilers of the Monarch, which stuck up ten feet above water, almost on the beach, were a hundred yards out six years later, showing how fast the beach was eating away. Soon they were covered and they remained a menace to navigation for forty years.

North of this sandbar with the trees, soap factory, hotels, etc., were several "islands," which presumably accounts for the names "Fishermen's Island," "Ward's Island," "Centre Island," still surviving. These places have not been islands in our time. They have been different parts of one peninsula which we have always called "the" Island. Apparently the old peninsula moved north before the onslaughts of the lake and overtook these islets. That it hasn't moved north with them or past them is due to the extensive cribbing and groining along the south shore of the present Island.

The lake broke through the old peninsula in April, 1858, spilling Ashbridge's Bay through a breach half a mile wide. At first this breach was nowhere deep, but currents scoured various passages and small sailing vessels used these as a short-cut into Toronto Bay. The Highland Chief, later wrecked here, and the Eliza, were the first to sail out through it to the lake, on May 31st, 1858. There were at first no markings, no buoys, no piers and, of course, no lighthouse. The gap was buoyed in 1859 and not cribbed till 1890.

It was common practice for the little wood scows and stonehookers to anchor outside and send a small boat ahead to hang lanterns on the buoys, so that they could get through at night. It was thus that the schooner Anna Bellchambers of Frenchman's Bay was lost. She foundered at her anchor, Nov. 25th, 1875.

There were no piers and therefore no Eastern Gap as we know it, until after 1890. The Monarch's boilers were not removed until 1896, after they had wrecked two vessels trying the entrance—the steamer Southern Belle, which was refloated and the schooner Highland Chief, which was not.

Next week we may have more about the Highland Chief. Her wreck was accompanied by a curious example of second sight. And we shall have some more about Tom Tinning's exploits as a lifesaver. The schooner J. B. Beard survived the shock of running ashore on the island, and was refloated. Schooners got scant attention from the newspapers 80 years ago. They were as common as freight trains. What happened to steamers was news. What happened to schooners was nobody's business because it was everybody's business. Perhaps that is why Ben Bobstay scooped the Globe's waterfront reporter by his letter, a week after the wreck of the vessel.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
13 Sep 1941
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.621111 Longitude: -79.378611
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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Shooting Skiff Lifeboat Rescued Schooner Crew: Schooner Days DXII (512)