Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Perhaps This Solves Highlands' Secret: Schooner Days DXXIII (523)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 29 Nov 1941
Full Text
Perhaps This Solves Highlands' Secret
Schooner Days DXXIII (523)

by C. H. J. Snider


ONE dark night eighty odd years ago, when the roar of the surf at the foot of the Highlands of Scarboro mingled with the sighing of the pines and oaks and elms on their crest in a great anthem of the elements, a small group of weary men staggered up the Nigger Gully. Here the Highlands were at their highest, towering three hundred feet sheer above the boiling lake. Then as now the Nigger Gully was a gash in their face, a slanted sabre scar in the eternal warfare of land and lake, a side slash from the lake's ally, the rain. Ages before, a tear of rainwater, reinforced by a hidden spring, had begun to furrow the stern cheek of the cliff. It had grown into a great wound, cleaving back into the forest, and giving the only passage upward from the lake for any unequipped with wings.

Lake water squelched in the sea-boots of the climbing men and drained from their clothing, from their sou'westers downwards. They were shipwrecked sailors, seeking aid. As they staggered towards the heights they saw a light, a dim tallow candle all alone in the dark. Steering for it as the ground permitted they came to a farm clearing, and in the clearing a pioneer cabin of squared logs. It was from the cabin the light shone. They pounded on the door.

"We're from the Jessie Woods — She's pounding to pieces at the foot of the cliff — Get us help!" they gasped.

To say "the Jessie Woods" was like mentioning the Dalhousie City or the Chippewa in these times. Everybody in the lakefront townships knew the Jessie Woods, the Niagara boat, one of three sisters built by the Niagara Harbor and Dock Company at Newark, or Niagara-on-the-Lake, in the seven year period between 1832 and 1839.

Niagara was then a shipping centre quite as important as Toronto, and the Jessie Woods had been the pride of the Niagara sailing fleet. Steamers had not entirely supplanted the schooners, even as passenger packets, and the Jessie Woods had "superior accommodations," as they were then advertised, for ladies and gentlemen crossing the lake. Governor Simcoe and his lady voyaged by sail between Toronto and Niagara, and the best people did so for long afterwards, although steamers had begun to cut heavily into the passenger traffic before the Jessie Woods was launched.

William Humphrey's first question was "Any passengers? Anybody left on board?" He was told all had got ashore. But the vessel had a valuable cargo and the captain had hopes that it could be salvaged and perhaps even the vessel herself could be hauled off once she had been lightened of her load. He had come to the right spot, for old William Cornwall, Cornwell, or Cornell (the name was spelled all three ways in 1800 when he settled in Scarboro) was a sailor and shipowner and his farm was near that of the Humphreys. He had built a pioneer schooner at Rosebank, at the mouth of the Rouge, when the bluff was called Billy's Point, and she had been confiscated at Ogdensburg by the American embargo which preceded the War of 1812. His sons, with Willy Humphrey's help, roused the neighbors and hurried down the Nigger Gully with lanterns, ropes, and anything they thought would be of service. Others set off for Toronto for further assistance. By daylight, with the sea going down, the salvage corps was in operation.

The schooner had first struck at some distance out, being a deep-draught vessel with a standing keel, but the pounding of the breakers had driven her in close to the tiny shelf of beach somewhere near what is now the Guild of All Arts. She was close to the cliffs, and it was easy to get aboard her. Proceeding systematically, her perishable cargo was hoisted out first—-cases of Young Hyson and Bohea tea, barrels of sugar, boxes of shoes, groceries, cutlery, hardware and drygoods. The lake schooners were the express service of the first half of the nineteenth century, before the railways came through, and wagon trains met them at wharves or even at creek mouths, to carry their cargoes inland. The whole countryside, for miles back in the bush, as far as the forest roads ran, was served by schooner. It was certainly not intended that the Jessie Woods should land her cargo at the foot of the Highlands of Scarboro, for that was a most inconvenient spot, but she had often before landed it on the beach and wagons had completed delivery.

As the hold emptied the narrow beach took on the appearance of the midway of a fair, for the goods were piled up wherever they would be above the water,and hundreds of helpers--and others--engaged in the slow and laborious task of dragging the cases up the Nigger Gully, or the next gap, farther east, or in ferrying the boxes away by rowboat.

They were not all helpers, and the wornout crew of the Jessie Woods spent as much time chasing away pilferers as they did in salvaging the cargo. The Humphrey boys and the Cornells were appointed night watchmen, to keep thieves away in the dark. To keep themselves awake they brewed a kettle of tea. It was green, and the resultant liquid pale in color. To add strength they heaped the leaves in until the brew was richer in hue and so potent it would have floated the Jessie Woods, could it have been squirted under her. Willy Humphrey and Willy Cornell were so dizzy with the dish that for a time they could not tell which was the top and which was the bottom of the Highlands.

Underneath the case goods the Jessie Woods was laden with slabs of fine marble, imported from the United States, in thicknesses proper for tombstones, mantel-pieces and the marble tops of dressers, wash stands and tables which N. L. Steiner, the skillful sculptor from Bohemia, turned out from his Toronto studio. (Mr. Steiner carved a notable bust of the Prince Consort for the Toronto City Hall, and became an aldermanic occupant himself of the council chamber which the bust adorned.) The marble was excellent ballast, but it held the Jessie Woods down all too well. Even after some of it had been got ashore or thrown overboard she failed to float, for she was full of water. Reluctantly, her captain gave orders to strip her completely, so as to save her gear, sails and spars, and while this was in process another storm arose, and the poor schooner, held on the bottom by the remaining marble, broke up.

THIS ancient disaster is recounted in the effort to identify the wreckage at the foot of the Highlands near Centre Point, which has been forming a topic for end-of-the-season discussion. The eight or ten white oak ribs and the few strakes of narrow eight-inch planking, worn to two inches thickness, which The Telegram writer uncovered there recently, far above the present lake level, may be the side of a vessel wrecked elsewhere and thrown up into its present position by a very high sea or very extensive ice pack.

As said in earlier articles, these timbers and their adhering spikes and other fastenings would be suitable for a vessel of 150 tons register; and 150 tons was the recorded measurement of the Jessie Woods. So a tentative identification of the wreckage as that of the Jessie Woods is put forward. Not dogmatically, but in the hope that, if it is incorrect, the disproof of it will lead to the proper identification.

It is admitted that there is nothing, in the eighty or ninety-year-old story of the loss of the Jessie Woods, to prove that she was lost at the exact spot where this wreckage has been uncovered. All the evidence is that she was wrecked a mile or a mile and a half farther west, and it is believed that, her keel and parts of her bottom are still embedded where she struck. The wreckage over which dinghies were sailing this summer is said to be close to the Nigger Gully, to the westward, and it is also said that slabs of marble have been seen in the lake in this vicinity, and have been dived for often by campers. If marble remains in this wreck under the water it would be pretty good proof that, this was the Jessie Woods.

But that would not prove that the other wreckage, a mile away, was not hers also. When she broke up, her bulwarks, decks and sides were torn off, and floated ashore, either piecemeal, plank by plank, or in large sections. It can be said with certainty that this wreckage now found at the foot of the Highlands, high and dry inland above the water level, is in a position where part of the Jessie Woods might be expected to be found, after strong southwest gales.

THE marble cargo of the Jessie Woods follows her like the trail of a paper chase. There is the green shimmer of the stone in the water which canoes and dinghies have reported from time to time. There are marble fragments found in the scanty sand of the beach. There are the marble slabs built into Scarboro's fine memorial cross. There are marble slabs used as well-covers, milk coolers, window-stoppers and plant stands in Scarboro homes.

At a garden party in Scarboro six years ago Mr. James G. Cornell, whose ancestral home is on the Kingston road considerably north of the wreck, showed one of the marble slabs, marked with nine circles where geranium pots have been stood for generations for watering. He also showed an octagonal Waterbury clock which had hung in the Jessie Woods' cabin—-part, probably of the "superior acccommdations." These things had been rewards from the captain for valiant efforts as salvager and night watchman. The clock came to Mr. Cornell from the Humphrey family.

Albert S. Humphrey, seventy-eight, also of Scarboro, has a marble slab which has been used as a well cover for many years; a matter of pride with the Humphrey family, for William Humphrey, Albert's father, carried it up the Highlands on his back. No chore for less than a giant, for it weighs two hundred pounds, and even up the Nigger Gully, or down east where the wreckage had been uncovered, the path is very steep.

The marble was given to William Humphrey. Also some chains, which have been called the anchor cables of the Jessie Woods, but are more probably her bowsprit shrouds or other headgear. They are light for chain cable. But they are very strong, and when they were used in logging operations on the Humphrey farm the strongest horses could not break them. Mr. Humphrey also has a crowbar, which is thought to have come from the Jessie Woods, or perhaps, more accurately, was used in the salvage operations. Well preserved grandson of the pioneers, Mr. Humphrey can still use the bar vigorously.

That the Jessie Woods was considered a particularly fine packet ship in her time is proved by the pains an artist named A. C. Currie took to depict her in 1836. His picture, showing her flag-decked like an excursion steamer, dropping down the river past the American lighthouse, is preserved in the Niagara Historical Society's collection in the Niagara Museum. The decorations of the quarter-badges and cabin windows for the passenger accommodation under the raised quarterdeck are emphasized, although it is not quite clear how the cabin was divided. The vessel was white hulled, with a fine figurehead, probably modeled from Miss Jessie herself, the daughter of one of the Niagara Dock Co. directors. The schooner rig of 1836 would be a decided antique to-day; sails loosefooted instead of being laced to the booms, a square topsail with reef-bands, a topgallantsail above it, and on the mainmast a square headed gafftopsail laced to a yard, like a lugsail, the like of which no living lake sailor has seen. The Jessie Woods probably had the same rig when she was lost; it would necessitate a crew of six or eight men, double the number that had to make good in the fore and-aft schooners of fifty years later.

The year the Jessie Woods was lost is not known. There is a record of her on the old Port Whitby Harbor Co. books in 1855. She was probably lost that year, for Mr. Humphrey is certain that she was gone before his father was married, and that was in 1856.

The log cabin where the sailors sought aid is still standing near me head of Nigger Gully.


Clock and marble slab from the Jessie Woods in possession of Mr. J. G. Cornell, Scarboro.

Dropping down the Niagara river a hundred and five years ago—a picture of the JESSIE WOODS from a contemporary Niagara artist's work.

"JESSIE WOODS"—her name spelled in the links of the chains of her headgear. In the centre, Mr. A. S. Humphreys, holding a crowbar his father used in salvaging the cargo.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
29 Nov 1941
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
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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Perhaps This Solves Highlands' Secret: Schooner Days DXXIII (523)