Maritime History of the Great Lakes
December on Superior Thirty Five Years Ago: Schooner Days DXXIV (524)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 6 Dec 1941
Full Text
December on Superior Thirty Five Years Ago
Schooner Days DXXIV (524)

by C. H. J. Snider


HERE is a recall of the wreck and loss of the Northern Navigation Co. passenger steamer Monarch on the north side of Isle Royal Thursday night, Dec. 6th, 1906, written by Samuel Beatty, who was engineer of the Monarch at the time:

THE MONARCH was down bound on her last trip of the season. She had been in the head-of-the-lake ports for a few days unloading upbound freight, and loading for the down trip with a full cargo of flour for Sarnia. It was quite difficult shifting from shed to shed. However, we finished at the CNR shed, Port Arthur, about 6 p.m., and left immediately for the trip to Sarnia. There was a stormy northeast wind with mist and fine snow falling, and it was very cold and very dark, but we were going along as usual. We sighted the Welcome Isle light, also Thunder Cape when getting well on towards Passage Island.


The purser came to me at the engine room at 10 p.m. and said, "We seem to be making great time to-night. I can't see how we can, for we are deeper loaded than usual. Yes" he said, "we are making great time, we are abreast of the Passage light." I said, "We can't be, for our time due there ain't up for twenty minutes yet." So he says, "Come here to the dead light and take a look." Yes, there you could see it flashing through the snow falling, and the mist rolling along the water owing to the cold air.

While we were discussing getting to the Passage light so soon the Monarch suddenly bumped into a perpendicular wall of rock — the northeast side of the Isle Royal. The impact was so great we were thrown of our feet.


In a few minutes the water was coming back through the engine room like a mill race. We managed to get the passenger gangway open, and took a sounding with a heaving line with a weight on the end of it, but got no bottom at 90 feet. We knew we had to get ashore or get wet for the last time.

All hands went up to try and launch life boats but the boat-falls were all frozen up, and when they got loose they fell in the lake. That ended the life boat tryout. The oilers and myself remained by the engine room. I kept the engine working ahead slow, to keep her from slipping back. The oiler kept putting in coal, firing up until the water drove him out of the fire hole. He certainly was good stuff— a son of Mr. William Gillroy, a U.S. Customs officer. In the meantime I had crawled over the flour to see if a ladder would reach the rock from the anchor shutter. The distance was far too great for any ladder to reach. So I went back to the engine room.


By this time the water had got so high the engine cranks were throwing it around and drowned out the dynamo. So now our light was gone, also the steam. The water had commenced coming in on the after deck and the engine was making its last groan.

It was no use staying back here any longer so I grabbed my coat and a lantern, started up the stairway through the cabin, to be with the rest of the crew, but on my way up I lost my coat and lantern, for chains and every loose article were tumbling down meeting me, and I had to pull myself along by the knobs of the stateroom doors. So when I got through the door and the far end of the cabin I said "Fellows, have you got any connection with the shore yet? I think she is going to slip soon."


"Yes," they said, "we have a man on the rocks with a line fast to anything he can find," and while we were speaking she started back 15 or 20 feet, and broke off at the pilothouse or mate's room. The smoke stack and cabin upper structure went out of sight.

A panic commenced then, slipping, sliding on the slanting peak deck covered with snow and ice. It was like being on a steep pitch of an icy roof. If the boat had slipped back before they got a man on shore it would have been all up with us. And if she had slipped back a few feet more, the man on shore would have had to let go the line, for she just left him enough to hang onto. He would have been on the rocks, and the rest of us on the peak of the bow and frozen stiff before morning. It was 20 below zero at White River that night.


The man that got the rope line ashore was a bridge builder who had been out in B.C. on high bridge construction work. He got them to fasten the line around him, and give him the hook ladder we had for painting the smoke stack, and got them to lower him down level where he thought he could make a landing. They swung him back and forward until he managed to hook the ladder on to a rock, and climbed up and landed.

Just as he landed the boat started to slide back, yet didn't go far enough to pull him off. Another panic, we thinking what was left of the bow above water might go anytime. But by good luck we had another piece of line, and made it fast to the one the man-on shore was holding. So he took it up to a tree, and made it fast, then we made our end fast after pulling in the slack. It was a hard matter to keep the boys off the line until it was ready, but we managed it. So they started across, about forty or fifty feet to the shore and were doing fine, especially the young active fellows.


Miss MacCormack, the cabin maid, was the only woman aboard, and the mate and myself had quite a struggle to get her on the line and started. She was afraid she could not hold on, but we said, "It's the only chance to reach shore." So she took a death grip, and away she went, doing well until her skirts got tangled on a hook that was on the rope. So one of the fellows had to go out on the line and get her clothes untangled. She got over, but much of her skirt was left on the rope. She certainly was a strong woman. It was fortunate we had no women passengers and children aboard.


Most of them had got ashore on the rocks by now, but we heard some shouting down below. Looking over the side I saw a life boat and wreckage which had floated close in between bow and shore. There was a small rope line on the forward capstan, and I used it to slip down into the life boat which was right side up and dry, and shoved up against the rocks by the cabin top and other wreckage drifting in. When I landed in the boat I found two young fellows in it and another hanging on, partly in the water. I don't know whether they fell off the line or how they got there. Another one was holding on to the heel rope of a fender, crying for help. This was the watchman, poor Jacques, that was lost. I could hear him, but could not see him to reach him, and when his hands got numb with cold he had to let go and sink, poor chap. One of the young fellows who fell off into the boat was Steve Fisher, a son of Alex Fisher of Collingwood.

They had to pull us four up out of the life boat, a distance of 12 feet. The other light weights were easy but they came to my 210 lb. weight it was a different job. I never drew a breath until I got my elbows on the flat rock, then I drew a long easy one, so pleased the small line didn't break and let me down.

We were now all ashore except poor Jacques. The captain didn't make any effort to get off. Teddy Robertson was his name, and he had been in the Monarch from the first trip to this last. Probably to cross on the line was too much for him to try. And as his room was intact he got in there out of the wind, and chanced staying on board until daylight. We left him there, calling we would surely get him off in the morning. He was well clothed, having on a fur coat and cap and felt boots, also bedroom blankets to put around himself. He was in a lot better position to fight the cold than the rest of us.


Left on this flat rock we said "If we can't get up any higher into the bush we will freeze here," so we started to walk along to the right, and came to a place where the rock parted, and we started into the opening to get out of the wind, but we kept on going in and up until we landed away up in the bush. Coming to a curly bark birch tree I gave some of the boys matches to light the bark on the tree. In less than a minute they had the bark afire, going right up to the top, lighting up the whole place around. This brought a cheer from us all.

The flash of the Passage Isle lighthouse through the bush gave us an idea where we were, and by the light from the birch tree we gathered wood and made on a good fire to thaw ourselves out. By daylight the weather was quite calm, and the upper structure of the cabin and wreckage floated in and became frozen solid. We lowered the shore end of the line down on the wreckage, and tying himself onto the line for safety the captain slid down on to wreckage and we pulled him up onto the rocks. Before he left he threw down an axe that was in front of the pilot house. This came in handy for getting firewood. When we landed him the poor old fellow was black in the face and badly frozen, especially his feet. He had to have some toes amputated in Sarnia Hospital when he arrived home. We made a wigwam of brush, to shield him and the purser, steward, and the cabin maid, Miss MacCormick from the cold wind.


Friday morning when we were getting off the wreck we also got a few half bags of flour that floated in, and cooked the wet dough on the end of a stick over our fire. This was our bill of fare while we were on the island, and it was all right, this wet dough. Each one could cook it to suit himself, so there was no kicking. We carried wood down to the point, through deep snow, and made a fire opposite Passage Isle lighthouse and the course of the boats down bound, but we never got a toot of a horn or a whistle from any of them. Probably owing to the frozen vapours of the water they didn't notice our smoke.

Saturday morning we did the same thing, but without success. It was hard work to keep our fire going through a sixteen-hour night, especially for men living on half-cooked dough.

Some started murmuring, I said, "Tobin Bay is across the island here not more than a few miles to the south, and I've noticed some houses up in the bay. If any you fellows would care to do some exploring you might go over and find out if there is any building or people living there. It may be a summer resort."

Four said they would go, the two oilers, one was Walter Howden, of Collingwood, now deceased, and young Gillroy from the American Soo. The other two I don't remember, but I think Dave Mylen, the second engineer, was one, and the other Malcom MacMurchy. They started off about noon. As the sun was now shining I told them to walk towards the sun and they would have a fair chance of reaching the bay at the right spot on the south shore of Isle Royal. I also told them if they found any houses or shelter not to come back until the next day, as they might be caught in the bush after dark and get lost, and be attacked by wolves. There were plenty of them around, for they kept howling at us throughout the night.


The weather had become clear and calm Saturday afternoon and there was a high cliff of rocks just to the starboard of the bow of the Monarch. This gave us a clear view of lighthouse, and it of us, with the wreck between. I came to the conclusion it was a good place to have a fire going, about the time he started his light for the night, so we carried up wood. We got the fire going good about the right time, for after a few flashes from his light he blew the fog horn good and plenty, to let us know he had seen us. This was a very great relief to us all.

Next morning being Sunday it was very calm and the keeper of the light came in his boat over to us. He was sure a very welcome visitor. He said he could see the bow of the Monarch sticking up from the light from the fire. We lowered Rig Beaumont, the purser, down into his boat with a rope, and he left with the keeper for the lighthouse so as they could hail or signal a passing steamer to stop and give report of what had happened.


The first vessel down bound Sunday afternoon was the Edmonton, one of the Mathews line boats at that time. They stopped the Edmonton and put the purser aboard, and the captain turned around and headed back for Fort William, 45 miles away, or about 90 miles out of his road. Most likely he murmured a little to himself having to run 90 miles extra, which would have put him halfway across Lake Superior. But when the Edmonton arrived at Fort William they spread the news and the purser notified the Northern Navigation office. They got busy and arranged to have two tugs to start early Monday morning. The tugs were the Whalen and the Laura Grace.

We were anxiously waiting when we sighted them about 10 a.m. Monday to the north of the Island. The wind had got blowing fresh from the N.E., so they could not make a landing near the wreck, or where we were, They circled around the point towards Tobin Bay.

The four fellows sent to look for Tobin Bay Saturday had not returned. This give me some worry, so we broke up camp and started through the bush to where we thought the tugs could land, the mate, Dan MacLaughlin, and myself taking the lead, and Miss MacCormack, the cabin maid, in the rear with her torn skirts trailing after her. We had not gone very far along the shore when we found a rowboat pulled up, stocked with provisions of all kinds, tea, sugar, bacon, also a rifle, a hand foghorn and many other things. "So," we said, "the four fellows who went to look for Tobin Bay found a storehouse, and are on their way back have met the tugs and left that boat here to give us a surprise."

Walking farther we meet some men of the tug, and found our four were, as we thought, already aboard. One of the tugmen was Hugh Myler, who was engineer at the time on the steamer Saronic and now chief engineer of the C.S.L. steamer Renvoyle. The Saronic, originally the United Empire, was a sister ship of the Monarch, and was at the head-of-the-lake ports at the time, Hugh's brother David had been second engineer on the Monarch and I was anxious about him.

They were a very welcome bunch, and after traveling some distance we came in sight of the tugs. There was a sheet of ice formed in the bay so they had run into the ice, which held them from drifting around. We had to walk over this thin ice to get aboard.


Back for Fort William started the tugs with all on board happy over the prospect of a few square meals to catch up. The four who went to Tobin Bay told us what they found there—a number of summer tourist houses all stocked up with everything, tea, sugar, flour, fuel and kindling to light the fire and beds all made up, so the boys had a glorious time all to themselves as there was no caretaker.

We arrived back to Fort William about 7 p.m., just four days from the time we left Port Arthur in the Monarch. They loaded us all on the Huronic for Sarnia except the captain, He went home to Sarnia by rail.

The Monarch and the United Empire originally were the Beatty Line passenger steamers of Sarnia and running between Sarnia, Fort William and Duluth, but later taken over by the Northern Navigation Company. The Monarch was built about the year 1890 and if she had got home safe to Sarnia in her last trip Dec. 6th, 1906, it would be her sixteenth season in commission.

The United Empire was about 10 years older, being built in 1880 or thereabout. They were both very staunchly built steamships and certainly well named. They were built to replace two older boats, the Ontario and Quebec.

The Beatties saw to it that they were built with the best of white oak and steel arches running fore and aft on the sides. So I think they were two of the strongest of oak built ships of their size in America, being about 270 feet in length.

I believe Mr. Henry Beatty, who was the manager of the C.P.R. steamships, took the model or design of the United Empire with him to the Old Country to give them an idea what he wanted for the C.P.R. fleet on the lakes here.



THE MONARCH, pride of the Beatty Line in 1890, was built of white oak with arches of steel running fore and aft to stiffen her.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
6 Dec 1941
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 48.1889 Longitude: -88.435616
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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December on Superior Thirty Five Years Ago: Schooner Days DXXIV (524)