Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Weird Fates of one or more "Highland Chiefs": Schooner Days DXXXIX (539)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 23 May 1942
Full Text
Weird Fates of one or more "Highland Chiefs"
Schooner Days DXXXIX (539)

by C. H. J. Snider


BLOWN up-—in a dream—by the explosion of boilers she had never possessed, and sunk next day by boilers a real steamer lost seventeen years before, was the ultimate fate of a schooner (or schooners, for "she" may have been more than one vessel with the same name) which, according to the register, had been built in three different places, and had already been wrecked with the loss of all hands on two different lakes.

Such is the complicated career of a craft of about 80 feet overall length which wore the name of Highland Chief for thirty-nine years while the schooner era climbed to its apex on the Great Lakes.

LONG, lean, crank, fast and wet was the Highland Chief; steered with a long tiller with two relieving tackles when she got heavy on the helm; was painted black, with a red petticoat, like the Macgregor tartan, which is black and red.

The description is the late Magistrate J. J. O'Connor's, for the writer never saw her. She came to a curious end long before he was born. But from the descriptions of old sailors, she seems to have been a smaller but loftier edition of the Highland Beauty, which he knew well, and which was—-at times—-similarly painted, and was also long, lean, crank when light, and fast at all times. The Beauty, however, was not designed to be a schooner, but a steam yacht. And she was "converted" while she was still in frame, and finished with fifteen feet of her originally planned stern left off.

Coming out of Oswego in Magistrate O'Connor's time, with the wind howling and driving sheets of rain as heavy as the sheets of spray the schooner tossed off, John Cuthbert, who was sailing the Highland Chief, and driving her hard as usual, asked young Bob Greenlaw where he'd sooner be than where he was. Bob, shipped for his first trip in Frenchman's Bay, had no oilskins, and was dodging as much of Lake Ontario and the skies above as he could, under the lee of the mainsail.

"Darned if I would trade places with Jim Peake's dog lying under the stone," said Bob, with conviction. Jim Peake was a famous Pickering character, with an equally famous brown spaniel who was at his best as a hunter when left at home with a good fire on.


BEGINNING at the end of the Highland Chief - because her birth seems obscure, and she may have been twins or triplets - it came about this way, to quote that good friend of Schooner Days, Capt. John Williams of Toronto:

"One day" - it was the 20th of September, 1873 - "we sailed out of Frenchman's Bay in the Brothers, and came to on the shore up near Port Union, and began to load gravel from the beach. A little vessel was lying at the wharf that stuck out at Port Union then, loading stone for Toronto. It was the Highland Chief, which we knew well, for we had often seen her in Frenchman's Bay, where she belonged. In fact, she had sailed out of Frenchman's Bay ahead of us this very morning. She used to load stone hauled down to the wharf from old Mr. Garner's farm and others. He had owned her. He kept a country store in Dunbarton, opposite the head of the bay. We had many a brush with her in the Brothers. She could beat us by the wind, but we could hold her running.

"'Well, I did have a strange dream last night', said my brother, Joe, 'and seeing that Highland Chief there reminds me of it. I saw her along near Toronto with a baffling wind, standing off and on, and all at once it seemed she turned into a steamboat, for her boilers blew up and she sank.'

"We laughed with Joe at the thought of the little low narrow schooner turning into a steamboat and having boilers to blow up. The Highland Chief got the last of her stone aboard and came out past us while we worked. She went on up to Toronto with a northwesterly wind, on long legs and short ones. We did not get up until next day, and as we came by the Eastern Gap, which was the uncribbed and unlighted, we saw the masts of the Highland Chief sticking up out of the water.

"'By golly, her boilers have blown up', said Joe.

"We came on in, and learned that the day before, when the Highland Chief tried to beat in through the unmarked channel the wind baffled her off and she had struck on the boilers of the steamer Monarch, wrecked there on the 29th of November, 1856. She went down quickly, for she was deep laden with stone. And that was the end of her, and of Joe's dream."

It was a coincidence that the Highland Chief should have been one of the two first vessels—the Eliza of Toronto being the other—to navigate the Eastern Gap of Toronto Harbor when it first came into being in the second year after the wreck of the Monarch. The Gap was a far different thing than the present dredged, cribbed and concreted channel so named, with its Hydro towers and lighthouses. The lake broke through the long sandbar which sheltered Toronto harbor from the south on April 13th, 1858, making a 1,500 foot breach, and on May 31st of that year the two schooners mentioned, each drawing five feet of water, gingerly picked their way out through the shifting channel which had developed. From the wood wharves to which they traded, in the vicinity of the old St. Lawrence Market, the new Gap saved them five miles of sailing if they were bound to the eastward. Hitherto they had sailed around the Island, entering by the Western Gap and leaving in the same manner; it was the only way.


ALTHOUGH finally wrecked in 1873, the Highland Chief appeared in the newly instituted Dominion Register of 1874, as owned by Wm. Gorman (Garner?) at Pickering and being 52 tons register, 72 feet long from stem to sternpost, 14 feet 6 inches beam, and 5 feet depth of hold. This corresponds with Magistrate O'Connor's description of her, long, lean and low. Small vessels were often only three times as long as they were wide, but this gives her five beams to a length, a very narrow proportion. If five feet was actually the depth of her hold she was also very shoal, even for a centre-boarder. Half of her beam, or seven feet, would have been normal. Magistrate O'Connor recalled her as a standing-keel vessel, which seems probable in view of her early building date. She may have dropped her shoe or false-keel and substituted a centreboard later. The shallow depth and narrow beam would make her "crank" or easily capsized, and when wrecked with the loss of all hands it may have been that she first rolled over and then was washed in on the beach.

This Dominion record gives Port Credit as the place of her building, and 1841 as the date; a hundred and one years ago. She may have been built even earlier than that.

The late Capt. Alexander Ure, a Scottish ship carpenter who came to Dunbarton at the head of Frenchmans Bay in 1869, and owned and sailed many schooners, told the writer he did a great deal of repair work on the Highland Chief and owned her at the time she was lost. Possibly he took her over from a neighbor. Melton or Nelson Garner or both, had been earlier owners, and another earlier owner was Daniel Marks, father of the late Capt. Jack Marks of the R.C.Y.C. launch service. In Robert Thomas' Marine Register of 1864 the Highland Chief is described as of 80 tons burden, owned by D. Marks, Toronto, and built in Frenchman's Bay in 1840.

The tonnage here differs from the Dominion register of ten years later, but very wide discrepancies are shown in all the early records of tonnage. While the system of measurement was roughly the same in Canada and the United States—taking length, breadth and depth and dividing by a constant—the deductions differed, and the way of taking length, breadth and depth varied. What was registered as the burden or "burthen" of the vessel was usually about half the number of tons of dead weight she would carry. This must be borne in mind in the further tangled references to the Highland Chief.

It will be noted also that the place of building was given in 1864 as Frenchman's Bay, thirty miles or more east of Port Credit, mentioned as her building place in the earliest Dominion register.


GOING back another eight years brings us to the list of Canadian lake vessels compiled by the Toronto Globe in 1856, long before there was any Dominion register This is said to be the earliest attempt at a complete list, and in it the Highland Chief appears as built at Frenchman's Bay in 1840, owned in 1856 by Messrs. Scott and Bellchambers of that place, and of only 40 tons measurement. The measurements in this list are usually smaller than later measurements for the same vessels; John Ryan is given as the master of the Highland Chief in 1856.

This account was written from Capt. Miller's information when he was ninety-four years of age. He did not mention where he built the Highland Chief, which, may have been the Humber, nor what became of her after her wreck on Point Abino. It is a far cry from the Humber to Port Credit and thence to Frenchman's Bay, Presqu'isle Point, and Point Abino. It may be that there was more than one Highland Chief, and that their stories are intermingled. It hardly helps to disentangle them to know that there was also a Credit Chief, of 80 tons, built in Port Credit and owned by John Robinson in 1856.

But it seems probable that the Highland Chief was one and the same vessel, from 1834 to 1873, which is not a phenomenally long lifetime for a wooden ship. Miller was an itinerant builder, and his handiwork was launched at Burlington, Oakville, Port Dover, Port Ryerse, and other places. He may have built the Highland Chief at the Humber, where the Toronto Yacht was built as early as 1799, and other small vessels were built later. She may have beep owned and registered in Port Credit, either before or after going to Lake Erie through the then-new Welland Canal. Several small schooners—-the Enterprise, George Dow, Island Queen, Arthur Hanna, John Pugsley, among them, came from Lake Erie to Port Credit. David Boyle was not writing from his own knowledge, but from tradition, and Point Abino may have been confused with Presqu'isle Point on Lake Ontario, in accounting for Thomas Scott's acquisition of this wreck-surviving Highlander. There are three or four Presqu'isles on the Great Lakes, and one of them is opposite Point Abino on Lake Erie, in a diagonal direction on the south shore, forming the harbor of the city of Erie.

Scott and Bellchambers as owners seems to identify the vessel as the one mentioned by David Boyle in Scarboro, 1796-1896: "One son, James Adams, was a sailor, and part owner with Daniel Knowles of the Highland Chief, a vessel built at the Humber River about 1834. This vessel was last in a great storm on the lakes when all hands perished. The wreck was driven ashore at Presqu'isle Point, overhauled and ultimately sold to Thomas Scott."

This shifts the Highland Chief's birthplace far from Frenchman's Bay, although not as far as Port Credit. A reasonable explanation would be that the vessel, wherever built originally, and wherever wrecked, was rebuilt or repaired at Frenchman's Bay after Thomas Scott, a Frenchman's Bay man bought her, and that she was later further repaired by Capt. Ure. Bellchambers was a hotelkeeper and owned shares in several Frenchman's Bay schooners, one of them being named Anna Bellchambers after his daughter.


J.J. Wadsorth, secretary of the Norfolk Historical Society, wrote in 1902 an interesting sketch of the life and work of Capt. W.G. Miller, an early shipbuilder who learned his trade at Burlington Beach, where he himself, a young American lad, was wrecked in 1824. He built many sailing vessels and steamers on the north shore of Lake Ontario, and some on Lake Erie. His biographer says:

"In 1834 Mr. Miller built the Highland Chief, which sailed on Lake Erie, but her career was short. The memorable storm of 1834, that threw vessels high and dry on the front streets of Buffalo, and burst open the neck of land that joined Long Point and Walshingham, formed the Cut (since silted up, onto Long Point Bay) also wrecked the Highland Chief on the rocky shore of Point Abino.

"Capt. Miller walked twelve miles along the shore from Buffalo, and there beheld the remains of his vessel, the victim of Erie's fury. Nor was she the only victim for every should aboard her was lost."


CAPT. ALEX. URE, when he rebuilt the Highland Chief, lived at Dunbarton and wore the tartan on state occasions.

Wreck of the MONARCH, whose boilers brought other vessels to grief.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
23 May 1942
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.8175 Longitude: -79.0925
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 42.836111 Longitude: -79.095277
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.65011 Longitude: -79.3829
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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Weird Fates of one or more "Highland Chiefs": Schooner Days DXXXIX (539)