Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Sailing Ontario in Wonder Year 1943: Schooner Days DLXCIV (594)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 12 Jun 1943
Full Text
Sailing Ontario in Wonder Year 1943
Schooner Days DLXCIV (594)

by C. H. J. Snider


Featuring -
Fish on the Front Steps, Split Steamers, Islands that sink and swim, Cannon-fire Echoes a hundred and thirty years ago


"THERE were giants in those days," but those who sail the lakes this Year of Grace see signs and wonders quite as marvelous as any recorded when schooners or square riggers queened freshwater and smoke plumes only meant burning cordwood.

First of all there is the high water, but before coming to that hearken to these true reports of this year's mirages. They have been more fantastic, perhaps because there is more water, and it has stayed colder longer in contrast to the air above.


On June 5th, when two miles south of Gibraltar Point light (begun in 1803 [sic] and still shining), a brand new uncharted island suddenly sprang up from the lake. It looked to be separated from the "mainland" of Toronto Island by half a mile of water. The two gaps or mouths of the strait between could be seen very distinctly. This phantom island looked to be half a mile long, with clay cliffs like Scarboro Bluffs, only 30 or 40 feet high, at one end, and woods tapering down to the water at the other. It had a lighthouse on it at the very edge of the water, fatter than the lighthouse of 1803, which showed slim half a mile behind it. It did not dance or shimmer, but slowly submerged until its treetops stood like rushes in a flooded swamp. They, too, disappeared, and then the whole island came up again half a mile farther east. It hovered for ten minutes and winked out.

Just the sun on the sand and a little reflected heat, plus refraction. June 5th was a "pet" day, highly colored, for a few hours a perfect day in June, warm and bright with light winds blowing two ways at once, from south and east. The next day was overcast and cold.


While the "island" still floated, the oil tanker Joan Marguerite, three miles away, first had a double suspended above her. She has a short foremast and a tall slender funnel. In the double, mast and funnel were equally thick. Next the double was cut in two, the forward half remaining, the other vanishing.

On Saturday, May 22nd, fence-like cliffs a hundred feet high were visible along the lake shore where there is nothing but a narrow beach of sand and gravel to reflect the light and refract it through the varying density of warming air above water still winter chilled almost to freezing point.

On May 29th we saw a series of tidal waves, apparently as high as houses, breaking in mile long rollers under Marigold Point. They looked like the Niagara rapids above the falls, greatly exaggerated, particularly as to length. There was no sea at all running in the lake, and nothing but ripples lapping the shore. But the air distorted and magnified these like a concave mirror. As we left the area astern the vision vanished; but a saltwater man would have felt justified in battening down all hatches, lashing everything to the deck, stripping all sail and reeving preventer gear, at the sight of so much water in motion.

Mirages are not uncommon on the lakes in summer and fall but are not seen often in winter or spring, whichever this season is. They seem to favor, this year, appearances of ports and harbors where none exist, or have existed. We have heard of mirages of the south shore so plain that travelling automobiles, or their images, could be seen from Gibraltar Point. Alan Howard, who lives there all the year round, was one who saw these.


As far back as the records of lake levels go—1846—there have been periods of high and low water, not daily tides, though we have something like that, nor seasonal, following spring thaws or heavy rains, but undulatory levels, years apart. There is no regularity about them, but the range between "high" and "low" averages about seven years. It may be four years from high water to low water, and then it may take eleven years to get back to high, and five to fall again, and so on.

In the early days even steamers approached their landing places with great circumspection, sounding as they came near, anchoring, lowering their boats, and warping into their berths by running lines ashore and heaving these in by hand, windlass or capstan.

Capt. Hugh Richardson, who commanded the early steamer Canada in 1826, reported that on approaching the Niagara River the leadsman in the chains on one occasion hailed "Five fathoms!" where the captain knew there had been only three the year before. He sharply ordered the leadsman to cast again and read his line aright, and the leadsman came back with "Five fathoms!" This time Richardson himself noted that the line, though plumb, was wet to the five-fathom mark, so he recorded the surmise that the lake had risen twelve feet since last he had been over the spot.

Greater rises and drops have been claimed for Lake Erie than for any other lake, and it is a fact that one gale deposited schooners on the market square in Buffalo, fifteen feet above normal water level. But we are handicapped in interpreting these old reports, became they were not recorded upon any "known datum. We now use 243 feet above mean tide level at New York for Ontario's base line or grade, and the water had climbed 6 feet and one-half inch over that by June 9th at Toronto.

It was only because of phenomenally high water—plus some ingenious "camels" or pontoons, that Commodore Perry was able to float his new brigs out of the harbor of Erie, Penn., in 1813, and bring a preponderance of force against the gay and gallant Barclay to win the battle of Put-In Bay.


Lake Ontario rang with cannon shots from Toronto Island to Burlington Bay and from the Genesee river to the False Ducks, when Commodore Yeo and Commodore Chauncey were battling on the run hundred and thirty years ago. Lake Ontario is now staked out with bobbing buoys from Bronte to Grimsby and Frenchman's Bay to Whitby, and in many other places. The thud of artillery testing and depth charges burbles through the waves like a rum jar being decanted. It rattles windows forty miles away and frightens the shad to death. The silver bodies of the 1943 hatch already strew the frigid lake water in thousands; although they seldom succumb until affected, it was supposed, by the July sun warming the water.

This year of the highest recorded water is nothing new, but exceedingly inconvenient for summer cottagers, clubs, wharfingers, those who suffer from mosquito bites; and those who inveighed against the "Chicago steal" of 12,000 cubic feet per second from the lakes. It is right up the alley both of the power interests who profit by the sewage canal which takes the extra water and of all other power plants. And still no one can explain how you can take 12,000 feet of water away every second and still have three feet; more of it than last year on your front lawn.


If times were normal this would also be a bonanza for the navigation companies, for "every extra inch of water means another $1,000,000," was the old anthem of the lake carriers. War conditions give them all the millions that are good for them as it is, but we are like to hear of many record lake-head cargoes this season, like the Benjamin P. Fairless 17,101 tons of iron ore. Deeper water gives a chance to float them through the Great Lakes' bottleneck in the Straits of Detroit. Personally, we still bank on the Canadian bulk freighter LeMoyne for highline load toter.


Carp are browsing on the drowned flowerbeds of some homes on Toronto Island—the real one, on which you pay taxes, not the one which swims or sinks. Cottagers who hope the early morning splashing is the faithful milkman, rubber-tired in seaboots, delivering the milk on the doorstep are disappointed to find it was only the carp ploughing their way across the front walk.

The Yacht Club lawns were never greener—the R.C.Y.C., with 400 members on active service, is still above water—but the lilacs were never later, and the launches were never higher. Stepladders are needed to get aboard them from the main pier. The little wharves in the Yacht Club lagoon, wrenched out by the roots by the winter's ice and left hanging in the air like Mahomet's coffin, have floated away.

It is curious what a good tooth-puller the lake is. The lagoon freezes solid in winter around the stout piles, driven into the mud, on which these wharves are built. When the water begins to rise it lifts the whole blanket of ice, pulling the piles up with it.

The banks of the lagoon looked rather like a wrecked U-boat nest, decorated by graceful white-hulled peace craft nuzzling the greensward formerly sacred to quoits, horseshoes, tennis, bowls and croquet.

From a setting like this last month we started on a high water inspection tour with the foghorn blaring. It goes every day almost because the frigid lake, with its water 30 above zero at the bottom and about 40 or top, chills the warm air above it and condenses it in fog particles. We were on a cruise to see—and feel—high water and low temperatures

In the lake it was bitter cold though a warm day ashore and dry for a change. It was 55 in the warmest part of the ship. The water was 40 above zero. We slept in everything we had, including our hats and three blankets apiece.


Bronte, approached with caution last year because of our 8-ft. draught, could be entered with the only worry being over whether the anchor could find the bottom before the water froze solid. Much of the west pier was out, and the lake lapped the remaining pierdecks and washed over the floors of some of the cottages.

Oakville, too, was just like Venice with the Doge's palace washed out and the Lion of St. Mark gone swimming with the four bronze horses. Some of the boathouses and one dwelling had fallen into the harbor in the excitement, and the water was up to their gables, so near the launches couldn't get under the eaves. Some of the west pier had gone. We anchored and swung in Tannery Basin, where for years we couldn't get in with a mooring line, and we landed beside the Oakville Club by rowing over its submerged "float."

When we sought the accustomed hospitality of the Oshawa Yacht Club we found Gordon Conant's picture still smiling from the wall, but the usual cheery grate fire black and cold. Lake water over the hearthstone, and half a dozen Balmy Beach sea scouts, who had braved the lake in an open lifeboat, mackinaw rig, were roosting like frozen gulls on the floor above.

Port Dalhousie looked as though Muir Brothers' ninety-year-old timber pond, above Lock 1 in the old Welland Canal, had slipped down into the lake, though the amusement' park was still above water.

We looked in at many other places —including Port Credit, which will have to wait till next week, but need not worry about dying unchristened.

The lake was littered with thousands of cords of driftwood—sawlogs, big trees, roots and all, wharf timbers, boathouses, landing stages, loose planks, twigs and branches. They had been washed from above, high water mark by the rising waves, and were blowing about, offering tons of fuel for the thrifty.

Among them thousands of shad wriggled, bottom up, in their pitiful death circles, or floated, silent, silver, and deader then dried herring.The gulls weren't bothering with them. Perhaps they knew by experience that eating dead shad is bad for the live bird. They perched on every fragment of wreckage they could find, to keep out of the frigid water as much as possible, and they held noisy debates, getting on Hansard their disapproval of the fishermen for not feeding them.

These, too, have been driven from their boat houses by the high water, but their industrious netbuoys sprinkled the lake almost as thickly as bombing targets or artillery area warnings.


YES, IT WAS COLD IN THE LAKE—Off Toronto on the first cruise of the season, begun Friday, May 21st.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
12 Jun 1943
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.40011 Longitude: -79.71632
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.45011 Longitude: -79.68292
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.90012 Longitude: -78.84957
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.20011 Longitude: -79.26629
  • 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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Sailing Ontario in Wonder Year 1943: Schooner Days DLXCIV (594)