In 1975, a raging storm on Lake Superior sank the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Big Fitz had been on the lakes for about two decades, carrying iron ore. The storm that hit her was not typical of November on the Great Lakes, but it wasn’t unknown either. With winds whipping along at just under 100 kilometres an hour and peaking at almost 140 kilometre an hour gusts, she was driving waves of 7.6 metres – almost three stories high. The Fitzgerald lost both radars, hatch covers and a railing long before she even sank. At 7:10 p.m. the big ship sent it’s last radio message: “We are holding our own.”
She sank minutes later and became the 62 shipwreck claimed on Lake Superior, one of the Great Lakes of North America.
November is an unforgiving month on the Great Lakes. More shipwrecks take place in November than in any other month. Even on Georgian Bay, the baby Great Lake off Lake Huron has seen
The first commercial, non-aboriginal shipwreck (no doubt, there have been undocumented tragedies featuring the large trading canoes used by Georgian Bay area natives) on the Great Lakes was LaSalle’s Griffon. This 1679 wreck is still a mystery.
It’s believed the craft, a 60-foot sailing ship constructed near where Buffalo is today, sunk in the area of Manitoulin Island, by some who seek what is considered to be the ‘Holy Grail’ of Great Lakes shipwrecks.
There have been about 30 wrecks on Georgian Bay. The following will give you an idea of the scope of traffic on the Great Lakes – these all took place on one little part of the Great Lakes, but Georgian Bay also is the first to appear in the written historical records.
After Lasalle, the next was the Alice Hackett. In a November gale, she set out from the decommissioned British fort for Penetanguishene, Nov. 4, 1828.
What else do you do as the captain of a sailing vessel, shepherding it and its passengers through a vicious November storm?
Well, you get drunk, of course.
You get drunk and you spear the ship on the rocks off Fitzwilliam Island and you get everyone off and safe onto an island and you build a fire and you drink to that, you drink to spearing the boat and building a fire and surviving.
It’s November, it’s storming and you’ve saved the whiskey.
In the morning, you remember you forgot to save the women and children and make your way back to your speared ship and remove the women and children.
As the captain, you manage to sink four more ships in the next seven years and then you decide to try a different career.
Given that it is harder to spear a lighthouse onto the rocks, no matter how drunk you are and no matter how bad the storm is, you become a lighthouse keeper.
But even ensconced in a lighthouse, you may not be safe.
One of the most hapless of ships, the Advance, sank off Christian Island. This craft gained notoriety for being fined after it struck a lighthouse on the Detroit River. Yeah, a lighthouse.
It didn’t sink then.
No, it sank in December 1927. Christian Island is also the site of the largest Georgian Bay wreck. The Mapledawn was built in the Globe Iron Works in Cleveland in 1890. She was big.
It was Nov. 30, 1924 when the 350-foot-long behemoth stranded on Christian Island in the midst of a heavy storm. Carrying a full load of barley from Fort William (Thunder Bay), the ship was bound for Midland, when the captain, disoriented by heavy waves and blinded by snow, drove the ship aground hard.
The bulk steel freighter’s propellers had jammed the ship so far into the shallows she could not be pulled off and so, was cut to pieces for scrap where she lay.
There are still large pieces of the Mapledawn off Christian Island to this day and it’s a popular dive site.
Christian Island was also where the wreckage of the J.H. Jones, a steam tug, washed ashore. The Jones, as it was called, was a sturdy boat, built in Goderich at the W. Marlton boat-works in 1888. She was rebuilt in 1895, and her tonnage reduced. In 1898, the Jones was sunk in a collision with the Pacific, a steamer, almost twice the size of the tug. The Jones was recovered, floated and repaired and put on the same route, running between Kagawong Harbour and Clapperton Island.
The captain of the rebuilt Jones was first mate on the Pacific at the time of the collision. The Pacific burned to the waterline the same spring the Jones headed out from its repairs, while refitting in its dock in Collingwood Harbour.
During its last few years, the Jones ran a circuit of Georgian Bay fishing camps, picking up boxed fresh fish. Its run took it through the Huronia waters and past Christian Island and the inner channel up towards Parry Sound and over to the Bustard Islands and the Duck Islands, Tobermory and Kilarney for the Dominion Fish Company, which was the company that commissioned the construction of the boat in the first place.
When the Jones went down taking all hands, it was owned by the Crawford tug company and captained by one of its owners, James Crawford. His two brothers, John and Middleton were coowners.
Crawford, according to the Owen Sound Sun, was “one of Wiarton’s most popular and best known citizens.”
He, his 12 crew and 17 passengers all died. Included in the passenger list were two prominent businessmen: the manager of Wolverine Fish Company, J.T.
Donaldson and a merchant from Manitoulin Island, T.M. Wagg, were never found. Donaldson’s briefcase was recovered from the shores of Tiny Township by searchers from the Crawford Tug Company.
This was a huge tragedy that brought back memories of two other Georgian Bay shipping disasters. It was compared to the wreck of the Jane Miller, a packet coaster built in Little Current in 1878. The 78-foot-long wooden craft was on a run from Meaford to Wiarton, Nov. 26, 1881, into the teeth of a gale and was never seen again.
Like the Jones, 30 people died. It also brought to mind the wreck of the Asia in 1882. Only two people survived the late-summer sinking of the ship. They survived after floating in life preservers,
clinging to a swamped boat for hours until it made landfall at daybreak near Point aux Baril. It foundered in the storm near Byng Inlet, taking with her, 123 people plus freight. It was the biggest loss of life on the bay.
Of the two survivors, one was a young woman from Owen Sound and the other was a young crewman. The captain was the last to die, in the arms of the crewman after they made it to shore.
But clearly the Asia was far from the mind of Crawford as he steered north, northeast up Owen Sound that morning of Nov. 22, 1906.
At 10 a.m., the Jones headed out from Owen Sound with a full load of freight in addition to passengers. It was planned to stop in at Lion’s Head before continuing on to Tobermory on a regular run to collect fish in boxes from the various fishing stations as the season closed up. The weather was poor and heavy seas were stirred up on the Bay. At 1:30 p.m. the ship was sighted by Cape Croker lightkeeper Richard Chapman, according to the lighthouse logs.
Chapman later told the Wiarton Echo that the Jones was “having a difficult time of it.” Chapman was the last to see the Jones as it disappeared from view in the waves and precipitation.
Chapman said that white foam could be seen washing over the hurricane deck of the ship.
Glen Smith was a 98-year-old former resident of a farm near the Cape Croker lighthouse. He says his older brother, Harold, was 16 at the time of the Jones’ wreck and claimed he heard an explosive “boom” roll in from the Bay before 2 p.m., on the day of the wreck.
Smith says his brother always believed the Jones went down after an explosion, possibly from her boilers, and that is the reason the wreck has never been found.
“She was blown apart. That’s what Harold told me. I recall that they never found any but one of the bodies. Almost all the crew were from Wiarton. That wreck just broke that town’s heart,” said Smith from his room in a Toronto-area nursing home during a November 2004 interview.
A week after the wreck, the wheelhouse washed ashore of Christian Island, as did the body of a crewman. A search of the area north of the lighthouse revealed an oil slick near Cove of Cork Bay, which is near the Smith farm.
The Midland Free Press reported on the wreck.
‘Tragedy on Georgian Bay’ headlined the paper the week after the incident.
In 1879, the Waubano went down in a storm, Nov. 22. All 24 people on board were died.
The 135-foot passenger and freight propeller steamer was last seen as it passed the Christian Island lighthouse, according to reports in the Toronto Globe and The Midland Free Press, which was in its first year of publication.
The boat left Collingwood, bound for Parry Sound, in the early hours after the captain had delayed departure because of the storm.
It was not known what happened to the Waubano until its inverted hull was found near Moose Deer Point, south of Parry Sound the next spring.