Loss of the steamer John Bull, 10 June 1839
The Montreal Gazette on 11 June 1839 published this report on the loss by fire of the Molson steamer John Bull. Fourteen lives were lost; ten steerage passengers, three crew members and one cabin passenger, Miss Ross. Note that the town of William Henry is now known as Sorel. Other reports follow below (courtesy R. Palmer.)
It is with deep regret that we have to announce one of the most disastrous calamities that has ever occurred during the navigation of the River St. Lawrence by steam. Yesterday morning between the hours of three andf our, the John Bull steamboat while on her way from Quebec to this city, having the Dryope and Young Queen in tow, and a number of passengers on board was discovered to be on fire. This took place shortly after John Bull had left William Henry, and nearly opposite to Lanoraye. Mr. Thomas the Purser, was the first to discover the fatal event. He was in bed in his berth, near the foot of the main stair, leading from the lower to the flush deck and was awakened by the crackling noise of fire on the same side of the boat, being the larboard. Upon going up on deck, Mr. Thomas discovered to his horror, that almost the whole of the boat amidships was in one blaze of fire, and that the flames were making such rapid progress to the stern, that it would be difficult to rouse the passengers from sleep, and get them on the main deck in time to save them from the raging element. He immediately gave the alarm to the Captain, and by throwing billets of wood through the skylights of the gentlemen's cabin, called the attention of those below to their dangerous situation. From both cabins the passengers immediately began to issue, in their night dresses, and without being able to carry any of their luggage or property along with them. Owing to the stifling smoke and heat, all the passengers did not succeed in making their way to the upper deck; and were compelled to escape by the windows in the stern of the boat. Immediately upon discovering that the boat was on fire, Captain Vaughan, whose conduct throughout the whole of the calamitous event, was beyond all praise, ordered her to be steered towards the shore, where she grounded at the bow in about eight feet of water [...] The great object now was to save the passengers; for which object the boats of the John Bull and the vessels which she had in tow, were immediately employed, the masters and crews of those vessels working them with a zeal and activity truly worthy of British sailors. [...] By this means many of the passengers were got ashore; but we lament to state that it is supposed that about twenty of them have been lost, either by falling prey to the flames, or by throwing themselves into the river to escape so dreadful a death. Among the latter was a Miss Ross of Quebec [...]
Immediately after the dreadful event had occurred, the Purser came to town with the intelligence, when Mr. Molson dispatched the Canada for the purpose of bringing up the passengers of the John Bull, and affording them such other relief as they may have stood in need of [...]
The John Bull was the largest and most beautiful steamboat in the St. Lawrence, and was fitted up and furnished in a style of elegance which might justify us in denominating her a "floating palace". She was built about five years ago by the late Hon. John Molson, and cost upwards of $20,000. She was only insured for about $5,000 - one half at the Phoenix Office, and the other at the Alliance.
It is more in sorrow than in anger that we are compelled to state, that the conduct of the Canadian habitans to the unfortunate passengers on board the John Bull was of a description which reflects the utmost disgrace upon their ancient character for good feeling, humanity, and hospitality. They could not be prevailed upon to lend the smallest aid, unless assured of payment to an amount beyond all reasonable compensation; and when they did launch their canoes, it was, evidently more for the purpose of plunder than with the view of saving life and property. As an instance of their misconduct, one gentleman, who was clinging to the stern of the John Bull, cried to some habitans in a canoe for assistance; but they cruelly refused to comply with his request unless he would promise to give them ten dollars. [...] And shocking to state, it is said that such was their avidity for plunder that the earrings of Miss Ross were torn away. A considerable quantity of baggage and articles which floated from the wreck were found secreted in the neighbouring houses; and every individual request for re-delivery of them proved fruitless, until repeated by a body of two or three of the passengers at once. Much property of value still remains.
The report is derogatory concerning the local habitans (habitants, farmers) but it should be remebered that the area had been a patriote stronghold in the recent rebellion, which left a legacy of resentment on both sides. As S.E. Woods notes in The Molson Saga: "For this reason the venal behaviour of the habitants may have been motivated in part by a sense of revenge. When another Molson boat, the Waterloo, was crushed by ice floes off Cap Rouge in April 1831, six years before the rebellion, a survivor wrote: 'The sterling honesty of the Canadians in humble life never appeared to me in a fairer light than in their transactions of the morning of the shipwreck. Not one pin's value of property did the humblest of their peasants or peasants' boys, attempt to secrete or lay claim to.'"
Rochester Daily Democrat June 11 1839: Total Loss Of The John Bull Steamer By Fire
Mr. Thomas, purser of the John Bull steamer, arrived yesterday, at noon, with the intelligence that that splendid boat was totally consumed by fire yesterday morning, between 3 and 4 o’clock, off Lavaltrie, about 8 miles above Sorel, while on her way to this city.
When the fire was first discovered, it had burst through the deck, over the labored engine with such fury, that any attempt to arrest its progress was deemed useless, and it was therefore immediately decided to run the boat as near the shore, as the depth of the water would admit, and in the mean time the boats were lowered and got ready to convey the passengers to shore.
Captain Hamilton, whose vessel was in tow of the steamer, with his men and boats rendered the most praiseworthy and essential service in moving the passengers from the burning wreck. The John Bull, was perhaps, one of the most valuable steamboats in North America-She cost the proprietors upwards of £22,000, and was only insured for £5,000. There were only about twelve cabin passengers including two or three ladies, one of whom, a Miss Ross was accidentally drowned by falling between two of the small boats after she was taken from the wreck.
The remainder of the passengers lost everything but what they had on. The boat was run ashore in about ten feet of water, and the engines continued working till she was nearly consumed.
Correspondence of the Com. Advertiser Montreal June 11: Further particulars
From all the information I have been able to gain, the number of lives lost must amount to about twenty. When the boat grounded, although she was only about a stone’s throw from the land, the shores being bold, with a strong current, the deck passengers commenced leaping overboard, with hopes of reaching the shore, but were carried away by the current and sunk, or were killed by the wheel, which still kept moving with tremendous velocity.
As the number was not great there is not the least doubt that they might all have been saved if they had waited for the small boats. One settler says that there are eight of his party missing. Eight got into a canoe, but were carried under the wheel and perished. One passenger, an Upper Canada lumber merchant, lost three thousand pounds. The wreck lies about three miles below Lanoraye church.
The Canadians behaved most shamefully, and with their usual love of money endeavored to exact large sums for carrying passengers ashore before taking them from the boat. One had the audacity to ask Mr. Rhynas ten dollars before he would consent to take him into his canoe.