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"Mary Jane Mystery Solved"

Toronto Telegram, May 18, 1935
Schooner Days CLXXXVIII (188)
By C.H.J. Snider

mary jane
Somewhat like the KELDERHOUSE, but smaller and blockier, was the MARY JANE.Click for enlargment.

FOR a generation the fate of the barquentine or topsail schooner Mary Jane, of St. Catharines, was one of the mysteries discussed in every waterfront bar between Dickenson’s Landing and Skillagalee. It became a legend, and, as is the manner of legends, accumulated supernatural features. As related by an old boy in Bronte not long ago, the "old canaller" Mary Jane—not to be confused with the recently lost single-hander Mary Jane of Bergen – was a victim of the Black Dog of Lake Erie. That fatal hound, whose presence doomed each vessel he boarded, was seen crossing her deck when she was towing out of Port Colborne. Dockside loafers watched her becalmed in the lake off the pierheads, all one sunny noon hour. Then she sailed into a slight haze, and vanished, never more to be seen by mortal eye.

Even the time of the Mary Jane’s disappearance became lost to memory. The very year was forgotten. The myth took to itself the setting that it was summertime, and everything peaceful, and the weather as favorable as the Mary Jane’s cargo of cedar poles and posts was buoyant. That was another feature of the mystery. How could a vessel floating so high, in calm weather, disappear "spurlos versunkt," sunk without a trace, long before German submarine commanders began to pride themselves on such entries?

Moderns who have heard the tale have been unkind enough to suppose that the whole thing was a sailor’s fancy, a yarn meant for the marines. They have even scoffed at the name as being fictitious, the first that would come to the tongue of some radio announcer on Old Tar Hour.

But the Mary Jane was no dream ship. She was a plain, solemn, bluff-bowed vessel of the type which Louis Shickluna and others evolved for the trade which used the "old" or second Welland canal on their way up and down the lakes between Superior and St. Lawrence. It has taken some pondering of old marine registers and the waterfront columns of faded newspapers to establish her identity, and restore her from legend to fact. But she was built by Shickluna at St. Catharines almost under the present highway bridge, in 1862, and she was 135 feet on deck, 23 feet beam, 12 feet deep in the hold, and registered 345 tons. Listed in 1864 as "stranded at present," she was refloated and rebuilt at the mouth of the Don in Toronto. She made a very early start that spring. The late "Nosey" O’Brien, so named because half his jibboom was shorn away by the teeth of an opponent in a waterfront brawl, told me, thirty years ago, of being aloft on her foretopsail yard, close-reefing the sail, in a snow-squall, on Good Friday, of all days in the year. The Mary Jane was at this time still unfinished after her rebuilding, for they had taken the carpenters and caulkers along with them to complete her new pine decks.

The Mary Jane passed into the hands of the Henderson Brothers, of Burlington, and was sold by them to a Captain Patrick Flanagan, of Toronto. He had command of her when she disappeared.

Capt. Flanagan got a charter to carry telegraph poles to Erie, Pa., or some Lake Erie port. The Clara Youell appears to have been approached, but there was some question about having to take out the after coaming of the after hatch, to get the poles into the hold, and the charter was not completed, and the Mary Jane got it.

Capt. John Williams, still living in Toronto, was mate in the Youell at this time, and she was lying in the Welland canal when the Mary Jane went through on her last voyage. Capt. Curphy, of the Youell, remarked next morning: "Well, Flanagan towed out last night after all, though it wasn’t very encouraging."

The Mary Jane did not leave Port Colborne in a blaze of summer sunshine and wafted on gentle zephyrs. The weather was not bad, but it was dark and spitting rain when she towed through the piers, and the rain changed to snow. The Detroit Free Press of a week later, speaking of the wreck of the schooner E.P, Dorr, said: "The Canadian barquentine Mary Jane left the Welland canal on the same day when the Dorr was last seen, and likely was wrecked the same night, which was very stormy, with snow squalls."

May this be the solution of the whole mystery? The E.P. Dorr left Toledo in company with the schooner W. H. Oades, on Sunday, for Buffalo. Capt. Woods, of the Oades, noticed that the Dorr, heavily laden with 220,000 feet of oak plank and sycamore columns, was making bad weather of it Sunday night. He arrived at Port Colborne on Monday, and believed he had been the last to see the laboring vessel. But the steamer Morley later reported having passing the Dorr Monday forenoon, just above Long Point half-way down Lake Erie. The Mary Jane, bound up Lake Erie, had towed out of Port Colborne. Her course for Erie, Pa., would take her past Long Point and cross that of the Dorr, bound for Buffalo. Is it not possible that in the thick of the succeeding snow squalls the two vessels met head-on, like the Woodruff and the Battle off Collingwood, and that each, after drifting for some miles, kept afloat by their cargoes, went down in deep water, between Port Maitland on the north shore, and Dunkirk on the south?

Two-thirds of the Dorr’s cargo washed ashore along a forty-mile front on the north side of Lake Erie. She either broke up on a reef – some suspected the Tecumseh shoal of causing her end – or was split open by collision. No considerable portion of her hull was reported, although details which identified her beyond dispute were picked up among the floating cargo.

According to tradition, nothing of the Mary Jane’s hull or cargo was ever found, and the myth grew with the assertion that no trace even of her telegraph poles and cedar posts survived.

But that is only another of the embellishments of time. As a matter of fact, it was the discovery of the Mary Jane’s deckload which gave the first intimation of her loss, about the same time that the cargo of the Dorr was coming ashore.

An old despatch in the Globe of 1881, from Port Colborne, on Nov. 23rd, proves that the mysterious or supernatural features of the Mary Jane’s disappearance were the additions of after years. This despatch says: "The Mary Jane left on Saturday evening last (that would be Nov. 19th) for Erie, with telegraph poles, in a fresh breeze from the northeast all day, which shifted towards evening to the southwest and blew a gale. Captain Flannigan himself had a share in her.

The captain was a skillful and reliable sailor and his loss will be a heavy blow to his family. James Croker and James Smith, of Toronto, were on board the Mary Jane as seamen. The vessel was built in 1863, rated B1 and was valued at $5,500."

A Buffalo despatch in the same paper says: "The schooner Mary Jane, of St. Catharines, was wrecked five miles east of Dunkirk. There were no signs of the crew. The vessel is a total wreck. Boxes marked ‘Mary Jane’ were coming ashore near Dunkirk."

Dunkirk, N.Y., is on the south shore of Lake Erie, somewhat west of Port Colborne, on the opposite side. A despatch from that town on Wednesday, Nov. 23rd, said: "On Sunday morning last a quantity of wreckage was found on the Goodenough property, Lake Erie shore, about two miles below here. The wreckage consisted of a lot of telegraph poles and a portion of a cabin in which was secured a cupboard full of papers. The top drawer of the cupboard, which probably contains the papers and the names of the crew for the present season, is broken off. The lower drawers, however, contain papers which serve to identify the wreckage as belonging to the Mary Jane, of St. Catharines, Ontario, 345 tons burthen. No other tidings have been heard of the vessel and it is supposed she succumbed to the fury of the gale in which the E.P. Dorr went down. There is little doubt that her crew met a similar fate. She was owned and commanded by Capt. P. Flannigan. who leaves a wife and family in Toronto, Ont. Deputy Collector Williams has secured the papers and made a report substantially as above to the Government. The wreckage from the E.P. Dorr continues to wash ashore between Buffalo and Port Colborne. There is some speculation as to whether the masts reported above the water by the propeller, Lake Ontario, at Port Colborne, could possibly belong to the Mary Jane."

These despatches of the time dispose of the myth that the Mary Jane "vanished." A minor puzzle, too late, perhaps, for solving now, is involved in some of the dates given. One account says the schooner Oades and the schooner Dorr left Toledo together on Sunday, Nov. 13th, and that the Oades had reached Port Colborne on Monday. As the mention is made in a despatch of Nov. 22nd the presumption is that the Monday was Nov. 21st. If so, the pair were a week beating down Lake Erie. Quite possible if they had headwinds all the way until the wind changed to the southwest.

Again, another despatch from Detroit says that the Mary Jane left Port Colborne on Nov. 14th, "the day the Dorr was last seen." This would contradict the Port Colborne despatch which said she left on "Saturday evening," which would have to be Nov. 19th. Her wreckage began coming in at Dunkirk on Sunday, Nov. 20th.

Poor Mrs. Flanagan spent a small fortune in telegrams and other expenses connected with a search for her husband’s body.


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