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Esplanade Fire – it doomed “Oriole I”

Toronto Telegram, 5 October 1940
Schooner Days CCCCLIV (454)
By C.H.J. Snider

The author, in this instalment, gives an account of the Esplanade Fire that started on the third of August 1885 on the Toronto waterfront, with particular reference to how the Gooderhams, father and son, crossed the lake in their yachts Oriole I and Aileen after seeing the Toronto fire from Niagara-on-the-Lake. Mr Snider also "advertises" the book Annals of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club 1852-1937 of which he was the editor and author.


SCUFFLING through charred shingles, gale-whirled like autumn leaves, Capt. John Williams, of Toronto, and Capt. Thomas Vandusen, of Picton, met in the smoke and smell of burning which lingered in the air of Front street.

“’Morning, captain, how’d you make out last night?” asked the Prince Edward County man.

“Not bad. I was up getting out more lines and fenders, for the Greenwood was uneasy where she lay in the Northern Railway docks, when I saw the blaze, and the Chicora came tearing by for shelter at the Queen’s Wharf, with the Algerian following. But the fire didn’t come near us. It seems to have tailed in to the north here on Front street near Yonge. How’d you make out?”

“Oh, we weren’t bothered, but for cinders on our decks. Fugh! How this smoke and smell make you dry! Let’s have one here. Two beers!”

Capt. Vandusen plonked a half dollar down on the counter. “They say,” he went on, “poor Tommy Uglow was drowned from the Annie Mulvey. He ran out of the cabin with the vessel a sheet of flame, and jumped overboard with his clothes on fire.”

“Poor Tommy!” exclaimed Capt. Williams. “He hadn’t been master of the Mulvey long, had he? I know, he used to sail out of Port Hope. I’m awfully sorry he’s gone.”

“It’s me that should be sorry,” chipped the landlord, pushing forward with two foaming glasses. “He owes me fifty cents that I will never get now.”

Johnny Williams put his mug down before the foam had wet his flaxen mustache.

“There’s Uglow’s fifty cents,” said he, eyeing the half dollar. “Keep your dam' beer.”

And the two captains strode out, never to come in again. Thirty-two years later Tommy Vandusen was drowned in the Oliver Mowat, when a steamer cut her down in a black summer night off the Ducks. And Johnny Williams, hale and witty, here in Toronto, contributes this little vignette of the great Esplanade Fire, of August 3rd, 1885, the first year he commanded the W. T. Greenwood.

Oriole I
She burst her heart to get there. ORIOLE I, schooner yacht whose life ended with her effort to get her owner, the late George Gooderham, to the Esplanade Fire. This picture is from a painting in the possession of Sir William Mulock who with Messrs. W. C. Campbell and Robert Hunter owned the Oriole when she was built by Louis Shickluna, from the designs of Commodore Fish. Mr. Gooderham acquired her in 1880. [Reproduced here from the original photograph; Naval Marine Archive, Peter Edwards fonds.] Click for enlargement.

Here’s another, from the Annals of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, a book every sail lover ought to have:

At midnight on Sunday, August 2nd, 1886, the cutter Aileen lay snugly moored at Niagara-on-the-Lake, which at that time, with the attractions of the annual military camp and the Queen’s Royal Hotel, was an inland Newport, famous for its balls and general festivity. This particular midnight was black as the inside of a wolf’s throat, with a whole gale from the east raving through the treetops of the port and lathering Niagara Bar with a maelstrom of whitecaps.

Just after the first bell in the middle-watch (12.30 a.m.) had struck on board the Oriole, and been faithfully echoed from the Aileen, a bright spot appeared on the horizon to the northward. It grew in brilliance until it seemed that it must be a steamer on fire; in midlake, in that terrible storm. But it did not move. The anchor watch checked its bearing on the Oriole’s compass. A burning ship in that raging gale would change her angle rapidly as she drifted west! But this fierce glow was stationary. The compass bearing remained North-West by North a half North. And North-West by North a half North was Toronto, as straight as gull could fly.

They called Mr. George Gooderham, owner of the Oriole. To the mind of the business man, owner and partner in some of the largest industries in Canada, there leapt at once the fear that had lurked ever since the Gooderham & Worts mill and distillery had burned in 1869 – the fear of a fresh fire in the plant. The Gooderham distillery and elevator, successors to the original Gooderham windmill, with its picturesque sails and tower, were landmarks of Toronto’s waterfront. Some such torch as that must be burning the blaze so brightly. Mr. Gooderham’s decision was swift. “All hands make sail!” was his order. “We cross the lake at once!”

It needed no speaking trumpet to transmit the decision to the Aileen. Mr. W.G. Gooderham, George Gooderham’s eldest son, and Aileen’s owner, had, with the same thought in his mind, already turned out his crew and was busy getting the mainsail reefed. At one o’clock in the morning both yachts stood down the river and out into the tossing lake, scattering under reefed sails, and rolling as though they would shoot their masts out. They were homeward bound in hot haste, drawn by the pillar of fire that reared higher and higher behind the black horizon. When automobiles were unknown and trains ran once a day, and a living gale had tied up steamer traffic, a night-long wrestle with the storm-fiend was the only way by which the business man could reach his imperilled property. Radio had not yet been dreamed of and the telephone was a toy.

It was the wildest night lake sailors could remember. So hard did it blow that boatmen could not be bribed to cross the bay from Toronto Island, where the conflagration raging in the city a mile away lighted up the night so that beholders could read fine print.

In midlake, at 3 o’clock in the morning, it seemed to be dying down. The wind let go with a jerk, leaving both yachts heaving and tossing madly in a disordered litter of water-hills. The Aileen was ahead, seeming to typify the greater energy of youth outstripping the anxiety of age. Sudden flares from the Oriole replaced the dying glare of the great conflagration. The Aileen turned back, and as she ranged alongside, Mr. George Gooderham called: “She sprung a plank somewhere and has opened up so the pumps can’t keep her free!” Rain began to fall and the glare in Toronto died out completely.

Oriole I
[The image as it appeared in the Toronto Telegram.] She burst her heart to get there. ORIOLE I, schooner yacht whose life ended with her effort to get her owner, the late George Gooderham, to the Esplanade Fire. This picture is from a painting in the possession of Sir William Mulock who with Messrs. W. C. Campbell and Robert Hunter owned the Oriole when she was built by Louis Shickluna, from the designs of Commodore Fish. Mr. Gooderham acquired her in 1880. Click for enlargement.

Some time after daybreak the Oriole staggered into Whitby, with swimming scuppers and two worn-out crews plying the pumps, which barely kept her afloat. The Messrs Gooderham, father and son, caught a train for Toronto. They found the elevator and the distillery safe. But the whole Esplanade from Princess street to Scott street was a fire-swept wreck. The seven-story sugar refinery at the foot of Princess street, which had been the highest building in Toronto, was a heap of ruins, with only the chimney standing. Schooners, tugs, barges, yachts, boathouses, warehouses and wharves had been devoured. While the distillery property had escaped Mr. Gooderham was still a heavy loser, for both he and his fellow yachtsman, Mr. Leys, who owned the Oriole before him, were members of the syndicate which owned the sugar refinery. This was a total loss. In the fire the yachts Minden, Veronica and Flight and a newly-built yacht valued at $3,500 were destroyed among the ships and boathouses which then clustered at the foot of every street. The property loss was $650,000 or more than one-half of all Toronto’s tax bill. The whole assessment of the city was then only sixty-eight millions.

This night of the Esplanade fire was the first Oriole’s last passage. She lay in Whitby until some of the spewed oakum could be horsed back into her seams, and the sea quieted down. Then her crew brought her home leaking and limping. They put her on the slip near the foot of Parliament street, within the shadow almost, of the elevator she had died to save. Surveyors went over her, and shook their heads. Oh, yes, they reported, she could be made serviceable again, but it meant practically rebuilding her. The Goldring family, notable professors of the craft of stonehooking, offered $1,800 for her as she lay; an offer of unprecedented amount in that trade of ship-knackers. But this time it was Mr. Gooderham who shook his head. His Oriole, that had winged her way from St. Lawrence to Superior, to become a broken-down hack, hauling hardheads and gravel from the lake beaches past which she once so proudly skimmed?

“Put the saws to her,” said he.

It was done. In a few days Oriole I was a heap of firewood. Next year he launched a new and larger Oriole II, from the same slip.

This week T.M. Kirkwood, that veteran steamboat man, asked if Schooner Days could ask old-time captains to let us have their story of the Toronto schooner Annie Mulvey. Capt. Williams, always willing to oblige, has contributed his quota, and next week, with the assistance of other sources, we shall try and tell you more about the Annie Mulvey and the Esplanade fire which destroyed her.


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