Toronto Telegram, November 21, 1942
Schooner Days DLXIV (564)
By C.H.J. Snider

See also extensive notes on the third Olive Branch, mentioned below, built by Tait, 1871, in Picton.

Olive Branches All Pluckt Off

Found Last "Olive Branch" on Lake Ontario

OLIVE BRANCH was a name borne by thirty-seven sailing vessels in the British register of shipping in 1883, and there were doubtless a number of Americans with the same name at that time. So when Schooner Days was asked for the history of the Olive Branch recently it was a pretty large order.

The name was popular with the Victorians, who read their Bibles and liked the story of Noah sending the dove out from the Ark, and the weary bird coming back at last with "an olive leaf pluckt off." Leaf, notice, not branch. But while the Oak Leaf and Maple Leaf are or were common names for vessels, Olive Leaf is now unknown.

An Olive Branch was the classical symbol for a tender of peace, but the Victorians who had christened thirty-seven schooners Olive Branch in 1883 could not have had peace pourparlers in mind. They were probably thinking about the olive being the first tree above water after the flood, and hoped their ships would always stay on top.

Three on Ontario

On Lake Ontario we had three schooners called Olive Branch. All three were wrecked within five years, and the name was not repeated. Two went in 1875, apparently in the same night, which is an unusual combination.

Three schooners, the Duncan City (of Cheboygan originally), the Fearless of Toronto, and the Olive Branch of Oswego were in company off Darlington, running wing and wing for Toronto before a light easterly breeze, when the early dark shut in on Saturday night, Nov. 13th, 1875. Capt. Maurice Fitzgerald, veteran Oakville mariner who had sailed the Duncan City for ten years, turned all hands to after supper, hauled out two reefs in his mainsail, reduced his headsail, and hove his vessel to, that is, stopped her under sail, when it began to spit snow. She was heading out into the lake, so would not drift ashore. The wind increased to a gale, and she sidled up the lake through the night. When the late morning broke and the wind shifted to the west she was abreast of Toronto Point, and had no difficulty in weathering it, and coming on in through the Western Gap.

Ghouls robbed the dead

Meantime the Fearless has come on under reduced canvas until she commenced to smell the bottom in the dark. Her captain, Wm. Ferguson by name, gave her the anchors. She rounded to and held, and daylight showed her to be within a mile and a half of the old Eastern Gap, which was not then navigable in rough weather. Before she could get under weigh the wind went around to the westward, still blowing hard, and Capt. Ferguson held on to his anchors in the sand off the foot of Carlaw avenue. With the shift she dragged and bumped the bottom tremendously. Capt. Ferguson got his yawlboat down, preparing to abandon ship. He was in the boat, trying to get the woman cook away, when the crew lost the painter and the drifting boat capsized. Ferguson was drowned and his body was never found. It is supposed his corpse was robbed of $360 freight money he had in his pockets, and buried by the Brooks Bush gang of beachcombers. Lifesavers worked all day and all night and got the remaining crew of six off the vessel next morning, which was Monday.

Olive Branches in breakers

At 8 o'clock the same Sunday morning the Olive Branch of Oswego, Capt. John R. Preston, master – he and Bond and Co. of Oswego were the owners – sighted the shore through the snow and wore ship so as to clear Toronto Point. The foremast went out of her, a heavy sea swept her deck and carried away her only boat, and she was unmanageable. She drifted in, striking the Island shore about midway between the Eastern Gap and the ancient lighthouse. Her crew huddled on the forecastle head and in the rigging, and almost perished with the cold. Capt. Sol. Sylvester was a passenger in her, coming home from Oswego. All were rescued by volunteer life-savers. Like the Fearless, the Olive Branch was a total loss.

It was the fashion among the stonehookers to name their little scows after big and prosperous schooners ten times their size. Thus there was a stonehooker Olive Branch of Port Credit, a little square-built box sailed by two men, and sometimes single-handed. She seems to have been caught in the same gale. Rerhaps she started to run home Saturday evening after unloading in Toronto, a favorite practice with the Port Credit men, or perhaps she was loading on the shore that Saturday evening when it began to snow.

She was half way home when she struck on the Dutchman's Bar above Mimico, and drove ashore against the high shaly banks of what was then called Hooten's Point, after the old Dutch farmer who lived there all by himself. Two of the apple trees of his forsaken orchard long marked the Point after he was burned to death one winter's night, and it was called Two Tree Point on that account.

In the darkness and the snow of this November Saturday night no one saw the little hooker's distress, and she was beaten to staves. One of her crew named Crosby was found dead on the beach afterwards. He may have been trying to get her home alone.

Pride of Prince Edward

This left only one Olive Branch afloat on Lake Ontario, the Olive Branch of Picton, built by Jack Tait in Prince Edward County in 1871. She was a fine smart barley carrier, white above and green below, 92 feet long, 22 feet beam, 8 feet deep in the hold, 121 tons register. Though smaller she was considered better than the Olive Branch of Oswego, although that vessel was valued at $10,000. Christopher Harris of Storrington on the old Rideau Canal waterway owned this Olive Branch up to 1879, and his nephew, Tom Brokenshire, inventor of the Brokenshire pump, sailed her. Capt. Brokenshire went out of the Olive Branch and into the Ocean Wave, and so to his death.

The new master of the Olive Branch told those who cautioned him of the equinoctial gale when his vessel was lying coal-laden in Oswego that no matter how hard it blew he would sail her across the lake or sail her to hell. He made good on the first alternative, so it is to be hoped he escaped the second, for neither he nor any of his crew were ever seen again.

It was a fatal fall for many sailors, that of 1880. The Olive Branch sailed out of Oswego on the last day of September, in spite of storm warnings. It was only a six-hour run for the shelter of South Bay Point, directly across the lake, and on her way to Picton, and the Olive Branch seemed certain of making it. Nor did it blow as hard as prognosticated. But the Olive Branch never came home.

She just did not turn up when expected. Wm. Rose, an uncle of T. W. Rose, still lying in South Bay, was in her crew. His people expected him that week-end, got anxious, made inquiries, and found that the Olive Branch had left Oswego with a fair wind and should have reached Picton the same day. No one could suggest where else she might have gone.

Pound on the Ducks

At this time Main Duck Island, which lies twelve miles out in the lake from Prince Edward County, used to be farmed, stock being sailed over from the mainland and brought back in the fall, along with the farmers and fishermen and their families who lived on the island in the summertime. Schoolhouse Bay in the island commemorates the log school for the children, although the schoolhouse has long since vanished, and the children are grandparents. There are the False Ducks and the Main Ducks, and the Duckling Bar in the group, besides reefs under water as well known to the fishermen as the islands showing above.

Capt. John Walters, who was everybody's friend in Prince Edward County, had promised to take off the "colony" this year. He had made a trip to Oswego, with the schooner Picton with barley, seen the Olive Branch there, and came out ahead of her. He got across to South Bay Point in fast time, and anchored there, for it was blowing too hard to anchor off the Main Duck, twelve miles away and out in the open.

The Picton lay all night and the next day, but the next day, the wind coming fair and the sea dying down the Picton sailed over to the Main Duck and got their marooned passengers.

On the way they thought they saw some strange marker near the Pennicons, two shoals just outside the False Ducks, about ten miles from the Main.

"I can't make out what that mark could have been," said Capt. Walters. "We must have a look at it on the way back."

Everybody looked, but a single stick is a hard thing to find in twelve miles of lake.

"I'll give ten cents to the first fellow that finds it," said Capt. Waters. Ten cents was ten cents in 1880. It would buy a whole pound of "conversation lozenges" – though you wouldn't know what they were, Miss Nineteen Forty-Two. They were hard white sugar candies with "Will You Be Mine?" or "Don't Flirt With Me," or "Perhaps" imprinted on them, and other equally saucy messages. Believe it or not, some were discovered in a five-and-ten here only last week!

Spurred by this inducement young Henry McConnell, still alive in Picton, but an old man now, sprung into the fore crosstrees. Soon he hailed the deck. But let him tell the story himself:

"This was my first sailing experience. I was in the schooner Picton, with Capt. John Walters. At the time we were in Oswego the Olive Branch was there. She laid alongside of us before going to the coal dock. I can remember the looks of the captain, I think he would be between 35 and 40 years old. I didn't know any of the crew except Rose.

She went to the coal dock to load but we came right out. We came to South Bay Point and let go anchor there. We laid there all night and the next day. It was blowing very hard.

The following day, the wind had gone down, so we hove anchor and started for the Main Ducks. We sighted the topmast of a vessel. It was quite a distance away and we went on to the Main Ducks. A lot of the fishermen and their wives came off with us. I remember some of them, Reuben Henderson and wife and Seymour Mouck were among them. The captain said: "We will go where we saw that wreck." He said: "I'll give ten cents to the first one that sights it."

I went to the fore crosstrees. I sighted the topmast of a vessel. "I see her; two points off our lee bow." We kept her off, and when we got to her we took soundings. I think it was twelve fathoms of water (72 feet)."

Woman's stitches solved it

The Picton slowly approached the object. It was a spar of some sort, with something wrapped around it. As they neared it resolved into the head of a topmast with a schooner's fly, staff and all, attached to it. A fly was a cone of bunting, three or four yards long, its mouth distended by a hoop, and tapering to a small opening at the point. It was a vane or windfinder peculiar to the Great Lakes. The windsleeves used in airports were evolved from this in the Great War by Major T. D. Hallam, who noted the efficiency of schooners' flies when he was sailing thirty-five years ago. Every schooner had one at the maintopmast head, and three-masters had one at the mizzen, too. Sometimes, but very rarely, a schooner had a fly at the fore as well as the main. It was a challenge – "Catch me if you can."

Evidently a vessel had gone down in deep water. They got 14 or 15 fathoms near their find, less when they got to it. It was not far from the False Ducks and near the tail of one of the Pennicons.

Aboard the Picton and on the Main Duck no one knew what had befallen the Olive Branch, for she was in Oswego when last seen. No one could recognize the wave sodden cone of bunting. They detached the fly and brought it home with them to South Bay. A Mrs. Dix, a captain's wife, in Garden Island, had said she had sewn a new fly for the Olive Branch that summer. The waterstained trophy was taken to her and she at once recognized her own stitches.

That is what had happened to the Olive Branch. She had "crossed the lake" all right, for where she lay was on the Canada shore directly opposite Oswego. But why she went down was still a mystery, for the water was so deep all around that there was no question of her striking a reef, and no likelihood of her having been in collision. A diver went below and found out. Her garboard strake, the plank next the keel, was sprung for six or eight feet. She had filled rapidly. Perhaps while the crew pumped to keep her afloat, her captain tried to drive her onto the Duckling or the False Ducks to save their lives. She did not float that far.

And the diver saw nothing of her crew.

"In a few days," concludes Mr. McConnell, "we heard it was the Olive Branch, I was talking with some of the men who were loading the coal at Oswego, and they said it was blowing very hard by the time she had her hatches on. They tried to coax the captain not to go out. They said his answer was that he never ran back but once, and would never run back again. So he went right out."

That fatal fall

Five weeks later, sixteen vessels were damaged on Lake Ontario in the Great Gale of Nov. 6 and 7, and thirty sailors were drowned. And that same month Capt. Tom Brokenshire and his partner, Capt. Billy Martin, were drowned in the Ocean Wave, with all her crew. At first she was mysteriously missing, like the Olive Branch. Then she was sighted, waterlogged and derelict, the whole stern out of her, the lake around her littered with the deckload of barrel staves and headings she had loaded in Trenton. Before the tug that sighted her could get a line on her she sank as her lumber cargo floated out through the burst stern. [Note: Snider is mistaken here; the Ocean Wave was successfully recovered by two tugs and rebuilt, Calvin, Garden Island. Ed.]

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