Toronto Telegram, November 5, 1932
Schooner Days LX (60)
By C.H.J. Snider
47 Years Ago 37 Lost with the "Algoma"
It may be straining the sense of "Schooner Days" to include herein the account of one of the major shipwrecks of the lakes, when the central figure was not a sailing vessel, but a steamer, but three circumstances induce this—the approach of the anniversary of this great north shore wreck; the fact that the victim, although a fine passenger steamer and thoroughly modern for her time, was actually schooner rigged, and her unfortunate end may have been indirectly due to the fact that she carried sail; and finally, readers have asked for it.
That is really the governing circumstance. "I.S.B.," an unknown friend, writes from Burlington: "I think, if it is possible, an account of the wreck of the steamer Algoma (C.P.R.) on Isle Royale on November 7th, 1885, would be very appropriate as a special feature for some Saturday edition. I have been very interested by certain of your articles on events of the Great Lakes, and I am also an interested reader of "Schooner Days" The illustrations that appear in connection with these accounts are highly commendable... There are many such tales of which the younger readers know nothing about."
This is kind of "I.S.B." So we shall do our best about the Algoma.
THERE were two Algomas in the lake steamer traffic; one owned by E. M. Carruthers, later lessee of the Queen's Wharf, Toronto, plying between Collingwood and Fort William in the Lake Superior Royal Mail Line from 1864 to 1887. This steamer was originally the City of Toronto, built at Niagara in 1840, and known for one year, 1863, as the Racine. She was in her early days, of the old decorative Victoria-and-Albert type with impressive figurehead, three rigged masts, and all the trimmings; a striking contrast to the fine modern plumb-stemmed Algoma built for the C. P. R. at Whiteinch on the Clyde in 1883 and brought out as part of that railway's new transcontinental system.
It is this Algoma which is the heroine of our story. It was a strange coincidence that the very day the story of her loss appeared the papers were much more busy telling how Lord Mountstephen — at this time Hon. Donald A. Smith — had driven the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigallachie.
The C.P.R. Algoma was a sister ship of the Athabasca and Alberta like her, built on the Clyde for the Canadian company. She was 270 feet long, 38 feet beam, and 23 feet 3 inches moulded depth. While she was driven by her propeller she had two masts, with fore-and-aft sails on them, and a fore staysail.
Curious sightseers noted with interest the small circles and bars painted on her side when she arrived at Montreal from the Clyde. This was the then novel Plimsoll mark, which indicated the maximum depth (15 feet) to which, with regard to safety she could be loaded; a mark recently adopted by the British Board of Trade and made compulsory by act of Parliament.
To Samuel Plimsoll, M. P., thousands of sailors and passengers owe their lives, for the Plimsoll mark prevents overloading. But it could not save the Algoma.
The new steamer was too large to pass the St. Lawrence canals, which, then as now, throttled inland commerce with the sea. She was beautifully built, and fitted with six watertight compartments, so that she was, as the phrase runs, "practically unsinkable." So soundly rivetted was she that when they cut her in two at Montreal, to bring her through the canals, the bulkheads of her compartments were strong enough to complete each section, and kept the two of them afloat all the way up the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario and the Welland Canal and Lake Erie, until she docked in Buffalo and the two halves were joined and she became one vessel again.
The Algoma and her sister ships made a new era in upper lake transportation while the railway was being completed. Passenger traffic was not heavy, especially in the fall, but the freight business was always good.
On Thursday, Nov. 5th, forty-seven years ago to-day, the Algoma left Owen Sound with five cabin passengers. six steerage passengers, and 530 tons of merchandise for Port Arthur. She passed into Lake Superior by the Soo lock and by midnight on Friday was within fifty miles of her destination and tearing along at an amazing pace, on the wings of a northeast storm of rain and sleet. Her engines were putting on their best licks, and although she did not need the assistance of her sails she had all canvas set to steady her. Between this, and the push of the increasing gale, she was doing sixteen knots, when fourteen was the best her engineers hoped to get out of her.
To those on board the gale seemed only a strong breeze, for they were running with it and this cut off the half of its strength.
When Capt. Moore, who was in command, estimated his position as fifteen miles east of Isle Royale, that great mass of rock guarding Thunder Bay, he cautiously decided to haul out into the open lake for the rain had changed to heavy squalls of snow, and in the thick smother nothing could be seen of the land, or even of the water Even the size of the sea running could not be realized. It was at 4 o'clock Saturday morning when the watch had been changed, that he made this decision. So he checked down and began taking in sail. By half past four he had all the canvas off her except the fore trysail, and it was partly in. Then the wheel was put hard a-starboard and she hauled up to west by south.
The Algoma had almost completed altering course and was beginning to roll wildly on the slopes of Superior's liquid and invisible mountains when her stern struck with a fearful crash, crumpling up the steel rudder and leaving her quite unmanageable.
Next moment she began to bang on the bottom and seas burst over her, sweeping her clean and smashing her stout lifeboats "like eggshells," as one who lived to tell the tale said.
Capt. Moore's first thought was for the safety of his passengers and crew.
When the Algoma struck he rushed through the ship, calling the purser and all the crew who were below, and opening the valves to let the steam escape, so as to prevent a boiler explosion.
Wm. B. McArthur, of Meaford, one of the few passengers saved, said, after the wreck: "Most passengers crowded to the higher or spar deck. Capt Moore alone remained cool and steady, and showed just what a man he was. He seized a length of rope and rigged a lifeline along the wave swept deck from the mainmast a and telling the people to hang on and not be panic stricken, rushed them aft between the bursting of the seas.
"I was working beside him with another man, helping get them along, when a great sea burst and brought the cabin crashing down on him. Capt. Moore was pinned to the deck by the wreckage and fearfully hurt.
"'I'm done for!' gasped he, 'but what about those poor people?'
"The man working with us was stunned by the fall of the cabin and swept overboard without a struggle and disappeared. Clinging to the wreck of the cabin, men, women and children were swept away like feathers into the sea, crying vainly for help. Of all washed off, only three made the shore alive.
"First Officer Joseph Hastings took command. Capt. Moore was dragged to the stern by the survivors, where we all crouched, waiting for the day. Hurt as he was he said: 'Men, let us unite in prayer,' and there, with death flapping his wings over us, we knelt down in the snow and water and the captain prayed for us."
All this time the Algoma was rising and falling on the ragged rocks with the force of a steam hammer of hundreds of tons' power, the great waves heaving her hull up, dropping it with tremendous impetus, and flooding it before again lifting it high. It was like a hammer in the hands of a drunken giant, wearing itself out on the immutable anvil of the Greenstone, an outlier of Isle Royale.
Capt. Moore had realized that the Algoma was pounding over a ledge and was likely to break in two, so that the battered stern now offered the greater prospect of safety. He was trying to transfer the ship's company from the forward to the after end of the ship when he himself was crushed. Many were swept away with him—oilers, firemen, mess-boys, stewards and deckhands, all working to save the women and children and for the most part working in vain.
In all thirty-seven were lost in those raging billows.
At 6 a. m., while it was still dark, the pounding Algoma suddenly plunged bow under, bent or broken until all forward of the boilers disappeared, and she seemed to be poised like a diver bound for the bowels of the deep. It was a dreadful time for the huddled group now almost reduced to a dozen in number, left clinging to the sloping alter deck.
When daylight filtered through the land was visible—indeed, the stern was within sixty feet of the rocks.
One of the lifeboats, with a few of the crew in it, was washed away and rolled over again and again. But it was a good boat, and those in it had lashed themselves to the lifelines looped around it. It righted itself, with the men clinging to its sides. Wet through and freezing they were rolled up on the shore almost dead from their battle with the waves.
All that day and night those left] on the Algoma had to fight against frost and snow and despair, with nothing in sight but the grim rocks the grinding wreck, and the corpses of their shipmates dashed pitilessly again and again upon the boulders by the charging surf and torn back by the undertow.
Poor Mrs. Dudgeon, of Owen Sound, with her six-year-old boy and four-year-old girl, were among the passengers lost. Her husband, Mr. E. Dudgeon, was in Winnipeg at the time, and the news came to him in these terrible ten words of a telegram: "Algoma gone down. Your wife and two children are drowned."
Another family shattered was that of E. L. Frost, a brother of Mr. Wm. Frost, then living at 110 Hazelton avenue. Toronto. Edward Frost, his son Lewis, and his wife were all drowned. So were the Buchanan brothers, two young men.
Mrs. Shannon, stewardess, was another woman who perished. The other victims included George Pettigrew and Alex. McDermott, of Sarnia, first and second engineers; Alexander Mackenzie, the purser, a nephew of the Hon. Alex. Mackenzie; Charles Taylor, chief steward; John Jones, steerage steward; Hutchinson, fireman; Hugh McClinton, news agent; J. Bordell, oiler; Charles Fettis and James Maloney, porters; H. Gill and H. Emerson, messroom boys; T. Snelling and H. Mortimer, watchmen; John Lott, F. Brooks and W. Stokes, cooks, L. Rooke, deck hand; George Thompson, news boy. In all, twenty-eight of the crew were lost—both the engineers, five of the six firemen, all the oilers, and greasers. The "black gang" suffered heavily. Only a fireman was saved.
Those who had been cast up alive on the island roused the fishermen. It was the most dreadful night these hardy inhabitants of Isle Royale had ever known. Their deep-water nets, set with sinkers far offshore under the waves, were hurled high on the rocks, wrapped around corpses. With the help of the fishermen a lifeline was floated ashore from the wreck and made fast, but there was no gear for using it.
All Saturday night the little group and soon the survivors were picked crouched on the afterpart of the Algoma's main deck. On Sunday morning, the gale having blown itself out and the sea mounting, they launched a small raft which they had laboriously constructed, and hauled themselves ashore by the lifeline They were more dead than alive when they landed, and were at once carried by the fishermen to their shanties.
A telegram signed "Josie," apparently from First Officer J. B. Hastings to Mrs. Hastings in Owen Sound would indicate that one woman, a stewardess or passenger, was among those saved. It gave the laconic message "Jane and I are safe."
Joseph and George McLaren, also among the survivors, had relatives in Toronto, for a telegram announcing their safety was received during the week by a Mrs. Jiley, then living at 413 Adelaide street west in this city.
The Algoma struck at 4.30 in the morning. So thick was it that Capt Andrews, of the sister ship Alberta, nosing out into the northeast blizzard on his way from Fort William to Owen Sound, passed close by the Algoma and saw no sign of her, although he was keeping an anxious lookout. He knew that she was due to pass him near this point.
He could not see a hundred yards ahead in the swirling snow, and he said afterwards the night was one of the wildest he had ever braved. For fourteen hours, he faced the storm with a head of steam that should have given him fourteen knots, but the vessel was making barely three miles an hour. It must be remembered that what was a pushing helpful gale for the Algoma, westbound, was a muzzler for the Alberta, bound east.
The sea was breaking over Capt. Andrews' vessel all the time until she was iced up to her mastheads and even the red hot smokestack was masked in a solid overcoat of frozen spray.
Where the Algoma fetched up was within a mile of Rock Harbor lighthouse. Rock Harbor is a narrow slit on the south or Lake Superior side of Isle Royale, near the east end of the island, separated from the lake by a long straight line of rocks and ledges, some above and some below water.
The survivors were huddled close to their landing place when the third sister of the C. P. R. fleet, which had left for Owen Sound that fatal Saturday, came steaming along for Fort William at noon on Monday. When her master hauled up for the Passage Island channel, past the east end of Isle Royale, he sighted something strange sticking up from the water. It was the battered stern of the Algoma, with a fragment of half-stowed sail hanging loose on the submerged mizzen mast. Looking closer he saw distress signals from the shore, and made out fourteen survivors frantically trying to attract his attention. A fish tug, sent out by the friendly islanders, had meantime come alongside and was relating the dreadful news. In an instant the Athabasca's engines were rung down and off and before he had lost headway a boat was put over the side; and soon the survivors were picked up; as the simple despatches of the time say, "in a perishing condition."
(Caption) FIGURES IN "ALGOMA'S" TRAGIC STORY
(Caption) WRECK OF THE ALGOMA on the Greenstone, Isle Royale, from a photograph in the possession of Capt. James McCannel, C. P. R. steamer Assiniboia.
(Caption) C. P. R. STEAMER ALGOMA—This portrait, like those of her two sisters, is by C. H. J. Snider, in the John Ross Robertson Collection of Canadian Historical Pictures, Toronto Public Library.
(Caption) C. P. R. STEAMER ATHABASCA, which rescued the Algoma survivors.
(Caption) C. P. R. STEAMER ALBERTA, which was slowed down to three knots by the gale which pushed her sister to destruction at sixteen.