Toronto Telegram, January 7, 1932
Schooner Days LXIX (69)
By C.H.J Snider
In old Albert Hall, on the east side of Yonge street, between Queen and Shuter, about where Scholes' Hotel is now, the Longshoremen's Union used to gather for concerts and dances when the hall aforesaid was not packed with revival meetings or Paul Patullo's boxing bouts. A thing which always got a hand from the coal heavers was "The Wreck of the Belle Sheridan," composed and recited by Mike Ryan, one of the boys. This rare inspiration of the native muse ran somewhat thus: —
In the year of eighteen-eighty,
On a drear November day,
With coal, bound for Toronto,
They left old Charlotte Bay.
They watched old Charlotte Harbor
Till they were out of sight.
They thought of dear old Scott Street slip,
Which was the boys' delight.
They sailed along for many miles,
While the crew stood on her deck.
They little knew their ship would go
All in that fearful wreck.
The first mate, John Hamilton,
A man who knew no fears,
Had sailed the Lakes from time to time
For over twenty years.
The second mate was Samuel Boyd,
A powerful giant and true;
With the captain and his four young sons,
Comprised the entire crew.
They sailed along the stormy waves,
And tossed a silvery spray,
And watched the moon appearing
At the closing of the day.
The moon was bleared with anger,
The clouds were rolling by,
The rain came down in torrents—
Oh! How dismal was the sky.
"There's a storm fast approaching!"
I heard the captain say;
"I only wish that we were back
Once more in Charlotte Bay."
"Hard aport! Hard aport!"
The first mate then cried out,
"Lower down your canvas, boys,
And let her come about! "
She ran before it all that night.
And anchored at break of day.
"She has struck aground," the captain cried,
"On the beach is Weller's Bay."
They shouted to the farmers
Who had gathered on the shore,
To save their lives the farmers tried
To reach them o'er and o'er.
The captain died while standing up
Where he was lashed to stay,
And in a moment after
The youngest passed away.
"There's the oldest and the youngest gone,"
The other brothers cried;
Then one secured a loosened plank
And for the lifeboat tried.
He was picked up by the lifeboat
And carried to the shore,
Where for many hours unconscious
Inside the farmhouse door.
His three remaining brothers,
With the first and second mate,
Saw their saddest hour approaching fast,
And death their only fate.
The ship then went to pieces,
Three of the crew were found,
While the others sleep in Weller's Bay,
In the cold, cold ground.
Although it is fifty-two years since it happened, the wreck of the Belle Sheridan at Weller's Bay is still talked of in Prince Edward County farm houses on winter nights, when the oil lamps flicker and the storm whirls the snow down the chimney. The Belle Sheridan was one of the many victims of the Great Gale of 1880. Sixteen vessels were in sight of one another at dusk on Saturday night, November 6th, on the south shore of Lake Ontario, and by Sunday morning two were pounding to staves on Prince Edward County, one had capsized and drowned her crew, another had gone down with all hands, two were on the beach at Oswego, and all the others were staggering into Kingston with sails in ribbons, gaffs and booms and deckloads gone, and bulwarks washed away. It was a hard time for the insurance companies – and for men afloat and women at home. The gale blew for a week. Death of Capt. James McSherry last Tuesday removed the only survivor of the Belle Sheridan in this storm, and recalled the pitiable fate of his father and brothers.
NOT so long ago an old German clock peddler called on Capt. Joseph Williams at his lakeshore farmhouse on Simcoe Point near Pickering. Joseph did not need any clocks, but the pedler scenting the seagoing atmosphere of the place, lingered.
"I pretty near shipped in a fessel once mineself," he confided.
"How was that?" asked Captain Joe.
"It was in Oswego, and a captain, I forget his name, he hire me, and I bring my bag aboard his fessel. I throw it down the forescuttle like I see others do and start to follow down the ladder mineself when I meet it coming up, boom. It hit the deck and so do I. I pick mineself up and out of the forescuttle pop another bag, and a big, big man.
"'What you doin'?' ask the big, big man.
"'I ship in the fessel and I throw down my bag' I say.
"'No you don't,' say the big, big man. 'You don't ship in this vessel, and neither do I. The mark's on her. You're going to ship along with me in another vessel, a good one, the Mary Ann Lydon. Come along. "
"I go along with him to the Mary Ann Lydon and we make a good trip.
"Then I hear the fessel I pretty near ship in lost with all hands, but one son of the captain."
"What was the name of her? " asked Capt. Williams.
"I don't remember, but I know the name of the captain if I hear it."
"Ja, that's him. "
"Then the vessel, " said Capt. Joe slowly, "was the Belle Sheridan."
White-painted, two-masted, plumb-stemmed, with a range of four jibs poking out ahead of her foresail and mainsail, and a pair of big gafftop-sails bellying above all, the Belle Sheridan was typical of many a lake schooner of her time. Typical in build and rig, typical in the way she was owned and manned.
This city was then the home of an enterprising lakefaring population of English, Scotch and Irish descent, and among the families with which the waterfront was familiar were the McSherrys. They are, indeed, one of the few marine "fixtures" remaining to this day in a greatly changed city.
James McSherry, father of the family, came out from Ireland in 1840 in the packet ship Margaret. She made the remarkable voyage of sixteen days out from Ireland to Quebec with passengers, and fourteen days home. James McSherry was not a passenger, but the ship's carpenter, and knew his trade throughly as an artisan, builder and rigger. How he came to reach Toronto is not known, but he soon established himself as a wagonmaker, and had a little yard on the bay shore, first at the foot of Sherbourne street and then at the Don mouth, at Cherry street. Here, besides building prize-willing wagons for York County farmers, he turned out small vessels in the winters – the Echo, the Clipper, the Swift, the Garibaldi, the Alabama. He also reared a large family – Pat, the eldest and Johnny, Jimmy, Tommy, Eddy and Henry were the boys and there were girls, too. The family grew up in the Echo, the first of the McSherry fleet, for such vessels as Capt. McSherry did not sell he sailed for himself, with the help of his growing sons. All summer, while the lake trade was good, the family would ply the blue waters, and in the winter the Echo, like a little ark, would come to rest on Ararat-by-the-Don, and James McSherry and his boys would go to work in their shipyard.
Here he rebuilt the schooner Persia and the old brigantine New York, and the Montezuma, and the schooner West Wind. She was the most ambitious of James McSherry's purchases yet. In addition to the West Wind, he owned the scow Samson and the Clipper, of his own building; little hookers in the stone and cordwood trade. Capt. McSherry had become a substantial citizen by this time, and owned several houses in addition to his vessel property.
The West Wind got ashore near Cobourg late one fall, and had to be left on the beach until the ice melted. When Capt. McSherry and his boys went down to salvage her with the first of spring they found the hospitable Cobourgites had cut her down to the level of the winter's ice fore firewood.
That was a heavy setback, but rallying all his resources, the gallant Irishman raised $3,600 and brought the Belle Sheridan, which had been lying on the bottom at the foot of Church street for the preceding year.
This schooner was no spring chicken. She had been built in 1852 at Oswego, and this was 1878. She had had a rebuild of sorts five years before. Her deck was above water where she sank, and it was no trick to raise her. She merely needed pumping out. Capt. McSherry towed her to the Don mouth and found her underbody sound. She was planked with three-inch white oak, with four-inch plank in the bilges, and her frames were 6-inch oak, doubled. Her decks were of pine. These were done. Capt. McSherry replaced them, fave her a thorough overhaul and slipped her back into the water "as good as new." So he believed. He had spent $3,000 more in repairs. The marine insurance inspectors, less enthusiastic, classed her B-1, which was good enough to carry grain.
At the end of October, 1880, the Belle Sheridan loaded wheat at Adamson's elevator at the foot of West Market street, finished at the Northern elevator at the foot of Brock street, and cleared for Oswego. She made a good run of 16 hours, unloaded, and came up the lake to Charlotte, where she loaded 300 tons of coal for J. R. Bailey, of Toronto. A good trip so far, with paying freights both ways. She would earn $500 or so for the voyage. Father and the boys were jubilant. Pat, having reached man's estate, was not with them. He had been sailing vessels on his own for five years. He had taken command of the Echo at sixteen. Johnny, now come to 21, Jimmy, 18 years old, but sailing in this particular schooner for the first time on this trip; Tommy, 17, and Eddie, 13; these were on board with Capt. McSherry. The mate of the schooner was a Toronto man named John Hamilton. Sam Boyd, an old Toronto sailor, completed the crew. Seven were plenty to handle the vessel.
The southerly wind was light when the Belle Sheridan towed out from Charlotte Saturday morning. She hugged the south shore, as vessels always did with the wind in that quarter, expecting to get broken off by a westerly shift after clearing Thirty-Mile Point, which is 30 miles from Niagara. A west wind would then let her lay a course for Toronto. By 11 o'clock at night, while the Thirty was winking at her, the glass had fallen and everything promised heavy weather. The green and red lights of the vessels in company were blotted out. Capt. McSherry ordered the jibtopsail and gafftopsails furled, lowered the mainsail to the last reef band and double reefed it. The vessel was thus in good shape for the rough stuff the night might bring.
At midnight, just as the wheel was being relieved and one watch was getting ready to turn in, there came a fierce squall from the south west. It was so heavy that although, from the direction of the wind, she could have laid Toronto, the schooner was kept off before it, the outer jibs run down, the foresail and mainsail halliards let go by the run. She was scudding under the fore staysail only, until they got ten feet or so of the fore and main peaks hoisted, to give her steerage way. She headed east by north, for the Canada shore; which was fatal.
By one o'clock the lights of Charlotte which she had left in the morning were again in sight; but the schooner was ten or twelve miles out in the lake, and in the hurricane that was blowing Capt. McSherry could not take the chance of entering Charlotte's narrow piers. With black squall succeeding black squall, each fiercer than the last, and the seas mounting up so that the crew could not see their tops ahead or astern, the schooner scurried before the blow, like a hare hounded by beagles.
Off Charlotte the squatted mainsail bloated up into a circus tent and burst. Its fragments wrapped themselves around the gaff and boom and both spars flailed about like cripples' crutches and broke. The mainboom dragging in the wake smashed the yawl boat, on the stern davits. A wave wrenched the wreck of it away.
At two o'clock they thought they could see the lights off Bowmanville, on the north shore. But there was no making that harbor. It was harder to get into than Charlotte. The first shelter would be Presqu'isle, in the corner where Prince Edward juts out its great peninsula.
Now and then a monstrous sea would burst over the stern of the Belle Sheridan, fill her up to the level of her rail and spill over on both sides. Every man and boy was drenched to the skin and numb with the bitter cold.
At three o'clock the maintopmast went out of her, snapped by a particularly heavy roll. It fell clear, and they chopped away its entangled shrouds and halliards. Still they had hope; for morning would show them Presqu'isle and shelter.
They were abreast of Presqu'isle by 6 o'clock, while it was still dark, having run 54 miles down Lake Ontario since midnight, almost under bare poles. To get into Presqu'isle the schooner would have to turn sharp to the north and west. How do it, with all her after sail gone, and mountains of water and a wind of express-train velocity pushing her eastward nine miles an hour?
Capt. McSherry steered for Presqu'isle Light. To fetch it too close meant destruction on its rocky base. He gave it as narrow a berth as possible. The gathering of many seas into one, as they backed up from the pen into which the mad south-wester was flogging them, hurled the schooner past the light for half a mile before she answered to her helm. She headed up almost to north-west; but without after sail, she would not go ahead into Presqu'isle Harbor; she was driven sideways across the opening and the lee-shore of Prince Edward came rushing out to meet her.
They let go the port anchor; gave her a big range of chain, and let go the starboard one, with every shot remaining in the locker. She rounded up. And there she lay, rolling wildly in the partial lee Presqu'isle Point gave, looking into the harbor she could not enter.
Bone wet and bone weary, foodless and fireless all night long, the seven in the Sheridan greeted the wild sunrise of that November Sunday morning with trembling hope.
To leeward, against the angry flames of morning, the breakers were spouting masthead high on the sandy shores of Prince Edward. To windward, three-quarters of a mile away, great seas rolling down Lake Ontario in waterhills twenty feet high, burst on the Presqu'isle bar and spouted higher than the lighthouse top.
The harbor mouth was open wide, but nothing but a powerful tug could get them in. There were no tugs in Presqu'isle. None nearer than Toronto, or Charlotte or Oswego, and all impossible to summon through the storm.
The roadstead was a wild turmoil of broken water. All depended on the wind. If it shifted to the north of west the shore would begin to give shelter. November gales usually ride that way around the compass.
The wind went from south-west to west-south-west, from west south-west to west. There were even times when the wallowing schooner's battered bowsprit pointed north of west.
"She's coming nor' west, and we're saved!" shouted Capt. McSherry above the uproar.
As he, spoke there was a sharp twang of the straining anchor chains. The port one, parted, right at the hawsepipe.
Would the starboard one hold her? When she reared from a plunge that chain straightened out ahead of her like a steel rail.
But the anchor dragged.
Foot by foot and fathom by fathom Presqu'isle lighthouse receded and the grim face of Bald Head on the Prince Edward shore drew near.
There was just one chance. Perhaps by cutting the cable, and setting the remaining sail, the schooner could thread the narrow cut that gave entrance to Weller's Bay through the long sandbar where the breakers boiled for miles and miles in endless fury.
Ere they could try this the chance vanished. The wind, as they had hoped so hard a few minutes before, came out of the north-west. The entrance now bore north. There was no making it. Foot by foot and fathom by fathom the schooner drove past this last slight hope of escape – dipping, lunging, rearing, plunging, ever facing the assaulting legions of the lake, ever losing ground to them.
It was ten o'clock when the cable parted. At noon she was in the breakers, having dragged five miles in two hours.
When she struck she slewed around so that the bow was higher than the stern. Flooded out of the cabin by the seas that swept her, all hands crowded up into the narrow space of the forecastle head, between the paulpost and windlass bitts and the hawsepipes. Jim and Tom McSherry got some shelter by rolling themselves in the staysail. John and Jim, the oldest boys, took turns holding little Eddie in their arms, trying to warm him. He was crying from the bitter cold and the fear that he would never again see his mother.
The schooner was creaking and groaning in every timber and each wave tore off another piece of rail or bulwarks. With a scream of drawing spikes the new pine planks of the deck started to go next.
The normal beach was only a hundred yards away, but far up its face the seething breakers thundered. Beyond their line a thousand people gathered from Consecon and Brighton and the Carrying Place, from every farm and fireside in Hillier township. Farmers backed their wagons into the surf. All were helpless to save.
A fishboat was manned by five heroes – Walter Looch, Stephen Clark, Frank Browner and two others, whose names should be written high in the scroll of honor. Twenty times that boat was capsized in the breakers and rolled up on the beach, without even getting clear of the shore. Three times it got through the first rollers and neared the wreck, only to be tossed away like a cork by an acre of water that burst and spread fan-like, sweeping it half a mile down the beach.
Few were the words of the doomed crew as they waited for their fate. John Hamilton, the mate, said if he got through he would never go sailing again.
"We'll not get through; we're done for," said Capt. McSherry quietly, and at one o'clock he died. His freezing body stiffened in the coils of rope which bound him to one of the timberheads. Then came a sea larger than the rest, and loosed his bonds, and washed him away.
Eddie's crying ceased.
Jim, looking into the face of his little brother, after another big sea had swept them all, saw that he, too, was dead; drowned or frozen, or both. His rigid body was hard to hold. The next big sea tore it from Jim's arms.
"Try the fore rigging," shouted Johnny, bringing his head above water.
All edged their way along the rail to the fore-chains and started to climb the shrouds.
Jim saw the fishboat pulling through the surf again.
"I'm going to risk it," he shouted to the climbers.
"You might try it," called his brothers. They were so exhausted they could barely drag themselves up the ratlines. They could not unlock their legs from where they clung.
Jim McSherry worked his way along the rail to the main rigging, a black oil-skinned figure, disappearing completely in the yeast of the breaking seas when they boarded. How he fared he thus told The Telegram four years ago:
"We could hear and feel the ship cracking to pieces as the water and wind tore at her.
"I started to go back to where the deck was breaking up. Three seas went over me, but I saw a chance and took it. Finally, holding by the rigging and dodging the seas, I got aft and seized a plank 8 feet long, 6 inches wide and 3 inches thick. Then I stood on the rail for a moment with my plank, and the crowd on shore saw me and knew what the idea was. There were buggies and rigs there from all over, as the news had spread of the great storm, and that the 'Belle Sheridan' was going to pieces with all on board her.
"I took tight hold of the plank and the next wave swept me away. I had an oilskin suit on over heavy clothes and that protected me some from the cold. I was carried east, most of the time under water as it seemed, but I saw that the lifeboat was in the surf near the shore, racing along parallel to my direction. The boat could not make way to reach the schooner, but could live in the following seas. I got a sight of the lifeboat after I had travelled half a mile, and saw it was just opposite me and that I had gained 100 yards inshore. Then I seemed to be submerged again in the waves and when I took another sight I had been carried a mile east, and I was another 100 yards nearer the rescue boat.
"After the third plunge, I found I was right off the boat, so l grabbed her ringbolt and then my feet struck bottom for an instant. The men grabbed me, and carried me in through the surf, where I was put in a buggy on shore and bundled up in a buffalo robe. They put me in a fish shack, stripped me, and rubbed me with their rough coats. I was then driven further on and carried into a farm kitchen.
"It was one of those old-fashioned kitchens, as big as the modern house nowadays, and there was a high-backed stove in it, and a crowd of people that filled it. The fire was going and the people were steaming, and you can imagine the heat. I smelled the heat and saw the people and then keeled over. I was unconscious four hours."
Once again, after rescuing Jimmy, the gallant fishboat put out. This time they got within thirty feet of the schooner and looked up into the faces of the crew as they called to the four in the rigging to jump. Next moment the boat capsized and the five men were in the water themselves. They clung to their craft and were all washed up in a heap together, a mile down the beach.
Dusk settled down. Ere the life savers could get out again the Belle Sheridan's mainmast fell, striking the fore rigging. Right afterwards the foremast began to totter. It was over the side with four men entangled in its network of shrouds, halliards and ratlines.
Bonfires blazed on the beach all night, but no one was washed ashore. Days afterwards little Eddie McSherry's body was found in the sand. And later on John Hamilton's, headless, as though the falling mainmast had decapitated him. And still later was found a human heart, silently eloquent of Lake Ontario's rage. The schooner herself was beaten into kindling wood, and the shores of Prince Edward were strewn with her coal, all the way from Wellers Bay to Wicked Point and from Soup Harbor to the Carrying Place.
And so of all the Belle Sheridan's crew Jim McSherry alone came home, to be the support and comfort of his widowed mother. A fine fight he made of it. The girls grew up and married well. The boys all became vessel captains and steamship masters. Jim himself carried hundreds of thousands of passengers across Toronto Bay in the ferry service, and retired to an honored position with the Toronto Transportation Commission. He was in their employ when he died this week of pneumonia, in his 71st year.
SONS WHO ESCAPED FATHER'S AND BROTHERS' FATE
Capt. Jas. McSherry, jr., who died this week.
CAPT. HENRY McSHERRY AND HENRY McSHERRY, JR.
CAPT. PAT. McSHERRY, who has been master of fifty vessels.
THE "BELLE SHERIDAN," AS DRAWN FOR CAPT. HENRY McSHERRY BY C. I. GIBBONS
The artist misspelled her name, a typographical affliction from which even newspaper cartoonists are not always free. C. I. Gibbons was a tug fireman, but an accurate marine portrait maker. It will be noted that he appears to have drawn the Sheridan with a spike bowsprit, which was a rarity on the lakes.