Table of Contents

Title Page
Catching the Wave - A Wreck Rediscovered
Good Legends
The night of 29-30 April 1853.
Treasure Ship?
Table of Illustrations

The first notice anyone seems to have taken of the Ocean Wave was in the middle of the summer of 1852. There are no accounts of her construction, or of her launch. She was quietly registered on 4 August 1853, an event often associated with the builder's trials. Her shipwright was Edward D. Merritt, one of the most experienced working in Montreal, having built vessels in that port since the 1820s.3

The steamer Ocean Wave, a pen and ink sketch over pencil by C.H.J. Snider. From the collection of the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library.
About the time of her trials a fulsome description of the Ocean Wave's facilities was offered to the public:

"The old fashioned ladies' cabin has been abolished from the lower deck, and the gentlemen's from below. All below is given up to the officers and crew of the boat, and to freight, for the carrying of which she will therefore offer greater capacity than [any ] vessel of her inches. Upon the lower deck aft there will be a lounge and smoking saloon for gentlemen. Upon the upper deck is a splendid saloon 150 feet in length, and sixteen wide, with rows of staterooms on each side. Abaft one wheel is a small sitting room for ladies, communicating with the lower deck and the grand saloon, and adjoining it is the cabin maid's room etc. This sitting room is elegantly fitted up with beautiful carpets, lounges, etc. The grand saloon also, is beautifully fitted up, and we had a peep at a fine piano, destined to occupy a nook in it. There are twenty-six staterooms, containing 52 beds, which we inspected and found good and comfortable. Besides, on the opposite side to the ladies' sitting room, there is a suite of two rooms to be fitted up for a family, so that the children and nurses may be within reach of their parents, without passing into the saloon. The saloon has an arched roof, which does away with the necessity of the awkward supports found necessary in other boats. The rests or brackets upon which the roof rests are prettily carved, and between each is a pane of stained glass, the colors of which are so arranged as to produce a beautiful effect. The staterooms and saloons are all ventilated upon a new, safe, and most ingenious plan. Mr. Seaver [James Shearer] has designed and superintended this part of the boat. The kitchen and pantry are commodious and convenient; by an ingenious contrivance the water from the wheel is conveyed into a copper reservoir fastened round the chimnies, from which hot water will be obtained to supply the saloon for washing, shaving etc. without the bustle of running up and down stairs."4

Paying the bills for all this 'magnificence' was John Molson jr. Over 40 years after their historic experiments with steam navigation (the Accommodation, 1809), the Molsons still retained interests in some steamers navigating between Montreal and Quebec. Moreover, John jr. had an ongoing financial stake in the St. Mary's Foundry, where the engines of the Ocean Wave were fabricated.5 The Molson connection was of particular interest in the context of her intended route. With a name like Ocean Wave, one might expect a sea-going vessel, or at least one intended to run through or to tide-water. Yet the Ocean Wave was built to the controlling dimensions of the St. Lawrence canals: 174.2' in length; 26' in breadth with a depth of hold of 10.6'.6 While the Montreal Gazette would describe her as "expressly built for lake navigation", the Ogdensburg Sentinel claimed she was "built to ply between Montreal and Quebec".7 Whatever Molson may have had in mind when he commissioned her construction, it is clear from her dimensions he was keeping the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario as an option. Given that Molson had never run vessels on the upper river, and indeed was winding down his commitments on the middle St. Lawrence, his competition may well have been forgiven some confusion as to his intentions. On August 4, 1852 (the same day that Merritt signed the builder's certificate) the Ocean Wave's first departure was advertised "for Hamilton" the next day.8

In just over a month Molson's plans became clear. Having showcased her suitability for the Montreal-Hamilton route, Molson transferred the Ocean Wave's registry to "Edwin C. French of Cornwall".9 But the registry documents fail to make clear that the real money behind the purchase was the Northern New York Rail Road Co. of Boston (not to be confused with the Northern Railway, Toronto to Collingwood).10 The American Northern, recently completed between Rouse's Point and Ogdensburg, New York was part of a larger strategy of New England capitalists to use railroad technology to draw the Great Lakes into the economic orbit of Boston.11 They thought along the same lines as the promoters of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad (Portland, Maine), or indeed those behind the merger which created the New York Central in 1853. The Northern (or the Ogdensburg line, as it was known around the lakes), supplied French with three promissory notes dated 8 Sept. 1852 for $14,666.66 each, payable at three days, one year and two years. These provided the collateral for the mortgage given by Molson to French on the £11,000 purchase price.12 How did French enter into all of this? He was the Station Agent at the Ogdensburg end of the line.13

That the railroad was involved in the purchase was generally advertised. Just a day after the sale was consummated, the Kingston British Whig offered a dire warning of a "serious incursion into the Forwarding trade". It noted the purchase of the Ocean Wave together with the Boston (then at Quebec) and the charter of the much smaller George Frederick running on the Bay of Quinte.14 If the sale was no secret, why use Edwin French "of Cornwall" as the point man? The answer lies in a desire to keep the Ocean Wave in British registry. Two equally compelling reasons may be offered for this. First, the navigation of the St. Lawrence was still not open to American vessels (and would not be until the ratification of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854). Consequently, if it was considered useful to send the Ocean Wave to Montreal, she needed to remain in British registry.15 But the raison d'Ítre of the Northern Railroad was to forestall shipments to Montreal, so it is likely that this was not the chief consideration. More to the point, the American registry laws virtually prohibited the purchase of foreign bottoms for the American flag fleet.16 Thus her British registry was almost certainly not, as would later be alleged, a ploy to avoid more stringent American safety regulations.

In buying or chartering vessels to form its own steamboat line, the Northern Railroad was following the lead of the Michigan Central Railroad, which since 1849 had run the palatial Mayflower and other vessels between Buffalo and its own tracks at Detroit. Unquestionably the most ill-starred of the Michigan Central's vessels was the chartered Atlantic, which sank with hundreds of passengers on board in the early morning of 20 August 1852, only a couple of weeks after the trials of the Ocean Wave.17 The vessel that sank the Atlantic was the propeller Ogdensburg, one of the new propellers belonging to the Northern Transportation Company, a line of freight boats running from Ogdensburg to Chicago which had been formed only the previous season, apparently owned independently from the railroad.18

While the Northern New York line had little specific interest in the railroad steamships of the upper lakes, it was vitally interested in bringing freight and passengers to its Ogdensburg wharves. Indeed the opening of this line was generally credited with dramatically shifting the pattern of the Lake Ontario trade away from Oswego.19 But they were hardly in a position to rest on their laurels. The completion of the Rome and Cape Vincent Railroad in the spring of 1852 threatened to intercept trade at the entrance to the St. Lawrence River and draw it south to New York. Indeed, the following year that competitor, using essentially the same registry dodge, would acquire the Champion, Highlander and the Mayflower (formerly the Comet).20

In the meantime, the Ocean Wave and her new line mate, the Boston, began in the fall of 1852 to run from Ogdensburg to Hamilton, a route she would pick up in the spring of 1853.21 One particularly spectacular cargo was given extra publicity that fall. On Saturday, the 13th of November, she delivered to Ogdensburg a cargo of some 1538 barrels of flour for transfer to the railroad. Nothing moved on Sunday. Not until Monday morning would they begin unloading the flour, and loading 264 tons of freight (in 2992 packages). She was under way by 8:00 p.m. The upbound freight was consigned to major ports like Toronto and Hamilton, way ports like Cobourg, Port Hope and Oakville, and back communities like Stewarttown and Georgetown.22

The following spring, the company announced that it would use the Ocean Wave and the Boston in a weekly line running between Ogdensburg and Hamilton. The emphasis on freight in their plans is evident in their declaration that "part of the time, these steamers will be employed in tugging the fleet of schooners chartered by the company from Ogdensburgh to the foot of Lake Ontario." That they might be kept well employed at this was the objective of the railroad's agents who, early that spring, were actively chartering all the schooners they could around the lake. According to one source, for example, they had succeeded in chartering nearly all those owned in St. Catharines. This action, it was predicted, would serve both to bolster freight rates over the course of the year, and secure much of the freight for the Ogdensburg and Boston railroad (as the Northern New York was often called).23

This emphasis on freight is hardly surprising considering that the established American lines on Lake Ontario already ran several first class steamers into Ogdensburg including the Northerner, Cataract, Niagara and Ontario. At the same time, the Bay State and New York had been formed into an Express Line to run from Ogdensburg to Lewiston (via Cape Vincent and Toronto) in connection with the railroad.24

By late April 1853, the Ocean Wave had had a career of less than six months on the lakes. Already there had been hints of trouble. Sparks had often been seen flying out of the door used for cleaning the boiler (itself encased in felt). On her very first trip, the felt lining encasing the steam-drum had caught fire. Fortunately, there had been a fire company on board who had been able to pour over 50 buckets of water on the flames and cut away the burning felt.25 At first glance, a second incident had seemed much less ominous. About one o'clock one morning in the spring of 1853, the purser, Thomas Oliver, noticed a spark catching hold on the hurricane (upper) deck. He quickly doused it with water from a fire bucket kept nearby. When later questioned, the first mate was generally dismissive of the event. "It could hardly be said she was on fire," he said.26 No one would say this the next time.


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This article originally appeared in FreshWater. Underwater photography courtesy of Northern Tech Diver.