The night of 29-30 April 1853.

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

Many errors have crept into the published accounts of the burning of the Ocean Wave. What follows is a reconstruction of events based on the best sources available: the testimony of the crew and passengers of the Ocean Wave and the crews of other vessels in her vicinity offered under oath to a magistrate or before a coroner's jury within a few days of the events in question. Together they represent thousands of words of evidence which, while widely available for many years, do not appear to have been seriously pieced together before.

The east end of Lake Ontario continues to challenge sailing vessels and low powered ships when westerly winds blow.
The Ocean Wave left Hamilton early in the morning of 29 April 1853. About Port Darlington [Bowmanville] she was passed by the Magnet, also bound down the lake. The Magnet had already cleared Cobourg by the time the Ocean Wave was backing out of Port Hope harbour and all who knew the two vessels would have been slightly amused at any suggestions of the Ocean Wave racing to catch up, as some historians have suggested. But as Captain Wright ruefully noted, the Ocean Wave at best could do nine or ten miles per hour loaded as she was. The Magnet regularly cruised at over twelve and was capable of more.27 At ten o'clock on the evening of the 29th, Cobourg a couple of hours behind them, the Magnet was at least ten or eleven miles ahead.28 Anywhere on the lake that night, the Magnet could have seen the sparks from the Ocean Wave's chimneys behind her. Anywhere, that is, but as the vessels threaded their way past Point Traverse and the False Duck Islands.

The Ocean Wave had relatively few passengers aboard, thanks largely to the general reputation of the Magnet one of the Royal Mail Line steamers. In most of the accounts that followed, the name most prominently mentioned was Mrs. Stevenson, the wife of the manager of the Bank of Montreal's Hamilton office. She was travelling down the lake with her infant daughter, two sons and their nurse. Also aboard was Mrs. French, the wife of station agent Edwin French, the ostensible registered owner of the steamer. Among the other passengers were Captain and Mrs. Kuyer, Mr. Lyman Fiske, and a Mrs. McDonald, all of Ogdensburg. No one was too clear on who else was aboard: Richardson, "a colored man, on his way to [Kingston] with apples"; O'Doyle, an Irishman from the rear of Brockville; an "old Scotch gentleman" whose name no one remembered. Indeed, the purser (whose job it was to know) could not tell the number of passengers aboard. At one stage there was reference to some fourteen cabin (first class) and nine deck (second class) passengers but only sixteen of these were ever identified in any fashion. At best, Mr. Oliver recollected that a number of passengers had come on board at Cobourg. They had probably missed the Magnet which had passed up about an hour ahead of the Ocean Wave. Not one could be identified.29

Two different accountings were offered of the freight bill. The Rouse's Point Advertiser (probably quoting some source in the railroad) said there were about 2500 barrels of flour and 400-500 packages of butter.30 The Globe was more precise and detailed in its account: "1800 barrels of flour, 64 barrels of pearl ash, from 60 to 80 barrels seed, 300 kegs butter, and some hogsheads of hams, besides way freight."31 However many barrels of butter were aboard, they proved a major ingredient in the disaster.

Through the course of the evening of April 29th the steamer worked her way down the lake and around Prince Edward County. The captain, Allison Wright, had been with the vessel throughout her short career. He had been up both the previous nights. Despite the fact that this was the watch he usually shared with the second mate, Wright had gone to bed about 10:30 p.m. Unable to sleep, he had left his state-room and was sitting in the saloon reading the Toronto Patriot.32 The first mate, Robert L. Forsyth, was off watch and had gone to his bed shortly after the vessel left Cobourg. Up on the hurricane deck, the second mate, George Potter, stood watch with the wheelsman, James Stead.33 The purser, Thomas Oliver, was sitting in his office on the main deck. James Turnbull, the first engineer, was also awake and attending to his duties.34 Probably at least one of the firemen was stoking the boilers with cord after cord of the hardwood she was burning on this trip up the lake. One of the waiters was on duty in the main saloon on the promenade deck. Most of the rest of the "hospitality" staff (the steward, the cooks and the waiters) were asleep, as were the off duty deckhands. With the ship scheduled to dock in Kingston in the early hours of the morning, these members of the crew could look forward to being up before dawn preparing breakfast and shifting freight. Their arrival at Kingston, however, would be delayed.

Standing by the wheelhouse, the second mate happened to glance back over the hurricane deck. Framed by the two massive paddlewheels, the walking beam rhythmically rocked back and forth. At one end a rod connected to the piston rose out of the depths of the ship; at the other, the connecting rod plunged back down to the crank that turned the shafts of the paddlewheels. Potter thought he could see something around the connecting rod.

"What light is that?" he asked the wheelsman. Without waiting for a reply he strode aft across the deck. Almost immediately fire puffed up through the opening in the deck. Just as the purser had done with the small deck fire earlier that spring, Potter sprang to the nearby fire buckets and immediately emptied two or three on the fire--to no avail. Potter needed help and he knew it. He ran forward to the wheelhouse and blew several blasts on the whistle to alert the crew.35

Nearly every survivor dated their actions relative to the sounding of the whistle. Even Philip and David Dulmage, on Point Traverse at least two miles away, were startled out of their sleep. Their dogs started barking fiercely. Looking out their windows they saw what every sailor fears: a ship on fire.36

Having sounded the alarm, Potter hustled down to the crew quarters to alert them to the danger...unnecessarily as events proved. Captain Wright immediately ran on deck, saw the flames and began shouting "Fire"! As the first mate ran by Wright ordered that the boat be run ashore. Forsyth shouted to the wheelsman to starboard his helm (which would have had the effect of turning the vessel to port, the direction of Point Traverse). Stead responded to the order by giving the wheel a turn or two, when suddenly it felt like something had jammed the steering chains. Stead jumped on the spokes in an attempt to loose the wheel but to no avail. Nor, he discovered, could he now centre the wheel and the Ocean Wave continued to turn. Meanwhile, the first mate, pausing not at all, tried to help Potter get the ship's boats in the water. They were already aflame. Within five minutes the entire surface of the hurricane deck had ignited and the crew were forced overboard with whatever pieces of jetsam they could lay their hands on. The lifeboats blazed away on their davits.37

Meanwhile, the captain had gone inside and was ringing the engine bell for "stop engines," a rather remarkable action if he had been truly serious about running her ashore. In fact, it proved out of the question as the wheelsman was driven from the wheel by the flames. Emerging on the main deck aft of the engine house Wright called to the upper deck: "For God's sake, men, let's get the boats down!" Attempts by the first engineer and the captain to stop the engine proved unsuccessful. Within a couple of minutes, it stopped by itself.38 In the interim, the two officers and one of the passengers, Lyman Fiske of Ogdensburg, had attempted to work the fire engine on the main deck. But the fire had much too strong a hold in the fresh, oil-based paint that covered the walls and decks of the Ocean Wave. They quickly abandoned their efforts as a bad job.

Gathered on the main deck by the gangway were the purser and a number of the passengers. Oliver, awake in his office, had been passed the alarm by Turnbull, the engineer. In the engine room they "saw the fire coming down amongst the machinery, as if it was following the oil."39 His first concern was for the passengers in their staterooms on the deck above, but the saloon was wildly ablaze. He continued climbing up the outside netting in time to join the futile struggle with the burning lifeboats. Descending again to the main deck he met some of the passengers by the port gangway. Mrs. Stevenson's night dress was in flames. Oliver beat it out with his hands. According to the captain, Oliver recommended that they make a raft for the ladies. Meanwhile, behind them, men were seizing planks and barrels and throwing them overboard. Oliver jumped overboard with Mrs. Stevenson, who was holding her infant daughter in her arms. Nearly hysterical, she had been unable to get into the room where her sons had been sleeping. In the shock of hitting the water she lost her grip on the baby girl. Although Oliver was too modest to admit it afterwards, one of the mates noted that he couldn't swim. Fortunately for him someone threw him a plank. Unfortunately it hit him on the head. He went under. On surfacing a second time he again struck the board again. The third time up he caught hold of it and was able to paddle his way around to the stern of the vessel. According to his watch (on Toronto time), it had been 1:15 when he had heard the alarm, and at 2:00 he had reached the dubious safety of the rudder.40

By this time, less than fifteen minutes from Potter's soul-wrenching blast on the whistle, all of those who would survive were in the water or clinging to the outside of the steamboat. Captain Wright, first mate Forsyth and the first engineer Turnbull were all on boards, barrels (or, in the captain's case, a carpenter's trestle) somewhere between the flaming wreck and the shore. Stephen Blackman had drifted, in his estimation as much as a quarter mile from the steamer before the wind drew the steamer down upon him. Like the purser and some others he secured his planks to the rudder and prayed for help.

"Destruction of the Steamer OCEAN WAVE on Lake Ontario from New York Illustrated News, May 21, 1853. From the collection of Brendon Baillod
Already by the rudder was the second mate. Potter decided the neighbourhood was becoming too crowded and swam around to the paddlewheel. As he did he saw Mrs. Stevenson adrift on her plank. Fearing her death from exposure in the icy spring waters he drew her over to the wheel and helped her climb up out of the water. Ironically, the fire burning fiercely inside the hull helped provide warmth to those clinging outside. As he and Mrs. Stevenson dried off, the mate gave some further thought to the security of their perch. If the pillow blocks were to burn off, the wheel might well collapse into the water. He may have observed the situation of some others. The main deck extended well beyond the limits of the hull, the outer reaches being known as the guards. Supporting the guards were a series of braces clamped to the hull. Potter worked his way onto these. Mrs. Stevenson clambered up behind him. Hours passed with the flames roaring mere inches away on the other side of the hull. When the outside of the paddlewheel housing fell away they plunged back into the water onto this makeshift raft. Not far away lay the mast, projecting over the side of the burning hull. Potter was able to manoeuvre over by the ship's bell and began ringing it.

Indeed his first actions, as we have already noted, had drawn some attention. The Dulmage brothers on Point Traverse, together with a couple of their neighbours, James Gallagher and Thomas Wall had seized a fishing boat and struck off for the blazing steamer. On shore their wives built a bonfire to serve both as a beacon and to warm any chilled survivors. By the time they had gotten one and a half to two miles out from shore they were hailed by Captain Wright, found passenger Thomas Perry on a plank and another young man wearing the only life preserver to appear in this whole tale. Fearing the effects of the cold water they pulled back to shore but the young man died of exposure before they could get him to the warmth of the beach fire. Returning again they plucked the first mate from the water. But even though the Captain knew the Engineer had been drifting in his vicinity, Turnbull was nowhere to be found. By this point dawn was breaking and the Dulmages could see other vessels near the smoking ruins of the Ocean Wave.41

Captain John Belyea of the Emblem had been on watch in the small hours of the morning as his schooner worked her way up the lake under a double reef. About 1:30 a.m. he thought he saw a fire on shore. The sound of steam "blowing off" captured his complete attention. He ordered the reefs shaken out and made the best speed he could towards the stricken steamer. At first all the crew of the Emblem could see was the fire. Were the passengers and crew safe beyond the circle of light? As they bore up before the mass of flames the crew suddenly distinguished shrieks and cries coming from beneath the inferno. Belyea's account captures a sense of the awful scene:

"On going near he discovered a number of people clinging to the braces underneath the guard, and to the paddle-wheels and rudder, while the flames were roaring over their heads, shooting high into the air, and curling down into the water, forming an arching canopy of awful grandeur around the devoted beings; while the water all around was hissing, boiling, and foaming, with the intense heat, like a mighty cauldron. ...the roaring of the flames and the crashing of the falling smoke-pipes and mast at this moment, completed the horror of the scene. There being five hundred kegs of butter on board, it added fuel to the flames, and, melting, ran in flaming torrents over the sides of the vessel, smoothing down the water on the lee side."42

They hove to to windward and lowered the boat. From their position, most of those still surviving appeared to be under the guards--under, in fact, the mass of flames. On their first approach the Emblem's crew netted only a couple of swimmers. Realizing the impossibility of running right in under the fire, they turned quickly back to get some heaving lines, ropes long enough to cast in close to the ship, that people might grasp and be drawn to safety. Not realizing their intent, and mad with despair, some flung themselves into the water and tried to swim to the receding salvation. They sank.

As the Emblem's boat crew returned to their mission, a second schooner, the Georgiana out of Port Dover, appeared. While Georgiana worked to get its long boat into the water, the Emblem's crew was out casting. Each time the line was heaved in close, three or four would lunge at it. Not all made it.

Mr. Terroll, the second mate of the Georgiana and two of his crew rowed the long boat around to the lee of the wreck. Passing the stern they found nine people hanging near the water's edge: the purser, seven passengers and one who was already dead. Tom Oliver (who couldn't swim) refused to be taken off until all his passengers were securely aboard the long boat. They were taken to the Georgiana. There, Terroll and his crew secured their heaving lines before returning to the inferno. They made two more expeditions, netting three passengers the first time and two others the second.43

In the meantime, the captains of the two schooners found themselves in their own heated discussion, their two vessels having drifted together. Captain Belyea leaped across to the deck of the Georgiana in the confusion and offered to take the survivors back to Kingston. According to Belyea they had agreed his was the faster sailer. Captain Henderson of the Georgiana thought simply that Emblem was bound for Kingston while his course had been set for the Welland Canal.44

By sunrise, about 5:30 a.m., the Dulmages and their neighbours took a long look around the vicinity and set in for shore again. The crews of the Georgiana and Emblem were busy transferring all the survivors they had gathered into the latter schooner.

To no one's surprise more than their own in the days that followed, the most controversy would cling to the actions of the next arrival on the scene, the propeller Scotland. The Ogdensburg Sentinel rendered a hasty, if widely circulated, verdict on the actions of the Scotland.

"All accounts from the survivors agree that [the Scotland] passed without rendering any assistance, when those on board knew the danger, and inquired the name of the burning boat. Too much censure cannot apply to such unfeeling wretches as those in command of the Scotland. ...Nor should the cruel conduct of the dastardly wretches who refused succor to the drowning victims, and to those suffering the excruciating tortures of fire, be suffered to pass without the severest reprehension. No severity of language can express the indignation which must be felt by every man with a human heart in his bosom, at hearing of so cool a disregard for human life. We trust the name of the monster will be given to the public, as of one unfit for civilized society, much less to be trusted with the protection of human life."45

At times, the coroner's inquest into the events of that night almost appeared to be directed towards determining the guilt or innocence of the crew of the Scotland rather than elucidating the cause of the conflagration. In response to the furore sparked by the Sentinel, the crew signed a joint affidavit that they had left Kingston about 12:40 a.m. bound for Hamilton. Within the hour, while still only to Nine Mile Point, they noticed a light in the direction of the Ducks, then still some 20 miles away. With a working speed of only about seven miles per hour, it took until after 4:00 a.m. before they could distinguish that the fire was on the lake and not Point Traverse. By sunrise they were on the scene and discovered for themselves what the Dulmages, and the crews of the Emblem and Georgiana had already decided: there were no more people in the water near the wreck, at least, not on the surface. At this stage they came about and caught up to the Emblem, which was busy sorting out people and preparing to hoist sail.46

Coming across Emblem's stern, the mate of the Scotland, Henry Wilson, shouted "What was the name of the vessel?"

"The Ocean Wave", came the reply from Captain Belyea.

"What time did she take fire?"

"About half-past two o'clock." [only about an hour out]

"Where are the passengers?" asked Wilson.

"Part of them are on board of us," came the response from the Emblem.

"Do you want any help?" asked Wilson from the propeller as the vessels began to work apart.

On the answer turned much of the dissatisfaction expressed in the newspapers. The crew of the Scotland swore that they heard no reply, and that Captain Belyea had turned away. Captain Belyea, in turn, insisted that he had answered, "I think there may be some still between here and the shore." As the Scotland turned to continue down the lake, Oliver asked Belyea whether he thought he had made himself heard.47

Meanwhile according to John Cousins, the purser of the Scotland, Captain George Patterson was using a telescope to carefully search the waters around the wreck and in towards the shore. Patterson said he could see clearly and that there was no one still floating in the water.48

As the Scotland turned to go, the fire on the Ocean Wave finally reached the waterline. With little more than her paddlewheels, and a section of stern still left, she slid quickly beneath the waves.

In the light of sunrise a third schooner, the Leander, Capt. Wallace drew up to the scene. Wallace spoke to Belyea who repeated his concern for those who might have drifted off in the darkness towards the shore.49 Remember, none of those still out on the lake had seen the Dulmages doing their work in the darkness between the fire of the burning steamer and the signal fire on the shore. After searching about closer to shore, the Leander concluded that there was no one left to save and sailed out of the story again.50

Meanwhile, shortly after dawn, the Emblem finally set sail for Kingston. Aboard were purser Thomas Oliver, second mate George Potter and ten of the crew. Subsequent accounts indicated that there had been 23 passengers: 14 cabin, 9 deck passengers. Only five survivors were named: Mrs. French, Mrs. Stevenson and Captain and Mrs. Kuyer had stayed by the wreck. Thomas Perry was rescued by the Dulmages. The purser couldn't tell how many were gone; he wasn't even sure how many had come aboard at Cobourg!51


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