Most of the ships which we have featured in these pages over the past few years have been ships which were particularly famous for one reason or another. They may have been of an unusual design, or have participated in some history-making event, or perhaps even have done nothing more remarkable than to serve one particular route for such a long period of time that they became institutions to local observers. But this month's feature ship did nothing such as that. In fact, she was a particularly nondescript wooden bulk carrier and probably only the most avid and exacting Great Lakes marine historians have ever heard of her. But SARNOR, even if not famous in her own right, was involved in one of the most interesting and unbelievable legal hassles ever to occur on the lakes. Read on and you'll see what we mean.
This part of BRITANNIC's career was, however, to come to an end after only six years. According to the History of the Great Lakes published in 1899 by J. H. Beers and Company, Chicago, BRITANNIC was wrecked in 1894 on Lake Michigan. This was not the end of the steamer, however, for she was salvaged and in 1896 was rebuilt at Marine City, Michigan, the vessel having been acquired by Henry McMorran of Port Huron. The reconstruction finished, she emerged with a length of 227.6 feet, a beam of 36.0 feet and a depth of 21.3 feet. Her new tonnage was registered as 1,319 Gross and 1,152 Net.
McMorran operated BRITANNIC for a good few years, primarily in the lumber trade, but in 1912 she was acquired by H. M. Morris of Cleveland and Montreal. Officially owned by the Lake Erie and Quebec Transportation Company, Ltd., Montreal, she was transferred to Canadian registry (C.133828) and was renamed (b) SARNOR. Not much is known about the Lake Erie and Quebec operations but it seems reasonable to assume that SARNOR was used mainly in the lower lakes and St. Lawrence River coal trade. The service, however, does not seem to have been successful and by 1916 SARNOR was out of service and up for sale. Her story for the next decade is one of the strangest we have ever heard and we base our narrative on details as reported in a 1926 issue of Canadian Engineering and Marine World.
SARNOR was bought at auction by A. B. MacKay of Hamilton on April 1, 1916 for the princely sum of $6,700 and was placed in service under the command of Captain F. R. Johnson. While MacKay actually owned SARNOR, he had her registered in Capt. Johnson's name, an agreement having been drawn up as to how the vessel's earnings were to be divided. Percy Bonham, who was connected with Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., was also a party to this agreement.
Although Capt. Johnson was SARNOR's first master under MacKay's ownership, he was later replaced by Capt. J. P. McLeod who was in command of the ship when she went into drydock at Ogdensburg for repairs in August 1917. At that time Capt. Johnson and Percy Bonham claimed to be equitable owners of 60% of the value of the ship. Johnson and Bonham had certain negotiations with Capt. J. W. Norcross who was Vice-President and Managing Director of Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., and a short time thereafter Norcross managed to obtain a duplicate register for SARNOR. He proceeded to take possession of the vessel on October 23, 1917. A. B. MacKay then obtained an injunction to hold up this somewhat strange transaction and it was served at Cornwall on October 27, 1917.
Meanwhile Norcross, who, strangely enough, was also director of wartime ship construction for the Canadian government, managed to obtain the release of SARNOR on the grounds that there was a shortage of coal at Montreal and that SARNOR's coal cargo was badly needed. The vessel sailed for Montreal and when she arrived there, Canada Steamship Lines arranged to have certain repairs done. The MacKay - Johnson - Bonham litigation continued but meanwhile C.S.L. succeeded in having the vessel requisitioned by the Canadian government under wartime legislation. C.S.L. then chartered the ship back for a period of ten years! The two hats of Capt. Norcross were indeed coming in very handy as far as Canada Steamship Lines was concerned and it seems that those who might have been in a position to do something about this most irregular situation were willing to turn a blind eye on what was obviously a case of conflict of interest.
It should also be borne in mind that during this period Capt. Frederick R. Johnson of Port Colborne was still shown as the registered owner of the ship and the actual owner, A. B. MacKay, could do nothing but sit back and watch all the hanky-panky taking place while his legal action had still not been heard in court.
SARNOR continued to run for Canada Steamship Lines until the early twenties. During 1923 and 1924, lake shipping was in a rather severe slump and many of the older wooden vessels were laid up, their places being taken anyway by new steel canallers being built in Canadian and British yards. SARNOR was one of the steamers which was no longer needed by C.S.L. and as such she was laid up at Kingston where she proceeded to settle to the bottom of the harbour.
The most amazing part of the whole story is that in 1924, when SARNOR was lying in a sunken condition at Kingston, Canada Steamship Lines had the colossal nerve to tender her back to MacKay. The latter gentleman, of course, was not impressed with this magnanimous action on the part of the shipping giant as he still considered himself to be the rightful owner of the vessel during the time that C.S.L. had usurped her services.
MacKay continued with his litigation and in February 1926 it was reported that Mr. Justice Latchford of the Ontario Supreme Court ruled to the effect that MacKay was the actual owner of the ship. The judgment given MacKay included an award of $15,000 in damages. This may have been a great moral victory for MacKay, but meanwhile the poor old SARNOR, in her lay-up below the LaSalle Causeway in Kingston, was in a sorry state. To make matters worse, she was badly damaged by fire on March 15th, 1926.
The damaged hull was towed around to Portsmouth Bay and was laid to rest in the boneyard along with several other worn-out wooden hulls. And there she was to lie for ten long and quiet years. In 1936, the Portsmouth boneyard, by then a notable Kingston eyesore, was cleaned up and the various hulls were cofferdammed and raised, the majority of them having lost their upperworks to a combination of rot and fire. SARNOR was dug up out of the mud and, once raised, the tired old hull was towed out into Lake Ontario where it was scuttled in deep water.
Perhaps SARNOR should have been restored as a monument to the effort expended by her rightful owner in his battle to protect his investment in the ship from those who converted her to their own purposes.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.