Each autumn, when the gale winds blow around the Great Lakes, minds turn to thoughts of such famous fall storms as the 1905 Blow, the Black Friday disaster of 1916, and of course the Armistice Day Storm of 1940 and the Great Storm of November 1913. Of a less destructive nature but none the less horrible to those involved was a gale that hit Lake Ontario in November 1880. We present here that story as told in excerpts from an item by C. H. J. Snider ("Schooner Days" DCCLXX) appearing in the Toronto Evening Telegram on November 16, 1946. It is all the more appropriate in view of our mention two issues ago of Capt. Pat McSherry (of the JOHN HANLAN) who lost four relatives in the disaster.
Came into Consecon (Ontario) last week-end and there was a hale old gentleman of 87 nailing up the storm shutters around the porch of his neat white home. He was Walter B. Locie and he had lived in Consecon most of his life, and was the last survivor of the improvised lifeboat that went to the rescue of the BELLE SHERIDAN crew sixty-six years ago on that windy Sunday with its piercing westerly blasts.
Never a November gale comes or goes but the fate of the BELLE SHERIDAN in the Great Gale of 1880 is recalled by lake men. She was but one of a score of vessels wrecked or disabled in those two fatal days, November 6th and 7th, but she was a "family ship" with a father, the Captain and owner, and his four sons (the McSherrys) with him in the crew, and of the seven on board only a boy was saved. Her tragedy made a deep impression.
And here, miraculously as it seemed on the 66th anniversary, was the only surviving actor in the drama, busily putting up storm shutters, while a younger brother not quite eighty yet handed him the nails. His recollection, caught between hammer strokes, was thus:
Guess we saw her spars weaving back and forth above the treetops from the farm as she dragged into the breakers. You see, she was more than an hour dragging across from Presqu'isle, where she tried to get in and let go her anchors. She came over sideways, six miles, one chain parted, the other holding across her bows so she struck the beach broadside on, headed north. She was deep, drawing ten feet with her load of coal, and the shore was shoal. The seas looked to be a mile long and they'd run up the beach hundreds of yards and suck back, taking sand and gravel with them.
Never saw such a wind. There was a schooner had got safe into Weller's Bay and was riding it out to her anchors. Capt. Corson's NELLIE SHERWOOD, I think it was. That sheltered bay was one lather of whitecaps covered with a regular mist of spindrift six feet high. Dolph Corson, the old man's son, tried to scull across the bay to the lake in the small boat and so did the men from the schooner C. GEARING, but they couldn't make headway and were glad to get back on the schooner. Their main gaff-topsail had been done up in the usual way with three round turns and two half hitches but the wind burst the gaskets and it blew out like a balloon. The captain sent two men to strap it down but they couldn't get up the rigging it was blowing so hand, and rather than have them thrown into the bay, he told them to come down and let the sail go. It soon flogged itself to bits no bigger than your hand. They found pieces on the fence rails miles away.
Outside Weller's Bay, the BELLE SHERIDAN lay grinding on the sand, with seas breaking on her as high as her mastheads. The crowd had helped Robert Rogers take the masts and sails out of his fish boat and dragged her up the beach to a place where there seemed some chance to get her out to the wreck. The cabin was gone and she (the SHERIDAN) was all under water when the seas broke, but her bow was little higher than the rest and there we could see the crew huddled when the spray let us.
I was only a farmer, twenty-one and young and strong from work on my father's farm. There were plenty of volunteers for the boat but they took me because I was husky, I suppose, and not too heavy, and could pull with the rest of them (There was) William Andrew Young, and Frank Bonter, Stephen Clarke the fisherman and another Clarke, a young fellow who taught school in Consecon just that year. Yes, and me. The others are all gone.
They pushed us out, wading up to their necks in the water to give us a good start in the backwash, and then we shot from the shore like a bullet. Within thirty feet of the wreck three seas, one after the other, rolled over her (the BELLE SHERIDAN) and on to us. That stood the big fishboat right up on end and spilled us all out, with the boat falling over backwards over us, bottom side up.
No, the water wasn't cold; at least, it was warmer than the air, and we all clawed our way up onto her bottom, digging our fingers into the edges of her lapstreak planking. Then she rolled over gunwales up and we crawled into her again, but she was full of water and the seas broke over as fast as we could bail. There was a strong current down the shore and that set us away from the wreck, so we had to let the boat wash in on the shore and try again. The crowd waded out and dragged her up the beach farther than before for another try. I've lost track of how many times the boat was pushed off and forced back. I would say at least six.
As we pushed off for one more try, we saw a single figure, black against the western sky, work his way aft along the rail, pick up a broken plank almost as big as himself and leap overboard as the next sea struck. We were too busy bailing and keeping her head to the sea for the next few minutes to see what became of him, but all at once we saw a head in the water between arms stretched out on a broken plank like a surfboard.
We grabbed for him and while we were getting him in, a sea burst and tossed us boat and all on to the beach. Men ran down neck deep and dragged us. The young fellow was still hanging on to his plank. His arms were damped on it as though frozen. They weren't, but the water that filled his long hip boots was freezing them to him in the cold wind blowing.
We stripped him in a fish shed and rubbed him to life, wrapped him in buffalo robes and hurried him to John Howes' farm kitchen. He was young Jimmy McSherry of Toronto, nineteen I think he said."Little Eddie kept crying for Ma until he died in my arms and a sea washed him away. Dad died before that, Tom and Johnny were too numbed to hold him up. Jack Hamilton says he's through - never sail again. Sam Boyd's club feet are frozen under him."
He was talking of his father and brothers. Hamilton was the mate and the club-footed man was the second and cook too. We got his body afterwards. Hamilton must have been crushed when the foremast fell. Eddie was the youngest brother, only thirteen. He was washed up afterwards and Jimmy, the one that was saved, came down from Toronto with Mr. Gooderham, from the Gooderham grain elevator, and took him home to St. Michael's Cemetery.
The mainmast fell just after Jimmy jumped overboard. The foremast swayed for a while longer, then down it came, topmast and all, lying across the wreck for a while. The fishboat made some more tries before dark, but when the foremast fell and we could see nobody left, we gave up and lighted a bonfire on the beach. I went home.
Shortly before he died last year, Capt. Richard Goldring of Port Whitby gave the writer (Snider) a light thin horseshoe such as racers might wear. It was just an ornament as one used to see nailed to the paulpost afore the windlass in every schooner on the lakes, a good luck token.
"Sixty-five years ago after the Great Gale," said he, "We were becalmed in the MAPLE LEAF off Consecon. It was thick fog and we were in closer towards Weller's Bay than we knew. We had ridden out the gale at Black River Bluff in South Bay on the other side of Prince Edward County, with the windblown trees crashing down the banks and a South Bay schooner scow driven high and dry ashore the other side of the bay. We were making our way home. I saw a black square post sticking up about a foot above water and I lowered our yawlboat and rowed to it. It was a schooner's paulpost and this horseshoe was just showing. I took it off. That was all that was left of the BELLE SHERIDAN above water when the gale went down."
It is an old Irish belief that the horseshoe should be nailed with the points up to keep the luck from running out. The BELLE SHERIDAN's was nailed just the opposite way, like most lake schooners' horseshoes, with the toe-caulk uppermost.
BELLE SHERIDAN was a Oswego vessel built there in 1852, and had been prosperous, so Capt. McSherry left the horseshoe as he found it. He bought the SHERIDAN in 1879 when she was lying sunk in Church Street slip, Toronto. Being an experienced ship carpenter, he and his boys, the eldest being 21, made extensive repairs during the winter and the resuscitated schooner classed high enough to be allowed to carry grain.
The McSherrys had the misfortune to lose the WEST WIND at Cobourg the year before. They felt that their luck had turned when they got for the rebuilt BELLE SHERIDAN a cargo of grain for Charlotte from Adamson's elevator at the foot of old West Market Street, Toronto, and made a fast run down the lake with it this first week in November. The BELLE SHERIDAN loaded coal for Toronto for the return trip and was well on her way home with this double freight when the gale burst upon her in furious squalls at midnight on November 6th. When within ten miles of Toronto, she lost her mainsail, gaff, and boom in the first onset. Thus disabled, she could only run before the wind under the peak of her foresail. Off Port Hope she lost her yawlboat and the maintopmast was rolled out of her. Hounded by the gale, she tried to luff into Presqu'isle, the nearest port of refuge, but without after-sail she could not head up and was swept past Presqu'isle Point. Both anchors were let go in the hope of holding the partial lee, but they could not bring her head to wind. Fishermen put out to help but could not reach her. One chain cable parted and she dragged the other anchor with her all the six miles across to Weller's Bay.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.