Thirty-eight years ago this autumn, there occurred one of the lesser known marine disasters of the Great Lakes. Lesser known, perhaps, everywhere but in Owen Sound, for seven residents of that city lost their lives in an accident that should never have happened. It was in the early morning hours of November 21st, 1936, that the small passenger and freight propeller HIBOU slipped beneath the glassy smooth surface of Georgian Bay taking almost half of her crew with her.
ALICE measured 125.5 feet in length, 25.8 feet in the beam, and 10.8 feet in depth. Her tonnage was 403 Gross and 239 Net. A twin screw vessel, she was powered lay two compound engines which produced 54 H.P. Her boilers were coal-fired.
The steamer entered government service as a quarantine vessel on the St.Lawrence River based at Quebec. She served this purpose until 1915 when she was placed in the passenger and freight trade between Quebec and Grosse Ile, a route she operated until 1921. Thereafter she was listed simply as being "in government service" and we are unaware of her activities.
In the fall of 1926, ALICE appeared in Owen Sound. She had been purchased earlier in the year by John Tackaberry Sr., a member of a well known Lion's Head steam-boating family. He had her rebuilt as a combination passenger and package freight carrier over the following winter, the work apparently being done at Midland. ALICE's steam machinery was removed and replaced with two diesel engines. The vessel's side plating was extended up a full deck creating an extra 'tween deck for the stowage of package freight. Above this was constructed a cabin deck containing staterooms and, right forward, a smoking room. The cabin was basically steel except for the after portion which was wood and was erected by Dobson's of Midland. A pilothouse and officers' quarters were added on the boat deck.
ALICE was given a new funnel, quite tall for a motorship, which was topped by a very prominent cowl. A donkey boiler was retained to produce the steam which was used to operate the winches, the whistle, and the freight elevator which ran between the main and 'tween deck. She was re-registered at Owen Sound and at this time her dimensions were shown as 121.8 x 26.0 x 11.1. Her tonnage was increased to 559 Gross, 308 Net.
Throughout the 1927 season, Tackaberry operated ALICE on the run to Providence Bay. He was, however, anxious to dispose of her as contemporary newspaper advertisements will show. On April 3, 1928, she was sold to the Booth Fisheries Corporation of Canada Ltd. and they had her registered in the name of Booth Fisheries Canadian Company Ltd., Winnipeg, Manitoba. Tackaberry retained a mortgage on the ship. ALICE, whose port of registry had been changed to Owen Sound in 1926, was operated for Booth by a subsidiary company, the Dominion Transportation Company Ltd. of which R. V. Malloy was manager. She served Dominion's routes from Owen Sound to Manitoulin Island and the ports of Lake Huron's North Channel. ALICE was renamed (b) HIBOU to bring her in line with the other ships of the Dominion fleet, namely, CARIBOU and MANITOU. "Hibou" is a French word meaning "owl."
HIBOU ran out of Owen Sound until 1934 when she was chartered to Seaway Lines Ltd and operated in the salt trade from Windsor and Sarnia to Manitoulin Island. In 1935 Dominion took her to Kingston where she was operated as a ferry and excursion boat. Many of the staterooms on the promenade deck were removed to make way for a dance hall and these changes were approved by the inspector when HIBOU was placed on the dry dock at Kingston.
The opening of navigation for 1936 saw HIBOU once more back in her home port of Owen Sound, where she was once again inspected by a government inspector and pronounced fit for service. That year, the Dominion Transportation Co. Ltd. and the Owen Sound Transportation Company Ltd., a rival firm managed by Capt. Norman McKay and operating the steamer MANITOULIN and the motorship NORMAC, decided to merge their operations. Together the two companies, under the joint management of McKay and Malloy, operated a pool service to Georgian Bay and North Channel ports and on to the Soo and Michipicoten. They also ran a ferry service between Tobermory and South Baymouth, a route that the Owen Sound Transportation Company Ltd. still maintains.
HIBOU did not run much during the early spring of 1936 but in June she was placed on the Tobermory ferry service. She carried large numbers of passengers and automobiles, together with the odd truck, but almost no freight. Because of the height of the vessel's 'tween deck above the docks she served, it was the custom of her master, Capt. James Agnew, to operate her with the forepeak, midship and afterpeak tanks in the double bottom full of water. The roughly 80 tons of ballast so gained would lower the ship enough that cars being unloaded and loaded would not damage her gangways.
On November 16, 1936, HIBOU made her last run on the ferry crossing and returned to Owen Sound. It was, of course, late in the navigation season and the only ships of the pool service still in operation were HIBOU and NORMAC since MANITOU, CARIBOU and MANITOULIN had already gone into winter quarters at Owen Sound. Capt. Norman McKay, himself master of MANITOULIN, stepped down to take over HIBOU and James Agnew moved back to the position of First Officer. Howard Allan, the former First Officer, now became Second Officer.
As soon as she arrived at Owen Sound, HIBOU began to load freight for a trip to Killarney and Collins Inlet. She took on about 80 tons of hay and 5 tons of package freight. Then, her new master having taken command, she left on her trip north, clearing Owen Sound at about 6:00 p.m. on November 17th. After less than an hour on the open bay, she was forced to turn back as a result of a heavy snowstorm that was limiting visibility and she returned to her dock where she spent the night.
HIBOU finally cleared port at 12:30 p.m., November 18th. She called as scheduled at Killarney and Collins Inlet and unloaded all her cargo. She then went back down Georgian Bay to the town of Meaford where she took aboard a quantity of apples and hay. The hay was to remain aboard for delivery to Killarney on the next trip, while the apples were to be transferred at Owen Sound to NORMAC which would then deliver them up the shore.
The ship got back to her home port on Friday, November 20th, and proceeded to load for her next trip which was scheduled to take her to Killarney, Collins Inlet, Manitowaning and South Baymouth. Her cargo manifest read as follows; flour and feed, 127 tons; oil and gasoline in drums, 7 tons, hay in bales, 10 tons; cased canned goods, 3 tons; bagged sugar, 7 tons, bagged potatoes, 3 tons; apples in barrels, 2 tons; soft drinks, 2 tons; bagged coal, 2 tons; molasses in drums, 1 ton; tubs and cases of lard, 5 tons; currants, raisins, prunes, figs, dates and starch, 3 tons; crated cabbages, 1 ton; other assorted package freight, 21 tons. The total was 194 tons, the largest freight load ever carried by HIBOU in Dominion service. Of this total, 104 1/2 tons were stowed on the 'tween deck (above the water level) while 89 1/2 tons were placed on the main deck in the lower hold, this being primarily in the area forward of the engine room and aft of the elevator apparatus.
The crew signed aboard for the trip consisted of Capt. Norman McKay, Master; James Agnew, First Officer; Howard Allan, Second Officer; Ross Galbraith and J. McReynolds, wheelsmen; M. Mclvor, Chief Engineer; Earl Carr, Second Engineer; C. Dunham and J. Minard, firemen; D. Smart, Fergus Record, D. Rouse, E. Rouse and Douglas McIntosh, deck crew; O. W. Parr, purser; R. Earls, chef; Miss I. Johnson, cabin maid.
During the course of the loading operation, Capt. McKay ordered that the ship be pumped free of ballast forward and amidships, leaving only the afterpeak filled to assist in steering what was normally a "cranky" ship at best. He also allegedly asked that a space be left free of cargo in the lower hold on the starboard side. This was to compensate the starboard side (the more capacious side of this deck) for the loss on the port side of cargo area taken up by the coal bunker for the donkey boiler, a bunker which contained about seven tons of coal at the time. It should also be noted that on the same deck back in the engineroom there was located a diesel fuel tank with a capacity of 4200 gallons. At the tine of loading the ship, it contained about 3000 gallons of bunkers. The tank, mounted athwartship rather than fore and aft, was on the starboard side of the ship.
By about 3:30 a.m. Saturday, the loading operation was completed. A clerk from the shore office drove out to Capt. McKay's home where the skipper was resting, picked him up, and delivered him to the ship. On their arrival, McKay and the clerk walked down the pier beside HIBOU and noted that she was drawing 10'4" forward and about 12'6" aft.
The ship was made ready for departure and, despite the calm conditions prevailing, she was sealed up as a precaution against the dirty weather which can be expected so late in the season. The gangways wore closed and caulked up and, once the lines were hauled in, blocks were put in the exposed chocks. All of the cargo ports wore secured with sectional steel doors except for the one furthest aft on the starboard side. It was covered by a heavy wooden shutter secured by a steel bar. This port had been sealed earlier and cargo was piled in front of it.
HIBOU cleared the dock at about 4:00 a.m., Saturday, November 21, 1936. On the bridge were Capt. McKay, Capt. Agnew the 1st Mate, and Howard Allan who was at the wheel at McKay's request. HIBOU turned around and headed out of the harbour at slow speed, about 4 or 5 m.p.h., as Capt. McKay had just had a new compass installed and he wanted to test it once his ship was outside the piers. It was 4:16 a.m. as HIBOU passed the front range.
Once clear of the harbour, McKay ordered Agnew to man the searchlight so that the stake channel markers might be seen. These astern, he sent Agnew below to pick up a new bulb to replace the one in the binnacle lamp which had just burned out. McKay then went out on the bridge (there were no windows in the after end of the pilothouse) and stood looking aft at the ranges, all the while advising Allan of the courses he wanted to try in testing the compass. He finally settled on North 7/8 East as the best heading to use when leaving the harbour.
It was then McKay's intention, before heading up Georgian Bay, to turn around and determine the best course to use when entering Owen Sound harbour. The ship was still moving ahead slow and McKay ordered the wheel to starboard so that when later he swung on a port wheel he would have sufficient room to come back on the ranges. The ship was steadied when she had swung three points to starboard. Meanwhile, Agnew had returned to the pilothouse with an extension cord and a bulb for the binnacle.
After a few minutes of running, McKay ordered the wheel hard aport. Allan responded and at the same time McKay rang down on the telegraph for the port engine to be stopped. Under the effect of a full port wheel and power on the starboard screw only, HIBOU swung sharply to port and McKay commented that she was turning unusually fast. Part way into the turn, HIBOU began to take on a starboard list, not an unusual occurrence for the ship under these circumstances, but instead of recovering in the normal manner she kept on going over to starboard. McKay then ordered the wheel to starboard in an attempt to bring the ship back on an even keel, but it had no effect and the list increased. The Captain had the wheel brought back amidships and backed hard on the starboard engine but even this did not work. Finally, with the ship lying over on her starboard side and Allan unable to retain his footing at the wheel, McKay stopped both engines.
Capt. McKay gave his two mates orders to go below and wake all the crew, many of whom had turned in after the hard work of stowing the cargo. They descended, roused everyone and then came back on deck. McKay realized that, since the ship was listing so far to starboard, the port lifeboat could not be launched. He put all hands to work on the starboard boat, but after being lifted up off the chocks, the boat swung over against the davits and the slope of the deck gave the men such poor footing that they could not free the boat from its position. By this time, the water was up to the starboard promenade deck and was gaining entrance to the 'tween deck and running down into the engine room, Capt. McKay ordered the liferafts to be thrown overboard and then returned to the bridge, firing rockets for assistance and blowing distress signals on the whistle. Neither of these measures brought any help at all, although at least one person on shore did see the flares, and finally Capt. McKay ordered the crew onto the rafts.
By this time, HIBOU was so far over on her side that the crewmen could simply step off the edge of the boat deck onto the rafts. Although it was bitterly cold, the sea was still calm and all the crew on deck got off except for the maid, who refused to jump and became quite hysterical, and the Captain, who remained on the bridge. The rest of those who were lost were, at the time of the abandon ship order, nowhere in sight, even though some ten minutes had elapsed since all hands were called on deck.
The rafts were loaded quickly, two of them carrying four men each while one left with only two. None of those who did not board rafts were saved. The rafts pulled away from the sinking vessel and shortly thereafter the water in the engineroom reached the dynamo and the lights were extinguished. The men on the rafts never saw their ship take her final plunge to the bottom but instead of trying to see her in the darkness they were concentrating their efforts on paddling the rafts towards shore where they could see a light in a farmhouse window. It must have seemed to the men that they would never reach shore as their progress was painfully slow, their only paddles being their hands and feet. Not only was it horribly cold in the water, but it began to snow as well, and the men on the rafts had difficulty in keeping their bearings. It was not until almost 7:00 a.m. that the first raft hit shore and its passengers stumbled up to the farmhouse where help awaited them.
With the coming of dawn, it was ascertained that HIBOU lay in about 80 feet of water in a position 2.2 miles off the Owen Sound pierheads, well out of the navigation channel. In his official notification of the accident to the Department of Transport, Owen Sound Harbour Master W. H. Smith reported that the ship lay "halfway between the Malleable Iron Dock and Squaw Point, about in line with the black buoy placed on Squaw Point Shoal and the east end of the old C.P.R. slip."
R. K. Smith, Director of Marine Services, ordered a preliminary inquiry into the loss of HIBOU and Capt. Henry W. King, the Supervising Examiner of Masters and Mates, was dispatched to Owen Sound to conduct the inquiry. Capt. King, a veteran of the Niagara River passenger steamers, was in his seventieth year at the time and was anything but a wallflower, as the transcript of his inquiry indicates In later years Capt. King spent his summers on Toronto's Ward's Island where your editor got to know him quite well, although he never mentioned the HIBOU inquiry specifically. He died in 1968 in his 102nd year.
Capt. King held his inquiry at Owen Sound on November 30th and December 1st, 1936, and he called as witnesses six of the surviving crewmen plus Mr. Malloy and the clerk who had gone to fetch Capt. McKay on the night of the accident. The four remaining survivors were still being held in hospital suffering from severe exposure and were unable to attend to give testimony. Capt. King quickly got to the heart of the matter and minced no words in expressing, during the course of the inquiry, his dismay at the foolish actions of some of the crewmen, actions which he believed to be the direct cause of the disaster.
As he listened to the testimony of the crew, Capt. King reconstructed the events of the night of the sinking and he concluded that the first great error lay in loading the vessel with so much heavy cargo on the 'tween deck instead of in the lower hold. Having almost 105 tons of freight so high in the ship brought her centre of gravity well above the water line and this produced a vessel that was not only normally cranky (inclined to list easily) but in this case extremely unstable. King then turned to the pumping out of the ballast. He determined that although McKay wanted only the forepeak and midship tanks pumped dry, a misunderstanding of the order had led the Chief Engineer to have all three tanks cleared of ballast and this made the vessel even more top-heavy.
Capt. King felt that the compass-testing incident was really only the last straw for the camel and that had the ship not rolled over at that moment, she would probably have done so at a later point in the voyage anyway. His opinion was that the heeling of the ship in the hard port turn started the cargo shifting to starboard and the diesel fuel in the cross-mounted starboard tank then sloshed down to the low end of the tank thus making the list even worse. At about this time, the square-piled flour bags around the 10 x 10-foot empty space on the starboard side of the main deck (left by Agnew on McKay's orders) started to collapse and the hole was quickly filled by the shifting bags. This put the ship over even further and at this stage water began to seep into the 'tween deck around the cargo port doors which had been poorly caulked by the deckhands. The aft starboard gangway was covered only by a wooden shutter and as this door was submerged further and further into the water, the pressure forced it in and the full-scale flooding of the holds began. Water also appears to have come in through the only open porthole on the low side of the 'tween deck, that being in the crew's lavatory aft.
The captain severely criticized members of the crew whose testimony, he felt, indicated that they had not taken proper care about their work, particularly in the loading and stowage of the cargo. He criticized James Agnew for not holding regular boat drills, although he acknowledged the fact that more intensive training could hardly have prepared the crew to overcome the physical difficulties which they had encountered in trying to launch the lifeboat that night out on Georgian Bay.
His main criticism, however, was reserved for Capt. Norman McKay on whom he placed the full responsibility for the loss of the HIBOU. He reasoned that McKay was fully aware of the way in which his ship was being loaded and should have known that the vessel would be very unstable in that condition even though McKay was not aware of the misunderstanding over the ballast water, Capt. King would undoubtedly have recommended a formal investigation had not Capt. McKay been lost with his ship.
For the next half decade, HIBOU lay on the bottom of the bay but she was not forgotten either by local residents or by the officials of the Department of Transport. Until the wreck had been pinpointed as being well out of the navigation channel, there had been much concern about moving HIBOU. Then too, her loss caused a storm of public worry about the safety of the other ships used on the Tobermory ferry service and even the Hon. C. D, Howe, a famous Canadian politician and then Minister of Marine, was drawn into the controversy. The whole matter appears to have died a natural death after the Supervisor of Nautical Services recommended that all vessels altered by the addition of structures above the main deck for the carriage of cargo or passengers should be inclined in a stability test. This has now become normal procedure.
HIBOU was towed into Owen Sound harbour and was moored at the Great Lakes Elevator dock. Purchased outright by Sin-Mac, she was later towed down the Welland Canal and was tucked away at a berth in Montreal. Sin-Mac officials wrote on June 7, 1943, to C.P.Edwards, Deputy Minister of Transport, advising that repairs to the ship were estimated (somewhat conservatively, we should think) at $70,000 to $100,000 and further that Sin-Mac was not prepared to fork out this kind of money to place HIBOU in commission. They did not specify what kind of service she might be seeing if she were rebuilt, but they did state that they had received an offer from a U. S. concern that wished to purchase HIBOU and operate her in the Caribbean under Panamanian registry. Sin-Mac wanted to know if the government had any objections to the sale.
Apparently there were no objections, for during the summer of 1943 HIBOU was sold to the Pan American Steamship Corporation of Panama S. A,, Puerto Cortes, Honduras a firm having its head office at New York. She was rebuilt, probably at Sorel, and afterwards her tonnage was registered as 446 Gross, 236 Net. In November 1943, flying the flag of Honduras, HIBOU sailed down the St. Lawrence under her own power.
We know virtually nothing about the activities of HIBOU in the Caribbean nor do we know what she looked like at this stage, but it is evident that she was not renamed, a rather surprising eventuality. About 1953, Pan American replaced HIBOU with two other vessels and shortly afterwards the firm went out of business, either being bought out by another company or else simply folding up their tent and disappearing. HIBOU was dropped from documentation about this time and we can only surmise that she was scrapped or laid to rest in some island backwater.
And so, in unfamiliar waters far from her lake home, were spent the last years of the little ship that had so shocked the people of the Georgian Bay area with her tragic accident. She was a ship that should never have been lost and she carried with her, as she left the lakes, the image of men who would not have died but for human carelessness.
We are indebted to George Ayoub for his help with certain data on HIBOU, and to Bob Ireland for supplying not only the inspiration for this article but also the copy of the Department of Transport file on the accident. The account of the sinking was taken directly from the transcript of the evidence as presented at the preliminary inquiry.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.