It was eight days before Christmas, 1902. The steamer HINCKLEY had been fighting her way through a blinding Lake Ontario snowstorm for hours, returning from Cape Vincent to her home port of Oswego. No land, beacon, or buoy pointed the way; on every side, there was only whiteness. Even before HINCKLEY had cleared the Cape Vincent breakwater, the storm had been raging, and heavy seas buffeted her as she steamed southward. With only a compass to determine the course, and an approximate knowledge of his ship's speed, the captain guided his boat by "dead reckoning", and the crew prayed that his accuracy would bring them safely through the storm.
Capt. Augustus R. Hinckley had won another battle against a lake storm. He was one of only a few men who had sailed completely "blind" from the St. Lawrence River to Oswego, and none of his crew ever forgot the anxiety of that passage. Henry Lake, the mate who climbed the "iceberg", is said never to have sailed again.
Hinckley was the proprietor of the Hinckley Forwarding Company of Cape Vincent, N.Y., and was a very well-known Lake Ontario captain. In spite of the bad luck that seemed to follow him for much of his life, he never lost his love for the water. He knew the thrill of success against tremendous odds, yet a strangely malign fate dogged his course and he saw wealth wrenched from his grasp and his most ambitious ventures come to naught.
The beginning of his career had been auspicious enough. Augustus R. Hinckley was born on Wolfe Island on August 11, 1856, the youngest son of an old-school St. Lawrence River pilot. Even as a boy, he took great interest in all things nautical and he was still just a lad when he took up sailing as a career. On May 27, 1829, his grandfather, Samuel Hinckley, had been granted a license to run a ferry between Wolfe Island and Cape Vincent, and the family had retained the franchise for many years. Gus' father, Coleman Hinckley, piloted on the river, built ships, and ran the ferry from Kingston to Wolfe Island from 1857 until 1872. In time, Gus Hinckley came to own his own fleet of boats and was awarded a U.S. government contract to place buoys in the St. Lawrence between Cape Vincent and Morristown. In addition, his skill as a salvager won him wide renown.
One of Hinckley's misfortunes involved the loss of the wooden steamer PENTLAND (U.S.150656), 192.8 x 35.5 x 14.3, 827 Gross, 617 Net, which had been built at Grand Haven, Michigan, in 1894 by Duncan Robertson for the Pent-land Steamship Company. After passing through several sets of hands, she was purchased in 1916 by the Coastwise Steamship Company and, in 1918, by the Ontario Trading Company of Ogdensburg. On November 22, 1921, PENTLAND was upbound from Montreal to Oswego in ballast under Capt. John J. "Jack" Powers, master and part-owner, when she grounded hard at Weaver's Point on the north shore of Gooseneck Island, three miles from Morrisburg. The Donnelly Wrecking Company of Kingston was called to the scene but was unable to take her off and there she remained until the following spring. In June, 1922, PENTLAND was purchased by John E. Russell of Toronto but, not long thereafter, Capt. Hinckley bought the wreck for the sum of $800.
In his own unique manner, Hinckley refloated PENTLAND. He then hauled her to the channel and steamed her to Ogdensburg and onto the St. Lawrence Marine Railway for survey and complete refit. It is said that a Cleveland concern offered Hinckley $30,000 for the boat, but that he refused to sell her. Shortly after her return to service, PENTLAND struck the Port Colborne breakwater and sank, but Hinckley again raised her. She was finally abandoned in 1928.
Early in his career as a shipowner, Capt. Hinckley's ventures into Canadian waters brought him into conflict with the Canadian pilots' association. He recalled that, one day, a shot came across the bow of his vessel and he was "escorted" to Montreal. His dual citizenship came in handy on that occasion, as he was able to prove to the authorities that he had as much right to be in Canadian waters as did any of the pilots who had questioned him. They did not bother him again!
His first experience as a wrecker involved the barge GEORGE T. DAVIE of the Montreal Transportation Company Ltd., which had sunk in some 80 feet of water in the St. Lawrence. As his boats passed the wreck, Hinckley noted the fruitless efforts of the salvagers who tried to raise the DAVIE. When they finally gave up, he offered to tackle the job. He had three boats and sixteen men working for him at the time. He placed his barges JESSIE and BERTIE CALKINS (an old schooner) on drydock at Kingston, where holes were cut through their bottoms at the stern, forming eight ten-inch wells in each. Through these were dropped two-inch iron chains capable of lifting 50 tons.
When Hinckley's little squadron anchored above the DAVIE, it was with a lifting capacity of 1,000 tons. Divers passed chains beneath the wreck, hatches were secured, pipes attached, and the pumps were started. As the jacks began to lift, DAVIE came up between the two improvised wreckers, but the hull rolled in the chains and slid over on one side. Hinckley hastily assembled his discouraged crew and had them lift carefully on the chains on one side. Slowly, the DAVIE rolled back to an upright position.
Hinckley cleared several thousand dollars on this job and such feats won him wide repute as an expert salvager. Be this as it may, he lived in Oswego during most of his sailing days but is still remembered by older residents of that city as "the little old man with the leaky boats". As a result of a series of financial reverses, John S. Parsons, noted Oswego ship chandler, ran the Hinckley Line for two or three years until the captain got back on his feet. Jack Donovan, who worked in Parsons' store, remembered that Hinckley "didn't handle money too well". "I remember him as a little, withered old man who used to come into the store to pay Mr Parsons with a gallon of maple syrup or a dozen eggs. Mr Parsons was always ready and willing to help down-and-out sailors." Donovan added that Hinckley would load his boats so heavily that there would not be a foot of freeboard.
One interesting vessel owned by Hinckley was ISABELLA H., named for his daughter. This wooden steamer had originally been McCORMICK (U.S.91938), 106.0 x 24.7 x 8.0, 160 Gross, 120 Net, built at Grand Haven, Michigan, in 1887 and purchased by Hinckley about 1909. He ran McCORMICK, with a built-up forecastle and steel A-frame, between Oswego and Montreal, and also serviced buoys in the spring and fall for the U.S. government. Unfit for service, she was abandoned in June, 1911, at Chaumont, N.Y. She was rebuilt at Chaumont in 1915, 100.8 x 25.9 x 11.1, 248 Gross, 141 Net, and was renamed (b) ISABELLA H. (U.S. 213012).
On September 28, 1925, ISABELLA H. and HINCKLEY were near Oswego with loads of stone, bound from Alexandria Bay to Big Sodus Bay, when, with a storm running on the lake, ISABELLA H. sprang a leak. Both boats immediately altered course for the Oswego harbour entrance but ISABELLA H. began to sink rapidly. She listed heavily to port and then came to rest squarely on the flat rock at the entrance. One of the mates, Hiram Bush of Gouverneur, N.Y., was drowned in the accident, but the remainder of the crew was rescued by the Coast Guard. ISABELLA H. eventually broke up and became a total loss.
Another of Hinckley's boats was the tug CHIPPEWA (U.S.75818), which had been built at Philadelphia in 1875. She was 66.5 x 16.5 x 7.0, 43 Gross and 21 Net, and foundered off Weaver's Point on August 12, 1920.
One by one, Augustus Hinckley's old wooden boats outlived their usefulness and their ability to remain afloat. The pet of his own design, the "rabbit" HINCKLEY (U.S.96578), was lost on Stony Point, about 28 miles northeast of Oswego, during a storm in 1929. She had been built in 1901 in the shipyard of Frank Phelps at Chaumont, 114.4 x 24.0 x 10.0, 211 Gross and 177 Net. She was rebuilt and deepened in 1920 to 11.7 feet, 232 Gross and 188 Net. She carried a crew of six and had a 150-horsepower steam engine. (A typical "rabbit" of her day, HINCKLEY had her machinery and her double-deck cabin aft. Unadmiring crewmen sometimes referred to such boats as "coffins".)
HINCKLEY met her end on July 29, 1929, whilst en route from Fair Haven to Gananoque with a cargo of coal. There was a choppy sea running and the boat developed a leak which admitted water into the hold faster than the pumps could remove it. As she neared Stony Point Light, HINCKLEY began to settle and it was feared that she would founder in deep water. The crew abandoned the ship but Capt. Hinckley remained aboard and finally managed to bring the steamer up on the table rock in Gravely Bay. As the captain, a man in his 70s, later recalled, "the best thing for me to do was to go forward and drop in (the water). I forgot that I hadn't been in for years. I jumped in with all my clothes on, even my boots. The first wave caught me. After that, I was more careful."
Although her owner/master reached shore safely, HINCKLEY was a total loss, despite the efforts of the Pyke Salvage Company Ltd. of Kingston which had been summoned by the captain in an effort to salvage the ship and her cargo. Lying in an exposed position, with her decks awash, HINCKLEY went to pieces in a storm which sprang up shortly after she had been beached.
(Ed. Note: The last cargo carrier owned by Capt. Augustus R. Hinckley was the wooden steamer HARVEY J. KENDALL, a former lumber boat from the upper lakes. In the March issue, we shall present the story of her strange loss as told by Capt. Hinckley's nephew, who was aboard on her last trip as deckhand and coal passer.
(We wish to thank Richard F. Palmer, of Tully, New York, for preparing this most interesting account of one of Lake Ontario's true "characters". Our sincere apologies to the author for the rather severe editing which has been necessary as a result of space limitations.)
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.