The story of the sinking on Georgian Bay of the passenger and freight pro-pellor ASIA is one that is relatively familiar to almost everyone who has read about the Great Lakes and the disasters which, unfortunately, have occurred with alarming regularity on their waters. We would, however, be remiss if we did not mention the loss of ASIA again on this occasion, for the month of September has brought with it the one-hundredth anniversary of this most tragic occurrence.
However, when the loss of ASIA has been mentioned in the past in other publications, one important aspect of the disaster has been overlooked, and that is its relationship with another marine accident which occurred but a scant four months before the foundering of ASIA. We felt that, on this occasion, the full story of ASIA could best be told by relating with it a description of the life and death of the little Georgian Bay steamer MANITOULIN, a vessel about which relatively little has been written over the years. This may seem at first to be a roundabout method of describing the sinking of the ASIA, but the stories are so closely related that we feel that they should really be told together.
MANITOULIN was not large, measuring 147.0 feet in length, with a beam of 30.0 feet and a depth of 11.0 feet. These dimensions gave her a registered tonnage of 683 Gross and 442 Net. Small as she was, however, MANITOULIN was well suited for her trade. She was intended to operate into the small ports of Georgian Bay and the North Channel of Lake Huron behind Manitoulin Island, and many of those harbours could only be entered by a steamer of her conservative measurements.
MANITOULIN was commanded during the season of 1880 by Capt. Peter McNabb, with Neil Campbell serving as her first mate and Peter C. Telfer as her second mate. In 1881, she had a change of officers, for Capt. Peter McLean Campbell took over as her master. Serving with him in MANITOULIN were Andrew Johnston as first mate, William Lockerbie as chief engineer, and George Playter as wheelsman. Captain Campbell was generally known as "Black Pete" as a result of the beard which he wore. He was a director of the Great Northern Transit Company, which was familiarly known as "The White Line", and he was one of the most popular and colourful navigators ever to serve the Georgian Bay route. He was later honoured with the command of the new steamer PACIFIC when she was built in 1883.
The little MANITOULIN, meanwhile, normally operated on a route which took her from Collingwood to Sault Ste. Marie, with calls at Meaford and Owen Sound as well as at the many small ports on Manitoulin Island and the North Shore of Lake Huron. She served this route well, although her career was a short one. It was ended by fire, that great scourge of boats of her type, against which navigators of those years were constantly, if not always successfully, guarding.
On Wednesday, May 17, 1882, MANITOULIN cleared Collingwood Harbour at 2:30 p.m., and set off on her usual run with passengers and general cargo. She arrived at Meaford at 4:30 p.m. that same afternoon. Owen Sound was reached that evening at 8:45, and she cleared the Sound at 11:15 p.m. for Killarney, at which port she arrived at 9:30 a.m. on May 18th. Leaving Killarney at 10:35 a.m. in good clear weather, she set course for Manitowaning.
At about 1:35 p.m., the steamer was off Indian Point in Haywood Sound, four miles from Manitowaning Village, and the passengers and part of the crew, including Capt. Campbell, were enjoying their dinner, which had been served on tables set in the main cabin. The first engineer had just been relieved by the second. Chief Lockerbie went to his cabin to prepare for his dinner, but was soon informed by the second engineer that the steamer was on fire.
The chief engineer rushed to the engineroom and, despite the flames, he jumped down to the lower floor of the engineroom and started the pony pump, at the same time calling out to the second and the mate to make haste with the fire hose. The flames, at that time, were reaching up as far as the ceiling, where the hose was kept. Chief Lockerbie called out to the mate and second engineer repeatedly but, after receiving no answer and not being able to see anything himself as a result of the dense smoke, he got out of the engineroom.
While climbing over the railing, Lockerbie managed to catch hold of the fire hose. He felt for the nozzle but the end of the hose appeared to be gone. The water was coming out of the hose but he could not remain to direct the spray onto the fire because of the intensity of the blaze, and he was obliged to leave the engineroom. Lockerbie managed to make his way safely to the main deck but, before he left his machinery, he opened the throttle as wide as he could. Once up on deck, he assisted in lowering one of the lifeboats.
When Capt. Campbell was informed of the fire whilst he was at dinner, he made his way aft to the stairway from whence had come the alarm. Finding, from all appearances, that the fire had made good headway, he called to the steward to break out life preservers for the passengers, and himself directed the passengers to go up forward. He then went immediately to the bridge and there directed the wheelsman to starboard his wheel so as to pass the Algoma Shoal, which was quite close to the ship, as near as possible. As soon as MANITOULIN had made her way around the shoal, the captain ordered the steamer toward shore at full speed. It was due to the actions of Chief Lockerbie in opening the throttle that this was possible.
Capt. Campbell then ordered the two forward lifeboats to be lowered to within two feet of the water, his plan being to hold them there until the vessel grounded on the shore and lost way. This was done, but a number of the passengers got into the boats and, with the flames coming out of the port side of MANITOULIN, those passengers on that side cut the boat falls. The bow fall went first and, as the steamer still had way on her, the boat was overturned when its bow hit the water. The same thing happened to the other boat but its overturning was due not to passengers cutting the falls but rather to the flames having burned through the ropes.
In subsequent testimony, Capt. Campbell stated that it was about six minutes after he had come onto the bridge that the vessel struck the shore. Prior to that, the draught caused by the movement of the ship kept the flames going aft and thus gave the passengers and crew a few moments in which to escape forward. But the moment MANITOULIN struck shore, the flames rushed forward through her wooden superstructure and it was imperative that the passengers be evacuated into the water over the bow as soon as possible.
MANITOULIN was almost wholly consumed by the fire, for the spread of the flames was so rapid that it was not possible to check it. As soon as the steamer struck the shore, Capt. Campbell sent the mate to get a boat that was on shore in order to pick up those who had been dumped out of the overturned lifeboats. About twenty passengers had lost their lives; all the bodies were collected and the crew tried to revive them with the assistance of a doctor, but finding that it was hopeless, they turned their attention to the burning steamboat.
Capt. Campbell employed a group of local Indians as well as the crew, in an effort to save as much of the hull of MANITOULIN as possible by throwing water on it from the small boats. Campbell had difficulty in locating an axe but he got one at last and succeeded in cutting a hole in the hull about twenty feet from the stern to let water into her. The men worked until about 9:00 the following morning, May 19t at which time the fire was pretty well out. Lying in about fifteen inches of water forward and twelve feet aft, the remains of MANITOULIN were left in charge of four crewmen, while the other survivors were taken from the scene by the same company's steamer NORTHERN BELLE, which had rallied to the wreck site to lend assistance and which continued the MANITOULIN's run. It was impossible for any of the crew to estimate at the scene what damage had been done to MANITOULIN's engine or boiler.
The contemporary press made quite a fuss about the loss of MANITOULIN and, as was normal for the time, praised the efforts of the heroes of the occasion, while crying woe over the plight of the unfortunate. One noteworthy example concerned the fate of "one elderly man, weighing about 260 pounds, who had thus been thrown into the water" and who "was seen to swim for a considerable distance, but on being passed by a young man in the same predicament who proved to be a stronger swimmer and ultimately succeeded in reaching shore, apparently gave up hope and, exclaiming 'God Have Mercy on My Soul', sank to rise no more. The deceased is said to have been Mr. Robert Henry of Gore Bay, a wealthy lumberman and highly respected."
Among the injured in the accident were one "M. Tinkess" (whose name was probably more correctly spelled 'Tinkis'), who was "a brother of 'Tinkess' of Manitowaning", and who had his hand burned. He allegedly saw "children thrown over the side like ducks". Mrs. 'Tinkess' was severely hurt as well. We shall hear more of the Tinkis and Henry families as our story progresses.
The burned-out hull of MANITOULIN was eventually pulled free of the Manitowaning shore, there having been a bit of the steamer left after the fire, and this despite the fact that she was allegedly carrying a quantity of dynamite in her holds at the time of the holocaust. During the fall of 1882, and the following winter, Melancthon Simpson rebuilt her at Owen Sound and, in the spring of 1883, she was returned to service by the Great Northern Transit Company as (b) ATLANTIC. In 1899, she was absorbed into the Northern Navigation Company of Ontario Ltd., for which firm ATLANTIC served until November 10, 1903, when she was destroyed by fire off the Pancakes in Georgian Bay whilst en route to Parry Sound. This second fire finally put an end to the life of the steamer.
No one knows for certain what caused the fateful outbreak of fire aboard MANITOULIN on May 18, 1882. One witness stated that it most certainly was caused by the overheating of woodwork surrounding the funnel, a situation which is known to have been the undoing of many old passenger steamers. Others stated that the journals had become overheated and ignited nearby woodwork. The mate seemed to think that the fire had begun with the explosion of an oil lamp in the engineroom. And others, knowing nothing and searching for an excuse, blamed the fire on "the incompetence of the engineer".
Whatever may have been the cause of the fire, the fact remained that the Great Northern Transit Company urgently required a steamer to replace MANITOULIN on its route between Collingwood and Sault Ste. Marie. As a result, the line (which contemporary press reports referred to as both the "Collingwood Transportation Company" and the "Collingwood Shipping Company") chartered the propellor ASIA from the Northwest Transportation Company Ltd. of Sarnia. ASIA was somewhat smaller than MANITOULIN, but she suffered a fate much more horrible than that of her predecessor, one that today is well-known amongst historians whereas the burning of MANITOULIN has faded into the shadows of the misty past.
ASIA was a wooden-hulled passenger and freight propellor which had been built of oak at St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1873 by that most prolific shipbuilder, Melancthon Simpson (the same gentlemen who rebuilt MANITOULIN into ATLANTIC). She was 136.9 feet in length, 23.7 feet in the beam, and 11.4 feet in depth, with registered tonnage of 348 Gross and 267 Net. She was powered by a small compound engine and she burned wood as fuel. ASIA was never given a Canadian registry number and this was a peculiarity that she shared with a numbe>r of other early Canadian steamers which were built in the years before steamboat documentation was considered to be a necessity.
ASIA was generally similar in design to MANITOULIN and to many other steamers that were operating on the Great Lakes during the 1870s and 1880s. Her extremely narrow beam is quite evident in photographs, and it will be noted that the lack of deck space that resulted from her narrowness caused her builder to bring the forward end of her upper deck cabin to a point instead of to a rounded front in the manner sported by larger vessels. ASIA had sideports for freight, a handsome "birdcage" pilothouse located forward of the clerestory on the boat deck, a tall funnel mounted well aft, and a single tall mast (complete with topmast) which was equipped with auxiliary sail.
On July 9. 1881, ASIA stranded in the St. Mary's River. She took on water and settled to the bottom, with her bow in shallow water. Salvaged and repaired, she was returned to the Northwest Transportation Company's service later in 1881. It was only shortly after the loss of MANITOULIN that the Great Northern Transit Company chartered ASIA for the run from Collingwood to Sault Ste. Marie, with stops at way ports.
Wednesday, September 13, 1882, was not a pleasant day on Georgian Bay. A. strong northwest gale was whipping up the waters of the bay as ASIA lay loading passengers and freight at Collingwood. Doubts were expressed as to whether ASIA should sail and the directors of the Great Northern Transit Company met to consider the question. Her master, Capt. John Savage of Goderich, expressed confidence (which was later proven to have been misplaced) in the capabilities of the steamer to overcome the inclement conditions, and so ASIA was permitted to sail. As she left Collingwood, her crew included Capt. Savage as master, John McDonald as first mate, Archie McNabb as second mate, Gilbert McKay as wheelsman and Russell McDougal as purser.
On the evening of September 13, ASIA arrived safely at Owen Sound after what was described as a very rough passage up from Collingwood. More general cargo and passengers were taken aboard and ASIA cleared Owen Sound at about midnight, with approximately 125 persons aboard. She certainly did not have cabin accommodations for such a large complement and it is to be supposed that many of the passengers had bought "deck" passage only, such not providing them with any of the comforts of a stateroom.
At about 3:00 a.m. on Thursday, September 14, ASIA made a stop at Presque Isle, on the north shore of the Owen Sound, to take on wood fuel. Her bunkers filled, she cleared for the North Channel, her first scheduled stop being at French River. There she was to discharge part of her cargo, consisting of supplies for the local lumber camps as well as a number of horses and cattle which she carried on the main deck.
As ASIA proceeded on her way up Georgian Bay, however, the northwest gale, which had not abated since her departure from Collingwood the previous day, increased to almost cyclonic proportions. The steamer took a terrible heating in the heavy seas, particularly as she crossed the gap which joins Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. In a vain attempt to help the ship ride the seas better, her crew drove the horses and cattle overboard. Nevertheless, ASIA began to settle by the stern about noon and the order to abandon the vessel was given by Capt. Savage when her decks were almost awash.
It should be noted that the exact spot where this scene took place has never been positively identified, and it is not known where ASIA foundered, for her wreck was never located. It seems certain, however, that the steamer sank somewhere between Lonely Island and Byng Inlet.
As the metal lifeboat pulled away from the foundering ASIA, a huge wave tore the oars from the grasp of those who manned the boat. The lifeboat was tossed about violently in the gale and on four occasions it capsized, only to be righted again, with great effort, by those unfortunates who clung to it. Gradually, the occupants of the boat succumbed to the elements and their numbers dwindled. As darkness fell, the survivors were able to distinguish the lighthouse at Byng Inlet, but they were helpless to make their way toward it without oars.
Seven of the original occupants of the lifeboat had been lost during the numerous capsizings of the craft. Another four weekened from exhaustion and disappeared into the water during the early part of the night. By early morning, some twenty hours after they had abandoned the ASIA, the only survivors were Tinkis and Miss Morrison. Still clinging to the lifeboat, whose metal construction had saved it from being broken apart in the seas, they eventually drifted onto the shore between Byng Inlet and Pointe au Baril. Found there by a local Indian, they were taken to Parry Sound. There they were given shelter and were able to tell their story of the loss of the ASIA and their struggle to survive the ordeal in the lifeboat. Amongst the bodies recovered from the lifeboat, to which officials were later led by the Indian, were those of Capt. Savage and McNabb, the second mate. The first mate, cabin boy and purser were amongst those lost in the capsizings of the small boat.
Of course, the story made the front page of most newspapers in Ontario, and probably all across Canada. The details of the accident and of the boat ride ashore made by Tinkis and Miss Morrison were reported with great vigour and woe, the hyperbole increasing with each telling. Some press reports, particularly those commemorating the event after the passage of years, became so fanciful that the wreck they purported to describe bore little resemblance to the actual accounts of the accident attributed to the survivors.
One good example of the manner in which "sensational" stories of the period could be mangled by the press involves the actual name of the 18-year-old male survivor of the lifeboat ride. His first name was usually reported as having been 'Duncan', and some reports referred to him as 'Dunc'. His last name was variously spelled 'Tinkiss', 'Tinkess', 'Timkess', etc. And yet, as we write this article, we have before us the actual Marine Protest, containing his account of the circumstances of the loss of the ASIA, which was duly sworn, on the twentieth day of September, 1882, before notary public George Moberly of Collingwood, by Douglass Albert Tinkis.
In addition to the Tinkis family, which was involved in the loss of both MANITOULIN and ASIA, we previously mentioned the Henry family, with a comment that more would be heard about them shortly. William Henry, who was the father of the late premier of Ontario, George S. Henry, operated a sawmill and lumber business in North York (now one of the boroughs of Toronto) along with his brother, Robert Henry. They held an interest in several lumber camps in Northern Ontario, and particularly in one at Kagawong on Manitoulin Island. William Henry was the senior partner in the firm and had left Toronto on the September 13th train for Owen Sound, where he boarded ASIA en route to Kagawong to conclude the purchase of several lots of lumber. William Henry was one of the many who did not survive the loss of the steamer. As luck would have it, his brother Robert was the gentleman whose demise, after leaping overboard from the burning MANITOULIN, just four months earlier, was so floridly reported by the local press.
And so, there were many interesting links between the loss of the MANITOULIN by fire and the ASIA by gale. Tragic as they both were, the great wonder to us today is that more lives were not lost in the burning, foundering and stranding of the many little steamboats that once ran passengers and supplies to Georgian Bay and North Channel ports. The steamers were, at that time, the only means of travel to some of those small harbours, and everything acquired by a local resident had to be transported there by boat. As a result, operative steamboats were in great demand for the trade, and most every usable hull was pressed into service, regardless of its suitability for the route.
And yet, the loss of MANITOULIN by accidental and fast-spreading fire, and of ASIA at the mercy of a gale of totally unexpected proportions, were disasters which the mariners of the day were virtually unable to prevent. Today, although separated from us by the passage of a full century, they seem every bit as tragic, particularly in view of the development in the interim of navigation aids which have served to minimize the loss of ships and their crews on our lakes.
Ed Note: For his extreme kindness in providing much of the material used to compile this account, we extend our thanks to member R. T. "Scotty" McCannell of St. Catharines. His late father, Capt. James McCannell, was a veteran lake master who served for many years as Commodore of the C.P.R. fleet in ASSINIBOIA. Capt. McCannell was at Collingwood on the day ASIA sailed on her final voyage and later recalled that historic event.
The description of the loss of MANITOULIN comes primarily from the Protest sworn on May 23, 1882, by Capt. P. M. Campbell, as well as from contemporary press reports, notably that contained in the June 1, 1882 issue of "The Elora Express". The ASIA story comes from many different sources (carefully crosschecked for accuracy) as well as from the Tinkis Protest (which, unfortunately, is not remarkable for its detail or accuracy regarding events which occurred before the passengers and crew took to the lifeboats).
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.