William H. Curtis
William H. Curtis, more familiarly known as Capt. Henry Curtis, was born at Tonawanda, March 20, 1842, and is a son of Robert Curtis, who for many years kept a boathouse on the Niagara river. Our subject has been connected with the Niagara river in some capacity all his life, and remembers very well when the Bates horse ferry was established between Grand Island and the American shore in 1857. His first sailing on the river as engineer was in 1867, on the steamyacht Undine, upon which he worked a year, and for two seasons following he was engineer of the Dime.
In 1869 Mr. Curtis bought out what is known as the Curtis Boat House, on Squaw island, at the foot of Mill street, and with it about seven small boats. He has owned the property ever since, and now conducts it in connection with his steamyachts. In 1876 he built the steamyacht Charles F. Nagle, of which he was master and owner for six years. In 1882 he built the Loke Clerk, and was master and owner of her for six or seven years. In 1888 he built the Ella H., owning her six years, and in 1894 built the Matt Wagner, of which he is now the master, and owner in partnership with William E. Becker.
Captain Curtis was married to Mary Ann Fleming, in January, 1862, and they have five children as follows: Martha, Laura, Lillie, Jennie, and Robert H. Curtis, who was employed with his father at the boat house, and in 1898 was on the steamer Falcon.
While master of the Matt Wagner, during the season of 1893, Captain Curtis had an experience with lightning which he will never either forget or recover from, an account of which was published in all the papers of this country and perhaps others, and made him "one of the wonders of the world" for months after it took place. It was marvelous in the extreme. On the 3d June, 1893, he took a party of gentlemen from the Title Search office down the river on a pleasure excursion. They stopped off for most of the time at Sour Spring Grove, but later went farther down the river to Edge Water. On the return trip, when opposite the grove, at about six o'clock in the evening, in the midst of a thunder squall, during which it rained very hard and was quite dark, the Captain, while at his wheel, was struck by lightning. The crown of his hat was burned completely off, his clothes were torn, his flesh was severely burned, and his trousers were cut in places precisely as if some one had used the shears on them. His watch was also destroyed. The current descended from his head down his right side to the knee, then retraced its track to about the middle of his body, crossed over to his watch and from there to the drum of the wheel of the boat and off into space by way of the rudder chains. The case and ring of his watch were partly melted, the second hand and a part of the works were destroyed, and every link in the watch chain was opened as carefully as if done by a mechanic. The Captain was cared for as well as possible by Dr. Daly, who was one of the party, with the willingly rendered assistance of the other members, but it was not until five hours after the occurrence that he showed any signs of consciousness, and that was when he was being conveyed ashore to his house on Squaw island. He finally recovered, but it was thirty days before he was able to resume the command of his yacht, George Bohn in the meantime having her in charge. Something singular about the action of the current was that it left all the glass of the pilot-house window on the outside of the house, not a "smithereen" being found anywhere on the inside. Only the outside edge of the moulding of the house was bruised, and the drum of the wheel was split. Captain Curtis' hat, or what remained of it, is in the possession of the gentlemen from the Title Search office who were with him, they withholding it as a highly prized relic to be given to no one. The watch is still in the custody of the Captain, in the condition that it was left by the current, and the links of the chain are in the hands of various citizens of Black Rock, friends and neighbors of the Captain.
Another singular fact to be related in connection with this incident is that exactly one year later, day and date, and at the same hour, Captain Curtis was on the same boat, in the same capacity, a similar storm came up, the lightning split a tree on shore about fifty feet from where his boat was sailing, at West Side, opposite to Falconwood. He distinctly felt the shock, and his son was compelled to relieve him at the wheel so he could go aft and lie down to get rest and recuperate before he could resume his duties.
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.