The Great Lakes are truly a natural wonder. Home to 21 per cent of the Earth’s surface fresh water by volume, and taking up a space of 244,106 square-kilometres, they form the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet.
For centuries, humans have lived around the lakes, and used the lakes for trade and recreation.
In the early years of Canada, those same lakes were also a very dangerous place for ships. It was not uncommon for many ships to be lost in a year in storms on these mini-seas.
Today, I am looking at the lakes and the interesting shipwrecks that can be found beneath the waves. Some had huge loss of life, others became an iconic part of Canadian history. I will also look at some of the men who worked on the Great Lakes, and some who lost their lives.
Please note, I am focusing only on the Great Lakes that Canada borders, so no Lake Michigan. I will also not be included the SS Edmund Fitzgerald as it will have its own post in the future.
The Charles S Price
Built by the American Shipbuilding Company and launched in 1910, this ship was an astounding 503 feet long and was manned by a crew of 28 people. The captain of the ship was William A. Black.
Sunk in the Great Lakes Storm of 1913 on Nov. 9, 1913, the ship was found one day later with the bow above water but the stern beginning to dip blow. Due to the fact the entire ship could not be seen, it was initially believed she was the SS Regina. It took a full week for the ship to sink, by which time it had been identified as the SS Charles S Price.
|The overturned Charles S Price|
On the day it sunk, it was said to be a rather nice day with cold clouds hung low. Lake Huron began to churn up in the winds and heavy wet snow was falling. The Charles S Price was just one of six ships that sunk in Lake Huron that day. A memorial service was held for the dead in Tiverton the following Sunday.
Salvage of the ship was attempted in the summer of 1916 with divers cutting a hole in the aft hull. The hole allowed divers into the wreck where breaks were attempted to be sealed so the ship could be floated. Unfortunately, the cost to do this as deemed too much and she was abandoned to the lake floor.
The SS Regina
Built in 1907 and officially launched on Sept. 4, 1907 from Dumbarton, Scotland, the SS Regina was named for Regina, Saskatchewan and had a crew of 32 on the 249 foot ship. Taking her maiden voyage on Jan. 19, 1907, she would eventually find herself in the Great Lakes in 1911 where she was owned by the Canadian Steamship Lines company.
On Nov. 9, 1913, during the Great Lakes Storm, waves as high as 38 feet began to hit the SS Regina, which was top heavy with sewer pipes at the time.
Choosing to anchor near Lexington, Michigan, 11 kilometres off the coast, the ship was capsized and sunk. The captain of the ship would go down with her, as would every other crew member. Two bodies were found in a lifeboat from the ship near Port Franks, Ontario. Ten more bodies were found on the beach nearby.
At first, it was believed that the SS Regina had actually collided with the Charles S. Price, since the crew of that ship were found wearing lifebelts from the Regina. It was determined later that this could not have been the case because the Price showed no signs of a collision.
The location of the Regina would be lost for decades until it was found at the bottom of Lake Huron in 1986. The wreck was intact, but upside down and about 80 feet below the water. During a salvage operation in 1987, thousands of artifacts were brought up including still potable bottles of scotch and champagne.
The G.P. Griffith
Built in 1848 and launched that same year, the G.P Griffith was named for Griffith P. Griffith, a businessman from Ohio, the ship stretched for 193 feet and had a small crew as it was a passenger ship.
Only two years after it was launched, the ship was carrying 326 passengers, most of them from Europe, when sparks began to shoot out of the smokestacks of the ship. C.C. Roby, the captain of the ship, ordered that the ship be turned towards the shore. Unfortunately, the speed of the ship began to fan the flames and the aft of the ship was consumed in fire. Passengers fled to the front of the ship as many crew abandoned their post and allowed the engines to run out of steam and the paddle to stop.
Thankfully, the momentum of the ship took it to a sandbar that was only eight feet deep. The fire moved extremely fast and many passengers were burned alive. others jumped into the water and drowned despite it being relatively shallow. Most of the passengers could not swim and pulled other passengers down with them as they panicked and grabbed onto whatever would keep them above the water.
The ships mate swam ashore and grabbed a small boat, which he used to start to rescue people. The captain threw his wife into the lake, and did the same to his mother in an effort to save them. He also threw his child in, as well as the wife of the ship’s barber. Once everyone was in the water, he jumped in himself. The captain, and his entire family, would perish but the barber’s wife would survive and become the only woman to live through the disaster.
Only 37 people were accounted for and it is estimated at least 241 people were killed but that number could be as high as 289. Many bodies washed ashore and a mash grave was made where 47 men, 24 women and 25 children were buried. Bodies that could be identified were taken to Cleveland.
The disaster would inspire several new safety regulations to make ships safer on the Great Lakes.
The SS Daniel J. Morrell
Launched by the Cambria Steamship Company in 1908, this ship sailed the Great Lakes for several decades until Nov. 29, 1966 when a sudden storm caused the ship to break into two.
It was on the last run of the season with the SS Edward Y. Townsend when winds of 110 km/h came up and waves topping 25 feet began to hit the ship. After the Townsend made for the St. Clair River to shelter it, the Morrell continued to remain where it was. By 2 a.m. of Nov. 29, the ship was in its death throes and the crew of 29 began to jump overboard. Unfortunately, the freezing water killed many of the crew members. At 2:15 am, the ship broke into two pieces. The remaining crew on the ship got into a life raft at the forward section of the ship. While they waited for their section to sink, they saw something moving towards them. Thinking it was another ship, they soon realized it was actually the aft section of their own ship.
It collided with the forward section, and continued on its way as the forward section continued to sink.
The ship was reported missing on Nov. 30 and a search began. At 4 p.m. on that day, Dennis Hale, a watchman on the ship, was found near death and in a life raft with three dead crew members. He had survived the 40-hours on the cold lake in just a pair of boxer shorts, a lifejacket and a pea coat.
The shipwreck was found, with the two sections eight kilometres apart.
The USS Hamilton
A United States Navy schooner that served on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812, this ship was originally launched in 1809 before it was put into service in the war.
Not a large ship, it was a simple ship that found itself in a war. The conversion of the ship into a warship presented several problems including the decks not being strong enough to hold naval guns, and the bulwarks not being high enough to provide enough protection for gun crews. Nonetheless, it went into service .
On Aug. 8, 1813, it was hit by a sudden squall near Hamilton, Ontario. It should be pointed out the ship was named for Paul Hamilton, the United States Secretary of State, not Hamilton, the city.
The ship would sink at 2 a.m., and 42 men lost their lives with only eight men surviving.
Today, the site of the shipwreck is a National Historic Site of Canada.
The HMS Ontario
A warship of Great Britain, it was launched on May 10, 1780 and was the largest British warship to sail the Great Lakes to that time. During the time she was afloat on the lakes, she would ferry troops, supplies and prisoners from one part of New York to another. While she was the largest warship seen to that time on the Great Lakes, she never once saw battle.
On Oct. 31, 1780, while sailing to Oswego from Fort Niagara the ship suddenly sunk, taking with her 130 men including 60 soldiers and a crew of 40 Canadians, as well as 30 American prisoners of war.
For many years, the sinking was kept quiet by the British to hide the military loss.
The shipwreck remained loss for centuries until 2008 when it was discovered via side-scan sonar technology.
- John Groundwater: At the age of 40 years, Groundwater was the chief engineer of the Charles S Price and husband to Flora Livingston. He also had four children. Born in Scotland in 1872, he came to the United States at the age of 16 and began to work as a sailor. Married in 1904, he also worked as a railroad engineer. When the ship was about to set sail on that fateful day, his assistant engineer, Milton Smith, said he was staying on shore because of the impending storm. Groundwater told him to not throw money away and to get on the ship. Smith refused and five days later he was in Port Huron to identify the bodies of his shipmates. When Groundwater was found, he was wearing a life preserver from the SS Regina.
- Dennis Hale: Born in 1940, and sailing on the Daniel J. Morrell when it sank in 1966, he was the lone survivor of the shipwreck (as was mentioned above). Talking about the sinking, he said that “I think somehow I give people a little hope in life, that life is a struggle, but if you have faith and determination, you can go through life and come out ahead.” After the sinking, he spent several days at a hospital and years dealing with the loss of his fellow crew members. Always willing to tell the story of the shipwreck to give hope to people, he would go on to write a book about his ordeal called Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor. He died at the age of 75 in 2015.
- Captain James Dick: The captain of the steamer The Rescue when it made its first cruise from Collingwood to Fort William, he wrote in his log about the worthiness of the ship on the lake. Moving at 10.5 miles-per-hour during a heavy gale, the ship took its passengers on the maiden cruise, stopping at several locations along the way.
- Louis Ghant: Born in the United States and travelling north to Buffalo, Louis Ghant became a sailor on the Great Lakes, sailing from Buffalo to Chicago on a regular basis. He would do this for 12 years in total before deciding to come to Toronto for a few years to work at the Lambton Flour Mills. He would eventually come to farm a place of his own and would raise a family of five daughters with his wife.
- Wait Hudgin: A brave sailor, he is known for the time he risked his life three times on one trip while sailing through the Great Lakes. As part of the crew of the Picton, he attempted to straighten the yawl of a large load of lumber but was thrown overboard as a result. Thrown a long line, he was able to get himself aboard but was described as more dead than alive. Later on that same trip, with high waves, he volunteered to go over to the side of the yawl and pass the lumber up to be piled on the windward side. A commercial fisherman, he had also worked as a lighthouse keeper from 1912 to 1927.
- Henry McConnell: One of the more famous sailors on the Great Lakes, he spent 50 years sailing the water. While doing that, he also managed a farm until 1913, and even drilled for oil on his property but never found anything.
- George Washington Bongard: A farmer, a fisherman and a sailor of the Great Lakes, he spent most of his life as a farmer but was a sailor on the Picton. He was part of the Picton crew in 1894 when it made its run to Charlotte when it couldn’t stop until it hit a bridge. He was also a crew member of the Point Traverse Life Saving Station and he would help many shipwrecked survivors and save many lives.
- Capt. Peter Campbell Telfer: The son of a county land agent, he began his career in 1872 sailing on a Beatty Liner and rose rapidly through the sailing profession. He spent many years engaging in the grain trade on the Great Lakes.
- Capt. Frank Henman: Known as the People’s Captain, he came from England and began sailing ships on the Great Lakes. Sailing in November, he hit one of the worst storms to ever hit the Great Lakes. The trip would be his last and somewhere out on the Christian Islands, he was wrecked and lost his life. Before leaving he said, “I have only one more trip to make, and when I get back I shall have time to tell you stories of the lake.”