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Canada has seen its fair share of disasters on the open waves. From the dozens of ships that have gone down in the Great Lakes, to the ships along the coasts that have found their way beneath the waves, Canada counts hundreds of shipwrecks in its borders.
Not all shipping disasters happened on great stretches of water though. Some happened on rivers and one of the worst was the Victoria steamboat disaster, which occurred on May 24, 1881 in the Thames River outside London, Ontario near what is today the Greenway Off-Leash Dog Park.
At the time, it was the worst maritime disaster in the history of Canada, and it would make news around the world.
During the late-19th century, London was a vibrant community of 19,000 people and in order to provide water for the growing community, the London Water Works System was completed in 1878. This system included the building of a dam at Waterworks Park, today known as Springbank Park. This damn would raise the water upstream and provide a wonderful stretch of water for boaters to enjoy a nice day on the water. With more people going out to this stretch of water, the London and Waterworks Line, and the Thames Navigation Company, were established to operate small passenger boats on the river. Both companies began to build boats at a quick pace to capitalize on this new opportunity. In July of 1878, the Forest City was built by the Thames Navigation Company, followed by the Princess Louise in 1879. The London and Water Works Line, looking to catch up, built their own vessel, The Enterprise that same year, followed by the Admiral in 1880.
In 1879, soon after it was built, the Enterprise caught fire and sank in the winter. Deciding not to let the ship go to waste, the London and Waterworks Line raised the ship in the spring, repaired it and expanded it for reuse in its next vessel, The Victoria.
Registered with a home port of Port Stanley, Ontario, the ship was covered in glossy white paint, with royal blue and gingerbread trim. Powered by a 60-horsepower boiler that moved the paddle-wheel, the ship had two bows, a hurricane roof and measured 80 feet from bow to stern. Seating on the ship would accommodate 220 people with standing room for an addition 300 people. Costing $5,000 to build, the Government of Ontario would conduct an inspection in 1880 and deem it safe. The ship also had a band, as well as a piano.
On Victoria Day 1880, the ship would carry 1,605 over the course of the entire day. On that day, Forest City and the Victoria would have a minor collision with no injuries or major damage.
Fast forward to Victoria Day 1881 and in an effort to take advantage of Queen Victoria’s birthday, the ship’s namesake, it was launched from London at 9 a.m.
The atmosphere on the ship would be happy and joyous, and the ship would make several round trips along the river with no problem.
At 3:30 p.m., the ship would dock in London for a departure of 5 p.m. It was at this time that the captain saw that the Forest City had run aground on a sand shoal in the river. The Princess Louise was trying to pull the ship off the shoal with cables, which was not working. With those two ships occupied, the Victoria would take on the responsibility of transporting passengers between the ports on the river.
Captain Donald Rankin would decide to not wait for his scheduled departure time and would immediately return to the Byron port to pick up more passengers, although he attempted to convince the captain of the Princess Louise to ferry passengers back to London, to no success. Rankin instructed a six-man crew to, in his words, “walk about and tell people we are overcrowded. Tell them the captain will not sail away until many of them left the boat. There will be more trips coming and all of them will get rides to London if they wait.” Rankin and the crew also made attempts to tell passengers awaiting ferries that his ship was overcrowded but little concern was made by the passengers getting on the Victoria. By Rankin’s own estimates later, only 20 people obeyed the commands.
By this point, the ship had roughly 650 people on it but was designed to only hold roughly 400. With so many passengers, the ship was lower in the water and many passengers said they were not worried since the river was shallow.
James Dreanan, a passenger on the system would say, “As I looked down the staircase I noticed the water ankle deep down below. The crowd seemed excited and kept rushing from one side to the other. Captain Rankin told them to repeatedly to stand still and not crowd so much.”
The ship began to rock as it sailed, and one man, John Drennan commented about this and was told by a father who was with his two daughters that if the ship capsized, passengers could just walk ashore.
On the last voyage of the evening, the Victoria loaded passengers at the Byron dock, many of whom were eager to get home to London. After casting out of the dock, the Victoria was taking small amounts of water on the hull, which was washing over the lower deck. Several passengers, noting the rocking of the ship, dove into the river and swam to shore rather than staying on.
By this point, the Princess Louise was going to Byron to pick up passengers and as she passed the Victoria, passengers on the Victoria moved to the close side of the deck to wave, nearly causing the Victoria to capsize at that point.
By Griffith’s Dam, the water on the lower deck was ankle deep and Captain Rankin knew he could not make London like this. He stopped the Victoria at Woodland Cemetery Wharf and would not allow any new passengers on. He also rejected passengers at Ward’s Hotel Wharf. The passengers still on the vessel were getting rowdy and loud, causing the vessel to rock. Rankin saw a sand bar ahead and attempted to drive the vessel onto it to stop the voyage at that point. As he decided to do this, two members of the London Rowing Club decided to race each other down the river. Passengers of the Victoria rushed to the railing of the starboard side to watch the race, which caused the ship to become unbalanced and it lurched to that side. The passengers then ran to the port side in an attempt to right the vessel but the steam boiler broke lose from its mounting on the lower deck, tumbling and killing passengers with scalding water as it fell. It then knocked out the support beams and the railings on the port side, and sent the upper deck of the Victoria down onto the lower deck, killing passengers.
Survivor William Soper would say, “I was standing on the north side of the upper deck when the crash came. I was hurled into the water with 500 others. I sank to the bottom but managed to climb up on the people, but in turn was climbed up on by others. I then exerted myself for a final struggle and got on top again and reached the shore. The screams which arose from the drowning mass were terrific.”
One person who saw the danger mounting was a young boy by the name of Benjamin Eilber, he would say “I was riding on the upper deck when the boat started to rock. Some of the passengers thought the rolling motion was great fun and they even started to sing One More River To Cross. I went down to the lower deck so that if the worst came I would be nearer the water and could swim. I was standing beside the pile of cordwood fuel talking a policeman and after several bad lurches we decided to swim for shore. As soon as we were in the water the boat took a violent lurch and started to go down. The policeman and I were far enough away by this time that we were not trapped in the falling wreckage.”
Many passengers fell into the riverbed and as the ship keeled over onto its port side, crushing passengers. With so many passengers falling into the water, the ship was now free of that weight and promptly righted itself and began to sink, with its upper promenade deck floating and covering those underneath it, drowning them.
The father with the two children I mentioned? That father would see his daughters swept under the boat and drowned.
Many of the female passengers, wearing Victorian-era dresses, became waterlogged and attempted to swim in the 12-foot deep water but could not. Many on the boat also did not know how to swim and would drown.
Will Skinner would see his sister pulled under the water by the grip of another drowning victim.
One 13-year-old boy would suffer a heart attack trying to climb out of the mud on the riverbank.
Those on the shore attempted to save the drowning passengers. Two nude swimmers attempted to help but would themselves die in the attempt.
Many people began to climb onto the land of a local farmer on shore and he ordered them to get off his land, but backed down when John Mitcheltree, a large butcher, gave him a glare as people swam to shore.
Frank Moore, a carriage driver, described what he saw upon arriving at the scene.
“We heard the most fearful, sudden, terrible wails and cries and shouts. It rings in my ears, the day was so beautiful and everything was so happy and all holiday-like and then came those awful wails. The victims were fighting like mad things. The worst things was to see mothers and fathers trying to reach down and pull up their children who had been crowded under and were drowning. Then the parents beat and pulled each other down. They were walking, yes walking, on each other.”
Two sisters, Henrietta and Mabel Hogan, had made the trip alone together. When the disaster happened, they were thrown into the water. Mabel immediately began to sink and Henrietta grabbed her by the ribbon by her throat but she could do nothing to support herself and Mabel sank below the waves before her sister’s eyes. A priest would pick her up, still holding the ribbon, and return her to her parents.
The two men who decided to give the people on the Victoria a show with their race, Harry Nichols and Michael Reidy, were horrified when they saw the disaster and personally began pulling people onto their light craft and rowing them to shore. More than 15 people were saved doing this.
Many people were able to save themselves and others by sheer willpower. John Fitzpatrick saved his wife, daughter and baby granddaughter by taking his wife and daughter in each arm, and holding the baby by its clothes in his teeth as he swam to shore. A girl, aged five, was saved by grabbing the long white beard of Thomas Atwood and being towed to shore.
By 6:30 p.m., people in London heard about the disaster and began to make their way to the disaster site to help. The Princess Louise arrived five minutes after the Victoria sank and immediately the captain grounded her ashore and disembarked all passengers. The ship was then turned into a temporary morgue. At 10 p.m. that night, the Princess Louise returned to London with 157 bodies.
Bodies would be pulled through the night, numbering 18, from the water and four more bodies were pulled to the surface on May 25. The London Field Battery also fired artillery at the wreck, in the belief the explosions would raise sunken bodies but this did not work.
The London Free Press would report, “The catastrophe is one that can scarcely be appreciated in all its magnitude, but if the roofs of all the houses in London could be raised today the scenes of woe would make the strongest man weep.”
Some deaths came days after the disaster. John Courtis worked in a shop near the wharf and he waded into the water and began scooping up victims. He pulled the bodies and friends and other from the water, and two weeks later would contract pneumonia from being in the cold water and died.
Over the next week, pike poles and grappling hooks were used to find bodies and the dam was opened to allow water levels to lower. This allowed for two more bodies to be found.
As for how many died, it is estimated to be between 181 and over 200.
Not all the stories were sad. One story told of a teenage girl who told her parents she was going to Springbank Park for Victoria Day, but snuck away with a boy she knew instead. The teenager eventually returned to the scene of the disaster and helped with rescues but never told her parents she was not a survivor of the incident.
Jake Brown’s son had begged him to be allowed to spend the day at the park. He decided that he would be allowed to do so and sent his son off with a picnic lunch. Hearing of the disaster, he raced to the water and searched for his son but could not find him. He returned home at dawn and was pouring out his grief to his wife when his son walked in, covered in dirt. As it turned out, he had changed his mind and decided to go to Port Stanley, missed the last train home and walked 25 miles back to London through the night.
Funerals began to be held on May 25. One sad story comes from William Glass and his fiancé Fanny Cooper, who were due to be married two weeks after the wreck happened. Their funerals were held in separate homes but the processions blended into one on the way to the cemetery. Today, they sit in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, with their graves beside each other. A single headstone with a pillared arch covers the grave. On one pillar it says “They were lovely in their lives,” and the other pillar says “and in death they were not divided”.
There were so many deaths that the supply of coffins in London was exhausted within one day. Among the 19,000 people in the city, every person lost a friend or relative. The Fryer family would lose five members alone. For a month, by an official decree, a black armband was worn by citizens of the city. Businesses and schools also closed for two days.
As with anything, the chance to make a bit of money was not lost on businesses. One business, A.B. Powell and Company, advertised the following:
“Family mournings at A.B. Powell and Company who are showing a large range of crapes and mourning-dress material. Our prices are low. Millinery orders executed at the shortest possible notice. Also dressmaking orders.”
Drag men who would transport coffins and bodies also charged double their normal rates. Some charged as much as $10 for two hours work. This is the equivalent of roughly $250 for two hours work today. One drayman would haul the bodies from victims he recognized at the disaster scene. He would then deliver the body to the victim’s family and claim a fee. In one reported incident, he came to the home of a victim to find the family absent and searching for their loved one. He lifted the body from his cart and put it through an open window and left.
After the disaster, there was a great public outcry and use of riverboats quickly began to fall. The Forest City was left at dock and condemned, sitting to rot. George Parish, the engineer who passed the vessel as suitable for sailing was blamed by some and he was found guilty of not informing Rankin of the poor condition of the vessel. Rankin was also blamed for not inspecting the vessel before departing that day. A jury for the disaster enquire also believed that the boiler was not properly secured to the deck. Rankin was blamed responsible for the wreck with Parish taking partial blame.
After the enquiry gave their verdict, Rankin and Parish were then arrested on manslaughter charges and released on $3,000 bail. The Middlesex Grand Jury then came to a verdict on Sept. 22, 1881, refusing to convict the men and both were freed.
With the disaster, people were less than eager to ride a riverboat. The Victoria was broken into pieces in the rescue attempt and the boiler would rest on the river bed and prove to be a popular place to jump into the river for young people.
The Princess Louise would be destroyed in the Flood of 1883, killing seven people.
The Thames, one of the last riverboats on the river, would be damaged by fire in 1899 and would sink near the Waterworks Dam.
Today, there is a blue Ontario Heritage Plaque that sits with the painted anchor of the ship at the site of the sinking. Most of the victims are buried at the Mount Pleasant and Woodland Cemeteries.
The irony of this disaster is that the captain blamed the people, the people blamed the owners and captain and everyone blamed everyone else when it reality, everyone was to blame.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, London Free Press, Macleans Magazine, Wikipedia, Notebook From Yesterday,