The Widow Maker’s World (and a special offer for discounted books
The world of my novel “Widow Maker A Maritime Tale of Lake Ontario” (now available on Amazon as e book or paperback) set in 1880, is undergoing rapid and unsettling change. The first practical light bulb has just been invented, and on the Niagara River plans are underway to build a hydro electric generating station. Queen Victoria reigns over Canada, and in Oswego labor unrest is simmering on the lumber docks, while Dr. Mary Walker is again in trouble with the local authorities for wearing trousers in public.
Society in Mollie’s day was reacting sometimes violently to the sweeping changes brought about by technology, wealth building and mass immigration just as it continues to do today. Controversy and passion are building over the women’s rights movement. And after the business panic of 1873, the state of commerce on Lake Ontario is slowly improving thanks to on going reciprocity (free trade) with Canada.
At the time of our novel plot, hundreds of schooners carried lumber, coal, stone and grain to the lake’s various ports including Toronto, Charlotte, and Oswego. Fair Haven and Sodus exported Pennsylvania coal from their trestles, and until the protectionist tariff of 1890, barley from Prince Edward County was a profitable cargo for a whole fleet of Lake Ontario built schooners, many of them independent owner operated businesses.
In the course of writing “Widow Maker” I included incidents from the darker side of shipping’s history on the lake including shipboard fires, boiler explosions, collisions and other lethal operational errors, and deadly ship killing storms. I also used historic incidents of just plain lousy luck. This was a time when seamanship skills of the highest order were practiced on the lakes. Lacking sea room and with no propulsion other than canvas sails it was hardly surprising that many schooners were lost after going ashore during storms.
November was the most deadly month for those working mariners of the 1880s. In November the lakes still retain much of summer’s heat. When cold air sweeps across the still 45 and 50 degree waters lots of lake effect snow results. Sometimes the heat energy also intensifies the low pressure systems to create a localized ‘weather bomb’ effect.
In November 2014 I wrote on this blog of “ a classic lake effect day with a high around 27 for the day, a low around 20, and brisk WSW winds and 13 foot waves. Around midnight the buoy off Rochester recorded 18 foot waves and 50 mph winds.” The first of the two gales of November 1880 (the climax scene of my novel) was such a storm.
I’m not a big fan of writing about shipwrecks, but the description of the conditions during this gale by the men who survived it are interesting. And a number of ships did survive it. This storm came early in the month when there were many vessels making their last runs on the lake. (At that time insurance underwriters for cargo and ships often would not cover voyages made after mid November).
The storm came in initially from the southwest and quickly built mountainous waves. On Lake Erie it caused a surge of ten feet at Buffalo Harbor. Accounts of one wreck on the shores of Prince Edward County included house sized waves and a note of scraps of her sails caught on fences more than half a mile inland.
While a half dozen ships were destroyed in the gale a greater number caught out on the open lake survived. That is certainly a testament to the skills of their crews and the quality of construction of the vessels. Lake Ontario historian C.H.J. Snider author of the Schooner Days column in the “Toronto Evening Telegram” has described the high quality lumber and build of the nineteenth century Lake Ontario fleet. The schooners here were far more durable than the saltwater fishing schooners of the Maritimes he notes, largely because of the lumber available to the shipwrights who put them together. Despite the hazards of hard service many of these wooden vessels lasted over a half century.
Here’s the special offer good through April 30. Stay tuned for more on the world of the “Widow Maker “to come…
copies of our backlist books are now available at 50 % off, pdf copies FREE (fine print for Canadian subscribers pdf files only available due to high postage cost)
Back list special prices include Passages ($7.50), Ariadne’s Death ($4.75), and Riddle of the Lake ($8.00) order from our Lake Ontario Items store at Etsy.com FREE Shipping