As stated in my last Log post, I have a historic novel of Lake Ontario in the works. It’s set in 1880 with a schooner (of course!) and a feisty rule breaking woman ship owner as main characters. A novel has to have a plot, so as an author I need to come up with lots of thrilling action for this one. An event that was extremely thrilling in 1880 on and beside Lake Ontario was fire.
Fire plays a fairly big role in my novel- Oswego buildings and ships burn up making for some hot action for the hapless characters aboard my fictional schooner to deal with. Uncontrolled fire was about the worst thing that could occur twenty miles from land aboard a wooden ship of 1880. (It’s still bad. In 2012 an engine room fire aboard a tug off Prince Edward County in Lake Ontario killed the ship’s chief engineer).
In the nineteenth century there wasn’t a lot in the way of onboard fire suppression systems, and the combustible “fire load” of a wooden steamer (whose boilers were often fueled with wood) was pretty overwhelming. Add to that cargoes that were often also quite flammable, and it’s no surprise that the resulting infernos consumed ships and humans alike with staggering speed. To make things even worse, lifeboats and other lifesaving gear were generally inadequate if not downright primitive in a lot of cases.
One of the most famous and tragic ship fires on Lake Ontario was that of the steamer Ocean Wave (shown in drawing above). She burned off Point Traverse in 1853. More than half of the passengers died on that hellish April night. Residents of the Prince Edward county shoreline were awakened by the glow of the inferno in the wee hours of the morning and rushed to give aid.
The crews of two schooners also saw the blaze in the distance that April night and as one news story recalled the Captain of the schooner Emblem “immediately shook out the reefs from his sails for it was blowing heavily and made all haste towards the vessel...The immense volume of flame rendered it dangers to approach too closely.”
The Ocean Wave was built of wood and began to burn after sparks from her stacks set the upper deck on fire. Among the cargo were 500 wooden kegs of butter. The eyewitness accounts stated that the melted butter “ran in flaming torrents over the sides of the vessel, smoothing down the water on the lee side”.
The crews of the Emblem and a second schooner the Georgina, pulled hapless people out of the icy spring waters of the lake as quickly as possible, but many were lost to the cold and the rough water. There were acts of heroism that night-”The Purser of the Ocean Wave had got three planks balanced across the rudder on which he had placed eight or nine persons. He acted nobly throughout this trying scene,cheering them up and inspiring them with hope”.
Sadly that night there were also less noble actions; “the steamer Scotland Capt Patterson, came down between the Emblem and the wreck and slowed his engine asking what boat it was. Capt. Belyea told him the Ocean Wave, and that he had some of the passengers onboard ...and that he thought there were other persons between the vessel and the shore; but Capt. Patterson made no reply but merely bade him good bye -put steam on and went off.” Emblem stayed on searching for survivors, and in the early light of dawn a third schooner approached and its captain asked if he could assist. Upon hearing from Belyea, he immediately sailed towards the shore seeking survivors only to learn the local residents had rescued them with a small boat launched from the beach.
On that night 28 of the fifty passengers aboard the ship lost their lives. Other famous fires afloat included those of the steamer Quinte, ( that burned in the bay near Deseronto with a loss of five lives) and the Hero that burned at the dock with no loss of life after being struck by lightning). Another dockside loss to fire was that of the Conger Coal small wooden steamer that burned alongside the coal trestle in Fair Haven in 1917. No human lives were lost in that blaze.