An Excerpt from Ariadne’s Death- Tales of Disaster and Survival On Lake Ontario available this spring directly from Susan Gateley or from our online store- 96 page paperback with stories of shipwrecks and rescues, close calls and sinkings- $9.95 plus 2.00 postage and tax send orders to 12025 Delling Rd Wolcott NY 14590 or order on line http://www.chimneybluff.com/.
The Hall and The Noyes a family tragedy –“Best it is we may not fathom every fearful night of woe”
For fifty years or more coal was a mainstay of the shipping trade between New York and Ontario. Millions of tons were carried from the south shore coal ports of Fair Haven, Oswego, Sodus Point and Charlotte first by schooners, later by small wooden steamers and barges and then in the 1950s and 60s by steel hulled ships like the Fontanna and the car ferries Ontario 1 and 2. By the turn of the century many of the old sailing ships that once had carried lumber, iron, and grain were left mostly with the coal trade.
In 1902 coal was as important to our industrialized society as oil is today. Everything ran on coal. Train locomotives powered by coal hauled coal (and other vital materials and goods) to cities and towns across the continent. Coal fed factory boilers and coal gas lighted streets and homes. Coal heated homes too, and a shortage of it with winter’s approach would be nothing less than catastrophic. Imagine the OPEC oil fracas of 1974 when people lined up at service stations waiting for hours to get 5 gallons of gas and multiply times ten to get an idea of the anxiety levels of November 1902 in the cities along the lake shore when there was no coal to be had because of a strike in the mines.
Much of the coal used for home heating in Canada then was “hard” anthracite coal that came from eastern Pennsylvania. It was cleaner burning and longer lasting than “soft” coal and came across the lake from New York. But the anthracite mines in eastern Pennsylvania were deep mines with narrow steep twisting tunnels. Hard coal was deadly coal, the accident rates in anthracite mines were even higher than those for the mines of western Pennsylvania and the mid west. It was dirty dangerous work to blast and chip and load anthracite deep below the hills and in the summer of 1902 the miners went on strike.
Theirs was a long and bitter conflict, for trouble had been brewing for years. The dispute dragged on for over five months and as the shortening days of October drew near the coal using populations of the U.S. and Canada began to get very nervous indeed. Toronto even began importing coal from distant Wales. At last President Theodore Roosevelt intervened and threatened to send in the army to run the coal mines. The workers went back to the tunnels and coal once again began flowing north to ports on the shoreline where ships could load and carry it to the increasingly chilly ports of southern Ontario.
Because it was slow in coming and badly needed, shippers worked long and late all over the Great Lakes that year to replenish supplies and build stock piles of coal for the winter ahead. The Donovans of Oswego, a family that owned the steamer John Hall and the cut down schooner barge the John R. Noyes were among them.
The Noyes had been launched as a three master in Algonac Michigan in 1872. She was 136 feet on deck with an eleven foot draft allowing her to make it through the Welland as a canaller. She could carry about 750 tons of coal on an eleven foot draft. By 1902, like many of her sailing sisters, she had been cut down to serve as a “consort” to a small steamer though she still retained some of her spars and a reduced sail area.
The vessel that towed her, the wooden hulled Hall was not much larger, at 139 foot on deck and eleven foot draft. The Hall had been built in 1889 and was powered by a none too powerful steam engine. This account of their end comes from several different news reports. Details understandably vary as to the exact events and sequence of same, so I’ve chose what seemed plausible to me.
Demand was strong and freights were high so the Donovans like many other ship owners pushed hard to get one last run in before the season closed. They loaded their two vessels in Charlotte and then headed out for Deseronto. The Hall, under Captain Tim Donovan with a crew of nine aboard had in tow the John Noyes with the captain’s son, young George Donovan, in command. Also aboard the Noyes were three other deckhands, a female cook and two dogs. George’s brother Jerome was with his father as mate on the steamer and two of George’s cousins were in her engine room. The two vessels carried about a thousand tons of coal. Captain Tim Donavan was known in the city as being a hard worker and “a thorough sailorman”, and the two vessels represented his life savings, Like many of their family owned contemporaries operating in December, they sailed without hull insurance.
After they left Charlotte on the morning of December 12, a Thursday, east winds, fog and snow slowed their progress. That week’s news recorded bad weather and poor visibility over the lake for most of the week and another ship’s captain reported “the weather was thick and how it did bow and snow…I don’t believe that I have ever seen the wind blow as hard as it did that Saturday.” As the seas built the little steamer struggled to keep her cargo and barge moving. Then the wind went down and a thick fog settled over the lake. Deseronto lies at the upper corner of the Z shaped waters of the Bay of Quinte. To reach it from Charlotte the Hall would have to feel her way past Point Traverse and its outlying limestone ledges and shoals. So Captain Donovan anchored under the lee of Prince Edward County near Wicked Point to wait for better conditions.
Here the light house keeper Angus McDonald had received word to keep his light burning that night for several late running coal ships, the Hall and Noyes among them. When the fog lifted Captain Donovan decided to make a dash for the protected waters of the Bay of Quinte, a few hours steaming away. He never made it. Once again the raw northeast wind began to blow. The light house keeper recalled that late in the evening a soft thick snow began. Then the blizzard struck. “I had great difficulty in keeping the lantern free of snow making trips outside on the lantern deck every few moments to wipe the soft clinging mass from the glass. I felt very worried about the boats…the storm..was one of the worst I have ever seen.”
Several times a powerful gust of wind staggered the keeper and threw him against the guard rails of the platform. Twice he was nearly blown into the lake, roaring in a white raging lather upon the stone ledges of Wicked Point beneath his tower.
Beset by heavy seas, blinded by driving snow, swept repeatedly and no doubt taking on water, the Hall struggled on with the Noyes astern. At some point the little steamer was overwhelmed, possibly because of a mechanical failure of some sort, and young George gave orders to cut the tow line. He cut himself adrift abandoning his ship and crew to the storm in the hope of saving his father, brother and the rest of the Hall’s company. In a blinding snow squall the two boats parted with a blast from the whistle of the Hall. Alas, George’s hope was in vain. In the darkness and bitter water the Hall went down taking all nine of her crew with her. Perhaps she iced up. Perhaps she swamped or rolled over. Exactly how she and her crew died that night we can only imagine.
And one can only imagine the thoughts and discussions aboard the Noyes. Before the decision to cut was there debate? Did all agree it was best, their own ship perhaps having a chance to pull through? Once the decision was made, I’d guess the young captain had little time for thought as he had his hands full getting a scrap of sail on in that storm so he could steer his vessel down the lake, running before the northeaster. The crew was probably pretty busy at the pumps and it must have been a long night of roaring wind and savage seas sweeping the decks. Later the wind went north, the temperature dropped and the Noyes began icing up making decks treacherous and freezing the running rigging to make it unmanageable.
To find out what happened to Captain George, the crew and the two dogs you’ll have to read the book!