"Little Dan," as he was then known, shipped in her when he was fifteen, and it was in her he rode out the Great Gale of 1880, in port. But he was then wrecked, for the first and last time in his forty years of sailing. Thirty-three men and women drowned in the lake that night, four vessels were completely wrecked and a dozen more damaged.
Cobourg Harbor then differed from the present one. There were lumber wharves and grain storehouses over on the west side, at the foot of Hibernia street, on the long pier which angled over to form the harbor entrance. The lighthouse was on the east pier. Then, as now, a tongue or "T" projected from the east pier, inside, and formed a sheltered basin or inner harbor.
The schooner Blanche from Cat Hollow had loaded barley for Oswego and lay at the west pier, moored outside of the Hannah Butler, which was finishing loading on Saturday, Nov. 6th, 1880. When the Butler was ready to go the Blanche's crew were uptown and the Butler boys didn't relish the risk of shifting her in order to get their own vessel out. Before the Blanche crowd got back it was breezing up and a sea was coming into the restless outer harbor that made both vessels get more lines out instead of taking any in.
The Great Gale of 1880 was on. The sky was black with ragged racing clouds, and the seas came pouring over the west pier in floods. Both schooners got out all the lines they had, and all the fenders they could find. At midnight it was blowing a hurricane, and the lumber piles on the west pier were sailing through the air, the planks upended by the wind and hurtling across the harbor like shingles from an old roof.
Line after line parted as the two vessels hung on to the pier, grinding and creaking and threatening to tear their own timberheads out, and the spiles from the dock. At three o'clock in the morning the captain of the Butler in desperation started three men across the harbor in her ylawlboat to get a big new hawser which he knew was in the basement of a waterfront grocery store. He hoped this strong line, with her anchor chains, might let her ride it out head on to to the gale, if the shaft itself would hold.
There was no tug to get them inside the "T."
Half way across the harbor in a fiercer gust than any yet the yawlboat capsized and filled. The three men in it clung to the gunwale, numb in the November water washing over their heads, and were blown into the corner between the T and the east pier. It was with great difficulty that they dragged themselves up on the piling.
With only two men left the captain could not get more lines out on the pier as the remaining bights parted and in a few minutes the Butler was driving across the harbor sidewise with the Blanche following her.
To save them from dashing themselves to pieces and bringing their spars down on their own decks they were scuttled. Full of water, they lay unmoving alongside the pier, their decks just showing, for the harbor was not very deep at this point.
They were saved $ndash; if the swelling grain in the hold did not burst their sides out and their decks up. The seas in the harbor were not rough enough to sweep off their cabin tops and hatchcovers. The gaff whipped around northwest next day, blowing hard till evening but beating the sea down. The hatches were got off and some of the barley was baled out, and some of it pumped out, into the harbor or on to the wharf, and the two schooners floated again. The farmers who had sold the barley at $1 a bushel on one side of the harbor bought it back at 25 cents a bushel on the other. It was all right for stock feed when dried out, and the cows and horses and chickens of Hamilton township lived high all winter.
This was "Little Dan's" initiation into shipwreck. Thirty-five years later, when he was master and owner of the staunch three-'n'-after Charlie Marshall, of Cobourg, he got a coal cargo for Frenchman's Bay. The place is now a big silted up pond with access from the lake for not much more than those little moths made famous by the Frenchman's Bay Yacht Club. It had been a big grain shipping port and rafting centre, with dozens of vessels calling, but by this day, Aug. 4th, 1915, had dwindled to two piers, one green lighthouse, an empty elevator across the bay half a mile, and an icehouse. It was patronized only by the few remaining stonehookers.
There was still ten feet of water in the channel and as much or more in the harbor, if you knew the way across from the head of the channel, which was blocked by a sandspit, to the remains of the timber-crib in mid-harbor, and thence to the wharf on the east side.
On the way Capt. Rooney passed the old steamer Alexandria, passengers and freight, making heavy weather of the rising sea. He ran the Marshall in between the piers, which ran north and south, and got his lines out on the east pier. Spark's Point to the eastward shelters Frenchman's Bay, and there was reasonably good lying here until the wind should shift to the west and permit him to heave the Marshall around the corner and then across to the timber crib and from there to the wharf.
But the wind kept on blowing from east and south until the piers were choked with in-running seas, and the Marshall was leaping and prancing like the Hannah Butler thirty-three years before. This Butler had already gone the way of all schooner flesh, having been driven ashore on South Bay Point, and bilged so badly that her crew saved only their shirts. They got her out for the last time by crawling out on her main boom which reached to the nearby rocks.
The Charlie Marshall reared and plunged and tore the spiles out of the ancient cribwork and bumped the sandy bottom between the piers, and Capt. Rooney bethought him of how the Butler had fared at Cobourg long before. So he took off his main hatch and crawled across the top of the coal, which, not being a full cargo, did not come up to the deckbeams overhead. With a long ship's auger he bored an inch hole, a few inches below the Marshall's line of flotation. The water spurted in as from a firehose, and the longer it ran the faster it came, for the Charlie Marshall was getting deeper with every gallon.
It did not take much to send her to the bottom, for the bottom was only a foot or so beneath her. Capt. Rooney felt her settle with satisfaction. She bedded quietly in the sand, her deck well above water. Before he turned in that night he sharpened the end of an old broom handle. Bright and early next morning, with the sea gone down, the wind from the westward, and the water between the piers smooth, he lowered his yawlboat, brought it alongside, and drove the broom-handle into the hole he had bored the day before, plugging it tight.
Then he hitched the donkey engine and his whole crew to the two deck pumps, and before dinnertime he had the Marshall floating again and was heaving her across the harbor with the help of the west wind. The coal was a little wet, that was all.
But the poor Alexandria leaking and laboring in the open lake had to be run on the beach off the Highlands of Scarboro, opposite the Markham road. She went to pieces after everybody had been taken off and her cargo had been strewn on Toronto Island. And there her boilers are yet, a rusty reminder of disaster, if some war salvage drive has not reclaimed them.
Gull Island, Duck Island, Peter Rock
Oct. 18th, 1943.
Sir, In your article in The Evening Telegram of the 16th inst. – most interesting as it is to old Cobourgers like me – speaks of the "Gull Light."
I was born on a farm on "the Port Hope Gravel Road," the southern boundary of the first concession of the Township of Hamilton, April 6th, 1852, and spent my boyhood there, a short distance of the lighthouse to the east, and can assure you that it was not known as the Gull Rock Lighthouse, but as the Gull Island Lighthouse. Immediately north of it was the pond known as Duck Harbor, where I shot my first wild duck.
I can assure you, also, that no Cobourger would tolerate the spelling "Coburg," quoted from the Bartlett engraving's title.
I saw the Countess of Dufferin launched – it was financed by Colonel Gifford – but unless my recollection is wholly at fault, it was at the west not the east side of Cobourg Harbor.
I should have been glad if you, speaking of the Light, had said something of those who looked after it – George Roddick and his son "Bob".
W. H. Bartlett, who made the drawing of the lighthouse during his Canadian tour between 1836 and 1840, did not show, and did not name, any island. The inscription is "Light Tower Near Coburg, Lake Ontario." The name Gull Island appears in official correspondence regarding the proposed lighthouse in 1836. At one time the name Duck Island was used. On some charts "Peter Rock" is given as the name of the light.
"Duck Island" as a name corroborates the Hon. Mr. Riddell's reference to a pond north of the lighthouse being known as Duck Harbor. There is a reference in an early account of travel in Upper Canada, in 1817, to a "new harbor" having been recently found east of Smith's Creek (Port Hope), and considered preferable to the latter at that time. This may have been formed by the emergence of Gull Island and the mile long bar which connects it with the mainland. Nothing can be seen now of either bar or island, except the lighthouse and its base, but that there must have been a noticeable appearance of rock and soil is evident from Atkin's "Pocket Compass," a Lake Ontario pilotage book published in Oswego in 1871. It says:
"Midway between Cobourg and Port Hope, Gull Island Shoal exists. It is two miles in length and one mile from the shore and is often bare. To guide the mariner against running on this dangerous ground a lighthouse is built upon it, 45 feet high, showing a fixed bright light and on a clear night can be seen from 16 to 20 miles."
That's a great deal farther than the present Gull Light can be seen, and it is doubtful if it ever has been visible twenty miles except by mirage, but it is evident that at the time the shoal and island were much more visible than now.
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