Toronto Telegram, November 26, 1932
Schooner Days LXIII (63)
By C.H.J. Snider
It was seventy-eight years ago last Thursday—November 24th, 1354—that Abigail Becker rescued the crew of the schooner Conductor, wrecked on Long Point, Lake Erie, and thus unconsciously, but most worthily carved her name at equal height with that of Grace Darling. Quite properly the name of Abigail survived the names of the lost ship and saved crew. But the anniversary this week, following the November snow-storms of the week before, makes the less heroic details of the wreck itself seem a fitting subject for these humble columns. What is given below has been gleaned from various sources.
LATE in November, 1854, the schooner Conductor was boiling down Lake Erie with two men sweating at the wheal and a cargo 8,000 bushels of corn for Toronto under hatches. She was making the best time she could before a screaming sou’wester, because if the Welland Canal froze up on her, as it might any day, the voyage could not be completed.
The corn had been laden at Amherstburg, Ontario, according to some accounts, at Cleveland, Ohio, according to others, and it may have been up at both places. Grain cargoes were often gathered at a dozen . This corn was insured at $5,000, and the Conductor herself at $4,000. All of which would indicate that the Conductor was not a large vessel, even for her time.
If memory of forty years back is correct the High School Reader or 1886 had a note on the Abigail Becker lesson—the last in the book—speaking of the Conductor as American, and that may be correct. Possibly an “American bottom,” trading on both sides of the boundary. She is said to have been owned in Amherstburg by a merchant named McLeod. Certainly a majority of her crew were Canadian. The Buffalo lithograph of the strapping Ms. Becker, Bible, medal, big capable hands and all, produced herewith, gives the “names of persons save” thus: This lithograph used to be as prevalent in the lake shore homes as the Landseeresque engraving of Grace Darling rescuing the passengers of the Forfarshire with a dental-cream smile on her sweet face.)
Henry Beckett, master, Canadian.
James Cousen, seaman, Canadian.
J. McCauley, seaman, Canadian.
John Homes, mate, American.
Jerome, seaman, American.
Ha! exclaims Hawkshaw. Only six, and in the High School reader, Miss Amanda T. Jones distinctly said seven!
“For sink or swim, seven men must die
If we swing here to-night.”
Worse than that, Hoxy old top. We are informed and verily believe that the captain was not Henry Beckett, but Hank Hackett, whose brother had the big lake tug Home Rule long afterwards.
But the other names are probably correct, and the reason only six are given is that only six apparently responded to Mrs. Becker’s advice to take a jump In the lake. The seventh gentleman waited until the walking had improved. As you will hear.
Having thus dared question the poetess’ count, may we, still more greatly daring, wonder whether the wind, the wind, where Erie plunged, did blow, blow, nor’-east, from land to land that night of November 23rd? Because in a nor’-easter Long Point, spearing out easterly into the lake for twenty miles, gives a lee and safe shelter for vessels bound down Lake Erie. It is hard to see how the Conductor came to grief there, unless she missed the point altogether and got turned around in the snowstorm and drove in on the landward edge of the lancet-shaped peninsula.
N. Tourmeau says “a hurricane blew up out of the south-west about five o’clock In the afternoon, and all the canvas was snugged down, the vessel driving before the gale,” and we believe him.
The Conductor had a square topsail, and this, close-reefed, was able to keep her headed before the wind and sea. But on towards midnight the topsail sheets, chains drawing the goosewings of the sail down to the yardarms, carried away, and in less than a minute the topsail had flogged itself to ribbons and vanished on the gale. With its departure the Conductor go out of hand. She broached to, falling into the trough of the billows, and seas bursting aboard stove her bulwarks, and made a clean sweep of everything on deck. She had two boats, an unusual equipment for a small schooner, and they were beaten into staves. Her new lashed themselves fast to ring-bolt and stanchions to keep from being swept overboard. The wheel was abandoned, in the words of Masefield:
“She wouldn’t lay to,
Nor yet pay off,
And she got swept clean,
In the blood trough,
Her spars was gone -“
No, not quite that last yet. The masts were still in her. She wallowed aimlessly “in the midnight and the snow,” pushed by the raving sou’-wester down Lake Erie all the time; and at four o’clock in the morning she bumped the bottom a few miles west of the tip of Long Point. Had the gale given her the chance she might have cleared the point and driven on for another forty or fifty miles before fetching up; that is, if she kept afloat.
Where she struck was about 200 yards from the normal shoreline, but with Lake Erie fleeing before the scourging gale, the water was pushed up fathoms high, and Long Point was flooded for a quarter of a mile inshore.
This made no difference to the despairing crew, for in the snow and the darkness they could see neither light nor land, and they did not know where they were. They cast off their lashings which held them to the bulwarks and clambered as high as they could into the ice-laden rigging And there, as Miss Jones says, "all night they swung."
And all next day.
It was two' o'clock In the afternoon before the blizzard cleared. Then the crew in the rigging, sleepless, foodless, and freezing, saw a tall woman and two little boys fighting their way against the wind along the shore. The seas were breaking around the schooner on the bar, but they spread in flood high up the beach, sucking back in swift recoil and then charging madly forward again In reinforced battalions of billows.
“And, oh the gale! The rout and roar!
The blinding drift, the mounting wave
A good half-mile from wreck to shore With seven men to save!
Up shallow steeps
Raced the long white-caps, comb
The wind, the wind, that lashed the
Far, far it blew the foam.
“The frozen foam were scudding by -
Before the wind, a seething throng,
The waves came towering high
They burst in clouds of flying
spray - “
The woman was Abigail Becker - big-limbed lass of twenty-three, six feet in her stockings and fifteen pounds of muscular feminity. She had married Jeremiah Becker, a trapper when she was seventeen and she had now nine children to look after - three babies of her own and six steep-children. She lived, bless her, to mother nineteen in all, her own, her step-children, and adopted children. Her husband had crossed to the mainland the day before to get supplies, and the south-west gale prevented his return.
Through their glazed eyes the Conductor crew could just make out the figures on the sand. Mrs. Becker was gesticulating and shouting, but it was only when she rushed in the water up to her waist and waved her arms that they understood the message. She was urging them to try to swim ashore.
A sudden gleam among the sand emphasized her purpose of rescue. She had lighted a bonfire to dry herself and them. The little boys helped her drag driftwood and pile it high; some of the Conductor’s own bulwarks, blazing on the beach, beckoned to her perishing crew. And again this heroic woman waded waist deep into the billows to wave her message.
As the day waned the captain concluded that between freezing by night and drowning by day there was little choice. He swung off and rode a tremendous billow shoreward like a Hawaiian surf-coaster, but caught by the undertow he was torn lake-ward again; and then hurled towards the shore.
He would surely have perished in the ceaseless war of bills and undertow had not Mrs. Becker, “wading out till the water was up to her mouth,” waited for his next approach, seized him, and held him. They were both beaten many times by the undertow, which caught their feet and threw them face downwards, but this wonder-woman with her two boys tugged the captain up beyond high-water mark to the bonfire.
The Johnny Jones, the Conductor’s mate, swung off from the masthead. The same terrible rode on the combers, the same maelstrom of undertow. The captain, still coughing up lake water and sand, gasped “No woman can go through what you’ve done twice!” And waded out to help the man. The gripped. They whirled away. Both went under. Mrs. Becker strode in again, “till the water was up to her mouth,” watched for their approach, and staggered southwards with both men on her shoulders.
She could not swim. That was why she stopped “when the water was up to her mouth.” But she could lift!
Then came four of the crew, one by one, swinging off for the leap for life; each almost drowned, each dragged up the beach by the great-hearted, great-handed mother of many.
One man still remained in the rigging. This was the cook. Like Mrs Becker, he could not swim, but unlike Mrs. Becker, he dared not try.
The children had been sent back to the Becker cabin, and returned with food and blankets. All night the bonfire blazed, with the rescued crew huddled around it, and Abigail Becker in her frozen cotton dress striding up and down the beach in ceaseless vigil, peering into every bursting billow for a dark spot Indicating a drowning sailor, and seeing none.
The wind ceased ere midnight. The tramp of the surf up the beach lessened, and lessened, and lessened. Ere morning a breeze offshore flattened out the sullen roaring. By daylight the shallow lake was smooth—and there, within two hundred yards of the new shoreline, hung the battered hulk of the Conductor, with one mast left standing and one mast still, oh, very still, in the rigging.
Capt. Hackett and hie crew, with Mrs. Becker's help, built a raft from the wreckwood. On this they pushed off, poling their way out to the schooner. Their frozen shipmate was alive, but unable to help himself. He had to be cut from the shrouds. He, too, was brought to the bonfire and thawed out. Then all stumbled and staggered to the Becker cabin, and here the seven men and their heroic hostess and her nine children, huddled on short rations for six days, until Trapper Becker broke his way through the ice of Long Point Bay with relief from the farther shore.
The name of the last man rescued is not known. A certain Capt. Barr urged Whittier to write a poem about the incident, saying he was one of the rescued. He may have been the "last to leave the ship.” Whittier passed up the opportunity, and wrote a magazine article about It. Perhaps, with Longfellow’s “Wreck of thee Hesperus” in mind, he shunned comparisons. Amanda T. Jones took up challenge the event in the Century Magazine, and it his her poem which has fixed the image in the hearts most who have gone to High School. It is a long poem, with many good lines and some not so good. Its detail, such as the northeast gale, may be open to question, but its spirit is fine.
The wind may blow nor’, sou’, east, west, and by and by may blow some more. But it will never blow out Abigail Becker’s torch of heroism lighted on Nov. 24th, 1854.
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