Since man has used its waters, Lake Erie has claimed countless lives and been the cause of many shipwrecks. Lake Erie is the 11th largest freshwater lake in the world. Though it is the shallowest and smallest by volume of the Great Lakes, she is deadly. The waters are highly unpredictable and can become extremely dangerous in minutes. Due to the lack of records, it is estimated that anywhere between 500-2000 shipwrecks have occurred on Lake Erie. According to the Ohio Sea Grant Project, 277 wrecks have been discovered so far. The cold fresh water of Lake Erie has caused the shipwrecks to be very remarkably preserved. Charles Dickens visited the lake in 1842 and wrote: “Lake Erie won’t do for persons who are liable to seasickness . . . It is almost as bad in that respect as the Atlantic.” Usual strong winds can cause waves up to 13 feet. In early spring an late fall, fog poses a great threat on all the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie.
In the mid-1800s Port Burwell became a very important port on the coast of Lake Erie. In 1843, the dangers of navigation on Lake Erie became recognized. Lighthouses were built and in operation. A temporary lighthouse was made in Port Burwell in the early 1840s. The keeper was J.P Bellairs. A permanent lighthouse was later erected in 1852 due to the horrible loss of lives and ships. Their lighthouse was lit by three fixed guiding lights. One facing southeast, one south, and one southwest. Oil lamps were kept on 24 hours a day. This required 71 gallons of oil and 72 wicks annually. In 1852, Alexander Sutherland was appointed lightkeeper. A job that seemed to get passed down throughout the Sutherland sons for many generations. John Sutherland became lighthouse keeper and harbour master in 1894. He served the harbour for forty-six years. Throughout his time John had seen many storms, wrecks, and vessels from his lighthouse. John was seen as a legend in the community of Port Burwell for his courageous actions beyond the call of duty. For instance, John and his friends beat through icy waters to aid distressed ships during snowy winter days. The average formation of ice in the harbour was 4 and a half inches and pack ice, which are large ice pieces driven together, accumulated to a depth of usually around 4 feet. For this heroic act, he was presented with the Jubilee Medal from Buckingham Palace May 6, 1935. On the day of his superannuation in 1940, he was honored by George VI when the Imperial Service Medal was presented to him. After John Sutherland resigned from his position in 1940, his son took upon the task until his death 7 years later.
Port Burwell during the 1800s was seen by some as a better port than Port Stanley due to it being 18 miles closer to Ohio, where most of the imports and exports were being shipped to and from. The port was a great lumbering center of its time. Lumber would be cut in Vienna and barged down the Otter Creek to the Port Burwell yards. Lumber barges were flat bottomed and hauled by horses to Port Burwell. At times as many as 10 schooners would be loaded with lumber.
The port town made many ships in its booming times. Though all the vessels made in Port Burwell had to be canal-sized due to the depth and width of the Welland Canal. They had a capacity of 300-750 tons of deadweight. Most of the vessels they made carried a weight of 300 tons. It took eight to ten months to build a single ship. Most vessels had a crew made up of 6 to 8 men. When the hull of the ship was completed, it was launched sideways into the canal with the help of greased skids. The construction of wooden hulls in Port Burwell slowly came to an end. Oak was scarce and steel began to rise in popularity. The last large schooner built in Port Burwell was the Hercules in 1875.
Let’s look at some of the vessels that have perished on the waters new Port Burwell. On August 20, 1852, near Port Burwell, 6 miles off Long Point, steamers Atlantic and the Ogdenburg collided. 131 lives were lost. The Atlantic was seen as at fault. It ran across the bow of the propellor of the Ogdenburg and was struck forward of her wheel on the port side. The strange part of the interaction was that after the collision both ships backed off and proceeded on their ways thinking they both got off problem free. Though soon after, the Atlantic stopped. The boiler room had flooded. The ship, at 267 feet in length and 1150 tons began to sink, bow first. The crew was awakened. Panic stricken, they began to fling themselves into the water or run to the stern of the vessel. The Ogdenburg seeing the distress of the Atlantic turned around and picked up 250 survivors. It is said that sixty thousand dollars in gold was on board the Atlantic, being shipped by the Adams Express Company. The supposed treasure has yet to be found. In the same year, on November 10 and 11 a gale sent 55 vessels to their end. In December, winter gales sent down 15 more vessels. The year of 1852 resulted with a total of 296 lives and 229 ship disasters.
Being a sailor on Lake Erie at the time was a risky job. Navigating such greatly unpredictable waters, with important cargo. It was a tiring task which took great knowledge and quick thinking when winds turned quickly. Luckily by 1868, a sailor’s wages were raised to $1.50/day. Equivalent to approximately $54.56 in 2022.
Storms plagued the waters, putting vessels and their crew in dangerous positions. Not only did storms affect those on the water, but it affected the towns along the shore too. In 1835,38, and 42, terrible storms had brewed. One occurred on November 11, 1835. It started with a wind which came from the southwest. It lifted the lake and smashed the waves into the ports on the south side of Lake Erie. The creek at Buffalo immediately rose 20 feet. Sailing vessels were hurled into the main street of Port Burwell, while boats that had managed to remain in the water were crushed under the canal bridge. On the west side of the harbour, homes were swept away, and the occupants drowned. A schooner called the Free Trader left the port for Cleveland with 13 on board. On the lake, she took a blast of wind which capsized the vessel. The boat righted itself and was found after the storm adrift off Dunkirk with 1 passenger alive. Docks and warehouses along the shores were destroyed. In 1838, another storm struck in the month of November leaving many ships destroyed and crew members dead. Again, on November 15th, of 1842, wind blew from the west. Ice, snow, and high winds left 50 ships doomed. 18 of those ships were drove ashore on the northside of Lake Erie. The north side of Lake Erie had little traffic and was mostly wilderness since vessels travelled on the south side of the lake. In October of 1844, the town of Port Burwell was again flooded after winds quickly changed direction. The streets were flooded with 6 feet of water. Many people unfortunately drowned in their beds. This storm tragically took 85 lives. The list of bad storms is continuous. Countless vessels and lives succumbed to the wraths of Lake Erie.
Approximately 24 nautical miles West of Port Burwell on the Northshore of Lake Erie sits Port Stanley. In 1833, the first pier in Port Stanley was built. In 1837, the construction of a second pier was in works. 7 years later it would be finished. By 1856, $190,000 was spent on the harbor alone. Port Stanley was recognized as a very important port. By 1832 steamer Thames began running from Port Stanley and Buffalo, stopping off at other ports like Dover and Maitland in between. Soon after other vessels began running freight and passengers out of Port Stanley. Due to the sudden boom in prosperity, a hotel was opened by Mr. Tomlinson in 1834 called the British North American Hotel. The London & Port Stanley Railway pushed its tracks into Port in 1856, taking advantage of the town’s abundance of facilities. The port saw a large boom of fisheries, cargo ships, human transportation vessels, and tourists arise.
Port Stanley received its first lifeboat sometime in the 1850s. The boat was made in England and constructed of wood and fastened with copper nails and screws. The boat was so heavy it took a crew of 6 men to launch into the water and man with oars. Later a new lifeboat would be made in Collingwood. The first patrol boat was called the Rescue. It began its service in 1866 during the Fenian Raids. The ship was originally used for naval and military purposes. Port Stanley was on its toes prepared for invasion for the reason of it being a valuable shipping port. In 1866, the Fenians captured a British vessel and made raid into Canada. Their first raid came to an end when volunteer militia in the area defeated the group. A second raid took place in 1870, resulting in the defeat of the group for a second time by the volunteer militia. To counteract the threats 4 naval companies were formed. Setting up in Port Stanley, Dunnville, Toronto, and Hamilton. Major John Ellison brought the Port Stanley Marine Company to greatness. A locomotive shed was erected and in service as a drill shed. June 1, 1866, news was received that the Fenians arrived in Dunnville. The men sprung to action. The older men patrolled the docks and lakefront while the younger men were ordered to Sarnia. The Fenians efforts were again squished.
Since 1850 coal has been a very popular item shipped to and from Port Stanley. Shipments of 100 pounds were entering Port due to the demands of the blacksmiths and iron workers. Back in the day it would take a team of men 3 days to unload a ship with 300 tons of cargo. Nowadays that amount can be unloaded in less than a day.
Next, we head 12 nautical miles East to Port Bruce. Known originally as Catfish Harbor for the first 90 years, until it was renamed Port Bruce in 1851, the town was of great importance in the 1840s-1860s. Amasa Lewis began his business of buying grain and shipping it out of the port. He dredged the mouth of the harbor to a depth of 11 feet, erected a large warehouse, and built a 400-foot pier. Port Bruce began to be a popular place to sell grain due to the inexpensive cost of water transportation. Due to the shallow harbour, only small ships could be loaded at the port. Larger ships would partially load in Port Bruce, then sail to Port Stanley, where they would receive the remainder of cargo. At its peak, it became necessary to install a lighthouse. The first lighthouse was a framed shanty with a tripod for the light mounted on the roof. In later years, the lighthouse would be destroyed by heavy waves during a storm. The port was also recognized for their shipment of lumber, cedar shakes, and barrel staves. The wood was manufactured at various mills along the creek. It is said that because of the number of mills, sawdust started to interfere with the marine life. Once the timber of the area started to grow scarce, Port Bruce began to decline.
November 16th, 1869, the schooner Concord was driven into shallow water during a storm. It sank 5 nautical miles north of Port Bruce. Out of a crew of 8, 3 half-frozen crewmen were rescued from her rigging by the propelled steamer BRUNO after clinging to the sinking vessel for 48 hours. Another wreck off the shores of Port Bruce was the Constitution. The Constitution was a wooden 2 mast schooner built in 1835. Carrying coal from Cleveland to Port Stanley, she was driven ashore by a mix of a southwest gale and huge waves. She went down in a fortnight the first week of November 1859 near Port Bruce.
You may have heard of Port Glasgow referred to as Nelly’s Landing, Port Furnival or Knoch-Neilladgh. The port south of Rodney has seen many different names throughout its time though its beauty along the shore stays the same. Port Glasgow shipped many products, one of them being barrel staves. The small town of Taylor had two stave mills which transported the goods to Port Glasgow to be shipped out.
The Mountaineer was a wooden 2 masted schooner that was 58ft long. It ran aground July 3, 1882. A dispatch from Detroit from J.W. Hall Great Lakes Marine Scrapbook, August 1882 claimed the schooner went ashore west of Tyrconnell and struck the dock of the North Shore Mills. In doing so it knocked off between $200 and $300 worth of first-class lumber. The lumber was a total loss as well as the vessel, as there was no insurance on the boat. The Dept. of Marine & Fisheries Statement of the Wreck & Casualty, 1882, reads:” Schooner MOUNTAINEER, of Owen Sound and 20 years old. Bound from Port Stanley to North Mills, stranded after her cables parted, 1 ½ miles west of New Glasgow dock, north shore of Lake Erie on July 3, 1882. The schooner was driven into the shallows and pounded apart by the waves in a southeast gale.”
Back in its bustling days, Tyrconnell was a busy port and fishery. In 1861 a 500 x 30-foot pier was constructed accommodating for large ships using the port. During prohibition, rum runners used Port Talbot’s lack of security to smuggle alcohol to the United States. In the middle of the night a truck would drive up without headlights to drop off a well-wrapped load and sneak away. Once it was gone a boat would slip up and retrieve the alcohol. Eventually rum runners tried this closer to Port Burwell and were caught. Not very talked about is a little jut in the shoreline called Plum Point. The waves around this area were deadly. From children’s drownings to trapped or wrecked cargo ships, that area has taken many lives. Unfortunately, as railroads developed in Port Stanley and people stopped shipping things by boat, the small port towns numbers dwindled. After a while the pier was rendered unnecessary and left to the abuse of the Lake Erie waves.
September 28th, 1872, a wooden 2 mast schooner of 108 feet went down near Tyrconnell. The Cortlandt, was driven ashore in a storm and wrecked. A wrecker was sent to rescue the vessel in mid October. When a steam pump couldn’t empty her, they instead stripped the vessel and abandoned the rest.
-Groton was a 131ft schooner. Originally named Henry Morton but changed to “GROTON” before its launch. It foundered November 11th, 1897, after anchoring 12 miles west of Port Stanley, or in other words outside Port Talbot, in a very strong wind. Known in nautical terms as a gale. The vessel was carrying slack coal from Cleveland, OH, transporting it to London, ONT. The lifesaving crew from Port Stanley took part in the rescue of the crew.
Thank you for listening to the 32nd episode of our podcast! If you have more information about the ports or shipwrecks of the Talbot Settlement, please let us know! Thanks again for listening!