Islanders Tuesday crossed and re-crossed the fairly narrow strip of water where the accident occurred.
...one or two stranded on the mainland swore they weren’t going to cross until the Wolfe Islander took her first trip…
Kingston Whig Standard, March 20, 1946
Seventy years ago this week, the community of Wolfe Island suffered one of their worst tragedies on the St. Lawrence River of the last century. It happened east of the village of Marysville just off the white lighthouse near Brophy’s Point.
The first sign of an early spring, was the tell-tale opening of the narrow channel, just below the Spectacle Islands, to the north east of Brophy’s Point, on Wolfe Island. Open water also has a peculiar smell; it carries a life of its own and every Wolfe Islander can feel it carried in by the wind. It also means a treacherous time, for crossing to the mainland, has once again come around. The ice, which had been in place since early December, provided the necessary bridge to the mainland and providing a link to Kingston. Early winter, just after the ferry tied up for the season, was a dangerous time. So too, was an early spring.
Old ice took on a grey, sickly appearance. Slush holes poked through here and there and could only be spotted by a well trained eye. Did the hole go all the way through, or was it only part way down, to another layer of ice? No longer safe enough to support a horse and buggy, it was still too thick in most places for the ferry to break a path. Islanders would pick their way out into the bay, sometimes even meeting the ferry, out by Garden Island in a small boat called a Sharpie or ice punt.
This type of sturdy craft had been around ‘almost forever’, according to many islanders. It carried freight, milk cans, cheese crates and people, if there was room. Long poles fastened to the boat’s gunwales, straddled the boat athwartships, that is, they poked outward from the boat’s sides, so that ‘runners’ could push the boat over areas of soft ice, then climb aboard and row, if they broke through a soft spot. The runners had to be prepared for a cold dunking, which could and did happen anytime.
In the early spring of 1946, a small area of the River, just below Oak Point, on Wolfe Island and the south shore of Howe Island, just below Hickey’s Point, was now clear of ice. This meant the long, harsh winter was nearly over. Crossing over to Kingston was getting dangerous too. Even Tricky McDermott was staying off the ice now. By mid-March, a narrow, open channel also became clear, from Abraham Head, including Brophy’s Point on the island, almost all the way across, stopping just short of Colin Roger’s farm, in Pittsburgh Township on the mainland.
Leon ‘Moose” McDermott and Bobby White took advantage of this short crossing and began a ferry operation using a twenty foot, flat bottomed pointed-nose ice boat, commonly known as a Sharpie. White had the Government mail contract for Wolfe Island, so he was a steady user of the boat since the ice became too soft.
Monday afternoon, March 18, Richard Fawcett was returning home to Wolfe Island from Kingston, making his way down Highway 2, eastward to Colin Roger’s farm. The trip over to town that morning had been cold, with a northwest wind blowing, throwing spray over the sides of the small boat. Rowing against the wind had been hard work. Especially with several cheese boxes and eight full cans of cream also aboard. By mid-afternoon, the northwest wind had turned brisk; small whitecaps were forming on the ever widening channel out on theRiver. By the time he arrived at the boat, Fawcett was about ninth or tenth in the line of men, waiting to return to the island. Also included in the load for the trip were several cartons of groceries, with each man as well as several empty milk cans and a heavy sack of mail. Leon McDermott was sitting at the stern and, shifting his weight over to the side, called to Fawcett, “Sorry ‘RF’, unless you climb up on the cans we got no more room.”
Four runners, backing the boat carefully into the water, climbed aboard and each man took an oar, if it was available. In the seemingly crowded craft were pilot Leon McDermott, Bobby White, brothers George and Gerald Alarie, Howard Cummins, Keith McCready, John Lacey and Clarence ‘Buck’ Adair. Paddling carefully, they turned the high bow southward now, directly across to Wolfe Island. Once the rowers got their rhythm going, the little boat started to cross and began to rock gently in the swell.
The two Alarie brothers sitting forward had been bailing since they left. Sixteen-year-old Gerald Alarie laid his dipper down for a minute and rubbed his hands to try and get his blood flowing. “Boy, that water’s cold,” he remarked to his brother, seated just ahead. Meantime, the cold water continued to splash aboard. Slowly, ever so slowly, it continued to rise, creeping up over the middle floor boards. Leon McDermott, sitting at the stern and steering with the tiller, felt uneasy. The boat felt sluggish as the waves increased. Cupping his hands, he called forward, rising his big frame slightly over the tall milk cans.
. The boat felt sluggish as the waves increased. Cupping his hands, he called forward, rising his big frame slightly over the tall milk cans.
“Bail some of that out, will ya? Yeah, you guys forward there.”
“Toss me up that dipper,” someone shouted, up toward the bow.
“Here, can you reach for it?” Two men, on the same side stood up, one with the dipper in his hand, the other, stretching over the milk cans, reached to take it. Just then, the sloshing water flowed hard against the lower side. The other six men quickly stood up and leaned to the high side. As a result, the quick momentum of the added weight shifted everything to starboard. Milk cans, groceries, passengers and a lot of shifting bilge water, rolled like a pendulum in slow motion. Young Bobby White, twenty-five and father of four, went over the side first.
Over on Wolfe Island, up from the shoreline, Wilfred Hogan and Claytus Gurnsey were hard at work, building a new dock on Brophy’s Point. In between the hammering, Clayt could hear a commotion out on the water, just a short distance away. He looked up and out at the River, just as the small boat turned over. “Hey Wilf! He yelled, “The damned boat just flipped over!” Wilfred Hogan, on his feet now, looked out at the flailing arms around the floating milk cans.
“Help, help…” cried the voices, almost in unison.
Clayt Gurnsey looked quickly around the shoreline. Just over the way, beyond the lighthouse and partially hidden by a clump of trees, was a box shape that looked like a hull of an overturned boat. “That scow there, just up on shore. We’ll pull it in. C’mon.” Running hard for the old boat, the two men buried their fingers under the rim of the same side. Pulling upward, the old boat felt like it weighed a ton, as they wrestled to turn it over. Still frozen to the ground, the timbers creaked and groaned in protest, but it refused to budge. “The horses,” Wilf yelled. “Clayt, we gott’a use the horses. It’s too heavy.”
As the Sharpie started to turn over, men grabbed at anything they could to steady themselves, including each other. It was too late. The terrifying momentum of a capsizing boat was well beyond the point of no return, as men, freight, milk cans, oars and everything not nailed down, hit the freezing water. The shock of the cold water drew everyone’s breath away, as the continuing motion of the rolling boat dragged everyone under the surface. Underwater, it was a maelstrom of bubbles, flailing arms and legs amidst a tangle of boxes, sinking cargo and empty milk cans shooting to the surface. Those that could see, followed the bubbles up toward the sunlight and the surface. Those who couldn’t, continued to thrash about, grabbing frantically for anything in the blackness.
Bobby White, caught under the rim of the overturned boat, felt a huge hand grab him by the scruff of his collar. Panic struck him and White tried to fight him off. That same hand belonged to Leon ‘Moose’ McDermott, who now pulled White up to the surface. Clinging to the edge of the boat, McDermott reached down and grabbed another body just under the surface, though this one was much heavier. Losing his grip on the man’s shirt McDermott dove under the surface and grabbed hold of Jack Lacey under his arms. Swimming up toward the surface, Lacey started to go limp and didn’t really help himself at all. Breaking the surface, both men began to cough and struggled to climb up onto the overturned boat. Fingers, numb with cold, continued to slip and slide, trying to hold onto anything solid.
Back on shore Gurnsey and Hogan worked frantically to get the scow into the water. A line was thrown around the end of the boat and the horses, one on each side, pulled the boat down into the water. “The oars,” Bill yelled from the far side. “Clayt… there’s no oars or paddles! Finding scraps of lumber nearby, both Gurnsey and Hogan began to paddle out into the rough River, to do what they could.
Breaking the surface, George Alarie started to call out for his brother, but found he had no voice. Too far from the overturned boat, he struck out for shore, weighted down heavily by his boots and winter clothing. He went under once, but came up, coughing and spitting, trying to get his breath in the ice cold water. Nearby, Clarence ‘Buck’ Adair had just surfaced and was calmly swimming on his back toward shore, but having trouble keeping his head above the breaking waves. Between them, Howard Cummins had just surfaced beside the boat and began to panic, thrashing about wildly. His numb fingers reached out to try and grab the inside gunnel, but it sank down dragging him with it. Surfacing once more, Cummins was now a few feet away from the boat and in serious trouble. Just beside the boat, Keith McCready let go and struck out to help the struggling Cummins. Reaching him, McCready tried to grab a piece of his shirt but Cummins, eyes wide with fright, grabbed onto McCready, dragging them both under. Sinking fast, McCready kicked free and breaking the surface, pushed a nearby floating cream can towards Cummins. Clutching a handle, Cummins appeared to calm down, while McCready looked about for the others. He spotted the boat paddling fast towards their position, but from his low point, with the waves breaking over his head, couldn’t see anything else. Hanging onto the edge of the overturned boat, he reached out to hang onto the scow, now pulling alongside. “C..Cummins… seen him?”
“Hang on,” Clayt said, leaning far out over the boat’s gunnel. Holding one hand tightly to the centre thwart, Clayt pulled McCready upward by his belt. A bit more leverage was needed. “Gimme your hand, Keith… Okay… I got ya…” Hand over hand and carefully balancing the boat, Clayt Gurnsey helped Keith McCready aboard. Nearby just up forward, Wilf Hogan was pulling Bobby White in, while Leon McDermott hung onto the side. Carefully, both men balanced the weight while pulling Jack Lacey into the boat. Both Lacey and White laid down low in the boat, their eyes staring out at nothing, while water poured from their clothes, forming large pools around them. Their skin pallor was almost blue. First one, then the other started to tremble uncontrollably, with cold and shock. Quickly, Gurnsey and Hogan pulled Leon McDermott safely aboard.
Keith McCready’s eyes swept the River, toward shore. “The others,” he sputtered out between chattering teeth, “did… did you get them?”
“We didn’t see anybody,” Wilf Hogan said, turning to paddle with his piece of wood. He stopped abruptly and stared back at McCready. “What others?”
“How many were aboard?” Clayt Gurnsey yelled, turning to look out at the black water. Nothing but white capped waves mixed with floating pieces of ice from the upper field. Waves pounding against an overturned boat, with a lot of floating debris mixed about. Gurnsey started to stand up but was coaxed to sit down by the others. “N...no Clayt… that’s how, how it happened…”
“Who is still out there?” Wilf asked Leon McDermott.
Looking around, McDermott was confused for a full minute. Suddenly he started shaking his head. “Others?” he could barely talk. “I think there were three or maybe four…”
“Oh my God,” Wilf said. “We can’t leave them, Clayt.” Looking out at the waves, Hogan cupped his hands around his mouth, “Hello! Hello out there! Sing out… Sing out, will ya?” Nothing. No voices called back. Nothing but rolling waves and bobbing debris.
“Paddle for shore, Wilf,” said Clayt Gurnsey. “We gott’a get these men ashore and get help. We’ll come back out.”
Word of trouble or tragedy spreads quickly on Wolfe Island. People started to gather on the rocky shore, to help in any way that they could. As the large scow came ashore, the tethered team were already to transport the half-drowned men to shelter and safety. With a quick slap on the reins, the team took the half-drowned men to Frank Fawcett’s farm, the first residence, almost two miles away, through thick brush and thawing mud.
Climbing back aboard, this time with proper oars found from the Sharpie, Clayt Gurnsey and Wilf Hogan were joined by other volunteers and rowed out to the overturned boat, calling out as they went. Hooking on to the half sunken Sharpie, they pulled alongside and lifting the one side leaned out to look underneath. Nothing. Letting go, the half-submerged craft then settled lower into the water, gasping out air like a dying sea creature. Rowing around the floating debris the men searched frantically for a floating shirt, cap, anything. Looking down into the blackness revealed nothing either. Pulling the overturned boat behind them, the men started to row toward the coal lanterns and bonfire, started alongside the lighthouse. Night was falling and the wind was getting up. Several men decided to stay, keeping a vigil by the firelight. Soon, there was nothing more to be seen, only the sound of the wind, through the boughs of the trees, and the ever constant swish, swish of the waves, rolling up onto the shore.
The search continued up until Tuesday night by 50-60 islanders, in different boats, until the bodies of Gerald (19) and George (22) Alarie, Howard Cummins (21) and Clarence Adair (38) were found and brought ashore. Dr. Ken Regan crossed by Sharpie Tuesday, to attend to the survivors. On Thursday and Friday, March 21 & 22, Sacred Heart Church was packed, as funerals were held for the Alarie brothers, Clarence Adair and Howard Cummins.
By Brian Johnson, Retired Captain Wolfe Islander III
Brian Paul Johnson is a recently retired captain of the Wolfe Island Car Ferry, “Wolfe Islander III.” He worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years. He also often see him pass-through the islands as Captain of the “Canadian Empress.”
Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area, he has written for the “Kingston Whig Standard,” “Telescope Magazine,” the “Great Lakes Boatnerd” and the website: “Seaway News”.
Brian co-edited “Growing up on Wolfe Island”, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Mystery Writer’s Festival. To see all of Captain Johnson’s articles for TI Life, Click Here.
|“The Brophy’s Point Tragedy, March 18, 1946” is a version of a chapter in Brian Johnson’s “Ferry Tales,” his new book to be published shortly.|