January 13, 2001

Great Lakes historian Richard Palmer, columnist for the quarterly publication Inland Seas, suggested that winter time, finding many of us cozying up to a crackling blaze, might be a good time for an old fashioned storm on the Lakes tale. He's pulled a number of these from old newspaper accounts. The following happened in 1886.

As the runners on his sleigh whispered through the blowing, drifting snow in the darkness and the fierce early December winds off Lake Ontario threatened to overturn the vehicle, the correspondent from the Oswego, New York, Palladium must have had to fight hard to keep from shivering. By the time he reached the Whitney farm, 12 miles out of town and a mile from the lake, he must have wondered if it was possible to be any colder. The men he would interview there in the morning could reassure him that it was very, very possible.

Their vessel, the schooner Ariadne, sailed from Bath, Ontario, near Kingston, on Friday, November 26th, loaded with 10,000 bushels of barley. On board was captain Hugh McKay of Toronto, his 68-year-old father Southerland McKay, acting as first mate, and crewmen Charles Dean, Edward Mulligan, Maurice Young, and Thomas Cox. High winds kept them hugging the Canadian coast over the weekend. An attempt to cross on Monday was unsuccessful, but Tuesday brought a beautiful day and the Ariadne set off across the lake. But the Lakes are not to be trusted, especially late in the season, and twenty miles off shore the sky darkened and snow began falling. It was six that evening when they sighted the Oswego light. The winds were now gale force. The men on deck could see the harbor breakwater but were unable to make landfall. The Ariadne had been spotted from shore and lifesaving crews sent up rockets as the steam whistles of tugs sounded into the wind. Unable to land, the crew fought to hold their position, as their jib broke away from the bowsprit. With three feet of water in the hold and the pumps frozen solid, maneuverability was deteriorating. The loss of the mainsail and the fore-gaff then left the vessel to the non-existent mercy of the lake. She went aground on a reef named Drowned Island, was dragged off several hours later, fetching up on the beach. Rescuers fought near impossible conditions to bring in the three survivors, who were then whisked off in a sleigh to the Whitney house and put to bed, thoroughly exhausted. It was there the Palladium reporter found and, the following morning, interviewed them, learning the details.

As the ship neared the reef everyone had crowded into the cabin and fastened the door. Within half an hour the top of the cabin was suddenly ripped off and the six men hauled themselves up into the rigging, which was coated with three inches of ice and were soon themselves encrusted. The mainmast was the next to be carried away, jamming into the foremast, tangling men and wreckage into a gigantic snarl. All but the captain made it into the fore-rigging. A wave took him over the side, the last time he was seen alive. The five that remained made their way to the bow, huddling beneath the icy waves that continuously swept over it. Charles Dean was the next to go, freezing to death at the feet of his shipmates, becoming one with the icy deck. Old McKay went next, in the same way, but not quickly. Cox told the story. "He first became blind and then deaf and raved at times like a maniac. Just before he became quiet he turned his face up and said 'Tell my poor wife how I died, and that my last thoughts were of her.' The last name he spoke was the name of his wife. His body also froze close to our feet." Cox concluded that as the life boat reached the wreck, "Mulligan was insensible and would have died in ten minutes."

A tale to remember if we ever get to ride that fast ferry. For Classical 91.5 and 90-point 3, this is David Minor


© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte

NOTE: The title is a quote from King Lear.



For us in the Northern Hemisphere (those of you south of the line can check this site when your turn comes six months from now) winter storms are very much on our minds in January and February. Storms are celebrated in legend, song, and memory. We remember 1816, the year without a summer, or the Blizzard of '88 (1888 that is). The story of these two, as well as a number of others, can be found at the Weather Channel's Winter Storm Page -

http://www.weather.com/encyclopedia/winter/history.html .

You'll find the Blizzard of 1899 ,"...probably the first and only time true blizzard conditions existed in the state of Florida.". Or the Presidents Day Storm of February 22, 1979 in which a snowfall in Baltimore, Maryland, at one point was dumping snow at a rate of 5 inches an hour. Of course you may want to wait and visit this site next summer, when the mercury is popping the top off the thermometer. In any case...chill out!


© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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