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Wolfe Islander Lost in Snowstorm

Editor’s Note:  This is a chapter in Brian’s upcoming book ‘Ferry Tales from Wolfe Island’.  TI Life is honoured to publish this excerpt and we look forward to telling you more in an upcoming book review.  As always, we thank Captain Johnson who has shared over 30 articles with TI Life over the past six years.


Church Bells and Bonfires

Great anxiety on island. There was no panic however, among passengers. Lead line was used to keep vessel from going on rocks. Steamer America was forced to turn back.

Daily British Whig, December 15, 1916

“William Armstrong was the mate. He used to light the red and green lamps inside so the wind wouldn’t blow the match out. Sometimes he got them backwards when he set them out. ‘What’s the difference,’ he said. ‘They’re both lit!’”

Carmel Cosgrove, SS Wolfe Islander

Wintertime in Kingston Harbour. Breaking waves with blinding snow. A mariners nightmare.

Rolling hard, the paddlewheel steamer SS Wolfe Islander approached Garden Island.

Six snow covered cows, penned-up forward at the bow, swayed to and fro like drunken ballet dancers out of sync, as they bawled in protest at the weather. Two autos with chocked wheels, also snow covered, were parked sideways across the deck. Visibility nil in the blowing snow. Every day that fall of 1916, the relentless south-westerly wind blew incessantly.

The new ferry, Wolfe Islander-ex Tom Fawcett, had been on the Wolfe Island ferry run steady, since her inauguration in 1904.

Captain Allan Macdonald was her captain now. He leaned out the open starboard wheelhouse door to try and get a better view. All he got for his trouble was a face full of snow pellets, for it seemed to be falling everywhere at once. Snow mixed with freezing rain, with a steady rolling sea with flying spray from the south-southwest. Already it started to coat thickly on the windows of the wheelhouse. Captain Macdonald was born and raised on Wolfe Island and was no stranger to this sudden type of weather. As a deckhand he had received his apprenticeship aboard the steamers of the Folger fleet, including the reliable ‘ol Pierrepont, still a favourite with most of the older Islanders.

“There, Cap! Dead ahead!” cried mate Bill Armstrong standing to the steering wheel.

Captain Macdonald leaned out further once more. “The dock?!”

“The point ... I think... The ferry dock... Has to be!”

“Good! Right where it ought ’a be!”

Looming out of the snow flurries, just beyond the rolling bow was an image like a wooden pier. Spotting it as well, the cows started their bawling again, announcing their arrival. “Pull the chain, Bill... here I got the wheel!” Armstrong leaned in and pulled hard upward three times on the signal chain on the right wall of the wheelhouse leading down into the engine room. Engineer Jack Grey answered immediately with the same signal from down below. The paddles stopped and then kicked in full astern.

“All stop!”

Armstrong pulled upward on the chain. The paddlewheels stopped.

“Ahead slow”. One bell.

Both men stared straight ahead as the Garden Island dock drew closer in the flying snow. To compensate the wind, Macdonald gave the wheel a couple of spokes to port as the ferry steamed in at a slight angle, lining-up for a port-side landing. Both men braced as the boat rolled in the swell. “Here Cap, I’ll head down,” he said, handing the wheel over.

“Got ‘er.”

Mate Armstrong and deckhand Herb Sluman threw their mooring lines toward the dock bollard. Both eye splices landed true on the first try. Coming-up on the forward spring, Armstrong took in his slack as the ferry lined-up with the ramp. As she came alongside, people started coming out of the General Store and Post Office, seeking shelter until the ferry landed.

It had been a rough trip all the way up from Breakey’s Bay, on Wolfe Island, where boat and crew had spent the night. Following their departure, she sailed over into the sheltered harbour of Quinn’s Bay on Howe Island for cheese, milk, passengers and freight. Heavily laden with cargo and about 100 passengers, the steamer put out again into the wind and heavy swells.

Every Wednesday the ferry headed down to the foot of Wolfe Island to take cargo and people from both islands to market in Kingston, on Thursday morning.

Visibility poor, Captain Macdonald had ordered soundings taken when Howe Island slipped out of sight behind the starboard quarter. The ship was out of sight of land, and shoal water lurked on both sides especially the area around the Island’s ‘Scottish settlement’ an open bay of Wolfe Island between Oak Point and Abraham Head. Steaming slowly, the crew spotted the ‘Specs’, half a point on the starboard bow. Spectacle Island – there are two – has dangerous water around it as well.

Finally, on a North-westerly course, he picked up the edge of Cedar Island and decided to run her through the narrow gap between Cartwright Point and Whiskey Island. This would allow the boat to ‘come-up’ into the waves as she entered harbour, rather than roll heavy in the south-westerly swell. Coming alongside the pier at Brock St., Capt. Macdonald kept his eye to the weather. As passengers departed and freight was off-loaded, the captain noticed many people walked sideways,carefully up the dock in the blowing snow, holding their hats and coats.

Meantime the crew continued loading for the trip over to Wolfe Island. Six cows were herded up forward and penned off with a plank across their hind ends. Every now and then the snow let up and the outer edge of Garden Island could be seen across the angry waves.

Mate Armstrong opened the dockside door of the wheelhouse and peered in, whiskers white with frozen snow particles. “What’d ya think, Cap?”

“Yeah, let’s give ‘er a try,” Macdonald said. He looked at the clock and noted the time in his log. Half past four it said. “Single-up and let go when I give ‘er a blast.”

“They’re ringing the church bell, Cap” he said. “We should bring her two points to starboard. Wait... steady... the bell seems to be over here.”

“Is it the Catholic church?”

“No... wait... the Methodist... I think...”

“Well, dear God!” Macdonald said. “Which is it? Here, take the wheel. I gott’a be sure.” He leaned out the door and turned his head sideways. “You’re a Methodist, Bill! Don’t you know the sound of your own bell?”

“Begging your pardon, Cap... You’re a Catholic! Don’t you recognize yours?!”

Macdonald leaned farther out the leeward door. “God in heaven, I can’t tell...”

Mate Armstrong opened both windows. Thick, heavy flakes of snow started flying in. “Cap, I think they’re ringing ALL the church bells! The English church, too!” Staring into the white nothingness, while a maelstrom of bells seemed to be ringing from where? Heaven?! There was only one decision.

“Oh God!! Hard over!” Macdonald commanded. “Come about!” Watching the compass, both men slowed the big wheel as she came slowly to NNW by N. Meantime, the deckhands had strung out the lead line and were throwing it out to measure the depth. Steaming slowly, the men picked out Livingston’s Point, fine on the starboard bow. By then, it had started to lift, and they could make out the dock at Garden Island. “OK... Let’s bring ‘er back,” Macdonald said. Slowly she came about again, settling on SSE by S. Macdonald lifted the cap from the voice pipe leading down to the engine room. “Dead slow, Jack,” he called when answered.

The trees could be seen in the village as the steamer started to head in. And then the wind picked up again. Snow too! Blind once more, and then the bells on shore; answered by the cows on board.

“Steer on the furthest bell to port,” Macdonald commanded, peering out the front window, trying to see through the snow. “Its gott’a be the Methodist, don’cha agree?”

Mate Armstrong was starting to get flustered. “I... I can’t really tell... Why’s it matter, Cap?!”

“Because Goose Island’s in front of the other two!!”

It was then both men spotted flames through the heavy snow. Now the bells started to make sense. “Hard-a-port!” Macdonald yelled. “That’s gott’a be the dock!” Armstrong pulled down hard on the spokes to starboard.

Several men on shore had started a fire from coal oil and straw that was handy on the ferry dock. By now they could hear the steamer’s paddles combined with her chorus of cows. Finally, her familiar shape loomed into view. Several threw their hats in the air and cheered as the boat came alongside.

Hardly had the boat docked before the storm lifted and the lights of Kingston could be seen from the Island. The vessel then proceeded to Howe Island, and the people of that island who had friends on the boat and who were worrying lest something happened to them were delighted to hear the well known whistle announcing the approach of the Islander.

Daily British Whig, December 15, 1916


By Brian Johnson, Wolfe Islander III Captain

Brian Paul Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry, Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating 20+ years as Captain.  We 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, held on the island every August.

To see all of Captain Johnson’s article for TI Life, Click Here.

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Joan Russell
Comment by: Joan Russell
Left at: 10:52 PM Sunday, December 14, 2014
Looking fwd to reading the book!
Lynda Crothers
Comment by: Lynda Crothers
Left at: 5:07 AM Monday, December 15, 2014
Ha reading Brian's story as my husband is getting ready to start his morning riding the Wolfe Islander III 5:45 . Love the Ferry stories and the way Brian draws You into the tale. Thanks Brian once again, looking forward to Your book.
Jill Mooers
Comment by: Jill Mooers
Left at: 9:44 AM Monday, December 15, 2014
You always were such a great story teller Brian. Really looking forward to "Ferry Tales"!
Betti Stiff
Comment by: Betti Stiff
Left at: 12:10 PM Monday, December 15, 2014
Fascinating as always!

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