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Captain James Ross Sinclair… a family discovery

This story begins in the winter of 2009. My wife Amanda, and I had started with the Eaglescliffe Hall’s bell and the memories and stories of my father-in-law, Ross Sinclair. Several dozens emails and months later, we had a story and a history!

Thousand Islands Life played a role in this, and therein lies the story. First there was Captain Brian Johnson’s article, in Captain Davis Recalls the Ships TI Life in January 2010.  Late nights led to a long-distance call which led to a long road trip with my wife and two children, to Kingston, Ontario where we met Captain Leath Davis. Our time with Captain Davis gave us an insight into a man who we only knew as a picture.

Our story…

“I remember being in the wheelhouse and my grandfather telling me to ring it to call the crew to dinner.” It was a childhood memory that my father-in-law, Ross Sinclair, would recall, happily, and one that began an obsession with research for my wife and I.

It was the timing bell from the Eaglescliffe Hall, which was built in 1928 at Smithʼs Docks, Teeside, Middlesborough, England. She was one of ten ships commissioned by the Hall Corporation of Montreal, QC, Canada in 1927 and one of four sailed by Captain James Ross Sinclair, my wife’s great-grandfather.

Sinclair was born on Christmas Day, to Scottish immigrants, at Laskay, Ontario, in 1896 . He chose, not to follow in his father’s footsteps as a farmer, but instead follow the lead of his brother-in-law Captain William Ransom, taking to the ships and the allure of the Great Lakes. At sixteen, Ross joined the Hall Corporation of Canada.

While Ross was learning his trade, his mentor William Ransom returned from a six-year hiatus after the death of his teenage son. This was the first of many family stories we went on to discover. On August 17, 1926, Captain Ransom in charge of the John C. Howard II was in passage in Lock 8 of the Welland Canal when his son, Reaney age 14, went for a swim in the sluice lock. The boy who was not a strong swimmer, quickly became caught in the undertow and was pulled to the bottom. Captain Ransom was not to return to the ships until the spring of 1931 when he took command of the Aycliffe Hall.

It was then that the unfortunate luck of the Aycliffe began. The Aycliffe had been docked at Montreal, with her cargo of grain. On May 21, Captain Ransom received a call from his crew requesting his assistance in removing some of the them from a local pub. Upon his arrival a street fight ensued in which Ransom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He died, and one Jack Thomas, a former professional boxer, was held criminally responsible for his death.

The Aycliffe was now without a Master. Ross, in 1929, had attained his Master’s certificate and he was given the Aycliffe’s wheel that fateful week, taking his first of seven ships that were to follow, out onto the Great Lakes. Ross captained the Aycliffe for the next four years until her luck ran out in 1936.

She was in passage to Collingwood from Sorel, Quebec in ballast when at 4:50 am on the eleventh of June in heavy fog, she was rammed by the American steamer Edward J. Berwind 18 miles southwest of Port Colborne in Lake Erie. Her 253 feet and empty holds were no match for the fully loaded 12,000 ton, 586 foot steamer. She came to rest 72 feet down with her port side aft hold ripped open. Fortunately, the Master and all nineteen crew were picked up, by the Berwind, and taken to Buffalo, NY.

Sinclair then took charge of the Eaglescliffe Hall (253 feet) and was her Master until she was lent to the British Navy, in 1940. On the 5th of October she was one of 43 ships in a convoy which headed for England. On the 21st, she was one of the 24 to make it, the other 19 having been sunk by German U-boats.

After being relieved on the Eaglescliffe, Captain Ross did a short stint on the George L. Eaton in 1940 before taking the wheel of the Meadcliffe Hall in the same year. It was here that he took on a young deckhand by the name of Leath Davis.

Leath Davisʼ time on the Meadcliffe Hall began in 1947 as a deckhand under Captain Ross and for the following five years, they worked together on the Northcliffe Hall. “He was a fine ship handler,” recalled Captain Davis, “though he didn’t like weather.”

Caught in a storm and 3 days behind schedule, during a crossing of Lake Superior, Leath was summoned to the wheelhouse. Ross asked me how we should cross, “A good Captain would go straight down the middle.”, was my response, .” A day or two later, after being tossed all over the deck, they made the other side of the lake. Again, Leath was called up to the wheelhouse. “Last time Iʼll ever listen to you.” He said to me, Leath remembers with a smile. “He worked me hard. We didnʼt get paid overtime in those days but he always made sure he took care of me.”

Leath recalled the time when they left Windsor, for Montreal. Captain Ross, only hours out of port, realized he was out of cigarettes. “It was an interesting journey and when we arrived in Montreal, he had me headed to the store before the lines were out. On my return, we opened the hatches and found many cartons of cigarettes. We all had a good laugh, except the Captain. He was not impressed.”

Ross captained the Meadcliffe until 1947 when he passed it over to Henry Davis, Leath’s father.

If one’s career, as a master mariner, was judged by the number of ships he took out on their maiden voyages, then the remaining years of Captain Sinclair’s time with the Hall Corporation were spent with him being held in high regard by his employers.

In 1947, the Hall Corporation commissioned Canadian Vickers Ltd. of Montreal with the building of a 252 foot canaller, mirroring those built by the Smithʼs Docks. Captain Ross took the Northcliffe Hall out of dock in Montreal in the spring of 1948 and handed her over in 1953.

Another was commissioned in 1954, the Eastcliffe Hall again a mirror image of the previous canallers. She sailed from Montreal in 1954 with Captain Ross at the helm, where he stayed for the following two seasons. Captain Rossʼ last charge was the Westcliffe Hall II, built in 1957 by the Grangemouth Dockyard Co. in Scotland. Launched in the spring and after undergoing a tow across the Atlantic, she was taken out on her maiden voyage at the opening of the shipping season from Montreal. He sailed her until the spring of 1960.

Captain James Ross Sinclair passed away on the 15th day of April in 1960. His career with the Hall Corporation spanned forty-eight years and left behind a lifetime of memories.

By Joel Godfrey

Our family would like to send our heartfelt appreciation to the following people for their assistance, friendship and memories during our journey:

Skip Gillham for your knowledge, your time and your books. Someone told me that you were the foremost authority when it came to Captains of the Great Lakes and you didnʼt disappoint.

Captain Brian Johnson of the Wolfe Islander III, without you none of this would have been possible. Your love of the ships and need to share it with others led us down the path and gave us the direction we needed. Your friendship and guidance will always be treasured.

Captain Leath Davis, whose stories gave us memories to cherish and who reminded me how a gentleman was supposed be.

Philip Joel Godfrey was born in Sarnia, Ontario a city famous for shipping and rail. He claims he loved ships and trains when he was little and was pleased that this research experience "has put me back in touch with that passion”. “I started this journey as a way of giving something back to our children so they know where they came from”. Joel works in the Canadian Casino industry.

Amanda Godfrey (Sinclair) comes from Toronto, Ontario. She is Captain Sinclair’s great-granddaughter. (Her grandfather was Ross, her father is Ross and her half-brother is Ross.) She is a photographer and is personally responsible for starting the search for her family. Amanda exclaims that meeting Capt. Davis was a very emotional moment for her and one she will never forget. The Godfreys, with their children - Molly (4) and Liam(1) – live in Orillia, Ontario.

Posted in: People
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Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 4:47 PM Sunday, October 3, 2010
Joel and Amanda
This is a terrific story! I am so glad that I was able to play a small part! It's fascinating how small the marine community of the river and Great Lakes really are!
All the best.
Brian Johnson
Robert Graham
Comment by: Robert Graham ( )
Left at: 10:09 AM Saturday, October 16, 2010
Amanda and Joel, I sailed with Capt Sinclair on the Eastcliffe, and would be pleased to communicate with you. Before reading your article I spoke with Brian Johnson and was most pleasantly surprised when he mentioned your names and the family connection.
Bob Graham