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Fire! Fire aboard the “Watertown!”

Editor’s Note:

This story is an excerpt chapter from Captain Brian Johnson’s upcoming book: 'Ferry Tales from Wolfe Island'.  He writes, “This month is the 150th anniversary of this tragedy aboard ‘Kinghorn’ & Hinckley's Wolfe Island ferry steamer ‘SS Watertown.’ What happened afterward? The answer will appear in our October issue of ‘TI Life.’



About three o’clock yesterday morning, when all hands were sound asleep, the fire was first discovered.

Daily News, September 8,1865

The summer of 1865 had been hot. Hot and very humid.

Fall, brought with it, a quiet relief from the heat. Particularly one Thursday night in Cape Vincent, New York, in early September as the wind freshened from the southwest. It was either very late in the evening or very early in the morning, depending on how one looked at it.

The quiet streets were abruptly interrupted by a shrill voice screaming, “FIRE! FIRE AT THE WATERFRONT!!”

With his shirttail flying behind him, a young boy was running through the streets. The patter of his shoes hitting the wooden sidewalk. echoed louder than his shrill voice. He almost looked like a little thief with the law closing fast on his tail. Using his small fists, he banged on the doors of the nearby houses trying to get up a bucket brigade of any able bodied man he could find.

The farther he ran the slap-slapping of his feet started to slow up as he was barely able to pant out the alarm. “Fire... Fire... at the waterfront!” he cried, over and over. Upper floor windows flew open as the man of the house shouted down “What’d you say boy?! Fire? Where?!”

Fire! That dreaded cry that a townsman safe and secure in his house or a sailor out at sea fears more than any other word. Hearing it in the middle of the night only adds to the horror.

“The... the waterfront! At the train depot... the platform,” the boy panted out. He was bent over, supporting himself with his hands on his knees. “It’s... it’s one of the boats... the big, new one...”

“Which one?!”

“The... the ‘Watertown!’

Captain Coleman Hinckley Sr. had just rolled over in his bed, disturbing his wife Isabella when he heard what sounded like a commotion about a block away. Cape Vincent was a quiet town, thanks to the ever watchful eyes of James Borland the town Marshall. If someone started to get rowdy, big Jim usually whisked them off to the lockup where they could sleep it off before things got out of hand.

The noise was getting louder now. Throwing the covers off, Hinckley reached over to the chair where his jacket was draped. Getting home to his own warm bed was a rare treat during the sailing season but the darkness outside told him it was still very early. Fishing in his coat pocket he pulled on the chain of his watch and pressed it open. Three thirty in the morning. He would have to get up in a couple of hours for his sailing back to Kingston. He heard voices next door.

“It’s... it’s one of the boats... the big, new one...”

“Which one?”

“The... the Watertown!”

Isabella sat up quickly, “Coleman...”

“I know... I heard...” Coleman Hinckley, throwing back the blankets, was on his feet now. Taking two large steps he opened the latch of the windows and threw them open. Standing bare chested and in his underwear he leaned outward until he found the messenger, heading for the next street up. Hinckley cupped his hands by his mouth. “What boat did you say, boy?!”

The young man looked over at the next house and upward toward the big, commanding voice coming from the window. “We need men... I mean the... the Watertown, sir, I mean captain.”

“Oh, jaysus!” Hinckley moaned, then, quickly looking northeast in the direction of the waterfront he could see the bright glow lighting the nearby houses. “Oh dear God!” he exclaimed.

Isabella was up, throwing on her housecoat. “Oh Coleman! Is it the Watertown?!”

“Dear God, I hope not!” Slamming the windows shut he reached for his shirt and pants.

The busy port of Cape Vincent lies at the junction of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Incorporated in 1853 and named for Vincent Le Ray, son of James Le Ray, who owned several acres of land in the area, the new town replaced Port Putnam or Millen’s Bay as it was now called as the ferry point for Kingston. A small ferry continued to Carleton Island but the island itself was no longer under British rule or even a military stronghold of any kind. Fort Haldimand lay in ruin. Just small farms led up the hill from the riverfront.

If the wind runs in a constant southwesterly direction, Cape Vincent has little protection from the heavy swells which come rolling in off the lake. Fortunately for Captain Coleman Hinckley, the eastern end of their pier was the railroad terminal, giving the Watertown some protection from the west-southwestery wind and swell which was now blowing and rolling in off the lake.

Once alongside, the captain had gone ashore to his home while the Watertown was secure at the berth. Several crew members also had families here on the American side and so would take turns trip in, and trip out, to see them and return home whenever they could. This sometimes left a somewhat skeleton crew aboard to tend to the needs of the passengers who had embarked just a few hours earlier. Fortunately for them, the cook and her assistant, had finished the supper dishes and both had gone ashore to visit with their families and for the night.

At the town’s eastern edge at the railroad depot, all hell had broken loose.

By now, the pride and joy of the Kinghorn and Hinckley fleet, the former elegant steamer Watertown was rapidly approaching an inferno. Pilothouse and upperworks could be seen through the flames like something out of the netherworld. The nearby freight shed had started to ignite and the first men on the scene had started to pour their buckets in that direction as it looked like the ship was going to be a total loss. All along the edge of the dock there was panic and confusion.

At the outbreak of the fire, sometime about three in the morning, the deckhand on watch had smelled smoke as he wandered about the companion ways. Walking down the gangplank he assumed it was somewhere ashore and went to investigate. Knocking on the office door of the depot office he alerted the watchman who had fallen asleep with his feet up on his desk. “Smoke? Where?” he had said, almost falling over.

“I can smell it someplace,” said the deckhand. The two men immediately left the small office to check the larger building.

Meantime, the small fire had started to build aboard the ship. Another deckhand had awakened to the smell of smoke and the cracking of burning timber. Opening his door he was horrified to see flames licking the cabin walls as if they were part of the cabin decor. For almost a full minute the young man just stood in his doorway, with his mouth hanging open, unable to comprehend what was happening. The ship was deathly quiet. No one was stirring. And while he watched, the fire climbed steadily up the walls and doorways like something alive, crackling the timbers as it went. In a surreal sense, it was almost beautiful. But then, the sudden heat hit the dazed man in the face and snapped him out of it. Finding his voice, he summoned the courage to call out the dreaded word. “Fire!” he yelled, then, grabbing his shirt and pants, started running down the companionway throwing one leg and then the other into his pants, banging on cabin doors and walls as he went.

“For God’s sakes get up!” he was screaming now, “GET OUT!! FIRE, FIRE, FIRE,!!”

Precious time was wasted, sounding the alarm while the fire gained rapid headway on the wooden, painted walls and fixtures.

By now, heads started popping out of doorways as passengers and remaining crew tried to comprehend what was happening. Voices became strained as passengers tried to hear the different commands of confused crew while shouting for family members in the dark, smoke filled chambers as doorways were left open. Several women screamed as they found their way to the exit blocked by a raging inferno. Panicked, they ran, tripping over themselves to get back into the safety of their cabins.

Smashing glass could be heard as trapped people kicked out cabin windows and leapt over the side, hitting the water or the wooden pier. Down below, the chief engineer tried to flood his engine room with the injection pipe until the fanned flames drove him out.

“Cut her loose!” someone cried from the pier.

“She’ll burn the town if we don’t,” cried another.

The wind was blowing south-southwest and freshening now, fanning the flames. Teams of horses and wagons of volunteers arrived on the scene, adding to the mayhem as men ran with full and empty pails trying to cool the embers falling on the pier and nearby building. The Watertown was beyond saving now. Knives and axes quickly hacked away at the lines to cut away the burning vessel. “C’mon, heave!” one man yelled as he shouldered the big vessel off the dock.

“There’s still people inside, for God’s sake!” yelled another, trying to grab a mooring line.

Inside the ship screams could still be heard and splashes as more people jumped over the far side into the black river. Thick, black smoke poured from the windows and hatchways along the dockside, making rescue from the pier impossible.

Suddenly, shards of glass from the windows started exploding out onto the pier as the flames spread from cabin to cabin. Several men pushed out in small rowboats to help fish victims out of the water. Other victims were able to swim around the end of the burning steamer and climbed up on the nearby pier.

Overhead, for those in the water, the flaming ship continued to swing out into the river, lighting up the area where struggling passengers and crew could be found by the small boats. Cries of relief could be heard above the din as kinfolk and crew members found each other. One man was climbing up onto the pier. “Did Carr... did Carr make it out?” one of the soaked deckhands managed to choke out, as he was helped up onto the pier.

“Who? Jimmy? He wasn’t on this trip,” answered another, between coughs and sprawled out on the wooden timbers looking up. His face and clothes were black with soot.

“Yes...” he coughed. “Yes, he was. He had the upper bunk in my cabin.”

“He got paid off in Kingston.”

“He... he wasn’t workin’. Cough, cough, He got paid off in Kingston and came aboard to settle things back here in the Cape. Christ, he was right behind me at the window.”

The men stared at the flaming, pilotless ship now swinging out into the river. The deckhand got to his feet and cupped his hands around his mouth, “Jimmy! Can you hear me? Jump for it, man! Sing out, so we can hear you!”

“They’ll find him with the boats, Bill. He’ll be alright.”

Bill wasn’t convinced. “Jimmy!” he yelled, out into the river. “Can you hear me?!”

Captain Coleman Hinckley arrived on the pier out of breath and just in time to see his burning ship drift off into the darkness, down towards Carleton Island. He jumped off the wagon before the driver got it stopped. On the pier, confused men, distraught women and crying children milled about in different states of fear and confusion. Most were covered in black soot and soaking wet. Blankets started arriving from nearby houses provided by family members rushing to the scene. A distraught man whose face and features were covered in wet soot, made his way through the crowd to the bewildered captain, who stood staring at his whole world flaming out in the river. “Captain,” he uttered, and then he turned toward the wall of the depot building. Covering his face he broke into sobs.

Captain Hinckley turned toward the man. “Chief! What the hell happened!” he demanded, pulling the man around.

“I couldn’t save her,” he sobbed, wiping his face with his blackened sleeve. “I tried, captain...”

Coleman Hinckley saw the despair in the man’s soot covered face. He also saw his torn shirtsleeves complete with his bleeding knuckles. “Alright, alright, I know...” Hinckley replied, putting his arm around the engineer’s shoulders. “For the love of God, did everyone get off?”

“I ... I think so. My gang’s all here and the deck crew are all up on the pier, there.”

A volunteer walked toward them with a blanket in her arms. “Here, chief,” Hinckley said pulling the blanket around him. “Now go get some coffee and tell the mate and purser I want a full passenger and crew count.” Turning quickly, he climbed up onto a harnessed wagon belonging to one of the volunteers, shouting at the driver, “Get me to the telegraph office, mister!” They only went a short way when Hinckley leaned over the wagon and promptly threw up.

Some two hours later the morning sun broke over the tree tops just to the east.

People were still milling about, gathered in clusters here and there. The excitement of a fire brings neighbours and strangers together with everyone breathing a sigh of relief that the dark, surreal night was finally over.

A rumour that a crew member was missing off the ship had spread through the entire village. By daylight, the rumour mill had nearly half the ship’s passengers on the missing list. And the daylight also revealed the awful truth at the now empty pier. Scorched pilings, burnt rope, empty blankets, ruined clothes and baggage piled near a black, soot covered wall, not to mention lethargic men, women and children walking about, searching for answers.

The villagers opened their doors to assist the passengers anyway they could. Although the panic was over, the village of Cape Vincent was still a hub of activity. Children ran about, picking up empty pails and any other treasures they might find from the excitement the night before.

Down by Port Putnam or Millen’s Bay a few miles to the east, a crowd had gathered, watching as a small boat rowed out to what remained of the SS Watertown. Still afloat, the charred hulk was fast aground on Featherbed Shoal. In the small boat, among others, was her captain.

Climbing aboard, Captain Coleman Hinckley was almost sick to his stomach again with despair. Soot covered timber crumpled under his hands as he clawed his way up, over the blackened bulwark of what remained of his ship.

Only months ago, the brand new steamship with her gimballed brass deck lanterns spaced evenly inside her passageways and along her outside deck made her the envy of every ship owner and master within range of a spyglass. Her gleaming white hull and upper-works reflected her name in bold, black letters painted proudly on her paddle boxes as she left her competition behind in her wake. Why, even the sunlight cooperated with the prevailing south-westerly wind as her burgee would unfold, proudly displaying her name at the start of every trip. The new ship practically ensured the success of the ferry line of Kinghorn and Hinckley. Now, there was no burgee, or a staff to fly it from; no upper-works, no pilothouse, promenade deck, main salon or even supporting twin arches. Even her black smokestack was gone. Hinckley was surprised that she was still afloat. Sadly, nothing much more than a bare hull remained, black on the inside, but still quite sound, as were the fore and aft stringers and frames which ran up her sides. Midships, still bolted firmly in place was a scorched engine and equally scorched boiler.

Kicking about charred timbers, the men carefully stepped around the jagged edges of black planks and timbers which groaned in protest with every step. Many lay piled about on top of each other when the decks collapsed from the intense heat. The lower remains of a charred cabin door lay partly open, supported by several blackened frames threatening to fall over at any moment. A crew member kicked it down and looked inside. He suddenly turned and retched. “Captain!” he rasped, when he found his voice. “Come here, quick!”

… (Stay tuned… the conclusion to “Fire! Fire aboard the Watertown” in our October Issue.)

By Brian Johnson, recently retired captain of the Wolfe Islander III

Brian Paul Johnson just completed over 30 years working for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation where for the past 20+ years he was Captain for the “Wolfe Islander III”, the ferry that transports Wolfe Islanders to Kingston and back each day.  Not in his retirement we see 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.  As this article is published, the the conclusion to follow in our October 2015 issue, Brian is putting the final touches on a new book, “Ferry Tales…”  To see all of Captain Johnson’s articles 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.


Jim Webster
Comment by: Jim Webster
Left at: 7:45 AM Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Great story Brian. I'm looking forward to the conclusion, and your book.
Waltraud I. Mack
Comment by: Waltraud I. Mack
Left at: 9:48 AM Tuesday, September 15, 2015
I don't know if I can wait that long to hear the rest of this fascinating story.
What a cliffhanger! Oh my....
Joan M Stone
Comment by: Joan M Stone
Left at: 5:37 AM Friday, October 16, 2015
My husband launched his fishing boat from this Marina several times, he worked the Jones Farm in Rosiere. My great great grandfather Solomon Spencer was living in Depauville, NY 1840-1892, 2 miles from the St Lawrence River, Solomon ia buried in Clayton Cemetery, his son Winslow buried in Cape Vincent. Brian Paul Johnson has brought Northern New York back to life, thank you Thousand Island Life, your work is awesome.

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