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Fire…Fire aboard “Watertown” Part II

Editor’s Note:

Part I Fire! Fire aboard the “Watertown!” was published in our September issue of “TI Life.”  The story is an excerpt chapter from Captain Brian Johnson’s upcoming book: 'Ferry Tales from Wolfe Island'. 

September marked the 150th anniversary of this tragedy aboard Kinghorn & Hinckley's Wolfe Island ferry steamer ‘SS Watertown.’ What happened afterward? The answer is below…

“It is now supposed that more than one life was lost at the time the Watertown was burned.”

Daily News, September 11, 1865








Commerce starts early in the busy shipping town of Kingston.

George Matheison Kinghorn, alderman and shipowner, was in his Kingston office as the sun peeked over the trees over on Wolfe Island. Papers dealing with unfinished business stayed at the centre of his desk to be dealt with first thing every morning. This particular morning, the telegram was the only document on the polished surface. It stood out like a beacon.

George Kinghorn had to hold the side of his desk to steady himself as he stood in his office. While the morning sunlight filled the spacious room, he quietly re-read the telegram, totally unaware that his lips kept repeating those three dreadful words over and over: Ship total loss.

Their brand new boat, the steamboat that had become the pride of the Kinghorn and Hinckley ferry fleet was now what? A hull on Featherbed Shoal.

Removing his waistcoat, he draped it over his chair, untied his tie, letting it hang loosely from his open collar and, removing his spectacles, patted his forehead with a handkerchief from his pocket. G.M. Kinghorn was a man who always prided himself on appearance. But this morning, it seemed, everything – simply everything - had changed. It will not be business as usual today. Holding the telegram he read it over one more time. A litany of unanswered questions filled his mind. Could their company survive? Shipping involved risks, he thought, running his hands over his face and now, I guess, fate and the Almighty decreed it was our turn. It was almost too much to comprehend at once.

The “Gazelle” was dispatched to the Cape almost as soon as the telegram was delivered to his own door. The “Pierrepont” was already on an earlier excursion to Clayton, New York, just a few miles downriver from the Cape.

The “Watertown” was valued at $20,000 and her loss would hit the firm hard. There was no insurance on the vessel. While competition is fierce in the shipping industry, everyone connected to the shipping circle from master, shipowner, mates and deck crew, there is no one who celebrates the loss of another’s vessel or crew. It was a fact of life and far too common.

Was there anything saved, Kinghorn wondered, placing the telegram back on his desk. He walked to the window, staring out at the harbour. The machinery, the hull, and what was worse, was there anyone killed? Hinckley’s telegram had been brief; shocking, certainly, but all too brief.

Turning, Kinghorn sat down heavily into his leather bound chair behind his desk. At that precise moment, a soft knock sounded on the doorway of his office. The shipowner muffled out a deep sigh, wiped his sweating brow and looked up from his desk, his facial features knitted into a frown. “Excuse me, G.M.,” said the clerk. “A lady...”

“Excuse me, Mr. Kinghorn?” said a female voice, somewhat tentatively.

Turning his head toward the door, Kinghorn was clearly annoyed by the intrusion. “Yes? What is it?” he answered somewhat roughly, He didn’t have time for anything this morning. Whatever or whoever it was, he hoped to dismiss her quickly.

“I... I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Kinghorn,” she said. The young woman meekly stepped in, telling her three children to wait outside. The clerk closed the door. Attractive, poised and standing erect, she came to the point. “My name is Emily Carr. My husband James worked as a waiter aboard the Watertown. They... they tell me down at the dock that there has been an accident?”

The name was somewhat familiar to Kinghorn. “What? Who? Oh... yes, Mrs. Carr. Please excuse me. Your husband James was paid off last trip,” he remembered.

“Well yes, yes he was,” she answered, “but he had to return to the Cape on some personal business. Oh, Mr. Kinghorn...” She turned her face toward the window and raised a handkerchief to her eyes. “I heard about the accident. There is talk all along the waterfront. Were there any... I mean, did everyone get off?”

“Yes, Mrs. Carr,” Kinghorn replied. “I received a telegram from Captain Hinckley this morning, and he mentioned no casualties. Just... just the loss of the ship.”

“Oh... oh, I am so relieved. Oh thank you, sir.”

“Yes, well then, if you will excuse me,” Kinghorn replied, sitting down and reaching for his spectacles.

“Oh yes,” Emily Carr answered, getting up and opening the door. “Come along, children. Your father will be home soon. And thank you again, Mr. Kinghorn.” But George Kinghorn had already turned his chair toward the window, his thoughts far away, around the west end of Wolfe Island.

. . . . . . . . . . .

“Captain! Come quick!”

Coleman Hinckley was aboard his ship out on Featherbed shoal. Or what remained of his ship. He stepped quickly over the jagged edges of what remained of a what? A bulkhead? “What is it, Billy?”

The man pointed just ahead, beyond the seared, half broken hinges with a scorched, hanging door. “A body, I’m thinkin’, sir.”

Both men stared at the burnt, ashen remains of what looked like a human being, complete with a grotesque skull staring back up at them. “Captain,” yelled another voice from the other end of the scarred hull. “There are more over here!”

By the time the burnt hulk of the Watertown was towed by the Pierrepont to Dawson’s ferry landing in Marysville, Wolfe Island, the news was not good. In fact, it was getting worse. Shortly after his body was discovered, Jimmy Carr’s remains were positively identified by his fellow crew members by pieces of his charred clothing and small items found around his burnt body.

When the news reached his widow in Kingston, Emily Carr fainted and it was several days before she could finally be consoled. What mystified the captain and purser, were the remains of three other skeletons: an adult and two children. It appeared that a woman and two children had boarded the Watertown late in the evening while she was alongside at the Cape. It was their intention to come to Kingston but as all records were destroyed in the fire, no positive clue could be found as to who they were. There was no one waiting to identify them either in Cape Vincent or Kingston or to inquire about their whereabouts. They were quietly buried in Cape Vincent.

Later, the plan was to tow the hulk to Garden Island where her engine and boiler would be cleaned and repaired. Possibly, these could be placed into another ship.

In the end, by the 20th of September, the hull was towed over to the slip at the foot of Earl Street in Kingston. There, the machinery was removed and found to be in better condition once the damage from the soot was removed. Even more important, once it was discovered that the lower hull and keel proved sound and untouched by the fire, the ship’s remains were towed over to the marine railway yard. The decision had been made by George Kinghorn and Coleman Hinckley. The “Watertown” would be re-built from the keel up

[Yes… the story will go on…]

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

Brian Paul Johnson just completed over 30 yea”rs 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(Part I and Part 11) is published 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

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