This story first appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard on July 16, 2010 in honour of the 40th Anniversary of the sinking of the Eastcliffe Hall in the St. Lawrence River.
The sinking was first reported to police by Mrs. Walter Wells. “It was a great boom which woke me up. Then we began to hear people shouting ‘Help, help’”
Kingston Whig Standard, July 14, 1970
Some memories just won’t fade away.
For former police officer Lee McCaslin, who resides with his wife Linda just north of Iroquois Ontario, the events in the very early hours of July 14, 1970 are as vivid as if they happened just yesterday.
As he recalls, the night was clear and the river was calm. A routine night shift patrol for both McCaslin and his partner constable Harold Theriault. Driving along highway 2, the night for the most part had been quiet. Their patrol covered the area from Morrisburg to Cornwall and all the side roads in between.
The time on the dashboard clock of the police cruiser indicated 04:20 am. Somewhere off to the eastward the first rays of the morning sun were turning the dark skies over the St. Lawrence River a lighter blue, indicating another clear, but hot, summer day. Then a call came over the radio from the dispatcher at the Morrisburg OPP detachment. Something has happened out on the river near Upper Canada Village. Could they check it out?
Although the new seaway was already ten years old, it was still a matter of skill sailing a lake freighter around the ‘drowned islands’ in Lake St. Lawrence. This was the area of the ‘flooding’ during the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which opened in 1959. That part of the river between the dams at Cornwall and Iroquois; an area seasoned mariners were still getting used to.
The steamer Eastcliffe Hall was westbound on the St. Lawrence River heading into the ‘flooded basin’ in the early morning hours of July 14. With a cargo of 5,661 long tons of pig iron ingots loaded at Sorel, Quebec she was heading for delivery to Saginaw, Michigan, drawing eighteen feet, five inches of water.
The 349 foot long Eastcliffe Hall was a canaller. These small, black hulled river ships with their bluff bow and vertical stem with rounded, cruiser sterns were part of the Hall Shipping fleet of Montreal that were nearing the end of their careers. Newer, larger ships built to the new lock dimensions were taking their place. Still, the older, smaller ships met the company’s earlier commitments with various contracts at many river ports. This meant that her regular route was through this part of the seaway and these smaller ‘lakers’ were regular customers in the area. Pulpwood from eastern seaports was usually the westbound cargo, while grain or coal went east. Their captains and mates were well seasoned ‘river men’ and didn’t need the added expense of pilots that the newer and larger ships did.
In command of the Eastcliffe Hall was Captain Joseph Groulx, who replaced veteran Captain Andre Samuel two weeks earlier. With him in charge of the engine room was Chief Willie Demers who had his wife Jacqueline and six year old daughter Nathalie aboard. Captain Groulx had his sixteen year old son Alain aboard with him also.
It was about 21:45 hours on the night of July 13 as the westbound ship approached the Cornwall bridge, when Captain Groulx relieved Chief Mate Julien Marchand in the wheelhouse. Captain Groulx took her through the Snell and Eisenhower locks and headed into the new, ‘flooded basin’ of Lake St. Lawrence. The still night was dark but clear. Around 3:00 am, the ship grounded to a halt on what felt like mud. Looking over the side and checking his position, Captain Groulx realized he had run aground on Gooseneck Island shoal, a former ‘drowned island’. The captain called for mate Marchand and together, they worked the engine telegraph and steering wheel. Deckhands sleeping below came on deck to feel the ship lurching both left and right until backing away.
Finally free, Captain Groulx ordered Chief Mate Marchand to steer ‘hard a’starboard’ and rang for full power on the engine room telegraph. This took the Eastcliffe Hall out of the designated channel to an area north and eastbound. To the mate, the range lights and buoys were totally confusing, indicating the ship could be headed for serious trouble. Although safely past, they were headed back toward Crysler shoal. The time on the bridge clock said 04:00 am.
Campers at the local campground near Crysler Park marina heard something like a sonic boom out on the river. Climbing out of trailers and tents everyone first looked toward the highway, as if to see a tangled mess of tractor trailers involved in a collision. Then they looked out toward the river. A light breeze was blowing in toward the land as the terrible noise had finally stopped. Someone said, ‘Listen, can you hear it?’ Frightened cries that sound like ‘Help, help’ were carried inshore. People ran down to the shoreline. “There, look there!” someone pointed out. The faint lights of a ship were leading down at an awkward angle. Then, the terrible sounds of breaking glass and hissing steam. The lights on the telephones at both the Morrisburg and Long Sault OPP detachments lit up across the board.
Constables McCaslin and Theriault brought their cruiser to a sliding halt near the docks of Crysler Park marina. The headlights of the cruiser shone out into the river. Shutting off the engine, both men got out of the car. Just then, another cruiser from the Long Sault detachment pulled up. Climbing out, constables Leo Heidinga and Don Eastop joined their counterparts looking for a motorboat. Cries of help could still be heard out on the river as dawn was breaking to the east. The four men found two available boats, one small 14 foot aluminum boat and another about 18 feet long. The smaller one had a pull cord on the engine and the larger one, fortunately, had the keys still in the ignition. Heidinga and Eastop took the small boat while McCaslin and Theriault took the bigger one.
“We headed out together,” said McCaslin, “and went down the river towards where we figured the people might be. We saw two small lights bobbing in the middle of the river.” Getting closer, the men realized that the lights were emergency beacons attached to life rings and life jackets. Then the debris floating everywhere, drifting with the current. It was here that the men found the first of the survivors, clinging to the wreckage.
“The survivors in the water helped an injured man over to the side of our large boat,” said McCaslin, “but he was too heavy to lift over the high sides. We lashed the smaller boat alongside and survivors were pulled from the water into the small boat and then transferred to the larger one. This first man pulled from the water had an injured leg. John Scott was the third Engineer who had been on duty with another man in the engine room. They had no idea what was happening and had no warning that the ship was sinking until water started pouring into the engine room. They tried to escape, but water pressure held the doors shut and for a while they were pinned to the deck by water coming in through the engine room skylight. Suddenly, the air pressure in the engine room became greater than the water pressure above and the air began to rush up and out of the skylight. The two men were caught in this vortex and were swept right up, right through the skylight. Second Engineer Marcel Gendron, the larger of the two, actually passed his workmate as they went up into the night sky. They landed on the surface only to get sucked down again as the ship plunged for the bottom. Surfacing, they joined the others clinging to the wreckage.” By now, sunlight was starting to filter through the clouds, lighting an eerie scene of wreckage and three, protruding masts rising up out of the water.
“The surviving crew members had stayed together after abandoning the wreck and had been caught in the current that took them downstream,” McCaslin remembered. “Eleven people were rescued and now we had 13 people aboard the 18 foot boat. No more cries of help could be heard, so we headed back to the marina. When Heidinga went to restart his engine, he pulled the cord right out of the motor. I had to tow them back to the marina. We went back out and found one more man, clinging to the mast protruding out of the water. It turned out to be Chief Mate Julien Marchand. He had tried to swim for shore but turned back.”
Local historian and shipwatcher Ron Beaupre now lives in nearby Mariatown. “The ship hit an old submerged concrete base of a former light, marking Crysler shoal, moving it an incredible 24 feet. She went down in just minutes after ripping a hole in her starboard bow just below the waterline. I went down after work just as they were getting the bodies ashore, from the wreck,” he remembered. Six crew members and three passengers died, trapped below. Captain Groulx and his son Alain; Chief Engineer Willie Demers and his wife Jacqueline and their 6 year old daughter Nathalie, 6; the fourth engineer; a wheelsman; the Chief Cook and the second Cook.
As for the wreck, the Eastcliffe Hall had her cargo removed by the Kingston lighter barge Mapleheath and her protruding, haunting masts were cut away. The hull was then filled with stone. Today, she remains on the bottom of the clear water of the St. Lawrence River, a favourite recreational dive site visited almost every weekend in the summer.
But for others, who were there on those early morning hours of July 14, 1970, the sounds of hissing steam, ripping metal, cries for help and rushing water still haunt their dreams.
Note: Brian Johnson, Wolfe Islander III captain, wishes to thank both former OPP Constable Lee McCaslin and marine historian and shipwatcher Ron Beaupre for their help and memories for this story.
By Brian Johnson
Brian 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 28 years, recently celebrating 20 years as captain. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also the founding and past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society. TI Life is pleased to reprint Brian’s historical articles which appear in the Kingston Whig Standard.
Crysler shoal with a least depth of fifteen feet is situated in midstream, northward from Bradford Islands.
St. Lawrence River Pilot, first ed. 1966