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Shipwreck of the Canadian Schooner, Ariadne
Mexico Bay, Lake Ontario, New York
by Suzanne Hurley
From the 1887 Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service

Edited by the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum
*Minor editorial privileges were taken to clarify the text and writing style of the period.

The first wreck of the year, involving fatality, which came under life-saving operations was that of the schooner Ariadne, of New Castle, Ontario, which occurred on the morning of the 2d of December, 1886, in Mexico Bay, Lake Ontario, some five to six miles north of the Big Sandy Station (Ninth District), northern New York.

The vessel had a crew of six men, and of these three were lost the captain being washed overboard and drowned, and two others, the mate and one seaman, perishing of cold. From the report of the officer despatched to the scene to ascertain whether there had been any remissness on the part of the life-saving crew, the facts appear to have been as follows: The Ariadne was a craft of one hundred and thirty-eight tons register, owned jointly by the captain, Hugh McKay, and his father, Sutherland McKay, who acted as mate. She was engaged in the Lake Ontario trade, and on this (her last) voyage was from South Bay, on the Canadian shore, with a cargo of ten thousand bushels of barley consigned to parties in Oswego, N. Y.

As it was late in the season most of the lake vessels had gone into winter quarters. The McKays, however, comparatively poor men, anxious to make one more trip before laying their raft up, had taken on board the present load and made several atsitets to cross the lake, but each time they had been driven back by adverse weather. Then finally, on the morning of December 1, they got away under the fairest auspices, with a moderate westerly breeze, and clear, pleasant weather.

Upon reaching the middle of the lake, at about 2 in the afternoon, a blinding snow-storm set in quite suddenly and the wind rapidly increased to a gale, which soon raised quite an ugly sea. The schooner kept on, however, and by 6 o'clock in the evening the lights of Oswego Harbor were in sight, a mile or two distant, broad on the weather bow. This was an unfortunate landfall, as the lake was so rough that the harbor tugs could not venture out to tow her in, and it was practically impossible for the schooner to work up to the harbor entrance.

The crew made the atsitet, however, and got near enough at one time to catch sight of the breakwater and to hear the sound of steam whistles inside. Signal rockets sent up by the crew of the Oswego Lifesaving Station were also plainly seen through the driving snow. But the increasing severity of the storm made all efforts of the deeply laden vessel to reach the haven futile, and while she was thus buffeting about she sprang a leak, split some of her sails, and became almost unmanageable. Under these circumstances there seemed no alternative but to abandon the idea of reaching Oswego, bear up for Stony Island Passage, and thence make for the shelter of Henderson Bay around Stony Point, thirty odd miles distant. The schooner was therefore kept away before the gale.

As she wallowed along in the heavy sea, with timbers straining and creaking as though she would go to pieces, the leakage increased so rapidly that it was feared she would go down; and the captain resolved, although Stony Point Light had been raised ahead, to haul in to the eastward, with the intention of beaching her in Mexico Bay. Upon thus changing the course it became necessary to jibe the sails, and in doing this the main boom, as it swung violently to port, snapped in two pieces and split the reefed mainsail so badly that it was of no further use. The broken boom also fell in such a way as to impede the working of the pumps.

Had the unfortunate craft reached the beach without further mishap the people would doubtless all have been saved. But this was not to be, as in a short time the schooner struck upon a reef known as Drowned Island, about one-half or three-quarters of a mile from the shore, almost directly opposite the mouth of Little Stony Creek, which is five and a quarter miles north of the Big Sandy Life-Saving station. This was at 2 o'clock on the morning of December 2.

The reef is of small area and has from two to eight feet of water over it in the shallowest places. The snow had not abated in the least and the air was bitter cold, the siteerature having fallen to 18 degrees. As soon as the schooner fetched up, the waves burst over her in immense volume and compelled the people to seek refuge below in the cabin, where a fire was lighted and coffee made. The men remained in this situation for about two hours, when, the water rising over the cabin floor, they were glad to rush on deck and clamber into the main-rigging, all hands doing so but the captain, who took up a position on top of the cabin regardless of the remonstrances of his companions.

The men had scarcely got aloft when a big wave dashed in over the taffrail and burst off the top of the cabin, which went immediately overboard, carrying the captain with it. The latter was observed for a moment or two clinging to a plank and he then disappeared. This was the last seen of him.

The schooner continued to grind and pound, with the seas breaching completely over her, until some time between 5 and 6 o'clock, when she worked in over the reef and drifted shoreward, where she finally fetched up about two hundred yards from the beach. The mainmast soon afterwards became un-stepped, and the deck having burst open, the head of the mainmast fell over against the foremast, where it hung by the spring-stay. The sailors, however, managed in some way, when they found the mainmast was about to fall, to reach the fore-rigging and there they clung until the foremast also showed signs of jumping out of its step. This new danger compelled them to descend to the deck and seek refuge forward of the windlass; the midship and after-parts of the vessel being entirely submerged.

As soon as the day dawned an anxious watch was directed towards the shore, although it could scarcely be seen through the snow. It was, indeed, a terrible situation. The sufferers were clinging to the only portion of the hull out of water, with the surf dashing over them, and all the exposed parts of the vessel as well as their clothing covered with ice. At last, to their great relief, although not until one of their number, Charles Dean, had literally frozen to death in their midst, two persons were seen on the beach. They waved their hands as though to reassure the sinking vessel and then disappeared, evidently to summon assistance.

The two on the shore were boys, one of whom, a bright young fellow named Alberto Hubbard, the son of a farmer, had been the first to discover the vessel from the country road, which was some distance back from the shore, while on his way to school. He had reached an elevated portion of the road which commands an extensive view of the lake, and the snow happening to thin off somewhat at that moment, he caught a glimpse of the vessel's remaining mast just over a clump of woods. The sight startled him, as well it might, for he knew very well that a vessel so close must be ashore. Wasting no time in speculation, he quickened his pace and gave the alarm at one or two houses on the road and then, in the company of a young man named Forbes, who joined him, hastened down to the shore to learn the exact situation of the vessel. This was half past 9.

The two young men remained on the beach but a few moments, just long enough to assure themselves that there were people board and to answer their signals, when they turned back and separated, Hubbard running directly home to notify his father, while Forbes put off to the south, spreading the alarm as he went. One man, a farmer named Southwick, learning the news from Forbes, set out for the Lake View Hotel, a summer resort on the northerly border of the Pond, and there telephoned word of the wreck to the Wood Post Office, requesting that a messenger be dispatched to the life saving station at the mouth of Big Sandy Creek for assistance.

As the messenger from the post-office could not reach the station except by a very circuitous route on account of the creek and intervening ponds he, in turn, notified William A. Jenkins, the captain of a Lake Ontario trader, who resides on the south shore of the north branch of Big Sandy Creek, a mile and a half in a direct line from the station. Captain Jenkins got the news at about 11 o'clock. The country people by this time were astir with excitement and hastening from all directions to the locality of the wreck, and soon quite a crowd had gathered there. Some of the men went in search of a boat with which to atsitet to reach the wreck, but they found nothing suitable for that purpose. In the meantime Captain Jenkins had hoisted a flag to the masthead of his schooner, the Fiat, laid up in the creek near his house, and then set out across the marshes toward the station, taking a fog-horn, with which he sounded frequent blasts in hopes of attracting the attention of the lookout. Jenkins being directly to the leeward of the station, the horn could not be heard, and it was therefore of no use. He proceeded as far as Pond Brook, whence he could go no farther without a boat, as the ice near the shore was not strong enough to bear him.

His signals, however, were seen by the lookout, and upon the alarm being given, Keeper Fish and Surfman Wheeler set out across the ice in a small skiff, fitted with runners, to learn what was wanted. They broke through several times on the way, but succeeded in reaching Jenkins, who after informing them of his errand volunteered to accompany them and help launch the boat. Reaching the station on his return at about 1 o'clock, the keeper ordered out the Dobbins life-boat.

The gale was blowing directly on shore and the lake was exceedingly rough, the waves breaking in surf conditions fully a mile or two out. This, with the low siteerature, which had fallen to 16 degrees, and the still blinding snow, made the prospect of getting to the wreck very doubtful indeed. Keeper Fish, with excellent judgment, decided to track the boat along shore instead of going first out beyond the surf, which would have compelled a pull of at least two miles directly to the windward, with the risk of frequent swamping after the boat was turned broadside to the sea on its way to the northward.

Accordingly, he and two others took their places in the boat to guide it, while the rest, with Captain Jenkins, manned the tow-rope, and traveled on foot as far as the Wind Gap, a mile and a half to the north of the station. It was difficult work, as the sea being abeam the boat was frequently thrown broadside in against the shore, and the men as often had a hard struggle to push it afloat again. Arriving at the Wind Gap, an outlet of Wood's Pond, nearly a mile wide, and which on that day was a sheet of angry rushing water, all hands jumped into the boat and rowed to the opposite shore, where they were met by a crowd of fishermen and farmers anxiously awaiting their coming. Among these was a farmer named James Wood, with his team in readiness to aid them in reaching the scene of the wreck. This was in accordance with a previous agreement with the keeper, that, whenever a wreck should occur to the north of the Wind Gap, he should meet the crew with his horses to haul the boat or the beach apparatus cart; the understanding being that one flag on the station flag-staff signified a call for him to meet the crew on the beach north of the Wind Gap, and two flags a call to hasten with his team to Jenkins's landing, on the north branch, to haul the apparatus by the country road.

On this occasion, the weather being too thick for any signal to be seen from his farm, Mr. Wood, as soon as he heard of the wreck, took it for granted, as the creek was frozen over, that he would be needed at the gap, and he therefore repaired thither. The long tow-line, which by the way was a piece of an old breeches-buoy whip, was at once hitched to the rear axle of the farm wagon, and the horses were urged to their best speed over the icy beach; the keeper with two of his men and Captain Jenkins remaining in the boat, while the rest of the crew, in concert with the crowd on the shore, aided the horses in places where the hauling was difficult, besides frequently wading out to breast the boat off when it sheered too close in and took the ground.

It was fortunate the boat was of the self-bailing type. An ordinary surf-boat would have been repeatedly swamped, and the time lost in bailing would have greatly retarded the progress of the relief party, with the probability that assistance would have arrived too late. As may be imagined, the trip was a very trying one, the men's clothing being coated with ice, and their boat also thickly covered with it. The horses, too, were in such condition upon arrival abreast of the wreck that Mr. Wood had to hurry them home immediately to save them from freezing to death, as they had in many places en route been driven breast-deep through icy water, which dashed across their path clear to the foot of the sand-hills. Their gallant owner had also a trying experience, his wagon being so incrusted with ice that it was with difficulty he maintained his seat; it being necessary in passing over the rougher portions of the beach for a companion to hold him in his place.

It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon when the party arrived, and after a delay of a few minutes to beat off the ice from their clothing, as well as from the row locks, and thwarts, and also to exchange their wet mitts for dry ones proffered by friends in the crowd, the crew took their places, and, with sturdy arms to assist in pushing the boat off, they were soon away to the rescue. The small portion of the vessel out of the water was listed shoreward at an angle of about thirty degrees, and resembled a miniature iceberg more than anything else. There was also quantity of wreckage in the water alongside, which presented quite an element of danger to the approaching boat.

Keeper Fish handled his craft in very handsome style, and succeeded in making fast on the port side of the wreck, just forward of the fore-rigging. He had taken a survey of the situation as he approached, and saw but the three who had been observed from the beach. These were crouched on the bulwark on the opposite or starboard side, almost perished, at their feet, frozen stiff in death, lay the body of a shipmate. With the mainmast swaying by the spring-stay above their heads and liable to fall at any moment there was no time to be lost, and at the summons of the keeper the three survivors slid across the deck one-by one to the lee-rail, and were helped into the boat. One of them, Edward Mulligan, more helpless than the others, had to be dragged over the rail by sheer force, and narrowly escaped being crushed between the boat and the vessel's side, as he dropped inert into the water with the surfmen holding him by the arms. He was so far gone that ten minutes longer on the wreck would have rendered him insensible. The other two, Thomas Cox and Maurice Young, more thickly clad, were not in so bad a plight.

Mulligan's first inquiry upon finding himself safe was for the captain. This was the first intimation the station men had of the latter's fate. It led to inquiry, and they then learned that there was another man dead upon the wreck beside the one they had seen. These two were the elder McKay and Dean. The latter had succumbed to the cold at about 8 o clock, and the mate two hours later, or shortly after the discovery of the wreck, and before any atsitet at rescue could be made. As soon as the survivors were safely in the boat it was headed for the shore, and the instant its keel grated on the sand the waiting crowd took hold and ran it up on the beach. This done, the poor castaways were lifted out and carried to a fire of drift-wood not far away, just back of the beach hills. They were then, after a brief atsitet to restore warmth, wrapped in horse blankets, placed in a box-sleigh belonging to a farmer named Whitney, and driven rapidly to the latter's house, a mile or so back from the shore, Dr. Chapman, of Belleville, who was fortunately present, accompanying them, and with the aid of the Whitney family ministering to their comfort.

As the position of the two bodies left on the wreck and the lateness of the hour rendered their recovery that day impossible, the keeper and his men, after seeing the survivors in such good hands, turned their faces homeward; the boat being tracked back along the beach with the assistance of some of the crowd who lingered for that purpose. The men were all suffering more or less from frost-bite, and, as darkness had set in by the time they reached the Wind Gap, the keeper had the boat beached on the south shore inside, under the lee of the bluff, and all hands journeyed the remainder of the distance on foot, arriving at the station at half past 7.

The lake on the two following days was too rough for them to work on the ice-covered wreck for the recovery of the two bodies. On Sunday, the 5th, however, the weather and sea having moderated, the bodies, after considerable labor in chopping away the ice under which they were buried, were brought ashore and delivered to relatives waiting to receive them. The captain's body was not found. The three survivors Mulligan, Cox, and Young were hospitably cared for by Mr. Whitney until Monday, December 6, when they felt sufficiently restored to leave for their homes.

The conclusion reached by the investigating officer, after painstaking inquiry, was that the condition of the weather and the distance of the wreck from the station precluded the possibility of the life-saving crew reaching the spot any earlier than they did. The crew behaved with great gallantry and did all that could be done under the circumstances. They were in nowise to blame, as the captain's death occurred at a time and place and under conditions that put its prevention beyond human control, while the young man Dean also died before the wreck was discovered. The mate succumbed very soon after the discovery of the vessel and some hours before the news could reach the station. Much praise is due to Captain Jenkins, Mr. James Wood, and others for the noble manner in which they seconded the efforts of the life-saving crew.

The survivors before their departure addressed the following letter to the crew of the station:
"To the captain of the life-boat and the gallant crew at Big Sandy: "We can not help paying a little tribute to the great bravery and courage which you showed in your gallant behavior when saving us from the terrible wreck of the Ariadne of New Castle. We can not express our feelings of gratitude to you and your gallant crew. To you alone next to Almighty God, we three owe our lives. If ever courage and. bravery were exercised, it were on the 2d of December, 1886, when you and your gallant crew saved us from a dreadful state on the schooner Ariadne, running the greatest risk of your own lives, and for-ever setting all brave men as an example which can never be surpassed. The life-saving crews of the United States of America have often showed great bravery, and depend on it, if a life-long gratitude could repay a part of the debt we owe to you and your crew we will think ourselves very fortunate. May God never fail to shower blessings on your heads. is the sincere wish of "Maurice Young, "Edward Mulligan, "Thomas Cox."


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