It was a Thursday afternoon in Ontario. To be precise: the 20th of June, 1912, on the Niagara peninsula – between the lowest two of the five Great Lakes (Erie and Ontario), in the City of Thorold, population 2,300. Five local lads from Thorold, ages 5 to 7, took off for some afternoon amusement. Using branches from trees, some twine, and hooks made of bent pins, they strode off with their make-shift fishing equipment to try their luck at a nearby creek.
Fishing at the creek. At least that’s what they told their mothers. As children often do, they did something different. Only slightly different. It seemed such a trivial fib. They actually went over to the Welland Canal, so they could watch huge ships transit while dipping their lines. Whose idea? Probably George Bretherick, age 7, as he had fished there regularly with his father on Sundays. Linked to fresh water by the canal and feeder streams, the canal boasted a healthy population of perch, several types of bass and other finned aquatic vertebrate possibilities.
The official start of summer was still two days away. The weather was finally pleasant, after a brief spring due to a long and brutally cold winter; still one of the coldest and deepest ever recorded. All five Great Lakes had frozen solid; only recently had their surface turned fully liquid. An ice-bridge had formed over nearby Niagara Falls, giving the appearance it had frozen solid. It would lead to tragedy.  Canadians generally relish winter – especially cold ones. Outdoor activities – like hockey on frozen lakes and rivers – are the stuff of life. For immigrants, though, it was tough.
Spring 1912 was cursed as well. The rivers, creeks, streams, and lakes were frozen and full … then heavy rains bore down. The rivers and streams all melted and flooded. It was a mess. The warmth and clearness of summer were so very welcome.
Moms were glad the long cold winter and cool spring were over. Bedspreads, blankets and carpets could be beaten free of grit, dust and hair outside. Laundry drying could go outside too. Small gardens were planted. Life moved outdoors. Get the house good and clean. Windows open. Get out the new factory-made version of the good old Shaker Broom; properly flat for efficient removal of all sorts of family life’s detritus. 
Like most years of the era, there were already plenty of disasters with large ships <link>. Contributing factors were the infancy of radio and weather forecasting. Also, the growth in commerce led to bigger and more powerful ships; which meant bigger steam boilers, engines, crank shafts and propellers. Fresh in everyone’s mind was a “disaster for the ages” that had just occurred. In April a certain unsinkable ship struck an iceberg in the Atlantic, unbelievably at 41.7 degrees north latitude. That’s further south than Chicago, and even parts of California. Not unsinkable.
Five very young boys went out to play for the afternoon. There would be some goofing around. Some fishing. Stories shared: some from their parents, some secrets from older siblings. Two were 7-years old; the other three were 5-years old (well, one was only four years and eleven months).
The Welland Canal was Canada’s answer to the challenge of water-borne transport between its largest cities and the upper Great Lakes – the awesomely powerful falls that tumble over the Niagara Escarpment betwixt Lakes Erie and Ontario posing as a most un-navigable barrier to all shipping.
The US completed the 369-mile Erie Canal in 1825, linking Buffalo (on Lake Erie) to Albany, NY on the Hudson River – and thus to New York City. Its completion gave a huge jolt to making NYC the commercial and financial powerhouse that it is even still today.
From Lake Erie, the canal traverses the Niagara Peninsula, roughly on a south-north line, to Lake Ontario, with a water surface some 250 feet lower than Lake Erie’s.
It’s hard to understate the significance of the Welland Canal. It’s contribution to commerce — to jobs and trade — was and is titanic. Today over 3,000 ships traverse it yearly (but only during ice-free months). Thanks largely to the Welland, Toronto is Canada’s largest city in both population and economic power. That’s a status it has enjoyed pretty much since the first Welland Canal opened to traffic.
Young boys going out to play, or fish, alone for several hours? That would never be permitted today. Yet, when I was a lad – I’m thinking mid- to late-1960s – we often left the house with our bikes, bats and ball gloves, only to return just in time for dinner, or as the first evening stars began to twinkle in the twilight. Extrapolating back to that earlier time, I can see how this was accepted without even a scoff. They were just going down to the creek to fish, skip stones and catch crayfish, right? In reality they went out to play and fish along a shipping canal. What’s the harm?
Ah, the Canadian Steam Surveyor CSS La Canadienne. A star-crossed ship. She started her life in 1880 named the “Foxhound” in Glasgow, Scotland, Built by Robert Duncan, she measured 154 feet in length, displacing 400 tons. She was soon bought and renamed “La Canadienne” and sent to Canada for coastal fishing patrol. In 1906, she was re-purposed for Hydrographic Surveys along the St Lawrence River. [This is mainly mapping coast lines, rocky outcroppings, and depth soundings].
In June, 1912, she was ordered to go to the upper Great Lakes, into Lake Superior, for surveys there. The transit was cursed. Traveling up the St Lawrence River she was going through the Cornwall Canal when she collided with the steamer Britannic headed the other way. Temporarily sidelined. Several days. Damage was minimal and each ship proceeded: the Britannic to sea and La Canadienne across Lake Ontario to the Welland Canal. On this Thursday she was behind schedule; worse, the canal traffic was backed up. She’d have to wait her turn to go “upstream”; none of the canal’s locks were large enough to take such large craft both-ways all day long.
Four of the five boys and their families were all very recent arrivals to Thorold. Along with the more established Bouks they all appear to have lived close to one another, in an immigrant-based community of various origins: Dutch, English, Scots, Germans … and a few Canadians. At that time the great Welland Canal ran right through town, near locks 19 through 24 (locks numbered from north to south). It appears that much of Thorold was little more than a shantytown for laborers and their families — for those who built, and also for those who worked on, the canal.
After lunch, and maybe a nap for some, the boys dreamed up and executed their plan … slinking to the canal, near Lock 21. It must have felt exhilarating! An afternoon of innocent adventure, cloaked in mild deception. Fishing on the canal! Big, big boats going by!
[Map with key features and locks of third canal shown.]
Each of the four manifestations of the Welland Canal has had more than its share of catastrophes. During the construction of the 4th canal (1913-1935 …
with interruptions for the Great War) there were an astounding 137 recorded deaths – and many serious injuries. At today’s Canal Museum, in nearby St Catharines, there is a commemorative monument and plaque to honor them. Many of the workers were from immigrant families, like those of Jack, Wallace, Bretherick and Bouk. Of course the first three canals also had many injuries and fatalities among the workers. [A good summary of the human cost here: <link>]
The boys were at the canal in time to see La Canadienne transit Lock 21. So big! All ships must creep along; both between locks, and, especially important, within the locks. This surveyor ship, which surely appeared massive to the boys, fits within the lock easily, with a margin of 24 feet. Its 154 ft bow-to-stern length is well within the nominal typical ship length for 1912, at 178 ft. Surface water in the lock churned a bit in a few places, appearing like boiling water, an effect of upstream water gushing in through pipes beneath and unseen. The most obvious effect was the raising of La Canadienne. It all must have seemed like magic. The churning slowed as she was lifted the last few feet. Done! The upstream gates swung open. She was released from the snubbing posts. And then, on she went, toward Lock 22. This must have been a really exciting thing for young boys to witness. I still marvel at such things today.
Now the fishing can truly commence. The homemade “hooks” were dunked into the water. The boys waited for the next huge ship to come up while trying to pay attention to their lines.
A few minutes later, at about 3:30PM, La Canadienne steamed gently into Lock 22. Just before the downstream gate commenced closing, the usual orders were given along the lock and aboard the ship: secure the ship to the stubbing posts, … and drop speed to full stop. All per usual. This was, after all, the 22nd lock of the day.
And yet … Somehow the timing was off. The ship was not secured. The ropes were not on the snubbing posts. Power was still feeding the props. La Canadienne continued creeping along at a few knots toward the forward gates – the gates that held back millions and millions of gallons of water exerting pressure on the gate that rose to 750 lbs per square foot.
It took just moments for the captain to realize the mistakes. “FULL ASTERN!!.”
Alas, too late. Simple physics was now in charge; there was nothing any human could do.
It’s nigh impossible to instantly alter the momentum of such a large craft in water. La Canadienne banged into the upstream gate of Lock 22, generating an ominous sound — between a thud and a clang — from the collision of metal on metal
The momentum of the large ship generated enough thrust to damage the gates. They cracked opened a bit. The seal was lost. Even slight damage and slightly cracked open gates were enough for the upstream water to force its way completely through. With the unexpected suddenness of an earthquake, the water burst through the gates completely. The monster was unleashed. A massive and powerful wave surged into the lock.
The water swept over and past La Canadienne. Then into the downstream gate, which was just beginning to close. La Canadienne was lifted and tossed – pitched and rolled as if she were in a high seas storm – then carried past the gates, down toward lock 21. On the way she was hurled violently against the canal’s bank, the rocks puncturing her hull. She came to rest there.
Such a torrent of water. The scene repeated at Lock 21. It surged on. Then 20. Then 19. The surge continued on, slightly smaller at each lock, until the destruction ended at Lock 18. Along the way craft were flung about, the smaller of them suffering structural damage. Surrounding farmland was inundated.
Near Lock 21 it’s likely that none of the boys heard the first sounds of the unfolding disaster. Or at least thought little of it; none had spent much time at the canal, if any at all, for most. But surely they must’ve heard and finally reacted to the excited, panicky yelling that followed, as La Canadienne flew out of the lock. And then … the ominous roar of the wave. From Lock 22, the wave raced to the upper gates of Lock 21, about 800 feet away. Here it resulted in a new huge wave as it crested the gate and plunged into the lock.
The older boys, George Jr and David, probably reacted first. Sensing danger they got up to run, yelling at their co-conspirators to run, run, run! They ran downstream along the bank, away from the noise, from the commotion, and from the giant wave. It was all too late.
George escaped mostly unscathed. David was washed into the canal, to be rescued by an alert government employee, Hugh Maguire – a surveyor. The other three? The youngest? The waves swarmed over them and swept them away.
Leonard Bretherick and the two Willies, Jack and Wallace, were simply gone, washed to the weirs of a side pond. Their bodies were eventually found. But not on that day, that awful, awful day, June 20, 1912.
The death certificates for all three read “Drowning.” It might as well have read “Carelessness.”
Some mournful witnesses said the boys would probably have been better off running toward Lock 22, so as to escape the 2nd wave caused by the surge from cresting the gates of 21.
All families remained in the area for some time, except for the Wallaces, for whom there is no additional data. Archival research suggests existences for each family that might well have been lives of quiet desperation. More children born, more children lost — including a Jack family infant (Matthew Hugh) who perished at only 25 days old from marasmus, i.e severe malnutrition. One patriarch spent his last 6 years in the 1920s alone in a “House of Refuge”, what we would call a Poor House, a place for the indigent, the lonely and seriously infirm, all under government care. Eventually, I suppose, many of those offspring moved away upon reaching adulthood, the world offering wider horizons than life along a shipping canal.
There was an inquisition, of course. I cannot find the results. It seems there were few consequences. La Canadienne was raised and towed downstream to port for repairs. The many gates of the locks were repaired or replaced in several days. La Canadienne was back in transit in a week. She did not make it to duty on Lake Superior until August 7th. She served out the remainder of her existence on Lake Superior, performing soundings and mapping its enormous coast line. She’d have more major accidents, too; the most disastrous was running aground near Port Arthur on Thunder Bay, in September 1916, presumably during a storm. She was soon retired and sold off – her crew required for service in the Great War.
This surely ranks as the most tragic accident on the Welland Canal. Yet, surprisingly, many details are obscured by the thickening fog of history… soon to be lost behind the veils of time. I felt compelled to bring the the story and its circumstances together, saving them from history’s dust bin, as best I could — to weave the dramatic saga factually and tenderly, from several points of view: human, parent, historian, researcher, story-teller.
Joe Girard © 2022
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 Daring tourists and thrill seekers walked across the Niagara Falls ice bridge. Until the fourth day of February, 1912, when it collapsed, with three falling to their eventual deaths. [Buffalo News] [Explanation of how the ice bridge forms, and invites disaster, here] [A short video describing this horrific tragedy. https://youtu.be/80VB-0TonpU]
 The Shaker Broom: https://slate.com/human-interest/2012/06/broom-history-how-it-became-flat.html
 That document is little William’s death certificate.
I do apologize. I had difficulty putting this story together in a way that flows and connects the the converging threads of history in a properly fitting manner. But one must stop researching and re-writing at some point. Then it’s hit “publish” or “delete.”
The main reason for this underachievement is that I spent countless hours trying to find background information, which was quite time consuming. Historical archives I combed through included old newspapers, census data, death certificates, grave site searches and immigration records. The most difficult was tracing the paths of families who either modified their last names, or whose names were erroneously recorded by government officials. And, it seems, one chose to be ghost-like.
From my review of newspapers I was struck by several recurrent themes. First, the incident at Welland Canal was reported coast to coast, in small towns and large cities. From Nananee to Toronto in Ontario. And from Montreal to Victoria across the continent. I perused the Saint Louis Post Dispatch; it even occurs there. More astounding – the articles appeared on June 21 – the day after the tragedy. This is certainly testament to the near instant communication via wire services that were in place. Each article, save that in the St Catharines Daily Standard, were brief and nearly identical, with bothersome little errors. “If it bleeds, it leads … screw the details … then move on …” seems to have been the news business motto long before late 20th and early 21st century news.
And the papers gave me some blind alleys, as they found multiple ways to spell names, and different times. One had 1927. Another August 1. Census data were unsteady too; but at least it was archived.
I was also struck by the brevity of the newspapers – many just 12-24 pages long. There seemed to be a lack of news to report, or perhaps paper shortages. Most font was very tiny. Also, they carried far more advertisements that we see today; I guess that mostly happens digitally now a-days.
A third striking theme was the fascination with US politics in Canada, as well as the US. The Republican Convention was about to begin in Chicago. The consensus seemed to be that Taft would get the nod over Roosevelt (he did), then go on to victory in November (abysmal failure; he finished third). On the Democratic side there was fear that they’d nominate an un-electable radical. This concern was especially raised by long-time Democratic firebrand William Jennings Bryan. In the end they eventually (after 46 ballots) chose Woodrow Wilson, somewhat of a dark horse and political neophyte. Of course he won, and went on to re-election.
This in-depth endeavor of discovery left me feeling a bit sour. It took so much time, with the result that I found these families lived lives of desperation, with much sadness, emptiness and disappointment. Finally, it gave me negative feelings about myself. Why haven’t I spent more time on efforts like this for my own ancestry? My dad and my second-cousin, Anola, put much effort into this a few decades ago. Yet I’ve only pushed it forward a tiny bit. I owe this to my own decedents, as well as my many cousins.
I stumbled across the beginnings of this story at the St Catharines Museum, which is dedicated to the regional history, a lot of which includes the canal(s). Facts there were few, and a key fact (year of event) was quite incorrect. Yet, I persisted.
I have to acknowledge some excellent resources. First my wife, who found visual resources and encouraged me to use them to help tell the story. She found many typos in the early drafts. Sadly I re-wrote several times thereafter, and many probably remain. I also acknowledge the following on-line resources:
- Canadian Government Archives — bac-lac.gc.ca; https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/census/Pages/census.aspx
(note due to privacy laws census data not available for 100 yrs, so most recent is 1921)
Also immigration and arriving ship data
- newpaperarchive.com – (which requires a subscription)
- archive.org — an internet Wayback machine, which provided an assessment in an engineering journal of the failures mentioned here, published just 3 weeks later. And page 1 from the Victoria Times, the next day: https://archive.org/details/victoriadailytimes19120621/mode/2up?view=theater
- and whoever made the interactive overlay map of the canal at this site: