Burning Of The Steamship Bavarian
By James Donahue
Fourteen people perished when the Canadian
steamship Bavarian suffered a peculiar accident and subsequent fire on Lake Ontario on November 5, 1873. The disaster was
the more spectacular of two fires that ravaged this iron-hulled vessel during its 74-year-long career on the Great Lakes.
Launched as hull number C71609 at Montreal
in 1855, the 176-foot-long vessel entered the Canadian Navigation Company’s service under the name Kingston. While designed
for both passenger and freight service, the passenger cabins and salon were so elegantly furnished that the Prince of Wales,
who later became King Edward VII, chose the Kingston as his “floating palace” when he toured Canadian ports in
1860. It was said the décor included stained glass windows, a piano and luxurious carpeting.
The Kingston operated successfully on Lake
Ontario and on the St. Lawrence River until it caught fire and burned to a total wreck off Grenadier Island on June 11, 1872.
Her master, a Captain Carmichael, beached his burning boat with such skill that all but two of the 125 passengers and crew
members escaped alive.
The iron hull and steam engine were salvaged
and used in the construction of the Bavarian, also owned by the Canadian Navigation Company. Captain Carmichael was again
in command when the second accident and fire destroyed the ship the next season.
The Bavarian, a side-wheeled driven vessel,
was steaming from Montreal to Toronto with six passengers and a cargo of freight that included 25 barrels of “spirits,”
probably whiskey or other liquors with a high content of alcohol, all stored on the main deck under the walking beam.
The walking beam on the old steamships was
a long iron or beam attached on a central post that moved like a see saw above the hurricane deck. The ends were attached
to piston rods that dropped into the engine works below deck. It was a relatively early and primitive method of utilizing
steam power to turn the paddle wheels mounted on both sides of the ship.
Disaster struck shortly after 8 o’clock
that evening, when the steamer was off Bowmanville, with first mate John Henderson standing watch. There was a loud sound
of metal crashing into the superstructure and suddenly the entire ship seemed to be going up in flames.
It was later determined that the walking
beam broke, was thrown forward carrying with it a port of a connecting rod. All that iron crashed through the saloon to the
main deck where it smashed open the barrels of liquor. The alcohol flowed into the boiler room directly below and the ship
was immediately engulfed in fire. Even worse, when the beam broke, the piston was driven through its cylinder and this caused
a release of all the steam.
Miraculously only 14 of the 36 passengers
and crew members on the steamer were killed in the disaster. Among the lost were Captain Carmichael, the engineer William
Finucan, the steward, W. Spence at least two women passengers and several others. Some of the survivors said it all happened
so fast it was as if the ship had been struck by lightning.
Three life boats were successfully dropped
from the davits. Some said the fire was on them so fast the boats were literally pushed overboard and passengers jumped into
them. Two of the boats filled with water and had to be dipped out.
The tug Whitby towed the smoking hull into
Newcastle where fire fighters extinguished the last remnants of the fire. Thus the iron hull was salvaged to be used to build
yet another steamship. This time it was called the Algerian.
The Algerian served in the Royal Mail Line
for the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company, still making regular trips carrying passengers and freight between Montreal
and Toronto until the turn of the century. The vessel was involved in two minor collisions with other boats during this time.
Both occurred on the St. Lawrence River.
The Algerian and steamer America ground together
when caught in the infamous Lachine Rapids near Montreal on Aug. 4, 1897. Both boats were crowded with passengers although
there were no reported injuries.
The steamer collided the following season
with the tug Ida, nearly in the same area, causing extensive damage to the tug. Authorities said the crew of the Algerian
failed to see the Ida in the dark because the tug’s signal lights were not lit. Again there were no injuries.
In about 1904 the name was changed from Algerian
to Cornwall. While still registered as a passenger carrier, the vessel remained docked much of the time and was only used
on occasion. It was replaced by newer and faster vessels of that day.
The old boat was purchased by the Calvin
Company of Garden Island in 1911 and completely rebuilt as a wrecking tug. She was stripped of her cabins and superstructure
and equipped with salvage equipment. The steamer served in this capacity until about 1930 when the owners decided the 75-year-old
boat had outlived its usefulness.
They said it was towed out into the lake
in a snow storm, just before Christmas, and scuttled near Amherst Island. One account of the sinking noted that because the
weather was so bad, “not being anxious to hang around, the crew hurried her on her way by the generous use of dynamite.”
Sport divers say the old steamer now sits
upright in 70 feet of water. Her hull is split open in several places, but the boilers are still in place and portions of
the large paddle wheels are still intact, rising about 20 feet from the bottom.