Duncan And Christy


By James Donahue


The wreck of the steamer Asia in Lake Huron's Georgian Bay on September 14, 1882, had all the elements of a Hollywood production: terror, drama at sea, a captain who displayed wanton disregard for human life, and even romance.


There were only two survivors out of the one hundred twenty-five passengers and crew members. They were seventeen-year-old Duncan A. Tinkis and eighteen-year-old Christy Ann Morrison, who stumbled ashore together in a remote wilderness in Ontario after spending a black cold night in an open boat. An Indian found them and brought them by canoe to Parry Sound two days later.


A ballad was written about the wreck of the Asia and sung by the natives around Owen Sound for many years.


The foundering of the Asia is still counted among the worst single disasters in Great Lakes history.


Some said the wreck was caused by the carelessness of the Asia's master, Capt. John Savage. Had Savage lived, Canadian authorities might have found him guilty of taking the Asia out of port. The propeller was denied a license to operate because it did not contain enough life jackets and lifeboats to handle even a maximum crew. He also overloaded the boat with ninety-seven passengers when it was designed to carry only forty.


There were other problems. The Asia was a flat-bottomed vessel, originally built to navigate the Welland Canal. Veteran sailors said it was not able to handle the rigors of a storm on the open waters of Georgian Bay.


The Asia was not only laden with passengers when it steamed out of Owen Sound about midnight on September 13, the vessel also was loaded to the gunwales with heavy machinery, horses, and supplies bound for a logging camp at French River. No one knows why Savage took his vessel out of port while a gale was pounding the lakes into a frenzy. Authorities later censured Savage "for want of judgment in leaving the port in the face of a storm."


Tinkis and Morrison told about the trip. They said it was a terrible night for the passengers, all of them crammed in whatever shelter they could find. Some of them were trying to sleep on chairs, while others were sprawled on the pitching deck.


As top-heavy as it was, the Asia pitched and rolled like a wild animal as the storm intensified. Many people were violently seasick. "Dishes and chairs were flying in every direction," said Tinkis, who was traveling with his uncle, J. H. Tinkis.


By morning, Savage knew that his boat was in serious trouble. Waves were smashing their way across the decks and the vessel was taking on water. Morrison said she heard men pitching cargo and even horses over the railings just outside her stateroom at about 11 a.m. She said she saw her cousin, First Mate John McDonald, and asked him what was going on. McDonald had a look of despair on his face and said "we are doing all we can do."


Not long after that the Asia foundered. Morrison said she put on a life jacket and waited in her room until the deck tilted and water started coming in under her door. Then she climbed out on the deck and held a railing. "The boat seemed to be settling down. I saw a lifeboat nearby and lowered myself into the water. The captain caught me and held me from sinking until the mate (McDonald) came and helped me into the boat."


Tinkis said that when he and his uncle decided to leave their cabin, "the boat was rolling so badly we had difficulty getting up on the deck. I got a life preserver and put it on. The boat went into a trough of the sea and would not obey her helm. She rolled heavily for about 20 minutes and then was struck by a heavy sea. She went down with her engines running at about half past eleven."


He said he thought three lifeboats got away. "I was in the first boat. About eight others were with me at first, but more got in until the boat was overloaded and turned over twice."


Tinkis said the water was filled with struggling people who were grabbing at anything to stay afloat. After being tossed from the lifeboat, he said he found himself in great danger because people began grabbing him and his life preserver. To get away from them, he said he peeled off his life preserver and swam away.


 "People were hanging on the spars and other parts of the wreckage. I swam to the captain's boat, which was nearby, and asked Mr. John McDougall, the purser, to help me in. He said it was of little use, but gave me his hand."


There were eighteen people in the boat when he first got aboard. But shortly after that, the high waves tipped the craft. When the boat righted itself, Tinkis said several people were missing, including the morose McDougall. Tinkis and Morrison said the boat tipped three times that afternoon, each time spilling more people into the violent sea.


By evening, only seven survivors remained, including Captain Savage and mate McDonald. Morrison said she discovered that by wrapping her arms around the lifeline attached to the gunwales of the lifeboat, she could stay with the craft each time it rolled over. She said she just held on "so when she righted I was in again."


Everyone was wet and cold and suffering from exposure. "Our boat was full of water and the sea was constantly rolling over us," Tinkis said. "One of the first to die was the cabin boy. A wave washed him overboard. The next to go was a deckhand. He was near the gunwale and jumped out. I could see him paddling around in the water."


Morrison said nobody talked all the time they were together in the open boat. After the sun went down they noticed the light from the lighthouse at Bying Inlet and it seemed to cheer everybody up, knowing that land was close. "We sang a couple of sacred songs," she remembered.


McDonald died around midnight, and Savage died about ten minutes later. Tinkis said Savage was the last to die. He said he was holding the captain in his arms when it happened.


Before morning, all the men in the boat were dead. Only Morrison and Tinkis remained alive. The boat drifted ashore near Pointe au Barrie about daylight. The area was barren, with no sign of civilization, except for an oil derrick spotted a few miles down the coast.


"I put the bodies out on the beach and pried the boat off with an oar, but I could not bale it out," Tinkis said. "Miss Morrison and I went down the beach in the boat to the derrick. There they huddled together, cold, wet and frightened for still another night. The Indian discovered them there the next day and brought them out of the wilderness.


In case you wonder, Morrison and Tinkis did not fall in love and get married. They went their separate ways after their episode together.


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