Infamy sailed with Ontario shipbuilder
One of the most infamous of 19th-century shipbuilder Melancthon Simpson's vessels, the Waubuno sank in a November storm on Georgian Bay, taking all 25 lives aboard.
If you`d had the opportunity to ask shipbuilder Melancthon Simpson which was the best-known ship he`d ever built, he`d likely have had a hard time answering.
The Ontario-born shipbuilder was behind some of the most famous — and infamous — ships that plied the Great Lakes waters at the start of the province’s golden days of shipbuilding.
He was born at Ox Point, not far from Belleville, in 1827. His first job was as a sailor. At the ripe old age of 19, he bought a home in Oakville. His uncle, John Potter, was a shipbuilder there and Simpson studied the trade with him. In three years, he struck out with his brother John and together they build the schooner Catherine.
Back then, Oakville had a small port dotted with ship and boat builders and repair yards. He and his brother built up a regular business, designing and building sailing ships in Oakville and Wellington Square (as Burlington was known).
In 1863, he moved to the entrance of the Welland Canal at Port Dalhousie. He worked as foreman at Donaldson and Andrews, a large shipbuilder. A few months later, in the winter of 1863-64, he moved to St. Catharines and opened his own yard at the pond on Lock 5, right next to one of the major shipbuilders on the lakes — Louis Shickluna.
With the arrival of spring, Simpson launched the first craft at his new yard: Jessie Drummond, a canal-sized barque, 142 feet long and 26 feet wide. About 1,000 people were on hand to witness the event.
The next year, he launched his first steamers, the Lily at his yard in St. Catharines and the Waubuno in a yard in Thorold. The Waubuno would be one of his most infamous ships. Within four years of her launch, in the teeth of a November storm on Georgian Bay, she sank and all 25 people on board died. Wreck Island commemorates the tragedy.
But that wasn’t the deadliest sinking.
Simpson built the Asia at St. Catharines in 1873. It was overloaded when it was caught in a September 1882 storm during a trip that was to start in Collingwood, travel to Meaford and Owen Sound, and then head to Sault Ste. Marie.
During the storm, the ship tried for the French River on Georgian Bay’s northeast shore, but didn’t make it. All but two of 125 on board died.
Simpson’s craft were generally known to be well built and his reputation on the Great Lakes was a good one. But the Asia, rated for 49 passengers, was carrying 97 and had a heavy load of cargo on the decks with not enough ballast below, making it an easy victim of the heavy winds and waves.
In 1876, when a third version of the Welland Canal made the second obsolete, Simpson bought land on the new canal. But in 1877 he left St. Catharines and moved operations to Hamilton and finally to Toronto.
In 1887 he built what is probably his most famous ship: The Nipissing. Built in Gravenhurst, it was later rebuilt in 1925 and rechristened Segwun. It still chugs along the waterways of the Muskoka Lakes — the oldest steamer in North America.
— Tom Villemaire is a writer based in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula. Tom@Historylab.ca