A November Storm Firsthand – Winter 1978

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By M.S. Macgillivray

The following letter was written to my brother, John Campbell Macgillivray, by the late Capt. James McCannel of Port McNicoll, Ontario, who for many years was Master of the steamer Assiniboia, built in 1907, and Commodore of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Upper Lakes Steamship fleet. Captain McCannel was a relative, and he and my brother John kept in close touch over the years. I came across this letter recently, in my brother’s papers. The envelope in which it was mailed was addressed to him at the Canadian Government Trade Commission, Hamburg, Germany.

The parts of the letter I am enclosing describe Captain McCannel’s last trip across Lake Superior just prior to his retirement.

My dear Clansman: Feb. 15th 1937

Yes, here I am now retired and to be candid I have no regrets–47 years seems a long time to be a mariner . . .

I certainly got an awful trimming on the 27th and 28th Nov. (1936) on Superior. For a time it did not look too good. In fact I wondered if old Father Neptune was going to close my career rather suddenly on the eve of my retirement. We had only 350 tons. The storm struck me 110 miles above Whitefish Point. It came like a tornado and half an hour after it hit us I could not hold her up nearer than 35° of her course, and going sideways and rearing in the air, like a mad horse. I decided to run for shelter off Keweenaw. She rolled so hard and deep the railings were going under each time, and then the deck load shifted. There was a 45 ton car of steel pipe, and bars about 30 feet long. I could hear freight breaking on the bridge. The watchman came up and said everything was going to pieces. I sent the mates down, but they reported it would be death to go in to try and secure it. I then turned for Whitefish Point, but she was going sideways and in a couple of hours I would be trying to keep her off a lea shore. I then hauled up as close as she would come to the wind and head for Michipicotin Island.

No visibility on account of snow and vapor.

I was blown down below Caribou and I then got her up north passing east of Michipicotin, and when abreast of Otterhead I hauled on another tack across the middle of the lake for Passage Island and after battling the gale for 40 hours I arrived in Fort William. When heading into the gale she would go down so deep the cargo of steel would slide forward and dig further each time into the freight, and when the bow went up it slid down to the bulk- head. The Superintendent and others in Fort William never saw a cargo mixed up and out of place like it.

Seven of us got hurt. One fellow was down street the other day for the first time. I was thrown off my feet backwards and fell, hitting my head, but fortunately I had a big cap on, fur collar turned up, and a big scarf around all, or else my head would have been split.

I was knocked out. The first I knew they were trying to get me on my feet. I never saw so many stars before. My left shoulder and right arm are still very bad. Some nights I can hardly sleep for the pain of right arm and cannot lift it up very high. Later on the wind swept me down the icy deck. I grabbed the rail at the stairway and swung clear around and hit my side on the other end of railings, knocking the wind out of me.

I was knocked all to hell that night yet I stayed on the job. Cabin girl was thrown out of bed clear across the room. The dressing table went flying through the air and left her black and blue. Three fireman hurt and two waiters had hand dressings. Piano got adrift, furniture in cabin, dining room and pantry smashed and the new refrigerator was completely wrecked. Stairs carried away. My room was a complete wreck. Well I sailed the flagship 24 years and that was the worst hammering I ever got . . . .

With all good wishes, I am, etc.

(Signed) J. McCannel

It can be mentioned here that Fort William was the Lake Superior terminus for Canadian Pacific’s Great Lakes fleet at the time this letter was written. It is now, of course, part of Thunder Bay. Also, the Assiniboia was totally destroyed by fire on November 9 and 10, 1969, at Philadelphia, where, after leaving the Lakes, she was to have been converted into a floating restaurant.

Relating to Captain McCannel’s retirement, on November 20, 1936, a testimonial banquet, sponsored by the city and attended by the citizens of Fort William, was held in his honor, at the Royal Edward Hotel. Tribute was paid to him as one of the city’s staunchest friends, and he was presented with a beautiful “easy chair” in which he could relax after forty-four years of sailing twenty-four of them, as stated in his letter, as captain of the Assiniboia.

His death on June 28, 1939, came suddenly as he would have wished, when a fatal heart attack brought his life’s voyage to an end. He left behind one and a-half million miles of devoted service on the Great Lakes and an unexcelled record of never having lost a ship, or ever needing assistance! His dedicated service is certainly a commendable addition to Great Lakes history.

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About the Author: Mr. M. S. Macgillivray has been an interested member of the Great Lakes Historical Society for the past several years. He has already contributed to our journal, and is currently engaged in compiling the histories of some of the lesser known vessels of the Great Lakes. Mr. Macgillivray is a resident of Montreal, Quebec.

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