Last Trip of the BRUCE MINES, November 1854 – Winter 1972

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

By Roy F. Fleming

BRUCE MINES is pictured in a drawing circa 1870. Image from the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library archives.

The side-wheeler Bruce Mines was owned by the Montreal Mining Company which operated the copper mines along the St. Marys River known as Bruce Mines. Built in 1842 at Montreal, the ship, 126 feet long, of Welland Canal size, was the main connecting link between the little mining town near Sault Ste. Marie and the Lower Lakes. The vessel would take slag and copper ore from the mines down as far as Toronto where it was shipped on to England for smelting. Then the ship would bring back supplies for the mine’s operation and food for the village inhabitants.

In November 1854, the vessel, on her last trip of the season, discharged her load of ore at Toronto and took on a cargo of supplies for the return voyage. The ship then was in charge of Capt. Frederick McKenzie Fraser and Mate Duncan Lambert, both able and experienced mariners, familiar with their routes of travel.

After going through the Welland Canal, Lakes Erie and St. Clair, the ship passed into Lake Huron and made a call at Goderich, Ontario. At that port more food and a supply of salt were taken on, so that with four passengers and a crew of twenty-two, the vessel was now heavily loaded. In the afternoon of this day Monday, November 27, the vessel pulled out and took a northwesterly course for the False Detour, east of Drummond Island, the channel then used for entrance to the North Channel. There was a strong headwind but the ship rode well and made headway. Captain Fraser calculated that they would reach Bruce Mines late the following day.

However, about midnight a strong gale from the west came on and great waves struck the little vessel with tremendous force. The sea strangely changed direction several times and subjected the craft to uncalculated strains, so that very soon a number of seams opened out and water began to enter in large quantities! Men were set working at the pumps, but the water gained headway and it soon became evident that the vessel was in serious danger.

“Throw the deck cargo overboard,” the captain ordered in the hope of keeping the vessel afloat. However, by the time everything movable was thrown out, the situation was no better. The pumps were working in relays all that night. But by morning the water had risen in the hold and had put out the boiler fires — the engine stopping dead. The ship then drifted about helplessly, and everyone aboard realized that the situation was almost hopeless.

The officers knew they were off the coast of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula; the wind was driving them towards it but they were far away. At two o’clock in the afternoon a sailor on watch at the masthead reported “Land in sight to the east!” It seemed to be about twenty miles away, he said. Though the drift of the vessel was in the right direction, the rate was so slow there was no hope of reaching land before their craft would sink. Suddenly the ship’s carpenter rushed to the captain with the word, “We’ve only five minutes before the vessel will sink!” The crisis had come.

There were only two yawl boats on board and these were not large. If the weather had been fair all the company of twenty-six could probably have been carried in them, but with the surging waves the chances of the company surviving in them appeared very doubtful.

When the captain ordered the boats to be launched, the terror-stricken crew made a mad rush for them. Captain Fraser, a real commander of the best British naval traditions, cocked his two pistols, one in each hand. “I’ll shoot the first man who tries to enter a boat before I give the order!” he yelled. The men obeyed, and went back to work. However, when the boats were being lowered the tackle of one became snarled and the rope would not go through the pulley. With great presence of mind the mate seized an axe and cut the rope, allowing the boat to fall with a great crash into the water.

Mate Lambert and fourteen men entered this boat. Another man, the carpenter, jumped for the boat but missed it and sank to his death in the water. In the other smaller boat, Captain Fraser then took the nine persons remaining. The two boats had scarcely left the vessel when she sank, but left the upper deck floating. This float fortunately acted as a barrier to prevent the vortex of the sinking ship from drawing down the two overcrowded yawl boats.

The story of the miraculous escape of these twenty-five mariners in surging seas, many miles from a rocky shore, is told in a letter written to the Toronto Globe by one of the four passengers in Mate Lambert’s boat. It was published December 16, 1854, but the writer failed to sign his name. There were only two oars in each boat, the narrator says, but fortunately some buckets had been thrown in which were soon used for bailing. The boats pulled away from the sinking ship, and the rowers in each were able to keep the bow across the rolling waves and headed for shore. The crests of the waves came in over the gunwale continuously, but the men were able to bail out with the buckets, keeping the water below the fatal level.

Night came on and the boats separated. At 10 P.M. those in Lambert’s boat heard breakers ahead, but in the darkness they could not see shore. They heard waves crashing on rocks on both sides of them, yet in front no sound but the screaming gale. They were passing through a narrow gut between reefs. The rowers then ceased, and steadied their boat on what was an expanse of calm water. They could hear the roar of the breakers behind them.

Map of Bruce Peninsula and Cape Hurd.

In the darkness of night the men moved slowly about the basin they had entered. At last they grounded against a rocky cape and the men were then able to get on shore. When day broke the company found themselves on a small island in the lee of Cape Hurd near the top of Bruce Peninsula.

“If we had touched even one hundred yards farther down,” the letter writer tells, “we should have been all dashed against the rocks and inevitably lost. It was the will of the Almighty that we should land at the only spot on the coast where we could possibly save ourselves and that in the dark.”

The two rowers, one a passenger and one a deckhand, had done all the rowing from the wreck to the shore, laboring continuously for eight hours — from three o’clock in the afternoon till eleven o’clock at night. Their muscles were so played out that they were unable to stand. They had to be lifted from their places by their comrades.

Brush and logs were next gathered together and with a good fire soon blazing the men were able to warm themselves and dry their clothes. The two rowers soon regained their strength and fortunately suffered no ill effects from their prolonged ordeal.

By daylight the company was able to appraise their situation. There they stood, fifteen weary but undaunted men, on an uninhabited coast, without an ounce of food and no means of obtaining any! Only one of them knew anything of the lay of the land, Mate Lambert, who had served for years with Capt. Alexander McGregor in the Fishing Islands to the south.

“The peninsula,” he said, “is trackless, without even a trail through it. The nearest settlement of whites is at Sydenham (Owen Sound) 130 miles away.” He overestimated the distance by thirty miles, but the prospect was certainly very bleak. However, the company was cheered a little as they espied curls of smoke from a nearby island, and soon recognized Captain Fraser’s band, who had landed only a short distance away.

Mate Lambert’s group then moved over to join the captain’s, and there they conferred as to what should be done. Fraser, having sailed other vessels on Georgian Bay, knew the route to Owen Sound. The question was, would the men have the strength and tenacity, without food, to row such a long distance in cold stormy weather? But there was no other alternative, so the journey was decided on. It was agreed that after rounding the peninsula the boats should hug the shore in the lee of the west winds.

Early on Wednesday morning, November 29, the two lifeboats set out for Sydenham (now Owen Sound), Captain Fraser’s boat in the lead. They passd Cove Island and Collin’s Inlet (now known as Tobermory) and rounded Cabot’s Head into Georgian Bay. They passed slowly but steadily along the coast, rounding each point to keep in the shelter of the land. The rowers worked in relays.

During the first night the boats lost track of each other, the mate’s taking the lead. It was 8 o’clock Saturday morning, December 2, when the first boat arrived at Sydenham, four days and five hours after the Bruce Mines had gone down.

At three the next morning Captain Fraser and his men also arrived, and all the company was thankful in their strange deliverance from death. Food and rest were given to the poor refugees who had not eaten for five days. The villagers were appalled at the story the mariners told of the loss of their vessel, their strange deliverance from death and their terrible ordeal of rowing before they reached civilization.

Fonunately for the four passengers of the company, when they landed at Sydenham there was a schooner at the dock ready to set sail for the Bruce Mines. So they were able to reach home and bring the direful news of the sinking of their vessel, with the winter’s supplies for the village, and the loss of one life.

Captain Fraser was a scion of an old Scottish family. His father, Col. McKenzie Fraser, was an army officer and member of Parliament for a Scottish shire. The son had sailed the pioneer steamer of Georgian Bay, the Sir Francis Gore, from 1845 to 1851, and later commanded the steamer J. C. Morrison on Lake Simcoe, and the Prince Arthur during the Fenian Raids. Mate Duncan Lambert had lived in Goderich, and was an able seaman, having fished and sailed vessels under Capt. Alexander McGregor at Main Station in the 1840s. His son later kept the light at Chantry Island, Southampton, Ontario.

The sailing fraternity of the Great Lakes has had few officers as able and resolute in duty as were the two heroes of our story, Capt. Frederick Fraser and Mate Duncan Lambert. They controlled their seamen, and though they lost their ship, were able to save all on board with the exception of one man.

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About the Author:At the time of his death in 1958, Mr. Roy F. Fleming was writing a book on Great Lakes shipwrecks. Several of the completed chapters given to INLAND SEAS by Mrs. Fleming and their son, Mr. Bruce H. Fleming, have been published an earlier issues of our journal. Mr. Fleming was an instructor in art on the staff of the Ottawa Normal School, and for many years wrote historical articles, mainly on Great Lakes history, for the Owen Sound Sun Times, and for other papers and magazines. He was a Charter Member and a Trustee of the Great Lakes Historical Society.

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