The Asia — Georgian Bay’s worst marine tragedy

Lost on Georgian Bay with over 100 lives and only two survivors.

“Go where you will on Georgian Bay and let the talk turn to vessels wrecked or lost, the name of the Asia will soon be heard.”

Those words were penned by Fred Landon in his book “Lake Huron”, published in 1944 as part of The American Lakes Series. Landon had sailed on the lakes for a couple of years to help put himself through Western University in his hometown of London, Ontario. He later became head librarian and a historian at Western.

“Georgian Bay,” he continued, “has swallowed up its scores of vessels and broken up hundreds more on its rocky shores, but no other disaster on its waters has equaled in loss of life that which accompanied the disappearance of this small steamer.”

It was September, 1882. The Asia had been chartered by Great Northern Transit of Collingwood to replace their Manitoulin which had burned earler that summer near Manitowaning, Manitoulin Island. Only 136′ long by 26′ beam, the Asia had been built nine years previously at St. Catharines, possibly by the Shikluna yard there which specialized to some degree in wooden vessels small enough for the Welland Canal. In her short life Asia had already been in two mishaps requiring repairs to her hull.

Being September, steamers on the northern lakes were busy carrying men, horses and supplies to logging camps around the shore for their winter activities. The Asia was to stop at these operations at the mouth of the French River and then Collins Inlet to the west. At Collingwood, her captain J.N.Savage, first mate John McDonald and purser John McDougal supervised the loading of barrels, boxes, animals and people on the vessel. Landon wrote that all of her cabins were full to overflowing so that many of the lumberjacks had to sleep on the deck. He speculated that she was top-heavy because of officers’ reluctance to place some cargo lower down in the hold for the relatively short trip from one end of the Bay to the other.

But they didn’t allow for a violent westerly gale arising that night, Sept. 13th.

Before Asia departed her home port for a stop at Owen Sound, one passenger later told people he had overheard an inspector tell the captain he doubted the ship would make it to French River. That was too much for James Shipp. He got off the Asia at Owen Sound, and took a different ship later.

Around midnight the heavily laden steamer headed north into the Bay. During the night what some have called a hurricane roared in, stirring up mountainous seas in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

By the next morning the Asia was wallowing in huge waves somewhere east of Lonely Island. Capt. Savage ordered some of the deck cargo to be jettisoned but it was too little too late. She was struck by a monstrous wave that smashed into her stern, breaking open gangway doors and streaming aboard, filling every nook and cranny the water could find.

The Asia began to sink by the stern. The 120-plus people aboard were tossed into the lake or were carried down into it by the ship as it quickly broke apart and headed for the bottom.

One metallic lifeboat, probably with built-in flotation, was eventually filled with around 20 passengers and crew, including the captain, who were hauled aboard from the tossing water.

Survior Duncan Tinkiss reported: “We were driving fast before the sea and soon lost sight of wreckage and other boats as well.”

Christine Morrison was the only other survivor. A teenager like Tinkiss, she jumped as the deck became awash and was swept by waves close to the captain’s boat where the mate, her cousin, hauled her aboard.

Wind and waves combined to capsize the lifeboat numerous times. Each time it was righted there were fewer people aboard. The two teens clung to the boat’s ends and were able to climb back in after each roll. As daylight faded there were only six left alive.

The wind was dropping slightly but not the waves. A distant flash of light to the east raised their hopes as it was identified as the Byng Inlet lighthouse. During the night the captain, mate and all but Tinkiss and Morrison died. Tinkiss put the bodies under the seats to prevent them being lost.

As dawn came, land was sighted in the distance. The boat drifted ashore near Pointe au Baril, where its exhausted living occupants moored it safely and then collapsed. A day later they were picked up by a native boatman on his way to Parry Sound where he delivered them the following day, and they told their story to be relayed to the anxious outside world.

Duncan Tinkiss eventually made it to his destination in Manitoulin’s Manitowaning where he lived the rest of his life. Christine Morrisson became Mrs. Albert Fleming and lived on a farm southeast of Owen Sound, passing away in the late 1930s.

The loss of so many lives on the Asia ensured the wreck’s notoriety for years. From trying to locate so many lost bodies — some found on Lonely Island, another many miles east near Byng Inlet — to investigating the cause of the wreck, kept public interest alive for years, as these news stories of the day indicate:

Even today, nearly 140 years later, it is rumoured that Great Lakes history buffs are searching Georgian Bay for the remains of the Asia in the cold depths somewhere between Pointe au Baril and Lonely Island.

The wooden steamer and those aboard her weren’t the only victims of that vicious September storm in 1882. When he arrived safely in Midland, the skipper of a schooner reported seeing another schooner founder near Cabot Head on the Bruce Peninsula in that storm. The conditions were so bad he could do nothing to help the stricken ship but run before the wind to his destination and raise the alarm.

The Owen Sound schooner Nellie Sherwood was taking a load of railroad construction materials to Algoma Mills on the North Channel when the storm hit. She simply disappeared with her crew of five. Her wreckage originally was believed to be offshore of Russell Island outside of Tobermory, Bruce Peninsula. Later this was proven incorrect, so the Nellie Sherwood‘s resting place, like the Asia‘s, remains a mystery. Read more here:

Gordon Lightfoot’s famous song about the “Gales of November” (re the wrecked freighter Edmund Fitzgerald) must have come a couple of months early in 1882.

Footnote — In their book about Georgian Bay lighthouses “Alone In The Night” by Lynx Images, the authors grimly describe how a tugboat had been sent to scour shorelines for any bodies from the Asia. The Lonely Island lightkeeper reluctantly admitted to finding the decayed corpse of a woman, and having robbed it of valuables. The tug crew buried the body near the island’s east shore. Also found were items from the ship itself, washed ashore there after the wreck. The book notes local folklore claims “that crew and passengers…are said to be buried (on the island). Newspaper articles corroborate this story.”

Asia’s ghost haunts Georgian Bay. (By author)

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