It was very late in the winter of 1886, indeed winter had officially ended a few weeks earlier..
The month of April had already arrived, but on April 3, 1886, a wind and snowstorm of epic proportions struck the head of Lake Ontario. With winds out of the northeast, the waters of Lake Ontario and of Burlington bay, rose alarmingly high and did severe damage when the immense waves struck the shoreline.
For a young reporter with the Hamilton Spectator assigned to cover the impact of the storm, his assignment became even more challenging when it was learned that the telegraph wires had been downed by the high winds. The Spectator edition would not therefore contain the usual national and international news, and so the reporter was told to fill the resulting space with as much detail on the storm as he could.
The result was an article, nearly 3,000 words in length. It was the longest article on any one local subject that had appeared in the paper in many a day.
The reporter went to the waterfront from the foot of Wentworth street to the Grand Trunk Railway yards, and recorded the damages received by the boat houses, the wharves, the warehouses and the boats, large and small docked there.
The reporter also interviewed a number of passengers on a North and Northwestern train whose progress along the Beach Strip had been impeded by the waters of Lake Ontario which had washed away the track base in several locations.
The reporter also was able to learn of and recount the many damages citizens and businesses in the city itself caused by the wind and snow.
Finally, the reporter managed to get some salient quotes from some older citizens, speaking on the comparative intensity of the storm in relation to others over the years.
Having to rush to get his article written and made available for the typesetters at the Spectator office, the reporter occasionally repeated some items but nevertheless.
Following is the article which appeared in the Hamilton Spectator of April 4, 1886:
“ ‘That’s a bad sky, a very bad sky,’ said an old captain to a group of men as they left MacKay’s wharf Monday night, ‘or I haven’t learnt much in 30 years on the lakes. We’ll have a big storm before many days, so look out for it.’
“The big storm came before many days – before many hours, indeed, and proved the most extensive and the most disastrous that has struck this port for many a year.
“All along the bay shore is scattered driftwood of every description. Long, strong beams which look as though they might ‘weather the roughest blast / That ever the wind did blow;’ bits of planks; cribbing timbers with inch and a quarter bolts and huge nuts showing themselves here and there; ship timbers and, occasionally, a small shed being thrown about on the boisterous waves. The slips are full of this sort of wreckage, all crowded together with broken ice blown up from the beach shore.
“The northeast wind which blew on Monday increased in violence towards midnight and a few hours later was blowing a gale. The bay was calm enough all night, but before daylight, the sea began to roll heavily and was soon running very high. Wind and sea increased in violence until about nine o’clock. After that time, the wind began slowly to sink, but the sea increased for another hour or two, doing immense damage.
“The whole force of the gale struck Murton and Reid’s dock. The structure stood the lashing of the waves for a time, but soon it began to give. In an hour it was gone. All that could be seen of it was the piles, their black heads sticking above the water, the lonely snubbing posts standing bravely erect and bidding defiance to the storm. The wreck of the dock was washed up against Myles’ dock, which was but a few yards west of where Murton and Reid’s was.
“The schooner Ella Murton was tied up here. Fortunately for her, the storm carried the timbers of the wrecked deck broadside, but the floating timber broke the fotce of the incessant pounding or she would doubtless have been stove in. Myles’ dock suffered very slightly. A few of its planks were washed away, but can easily be replaced. The drive from the dock to the coal office, over which all coal delivered to Myles and Son has to pass, was washed away, but the coal sheds stood the blast. The sheet iron cribbing saved Murton and Reid’s coal sheds.
“Myles’ schooner, the Gulnair, was anchored at the west side of the dock. Her anchor failed to hold firmly in that part of the bay, and the vessel was driven stern first, for about 200 yards, dragging her anchor after her. She grounded on a spot where there is usually very shallow water. She was not injured, but when the water sinks again, it will be some trouble to get her off.
“Mackay’s wharf escaped with but little damage. The eastern dock, which was destroyed by fire in December, was being rebuilt. Two or three cribs had been sunk, and it was feared that they would be washed away, but they were not. The huge, drifting timbers beat violently against the western dock, but were in a sheltered spot and well tied up, so that they were not injured at all.
“At McIlwraith’s dock, the schooners Undine, of this city, and North Star, of Whitby, were tied up. The Undine was in a sheltered spot, but the North Star broke loose and was driven against the schooner E. B. Rutherford anchored at Browne’s dock. The North Star lost her jib-boom and her bow-sprit, and the Rutherford had two or three holes punched through her bulwarks.
“Browne’s wharf was very slightly injured. What was left of Zealand’s wharf after the fire of last December was pretty well cleaned away. The water washed clean over it as though there was nothing there.
“The propeller Lake Michigan, tied up at the west side of the dock broke away and was drifted across Robinson’s ship yard. The propeller St. Magnus was at Robinson’s dock, and there was great danger of the Michigan being blown into her. Fortunately, the stern of the Michigan was to the broadside of the St. Magnus. The efforts of Mr. Robinson and assistants prevented any damage.
“At Bastien’s boat house, the storm played havoc. The dock was washed away for a space of about fifteen yards – piles, rafters and all – and was taken over to Massie’s. The large boathouse was in danger, and all the boats were got out as quickly as possible, but the structure stood the gale.
“The boathouse of the Leander rowing club was damaged by having part of the floor torn up, but all the boats were got out safely. Massie’s boat house escaped very lightly, a walk only being swept away and a fence torn down.
“The roof of McIlwraith’s immense coal shed was torn up and boards carried away across the water. A portion of the roof of Brown’s coal shed was also carried away.
“Around the shore, south and west of Bastien’s wharf, the damage was not so heavy. The two wharves at the foot of Simcoe street were both slightly disfigured. A slice of ten feet or so was taken out of the one to which the Lily was moored. In the offing, Walton’ steam yacht, the Blandina, tugged at a strong cable that stood the heavy strain well. Mat Thompson’s boat house looked all right from a little distance, but a closer inspection showed that the landing around it had been washed away. Luke Thompson’s boat house is a sufferer. Part of the elevated plank walk leading to it is gone, and a good portion of the fine landing stage about the boat house is missing. When the storm was at its height, it was feared that the whole building would go, but it stood the shock bravely.
“All around the shore here driftwood, principally from Thompson’s place, is piled high, and stacks of it are lying between Walton’s ice house and the emigrant wharf. The force of the wind unroofed a few feet of Walton’s ice house, and a shower of shingles split into splinters, were carried over and fell with the snow in the Grand Trunk yard.
“Some of the lonely boat houses scattered along the shore between Lilly’s wharf and Thompson’s boat house got lost in the moaning waves and came to the shore as debris.
HE NEVER SAW ONE LIKE IT
“Standing on a corner by Walton’s ice-house, sheltered from wind and snow, an old wrecker was calmly contemplating the driftwood from behind a black and aromatic clay pipe. He held a boat hook firmly in one hand, and now and then reached it out to help some scrap of tossing timber to a place of safety.
“ ‘This here’s the worst I ever did see,’ he remarked in answer to a question from the Spectator’s young man. ‘I’ve seen some mighty tuff blows on this here water, but I never see one to ekal this. No, and I guess there ain’t one in these parts as has.’ Then he lapsed into silence, and the placid enjoyment of his weather-beaten clay once more.
“The only good act which the storm did along the bay shore was to carry away every remaining vestige of the wreck of the old Osprey. The rapid rise of the water and the violence of the wind raised her hull off the bottom. She rose and fell, beating herself to pieces. In fifteen minutes, from the time she was seen to move, there was nothing to be seen of her. Half an hour later, her timbers, some of sound and some rotten, could be seen in MacKay’s and McIlwraith’s slips. No one will regret the removal of the unsightly old thing.
“About town the heavy gale did considerable damage. Gates and fences were blown down, chimneys toppled over and windows broken. Jas. Faulknor’s house, 157 Napier street, was unroofed. The force of the wind shifted the roof, and it fell in, knocking down a part of the southwest wall. No ne was hurt. In the east end, the wind played havoc with many fine trees. Large branches were broken off and hurled far up the road.
“A few minutes past ten o’clock, a Spectator reporter was standing on Myles’ dock, as near the end as was considered safe, watching, or trying to watch, through the snow – every flake of which cut like a knife – the storm. Mr. C. Murton had just remarked that the storm was abating when a huge wave washed right over the deck of the schooner Ella Murton, drenching the small group which was standing by her side in a sheltered spot. Just at that moment, no one in the group appeared to hold the same opinion as Mr. Murton.
“The Great North-western telegraph company’s lines are down in every direction, and the damage is constantly increasing. Not a line of associated press matter had been received up to 3 o’clock and the Evening Spectator was without its customary afternoon dispatches.
“The old man had been looking at the ceiling through the bottom of an empty whiskey glass and when he set it down, he said; ‘I only remember one storm worser ‘n’ this. It was 25 or 26 years ago, before you was born, young feller. She came on in the fall, jes before the close of navvygashun, druv vessels ashore, and played ther dance around ther town, and at ther docks. All ther vessels at ther docks had to be let go. She was a bigger storm ‘n this ‘n, but tis un’s the wuss since then. Well, I don’t mind if I do.’
“Fortunately no serious damage was done to the Grand Trunk railway line between here and Toronto, and though the regular trains were delayed, there were no stoppages. But the storm cost the company a far more serious loss near Hamilton than the blocking of the line. The bay shore between the west end of the yard and the Desjardins canal, along which the line runs quite close to the water, was washed away to such an extent that it will be necessary to have it banked up in order to make the road secure. In this alone, the storm will cost the G.T.R. between $5,000 and $6,000 at least.
“The boat houses at the foot of Wentworth street received just as severe treatment as any others. Two or three private boat houses were seen floating before the gale, turned upside down.
“Among the minor effects of the storm was that the Canada Life clock was stopped, the dial being clogged with snow.
“The city last night was like a scene in fairyland. The soft snow clung to every projection and filled every crevice in every wall and fence, and loaded down the branches of the trees. Where the electric lamps were, the scene was inexpressibly beautiful. There was nothing like it all last winter.
AT THE BEACH
“At the beach, the storm raged with great fury, and the effects have been serious. The Northern and Northwestern line has been washed away in two places. The regular train, with 50 passengers, due here at 11:35 a.m., was stopped at a point between the Ocean house and Dynes’, a large section of the track behind the train had been washed away. It was immediately decided that another section of the track had been swept away. So there the train had to stick. The passengers went to the Ocean house and waited. Mr. Dench, the local manager, was soon apprised of the trouble, and he sent a train down the line as far as it could go, and arrangements to have the passengers transferred from the Ocean house over the gap in vehicles.
“It was agreed by all who have been about the bay and lake long enough to know, that the storm was the severest which has visited here for 30 years. Fortunately it was of short duration, or there would have been no counting the damage it would have done. As it is, many thousands dollars’ worth of property has ben destroyed.
“ ‘The Beach is gone,’ cried an excited passenger, as he got off the relief train on the Northern and Northwestern railway at 4:45 yesterday afternoon. ‘Yes sir, that’s about the size of it. If this storm don’t let up, goodness only knows where it will end. When I left, there was nothing when between the Ocean house and John Dynes’, and it was getting worse every minute. I was the last man to cross the gap, and you can see that I walked through water as high as my waist. And that was on the road, mind you, not on the track.’
“The storm at the Beach is undoubtedly one of the worst that has been seen there in years. Yesterday afternoon, the lake was lashed into terrible fury, and the surf boomed like thunder. The waves washed up to and over the top of the lighthouse at the terminus of the northeast pier, and only once in a while could a glimpse of either pier be obtained beneath the sullen mass of angry water, churned into white foam, that covered them. The waves were leaping up to the Ocean house and beyond that, swept clean across the sand strip. The sight was terrible grand. Between the Ocean house and Dynes’, the Northern and Northwestern railway track was washed away in places, and when it was not washed away, it was completely submerged. Fences and outbuildings were swept down, right and left, and almost every cottage on the Beach stands amid a mass of seething, foaming water. But little damage has been done to the cottages beyond the loss of the fences and frail outbuildings. The large building that John Dynes built for a ballroom was blown down early in the morning, and lies as flat as a proverbial pancake.
“The 67 passengers on the train due here at 11:45 yesterday morning had a novel experience. When the Ocean house was reached, the washout, or, rather, the washouts, were discovered. It was intended to run back to Burlington, but when that was tried, it was found that, in the meantime, a good slice of the road had been swept away on the other side of the bridge. There was only one thing left to do, and accordingly the train was drawn up in front of the Ocean house to await developments. Word was sent to Hamilton, and at noon a special train, and a number of conveyances, were sent down to bring in the passengers. As intimated above, this train did not get back to Hamilton until nearly five o’clock. The female passengers were all taken across the gap in the rigs sent down, but the men had to walk it; and tough walking it was. Mud and water made the tramp anything but pleasant. One enterprising young man undertook to carry his trunk across the gap in the track. He got along first rate for a while, but finally he disappeared in a hole. He picked himself up and struggled bravely on, the water streaming from him at every step. It is needless to say that the male passengers were completely disgusted with the road officials for not furnishing conveyances to carry them over the water swept gaps. After the relief train started for home, the passengers had to get out in a couple of places where the earth had been washed from beneath the track, and bolster up the rails with planks and timbers, so that the train could cross in safety. It was a uniformly wet and dirty-footed crowd that got off the relief train at the Hamilton station. All the passengers dined at the Lakeside house. Some of them were playing hard luck and had not money enough to square the landlord, but the other passengers made good so they all sat in.
“The sight at the Beach was as grand as can possibly be conceived. The waves were like mountains of heavy, shifting gray, crested with foam enough to make a good-sized wave in itself. As the hours passed, the sea grew heavier and the sight more imposing. It was impossible to see the snow, although it fell in a blinding storm, and stung the skin wherever it touched. But against the dull, gray sky, the slipping surface of the grayer water, and amid the clouds of souckling spray, it was indistinguishable. The monotony of the wait on the train was relieved by an oracular and red-faced individual who started a lengthy diatribe on religion and politics by the probably true, even if somewhat chesnutty statement that ‘God is good, and the devil is very bad.’ He touched, in a careless and casual way, on Sir John A. Macdonald, and settled Canada’s premier forever by remarking that he was a man of inquity, which is hard on Sir. John.”1
1 “The Wind and Water : Do Immense Damage Along the Bay Shore.”
Hamilton Spectator. April 7, 1886.