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January 26, 2001

Lake Nipissing Steamboat’s Date with Destiny

The John Fraser loading lumber at dock

Early in the morning on November 8, 1893 the 32 meter, 99 ton, double deck, paddlewheel steamboat John Fraser left the dock in Callander for a date with destiny. Lumberman Alexander Fraser built the John Fraser in 1888 in Sturgeon Falls for his Fraser Lumber Company. Four years later it was sold to the Davidson and Hay Lumber Company located in Cache Bay. 

The Fraser’s six man crew was taking the boat’s last trip of the season to the company’s 68 square mile limit at the west end of Lake Nipissing.  Beside the crew there were about 20 lumberjacks heading for winter work on the Davidson and Hay limits.  The Fraser was towing a scow loaded with supplies for the six company logging camps and the 350 lumberjacks there.

Three hours after the Fraser left the dock at Callander, as it approached Goose Island in the middle of Lake Nipissing, a fire broke out in the engine room.  John Adams, the fireman, was on deck. He tried to enter the room but the heat was too great.  The engineer William Storey was already dead.  Captain William Carr rang the bell for the boat to stop but the controls were disabled and the ship churned on.  Adams tried to lower the life boat on the starboard side but the fire was too great. He helped launch the port side life boat and along with many others jumped on-board.  Unfortunately the paddle wheel was still churning and wrecked the boat dumping the men into the frigid water.  Adams swam to the scow and was pulled on-board by the men already there. Adams later told a Toronto Star reporter that “There were for four boys already on the scow…. I got my knife and cut the tow rope and the scow lay to while we  got a couple more, all that were within reach.”

Adams described how Captain Carr, the mate Alfred Barbeau and deckhand Tom Osborne were seen hanging on to the anchor chain on the bow and how “They, one by one, dropped off and went down” as the boat burned.

The people at the Smith Lumber operation at Frank’s Bay on the south shore saw the fire but only had a sailboat. Captain Burritt happened to be there so he and Peter Commanda headed for the wreck. The wind was light and they took an hour and a half to get there. John Adams along with cook Ed Majore and five lumberjacks were the only survivors out of an estimated 27 people on board. The survivors were taken to Frank’s Bay and then to Sturgeon Falls on the Sparrow when it arrived the next day.

The Sparrow later took the coroner, several Davidson and Hay officials, and others to the site of the disaster. The bow and the smoke stack of the Fraser were all that could be seen. This scow was later discovered miles away at Beaucage Bay.

In a 1972 interview Isabel Gow and her sister Mary, aged daughters of John Fraser, recalled that their brothers Jack, 15 and Tom, 13 were thought to be on the Fraser going to work for Davidson and Hay but, to everyone’s great relief, they missed a connection and did not make the trip.  Mrs. Gow noted that drowning victim Johnny Small boarded with her and played the violin. He was engaged to be married. His fiancée walked the beach for weeks hoping to find his body.
In the recent issue of the Nipissing Genealogical Society’s Newsletter John Carkner included several references to the Fraser disaster that he had discovered while doing some family history research in Ottawa newspapers.  A December 1893 article discusses how William Storey, the engineer from Warren, who died in the engine room fire, had just had his mother arrive from England to spend her remaining years with him.  Mr. Storey was to be married in a few days to “an estimable young lady from Sturgeon Falls.”

An April 1894 article notes that a Mr. Murray of Port Carling hired the steamer Windsor to take him on a search for his missing son lost on the Fraser. They found three bodies including his son Tom.

The Fraser story would not be complete without reference to the discovery and recovery of parts of the Fraser by the North Bay Scuba Club in 1972. There was no North Bay museum at the time. so work began, led by Mayor Bruce Goulet, to establish a museum for the Fraser and other local artifacts.

Drawing of the remains of the John Fraser found in 1972

A team of Nipissing University College archeologists led by Bessel Vandenhazel did an in depth study of the remains of the wreck in the mid-1980s and produced a  detailed 200 page book The John Fraser Story. 

With about 20 deaths the burning of the John Fraser is the worst marine disaster in Lake Nipissing’s history. The Fraser artifacts have deteriorated since 1972 and little remains except stories and memories of the ship’s date with destiny in the cold waters of Lake Nipissing over a century ago.

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