Nineteen Drowned When Yacht Capsized Near Wolfe Island in 1851
A voyage that started out as a pleasure cruise, to attend a regatta from Kington to Cape Vincent and French Creek (Clayton) on August 14, 1851, came to a tragic end when the yacht Janet overturned during a squall, drowning 17 women and two men. There were 15 survivors. For its size, the vessel was grossly overloaded with passengers.
The Kingston Herald of August 15, 1851, reported:
“With poignant and sorrowing feelings, we have to record one of the most melancholy casualties which ever cast its dark gloom over our city. Yesterday morning a gay and happy party started on a picnic excursion, to Cape Vincent and French Creek, in a new sailboat belonging to Mr. D. B. Jenkins of this city. Of the thirty-four who left the wharf here, only fifteen have returned, the other nineteen having met a watery grave.
After the boat left the foot of the Island for French Creek, a squall struck her. The scene which followed precludes description. The screams of the drowning were terrific and thrilling. Friend clung to friend in fatal embrace and sank together. The water was not very deep where the vessel capsized. A part of the mast remained above the water, those fifteen clung to it, and were rescued from their perilous position by boats from the Island.
A messenger was dispatched to French Creek for the steamer Niagara to call for them on her upward trip. She arrived here about 9 p.m., having with her the living and four of the dead.”
The 40-foot yacht had been built that spring by Clayton shipbuilder Simon Johnston, at Garden Island, for D. B. Jenkins, a sailmaker and ship chandler of Kingston. The Kingston Daily Whig of August 25, 1851, stated the yacht, built for an approaching regatta, capsized a mile or so from Long (Wolfe) Island. Two of the victims, named Jenkins, may have been the owner’s wife and daughter.
How The Accident Occurred
The nature of the accident is gleaned from the evidence taken at the enquiry, which began on the day following the accident (August 16th) and was concluded on August 18th. Mr. Johnston, the musician on board, said the yacht left the city about 10:15 o'clock, with Mr. Hiram O. Hitchcock acting as sailing master. Between 3 and 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the boat was proceeding to French Creek, about half or three-quarters of a mile below Long Island, when a squall struck her. She careened, became unmanageable, and within three minutes went down stern foremost in twenty feet of water. The yacht was sailing with a free sheet and took the wind abeam, and, before her head could be got around or her main sail lowered, she capsized. Mr. Johnston and seven others of the rescued clung to the mast. Mr. Alex Phillips was of the opinion that the boat not righting itself was caused by the shifting of the ballast. When the vessel was attempted to be luffed up, she did not answer her helm and the jib could not be let go because the cleat was underwater. All the ladies were in the cockpit, and witness did not see any of them rise. When the vessel settled on the bottom about four or five feet of her mast remained above water. Capt. McSurly, of the schooner Tom Dick, took the deck load off his vessel and went to the scene of the accident; so did the soldiers of the garrison in the commissariat boat, and the master and crew of an American vessel lying at the foot of Long Island (Wolfe Island). All the bodies were recovered in time.
Simon Johnston said:
“She had about seven tons of ballast in her. She left Kingston with a party of 35 men and women on board, bound for Clayton; they stopped at the foot of Wolfe Island and had dinner, then started for Clayton; but when they got over into the American channel, a white squall struck the yacht, which knocked her on her beam’s end, filled the cockpit with water, and threw most of the women into the mainsail.
Capt. Hiram Hitchcock was master, and he called out to “let go the jib sheet,” but someone let go the main sheet instead. This let the main boom drag and kept her on her side. As the cockpit was water tight, they thought she would right up as soon as the squall was over; but someone had previously taken out the valve to pump her out and had neglected to put it back; so she filled slowly and sunk in 40 feet of water. There were 19 drowned, 17 women and two men, all from Kingston. Many of them I knew.”
The city of Kingston was thrown into a state of gloom and sorrow. Shops were closed the day following the disaster. All the vessels then moored in Kingston harbour had their colours at half-mast. Church bells tolled at intervals. This reflects the Kingston of that day – a much smaller and closely-knit community.
The only remnant of the event is the Gaskin family monument to the disaster, at Cataraqui Cemetery, in Kington. Captain Robert Gaskin’s wife, sisters, a niece, and a nephew were among the victims.
Some records list the vessel’s name as Janet while others call it Jeanette. She was subsequently raised and continued in service.
Researched and compiled by Richard F. Palmer
Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor and reporter, and he was well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times,” called "On the Waterfront." His first article for TI Life was written in January 2015, and since then, he has written a dozen-plus others. He is a voracious researcher, and TI Life readers benefit from his interesting findings. Click here to see some of Richard Palmer’s TI Life Articles and here.
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