Friday, September 12, 2008

Mysterious Fire Destroyed Steamers at Fair Haven in 1917

By Richard Palmer
The steamers Conger Coal and Lloyd S. Porter mysteriously burned to the water's edge at Little Sodus Bay near Fair Haven on Lake Ontario early on the morning of Friday, May 11, 1917. The fire also destroyed 125 feet of the Lehigh Valley Railroad trestle. Both vessels had been in the Lake Ontario coal trade for several years. The Conger Coal was owned by the Conger Coal Co. of Toronto, and the Lloyd S. Porter was owned by Wilson Paterson Co. of Montreal. They were docked for the night, awaiting their turns to receive a load of coal.
The fire was discovered aboard the Porter at about 2:30 a.m. and since the two vessels were docked next to each other fire spread rapidly to the Conger Coal. The tug Seymour with the barges A.D. Whitbeck and Cataract were nearby, but the tug managed to get the consorts safely away from the flames. Sailors from the Fair Haven Volunteer Fire Department and sailors were powerless in their attempts to bring the blaze under control.
The Auburn Fire Department, some 30 miles to the south, loaded their equipment aboard railroad flatcars, but by the time they arrived, it was too late. The vessels were all but destroyed and the Fair Haven firemen brought the trestle fire under control.
The loss of the two vessels totaled near $75,000 and they could only be salvaged for reusable materials. The trestle was so badly damaged that coal shipments had to be suspended for a week or so while the damage was repaired.
If this was any other time than 1917, such a fire would have been considered accidental (as it turned out it was) but this was during World War I and many such incidents as this were suspected to be German plots. Newspaper reports ran rampant that conspirators were at work endeavoring to destroy or hinder Great Lakes shipping.
Although no Germans apparently were ever caught or implicated in these sort of plots, they made good newspaper copy. One newspaper speculated that although no suspects had been arrested, officials were endeavoring to bring the responsible parties to justice, and that the Canadian government was cooperating in the investigation since the vessels were owned in Canada. Eventually, it is said a Chinese stowaway was charged with setting the fire and was deported.
The report went on to say:
"This plot engineered by Germans assisted by sympathizing American citizens, is believed to have been responsible for the succession of 'accidents' to lake shipping. The steamers Saxona and Pentecost Mitchell were sunk at the mouth of the Soo River at Frying Pan Shoal on May 14, 1917. with the evident intention of blocking the channel. However, it was later determined they sunk as a result of a collision. Both steamers had to be cut apart before being raised.
Other mysterious accidents included the sinking of the steamer Venetian Maid in the Detroit River, with the loss of one life. Later came an attempt to dynamite the steamer Mackinac. The Kasaga 2nd was blown up and burned and the Jay Dee 3rd and the Niagara had their machinery wrecked. All of these vessels ha been or were about to be taken over by the Navy Department."
Getting back to the Fair Haven incident, it was stated that the fire started in the engine room, and it had a good head start before it was discovered. The two vessels were moored abreast, the Porter on the outside. The tug Seymour attempted to two the steamers across the bay to the lee of the land, out of the heavy wind, but the line burned off. The Porter drifted back to the dock, setting fire to the trestle.
Scantily clad, the sailors aboard the vessels were forced to leave their berths. They had been awakened by a barking dog, the mascot aboard the Conger Coal, who perished in the blaze after desperate attempts were made to save him. Many of them lost all of their personal effects. The Porter carried a crew of 11 men and two women. The Conger Coal had a crew of 15.
The cook aboard the Conger Coal was a young widow with two children who had taken on the cooking job for the summer as a means of support. She was supplied with clothing by the women aboard the barge A.D. Whitbeck. The cook aboard the Porter, an older woman, was a French-Canadian, who spoke broken English, and was taken to a nearby home for shelter. The captain went into the village and purchased clothes for her. Captain Lawrence could not pay off his men since $200 he lost $200 which he left in a safe aboard his vessel.
The skippers were Capt. Frank Paternaude of Montreal, of the Porter; and Capt. John Lawrence of Kingston of the Conger Coal. Because the vessels were so totally destroyed it was impossible to conclude exactly what happened. But many marine men speculated it was a German plot.
This belief was enforced by the fact that shipments of soft coal had been stepped up to fuel Canadian munitions plants.
Also enforcing this theory was the tact that charts of Fair Haven and Oswego harbors and the shore line of Lake Ontario had been found in the personal effects of a former German resident of the area who had been arrested in a Brooklyn rooming house. Ultimately Julius Karch of Oswego purchased the remains of the vessels and removed the machinery.
The charred hulls of the vessels lay at the bottom of the bay near the east pier for nearly 40 years before they were finally removed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the fall of 1956. Although Fair Haven had been abandoned as a commercial port in the mid 1930s, the wrecks were considered a navigation hazard.
This event revived memories of several local residents of that fateful night in 1917. Miss Edna Williams vividly recalled how the bay was illuminated by the flames and how her father, William Williams, was one of the firefighters. Miss Williams said even a bucket brigade was formed to extinguish the blaze on the coal trestle and was pretty much extinguished by the time firefighters arrived from Auburn.
Vessel information
The Conger Coal was built as the A. Weston (US# 106066) and renamed in 1909. It's Candian registry No. was 126268. A wooden propeller, it was built in 1882 by W. Dulac of Mt. Clemens, Michigan. It was 164 feet long, 31 foot beam and 13 foot hold; 672 gross tons and 333 net tons.

The Lloyd S. Porter was built by Jenks at Port Huron, Mich. as Hull # 5. (U.S. #141264; Canadian # 94927) 160 feet long, 30 foot beam, 10 foot hold. Sold Canadian in 1901 after wrecking in St. Lawrence R. at St. Croix, Que., in Oct, 1898.

Oswego Daily Times, May 11, 1917 and July 3, 1917; Ogdensburg News and Oswego Palladium, May 15, 1917; Ogdensburg News, May 12, 1917; and Fair Haven Register, Oct. 4, 1956. Information on vessels provided by David Swayze.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Helpful information. I am a diver in Ontario, Canada. I and a small group are doing some research and surveying of the Marengo, a three masted great lakes schooner which foundered at Morgan's Point, just outside Port Colborne on October 12, 1912. It was being towed by the Porter on that day and the Porter managed to restart its engines and get off. This information simply supplements the picture I have of both vessels.