The Night the Whisky Ship Ran Aground
For thirty years a hilarious yet serious game of hide-and-seek has bemused the villagers and the law on Ontario's Long Peninsula. Hundreds of cases of whisky came bobbing ashore from a foundering ship and where it went. nobody knows — that is hardly anybody knows
WHEN FIERCE night gales bluster in off Lake Erie and angry waves pound the slender finger of southern Ontario’s Long Point Peninsula, a blissful calm descends on the farmers and fishermen of nearby Port Rowan. To most lakeside dwellers a storm means tragedy. In Port Rowan the gales blow up happy memories of whisky.
Some of the villagers pull on rubber boots or rolled-down hip waders and trudge to Charlie Duncan’s barbershop or one of the two poolrooms. Then someone mentions Nov. 18, 1922. or the City of Dresden or Old Cro%v. And the bystanders wistfully moisten their lips.
No one in Port Rowan will ever forget those names or that historic date in the prohibition year of 1922. On that day the whisky ship City of Dresden foundered off Long Point, casting sixtyfive thousand dollars’ worth of choice liquor into eager parched Ontario. On that day the beaches were awash with eight thousand gallons of Old Crow and Corby’s Special Selected. And since that day county constables, Temperance Act inspectors, farmers and fishermen have indulged in a ludicrous
game of Bottle, Bottle, Who’s Got the Bottle?
Nobody knows how much whisky still lies ageing in the Long Point marshes. Every few years someone digs up a bottle or finds a hidden cache in an old Port Rowan building. For the villagers, tearing down a house is more fun than a bingo game or a radio give-away show.
The Long Point-Port Rowan community, one hundred and ten miles southwest of Toronto, is rich in color and legend. Some of Port Rowan’s forefathers fought the Yankees in 1812 while others set false beacon lights on the beaches and scavenged the ships that ran aground. Long Point has its sunken treasure—twenty-six thousand dollars in gold aboard the vessel Atlantic which has supposedly been in the lake since 1853—and its ghost, the Headless Seaman, who, some say, prowls the
beaches each night in search of the head he lost in a shipwreck.
But no tale can match the mingled tragedy and comedy of Long Point’s whisky legend. The City of Dresden wreck took one young seaman’s life, turned a young housewife into a heroine, changed staid old farmers to tipplers overnight, put bootleggers out of business for months and baffled the authorities for years.
Long Point’s whisky saga began on Friday, Nov. IT, 1922, when a forty-five-mile-per-hour gale churned up shallow Lake Erie, long notorious for its vicious storms. The City of Dresden, a fiftyyear-old one-hundred-and-sixty-five-foot wooden steamer was approaching the tip of Long Point, en route from Belleville, Ont., to Detroit, Mich., with a cargo of Corby’s whisky.
In the rum-running days of 1922 it was not uncommon for a ship’to put out into the lake with legal export permits for its cargo of liquor. So far as customs authorities or the liquor companies knew the shipment would go to Mexico, or perhaps Cuba. But frequently the loads found their way back to Canada. The Dresden’s selection of Corby’s
Special Selected and Old Crow, in kegs and bottles, was reportedly cleared for Mexico. One of the skipper’s sons says today it was a “general cargo run.”
As the storm blew up, the Dresden’s skipper, sixty-five-year-old John Sylvester McQueen, hove to in the bay north of Long Point. He knew that the jutting twenty-two-mile peninsula was aptly nicknamed the “graveyard of Lake Erie.” Its marshes, gloomy forests and rolling sandy beaches were dotted with sailors’ graves, rotten spars and the ribs of wrecked vessels. Moreover, the City of Dresden, a converted passenger boat, had been pieced together when McQueen bought it in 1914. Into the original hull had gone the boiler from one tug and the engine from another.
On Saturday a northerly wind began to sweep the steamer toward the north shore of the point. McQueen pulled out around the lighthouse that afternoon while his crew lightened ship by dumping overboard all whisky stowed above decks.
On shore at this moment a dejected Port Rowanite was patrolling the beach as duty member of the lighthouse lifesaving crew. He found his routine
task particularly tedious in dry Ontario without so much as a dram to ward off the chills. So, when the first case of Corby’s bobbed in on a wave, the astonished native merely stood entranced. But when a second and third bounced in he sprang into action with a glad cry. By nightfall the lifesaver had rescued forty-two cases from the lake and buried them beside telephone poles leading to the lighthouse.
Later in the day the gale had shifted to the southwest and the City of Dresden was in distress.
Swarthy Ray Sawyer, now an Amherst burg garage mechanic but then an engineer on the Dresden, recalls: "The ship was in bad shape anyway and
at Long Point the water started cornin’ through. It got so bad the fireman wouldn't go below. 1 told Peregrine McQueen, the captain’s son, he’d better tell the old man to beach her.”
At first Captain McQueen was reluctant, but soon it became imperative. About five miles west of the point he headed toward a cove but a treacherous undercurrent held the ship back and. at 4.30 p.m., the Dresden foundered about two hundred yards from the beach.
“We hit a sandbar and she started to break up,” says Ray.
The crew hastily lowered a small lifeboat, fitted with oars and lifebelts. It immediately capsized in heavy seas. A second boat, minus oars and belts, was lowered and the crew began to clamber in but it too turned over.
“Then there was nothin’ but arms and legs waving around in the water,” Sawyer says. The twentyone-year-old Peregrine McQueen struggled in the water and Sawyer, although hampered by an artificial leg, swam to his aid. But Peregrine was lifted on the crest of a breaker and swept away before his father’s eyes.
Somehow the men righted the lifeboat, then tossed and drifted in the icy lake, miserable, exhausted and helpless to beach their craft because of the lack of oars.
The Dresden's plight had been noticed from the farm home of cattle buyer Delbert Rockefeller, only two hundred yards back from shore. Del was in Simcoe that dav but his wife. Pearl, a niece, Mrs. Samuel Blackenbury, and Mrs. Rockefeller’s mother spotted the vessel. Continued on page 58
Continued on page 58
Th« Night the Whisky Ship Ran Aground
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 11
Pearl Rockefeller’s three brothers all captained lake fishing boats and each time they passed the Rockefeller home they tooted their whistles. When the City of Dresden blew its first distress signal, about 4 p.m.. Pearl assumed that it was just "one of the boys saying hello as he went by.” But, as the whistle continued to wail and the boat beaded in to shore, the women quickly recognized trouble. Del had the family car so Mrs. Rockefeller and Viola Blackenbury hitched up a horse and buggy and galloped over a circuitous half-mile route around the marsh to the
As they pulled up the second lifeboat was going over the side. The boat toppled and Peregrine McQueen was swept away on the waves. The others righted the craft but, in spite of u strong incoming wind, the boat was buffeted away from shore by a steady current.
Spry grey-haired Pearl Rockefeller, who has chronicled the date in her family Bible along with other major events in her life, still recalls every detail of that day. ‘That boat was being tossed around like a spinning top and I saw that those poor men didn't have much chance of getting ashore without help.” she remembers.
The twenty-seven-year-old housewife waded chest-deep into the icy lake. Captain McQueen turned helplessly to his crew. "What good is a woman,” he cried. “She can’t help us any!”
But one seaman threw Pearl a line. Viola waded out to meet her and together they tugged the boat ashore. Sawyer. McQueen. Joe Antio. J. D. Hunt and Jackie McBride, the cook, were safe. Just then one whole side of the City of Dresden collapsed.
“Me and one of the other fellows took the old man up to the house,” Pearl says. “He had the shakes and was out of his head for almost all night. When his crew told him that a woman had saved them he couldn't believe it
For Rat' Sawyer the rescue was _ near-miracle. Sixty-eight years earlier his grandfather had also been rescued from the lake by a woman. The heroine on that November day in 1S-54 was Abigail Becker, who later received an American Humane Society medal and two hundred and fifty pounds from
Queen Victoria for her bravery.
During the next week Ontario newspapers received a letter signed by nine Port Rotvanites. claiming a share in the rescue. The lener to the Toronto Globe declared that “Mrs. Rockefeller did not even get her feet wet unless it was from the sand on the beach. But Sawyer says firmly. "She and her niece were the only ones that helped us. She deserves the credit."
The bruised and battered crew rested at the Rockefeller home that week end. “Captain McQueen had about a thousand dollars in his pocket. I took it out and dried it for him." Pearl recalls. Most of the crew's belongings were lost, although Toughie Rockefeller, a gnarled and wizened little Port Rowanite. recalls with pride that he and a friend found the captain s valise a fewdays later.
Back at the beach the ancient Cuyoí Dresden was rapidly disintegrating. Thousands of pieces of spar floated ashore accompanied, as the Simcoe Reformer said later, "by the precious cargo of booze.”
Capt. J. E. McQueen, son of the Dresden’s skipper and president of an Amherstburg marine company says that one thousand cases valued at fortv thousand dollars and five hundred kegs worth twenty-five thousand dollars were aboard. The stage was set for what Del Rockefeller says was a "regular carnival on the beach.
Long Point had shown a healthy interest in whisky ever since 1756 when L ncle Billy Smith of Port Rowan won fame for hoisting a fifty-gallon keg and drinking from the bunghole. Throughout prohibition the bootleggers plied a flourishing trade. Liquor could not be legallv purchased in Ontario unless one had a doctor’s certificate. The news of the wreck was greeted with rejoicing in many quarters. On Tuesday a Toronto Globe headline neatly summarized the week end's events:
WOMAN SAVES LIVES OF CREW WHILE MEN SALVAGE LIQUOR
Bv Saturday night hundreds of visitors from miles around swarmed to the beach and gleefully filled their gunny sacks, their pockets and themselves. Cases were loaded into trucks, buggies, wagons or wheelbarrow-s and trundled off into the night. Hundreds of quart bottles were buried in the sand or the swamp. Anyone in a particular hurry simply tossed whole cases into the soggv marsh and stepped on them until they sank from sight.
Fiijackers stole from original sal-
vagers only to have other hijackers steal from them. A farmer would hide a case and mark the spot. When his back was turned someone else moved the marker and mentally noted the new location. When he was gone a third party was apt to shuffle the marker again to his own advantage.
By Sunday night not a bottle was in sight. J. E. McQueen, who arrived on the scene that day, still believes nothing was salvaged.
A few days later Dickie Edmonds, the Ontario Temperance Act license inspector, visited the Port Rowan lifesaver who had first found the bounty on the beach. The man admitted “finding a few bottles” which he would gladly turn over to the law. Meanwhile he alerted a crony who hurried down to the cache and removed one ca.se. When the lifesaver and Edmonds arrived they found a hole, a broken case—but no whisky.
“Some sonofabitch.” roared the lifesaver, with a fine show of temper, “has stolen my whisky!”
The inspector, who later became a Simcoe Sunday-school teacher, sighed piously. “Ill-gotten gains can do no one any good.” he said and left the Port Rovvanite to his misery. The latter promptly removed the remaining forty-one cases from under the telephone poles to a safer hideout, later sold twelve hundred dollars’ worth and allegedly paid off the mortgage on his house.
Many of the men who rushed to the beach when the news got around sat down to sample the spoils right on the spot. They discovered that Corby’s Special Selected was a mellow drink but Old Crow was a sterner blend, a corn whisky that separated the men from the boys.
“When that stuff took effect,” an old-timer now recalls reverently, “you were dead all over.”
“Why, a quart of Old Crow,” says Del Rockefeller solemnly, “would make a fellow drunk!”
One thirsty farmer discovered a whole keg and a damaged one. He firmly straddled the first and proceeded to sip from the second with a dipper. As the evening wore on and he became a little fuzzy his neighbors gently deposited him on a nearby stump with his dipper and damaged keg close at hand. Then, while he sipped and jealously guarded the stump for the rest of the night, they made off with the full keg.
In this general hilarity almost everyone overlooked the tragedy of the wreck. At noon on Sunday the body of young Peregrine McQueen drifted ashore. A deep gash in the boy's forehead indicated that he had been stunned by the boat before being swept ! away. The body was sent to Amherstburg on Monday, accompanied by his broken-hearted father and his shipi mates. McQueen and Sawyer later returned to sa 1 vage the Dresden s engine hut the old captain s sailing days virtually ended with that tragic voyage.
Official word of the wreck didn't reach Simcoe. the county town, until Sunday night. The telephone line I which harbored the first windfall of whisky ran only from the lighthouse to Port Rowan When the news reached Simcoe. Inspector Dickie Edmonds. Provincial Constable Lawrence and County Constable Alvvay immediately set out for the beach, arriving at 2 a.m Monday to find only scattered wrappers and splintered cases After a fruitless four-mile search they returned to Simcoe. tired and defeated
By now the thirty-year game of hide-and-seek was on with whisky as first prize. The Simcoe Reformer i ¡ reveled in the affair. For reoorter
Bruce Pearce, now the paper's publisher, this was a newspaperman’s dream come true. He wrote:
The pleasure-lovir.g neighborhood along Lake Erie will continue for some time in glorious revelry and debauch. Charlie Terhune says water from the bay is selling at five cents a glass. When searching parties along the cold shores meet with swamp whisky the inevitable is bound to
The cove will be a popular summer resort next season while the nearby swamp will undoubtedly attract scores of visitors for months to come. Several Simcoites visited the oasis on Monday and Tuesday, presumably to view the wreck.
Two Simcoites journeyed three miles up the beach and were rewarded with six full-fledged quarts hidden in the swamp. Tney found no difficulty in getting rid of it before reaching Simcoe and many friends were left along the route. More than fifty hunters were on the scene Tuesday. Tenders are now in order for a liquor taster to determine whether the stuff is Old Crow or Corby's Special.
For days the police and license inspector prodded the sands with long poles but with little success. Inspector Edmonds was a mild but resolute man. On numerous occasions he was hot on the whisky trail but his quarry pulled ingenious stunts to bamboozle him.
Two farmers plowed a double furrow down the centre of the field and sowed it to whisky. Then, to mislead the keen-eyed inspector, they built a fence along this strip so the fresh plowing wouldn't catch the eye. There was nothing remarkable about this fence —except that the pair spent most of the next summer around it.
Another outdoorsman buried his whisky in the garden. Later, on dry nights, he would rise, pick up a spade and announce, “Well, got to dig some vegetables.”
Police checked the strawstacks but generally just prodded the edges. Clever farmers clambered to the top and burrowed whisky down the centre.
Other caches went into icehouses. Householders tore up their floor boards and insulated the home with whisky. False ceilings became the vogue in Port Rowan architecture.
Twenty-five cases were buried beneath a theatre and, though it was never established, some patrons claimed that one ticket took you to the show while another admitted you to the basement and Old Crow.
One farmer triumphantly carried home a load of whisky only to leam that his wife wouldn’t have it in the house. With the inspector breathing hard on his trail the farmer had a brainwave. The law arrived, ransacked the farm for a week, shifted all the hay in the mow—but found no whisky. Many years later the farmer confessed. “Thank God it didn't rain that week." he said. “I had the eavestrough lined with bottles all the way around that 60-by-40 bam.”
For some the whisky brought nothing but grief. One man loaded his wagon and, knowing he was under suspicion, turned it over to a farmer who was to hide it in exchange for a half share. When the search petered out the farmer claimed he hadn't been paid, so he kept the team and wagon. Needless to say the victim didn’t take his complaint to the law.
One farmer peddled his whisky to a bootlegger and was paid off with „ bad cheque.
Another entrepreneur set out from the lakeshore to sell his load to a Simcoe bootlegger, twenty-five miles away. He prudently took the back roads, eventually became lost and
stopped to ask directions of a native.
“You down from Port Rowan way?” asked the farmer, thoughtfully eyeing the well-covered wagon.
“Pretty heavy load you got there."
“You know,” said the farmer slowly, still admiring the load, “I can’t rightly recall where that fellow lives. Doubt if you’d make it anyway, with a heavyload like that.”
The traveler studied the farmer’s guileless face. “Maybe I could travel better if that load was one case lighter," he hinted.
“Man you’re lookin’ for lives straight north, up this road, turn right at the third concession,” said the farmer briskly, reaching for his case.
Even the authorities were outrageously hoodwinked. One case was turned over to the customs officer in Simcoe. Thieves broke into the office and stole the case, ignoring everything
Shady transactions went on for months with the price settling down to a modest sixty dollars a case or five dollars a bottle. Regular bootleggers in the district complained bitterly about these amateurs who undercut established prices. Some professionals actually went out of business before bootlegging returned to normal a year
The law tried valiantly to prosecute but it was a losing battle. Crown Attorney W. E. Kelly brought a few men to court but could rarely produce witnesses. He grumbled that this was a serious reflection on the manhood of the community but Port Rowan’s manhood drank its Old Crow shamelessly and in silence.
“The majority of the witnesses weie at the scene of the wreck within a few hours of the catastrophe but remembered little of what took place,” reported the Simcoe Reformer solemnly.
Most witnesses were like Lee Beaupré who testified that the beach was strewn with kegs and cases on Saturday but that they had mysteriously vanished by Sunday.
Under the Ontario Temperance Act, « first offender was subject to a maximum fine of one hundred dollars for unlawfully haring liquor. A number of cases were dismissed because of insufficient evidence, but six men paid a hundred dollars and costs. In one instance the officers testified that the ring marks of ten whisky kegs were found in a suspect’s wagon bed on the Monday following the wreck and that his horses were in the stable with their harness on. Old-timers say that the accused almost smothered this flimsy evidence by camouflaging the keg marks with a layer of ripe manure —a manoeuvre which almost overpowered the law.
Through the years the official hunt and the supply of whisky waned but Port Rowan’s interest has never flagged. From time to time the hopes of local drinking men are rerived. In June 1923 a lighthouse man found a case of whisky. Two years later a farmer’s hogs rooted up a bottle in the pigpen. Eight or ten years ago another farmer found four cases while digging a drainage ditch. Back in 1946 a fireman found a bottle of Old Crow in a false ceiling while fighting a fire.
So the Port Rowan folk live in a constant delicious aura of suspense. When they plough the fields they watch for whisky in the furrow. When they wreck a house they do so gingerly, with a pleasant tingle of anticipation. And when gales lash Long Point's beaches they automatically gaze out over Lake Erie.
There’s no telling when another whisky ship may run aground. ★