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The ‘Rugby,’ a Lake Erie shipwreck story

BeeLines

December 26, 2012
By Marybelle Beigh - Westfield Historian (westfieldhistorian@fairpoint.net) , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

As promised in a recent BeeLines article about the Fairbanks School and the Walker family, here is another exciting Walker family story, introduced by Frances Walker Shepard, granddaughter of Westfield's master builder and brick mason, Thomas Walker.

Walker was the 10th grandchild of a well-to-do landowner in the heart of Shakespeare Country of Warwickshire, England. The first grandson was Henry Walker, who became proprietor of Walker's Inn - previously Groat's Inn and finally Barcelona Inn, which burned in 1966 - at Barcelona Harbor. Caroline, the third grandchild was married to Simon Monroe, Captain of one of the Barcelona Lake boats. The fourth grandchild, "Uncle John" to Shepard, drowned in Lake Erie. His body never recovered.

Shepard writes: "My grandfather, Thomas Walker, at one time owned two of the Lake boats on Lake Erie - The 'Spanker' and the 'Rugby.' One of these boats [the 'Rugby'] went down in a storm off Long Point (said to be the roughest spot in the Lake.) It was in this shipwreck that Uncle John Walker was drowned. Capt. Simon Monroe was also on board, but swam ashore."

Article Photos

Submitted photo
Pictured is an old Lake Erie sailing ship from about 1870 with ice on it, smiliar to the the “Rugby.”

Hayden Hanks gathered further information and provides the following story of an experience aboard Capt. Henry Walker's schooner, the "Rugby," as related by John Hale, a seaman from Barcelona, placing his story in "The Westfield Republican," Nov. 1, 1922.

"Although sailing the lakes in the summer is a pleasant pastime, it is the fall that brings the horrors. The months of October and November are prolific with fierce storms which sweep the lakes, carrying with them death and destruction. In my youthful days, I followed the lakes several seasons, on both steamboats and sail vessels. It was being caught in one of these fierce fall storms that warned me of the dangers.

"It was near the middle of November, I shipped on the schooner, Rugby of Dunkirk, for a trip to Kelley's Island for a load of limestone. It was to be her last trip of the season. With a fair wind, we left Dunkirk and proceeded on our voyage. We had been out but a few hours when the wind began to shift from the South to the West. We were soon beating up the lake against the head wind. We had passed Erie and were nearly off Conneaut, OH, when the wind again changed into the Northwest, bringing with it a storm of rain and sleet, accompanied by intense cold. To continue our course was impossible as the violence of the wind kept increasing. The captain ordered the vessel put about. This was done with much difficulty but finally accomplished after being nearly capsized. Once we thought we were gone sure, as the vessel was on the beam ends, but finally righted. The storm had now increased in such violence as to make the Erie Harbor impossible to make, as our course was shaped for Dunkirk. The waves were now running dangerously high, several times sweeping the decks. The wind continued to rise and cold increase. The rigging and deck were coated with ice, making it dangerous. The sails were frozen like boards. It now became necessary to reduce our sails. We had been carrying only a part of our canvas, but it still had to be more reduced. I was ordered aloft to take in the gaff sails. It was a perilous undertaking, everything being coated with ice. With the plunging of the vessel, the footing was made very precarious, but it was no time to hesitate. So aloft I went, clinging as best I could. My efforts were unavailing. I could make no impression on the sail which I beat until my fists were raw and bleeding. I was obliged to descend to deck where I was met with a volley of profanity and abuse for my failure. It finally took the power of two strong men to accomplish the task. The crew was nearly exhausted. It was impossible to build a fire in the galley. We could only gnaw at ship biscuit. It was fruitless to attempt to make Dunkirk Harbor. Our refuge now was Long Point. To our joy we succeeded in making the lee of that point where we found quieter water and a break from the force of the wind. Here we let go on our anchor, but the strain on our cable was so great, caused by the undertow of the receding waves, that we had to let go the other anchor. Finally we had to make our cable fast to the foremast and the other to the main mast, with a spring tackle to each to ease the strain on the cables.

Fact Box

The office of the Westfield Historian is located at 117 Union Street, in the small green building on the north side of driveway. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 9 to 11 a.m., or by appointment. The Westfield Historian phone number is 326-2457, and the email mail address is westfieldhistorian@fairpoint.net.

"While laying here three propellors and several sail vessels caught in that storm came to anchor near us. Here we lay for three days before the storm abated. Our only comfort was that we had some wood, which gave us some relief but our provisions had run out except a few sea biscuits. A vessel that lay near us, being out of wood, sent their boat with three men ashore for wood. Neither the men nor the boat ever returned. The boat was swamped and the men drowned. At the end of the three days the storm had somewhat abated. In the meantime the plight of the vessels had been observed from the shore and word sent to the U.S. Steamer Michigan at Erie, which came at once to the relief of the vessels.

"The storm abated so it was safe to try to make our home port, Dunkirk. We weighed anchor and started and were glad enough to get away for the lake was filled with slush ice. We made Dunkirk, and the vessel was laid up for the winter. The crew was never paid for the voyage, the captain claiming we shipped for a trip to Kelley's Island which we never made. I have satisfaction to think that there is that much coming to me in the future. That trip quenched my desire for sailing the lakes, and I have only once since been on their waters. John Hale"

Hayden Hanks continues: "I wish to state here that the captain of that vessel the Rugby of Dunkirk, was named Henry Walker. The Rugby sank in 1862 with the loss of seven lives."

 
 

 

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