Historicist: The Wreck of the Resolute
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Historicist: The Wreck of the Resolute

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Source: the Telegram, November 22, 1906.

As the steam barge Resolute wound down its shipping season in November 1906, it faced one of the deadliest months the Great Lakes had ever seen. A series of storms from Superior to Ontario that November resulted in numerous shipwrecks. The gales that seamen faced on November 21 and 22 resulted in at least 23 deaths. Six of those casualties occurred near the Western Gap of Toronto Harbour when the Resolute, which had shipped timber and coal throughout the Great Lakes for three decades, sank. Tragedy might have been averted had long-standing calls to deepen the shallow waters of the gap been heeded.


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Source: the News, November 24, 1906.

The Resolute began its fateful journey with partner schooner P.B. Locke in Erie, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1906, where it was loaded with a shipment of coal destined for the Toronto Electric Light Company. Both ships arrived at the Eastern Gap around 4 a.m. on November 21, where they encountered stormy weather that prevented a safe passage of the Eastern Gap. The Resolute sailed to the western sandbar of Toronto Island and moored in the ice until conditions improved. That afternoon, Captain John Sullivan went ashore to discuss the best course of action with harbour officials. Given that the Western Gap was a foot too shallow for either ship to navigate, Sullivan was told to continue waiting. Before returning to the Resolute, he cheerfully told officials from boat owners Haney & Miller that he would “go back and watch her. She’ll be all right.”
All was fine until the wind shifted around midnight. There was a second attempt to navigate the Eastern Gap, but conditions forced the ship back to its earlier resting spot. During this voyage, the ship began leaking and the load shifted. As the Resolute returned to the western end of the island, waves began washing the coal away. Around 2 a.m., the firehole filled with water and the steam pipes burst. As the ship listed, the crew rushed to the Resolute’s two lifeboats.
They had to act fast, as the ship began sinking. Within 50 yards of the ship, the first lifeboat capsized, sending its five occupants to a watery grave. Remaining crew members, like cook Lizzie Callahan, were quickly placed in the second lifeboat, regardless of how well they were prepared for the elements:

I didn’t have time to put on my shoes, and I was drenched to the skin. Captain Sullivan came to me and hurried me to the upper deck in order to get into the boat. Something seemed to have given away and the captain said I’d have to jump. I did so, and one of the men put a life belt around me, and I was placed into the boat. I was so numbed with the cold that I couldn’t move. I don’t know where we landed. I hardly remember anything about it. We had a hard voyage across the lake, and the sea swept all the coal off the Resolute’s deck.

Callahan vowed that after this experience, she was done with the sea.

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Headlines, the Toronto Star, November 22, 1906.

Resolute mate and Buffalo resident Michael Haney almost died when he was struck in the neck by one of the ship’s davits. Pulled onto a lifeboat by a crewmate, he was angered by the reception the survivors received after a treacherous 20 minute voyage to shore:

When we landed they refused to take us in and if the lighthouse keeper hadn’t taken the woman [Callahan] she would have been a goner from the cold. I never saw such a country as this. No appliances for saving life in a city like this. Here I was drenching wet and no place to poke my head into or get a dry stitch. When I came out of the harbourmaster’s house I heard a man crying for help in a heart-breaking way and I took the boat and went out to the spot where Capt. Sullivan was calling for help in an exhausted condition. He was picked up and brought ashore… They don’t do things this way in my country. Had this been in Buffalo or any port in the United States the crew would have been furnished with dry clothes. I was a lucky man to land with 25 cents in my pocket.

As the second lifeboat was about to be cut off the ship, Sullivan was washed overboard. He saw the remnants of the top of the cabin and grabbed onto its fragile canvas. He was soon joined by second engineer Thomas Topping. As both men floated to shore, the difference in their attitudes was stark. While Sullivan tried to remain optimistic about his chances of survival, Topping, as the Telegram noted, “seemed to lose courage from the first.” Sullivan tried to keep his crewmate’s spirits up, but later told the News that Topping “was drowned before he left the Resolute.” Both men held on until they hit the breakers near the shore. “I tried to grasp him to hold him on,” Sullivan told the World, “but a big breaker struck us, and I clutched hard for my own life. Tom dropped and was washed away on the breakers.” Topping’s body was discovered by an ice-breaker the following March.

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Illustration of Captain John Sullivan, the Toronto Star, November 22, 1906.

Just after Topping drowned, Sullivan hit an eddy and was carried through the Western Gap to the shore, where he washed up near the foot of Portland Street around 5:25 a.m. Had he not hit the eddy, he likely would have been pulled down by the undertow around Toronto Island. He yelled for help for some time before being found—he later noted that it felt like no one was around. The Telegram observed that “Captain Sullivan’s escape was probably the narrowest and most thrilling through which even that hardy mariner has ever passed.”
Compared to the crew of the Resolute, those on the P.B. Locke had a far less frightening experience as it sat off Toronto Island. Though tossed around by the waves, the ship didn’t break up. A rescue team picked up its crew, along with those aboard another coal-bearing schooner caught in the storm, the St. Louis. By late morning, wreckage from the Resolute began washing up on the mainland. The compass settled in an ironic location: near the offices of owners Haney & Miller at the foot of York Street.
The Globe issued a harsh editorial on the front page of its November 23, 1906 edition:

The appalling loss of life through the wreck of the Resolute is the more affecting because it happened at our very doors, though to the sailorman in distress our threshold is no more hospitable than the iron shores of Lake Superior, and for all the difference in the means of assistance the Resolute might as well have gone to pieces off Silver Islet as on the sands of the summer resort of the second city in Canada. Within sight and sound of this great city, these men perished for lack of the least share of that concern freely expended in many directions in the interest of those who need is nothing compared with that of the toilers of the unsalted seas. They died because of the callousness with which the responsibility of providing an efficient life-saving service has been shifted from one quarter to another, and their beaten and disfigured bodies cast up on the beach cry aloud, not like Caesar’s wounds for justice, but for common humanity for those who have escaped this storm only to face the next. The fury of the great gale of the lakes no man may describe, for he who has seen its full terror comes not back from the doors of death.

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Western gap and harbourmaster’s house, circa 1907. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 187A.


Most of the blame for the conditions that led to the wreck was placed on successive federal governments for their “criminal neglect” to improve the gateways to the harbour. The excuse often used was that Ottawa was waiting for the city to stop dumping its sewage into the harbour before acting. Beyond pointless partisan bickering in the press, all newspaper commentators agreed that the feds needed to provide the $150,000 estimated cost of blasting the rocky bottom of the Western Gap.
An inquiry determined that the Resolute was seaworthy prior to the wreck and absolved the crew of any blame for the disaster. Captain Sullivan, who only suffered a few days of weary legs after washing ashore, was praised highly for his efforts—it was noted that had he not been washed overboard, he probably would have saved more of his fellow crew members. Two years passed before any work was undertaken to fix the Western Gap, but by 1908 ships of a similar size to the Resolute could pass through, which reduced the odds of similar tragedies at that location in the future.
Additional material from More Than an Island by Sally Gibson (Toronto: Irwin, 1984) and the following newspapers: the November 23, 1906 and December 25, 1906 editions of the Globe; the November 22, 1906 and November 23, 1906 editions of the News; the November 22, 1906 edition of the Toronto Star; the November 22, 1906 and November 23, 1906 editions of the Telegram; and the November 23, 1906 edition of the Toronto World.

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