The Rescue – 1895
By Earl Robson (posted in two parts)
I was the youngest of a lakefaring family. To my boyish mind no book heroes equalled my father and full grown brothers. By tradition and raw experience I had been taught since childhood to respect the danger of our waters. But however treacherous I knew their caprices to be, there lurked in me the conviction that the older members of our family were masters of all situations. My later life was to prove that confidence was a boyish delusion.
So on that midwinter afternoon of 1895, when eerie-voiced tragedy swept into our lakeside home, I hurriedly sought my father. The older brothers were away at a wood sawing bee in the country.
Without warning, and with the stealthiness of an apparition, the ice on Pigeon Bay had parted about a quarter of a mile from shore and was moving out, carrying with it a gang of ice cutters, a teamster and his team, all of Leamington. Lakemen read the skies for a reaction of the waters. A northeast wind pours water of the east lake through the narrow cut between the converging shoals of Pelee Island and Point Pelee, upheaving a solid field of ice as if it were a coating of slush. Once split open to the wind and current, it moves out as if on a greased incline. My father had warned the townspeople repeatedly.
As soon as the plight of the ice cutters was observed, a gang of shoremen hastily skidded the lighter across the border of inside ice and launched it into the widening channel separating the two bodies. The line made fast to the raft-like scow had been paid out, as before a stiff northeast wind it drifted in pursuit of the receding ice flow. The men volunteering for this hazardous crossing were Johnny Robinson (grocery store), Forest Conover, Colin Cullen, Bert Miller, and the man who stayed on shore to ‘pay out the life line’ was Fred DeLaurier.
Hopes for affecting a speedy deliverance ran high when to observers on shore, the lighter was seen to touch the outer ice rim, now a full quarter of a mile distant. Two of the crew were seen to leap from the lighter to assist, if possible, in loading the horses. Then on shore wild excitement spread. Word flashed from the fishery twine houses that all sound available rope had been exhausted. This left the rescue lighter riding, suspended at the far end of a straining line, while the main body of ice with its helpless victims, glided on up a gap between it and the lighter, too wide for the castaways to span. Thus two more men had been added to the original four.
Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the men on shore had no alternative but to haul back the lighter. Buffeted by a steadily roughening water and splashed by a freezing spray, the bulky ferry inched its way shoreward, while the figure on the outer flow shrank smaller. When the scow crew tumbled on shore, each moved in a sheath of ice. They were given hot coffee by Mrs. Delaurier who lived in a small house near the shore and where her husband was a fisherman at the place.
My father was no longer a young man. But behind his years lay a long lake history; his trained senses sharpened into intuition. There was not a detail of the present situation that his failing eyesight did not measure. Out across the bay the span of open water was fast widening into miles of spitting whitecaps. Upon the chalk drawn ice rim the figures of men and horses blurred smaller, as over the grim expanse an enveloping gloom bulged lower and darker. I looked at the old lakeman’s features and trembled. A pallor had set in around tightly drawn, pressed lips. He knew that no time was to be lost, and that only one change of rescue remained – a chance that involved death. I myself understood. The old man ordered all spectators to stay off the ice bordering the shore lest it too should suddently part and move out.
It was at this time that a shout went up from the huddled group of men and women. I knew what had happened and felt myself convulsed by a surge of emotions. A sleigh team, under lashing whip, dashed in upon the shore. It had returned from a wood sawing bee in the country with my man-sized brothers.
We owned a flat bottomed pound boat then 24 feet long. We called he “The Daisy” and a daisy she was – a single cat rig, tight set to the sea, fast and quick on the tiller as a gull on the wing.
(to be continued)