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1885 The race across the lake in a terrible storm to stop the fire

 “At midnight on Sunday, August 2nd, 1885, the Oriole and the Aileen lay snugly moored in Niagara, which at this time, with the attractions of the annual military camp and the Queen’s Royal Hotel, was an inland Newport, famous for its balls and general festivity.  This particular midnight was black as the inside of a wolf’s throat, with a whole gale from the east raving through the treetops of the port and lathering Niagara Bar with a maelstrom of whitecaps.

Oriole and Aileen

Just after one bell had struck in the middle-watch on board the Oriole, and been faithfully echoed from the Aileen, a bright spot appeared in the horizon to the northward.  It grew in brilliance until it seemed that it must be a steamer on fire in the mid-lake in that terrible storm.  But it did not move.  The anchor watch checked its bearing on the Oriole compass.  A burning ship in that raging gale would change her angle rapidly as she drifted west.  But this fierce glow was stationary.  The compass bearing remained North-West by North a half North.  And North-West by North a half North was Toronto, as straight as crow could fly.

They called Mr. George Gooderham.  To mind of the business man, owner and partner in some of the largest industries in Canada, there leapt at once the fear that had lurked ever since the Gooderham & Worts mill and distillery had burned in 1869–the fear of a fresh fire in the plant.  The Gooderham distillery and elevator, successors to the original Gooderham windmill, with its picturesque sails and tower, were landmarks of Toronto’s waterfront.  Some such torch as that must be burning to blaze so brightly.  Mr. Gooderham’s decision was swift.  “All hands make sail!”  was his order.  “We cross the lake at once!”

It needed no speaking trumpet to transmit the decision to the Aileen.  Mr. W. G. Gooderham, with the same thought in his mind, had already turned out his crew and was busy getting the mainsail reefed.  At one o’clock in the morning both yachts stood down the river and out into the tossing lake, staggering under reefed sails and rolling as though they would shoot their masts out.  They were homeward bound in hot haste, drawn by the pillar of fire that reared higher and higher beyond the black horizon.

At this time, when automobiles were unknown, trains ran once a day, and a living gale had tied up steamer traffic, a night-long wrestle with the storm-fiend was the only way by which the business man could reach his imperiled property.  Radio had not yet been dreamed of, and the telephone was a toy.

It was the wildest night lake sailors could remember.  So hard did it blow that boatmen could not be bribed to cross the Bay from Toronto Island, where the conflagration raging in the city a mile away lighted up the night so that beholders could read the fine print.

In midlake, at three o’clock in the morning, the flames seemed to be dying down.  The wind let go with a jerk, leaving both yachts heaving and tossing madly in a disordered litter of water-hills.  The Aileen was ahead, seeming to typify the greater energy of youth outstripping the anxiety of age.  Suddenly flares from the Oriole replaced the dying glare of the great conflagration.  The Aileen turned back, and as she ranged alongside Mr. George Gooderham called “She’s sprung a plank somewhere and has opened up so that the pumps keep her free!”

Then the rain began to fall.  The glare in Toronto died out completely.

Sometime after daybreak the Oriole staggered into Whitby, with swimming scuppers and two-worn out crews plying the pumps.  The Messrs. Gooderham, father and son, caught a train for Toronto.  They found the elevator and the distillery district safe.  But the whole Esplanade from Princess street to Scott street was a fire swept wreck.  The seven-story sugar refinery, which had been the highest building in Toronto, was a heap of ruins, with only the chimney standing.  Schooners, steamers, tugs, barges, yachts, boathouses, warehouses and wharves had been devoured.  While the distillery property had escaped Mr. Gooderham was still a heavy loser, for both he and his fellow yachtsmen, Mr. Leys, who owned the Oriole before him, were members of the syndicate which owned the sugar refinery.  This was a total loss.  In the fire the yachts Minden, Veronica and Flight and a newly built yacht valued at $3,500 were destroyed among the slips and boathouses which then clustered at the foot of every street.

The night of the Esplanade fire was the first Oriole’s last passage.  She lay in Whitby until some of the spewed oakum could be horsed back into her seams and the sea quieted down.  Then her crew brought her home.  They put her on the slip near the foot of Parliament street, within the shadow, almost, of the elevator she had died to save.  Surveyors went over her, and shook their heads.  Oh, yes, they reported, she could be made quite serviceable again, but it meant practically rebuilding her.  The Goldring family, notable professors of the craft of stonehooking, offered $1,800 for her as she lay; an offer of unprecedented amount in that trade of ship-knackers.  But this time it was Mr. Gooderham who shook his head.  His Oriole, that had winged her way from St. Lawrence to Superior, to become a broken down hack, hauling hardheads and gravel from the lake beaches past which she once so proudly skimmed?

“Put the saws to her,” he said.

It was done.  In a few days Oriole I was a heap of firewood.  Next year he launched a new and larger Oriole from the same slip.” 

Excerpt from Snider, C.H.J. (1937). Annals of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, 1852-1937. Rous & Mann.

Here you can listen to a song called A Storm on the Lake, published with a picture of the Oriole on the sheet music, at

1885 The race across the lake in a terrible storm to stop the fire

In 1885, the Oriole was in Niagara with her owner, George Gooderham aboard when the Esplanade fire threatened the Gooderham family distillery and elevator. The flames were visible across the lake and Oriole dashed for home, driven by an easterly gale. In mid-lake, she opened up and barely made the north shore, never to sail again as George ordered her career brought to an honourable close.

Owner of originalRCYC
Linked toRoyal Canadian Yacht Club (RCYC), Toronto, ON, Canada; George Gooderham; William George Gooderham, I

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