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Blue Mountain


Georgian Bay is well known as a great summer playground, with lots of opportunities for all types of water activities.  The many beaches and harbours attract large numbers of tourists during the warm weather.  There are a few stretches along the southern shore however where boating and some of the activities are more limited.  Because of the landforms in the Craigleith-Camperdown section of shoreline it is not suitable for larger boats or inexperienced paddlers.  This section is best known for fossils and archeological finds from the remains of the Iroquoian tribal group. The low-lying plain that has a series of steep-sided valleys that were flooded by glacial Lake Algonquin resulted in several reefs and unsafe conditions in general.  The depth of the water around the reefs varies and winds can create waves of over six feet high along the edges of the reefs.  This has resulted in numerous boating accidents, the most famous one was the Mary Ward.   

The Mary Ward, a 120’ steamer with an 18’ beam, was built in 1865 at a shipyard in Montreal after which it went into service through the Great Lake system between Montreal and Chicago carrying goods and passengers.  The Mary Ward suffered a fire during a trip across Lake St. Clair and was back in dry-dock within two years for repairs.  After that she continued her service on the Great Lakes until she was purchased for approximately $18,000 in 1872 by an Owen Sound partnership who wanted to put the Mary Ward into service on the Georgian Bay/Lake Superior route.

 On November 22, 1872, the Mary Ward left Sarnia with a load of coal oil, salt and passengers for Collingwood which was to be her new home port for the winter.  As bad weather moved in she was forced to steam into the harbour at Tobermory.  While waiting out the storm, another steamer, The Cumberland came into the harbour also trying to avoid the storm.  The captain of the Cumberland decided that he would not be able to take his passengers past Sault Ste. Marie as it was just too late in the season.  Those passengers, a Canadian Pacific Railway survey party headed by Frank Moberly, decided to head back to Collingwood on the Mary Ward.

November 24, 1872, once the weather cleared the Mary Ward set out from Tobermory to Owen Sound where she would pick up some more passengers headed to Collingwood.  That day was noted to be especially warm for that time of year.  That evening the Mary Ward's Captain William Johnson and his crew noted that it was a dark moonless night, but since they could see the stars they were not concerned.

What happened next has been a mystery for the past 140 years.  Some say that Captain Johnson mistook the lights at a tavern in Craigleith for the Collingwood harbour light, however, many discredit this theory saying that the Nottawasaga light would have been easily visible as it was only a few miles away.  Others speculate that the captain simply didn't know the waters or of the shoals in that area, however, historians say that Captain Johnson was quite familiar with the Bay.  Another theory is that there was a bank of fog over the water caused by the warm air passing over the cold water.  Whatever the cause, the Mary Ward was well off course at 9pm when she hit Miligan's Reef and became fully grounded on the rocky shelf approximately 2km from shore.

After the steamer was inspected it was found to be relatively intact and since the weather was nice, everyone aboard decided to settle in for the evening and wait for help in the morning.  Two of the men aboard, Frank Moberly (CPR surveyor) and George Corbett (one of the ships' owners) decided to take one of the ships 3 lifeboats and row to shore to get help at around 10pm.  Their plan was to get to Collingwood where Frank's brother George (the Mayor of Collingwood from 1872-1876) had a tug to rescue those still aboard the Mary Ward. 

After reaching the shore of Craigleith, Frank Moberly and George Corbett were unable to get help and so they continued on walking to Collingwood.  At around 7am they reached Collingwood only to find that George Moberly's tug had already been laid up for the winter with the boiler drained and that it would take hours before the tug, the Mary Ann, would be ready to go.

Meanwhile, back at the Mary Ward, a storm was coming in and things went from calm and sleeping to all hands on deck very quickly.  The fierce storm came in and by dawn everyone was hanging on to whatever they could totake shelter.   The lighthouse keeper on Nottawasaga Island, Captain George Collins, was up early because of the storm and was shocked to see the Mary Ward stuck atop the reef.  He then saw a lifeboat being launched from the stuck steamer and watched as the occupants barely made it to shore including Captain Johnson who had ordered the remaining people on the Mary Ward to stay put until help arrived.

 Later that day, George Moberly and crew finally had the Mary Ann fired up and set out to save the remaining people on the Mary Ward but the storm was too much and they were forced to head back to Collingwood.  Realizing that no help would be able to come from the Collingwood direction, Frank Moberly and George Corbett decided to head to Thornbury to get the help of some local fishermen.

Back at the Mary Ward, those remaining on the steamer were growing increasingly concerned about their fate.  As the panic grew, 8 men decided to launch the last remaining boat to get to shore.  Charles Campbell was one of these men, and was eager to get home.  He could see the lights on at his house and was determined to get home to his wife who was expecting their second child any day.  Unfortunately, the boat only made it a few yards before a huge wave came and toppled the boat and its' passengers.  Clinging to whatever they could manage to hold onto, they desperately tried to survive but they eventually succumbed to the frigid water and sunk below the surface.  Charles Campbell was last seen clinging to the top of the boat headed for Nottawasaga Island, however, his body was found washed up on the shore of Wasaga Beach a few weeks later.

Frank Moberly and some other rescuers boarded the train from Collingwood to Thornbury to try to get some of the local fishermen to go out and rescue the remaining people aboard the Mary Ward.  Moberly was able to get in contact with his friend Captain W. Alex Clark and they were able to round up 15 fishermen and 3 fishing boats to attempt the rescue.  They made it to the steamer and were able to tie up on the Mary Ward and help the remaining 19 people to the safety of the fishing boats.  As the storm started to die down they headed towards Collingwood where the rescued men stayed at the North American Hotel, where Mrs. Montgomery, the wife of the hotel's proprietor, gave them food and made them comfortable.

As the Mary Ward kept taking a beating out on the water, barrels of kerosene started floating to the surface and it was said that there was lots of kerosene around Craigleith for some time.

Milligan's Reef, is now known as the Mary Ward Shoal.

Frank Moberly was presented a medal and a citation for his heroism.  The other rescuers were recognized by the Minister of Marine and Fisheries and each of them was presented with $15 and a testimonial documenting their part in the dramatic rescue.

      The last remains of the Mary Ward are still out on the shoals of Craigleith. It is believed that the majority of the steamer smashed to pieces on the rocks and the pieces drifted away.  The boiler and propeller are the main artifacts left on the shoal to mark the actual location.  Browning, who operates Eagle Adventure Experiences at Northwinds Beach is one searcher who has seen them.  He rents kayaks and has “feature experiences” such as a trip to the Mary Ward site, but strongly advises you not to attempt the trip yourself unless the weather is calm and you have had a lot of experience in uncertain waters.

    When you a looking for a summer outing for the family, you might consider Craigleith as a good choice for an interesting day or camping trip.  It is located on Highway 26 in Craigleigh in the Blue Mountain area.  The shoreline is rocky and inclined to be slippery so is not the best of swimming, but there are other beaches close by, your camping permit at Craigleith allows you entry to Wasaga Beach and other Provincial Parks for day use.  You could also wander through the Depot to learn more history of the area or take a hike on the Georgian trail.  While there the children will enjoy looking for fossils and pieces of ancient shale and spending time in the playground, or it you have a canoe or sailboat  you could launch it from the flat shale area or Northwind Beach.  There is also a picnic area for those only spending an afternoon there, and all campsites have electric service, fireplace; and a picnic table.  There is a store there and a plaque commemorating the Mary Ward and it is a good opportunity to try to see the reef where she sank.  Some people with a little imagination have claimed it looks like the steamer is sitting on the reef, but it is only the rock formation.     


Book – Alone in the Night.