Canadian Three-masted Canal Schooner Jessie Scarth


The "Jessie Scarth" was a three-masted canal schooner built at Hamilton, Ontario in 1871. She foundered at anchor off Manistee, Michigan in 1887.


Early History

William Bain Scarth was born in 1837 in Aberdeen, Scotland and immigrated to Canada in 1855. In the early 1870’s, with his brother James, he founded the firm “Scarth Brothers” and established himself as a timber merchant in Toronto. As one of their first business endeavors, the Scarths commissioned the construction of a schooner suitable for general lake and ocean trade. William Scarth named the boat in honor of his wife Jessie, whom he had married in 1869.

William Bain Scarth

The “Jessie Scarth” was a three-masted canal schooner built by the Robertson Shipyard at Hamilton, Ontario. She was 140 feet in length and measured 400 gross tons. A “canal schooner” was designed to carry the largest possible cargo through the Welland Canal, which connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Canal schooners had shallow drafts, flat bottoms and vertical bows. Nearly 500 spectators were present when Mrs. Scarth smashed a bottle of champagne on the new boat as it was launched on May 15, 1871.

The “Scarth” spent her early years transporting grain, coal, iron ore, stone, salt, railroad iron and timber in and out of Lake Ontario ports. She often traveled as far west Chicago and on occasions made trips down the St. Lawrence to Montreal. The economic recession of the mid-1870’s resulted in excess shipping capacity on the Great Lakes.

In search of more profitable opportunities, the “Scarth” sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the spring of 1876 and delivered a load of timber to a Scottish port. For the remainder of that season and most of the next, she worked on the Baltic Sea. In the fall of 1877, the “Scarth” returned to her home waters and arrived at Quebec with a load of salt. She resumed her previous trade, but mostly carried grain from Chicago to Georgian Bay ports, Toronto and Kingston.

In the early 1880’s, William Scarth became involved in land speculation in Manitoba. He moved his family to Winnipeg and became managing director of the Canada North-West Land Company. William and Jessie had eight children. Scarth was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1887. In 1895, he was appointed Deputy Minister of Agriculture. He died in 1902.


The Sinking

On Sunday, October 2, 1887, the “Scarth” loaded 26,000 bushels of grain at Chicago to be delivered to Midland, Ontario. As the “Scarth” headed down the lake, a strong wind began to blow from the north. By Sunday night the wind had shifted and a furious gale roared across Lake Michigan from the west.

The “Scarth” was under the command of Captain John J. Roberts. Roberts was born in County Limerick, Ireland in 1844 and immigrated with his family to Canada in 1849. The family settled in St. Catharines, Ontario. At the age of twelve, Roberts began his maritime career as a cabin boy on Great Lakes sailing vessels. In 1861, he sailed to Liverpool as a seaman on the brig “Danube” and returned to New York on the barque “Oriole”.

The "Scartch" resembled the "Edward Blake"

In August of 1862, Roberts enlisted in the 164th New York Volunteers and four months later transferred to Battery D. Fourth United States Artillery. His battery was assigned to the Army of the James and he fought at the battles of Cold Harbor and Petersburg. His battery entered Richmond, Virginia with the victorious Union Army on April 3, 1865.

Following the war, Roberts returned to the Lakes. He became a captain and was highly regarded among Canadian ship owners.

The “Scarth” survived Sunday night and by Monday afternoon had been driven across the lake. Unable to make progress sailing further north, Captain Roberts brought the Scarth to anchor north of the port of Manistee, Michigan. For the time being, the crew of the “Scarth” felt secure riding at anchor. Earlier that morning, the crews of two other schooners anchored off the Michigan coast had a very different experience.

While the “Scarth” was loading grain at Chicago, the schooners “City of Green Bay” and “Havana” loaded iron ore at Escanaba, Michigan to be delivered to Saint Joseph, Michigan. Both boats were owned by A. P. Reed of Chicago. The boats left Escanaba together and encountered the storm on Sunday night in mid-lake. During the night they became separated.

In the early hours of Monday morning, both boats approached the south-west Michigan coast and dropped anchors, the “City of Green Bay” just off of South Haven and the “Havana” about six miles north of Saint Joseph. Due to the severity of the storm and the heavy weight of the cargos, both vessels began to leak.

At daybreak, the “City of Green Bay” drifted onto the beach a few miles south of South Haven. The schooner quickly broke up. Although the South Haven lifesaving crew was on hand, only one seaman from the crew of seven was saved. At almost the exact same time that the crew of the “City of Green Bay” was struggling in the surf, the captain of the “Havana” feared his boat was in eminent danger of sinking. He slipped anchor and tried to sail his boat onto the beach. The “Havana”, however, did not make it and foundered three miles offshore. The crew climbed into the rigging of the masts which remained above the water. A tug from Saint Joseph was able to rescue the first mate and three seamen. The captain, one seaman and the cook were lost.

Schooners were not the only ships destroyed by the storm. Later Monday night, the small Canadian steamer “California”, bound from Chicago to Montreal, capsized in the western approach to the Straits of Mackinaw and close to a dozen passengers and crew drowned.

While this terror was occuring all along the Michigan coast, the situation on the “Scarth” began to deteriorate. Late on Monday night and again early Tuesday morning, giant seas boarded the “Scarth” and swept the yawl boat off its davits. On both occasions, the crew was able to recover the yawl by means of a small rope that secured it to the “Scarth”. Although the yawl was saved, the gunwale was caved in and the oars were lost.

A schooner foundering

By the afternoon of Tuesday, October 4, having been at anchor for more than 24 hours, the stress on the “Scarth” was too great and she began to leak. Captain Roberts hoisted a distress flag but because of the severe weather, it could not be seen from shore. The crew continuously worked the bilge pump to try and keep the “Scarth” afloat. But by 10:00 Tuesday night, Captain Robert realized the pump capacity was not sufficient to stay ahead of the leak. The “Scarth” would certainly founder.

Captain Roberts ordered his crew, which consisted of the first-mate Martin Mahoney, a woman cook and four seaman, into the yawl. Captain Roberts and his crew abandoned the “Scarth”. When the they left, the decks of the “Scarth” were actually submerged below the water. They fashioned oars from a ladder. Two seamen stood in the bow of the yawl and held their coats open to form a crude sail. Roberts headed the yawl for Manistee.

After more than two hours on the monstrous seas, the yawl miraculously drifted right between the Manistee piers. A lifesaver on patrol spotted the yawl. He threw the crew a line and pulled the small boat ashore. The woman cook fainted as soon as she stepped on land.

Captain Roberts and the lifesaving crew immediately hired the tug “Wheeler” and returned that night to where the “Scarth” was anchored. They hoped to save the schooner by towing it into Manistee. They arrived too late; she was gone. The “Scarth” had foundered and the tops of her masts had disappeared below the water.

Newspaper accounts at the time reported that the “Scarth” was lost in “40 fathoms”, or 240 feet of water. Due to the depth of the water, the “Scarth” was never salvaged.

Captain Roberts continued to sail the lakes for only a few more years. He accepted a position with a fueling company and managed coal docks in Chicago. On April 27, 1897, he was appointed Chicago harbormaster by Mayor Harrison. He became a highly respected harbormaster. He was known for his efforts to remove derelict hulls from the river and to reform ordinances which governed the operation of bridges over the river.


The Shipwreck Today

On August 16, 2005, shipwreck hunter Matthew L. Higgins located what he believes to be the wreck of the “Jessie Scarth” north of Manistee, Michigan. The general location, type of vessel and configuration of the wreck is consistent with the wreck being the “Scarth”.

Sidescan sonar image of the "Jessie Scarth"

The wreck of the “Scarth” is beautifully preserved on the bottom of Lake Michigan. The bow and mid-portion of the wreck have collapsed, but all of the structure is clearly recognizable. The stern is more intact and lies on its port side. All of the ship’s hardware is present. The wreck appears to be undisturbed from the day it sunk.

Higgins found the wreck using sidescan sonar. He repeatedly dove the wreck in the fall of 2007 and documented the wreck-site with a high definition video camera. He is not currently revealing the precise location or depth of the wreck in order to keep the site from being vandalized.

Higgins was been researching and exploring Lake Michigan shipwrecks for over 30 years. He resides in Kalamazoo, Michigan where he is an Associate Professor of Economics at Western Michigan University.

Below are images of the wreck taken from the video.





The bow of the "Scarth" is split down the stem and lies on the lake bottom like an open book. Both anchor chains run out into the distance.
The fore-deck flipped forward and the attached windlass is hanging upside down. The bowsprit and jibboom fell to the sand.
The fore-mast fell across the port rail.
Another view of the fore-mast shows the attached raffee yard.
Although the bow and mid-section of the wreck collapsed, large portions of the structure are intact. This is the main-mast, capstan and a cargo hatch.
The bilge pump settled onto the deck. The crew desperately worked the pump for hours to try and save the "Scarth".
The wheel is still attached to the steering gear. It fell over onto the port rail.
The stern is more intact and lies on its port side. The rudder dropped from its mount and is buried in the sand below.