When I married Bill VanVlack, little did we know that our families had been linked by a shipwreck on Lake Ontario, many generations earlier.
The momentous events unfolded on December 4, 1882. Sail and steam prevailed on the Great Lakes during this era; waterways were the primary channels for transportation. An early winter storm was rapidly closing in over Lake Ontario, creating treacherous conditions for sailing. The schooner Eliza Quinlan was en route from Oswego to Napanee with a heavy load of coal. It was the last load scheduled for the season before winter would set in.
The Oswego harbour had frozen over the night before, presenting an ominous start to the day. The schooner was chopped free of the ice and towed out of the harbour. The waters were dark and foreboding as the crew set sail on the lake, with strong winds blowing from the southwest. Thick fog and driving snow were making visibility difficult, forcing the captain to rely heavily on the compass for navigation.
At 2:30 in the afternoon the Eliza Quinlan ran aground on Poplar Bar, three miles west of Point Traverse lighthouse at the southern tip of Prince Edward County. Their compass had not alerted them of their precarious location. As the schooner foundered on the shoal, pounding waves threatened to break her apart. Several hours passed by with no sign of rescue. The crew members of the Eliza Quinlan were fearful for their lives, praying that this was not their final voyage.
William VanVlack (Captain Bill), my husband’s great-grandfather, was the captain of the schooner Eliza Quinlan.
The eastern part of Lake Ontario has been called “The Graveyard of Lake Ontario”, for good reason. During the age of sail and steam, hundreds of sailors met a watery grave on these treacherous shoals. Increasing the danger is an unusual magnetic field, known as the “Marysburgh Vortex”. Local folklore tells of ships being led off-course, some mysteriously disappearing from sight in the vortex.
Due to the dangerous nature of these waters, the Government of Canada commissioned a lifesaving station at Point Traverse (Prince Edward Point), near Poplar Bar. The station was manned by local fishermen.
In the 1800s, there was no radar or telephone communication. A few hours passed before the Point Traverse lifesaving station received an alert about the grounded Eliza Quinlan. Straining against the frigid winds and turbulent seas, the lifeboat members bravely risked their lives to reach the schooner and her stranded crew. After many arduous crossings, all the Eliza Quinlan crew members were delivered safely ashore. Incredibly, no lives were lost. The British Whig (Kingston), December 9, 1882, reported that “A lake captain expressed the belief that no other men could have accomplished the perilous undertaking.”
A member of the lifesaving crew was my great-great-grandfather, fishing boat captain (James) Jackson Bongard.
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This shipwreck rescue changed the course of history for our families.
Capt. VanVlack (known to friends as Captain Bill) continued to sail the Great Lakes uneventfully for many years. In the years after the rescue of the Eliza Quinlan, Capt. William VanVlack married and had children.
If not for this rescue, my husband’s family line would never have come into existence.
My husband has inherited a crystal shot glass engraved with Capt. VanVlack’s name.
Jackson Bongard was presented with a silver pocket watch from the Government of Canada for saving lives on the Great Lakes. Only two of these watches have ever been awarded.
The inscription on the watch reads “Presented by the Government of Canada to Mr. Jackson Bongard in recognition of his humane exertions in saving life on different occasions at Poplar Point, Lake Ontario.”
The watch has been passed down through the Bongard family generations. It is currently in my possession and will be donated to the Prince Edward County Mariners Museum.
For years, we had kept these family heirlooms in the china cabinet, never fully appreciating how they related directly to our current lives.
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Our lives — past and present –seem to be inextricably connected with the waters of Lake Ontario. On the day that Bill and I first met, it was on Lake Ontario. I was fishing near my parent’s cottage, and Bill was cruising around in a speedboat — perhaps that says a lot about us! The lake is part of our essence, we are never fully at home unless we’re near the water.
The significance of our connected maritime history revealed itself many years after we were married. This story will become part of our legacy for future generations.