A “Chance Meeting” is defined as when the paths of two strangers intersect for any number of reasons and the grounds of some relationship begins. Call it coincidence, destiny, fate, kismet—in one moment, lives can collide and change forever.
This is the true story of chance encounters on Lake Ontario, and the surprising impact on my family’s destiny. The first encounter was in 1882.
I grew up in Prince Edward County, an “island” in Lake Ontario. For many generations, my ancestors had made their living from the lake. They were boat-builders, fishermen and lighthouse-keepers (and possibly rum-runners during Prohibition days, although they never admitted it). As a kid, the lake was my playground, my summer days were spent swimming and boating. Big water became part of my essence, I’m never fully at home unless I’m near the water.
I met my future husband in the summer of 1972, on Lake Ontario. I was out fishing near my parent’s cottage, when a speed boat cruised by. The boat then turned around and passed by again, more slowly this time. The driver of the speedboat was Bill VanVlack. I remember thinking at the time that he was a bit cheeky. There must have been an attraction though, because we were married three years later. We have now been married for 41 years, with 2 children and 4 grandchildren.
At the time we met, we had no idea that our lives had been entwined since 1882. That was three generations before we were born! A long-ago incident on Lake Ontario had shaped the outcome of our future. Here’s how it all began …
On December 4, 1882 an early winter storm was quickly closing in over Lake Ontario. The crew of the schooner Eliza Quinlan was enroute from Oswego to Napanee with a heavy load of coal. It was to be the last load of the season, before winter set in.
The day had not started out well. The Oswego harbour had frozen over the night before. The Eliza Quinlan had to be chopped out of the ice and towed by tugboat out of the harbour. As they set sail on the lake, the waters looked dark and foreboding. Strong winds were blowing from the southwest, and thick fog and driving snow were making visibility difficult. The captain had to rely heavily on the compass to navigate the route.
At 2:30 in the afternoon the Eliza Quinlan ran aground on Poplar Bar, three miles west of Point Traverse lighthouse. Their compass had not alerted them of their precarious location. Several hours went by with no sign of rescue. The crew of the Eliza Quinlan must have been certain that they were doomed, as pounding waves threatened to break the ship apart. A body doesn’t last long in icy waters.
The eastern part of Lake Ontario has been called “The Graveyard of Lake Ontario”, and 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.
* * *
Nearby at Point Traverse (Prince Edward Point), a fishing boat captain heard about the grounded schooner. He was experienced at making rescues on the lake, and quickly assembled a lifesaving crew. They braved the strong winds and heavy seas to reach the stranded schooner. It took many trips to deliver all the crew members to safety ashore, and no lives were lost. An article published by the British Whig (Kingston), December 9, 1882 stated that “A lake captain expressed the belief that no other men could have accomplished the perilous undertaking.”
* * *
And here’s the rest of the story …
The Eliza Quinlan commander was Capt. William VanVlack, my husband’s great grandfather.
Capt. VanVlack (known to friends as Captain Bill) had sailed the Great Lakes uneventfully for many years, fortunately this was not his last voyage. In the years after the rescue of the Eliza Quinlan, Capt. Bill married and had children.
The fishing boat captain was Jackson Bongard, my great uncle.
Jackson Bongard was presented with a silver pocket watch from the Government of Canada for saving lives on the Great Lakes.
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, I am the current owner.
Captain William VanVlack also passed down a keepsake through the VanVlack family generations – an engraved crystal shotglass. My husband is the current owner.
These family treasures will be passed down to our next generation.
* * * * *
Sometimes life is stranger than fiction. If it hadn’t been for that fateful day in 1882, my husband’s family line would not have come into existence. Was it destiny?