In 1975 I married Bill VanVlack. Little did we know that three generations earlier, our ancestors were involved in an incident on Lake Ontario that changed our family’s destiny.
I grew up in Prince Edward County, an “island” on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The lake is part of my essence, I’m never fully at home unless I’m near the water.
I first met Bill in the summer of 1972, on Lake Ontario. I was fishing near my parent’s cottage, and Bill was cruising around in a speed boat. We were married three years later ~ it’s now been 42 years, and we have 2 grown children and 7 grandchildren.
Here’s how our ancestors met on that eventful day in 1882 …
Capt. William VanVlack, my husband’s great grandfather, was the captain of the schooner Eliza Quinlan. On December 4, 1882 an early winter storm was quickly closing in over Lake Ontario. The crew of the 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.
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Nearby at Point Traverse (Prince Edward Point), my great great grandfather (James) Jackson Bongard heard about the grounded schooner. Jackson was a fishing boat captain, experienced at making rescues on the lake. He quickly assembled a lifesaving crew that 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.”
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And here’s the rest of the story …
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. If not for this rescue, my husband’s family line would never have come into existence.
Captain William VanVlack passed down a keepsake through the VanVlack family generations – an engraved crystal shotglass. My husband is the current owner.
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 other was to Solomon Mouck.
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.
These family treasures will be passed down to our our children.
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For years, we had kept these family heirlooms in the china cabinet, never fully appreciating how they related directly to our current lives. The significance of their history unveiled itself many years after we were married. We’ll never take them for granted again, and this story will become part of our legacy for future generations.