Polson Iron Worksyacht Morning Star

Highlights from Leeds and Thousand Islands Township Archives. (LTI)

By Art Shaw

The Lost and Found Story of the "Morning Star"

Joe Guild says that his mother, Maude May/Guild/Hennessy (1924-2018), like many survivors of the Great Depression, never threw anything away. In 2018, after her death, Joe inherited the job of sorting the huge volume of "stuff," which by then had been stored for 20 years in poorly maintained locations, where water damage had occurred. Among the "stuff", were boxes of papers and photos illustrating his mother's life. Her parents, David May and Bertha Comstock, were river people who lived year round on a 2-story houseboat that David built himself. He was a commercial fisherman, boatbuilder, and caretaker for the Nichols family from Massachusetts, at Winnekenni Lodge on Winnekenni Island. Winnekenni Island is officially listed as Bloomfield Island, and lies off the south shore of Grenadier Island, close to the American border.

For many years the May family lived on their houseboat at Winnekenni in the summers, and towed it to Gananoque in September each year for Maude and her two sibblings to attend school there. By the time of this story, she was a teacher in Gananoque. To preserve the story of that way of life, she was sought out in 2013 for an interview by historians Brian Phillips and Pierre Mercier. The video recording of that interview was deposited in the LTI Archives under Accession No. 2013-050. Knowing the interest of the Archives in his mother's story, and with further encouragement from Pierre Mercier, Mr. Guild donated a large box of pictures to the Archives, where it has been catalogued under Accession No. 2018-020.

Of the hundreds of photos and negatives in the box, a large part were digitally scanned by Archive volunteer Donnie Dorey. Among them was a very intriguing series of negatives taken by Richard Belfie, and some very tiny contact prints by Maude May herself, showing the raising of a small ship from the bottom of the harbor in Gananoque. When it came my turn to catalogue the material, the mystery of the ship eclipsed the job at hand. Bear in mind that we only work one day a week at Archives, so the story unfolded slowly. I assumed there had to be a story in the Gananoque Reporter, but I had to establish a date before I could find it. The photos showed a steam engine being used to pump out the hull, giving the impression of a date in the more distant past, and none of the photos showed a vehicle, which would have given a clue to the date of the event. My first enquiry was to Gananoque historian John Nalon, who did not recall this piece of history. Next I inquired of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston, hoping they might have a news clipping about the ship, or even a photo from her happier days. Again, no luck. Even Gananoque nonagenarian Charlie Donovan hadn’t heard the story.

In one view there appeared to be faint letters on the stern of the boat, which, when enlarged digitally, revealed raised letters under the algae on the hull, which spelled "MORNING," and below, a line of smaller letters resembling "BROCKVILLE". On a hunch, I Googled "Morning Star", and discovered our first specific data about the mystery ship. The Morning Star was a private yacht built in 1907 at Polson Iron Works in Toronto, and owned by Sir Clifford Sifton, Manitoba newspaper magnate, Ottawa lawyer, and former Minister of the Interior under Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier. She was 95.5 feet long, with a steel hull, "torpedo stern, triple expansion steam engine", and was based at Assiniboine Lodge, his summer home near Brockville, for use on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Further searching online revealed that on August 9th, 1907, the Morning Star made her maiden voyage from Toronto, making Kingston in 14 hours. Her Captain was a local hero, Robert Carnegie, one of three Captains Carnegie born on LaRue (Hill) Island, who had also been captain of Sifton’s earlier yacht "Skylark." In October 1907, Morning Star spent three weeks in Davis’ Dry Dock in Kingston for "repairs and additions." In August 1909 she underwent "re-adjustment of some of her parts", and was in drydock again for repairs in May 1910. In August 1910 she conveyed the family to a horse show in Cobourg, returning with "several beautiful cups, won at the show." Shortly after that excursion she was back in dry-dock for repairs to her boiler. In 1912 she was involved in a minor collision among three boats at Alexandria Bay, where her railing was damaged.

In 1928 her ownership was changed to D. W. Munro, and her home port to Gananoque.

The regular drop-ins at Archives keeping abreast of the mystery, included Keith Sly, local historian and Chairman of LTI Municipal Heritage Committee. He knew that David Wesley Munro had married his grandfather’s sister. Wes Munro had worked on steamboats on the Great Lakes in his early life, once owned a steam threshing outfit that hired out during harvest time around Seeley’s Bay, and later became the steam engineer at the Gananoque Waterworks, living at 244 Charles St. Keith also knew Munro’s descendants. A granddaughter thought she recalled that there had been a boat in the family that was never used, and eventually sank at its moorings in Gananoque. According to the Gananoque Reporter, Munro purchased Morning Star from Siftons in 1927, and she was placed in "winter quarters" in the mouth of the Gananoque River.

Another Thursday at Archives was spent perusing diaries of Maude May for the years 1943 to 1948, found in the box with the pictures. Finally, in the entries for October and November 1948, I found the story of Morning Star as far as we know it. With definite dates to work from, I went to Gananoque Library to read the news reports and get some background on the sinking and salvage. To my amazement, there was never a word about the salvage of Morning Star in the papers from Gananoque, Brockville or Kingston, despite the coverage of the concurrent efforts to salvage the Great Lakes freighter Milverton, which had gone aground near Iroquois the year before after a fiery collision with a tanker.

So here, 70 years and 6 months late, is the first published account, showing five of 17 surviving photos by Richard Belfie, and one of six by Maude May herself.

The stern is hoisted on a gantry, while a steam pump is used to lighten the bow, about 26 Nov 1948. (MSneg-366cropped.png)

Photo by Maude May from the deck of "Filgate." The gantry is still attached. The white 2-story building straight ahead of Morning Star is the houseboat where the May family lived between summers at Winnekenni Island. (MS2018-020-153.png)

Victory photo. She’s afloat, the gantry removed, showing the "Torpedo" stern. (MSneg-362cropped.png)

Front view, floating beside"Filgate," with the steam pump still on deck. (MSneg-373cropped.png)

Turning the "Morning Star" to head out of the harbor, Nov 29, 1948. Note the faint lettering on the stern which enabled us to identify her. (MSneg-358cropped.png)

Morning Star being towed out of harbour.

"Filgate" being towed out of Gananoque Harbour with"Morning Star" alongside. Tommy Tilton’s boat "Idler" at left, Nov 30, 1948. (Filgate-idler-MorningStar.png)

The story from here on is derived from the diary of Maude May, whose friend and fellow violin player, Tommy Tilton from Rockport, became interested in raising the Morning Star. His interest may have been aroused during visits to the May family houseboat, which was moored in Gananoque Harbour for the winter.

The cast of characters from the diary of Maude May is as follows: "Daddy" is David May, "Skip" is Maude’s sister Bernice May, "Vic" is her brother Victor May, "Tommyv can be Tommy Tilton or Tommy Massey, both of whom passed through the May houseboat frequently, "Idler" is a small tug boat that was Tommy Tilton's livelihood, residence, and only means of transportation, "Simpsons" refers to Wells Simpson and his crew, who operated Simpson's Sand Company from the little harbor called Molly's Gut at Hillcrest, west of Brockville. They supplied sand and gravel to construction sites on the river and islands (including the International Bridge) by dredging a sand deposit near Grenadier Island. For that purpose they had converted a burned out paddlewheel passenger steamship named "Filgate" into a barge.

Diary of Maude May (quoting only the references to this story):

September 30, 1948: "Tom fixed Skip’s violin this morn. He left to go see Ernie Poole and get a scow."

October 4: "Tommy left to see Simpsons about raising"Morning Star" came back 10 o’clock wasn't in."

Oct. 5: "(Tommy Tilton’s 55th birthday.): "Simpsons are going to raise the Morning Star for Tommy."

Oct 18: "He (Tommy) left for Brockville to get Simpsons."

Oct 27: "He is going down to Hill Crest tomorrow to get Simpsons."

Oct 28: "Tommy in for a while after dinner before he left for Hill Crest."

Nov 1: "Tommy Tilton stopped at Rockport said he was going to work for Simpsons a few days then they were going to raise the Morning Star"

Nov 8: "2 of the Lloyd Engineering men here in truck expecting Tommy to be here with the barge, the "Idler", and the cruiser (illegible) they left at 11 o'clock from Hill Crest and they haven't arrived here yet. The men went away again. Hope they haven't hit anything or had any trouble".

Nov 12: "Daddy to Brockville to get gas. Stopped at Hill Crest on the way home."Idler" out on the scow. Art Simpson run her over the "Roosevelt" (sunken) put a hole in her and got the "Idler" under the "Filgate". They got the "Idler" back up was ready to put her back in the water this afternoon. Too bad for poor Tommy he lost a lot of stuff nearly lost the "Idler".

Nov 13: "Too much wind for Tommy to tow "Filgate" up today."

Nov 15: "I left school today and saw the bridge open. Tommy towed the Filgate in and the cruiser. Tommy over here tonight played violin told us about the accident. Idler is leaking. Tommy lost his mouth organ & violin and lots of other things, really did a lot of damage to the "Idler".

Nov 16: "They moved the "Filgate" up beside the "Morning Star".

Nov 17: "Cut off & with diesels, the Morning Star would work as a house, tour boat, or tug, quite a good tug Daddy says".

Nov 18: "Have things ready to take a lift on the "Morning Star"

Nov 19 Fri: "Wells lifted "Morning Star's" stern, cable on her bow came off & she rolled over on her side. Tommy had her sitting upright."

Nov 20: "They got more cable on the "Morning Star", pulled her up some, then all went away in the afternoon. Mrs. Simpson came up to see the boat and took Wells home in the car, son Ernie with her."

Nov 21 Sun: "Skip & I over to the barge before supper to get Vic, Tommy showed us around the (wheel)house, quite interesting."

Nov 22: "They worked on Morning Star between rain showers today."

Nov 23: "Tommy had an offer for the Morning Star once she's up. George, Mildred and the twins were here to see if she was up yet while we were gone."

Nov 24: "They raised the bow out of the water on the "Morning Star". Had her stern up at noon but had to let it down again. I looked at it at noon, Tommy showed me. Daddy moved the house boat this afternoon."

Nov 25: "Worked on the "Morning Star" got her ready to pump tomorrow."

Nov 26: "Holiday Fri. They got the "Morning Star" almost up but have to pump all night. Star is leaking. Had her up and down several times today. Tommy quite mad about it. Mr. Andress and George here a while to see the boat."

Nov 27: "Skip and I got on the "Morning Star" today, was down inside, they have her partly stopped leaking so they don't have to pump all day. I saw a jet plane today, Tommy saw it too."

Nov 29: "They turned the "Morning Star" around today, got ready to leave in the morning. Tommy over tonight played violin. Daddy helped Tom some with his engine today. They, Welles and the others, found that the water line is eaten away like a stove pipe on the "Star". I don’t think Tommy knows it yet. May be too dangerous to tow, sure hope they make it OK."

Nov 30: "They left with the "Filgate" & "Morning Star" before 9 o'clock this morn. Wells in the cruiser Tommy in the "Idler". Tommy remembered the tune to "What would you take for me Papa" and sang it to us from the "Idler" before he left. I sure hope they have good luck getting there. It snowed most all day, milder tonight."

Dec 1: "Miss Tommy. Saw the pictures Richard Belfie took of the "Morning Star". Vic and I got Tommy's iron and took down the shed he had over his forge tonight, we put the iron over our coal."

Dec 2: "Tommy Massey down a few mins tonight, Tommy had(n't) heard or seen anything of the "Filgate" or "Morning Star" they may have gone down the American channel to get out of the current."

Dec 4: "Sat. Tommy Tilton come up on the bus today, was here for dinner… saw Tommy when I was downstreet, he was waiting for the bus, going to spend the night with his sister in Ivy Lea - I gave Tommy the set of pictures of the "Star"

The story ends there. The recovery was not the beginning of a second career for Morning Star, as Tommy Tilton hoped. After the first publication of this article in the Brockville Recorder and Times on May 21, 2019, readers have come forward with information about Simpsons and Co, revealing that stripping and scrapping ships was part of their operation. "The sunken "Roosevelt," referred to in the diary on November 12, was a car ferry between Alexandria Bay NY and Rockport ON until 1938, when the Thousand Islands International Bridge was opened. It had been stripped and sunk by Simpsons in Molly’s Gut, where it and two or three other boats scrapped by Simpsons are still visible today on Google Earth. Because of the rust perforations in the hull, Morning Star laid for a year or two on the mud flat at Molly's Gut before she too was cut up for scrap.

Diary and photos courtesy of Leeds & Thousand Islands Township Archives Acc # 2018-020. Online catalogue at www.ltiarchives.ca

Much information about Simpsons and the ships comes from an excellent write-up by Herb Sheridan documenting "The Simpson and Company Boats in Molly’s Gut" which includes a painting by his aunt showing "Filgate", the cruiser, and two other ships, pulled out on the mud flat.

If anyone has information on what happened to Morning Star after she was raised, please make contact by email at archivist@ltiarchives.ca or if you have a photo you can share of Morning Star before she was sunk.

Photos and diary courtesy of Leeds and Thousand Islands Township Archives, Accsn. # 2018-020.
Online catalogue at www.ltiarchives.ca