Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rossport and the Gunilda

Rossport, Ontario is one of my all time favorite spots on Lake Superior. It’s in the middle of the Rossport archipelago, an island chain stretching from the Slate Islands in the east to Silver Islet in the west, a distance of over 100 miles. It’s a former fishing village with a number of B&B’s and a couple fine restaurants, no chain stores, and an excellent marina for power and sailboaters alike. It’s a superb anchorage which was why oil baron William Harkness and his opulent yacht, the Gunilda, were steaming in this direction in August of 1911.

Harkness was one of old John D Rockefeller’s partners in Standard Oil and one of the richest men in the world at the time. He was taking his family and some of his cronies to fish speckled trout (the famous Coaster Brookies) in Nipigon Bay. Rossport was and is right on the tracks of the Canadian Pacific railroad and the logical place to stock provisions. The problem began when Bill balked at paying the local pilots to guide the Gunilda into port past some treacherous shoals. He didn’t become rich by paying outrageous fees to unwashed locals, by god, and decided to have his crew bring the yacht into port. This was a bad idea because the Gunilda stuck a reef and settled on it, unable to move. A telegram was sent to Thunder Bay (Port Arthur and Fort William at that time) to dispatch a tug. When the tug arrived a few days later, the captain took one look at the precarious position of the Gunilda and informed Harkness that another tug would be needed because when he pulled the ship off the reef the other tug would need to pull it into shallow water or it would sink in 300’(100 meters) of Gitchee Gumee’s depths. It was very apparent, to Mr Harkness anyway, that the tug captain was trying to screw him too, as had the local pilots. He ordered the captain to pull the Gunilda off the reef and it promptly sank in 300’ of water. Harkness headed back to New York, presumably to buy another yacht (easy come, easy go) and the Gunilda remained on the bottom.

In the 60’s some guys threw a grappling hook over the side of a barge and managed to break off the foremast of the ship and drag it to the surface. It now stands in the front yard of the Rossport Inn, a nicely restored railroad hotel from the 1880’s. Scuba diving was becoming more sophisticated at the time and a couple divers managed to dive the wreck but there were fatalities. The mast has a plaque dedicated to the memory of Charles King Hague, a 24 year old who died diving the wreck in 1970. With better air mixtures and equipment, more experienced divers are diving the wreck. Jacques Cousteau himself called it the best preserved shipwreck in the world and the fresh, cold, oxygen poor water of Lake Superior has preserved it perfectly, even down to the paint on the bowsprit. A few years ago we were in Rossport kayaking and talked to some fellows from Tennessee that drove up to dive the wreck. The video they took was spectuacular. As they explained that they were able to spend 15 minutes on the wreck in a three hour dive I offered my opinion that they were nuts diving that deep. One of them turned to me and asked if we were the guys that they saw off the Battle Island lighthouse ‘in them long skinny kayaks?’. When I said yes he offered his opinion in his Tennessee accent that ‘ya’all are the guys that’s nuts’!

We took a nice evening paddle, hitting four of the small islands and got back to Rossport expecting we would be eating cold turkey wraps. The owners of the Serendipity Gardens were just closing but whipped us up a nice supper and we stayed at their excellent guest house. Canadian hospitality at its finest. It also allowed us to have a nice talk with the owners, who live in Rossport year round. The ski trail begins at the guesthouse; you never know when a person might decide to head north next winter.


Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

While researching Rossport, I came across this excellent blog on your experience there. Thanks. I really enjoyed reading it. You've provided lots of great information.

Andrew Slade said...

I just finished watching "Drowning in Dreams," which I was able to get through interlibrary loan. It really gets at the obsession people have had with the Gunilda, especially Fred Broennle.

bruce said...

The 2 "guys" that are refered to were Ed Flatt and Robert Hewitson.
They spent the better part of a week in Rossport, on a barge. I have pictures of them with the mast on the barge. they also had the masthead light with the bulb and filiment still intact.

Bruce Hewitson
Thunder Bay

Harry Dunbar said...

Very nice article on Rossport.
I dove the Gunilda last fall (2008) and aside from the amazing wreck diving experience ... I also enjoyed dining at the very fine resturants in town. I still find it hard to believe that a place so off the beaten track could have such excellent dining.
The wreck of the Gunilda is by far one of the most awesome dives of its kind.
I'll be going back.