By Phil Egan. Special to The Sarnia Journal
(2015) A Friday night that began with calamity and death on the St. Clair River was destined to soon become a far greater tragedy.
It was near midnight on Lake Huron on August 3, 1900 as the steamer Kaliyuma prepared to enter the St. Clair River. Behind her, under tow, was the beautiful twin-masted wooden schooner-barge Fontana. Built in 1888 at nearby China (now St. Clair) Michigan, Fontana was owned by the St. Clair Steamship Company. She carried 2,593 tons of iron ore, bound from Presque Isle to Cleveland.
Ahead of her shone the lights of three oncoming vessels upbound for Lake Huron. The first was the steamer Appomatox, towing the large schooner Santiago, laden with coal. Behind these ships came the steamer Inter Ocean. All were approaching from the western, or American, side of the river.
Captain George McCoy and most of the crew of the Fontana were on deck to see the lights of Port Huron, the captain’s hometown. John McGregor, due to go on watch at 4:00 a.m., was trying to sleep below decks.-
They heard the Kaliyuma give two whistle blasts, signalling its intent to pass to port. Appomatox signaled acknowledgement, but Santiago somehow swung towards Kuliyuma, grazing her as the two ships passed. The Kuliyuma blew the danger whistle, but it was too late. Santiago crashed almost headlong into Fontana, which began to sink immediately.
The captain and crew on deck scrambled into a lifeboat, struggling to avoid the suction pulling it towards the sinking Fontana. Two sailors below deck, one of them John McGregor, scrambled aloft. One of them managed to climb into the quickly sinking rigging. McGregor’s lifeless body would wash ashore in Port Huron two months later.
The following day, buoys were placed in the channel to warn oncoming shipping of the deadly hazard to navigation. Two lights were attached to the wreck itself, which was not completely submerged. Despite these warnings, several close calls ensued.
Two days later, however, the schooner Kingfisher, in tow of the steamer Samuel Marshall, collided violently with the wreck of the Fontana. The heavily damaged Kingfisher managed to carry away the foretop and mainmast of the Fontana, rendering her even less visible.
As officials quibbled about jurisdiction and salvage options, worse was to come.
On September 21, the schooner-barge John B. Martin , trying to maneuver away from the wreck, collided with the steam barge Yuma. Four sailors died.
Exactly one week later, the schooner A.J. McBrier, was foolishly attempting to enter the river at 5:00 am without the assistance of a tug. While trying to steer away from the wreck, a sailor was knocked overboard and drowned, The McBrier, distracted, hit the Fontana regardless of its attempts to avoid it.
The deadly wreck of the Fontana was finally blasted apart by dynamite and the hazard to navigation was removed. Her bow and remains still lie there today, on the Canadian side of the river, north of the twin spans of the Bluewater Bridges and south of the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, in 70 feet of rushing water.