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Thursday, April 18, 2024
Sinking of the Foam–Part 1–Seven diedin tragic Lake Ontario maritime mishap 147 years ago



This is the first in a series of stories about the sinking of the Foam, one of the worst tragedies in Lake Ontario maritime history. The incident is shrouded in mystery and many fundamental questions remain impossible to answer. 


The recent grounding of a Toronto-based yacht on the sandbar at the mouth of the Niagara River is eerily reminiscent of a similar incident on a warm summer evening 147 years ago.

On Sept. 1 of this year, as reported by The Lake Report, a 35-foot keeled sailboat, Casa Libre, from a sailing club in the Toronto islands, with an experienced sailing couple at the helm, grounded on a sand bar in the mouth of the Niagara River, off Queen’s Royal Park, in Old Town.

On Saturday, July 11, 1874, the sloop Foam, with seven sailors aboard, out of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto, foundered on the Niagara Bar, a mere three miles from its destination, the Queen’s Royal Hotel, on the western bank of the river at Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But that’s where the similarities end.

One story has a happy ending, the other ends in tragedy.

Within hours of grounding, the Toronto couple aboard Casa Libre, was safely rescued by Niagara-on-the-Lake Fire & Emergency Services. Two days later, after a group of local samaritans unsuccessfully attempted to right the boat, it was finally freed by professional salvagers. The Casa Libre was unscathed.

In many ways, the haunting story of the Foam remains a mystery. In the darkening night, just minutes from the docks, the Foam foundered and seemingly vanished, only to be found in the following days, with only the mast of the vessel appearing just above the water.

There one moment, gone the next.

All seven souls aboard were lost. All are buried in a small, respectful plot in the St. Mark’s Church cemetery, still owned by the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. The Foam was raised, returned to Toronto, and destroyed.

Sixty-two years later, in the Toronto Telegram's Schooner Days column of July 11, 1936, the Foam was recalled as “a comparatively small yacht, not much more than 30 feet long, but quite wide, probably 10-feet beam. She was the old-style shoal centreboard type, with little freeboard and draught, sloop rigged with long overhanging bowsprit and main boom.”

The loss of the Foam is a romantic story. The seven young men, all from prominent Toronto families, were coming to Niagara, in part to attend the famous Queen’s Royal Hotel Saturday Night Hop, a social occasion known far and wide.

Some of the town’s young women waited in vain for their dancing partners to arrive.

Why did the yacht founder? Should a centre-board boat, with such a shallow draft, have attempted the lake crossing? Why did it take so long to find the Foam? Where were the bodies found and when? Why are they buried in St. Mark’s cemetery? Why was the boat destroyed so quickly?

All questions raised by The Globe newspaper of the time, The Toronto Telegram over 60 years later and through the stories and lore of both professional and amateur historians, throughout the decades.

There are few definitive answers.

Twenty years ago, Jean Baker, while on one of her regular walks through the peaceful St. Mark’s churchyard, was captivated by the Foam’s monument and small white gravestones.

Baker, 85, is a longtime resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, a St. Mark’s parishioner and a prolific writer for newspapers and magazines across the United States and Canada. Her first novel, a historical fiction work, “Albatross Hall”,published this year by FreisenPress, is a rollicking story from the time between the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.

She comes by her “eye-for-a-story” naturally. Her father was a prominent English journalist, with a 40-year career with a big British newspaper. “I think I got the journalism DNA in my blood,” Baker says.

“I was intrigued by the seven gravestones. Here they were, the sons of prominent Ontario personages. They had to have some money to sail here on the yacht. I really wanted to know why their graves were here in the first place.”

Baker went immediately to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library, accessing the microfiche of the newspapers of the day.

“I knew immediately that I wanted to put the story together. Just for me.”

Next: Read Jean Baker’s colourful vignette about the demise of the Foam.

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