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Friday, June 14, 2024
Ross’s Ramblings: Tragedy of the Foam remembered, for all the right reasons
The story of the Foam tragedy has languished too long, writes Ross Robinson, and a planned upgrade to the cemetery plot where the deceased sailors are buried is an opportunity for this piece of history to gain some recognition. SUPPLIED

Late in the afternoon on July 13, we will be remembering the tragic drowning deaths of seven young men at the mouth of the Niagara River. 

In 1874, a long time ago, they were sailing on a yacht called the Foam, from the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto to the Saturday Night Hops at the Queen’s Royal Hotel here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Young ladies were waiting to dance with the lads and witnessed the tragedy just offshore.

As Tim Taylor wrote in a series published in The Lake Report in 2021, much of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s history finds its way into this story.

“From a vantage point on the spacious verandah of the fashionable Queen’s Royal Hotel, Elizabeth and Dee Dee Chittenden awaited the arrival of these suitable dance partners,” he wrote.

“The two girls were the teenage daughters of a Southern plantation owner who had moved to our town after the American Civil War.”

The Foam was a 30-foot centreboard sloop with low freeboard and the seven-man crew that fateful night were all from prominent Toronto business and banking families.

Noted local author, the late Jean Baker, wrote a short vignette capturing the drama of the tragic events on that warm summer night in July 1874.

“Under darkening skies and failing light, heavy winds pounded the yacht as she approached the treacherous shoal, about three miles offshore where the strong current of the Niagara River merged with the lake waters in a roiling maelstrom,” Baker wrote.

“Sudden turbulence gripped the vessel, causing her to shudder on the bar as a rogue wave from the stern engulfed the cabin and cockpit, sinking the Foam, her four tons of iron ballast pulling her down to a watery grave.”

Soon after the tragedy, the Royal Canadian Yacht Club purchased a 36-foot-by-25-foot plot and surrounded it with a low wrought iron fence in the St. Mark’s Anglican Church cemetery.

The seven bodies were expeditiously buried. The central six-foot-tall limestone monument is now cracked and largely unreadable, yet still reminiscent of its former grandeur.

Seven small headstones, each named for one of the Foam’s seven lost sailors, were placed in front of the monument, seemingly standing at attention.

Why were they all interred in NOTL instead of in family plots back in Toronto?

The story has been forgotten for too long. Some years ago, repairs were made to the plot, but nature has taken its toll and it was time for a major upgrade.

The Royal Canadian Yacht Club has completed an ambitious fundraising effort and Al Ernest from Dundas, Ont., has started work to respectfully restore the headstones and monument.

For all the right reasons, a respectful and dynamic memorial event is being organized for Saturday, July 13 here in our town.

All are welcome to attend, learn, remember and pay respects.

The Royal Canadian Yacht Club and NOTL Sailing Club members will be walking from the base of Melville Street to the gazebo in Queen’s Royal Park, following bagpiper Morgan Stanford.

To respect the deceased, everyone is being encouraged to wear nautical blazers.

After a brief ceremony at the gazebo, including a speech by world Shark champion Josh Wiwcharyk describing how the waters over the Niagara bar can so quickly become treacherous, even for larger yachts, we will be piped to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club plot at the St. Mark’s Anglican Church cemetery.

Before we leave the gazebo, local singer Aaron Berger will sing “The Bankers Boys.”

If a scheduling conflict can be resolved, the church sexton will speak about the history of the yacht club’s plot here in NOTL and Rev. Leighton Lee will deliver a prayer of rededication for the seven lost souls.

St. Mark’s chimer Bernadette Secco will toll the main bell seven times, with the names of the deceased sailors read aloud.

Then, as we walk back to the NOTL Sailing Club, she has arranged a “hit parade of nautical funeral chiming music” to provide ambience through the trees.

The story of the Foam tragedy has languished too long, and this cemetery plot upgrade and attendant activities are an opportunity for NOTLers to become familiar with this piece of history and pay respects.

This major historical event from our town’s past should be remembered.

Please dust off your blazers and take part on Saturday, July 13. Follow the piper from the base of Melville Street, leaving at 4:30 p.m.

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