Vernon & District Family History Society

SHARING GENEALOGY KNOWLEDGE SINCE 1982

My Ancestors Were Heroes! By Nancy Hanson

My great-grandfather William McGaw, his brother Thomas and their families settled in Kincardine, Ontario on the shore of Lake Huron about 1850. The McGaw men were shipbuilders, fishermen and lighthouse keepers. Thomas McGaw Sr. built most of the pleasure and fishing boats in Kincardine and had a reputation for building fast fishing boats.

The "Ann Maria" was an American schooner, launched in 1864 and built to carry coal during the Civil War. On the night of October 7, 1902, the ship was old and was hurrying to port with a load of coal in heavy winds. Captain Gordon was to marry a Kincardine girl the following day and may have pushed the ship too hard. The ship's seams were coming apart from the pounding waves and taking on water faster than the pumps could empty it. Captain Gordon sent up distress flares and was heading for the harbour but missed the entrance and came aground on a sandbar 100 yards from the south shore of the pier.

"Little Tom" McGaw, the lighthouse keeper at the time, noticed the distress signals and the fire bell was rung to summon the townspeople. A big bonfire was quickly lit to guide the ship to safety but the "Ann Maria" was already aground just short of the harbour. The waves pounding on the ship were tearing it apart. Splintered planking was already washing up on shore.

Captain Tom "Big Tom" McGaw and his cousins Walter and John "June" McGaw and William Ferguson launched their fish boat the "Onward" into the heavy waves and incoming wreckage. The crew of the "Ann Maria" was clinging to the roof of the cabin, the highest point still afloat. The ship was breaking up so fast that, rather than returning to shore they had to try and take all the crew members. All had jumped to safety except the Captain and the cook, a woman who was afraid to jump. The Captain threw her toward the rescue boat but lost his footing just as a huge wave overturned the rescue boat. Captain Gordon, the cook and one rescuer William Ferguson were drowned. "Big Tom" McGaw, like many fisherman, could not swim. He saved himself by clutching gear and hauling himself aboard. The rest managed to climb on top of the cabin of the doomed ship and were rescued just before dawn.

When the water is low, the wreck can still be seen just outside the harbour.

For their bravery, gold medals were presented to Thomas, John and Walter McGaw by the President of the United States and they also received bronze medals from the Royal Canadian Humanitarian Society.

Image - McGaw Medals

McGaw Medals.jpg

In 1966, the anchor of the "Ann Maria" was raised by divers and it now stands in Victoria Park behind the Kincardine Town Hall.

I found heroes not skeletons in my family tree!