S.S. Asia

The wreck of the S.S. Asia

There is an enormous amount of historical material surrounding the wreck of the S.S. Asia.

The tragedy was on the front page of the nation’s newspapers for weeks. Books and songs and poems were written. In the weeks and months following the wreck, much debris from the ship and numerous bodies were found.

At least two official inquests were held into the cause in the weeks following the wreck. The Great Lakes had claimed thousands of ships in the early days of settlement and people were fed up with the uncharted waters and unregulated danger of this primary mode of transportation. The disaster, in fact, is cited as the reason the Canadian government commissioned a ground-breaking nautical survey of the Great Lakes—a massive, decades-long undertaking in the days before computer modelling— in order to provide safer passage for people and goods on this essential corridor to the north and west.

And yet there is also much misinformation and as was typical at the time, many tall tales that would later be debunked (see the article here for just one example). The steamboat’s manifest, with the names and number of passengers and crew, has never been found (before the age of photocopies and computers, it  no doubt went down with the ship). Numbers range from 100-120 people lost. The wreck itself has also never been discovered, though anglers in the Byng Inlet area have suggested they might have caught their nets on the sunken boat, and many people on the eastern shore of the bay speculate about its location.

For more on the wreck of the Asia

Maritime History of the Great Lakes

Grey Roots Museum and Archives

The Wreck of the Asia: ships, shoals, storms and a Great Lakes survey, by Robert Higgins, 1995.

The story of the bodies that drifted up onto Lonely Island and the lighthouse keeper who couldn’t account for a missing watch and jewellery is a particularly gruesome tale.

More reading

For some great books where water is not incidental colour or backdrop, but a defining force in the character’s lives, click on this list I wrote for 49th Shelf. Also check out the new discussion guide here for teachers and students with BONUS writing prompts!