The Frontenac of Kingston

Frontenac of Kingston

Steam Tug

89' x 218/10' x 78/10'

63.94 registered tonnage

The Frontenac was originally designed as a working river tug and had little or no historical significance. As such, there is very little information available on her. Most of this information came from old newspaper clippings supplied by Spencer Shoniker, and the period surface photographs are from Rick Nielson's personal collection.


The Frontenac was built on Garden Island, 2 miles south of Kingston, with Wolfe Island to the south. The builder was Calvin Company, whose founder D. D. Calvin, had built a lumber empire during the 1800's and the ships to transport them. Calvin maintained a fleet of 12 to 15 vessels that transported square timber to Garden Island, where the timber was unloaded and built into rafts which were floated to Quebec City. From here it was shipped to British markets. These huge rafts were among the largest man-made objects of the 19th century, some of them between a quarter and half mile in length. Built by his son in 1900 for towing rafts, the Frontenac saw the wane of the great days of the timber trade. Rafts became fewer and fewer, and the company went out of business at the outset of World War 1. In 1912, the Frontenac was sold to the Donnelly Salvage and Wrecking Company, who owned and worked her up to the Spring of 1929. Among other vessels, the company also owned the steamer Cornwall, along with the Frontenac's sister ship, the William Johnston. In the Spring of 1929, she was purchased by the Sin-Mac Lines, and didn't last a full year in their employ.

Newspaper reports are conflicting as to the day she left port for the last time, but she foundered on Wednesday, December 11. The basis for the following scenario is an interview with Captain Omar Marin of the Rival, who rescued the crew and captain of the Frontenac. It is interesting to note that Captain Marin and his crew had themselves been rescued a few weeks earlier from the sinking of the tug Russell, which had sank while bound for Hamilton with a barge in tow.

The two tugs had cleared Portsmouth harbour about 1:45 P.M. for the grounded freighter Sarniadoe to take off cargo. The Rival had the barge Cobourg in tow. The tugs arrived at Ducks Island about 5:00 P.M. and due to weather conditions were forced to return. It was about 8:15 P.M., with a heavy sea running when the Frontenac began to blow distress signals. The Rival cast off the line to the barge and started back to the Frontenac. On reaching the Frontenac, she had settled low in the water with waves sweeping over her. The crew was standing beside one of the lifeboats ready to swing out when the Rival came alongside and took off the crew. They picked up the barge in bitter cold, with ice covering the tug and made their way back to Portsmouth. It was presumed at the time that, buffeted by heavy seas and being built of wood, the tug was unable to stand the strain. This is even though she had been completely refitted the previous year.

The local manager of Sin-Mac Lines, reportedly on board the tug when she went down, refused comment to the newspapers. Captain Mallen and the crew of the Frontenac returned to their homes in Morrisburg without commenting on the sinking. The loss of that ship almost 67 years ago, gave us an opportunity to explore what few divers encounter, an undisturbed shipwreck.

The Discovery

Kingston, as a major port on the trip from the St. Lawrence to western Lake Ontario, has had many commercial vessels lost in fierce weather conditions and collisions off its' shores. With an area so rich in history, it is only in recent years that we have begun to discover the wealth of underwater Kingston. One dive charter operator committed to the discovery of these underwater treasurers is Spencer Shoniker, owner operator of Suspence Charters and the Brooke-Lauren, a 40' steel-hulled trawler. Below decks are 8200 cubic feet of compressed air and 500 cubic feet of oxygen, more than enough to keep the divers on board happy. He regularly makes trips to some of Kingston's best-known wreck sites and spends countless hours in research on undiscovered wrecks.

The club to which we belong, The Niagara Divers' Association has enjoyed a close relationship with Spencer over the past number of years and its members look forward to 2 or 3 charters every year. On one such trip on September 9, 1995 we made a decision to check one of Spencer's prime search areas during one of our surface intervals. As we approached the search area, a crowd gathered in the wheelhouse watching Spencer's two depth sounders and colour sonar. Within five minutes the sonar registered a definite hit and the first marker went over the side. A second marker went over on the next pass, and landed , as we soon learned, on the deck of the Frontenac of Kingston.

Current Description

The Frontenac sits bolt upright on the bottom at about 110 feet, her rudder and propeller completely intact. A massive gear sits on the stern, its original purpose unknown. The starboard steering cable and turning block are evident, with the port side covered with debris from the collapsed superstructure. The stove, pots and pans rest among the debris from the galley. The ship's dishes and dinner bell lay with a fire extinguisher amidst the wreckage. Plates and bottles litter the deck, with some to be found lying in the silt off the starboard side. A solitary pot sits on the aft section while the remnants of the engine room, with levers and gauges, is forward of the galley wreckage. A ladder descends to the engine room. Light bulbs, still screwed into sockets and plumbing litter the collapsed area. The ship's compass lies in plain sight, dusted with silt. The collapsed wheelhouse and intact, partially buried wheel lie just off the side of the wreck. Machinery rigging and a bilge pump are just forward of the wheelhouse. On the bow, the crane mast rises about 20 feet over the deck, with the crane boom, complete with blocks, lying below it. Two anchors sit on deck, one of these is a mushroom anchor. On the port side, the anchor chain hawser is evident with a log plug for rough water, certainly needed the night she was lost.

We hope that the fate of the Frontenac will be much like other Kingston wrecks, where each dive reveals more artifacts. All of us must understand that these things have been found before by others, who have left them there for us to see.

Underwater Photographs

turning blockFrontenac's Aft Deck & Turning Block (20K)

Frontenac's Brass Bell & PlatesFrontenac's Brass Bell & Plates (30K)

Frontenac's WheelFrontenac's Bronze Wheel (20K)

Frontenac's AnchorsFrontenac's Two Anchors (22K)

Frontenac's Hauser PipeFrontenac's Bow & Houser Pipe (21K)

Article by Barbara Marshall

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