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Remembering the CGS Lambton on National Day of Mourning

To celebrate the Canadian Coast Guard's 60th anniversary, we are reflecting on our rich history throughout the years.

Canadian Coast Guard's 60th identifier with slogan, Celebrate the past, navigate the future.

Mike Brown is a Safety Compliance Officer within the Great Lakes Sector. He recently recounted the story of the tragic loss of the Remembering the CGS Lambton on National Day of Mourning.

April 28 is National Day of Mourning, a day to pay tribute to workers who have died, been injured, or made ill from their work. It is also a day on which we collectively renew our commitment to preventing future workplace tragedies.

April 19, 2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the CGS Lambton and the tragic loss of 22 lives aboard. In honour of this day and the 100th anniversary, we recount the story of the CGS Lambton and commemorate the lives lost.

Anyone who has passed through the main lobby at the Parry Sound Coast Guard Base may have noticed an old relic from the past. Affixed high up on the wall, is a stoic reminder of our Coast Guard history: a faded old nameboard from the Canadian Government Lighthouse Tender Lambton. It is one of the last remaining artifacts from the ill-fated ship, and it serves as a silent reminder of the tragic event. April 19, 2022, marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the CGS Lambton and the loss of 22 souls aboard.

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Lobby at CCG Parry Sound Base showing remaining nameboard above photo of the CGS Lambton

The story of the CGS Lambton is one of Great Lakes folklore, superstition, and mystery. The ship sank in one of Lake Superior's legendary and ferocious storms in early spring 1922, while commissioning light stations in the area. To this day, the wreck of the CGS Lambton and the remains of its crew have never been found. The story is particularly important to the Canadian Coast Guard because it highlights our organization's progress over the past 100 years, as well the advancements made to safety of navigation. It also tells us about the beginnings of our Great Lakes Coast Guard Fleet. The story of the Lambton played an important role in the development of what would become the Canadian Coast Guard in the Great Lakes region. Our predecessors endured the hardships and tragedies of the past and paved the way to where we are today. So in this light, it is fitting that we honour their memory, and respect their sacrifices as we observed on the National Day of Mourning on April 28, 2022 and during our 60th anniversary year.

Storm clouds

In 1922, the Canadian Coast Guard (then known as the Department of Marine and Fisheries) was in its formative years on the Great Lakes. While shipping and trade on the lakes were rapidly expanding with increasing numbers of steamships and trade routes, so was the Coast Guard's network of lighthouses and aids to navigationa network which was then beginning to expand from lower Lake Huron and Georgian Bay to the northern port of Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. At this time, Parry Sound Base (then known as the “Parry Sound Agency”) was one of 2 newly-established departmental agencies on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes to administer the federal government's marine programs (the other being the elder Dominion Lighthouse Depot at Prescott Base). In 1922, lighthouses and fog horns were really the only aids to navigation, since radio aids to navigation, radar, or GPS had not yet been developed. The system of lighthouses on the Great Lakes in both Canada and the United States were absolutely vital to shipping, and so maintaining a reliable system was Coast Guards' dominant program and concern. As such, in 1922 the CCG was much less of an operator of a Fleet, but instead was more of a manager of lighthouses and civil infrastructure.

The CGS Lambton

The CGS Lambton was built at Sorel Base in Quebec in 1909. It wasn't until 1962 when the prefix CGS meaning “Canadian Government Ship” changed to the more familiar CCGS or “Canadian Coast Guard Ship.” The ship was commissioned and built in response to an increasing need for lighthouse re-supply vessels on the Great Lakes, and was tasked primarily for that purpose. Until 1922, lighthouse staff were mostly responsible for their own transportation to-and-from their respective stations, and re-supply ships were often non-government vessels, that were contracted by the Government to resupply the stations. The Agency-owned fleet was minimal at this time, and consisted of only a few small utility vessels. However, with new lighthouses being established at increasingly remote places in Lake Superior, the need for a fleet of support ships was growing.

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CGS Lambton

Over the years, the lightkeepers of the Agency had learned that the business of light-keeping on Lake Superior was no easy task. In fact, a few had lost their lives in the course of their duties. Lower Lake Superior has been well known to be one of the most treacherous areas of the Great Lakes, especially in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall). Unlike the Coast Guard ships of today's standards, the CGS Lambton was built more in the style of a yacht or small passenger vessel than a working ship required to do some light icebreaking and resupply work in Lake Superior. It had a think steel hull with a wooden superstructure, and had some resemblances to a tugboat. The ship was a fine-hulled steamer, approximately 30 meters (100 feet) long with a 6 meter (20 foot) beam.

As stylish and nautical as the Lambton may have seemed with its fine lines, plate-glass cabin house, and traditional brass rail trimmings, it was hardly a practical vessel and barely capable to do what was expected. The ship also apparently lacked critical distress, lifesaving, and communications equipment. Although marine radio was in common use by 1922, it was neither mandatory onboard ships, nor fitted onboard the CGS Lambton, rendering it unable to signal distress. A year before the tragedy in 1921, George Johnston, then Superintendent of Fog Alarms at Parry Sound Base, after having transited on the Lambton in Lake Superior in the fall of that year, wrote that:

“…its lower decks were so low that even small seas came aboard, and its upper and deck housing were so light that a good sea could carry them away. The ship was slow and did not answer to its helm properly, and its steering gear was exposed and would freeze solid, if it was caught out in a sea in freezing weather. There was no accommodation for the keepers, and certainly not for their families. The ship's lifeboats and davits all had to be handled by hand, and on a slippery deck, that was very dangerous, if not impossible, in a heavy sea, as the Lambton was very unsteady and rolled badly in any kind of sea.”

All said, the Lambton was hardly suitable for Lake Superior in early spring or late fall.

Spring breakout

At the port of Sault Ste. Marie, the early spring of 1922 saw a small line-up of eager ships waiting for the last of the winter ice to clear out of Whitefish Bay so they could make their first runs of the season into the upper lake. Along with these ships, the CGS Lambton also fitted out at Sault Ste. Marie, after having spent the previous winter in layup there. The ship was commanded by Captain Alex Brown, known as one of the best navigators on the Great Lakes at that time. Onboard was a crew of 22 personnel including 5 officers, 12 crew members, and 5 lighthouse keepers. Crewed by the Parry Sound Agency, the CGS Lambton's crew hailed from all over Ontario including Parry Sound, Amherstburg, Sault Ste. Marie, Midland, Barrie, and Toronto. The CGS Lambton's sailing orders from the Parry Sound Agency were to deliver supplies and lighthouse keepers in central Lake Superior for the commissioning of the prominent light stations: Isle Parisienne, Gargantua, and Caribou Island. The latter light station being a critical one for shipping in Lake Superior having being located along the main shipping route.

The Lambton departed at 10:30 am on April 19 and made its way through the ice-packed Whitefish Bay towards Caribou Island. It was accompanied by 2 other steamships, the SS Glenlivet and SS Glenfinnan. The small convoy lead by the Lambton made slow way through ice-packed Whitefish Bay towards Caribou Island. Weather conditions were not favourable as heavy gales were sweeping the upper lakes from the northwest the day before, which further compacted the brash ice into Whitefish Bay. The 3 vessels struggled against the ice together, but pressed on, with the ice extending until well past Parisian Island. During the struggle, the SS Glenfinnan became stalled in the ice and the CGS Lambton came to its aid and broke it out. During this maneuver there was a slight collision between the CGS Lambton and the SS Glenfinnan, with the Lambton hitting the SS Glenfinnan about the quarter. During the manoeuvers the CGS Lambton may have broken its rudder as the ship was seen after steering by 1-inch lines attached to its steering quadrant, not using tackle.

After clearing the ice, the three boats proceeded up the lake together. On the afternoon of April 19 the weather took a turn for the worse and at about 5:00 pm the winds shifted to northeast and increased to gale force. With conditions rapidly deteriorating, the 2 vessels following in the convoy decided to turn back towards Whitefish Point and await better weather. The CGS Lambton, having decided to continue on, was last seen about 40 miles above Whitefish Point heading towards Caribou Island. The ship was last seen by the steamship Midland Prince somewhere off Caribou Island. The Captain and crew of the Midland Prince reportedly watched the Lambton battle with giant waves but were unable to render any assistance and, suddenly, the ship disappeared. As mentioned, in 1922 radio technology was in its infancy, and only some ships of were equipped with radios. The CGS Lambton unfortunately was not fitted with a radio and was unable to contact other vessels or the coast radio station located at Sault Ste. Marie.

After an extensive search, it was determined that the CGS Lambton was lost with all onboard at about 6:00pm on Wednesday, April 19 in the vicinity of Caribou Island during the exceptionally strong gale accompanied by snow from the northeast.

One of the lightkeepers onboard the CGS Lambton was George Penfold, the Chief Keeper at Caribou Island in 1921 and 1922. The lightkeepers in those days were expected to provide their own transportation to and from stations. However, in 1921, Mr. Penfold considered it unsafe to transport himself by small boat to Caribou Island. He asked for Agency assistance. The Agency had agreed and, therefore, this was the first year that lightkeepers were being transported to the stations by a Government vessel.

The disappearance of the CGS Lambton remains mystery to this day. Only some small pieces of flotsam were recovered, and an empty lifeboat, with the name of the CGS Lambton on it, was found 20 days after the vessel had disappeared. A complete search of the shore line of Lake Superior and the surrounding area of Caribou Island turned up no evidence of the ill-fated ship.

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CCGS Cape Lambton

Today, the name Lambton lives on in the Coast Guard, especially Great Lakes sector, perhaps fittingly in the Search and Rescue Service: the CCGS Cape Lambton is the 47' Motor Lifeboat assigned to the Port Dover SAR Station. As well, an inshore rescue boat station has been established at Port Lambton, along the St. Clair River. Some say the Lambton sails Lake Superior as a ghost ship, still searching for its lighthouses.

As the Canadian Coast Guard celebrates our milestone 60th birthday in 2022, we look back at the achievements and reflect on our progress over the years. It is hard to comprehend all of the advancements in technology and improvements to safety, which have taken place over the last 100 years. The development of radar, GPS, radio technology, and safety managements standards are significant milestones, but we should also remember the sacrifices made by our predecessors. Amidst our new world of rapid change, it sometimes helps to remember where we came from, and who we are as an organization. We remember the CGS Lambton and crew and honour their service.

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