Terry Fox Pathway

Greenway Park, London, on

Status: Disaster and Mass Casualty Site


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The Site Today

Victoria Steamer disaster - Cove Bridge, Springbank Park (14795808098).jpg

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In the late 19th century London was a city of about 19,000 people but it was rapidly growing toward the center of Southwestern Ontario that it is today. However, they needed access to a new supply of freshwater to keep the city growing.

This was resolved with the acquisition of the springs in Byron. A pumphouse and small dam were constructed at Chestnut Hill (now Reservoir Hill) to facilitate this. This had the added effect of increasing the water level for about 4 miles of the river.

This in turn led to the creation of Waterworks Park (now Springbank Park) which was well outside of the city at that time. The raised water levels allowed boat trips from the city to the new park.

The boats ran from a dock in downtown London – near where the 1st Hussars Museum is now – to a dock near the pumphouse – which is now gone but the foundations can still be seen.

The boats were built to sail over the varying depths of the river but not a lot of safety was taken into account. I mean what could happen the Thames River?

The worst of these ships was the Victoria.

In November of 1879 the London and Waterworks Ferry the Enterprise caught fire and sank through the ice into the Thames River at the downtown docks. In the Spring the ship was raised the hull repaired and expanded creating a new ship; the Victoria.

The Victoria – which was inspected by the Ontario government and declared safe in 1880 – had 2 decks, was capable of carrying 520 passengers and a brand new powerful engine allowing it to make the run to the park in 30 minutes.

The Victoria cost $5,000 ($140,000 in 2023 dollars).

On Victoria Day of 1880 the Victoria had a minor collision with the Forest City in a frightening premonition in what would happen one year later.

On May 24, 1881 the Victoria made 3 trips up and down the river with no incidents. At 3pm the Victoria docked in downtown London and upon seeing another ferry had been grounded – a second ferry was trying to pull it free to no avail – the captain ignored his schedule and immediately overloaded the boat – probably in order to make as much money as possible – and set sail for Byron and the park.

The vessel was sitting low in the water, but it is said passengers joked about how it was impossible to get into trouble on the Thames River. Apparently, the Victoria had once become stuck on the river bottom because it ran over the tin can.

The lucky passengers going to the park completed their journey, but the ship’s lower decks had become awash with water from the overloading. Regardless, the captain overloaded the boat again and started back for London.

The boat immediately began to sway back and forth so much many people jumped ship and swam/waded back to shore. The rocking got worse as the passengers ran to one of the side of the ferry to wave at the people on another ferry passing beside them; the ship nearly capsized.

By the time the ship was approaching the dock at Woodland Cemetery the water was ankle deep on the lower decks. The Captain docked there but while he took on new passengers inexplicably, he continued on although it has been said he knew the ship would never make it to London.

The rocking on the boat worsened as the passengers became increasingly excited and no one seems to have thought to make any attempt to calm them down. Near the present day Greenway Park the captain – despite not staying at the Woodland dock – decided the solution was the ground the ship on a sandbank.

As the captain was weighing his options 2 members of the London rowing club took it upon themselves to race. The passengers all ran to the starboard side to watch the race rocking the boat dangerously. Aware of the danger the passengers than raced to the port side to try to right the boat.

This resulted in the steam boiler tearing loose not only killing a number of passengers but also ripping out the support beams between the upper and lower deck. The upper deck crashed down resulting in more deaths. Now free of all it’s weight the ship righted itself and promptly sank trapping even more passengers under the river.

Two men who were swimming nearby attempted to rescue the passengers. Tragically, they were also drowned in the wreckage.

To make matters worse most of the women were in heavy Victorian dresses which dragged them down to the river bottom. Many people who escaped did not know how to swim and drowned as well.

The water below the ship was 12 feet deep.

No one recorded the number of passengers on the ship, so the estimate of deaths is between 180 and 200 people.

While the majority of the bodies were recovered quickly by another ferry it took days of searching through the wreckage with grappling hooks and poles to recover all the remains.

The wreckage, of course, has long since washed away; although, the boiler remained in the river and local teenagers used it as a jumping platform for many years.

It is still one the worst maritime disasters in Canadian history. The disaster made headlines throughout Canada, in the United States and even in Europe.

Since 1916 there has a plaque at the disaster site as a memorial to large number of lives lost.


Paranormal Activity

This site is most active on the anniversary of the disaster, May 24, as well as the days leading up to and after.

There is a pervading sense of sadness and grief that still hangs over the site. This is especially strong after sunset with all the family picnickers, bikers and romantic couples gone home.

Misty apparitions are seen both in the water and climbing out of the river and up the steep bank.

Unexplained noises have been reported including phantom screams; splashing sounds in obviously calm water, the screech of the boiler ripping loose and cries of terror and for help.

On the anniversary of the disaster – as well a few days before or after – the sinking has played out before the eyes of witnesses.

Although very infrequently, there are reports of soaking wet people in out dated clothes wandering the area in obvious distress and confusion. They will disappear the minute someone is distracted or looks away.

Other Reported Activity: disembodied voices; unexplained mists usually coming from the river; phantom footsteps; electrical disturbances; light anomalies and feelings of not being alone.