Built in 1865 in Montreal, the steamboat Mary Ward was 120’ long with an 18’ beam and carried passengers and freight along the St. Lawrence River and through the Great Lakes between Montreal and Chicago. In 1872 she was sold to an Owen Sound, ON consortium that put her into service on the waters of lakes Superior and Huron.
On 22 November 1872 she sailed from Sarnia with passengers and a full cargo, bound for her home port of Collingwood, but with a forecast of bad weather, Captain William Johnson decided to take shelter in Tobermory at the southern entrance to Georgian Bay.
While in Tobermory, the side-wheel steamship Cumberland arrived, also seeking shelter. On board were a party of surveyors and civil engineers heading for Port William ‐ Fort Arthur (now Thunder Bay, ON), but while waiting they were informed by the Cumberland’s captain that he wouldn’t be able to take them past Sault Ste. Marie because it was too late in the season to consider a voyage across Lake Superior. Consequently, the group, headed by Frank Moberly, decided to return to Collingwood on the Mary Ward.
When the weather eased, the Mary Ward departed for Owen Sound, her next point of call, to pick up more passengers for Collingwood. She steamed out of Owen Sound in the late afternoon of Sunday 24th November. For unknown reasons the Mary Ward was well south of the proper course for Collingwood. As she came abreast of Craigleith at about 9:00pm, she struck the smooth shoal known as ’Milligan's Reef’ and became well and truly stranded. The hull survived intact and the ship wasn’t taking on water, so being a calm night the admittedly shaken passengers settled down as much as they could to wait for help to arrive in the morning.
There was no barometer on board the Mary Ward which would have indicated that the calm, clear weather was about to change. If there had been the passengers and crew perhaps would have taken different action.
About an hour after the grounding, Frank Moberly and the ship’s purser, George Corbett, decided to take one of the lifeboats and row to Craigleith and from there travel to Collingwood, where Moberly’s brother, George, owned a tug, the Mary Ann.
Around midnight the wind veered from the south to the north-west and started to increase in strength. Capt. Johnson had, apparently, retired to his bed and when awoken, realized the danger and started blowing the ship’s whistle in the hope it would be heard on shore (this was 42 years before the sinking of the Titanic and the subsequent codification of distress signals, provision of an adequate number of life jackets, lifeboat seats, etc.)
Meanwhile, Moberly and Corbett had reached shore but couldn’st find anyone awake in Craigleith. Had they realized the increasingly dangerous situation on board the Mary Ward they proably would have acted differently but as it was they walked all night, reaching Collingwood around 7:00am, where they learned that George Moberly’ss tug was laid up for the winter. George immediately took steps to round up his crew, but it was going to take a few hours to build a fire and get enough steam to power the Mary Ann.
On the reef, the Mary Ward was now in great danger, with breakers sweeping across the stern and at times enveloping her upper decks and wheel house. The passengers were hanging on for their lives to whatever they could. Capt. Johnson and others took to a lifeboat in an attempt to reach Nottawasaga Island, which they did. He told the subsequent enquiry that he had ordered those still aboard to stay there until help arrived.
After a number of hours of building up steam, the Mary Ann sailed out of Collingwood, but the force of the storm and the size of the waves threatened to overwhelm her and she was forced to return to Collingwood.
The storm worsened and those on board the Mary Ward debated trying to reach the shore in the last lifeboat. Some wanted to try, others wanted to take their chances and stay with the ship. Eight men decided to launch the lifeboat but after just a few yards it was swamped and capsized. All eight men died, either from drowning or hypothermia.
There being no help available in Collingwood, Frank Moberly decided to head to Thornbury, on the other side of Craigleith, on the newly opened Northern Railway, to try and convince some of the fishing fleet to attempt a rescue of those still on board the Mary Ward. On arrival, he contacted his friend, Captain W. Alex Clark, and between them collected 15 fishermen willing to help. They set out into the storm in three fishing boats and when they reached the Mary Ward were able to rescue all 19 people still on board. Sadly, the ship’s mascot, a dog, fell in to the water and was believed lost.
Rather than beat back to Thornbury, the rescuers deemed it safer to sail downwind to Collingwood where they landed the survivors.
Frank Moberly was honoured for his heroism and the rescuers from Thornbury were all recognized by the Minister of Marine and Fisheries. Every man was also given an award of $15 in recognition of their gallantry.
The now abandoned Mary Ward eventually started to break up and sank a short while later. The vestiges of the wreck are still there, under about 10 feet of water, and the site is a popular spot for snorkelers and divers as well as kayakers content to peer down through the clear water.
Milligan’s Reef is no longer known by that name. It’s now the "Mary Ward Shoal".