Tug captain haunted by river shipwreck’s swimming corpses

Captain Thomas Reid, from a portrait by artist Florence Avery Sanderson. Submitted Image

Phil Egan

It was the worst night in the life of Tom Reid.

And that’s saying something – because the 35-year-old had learned early to live dangerously.

Reid’s adventurous story is detailed in the 1958 book, The Salvager: The Life of Captain Tom Reid on The Great Lakes.

Born in 1870, Reid grew up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His father, Jim Reid, was a Great Lakes sailor and tug-man who made a living towing log rafts from Georgian Bay to sawmills at U.S. and Canadian ports.

He also salvaged wrecks, of which there were many.

Son Tom often skipped school to hang around the docks.

“Climb aboard, Tom,” his father said to him one day. You’ll be a damn nuisance, but you might come in handy.”

Tom grew up working with chains, cranes and barrels on his father’s tugs. He never really had a childhood.

By the age of 17, Tom Reid had become a capable logging tug-man and rafter, with a powerful physique and a shock of flaming red hair. It was the golden age of logging, when it was common to tow six million feet of lumber from the French River in Georgian Bay to the Cleveland-Sarnia Sawmill on Sarnia Bay.

By 1890, Tom was second in command of the Reid Company. He was earning a reputation among ship owners as a bold, fearless sailor and a highly skilled salvager of wrecks in the Straits of Mackinac and throughout the lakes.

In 1898, Reid father and son decided to move from Alpena, Michigan and established the Reid Wrecking and Towing Company in Sarnia.

The company prospered, and Tom Reid built up a large fleet of tugs. They included the Winslow, the James Reid, Sarnia City, J.M. Diver, S.M. Fisher, Protector, Bosco Belle, and the flagship super-tug, Manistique.

Tom Reid arrived home one night in 1904 tremendously fatigued after travelling all night from the Straits of Mackinac. He arrived at his wife Anna’s bedside as she was about to deliver their fourth child. Anna was ill, and the attending doctor was worried.

But moments after arriving, Tom was informed the Reid tug Annie Moiles had sunk with all hands in The Rapids, where Lake Huron meets the St. Clair River.

Torn between Anna and the call of duty, Tom rushed to the scene of the disaster. In the wee hours of the morning, he dove to the wreck.

As he arrived at the site, seven bodies trapped in the wreck were suddenly freed. The swift current carried the corpses directly toward Tom — seemingly swimming to their captain.

It was a ghastly apparition, and the memory of it haunted Tom Reid until his death in 1958.