Outside, the snow is falling thickly and piling up on the driveway. It makes me think of the big snowfalls of long ago that often blanketed this region in the deep white stuff, making roads impassable, closing schools and stranding travellers. Everybody has stories of memorable snowstorms from their youth.
The first one that I vividly recall occurred on Jan. 25, 1971. Do the math if you must, but it was on the eve of my seventh birthday, and we had traveled from our home in rural West Gwillimbury Township to Mount Albert to visit our family doctor. On the return trip that evening, the police stopped us at Bradford and said that Highway 11 was closed beyond that point. Fortunately, my father’s boss lived in Bradford and we could spend the night with his family, but I was rather unhappy as I knew my birthday present was waiting for me several miles along the road.
The boss’s wife must have noticed my sadness because she baked me a chocolate cake with seven pink candles on it, something I had never had before, leaving me with delightful memory that has stuck with me ever since. Suddenly, being snowbound didn’t seem so bad.
Tragically, many of the storied blizzards of yesteryear had no such happy ending for many families. Deaths came in many forms – traffic accidents, exposure to the cold, breaking through lake ice, and sudden cardiac events from the sheer exertion of removing the snow. This is the tale of a Barrie son who was lost in a terrible storm and never seen alive again.
From a well-known family of adventurers and entrepreneurs came Edward Haughton McConkey. Edward’s large Irish family had sailed for a dozen weeks from County Tyrone in 1828 to settle in Canada. From their homestead at the corner of (now) Highway 11 and Innisfil Beach Road, they spread out and prospered.
Likely, the most prominent McConkey would have been Thomas D. McConkey, Edward’s great uncle, who was in business in Barrie, later reeve, then MP and finally sheriff. Edward’s father, William Duncan McConkey, left farming in Innisfil to take up the business of auctioneering in Barrie. In 1904, Edward’s brother, William Agar McConkey, took over the business when William D. died suddenly.
Born in 1878, in Innisfil, Edward developed a love for the wide open Great Lakes from summer visits to Goderich in his childhood. He was drawn to the sailors’ life and eventually got work with the Canada Steam Ship Lines with the dream of being ship’s captain one day ever in his mind.
Edward married Margaret Dusome of Penetanguishene in 1902, and together had several children, of whom only daughters Amy and Aileen McConkey survived childhood.
In 1913, Edward was 34 years old and very excited to be promoted to ship’s captain on the eight-year-old iron-hulled steamer Regina. This 1,957-ton cargo ship was 249 feet long and 42 feet wide, built in Glasgow, Scotland and powered by a 650 hp Muir and Houston engine. She was sturdy and reliable, and had been around the shorelines of Lake Huron many times before.
“The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead, when the skies of November turn gloomy.” So wrote Gordon Lightfoot in his tragic ballad of 1976, and these words were equally true many years before, when Captain Edward McConkey set out with the Regina on a rather warm late fall day. He was not expecting to be caught up in a storm system that would come to be called The White Hurricane.
Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.