The wreck of the Tornado: An Oswego maritime mystery

The Riverside Cemetery gravestones of Zebulon Phelps Stone marks the final resting spot of one of the Port City's own killed when the tugboat Tornado exploded in Lake Ontario off Oswego 149 years ago today (Aug. 6).

OSWEGO — Located in Riverside Cemetery, Scriba, is a large gravestone erected in memory of Zebulon Phelps Stone, a young man who lost his life when the tugboat Tornado exploded in the lake on Aug. 6, 1870.  His story and that of those on board with him are part of Oswego’s rich but sometimes-violent maritime history.

The stillness in the city was shattered around 3 a.m. when a terrific explosion was heard, coming from about a mile off shore. William Manwarring had taken the Tornado out in the lake the evening before to await the arrival of ships needing assistance in navigating into the harbor.  He ordered the engineer, Moses Ackerson, to fire up the steam engine around 3 a.m., and when he began the process, the boiler exploded, killing him, the captain, and Stone immediately.

Captain George Ferris, sailor Patrick Clark, and the cook, Mary Stone, went down with the wreck but resurfaced.  Ferris helped Clark, who was slightly wounded, get to some planking, then fashioned a makeshift raft for the three of them to cling to.  When dawn arrived, a passing tug found them and took them to shore.

In the days to come, this sensational story was told and retold in newspapers as far south as Wheeling, West Virginia.  The ship, worth about $12,000, was not insured.  A reward of $100 offered for the recovery of the bodies of the dead met with little success for about two weeks.  Then a schooner coming into port on Aug. 17 reported seeing a body in the water not too far from shore.  A tug was sent out which retrieved the body of Captain Manwarring.

William Manwarring was born on Oct. 19, 1818 and enjoyed a good reputation as a sailor and captain.  He and his wife Sarah were the parents of a daughter, Louise.  Local news reports revealed that the explosion had severely injured Manwarring’s head and leg.  The body was much decomposed when finally found.  A funeral was hastily organized for the very next morning but even then, many people attended.  

A reporter for The Oswego Daily Press described the long procession from the home to the Hall Cemetery where the body was buried.

Two days later, the newspaper revealed that the bodies of two men had washed ashore at the mouth of Stony Creek, Henderson, on Aug. 19.  They were subsequently identified as Ackerson and Stone.  Despite an early report that the men were buried in Henderson, their bodies were actually retrieved by the crew of the tug Major Dana  who went to Henderson on Sunday, Aug. 21 and arrived in Oswego about 11 p.m. that evening.  

According to news reports, burials took place immediately.  Ackerson was a Canadian whose family lived in Brockville.  His grave has not been located.

Zebulon’s story, however, deserves a fuller account.  

He was one of at least nine children born to Orace and Catherine Stone who immigrated from Canada to the United States in 1838 during the uprising known as the Patriots’ War.  Orace was a sailor so it was natural that Zebulon also follow that occupation.  He was listed in the 1862 Oswego city directory but by 1863 he was in Chicago where he enlisted in the US Navy on October 1st and was assigned to the USS Pittsburg.  According to his gravestone Zebulon was present at the siege of Vicksburg but that is impossible since the siege of Vicksburg took place from spring 1862-July 4, 1863.  The gravestone also states he was present at the battle of Fort DeRussy, LA, in March 1864 which was part of the Red River Expedition.  The USS Pittsburg did participate in this operation and Zebulon was most likely there.  

Zebulon left the Navy on October 5, 1864 and returned to commercial sailing.  On June 22, 1868 he married Mary Mangold, 21, at Menominee, Michigan.  

At this point Fate dealt the entire family a blow.  The grave next to Zebulon’s is that of his younger brother, George Edgar, who succumbed to tuberculosis on June 27, 1870.  Zebulon and Mary came home for the funeral and, as reported in the local newspapers, decided to remain in Oswego at his mother’s request.  Zebulon took the position of deckhand on the Tornado and Mary signed on as the cook.

What happened to Mary is unknown but it is probable she returned to Michigan.

The gravestones for Zebulon and George were erected by their sister, Caroline Matilda, the eldest known child in the Stone family.  She was the wife of William Benjamin Phelps, a prominent Oswegonian from whom Zebulon obtained his middle name.    

The location of the Tornado was for a long time unknown.  George Ferris, a veteran of the 110th Regiment, continued his nautical career until declining business forced him to seek other employment.  He worked for the Ames Iron Works for many years.  Ferris died in Oswego on May 19, 1909 and was buried in Riverside Cemetery.  On June 11, The Oswego Daily Palladium reported that a wreck had been located a short distance east of Sheldon’s Point and, although a definite identification was impossible, all evidence indicated this was indeed the Tornado.

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