FALLEN WORKERS: Rescue falls short

By Michelle Vosburgh, Port Colborne Historical and Marine Museum

A horse-drawn carriage with James Saunders seated in the front holding his hat, with his spouse Helen behind holding their son, William, in 1924. Photo courtesy Ella Saunders

A horse-drawn carriage with James Saunders seated in the front holding his hat, with his spouse Helen behind holding their son, William, in 1924. Photo courtesy Ella Saunders

It was a cool, rainy day in May 1927, and James Saunders was dressed for the weather, wearing a heavy rain coat and rubber boots.

As operator of the federal government launch, the Nemo, Saunders was accustomed to being outdoors in all kinds of weather.

In the wrong place at the wrong time, a sudden lurch, a broken light bracket and those heavy clothes contributed to James Saunders drowning in the harbour at Port Colborne that day, despite a courageous attempt to save him.

He was a native of Cheshire, England, where his parents, Thomas and Mary Saunders, raised a large family. Although his father made a living as a farm labourer, James sought work on the railways.

The 1911 census of England shows him working as a railway porter. Looking for better prospects, he emigrated to Canada soon after the census.

In 1915, just a few weeks before his 25th birthday, Saunders had been working in Hamilton as a fireman, and from there, he enlisted for service in the First World War.

During the war, Pte. Saunders was wounded severely enough to prevent his return to active duty.

Military authorities arranged for his passage back to Canada for care in a convalescent hospital.

He soon returned to civilian life and work and, in 1922, Saunders married Helen Burt Upper of Thorold. Their only son, William J., was born in 1924.

By the mid-1920s, the family was living in Humberstone, close to Saunders’ job as pilot of the government launch Nemo during construction of the Welland Ship Canal.

In Port Colborne, where harbour improvements and breakwall extensions were major components of the new canal, the Nemo was used for various tasks around the harbour and canal. About 5 p.m. on that rainy Monday, Saunders had the Nemo tied up at the Valley Camp Coal Co. dock in the harbour. He was standing on the deck, leaning against the starboard light bracket.

Suddenly hit by a wave, the Nemo lurched. As the vessel rocked, Saunders lost his balance, the light bracket broke as he fell against it, and he tumbled off the deck into the water. He was unable to swim and, according to eyewitnesses, the weight of his raincoat and rubber boots immediately pulled him beneath the waves.

Canal engineer Harold C. Johnson, standing nearby, saw Saunders fall and reacted immediately, jumping in after him while still wearing his own heavy clothing.

Despite his valiant effort, all Johnson was able to grasp was Saunders’ cap. In the rescue attempt, Johnson nearly lost his own life, his clothing pulling him under as well.

After a few minutes, when it was clear nothing more could be done to save Saunders, onlookers helped Johnson out of the water.

Rescue gave way to recovery. It took nearly a day of dragging the harbour to locate Saunders’ body. There was no inquest.

Saunders left behind his wife and young son, who had turned three just a month earlier. The funeral at St. James Anglican Church in Port Colborne was conducted by Rev. W.G.O. Thompson under the auspices of Fenwick Lodge, IOOF, of which Saunders was a member, and Beacon Lodge, IOOF. Interment followed at Fonthill Cemetery.

— This article is part of a series remembering the men whose lives were lost in the construction of the Welland Ship Canal. The Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial Task Force is a volunteer group established to design, finance, and build a memorial to recognize workers who were killed during construction of the Welland Ship Canal. For more information about the memorial, or to contribute to the project, visit


James Saunders, 36

Born: Nov. 29, 1890 (Northwich, Cheshire, England)

Died: May 23, 1927 (Section 8, Port Colborne)

Cause of death: Drowning

Occupation: Operator of launch Nemo, Department of Railways and Canals