Shipwreck Of The S.S. Ethie Of Newfoundland
Having completed our tour of Western Brook Pond and with part of the afternoon still available for exploration, Bob and I decided to stop at the site of the 1919 shipwreck, the S.S. Ethie, on the west coast of Newfoundland.
At Martin’s Point, a steep descent down several flights of wooden steps led us to a rock-strewn beach where rusted pieces of the shipwrecked vessel had come to rest.
Martin’s Point, the site of the fateful shipwreck, lies within Gros Morne National Park. It is on the Viking Trail between Sally’s Cove and Cow Head.
On December 10, 1919, the S.S. Ethie, a 400-ton coastal steamship, left Cow Head en route up the coast to Bonne Bay. The previous day’s storm soon developed gale force winds, and through the night, a regular hurricane driving thick snow had massive waves rolling over the ship.
As the deck and hull became encrusted with thick sheets of ice, Captain Edward English ordered a collection of empty barrels on the deck and forecastle be tossed overboard. One of 2 cows being transported succumbed to the trying conditions.
In addition to the crew, 45 passengers were onboard the S.S. Ethie including Elizabeth Patten, who was pregnant at the time, and her 18-month old daughter, Hilda. They were on their way to visit Hilda’s grandmother at Norris Point.
With the storm worsening by midnight, the Captain aimed his ship for Labrador to perhaps escape its clutches, but come morning on December 11, he found his location had changed little. As well, the anticipated break in the weather as dawn broke did not come to be.
With mountainous waves crashing over the ship, the mail boat was washed overboard, and one lifeboat was torn to pieces in its davits. To make matters worse, a blinding snowstorm limited visibility.
Finding themselves a mere 10 miles southwest of Cow Head and within sight of Martin’s Point, the Captain thought their only chance of survival was to run ashore near Martin’s Point.
With all passengers decked out in lifebelts, the Captain ordered the ship at full steam ahead across the rocky shoal where waves were breaking. The ship miraculously negotiated that obstacle only to face the razor sharp rocks the other side.
At 12 noon, the S.S. Ethie rammed the rocks, breaking the stern post and rudder. As a test, a dory was lowered, but the roiling sea quickly dispatched that. Time was of the essence since the damaged boiler threatened to explode at any moment.
A local fisherman from Martin’s Point, Reuben Decker, was at the shore with his faithful dog to offer assistance to the floundering ship. Another neighbour, Joe Gilley, was there to lend a hand, too.
A lifebuoy secured to a rope was tossed ashore, and Reuben’s dog retrieved that from the water. Soon, a series of ropes with a bosun’s chair fashioned from ropes was secured to the cliffs.
To test the safety of the 60-fathom line, the ship’s purser was the first passenger passed across the raging waters in the bosun’s chair.
Next in line was baby Hilda who was bundled into a mail bag and tied securely to the bosun’s chair. Her mother, Elizabeth, frantically observed her baby dangling perilously above the freezing water as she was pulled to shore.
All crew and 45 passengers were eventually hoisted, one by one, to safety from the shipwreck. Neighbouring communities welcomed the castaways, making them feel welcome and safe in their homes.
As Bob and I strolled the shore, we discovered that the ships’ remains were spread across a long stretch of beach.
The large engine block and boiler are still fairly prominent, but other scattered shipwreck remnants dotted the pebbles.
Even as we pondered the horrible experience of those people so long ago, the weather was ominous and the roaring surf was a haunting reminder of the never ending force of the sea. Finally breaking the spell, sunshine danced across the sea as we retreated up the stairs to the car.
Later that evening, Bob and I took a drive over to Norris Point and were met with most wonderful views of Bonne Bay, the ultimate destination of the S.S. Ethie had it not succumbed to the storm.
The early evening sunlight, piercing through a mantle of thunderclouds, threw the whole inlet and community into sharp relief against the encircling embrace of the East and South Arms of Bonne Bay.
To top it off, a double rainbow painted the sky with a sweep of colour so perfect that the whole scene seemed unreal.
And then to immerse ourselves even further into the woeful tale of the S.S. Ethie, a couple of evenings later, Bob and I attended a dinner theatre that was performing a play about the Wreck of the S.S. Ethie. It was a delightful way to spend the evening with the history told in an engaging, dramatic play with bits of humour thrown in for good measure.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean