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                                   The 1875 St. Mary’s Disaster


The St. John’s Public Ledger of March 4 1875 carried the following report from Salmonier, St. Mary’s Bay:


Names of the men lost at St. Mary’s

…”Nearly all the men of St. Mary’s left the shore on Tuesday morning to board an abandoned vessel jammed in the ice about two miles west of Cape English;  the ice slacked off in the evening and she was driven out to sea with the wind east-north-east, frozen in a large sheet.  All succeeded in getting on shore with the exception of 42 men, a certainty 20 of them drowned and died on the  ice in the storm; hope of the other 22 being on the vessel; nothing wrong with the hull or material but no compass and little provisions.  She is a French vessel named La Violette; Girardville Master, from France bound to St. Pierre; cargo rum, salt, sugar and coffee.  All her crew safe at Holyrood (St. Vincent’s).  Captain dangerously ill.

 The following men are known to be lost:  John Power, James Peddle, Pat Tobin, Thomas Bowen and son, James Barry, John Barry, Thomas Barry, William Reuben, John Fewer, George Rousell and son, Mike Vail and son, Peter Grace, Joseph Grace, Richard Critch, Pat Dobbin.

The following day March 5th 1875 a further telegram from Salmonier to Hon. Ambrose Shea gave a list of the missing men as follows:

 Michael Power, Michael Barry, Thomas Hayes, Thomas Mooney, Andrew Mooney, Michael Tobin, James Tobin, Pat Tobin, Robert Tobin, John Mulloy, Ed Nolan, Dan White, Richard Connors, James Fagan and two sons, Thomas Murray and two sons.

These reports were the first indication to the world of an ongoing tragedy for the St. Mary’s, St. Vincent’s and area population.  The chain of events leading to this disaster had started with a report to the magistrate of St. Mary’s on  March 1st  1875 that a ship was stuck in the ice about two miles off Cape English and was being abandoned by her crew.  The magistrate proceeded to St. Vincent’s (which was then known as Holyrood) to investigate the report and found that a large number of local residents were already gathered on the beach with the intention of boarding the vessel to secure her cargo. The mate and crew of the vessel which they identified as The Violette had managed with some difficulty to cross the ice and make it to land.  The mate informed the magistrate and the local residents that the Captain of the ship was too ill to even attempt the journey over the ice.  Several men from St. Vincent’s on hearing this volunteered to go aboard the ship and bring the captain to safety.  The men gathered on the beach would wait for the captain to be brought ashore before boarding the abandoned vessel. 

James Burke the local constable residing in St. Mary’s was summoned to St. Vincent’s by the magistrate who was concerned that there might be trouble.  Burke arrived just after noon as the men were bringing the Captain ashore.  Michael MacCarty in his story of  this event stated that “he was so weak and ill the men had to take turns carrying him on their backs, but they managed to get him ashore.  Patrick Stamp, a resident Vincent’s took the captain to his house and gave him every care and attention.  The Captain was so weak he couldn’t even sit up but had to be carried to Stamp’s house on a slide.”  

It was mid afternoon by the time the captain had been brought safely ashore and the weather conditions were giving indications of a storm brewing.  The men on the beach, in spite of this, decided to carry out their plans to board the vessel.  At the subsequent hearing into the disaster, one of the participants Michael Hines testified that the men did not go as a large single group but in parties of two or three men.  It was rough going over the ice but Hines’ testimony was that they all succeeded in getting aboard the Viollette.  They were successful in off loading most of the cargo of salt, sugar, coffee and rum.  When they decided to head back to shore, they discovered that the wind had now swung around to the east-north-east and the ice had now moved off shore and there was a large patch of open water between them and the shore.  It was now getting late in the afternoon and the threatened storm broke in full fury.   There was no option left to the group but to try to get back to the Violette.  It was quickly obvious that this would not be as simple as it was when they originally boarded the vessel.  The wind had begun driving the ice-pan and the vessel out to sea.

As the men tried to gather together in larger groups, some of them fell into the icy waters and were drowned as they attempted to jump from the smaller to the larger ice pans.  Eventually they managed to gather into two parties on separate pans of ice.  They were now desperate to save themselves from the breaking ice pans and the fierce storm. They spent a cold and hungry night on the ice trying to shelter themselves behind a large ice bolder.  The next day seventeen of the men in one party managed to get back on board the Violette.  The remaining ten men in the other party continued to drift away on their ice pan. Some of these men had fallen into the ocean while attempting to get from the smaller ice pan to the larger one and were in a desperate condition dressed in wet frozen clothes and with continuing high winds, drifting snow and temperatures dipping well below the freezing point.  One of the survivors Jimmy (James) Barry related to my father in later years that John Power my father’s grandfather who was then sixty years of age had fallen into the water and had died the first night.  Just before dawn Michael Vail and James Whelan died from the cold and exhaustion.  Later in the day Thomas Boland died. The survivors huddled together waiting for rescue.  After another day their conditions worsened and George Rousell and his son died as did Mike Vail’s son.  The weather finally cleared so that they could see Cape Pine in the distance.  This buoyed their spirits and gave them renewed strength and energy to walk the fifteen or so miles and somehow they managed to maneuver over the rough ice and landed at Cape Pine.  The men who had made it to the Violette had been carried out to sea for about a hundred miles with the ship still frozen into the ice pan.  The wind then changed back towards land and they drifted back to within about forty miles of the land.  The hull of the Violette was sound as were he sails and rigging.  She was however almost empty of provisions except for some rum and flour. At first the rum was a welcome sight but some of the wiser men in the party noticed that an attitude amongst some of the party to drown their sorrows, quietly allowed the rum to run overboard. 

The predicament of the stranded men had been reported and made headlines in the local St. John’s newspapers.  The reports were based on conflicting data and consequently the first reports were not accurate.  They first reported that forty two men were trapped on the ice and twenty of them were dead. Later a revised number was given that included the men that had made it to the Violette. It now listed thirty four men.  On March 5th  a telegram to Sir Ambrose Shea from Salmonier St. Mary’s Bay was published in the St. John’s Public Ledger.  It listed nineteen men as missing on board the Violette.

The government dispatched the H.M.S. Tiger to search for survivors.  It also promised to provide assistance for the families of the men lost in the disaster.  Rumors  abounded and on March 9th  one false rumor circulated that the Violette had been sighted and boarded.  On March 16th the Public Ledger reported that there was still no news from the missing men including the fifteen who were supposed to be on the Violette.  The paper also opinioned that all of those who had not made it to the Violette were likely lost.  The next day however the paper stated that although there were many rumors and reports they were not substantiated and nothing would likely be known until the Violette was eventually located.

And then the brig Lady Mary arrived in St. John’s.  On board were eight survivors from the group that had set out from the beach in St. Vincent’s to board the Violette. They were able to provide a first hand knowledge of some of the events of March 1st and subsequent  developments.  They said that twenty of them had made it  to the Violette, the day after they left the beach in St. Vincent’s and had remained on board until they were rescued. They had suffered from hunger and cold and were on the point of giving up hope when on Thursday March 11th , a schooner, the S.S. Fogg on a voyage from St. John’s to the West Indies came upon the drifting ship. With some difficulty, the Fogg managed to get close enough to the Violette to take the men off  who had been trapped  on board since March 2nd

When these survivors arrived on board the S.S. Fogg they were surprised and delighted to find that the group who had made it to Cape Pine had also been picked up by the Fogg on Saturday March 6th.  The S.S. Fogg was later successful in contacting two inbound vessels and was able to transfer the rescued men to them.  They were the Lady Mary and the Trusty. 

The Lady Mary brought in the following men: Ed Nowlan, R Critch, Danny White, James Barry, Richard Connors, John Murray, Thomas Hines and John St. Croix.

The men on board the Trusty were: Michael Tobin, John Barry, Thomas Barry and James Murray.

The Trusty had been in trouble when she came in contact with the SS Fogg.  She was short of both provisions and fuel.  Captain Spense of the Fogg supplied the Trusty with food and the hull and the spars of the Violette were used to provide them with fuel.  The Trusty had been bound for Harbour Grace in Conception Bay but because of the ice conditions she was unable to reach her destination and put into another port in Conception Bay.

The remaining ten survivors on the Fogg were transferred to an outbound vessel the S.S. Nuernberg which took them all the way to Baltimore, Maryland, USA. They arrived there on March 29th 1875.  On April 29th 1875 the ten men were returned to St. John’s by the S.S. Newfoundland.  These ten men were: Andrew Mooney, Thomas Mooney, William Reuben, Patrick Tobin, James Tobin, John Fewer, James Peddle, Thomas Dunn, Ben St. Croix and fourteen year old James Grace.

Of the thirty four men and boys who had set out to board the Violette, thirteen had either drowned or died from exposure.  Those who died were: Michael Power, John Power, Michael Vail and his son, Patrick Dobbin, Michael Barry, Thomas Bowen and his son, George Rousell and his son, Pat Layden, James Grace and James Phelan.

The John Power who died in this disaster was my great grandfather and Michael Power was his son.  A second younger son John who was my grandfather had been with the group on the beach in St. Vincent’s but was dissuaded from going with them to the Violette by his father and stayed to visit with an aunt in St. Vincent’s.  This probably saved his life.

This March 1875 disaster was the worst single sea disaster to ever happen in the St. Mary’s – St. Vincent’s area.


Transcribed by Michael Power (November 2004)

Page Last Modified: Wednesday March 06, 2013
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