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The Last Voyage of the President Coaker

The Last Voyage of
The President Coaker

Compiled by James Butler from newspaper reports
April, 1995

Index Maps

A view of a painting of The President Coaker, and newspaper clippings of the tragedy,
are available through David Pike's web page (http://www.math.mun.ca/~dapike/family_history/coaker.html).

 

 

The Evening Telegram published a short note near the bottom of page 6 on February 1, 1924. It read:

"The assistant collector of Customs received a message today stating that Mail Carrier Brazil had reported seeing wreckage in Shoe Cove near Cape Ballard. The report was first conveyed to sub-collector A. O'Leary who is leaving to investigate."

This was the start of a two-week long search of the southeast coast of the Avalon Peninsula for an explanation of wreckage located on February 1, 1924. A similar article in The Daily News, on the morning of February 2, relates that the initial report was received late in the morning of February 1, from Arthur O'Leary, Sub-collector of Customs at Renews. It also speculated that the wreckage may be that of the Union Trading Company schooner President Coaker.

The President Coaker was a three-masted tern schooner. It had been built at Port Union, Trinity Bay, in 1919, by the Union Shipbuilding Company, a division of the Union Trading Company. That company was under the guidance of the founder of the company, the town and the ship's namesake, Sir William Coaker. It was registered as 304.38 tons gross weight and 160.15 tons net. It was 115 feet long, 29 feet 4 inches wide and 11 feet deep. The schooner's registration number was 1421333. The President Coaker sailed from Port Union on October 22, 1923, with 4,607 quintals of dried codfish for Pernambuco (now called Recife), in Brazil. (The Daily News report of February 2, states that the schooner had sailed from Bahia, Brazil, which is a state in Brazil just south of Pernambuco; a city in that state, presently called Salvador was then called Bahia. It is possible that two ports were visited during the voyage, although Pernambuco is mentioned in several reports and Bahia is only mentioned once.) Norman Sheppard, age 29 years, of Catalina was captain of the five-man crew, all of whom were residents of the Catalina area. George Howse, from Catalina was cook; John Kelly, probably the youngest crew member at 23 years (who had the misfortune to have been involved in two previous shipwrecks), was from Ireland's Eye, a community 46 kilometres southwest of Catalina on the north side of Trinity Bay; Israel Pierce Downey, aged 27 years, son of Robert Downey of Winterton, was living in a neighbouring community of Champney's East; Harold Sheppard, brother of the captain, aged 41 years, and a cousin Alfred Sheppard, aged 45 years, both residents of the Catalina - Port Union area, made up the crew.

Apparently the trip to Brazil was routine in all respects. On or about December 10, 1923, having unloaded the cargo and rested for a few days, the crew weighed anchor and set sail for Port Union. On this return trip the schooner was in ballast, carrying no valuable cargo.

After the initial report on February 1, the Deputy Minister of Customs, Mr. H.W. LeMessurier, instructed Sub-Collector O'Leary, who resided at Renews, to search the area. In the evening of February 1, O'Leary reported that a sailor's clothes bag, marked "George Howse, Catalina, Nfld.", had been recovered. This second report of the day stated that the visible wreckage was "broken to matchwood" but appeared to be that of "a vessel of (about) 100 tons". Mr. LeMessurier immediately communicated with Catalina, presumably with the Union Trading Company, and received a reply which stated:

"George Howse, Catalina, is one of the crew of schr. President Coaker, which is 53 days out from Pernambuco to Port Union."

A later message from Mr. O'Leary in Renews said that nothing else had been found to help identify the vessel, but that it "was a three-masted vessel and ashore for some time".

Mr. Peter Cashin (government member for the district) instructed Captain Dalton of the S.S. Walker, who was in Renews, to call at Shoe Cove to help in the search of the area. The Union Trading Company also dispatched an employee, Mr. Martin Finney, fish inspector (Aaron Bailey, pers. comm., 1984), who was acquainted with the President Coaker, to the site. He left St. John's in the early morning to February 2 by horse and slide driven by T. Voisey. The party arrived in Cappahayden on Sunday, February 3, at 1 pm.

A message, reported in The Daily News of February 4, 1924, sent to Mr. LeMessurier on late Saturday evening from Mr. O'Leary of Renews stated:

"Searched vicinity from Chance Cove Head to Cape Ballard. Think vessel struck western side, Shoe Cove. Picked up clothes bag marked Harold Sheppard. No sign bodies."

On Voisey's return to the city he told The Evening Telegram that on the way to Cappahayden they met the mailman from Renews, Mr. Brazil, who was the first to locate the wreckage at Shoe Cove and had found the clothes bag belonging to George Howse. The second bag, bearing the name "Harold Sheppard", was found late on Saturday which confirmed the identity of the wreckage. Also on Saturday another, unidentified, bag was found. All three bags were empty and the latter, unmarked, bag was locked. Mr. Voisey brought these items back to the city.

A search of the cove during the weekend revealed very little additional information, a strand of wire believed to be part of the rigging of a vessel, the body of a small dog and a piece of oar. None of these items could be directly linked to the President Coaker. Residents of the Shoe Cove area thought that the schooner may have come too close to shore in a dense fog about two weeks previous, around January 16. During this period a strong wind was blowing onshore. Weather conditions hampered a detailed search of the area.

The first report in the home town paper, The Fisherman's (then Weekly) Advocate(1), which was then published in St. John's, was on page 1 of the February 9 issue. The Advocate, being a weekly paper, had already gone to press by the time the tragedy first came to light on Friday, February 1, the previous week. It was rare, at that time, for any paper, including The Weekly Advocate, to include local news on its front page, however, the President Coaker, being a company ship, deserved special treatment. Under the headline "Nothing New from Scene of Marine Tragedy", the paper confirmed the wreckage located at Shoe Cove was indeed that of the President Coaker and that a thorough search of the area was underway. To quote the colourful description of The Advocate reporter "Every yard of coast has been searched and every gulch has been closely surveyed". The Advocate did not report the location of the hull or any portion of it, however, The Daily News report on the morning of February 7 stated that portions of the wreckage bearing registration marks and numbers belonging to the President Coaker had been recovered along with pieces of torn canvas and broken rigging. There was still no immediate proof that the crew went down with the ship and no bodies had been recovered. As of February 8 weather conditions (mainly onshore winds) were still hampering a search of the waters of Shoe Cove although men were continually on site.

Also in the February 9 issue of The Advocate there was a more detailed news item on the disaster. Under the headline "Close Search of Shoe Cove Gulches Fail to Throw any Further Light on the President Coaker Disaster" the paper summarized the front page story and includes a message from Martin Finney which read:

Cappahayden. Feb.6 - Did not find right position of where vessel lost as yet. Cruised all gulches and coves from Sandy Cove to Eastern Cove, near Cape Ballard. No sign of bodies. Searching tomorrow with dory to locate where she was lost and if bodies on bottom in the deep water.

M. Finney

Mr. Finney refused the assistance of a steamer (presumably the S.S. Walker) in the search, since, in his opinion, the use of smaller boats would be more effective in searching the cove when weather permitted. He also speculated that the crew may have abandoned ship as "one small oar was the only portion of a boat or dory that was found on shore".

The Advocate also reported that the Union Trading Company was attempting to gather more information concerning a collision at sea. Captain Mitchell of the S.S. Silvia had reported receiving a wireless from the S.S. Canadian Commander relating scanty details of a mid-ocean collision. Captain Mitchell passed this information to authorities when he arrived at St. John's on January 16, 1924. The message had been an all ships bulletin from the captain of the Canadian Commander. In summary it stated that just before daylight on Wednesday, January 16, but while it was still dark and snowing, the S.S. Canadian Commander had collided with a schooner at latitude 45.15 degrees north, longitude 52.13 degrees west. After standing by for several hours, the captain concluded that there was no one on board and resumed his passage. "On that date", The Advocate states, "the President Coaker would have been 36 days out of Pernambuco".

A Union Trading Company representative contacted Captain Mitchell and was informed that he (Captain Mitchell) assumed that the schooner referred to in the wireless was a known derelict the Annie M. Parker which would have been expected at that location at about that time. The Canadian Commander's position at the time of collision was about 95 miles south of Shoe Cove. The Advocate also states that the prevailing winds on January 16, were strong westerlies with a change to south and southwesterly for several days after.

The Union Trading Company contacted the Canadian Merchant Marine for a description of the vessel which had been hit. There was some delay in a reply because the S.S. Canadian Commander was at sea, but on February 8 an answer was received. The Union Trading Company was informed that the schooner had been a three-masted vessel.

From this The Advocate concluded that the vessel could not have been the Annie M. Parker because that vessel was two-masted, and openly speculated that it may have been the President Coaker. The crew, The Advocate assumed, could have been removed by some passing vessel or steamer. If this was not the case, and since no other three-masted vessel had been reported missing, what vessel was it? The possibility of the wrecked President Coaker drifting almost 100 miles to Shoe Cove, however, did seem improbable.

The Advocate, voice of the Union Trading Company, published much information about the Fisherman Protective Union Councils. At that time Sir William Coaker had just returned from an extended business/pleasure tour of Europe which the weekly paper was reporting. Throughout the paper reports from the Fisherman Protective Union Councils referred to the loss of the President Coaker, for instance on February 23 one article was headlined "Message Mingled with Sadness, Coaker Visits Bonavista North". A quote from the report expressed the concern common to all these messages:

"The loss of the gallant ship President Coaker at Shoe Cove has cast a shadow on every FPU Council and no one, with the exception of the immediate relatives themselves, feels the loss of the six brave seamen more than Sir William himself."

The Evening Telegram of February 14 carried an official statement from Mr. Martin Finney which said that indeed "there was every reason to believe that the vessel which met with disaster in the waters of Shoe Cove is that of the President Coaker". In his report, Mr. Finney positioned the wreckage one half mile from Shoe Cove Point. Several dories had been engaged in searching for bodies when weather conditions permitted, but none had been recovered. The search had been called off because of heavy seas.

The next day the same paper carried an editorial on page 4 entitled "Catalina Mourns Her Dead!". It read as follows:

(The Evening Telegram, February 15, 1924)

EDITORIAL

CATALINA MOURNS HER DEAD!

The latest news from Shoe Cove seems conclusive, unfortunately, beyond a slightest doubt that the President Coaker met her doom on that treacherous stretch of coast which has brought disaster to many another gallant ship, and that her crew of six men found a watery grave almost within reach of their homes.

Tragedies such as this occur but too often to our vessels bound hither and thither on their lawful occasions; but frequently as they happen, they never fail to awaken throughout the community a deeper feeling of sympathy then disasters of any other description.

The lives of all of us are closely bound up in the sea; we trust to it for our very existence, and the hearty toilers who year in and year out fearlessly face its treacherous moods are more than any others the men on whom the welfare of the country depends.

Now that it is practically certain that a rescue was not effested [effected?], general sympathy, in which the Telegram joins, will go out in full measure to those grief stricken relatives in Catalina who have been bereaved of their loved ones under such tragic circumstances.

The search was officially concluded on February 23, 1924. The Advocate published a stirring emotional article about the tragedy, summarized the two week vigil of all concerned and the final realization that "yet another gallant ship ... (and her) crew of Newfoundland's finest and bravest (had gone) down to a watery grave". Also in this issue of The Advocate Mr. Finney's report on the tragedy was presented. A summary of his report, gives us more detailed information on the search area and his conclusions based on the results of the search.

Mr. Martin Finney, an employee of the Fisherman's Union Trading Company, had been dispatched to the Shoe Cove area as soon as it seemed probable that the wreckage was that of a UTC schooner. He was intimately acquainted with the President Coaker. He had organized and coordinated the search of the area. His report tells us that Shoe Cove is situated approximately six miles south of Cappahayden on the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula. The cove is about one quarter of a mile from the road which leads from Cappahayden to Chance Cove. In the early morning of February 1 the mail carrier for the area was travelling this stretch of road with his son. Mr. Brazil, the mailman, decided to go to the cove, for whatever reason, and left his son to continue to Chance Cove with the mail. On that little side trip, the wreckage of a schooner was discovered.

Shoe Cove is a bight between Chance Cove Head in the south and Cape Ballard in the north. This bight has three smaller coves within it. They are locally known as Booby Cove, Eastern Cove and Western Cove. The distance from Western Cove to Chance Cove Head is about two miles. The coastline in this area is bordered by high cliffs and numerous semi-submerged rocks.

In his report Mr. Finney, stated that he had discovered the schooner's chains and anchors, as well as numerous bits of canvas and rigging, entangled around the rocks. The windlass was also seem on the bottom. Embedded in the sandy beach of Western Cove about one quarter of a mile from where the chains and anchors were found was a 30 foot section of the vessels keel and some of her timbers. This evidence indicated that the schooner had been swept ashore from Sandy Cove rocks and battered to pieces on the coasts of Eastern and Western Coves.

Since there was no indication of wreckage of a small boat or dory, and because no bodies were found, Mr. Finney speculated that the crew may have escaped before the schooner foundered on the rocks. There was no other evidence available on which to base such a conclusion, except a small piece of oar picked up five miles to the south which "was broken slantwise as if it might be smashed by rowing and not by the sea".

At the end of his report Mr. Finney thanked the people of Cappahayden for there assistance in the 15 day search and praised them for their sympathy and bravery. The Advocate also states that Sir William Coaker was making arrangements to continue the search, one would assume, with the intent of recovering any bodies which may come ashore. As far as can be determined no bodies were ever found.

To return to the suspicions raised by The Advocate on February 9. The Captain of the S.S Silvia had reported a collision between the S.S. Canadian Commander and an unidentified three-masted vessel. Captain Mitchell thought, at the time, that the schooner was the Annie M. Parker which had been abandoned earlier in January near the collision site. This, however, had not been the case.

The Annie M. Parker, a two-masted schooner, had departed Burin on October 29, 1923, with 2911 quintals of fish for Oporto, Portugal. After discharging the cargo of fish, Captain Hollett sailed to Bonanza, just north of Cadiz, in southern Spain, and took on a load of salt for Burin. Eleven days out of port the mate became seriously ill with smallpox. On day 28 Cape Race was sighted, but within a short time a strong northeast gale quickly developed and the schooner was blown far off course and badly damaged. A few days after the storm a Dutch steamer bound for Rotterdam rescued the crew and left the Annie M. Parker a floating derelict in the North Atlantic. During the trip to Rotterdam the mate died from the smallpox infection and was buried at sea. Three of the remaining crew also developed the disease. On arrival in Rotterdam, the ill crew members were hospitalized. After a period of quarantine, Captain Hollett and the schooner's cook, Mr. Wilson Hoben, were returned to Burin via Liverpool, Halifax and North Sydney. The ill crew members remained in hospital in Rotterdam.

Since the Annie M. Parker was a two-masted vessel and not the one described in the message from the Canadian Merchant Marine on February 8, 1924, which schooner was involved in the collision? The mystery was solved in early March when the S.S. Huronia entered New York. On February 27, while enroute from Liverpool, the Huronia had passed the wreckage of the schooner Roy Bruce at latitude 41.34 degrees north, longitude 48.25 degrees west, about 390 miles southeast of Cape Race. This information had been forwarded to Burin on March 7,1924. It also reported that "the hull was almost cut in halves, ... whilse no trace of the crew could be found". An enterprising ex-resident of Burin, having read about the encounter in the New York papers, visited the Huronia while it was docked in New York and interviewed the mate about the sighting. He reported to Mr. T.H. Carter, Ship's Broker in St. John's, that seas were calm at the time and the Huronia stopped for about one hour within 30 feet of the derelict. Several crew members, including the mate, boarded the hull. They found the Captain's and mate's room demolished. The decks were awash and the sails broken. The officer concluded that there "must have been a terrific impact" from a much larger vessel. The Roy Bruce was owned and operated by Captain R.F. Hollett of Burin, his son served as mate with five others in the crew. The schooner had left Bonanza, about the middle of December 1923 bound for Burin.

The March 22 issue of The Advocate reported on a memorial service held at Catalina for the victims of the President Coaker tragedy. The service was held on Sunday March 9, 1924, at 3:00 pm. Almost the entire community turned out for the service. The Fisherman's Protective Union and the Loyal Orange Association from Port Union marched in full regalia to Catalina where they were joined by the LOA of Catalina at the church street and marched en masse to the Anglican Church in Catalina. Approximately 400 men attended the service along with relatives and friends. The Right Reverend Mr. T. W. Upward conducted the service and preached a sermon on Hebrews 13:14 "for here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come". The Advocate described it as "an appropriate sermon". This was reintegrated in a letter to the author from the Reverend Christopher J. Snow in 1992. The article was written in glowing terms of bravery and courage and concluded with the interesting fact the just "a year and half ago three Sheppards, relatives of the three Sheppards from the President Coaker tragedy, were drowned off Catalina". (2)

Several tributes were inserted in The Advocate in memory of the President Coaker and her crew. Among them were a letter from Walter Kennedy, Holyrood, a life-long friend of Captain Norman Sheppard. A poem, published in the April 26 issue of The Advocate, from George Hiscock of Brooklyn, New York, obviously also a friend of the Captain and crew.

Elizabeth Mary Sheppard, wife of crew member Alfred Sheppard, in later years related to Gordon Sheppard, a grandson, an interesting story concerning the demise of the President Coaker.

One morning in mid January, 1924, Mrs. Sheppard was going to the well for a bucket of water. The well was located a short distance from the house and outside the yard. On her way to the well she saw a person, whom she identified as one of the crew members (her grandson could not remember which one) of the President Coaker, walking down a lane. She proceeded to the well and drew the water. On her return to the house she stopped to open the gate. Having opened it, she turned to pick up the bucket and noticed, in the distance, her husband walking towards her, but still far-off. She picked up the bucket of water and continued into the house to complete her chores, but she left the gate open so the Alf, her husband, would not have to trouble with it as he was carrying his kitbag.

This action was not surprising, however. Even though her husband had been away for over 3 months and she had been left to care for 6 children, four of whom were under the age of 11 years, this was a way of life. She was used to her husband being gone for long periods of time and, after all, she did expect him home about that time.

She continued her work and, after a reasonable period of time, realized that Alf (as he was known) did not enter the house. She went to the door and looked out. She saw nothing but the wind-blown snow and the gate, half open. There was no sign of her husband. She realized Alf had come close to home, but would not be returning. It would be another two weeks or more before she would learn the facts about what had happened that day, but the final blow had been softened by the premonition.

Mary Sheppard lived a full life after that tragic event. She raised all her children and a number of grandchildren. In later years, she lived with grandson, Gordon, in the Company house at the top of the Bungalow Hill, in Port Union. She died on August 30, 1977, after a long illness.

As far as can be learned, there was no compensation from the Fisherman's Union Trading Company to any of the survivors. A relative of Israel Downey remembers that Israel's adopting mother had a blue certificate in his memory which is still a treasured heirloom, however, the text on the certificate(3) was not known.

1. The Advocate was published as a daily paper, call The Evening Advocate, and as a weekly paper, called The Weekly Advocate. The author is assuming that, when this paper became only a weekly it was The Weekly Advocate which survived.

2. On August 3, 1922 The Evening Advocate reported that three brothers, sons of Mark Sheppard, had drowned near the entrance to Catalina Harbour when a whirlwind capsized their boat.

3. David Pike, a relative of Israel Downey, quotes in a presentation on the President Coaker, on his World Wide Web site on the Internet, that:

"Israel was born in Scilly Cove (now called Winterton), Trinity Bay on 15 September 1897. His parents were Robert and May (née Bannister) Downey. For reasons now unknown, Israel was raised in Champney's by his uncle and aunt, Robert and Ann Maria (née Bannister) Hobbs.

"Robert and Ann Maria Hobbs also raised their niece Bessie May Hobbs (my maternal grandmother). She never spoke of Israel, except to say that he was raised with her and was lost at sea. Other than this small amount of information, coupled with a certificate my grandmother kept in memory of Israel, the family knew nothing about Israel."

In personal communications with David Pike, who in 1995 worked at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, the author was told that the certificate was blue, but it was in a home in Champney's, Newfoundland and it had been a number of years since he had seen it. He could not remember the inscription.

 

 

Contributed by: James Butler
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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