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The Labrador Gale of 1885



The Gale Off Labrador

Published November 8, 1885

By The New York Times


Further Details of its destructive work.

Sufferings of the shipwrecked crews - over 75 lives lost and 80 vessels wrecked - heroic deeds.

Correspondence of the Montreal Gazette.

St. John’s, Newfoundland, Oct. 29 - A terrible calamity has befallen this colony, entailing a very heavy loss of life and destruction of property and inflicting great sufferings on many hundreds - or, I may say thousands - of our population. No disaster so serious has occurred since the destruction of St. John’s by fire in 1848, but that involved only the destruction of property. In this case 75 lives are known to have been lost, and when all is known it is probable many more will have to be added to the death list.

I send you a brief telegraphic summary of the sad news received from Labrador on last Saturday night - to the effect that in a terrible storm which swept that coast an the 11 th and 12 th insts. 80 vessels had been wrecked, 70 lives lost, and 2,000 persons driven ashore on the savage coast, where most of them were without shelter and but a scanty supply of food. The news was first brought by the steamship Panther to Brigus, where she arrived from Turnavick, Labrador, on the 24 inst. Late in the evening. The next day the barkentine Nellie arrived at St. John’s from Smokey Run, Labrador, having on board 240 shipwrecked man, women, and children. The intelligence brought by these two vessels showed the fearful extent of the havoc wrought by the storm.

It appears that the gale commenced on Sunday morning, the 11 th October , and continued to rage with increasing fury till Monday evening at sunset, when it began to abate. Those who passed through it describe it as the most hurricane ever witnessed even by the hardy fisherman who frequent that storm beaten coast. it first blew from the southeast, continually increasing in violence, then it suddenly veered to the northeast and the cold became intense. The fierce blasts began to hurl the snowflakes on their wings of gloom, and at intervals the whole atmosphere was darkened by the drifts. It was a scene of awe and terror, which the imagination can but faintly realize. The sea rose in tumultuous billows “mountain high,” the watery battalions hurled themselves fiercely against the dark cliffs, and were flung back gathered their strength for fresh assaults. In the midst of this war of elements a fleet of little fishing vessels were struggling for life; some were caught in the tempest on their homeward voyage, laden deeply with the product of the summer’s toil; others lay at anchor, loading, in the exposed roadsteads and harbors , where there was no sufficient shelter. On board were hundreds of fisherman, many of them with their wives and children, for it is their custom to take their families with them to aid in handling the fish. As the storm continued and increased in violence the vessels were pressed nearer and nearer to the fatal rocks, where the white breakers were visible. Others were torn from their anchors and began to drift shoreward. One by one they approached their doom. Fancy the awful condition of the survivors, flung out here dripping with brine, a blinding snowstorm raging around them, perhaps no human habitation or shelter near. They pass the dreary night shivering and wretched. When the storm abates and the sun shines out new terrors await them. The strand is strewn with the drowned corpses of their comrades, friends, or relatives cast up by the pitiless sea, and on the dreary shore they must scoop out a shallow grave in which to commit “earth to earth.” As the sad task is begun women are weeping and wringing their hands over the loss of husbands or sons, and heart broken parents are taking the last look at the lifeless forms of children committed to this lonely grave without shroud or coffin. This is no imaginary picture. It was, alas! Sadly realized in many an instance in this terrible tempest, in which from 70 to 80 souls perished, and over 80 vessels were flung on the rocks. The sufferings of the shipwrecked crews were terrible. While some were driven ashore where there were huts to shelter them, others were wrecked on desolate islands, where they had to await relief, with scarcely enough to sustain life. And some found themselves miles away from any human habitation.

The saddest scene of all was at White Bear Islands. Here two vessels, the Release and Hope, with all their anchors out, were struggling to ride out the storm. They held out till Monday morning, when the moorings gave way. The release drifted on a island to the leeward, and was speedily dashed in pieces. Twenty five of those on board were drowned, all but six being women and children. The Hope was carried on a ledge of rock near the shore. Two punts were launched and filled with those on board, who reached the shore in safety, but before the remainder could be rescued the vessel broke up, and 14 met a watery grave, most of them being women and children. The scene is said to have been appalling. Poor mothers were seen clasping their children to their bosoms in speechless agony, and children crying for aid and clinging to the hands that were powerless to save. The merciless billows rushed on them and covered all with a winding sheet of foam. Thirty nine in all perished in this single spot. One man lost his wife and four children. At Black Islands a schooner belonging to Conception Bay was lost with all hands. At Ragged Islands a man named Alfred King lost his wife and two children. A girl named Thistle, who was brought here in the Nellie, had a narrow escape. The vessel in which she was struck and went to pieces; she was hurled into the waves and washed ashore, fearfully bruised, one of her fingers having been taken off and one of her legs badly cut. She was carefully attended to on board the Nellie and is now in a fair way of recovery. The kindness of the poor creatures to one another, when any have been specially unfortunate, is most touching.

The dark tragedy is relieved by some traits of genuine heroism. A young man named Reardon had escaped from a wreck by swimming. He had barely reached the shore when he heard the wild shrieks of despair from a woman on board another vessel that was fast going to pieces. The brave fellow did not hesitate a moment. He dashed into the boiling surges, and after a fearful struggle with the waves he reached the wreck and swam ashore, bringing with him the rescued woman. Just before he reached the vessel two women on board were killed by the falling of a punt on them. Surely, if ever a hero merited the Victoria Cross for valor this Newfoundland fisherman deserves such honor. The soldier who braves the storm of grapeshot and rescues a wounded comrade at the peril of his own life is honored and rewarded and his praise is sung by poets. But does he perform a nobler deed than this or one more marked by unselfish heroism? It does not appear that he ever knew before the woman whom he risked his life to save. It is to be hoped some substantial rewards await him.

Another touching story is told. A father tried to save his boy, 11 or 12 years old, by swimming with the lad fastened on his back. He struggled hard, but again and again, with such a burden on his shoulders, he was nearly overwhelmed. The poor boy begged his father to let him go and save his own life, and when he saw that his father would not do this he managed to work himself free and struck out toward the shore. A huge wave came and flung father and son on the shore and both were saved. A lady who saw the boy since he reached home told me that she said to him. “Will you ever go to Labrador again?” The reply was, “Oh, yes mam, I likes it, I’ll go next year.” “Were you afraid when you were on your father’s back?” “No, mam: I was only a little bit frightened. I thought poor father was goin’ to be drowned, and what would poor mother do then? So I got off his back.” This young boy, a very bright, intelligent fellow, with a fine open, manly countenance, says my informant, will, if he lives, become a splendid specimen of our Newfoundland fisherman

Another hairbreadth escape is recorded. At White Bear Island a woman belonging to Conception Bay found herself in the water, the vessel having gone down, and as there was no means of reaching the shore she gave up for lost. But at that critical moment she saw two Newfoundland dogs that had been on board swimming for their lives shoreward. She either called to them, or they instinctively came to the rescue of the drowning woman, so closely that she was able to grasp the long hair on their backs, and so was safely carried ashore. The marvelous escape of others would occupy too much space if narrated.

As soon as the news of the disaster reached St. John’s the Government took prompt and energetic measures for rescuing the shipwrecked crews and bringing them home. Two steamers that lay at Harbor Grace were hastily got ready for sea; provisions and clothing in abundance were put on board, and in less than 24 hours they were dispatched to the scene of the disaster. The mail steamer Plover was taken from her usual route, provisioned and sent to the same destination. Fortunately there were two steamers at Labrador when the storm took place, and these at once devoted themselves to the help and rescue of the shipwrecked people. The steamship Vanguard was one of these, and she arrived at Harbor Grace on the 26 th having on board 650 of the shipwrecked people brought from Grady. The other was the Hercules, and she reached Tilt Cove on the same day with 240 people on board. Sailing vessels are arriving with detachments on board. The Lady Elibank brought 200 to Harbor Grace. There is no doubt that the steamers now gone north will be able to find and bring home the remainder of the wrecked crews, some of whom are still exposed in perilous circumstances. The poor people as they arrive are in a pitiable plight, but thankful to reach their homes alive. Many of them have lost everything. All their hard earned catch of fish is gone, and they come home to face the long cold winter with hardly anything in their houses. They will receive all the help that is possible. Both from private charity and out of the public funds, but with all that can be done for them their privations and sufferings will be great. The Government deserve much credit for the prompt and judicious measures they adopted for the relief of the sufferers.

At present the loss by this storm is estimated at 50,000 to 60,000 lbs or $200,000 to $240,000. Most of the vessels are insured in a mutual insurance club; but when a disaster of this kind occurs there might as well be no insurance, as the amount required to meet the claims has to be contributed by all the members of the club, and thus anything gained by insurance is paid out in covering loses. The loss of so many fishing vessels will seriously interfere with the fishing operations next year, though many new vessels may be built during the winter, and thus employment be afforded. It is however, a very serious blow to our prosperity. In hundreds of homes pinching poverty will be felt next winter. Fishing gear is lost and will have to be replaced. The Labrador fishery will not for some time recover from the blow. Nearly all our mercantile houses are heavy suffers. Eighteen years ago, in 1867, a similar disaster happened on Labrador, but the loss of life and property was not more than half as great as by this recent storm.



Page contributed by Linda Elkins-Schmitt (2007)
and Transcribed by Floyd Letto (October 2007)

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