The Sealing Disaster of 1914 remembered
© Barbara Dean-Simmons
Inside the John C. Crosbie Sealers Interpretation Centre in Elliston, artifacts and displays tell the life of sealers and the sealing industry of this province.
Amid all the speeches at the unveiling of the Sealers Memorial in Elliston on Thursday, Myrtle Stagg's one word, whispered quietly into the microphone before she began her speech, summed it all up.
For Stagg, chair of the Elliston Heritage Foundation, the event in Elliston was the reward for several years of hard work and the realization that a simple idea, when you have the right people on board, can grow to monumental proportions.
"We started out in 2008 to fulfill a goal just to have a monument. Never did we imagine it would evolve into what we have here today."
Hundreds to witness
Hundreds of people made the trip to the Trinity Bay town, undeterred by the rain, to witness the reveal of a statue, monument and the official opening of the John C. Crosbie Interpretation Centre.
Unofficial counts put the crowd at nearly 600.
Among them was Edith Rideout from Conception Bay, there to honour the memory of her grandfather Uriah Butler who was lost when the sealing ship Southern Cross went down with all hands on board in the winter gale of March 30, 1914.
Rideout told TC Media that her mother was just eight years old when her father (Rideout's grandfather) was lost at sea. Tragically, just two months after they lost their father, the five Rideout children lost their mother who died "from the bad flu" recalls Rideout.
The family was split up, she says. The children who were now orphans were sent to live with family members.
"It was a very hard time for them," she says, in the wake of the events of 1914.
The Southern Cross went down as the ship was making its way back to home port in Newfoundland, after hunting seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, taking 173 men with her. The impact on families around Conception Bay, and in homes like the Rideouts, was long lasting.
For Melvin Cole, last Thursday was a day of both pride and sorrow.
His grandfather and uncle, Reuben and Albert John Crewe, were among the 78 men and boys who perished on the ice floes off the northeast coast. That moment in time took shape under the skillful hands of sculptor Morgan MacDonald, who was commissioned to create the memorial statue.
MacDonald spent months working on the piece.
He said he was honoured to be part of the creation of this memorial.
"This is quintessential Newfoundland. It's in our bones, in our blood, this is who we are, it's our identity. To be here to do a work of such importance, it's really an honour and I'm very lucky to be able to be standing here, to be able to talk about the piece. It really is really exciting to be here."
The bronze statue that now sits at Porter's Point captures in stark relief the images of the father and son as they lived out their final moments.
The Crewes were among the 166 men - many of them from the Elliston and Bonavista area - who left the SS Newfoundland on March 30, 1914, to head to the SS Stephano seven miles away to harvest seals.
Thirty-four of the men decided to turn back, while the other 132 continued on. The captain of the Stephano, Abe Kean, told the men to harvest 1,500 seals before returning to the Newfoundland, captained by his Kean's son, Wes.
As recounted in the novel Death on the Ice, written by Newfoundland author Cassie Brown, the men were given a lunch on the Stephano and then sent 'over the side' again to hunt seals and make their way back to the Newfoundland.
The captain of each ship made the grievous error of assuming the men were safely aboard the other ship when the storm blew up.
They were both wrong. And with no wireless communication between the two vessels, neither realized the peril the men were in.
The 132 men and boys - some as young as 16, on their first trip to the ice - were lost in the blizzard for 48 hours. By the time they were discovered, 78 of them had perished - dead from hypothermia - some of them fallen into the sea and their bodies were never recovered.
The ones who survived were just barely alive. They escaped death by huddling together for warmth, continually moving around to keep their blood circulating.
Reuben Crewe had never intended to go to the ice that year. But when his son, Albert John, who was just 16, announced he was going on his first 'swiling' expedition, the father decided it best to go along to look after his boy.
When their bodies were recovered, the two were found frozen together, the father obviously trying to shield his son from the elements.
The tragedy that played out on the ice floes was devastating for many communities, particularly so for Elliston.
"Eight of the men and boys from our tiny community were lost forever. Two returned permanently handicapped," Stagg told the audience at the recreation centre last Thursday.
It is a story that has remained ingrained in the minds of the people of Elliston for 100 years.
"We will never forget," Stagg said. "Everyone struggled to survive. It is their stories of endurance, risk, hope and survival that tore at our heartstrings and heightened our passion to work towards having this memorial to remember and commemorate the victims of this terrible tragedy."
Cole says he grew up hearing the story of his grandfather and uncle, and envisioned it many times but it's still difficult to comprehend what they must have gone through, he says.
"I heard many, many stories around the kitchen table. Throughout the years it was always familiar to me."
He says the statue created by Morgan MacDonald gives him a very real sense of what happened on the ice that day.
"I've thought about it, many, many times, how they must have suffered on the ice," he said, adding it's difficult to think about, and he has tried not to dwell on it.
However, he is very proud that they and the others are being remembered in such as significant way through the Monuments and Interpretation Centre at Elliston.
Elias Mouland of Bonavista was one of the men who were fortunate enough to survive the tragedy.
His great-great niece, Bernice Mouland Clements of Bonavista, carried his picture with her on Thursday.
He was about 30 years old when he sailed with the Newfoundland to the ice in 1914.
"He never talked much about it," she says, "but did used to tell us that if you stopped for one minute out there, you were dead."
The dream realized
Former Lieut. Gov. John Crosbie was lauded as the man who gave momentum to the Elliston Heritage Foundation's idea.
Fate played a role in the realization of the dream of the Elliston Heritage Society just as surely as it played a role in the disaster itself.
Guy-Murphy and her husband, the late John Murphy, former Mayor of St. John's, had a summer home in Elliston.
As they came to know the community they learned of the idea in the minds of the Elliston Heritage Society members.
Guy-Murphy encouraged the committee to approach Crosbie to serve as the Patron for the project.
The former Lieut. Gov. accepted the role and the rest, as they say, is now history and an impressive tribute to the province's history.
The Home From the Sea campaign was born in December, 2011.
Stagg says the idea of the local group for "just a small museum and, perhaps, a monument" quickly turned into a vision for something much more significant.
"First we thought, probably we'd end up with something small but then when Mr. Crosbie got involved, he brought awareness to it when he put this advisory committee in place and it just skyrocketed."
The goal was now $2.75 million to build an educational and historical project in Elliston.
Support for the project came quickly, with the federal government contributing $800,000 and the province adding $500,000 to the project.
The rest of the money came from donations from businesses, unions and individuals.
Construction of the Interpretation Centre began last year, a project that saw the former schoolhouse in the community turned into a centre filled with artifacts that tell the story not only of the Sealing Disaster, but also of the sealing industry.
The Interpretation Centre is now named after John Crosbie and during the official ribbon cutting, Crosbie called it, "one of the finest museums he has experienced in all of North America."
Jack Troake of Twillingate wholeheartedly agrees.
The well-known advocate for the province's sealing industry was among the crowd last week and had the honour, with fishermen's union president Earl McCurdy, of unveiling the massive granite monument that bears the names of all the men who perished in the 1914 disasters.
"This is a very, very important day for Newfoundland," said Troake, "and a very important day for Elliston.
"There is nowhere else on the face of the earth, no better place to have this than in Elliston."