With the recent devastation wrought on Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island by the remnants of last week’s Hurricane Fiona, and the current emergency as Florida is inundated by Hurricane Ian, I thought I’d dust off a post from a couple of years ago about a great storm from the nineteenth century, almost exactly 171 years ago to the day, and one I learned about as a child:
“The Third of October, 1851, brought perhaps the greatest marine disaster in [Prince Edward Island] history. The afternoon was warm and still…the sky heavily clouded. The north and north west had a lurid, glassy appearance about sunset. It was a Friday, perhaps the best remembered Friday in P.E.I. history. A violent gale and wind arose from the East-North-East, which continued for two terrifying days. Before it was over, the New England fleet, fishing off our shores was devastated – nearly 100 vessels were wrecked or stranded, and hundreds killed.” — From the collection of T. W. Stewart
“On Friday night, the 3rd inst., a most violent gale of wind and rain arose from the [East-North-East], which continued varying at intervals, the following two days. The loss of life and property among the shipping is almost incredible. The whole of the coast on the north side of the Island is strewed with wrecks and dead bodies! Our present number contains a list of some of the wrecked vessels. We are unable as yet to give a correct account of the whole; indeed there are many that will never be heard of, having ran into each other and foundered at sea. The wrecks are chiefly American vessels fishing on the North side of the Island.” — The Islander, October 10, 1851
“A dispatch received last evening by the collector of this port, from B. Hammett, U.S. Consul at Pictou [Nova Scotia], states that the north-west coast has been swept by a terrible and destructive gale and that 100 fishing vessels were ashore on the north side of Prince Edward’s Island. It is estimated that 300persons have perished in the wrecks, and many bodies have already drifted ashore. Mr. Norton will proceed at once to relieve the distress and render such aid as he can” — New York Daily Times, October 9, 1851
“No particulars have yet been received as to the late destructive gale at the East. The most intense excitement prevails at all the Fishing towns, as all are uncertain whether their friends are dead or living. From Newburyport and vicinity 70 vessels are out. The wife of the captain of the schooner Martha, upon hearing a rumor that her husband’s vessel was lost with all on board, committed suicide, leaving a large family of young children.” — Boston, October 10, 1851
Friday, October 3, 1851, dawned clear and calm. As the sun rose and passed over Prince Edward Island’s sandy North Shore beaches it warmed giggling and energetic bands of young and barefoot children in faded and carefully patched clothing, some desperately trying to launch a tattered kite into the still air–an exhausting triumph of hope over expectation; others skipping small flat sandstone pebbles across the water to see how many times they would land and take off again, or to see how far they would go. Still others drew in the soft red sand, built moats, castles, and dreams, or played naughts-and-crosses with some of the many shells that littered the beach. Men with pitchforks heaved up quantities of Irish moss into carts, while the horses leading them stood patiently by, waiting to take them home for the women to lay out on drying racks (the moss, not the horses).
In short, it was an idyllic morning, and bid fair to be an idyllic afternoon. When the mossers broke for the modest lunch their wives had packed them, and the children answered their mothers’ calls to return home for a bite to eat and to help with the afternoon chores, no-one expected otherwise.
And so the sudden closing-in of the sky, the disappearance of the sun, the thick, leaden clouds, came as a complete and unwelcome surprise. As did the brassy, and then glittering, blood-red appearance of the sky to the northwest about the time the sun must have set, if they could have seen the sun. Then the sky turned black, the wind rose, a heavy swell took the sea, and the waters began to roil.
Not far off the Island’s north coast, in some of the world’s best mackerel-fishing grounds, lay hundreds of schooners from as far afield as Gloucester, Massachusetts–ships and crews which had been away from home since the spring, following the fish, and who were now completing their return journey through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and home for the winter. Like the Island residents ashore, these seasoned captains, and their often young and inexperienced crews, were taken completely by surprise:
In late September 1851, 26-year-old Elisha J. Parker of North Lake hired aboard the pinky Abigail Gold, William Haskell, master, to fish for mackerel off Prince Edward Island’s North Shore. Now a week later the decision looked likely to cost him his life.
The Abigail Gold was a tiny vessel for the mackerel fishery. She was only 45 tons, old and pokey and crowed by her ten man crew. Instead of a ship’s wheel, she steered with a tiller mounted high on her pointed stern. That morning, her hold crammed with barrels for mackerel, she had set sail eastward from Cascumpec for East Point. When the breeze failed in the late afternoon, she fell to fishing once again in company with a group of mackerel boats close inshore along the curve of the coastline that hung suspended from a clothesline between North Cape and East Point. By dusk, 16 more barrels of mackerel were lashed to her rail up on deck.
With the darkness came a great gale.
By midnight, the little pinky [a small schooner] was fighting for her life. At first, she had tired to claw her way out to sea, but the rising storm kept her pinned against the North Shore. Around 10 o’clock, her jib suddenly gave way and a great fist of wind split her mainsail. By now, the driving seas had smashed the ship kindling in its davits. The barrels of mackerel had long since gone overboard. The crew was clinging to a lifeline run fore and aft. Unable to make any headway, the Abigail Gold hove to her own against the wind. Elisha Paker’s whole universe had shrunk to this; The black night; the driving rain; the gale screaming in the rigging; the groaning of the pinky’s timbers under the seas lash; and, most ominous of all, somewhere off in the darkness astern, the roaring of breakers on a hidden coast.
The strain was too much. Her tiller snapped off at the rudderhead, and the Abigail Gold fell, helpless, into the Trough Sea. Parker, and several of his shipmates did what many do when hope seems lost: they knelt on the gangway and prayed.
—Edward MacDonald, The Island Magazine, Fall, 1995 **
The storm continued unabated. The men hove to, furled their sails, lashed themselves, each to the other and to the masts and to lifelines stretched from bow to stern, and with nothing else they could do, waited and prayed, listening to the sounds of the apocalypse around them and, in the distance, the unsettling sounds of the waves crashing onto land on a shore they couldn’t see.
The gale continued for another 48 hours, finally blowing itself out on Sunday evening, and leaving in its wake a trail of unimaginable destruction and loss of life:
The carnage almost defied belief. Debris was strewn along the coast in grisly windrows: wrecks and parts of wrecks, masts, sails, rigging, ship’s timber, barrels of mackerel, sodden clothing, boots, boxes. And bodies. There were 50 corpses reports on the beach between Brackley Point and Cavendish on the day after the storm. Some of the victims were still lashed to parts of their vessels. Most had been stripped naked by the violence of the seas. Few could be identified. More corpses were discovered inside the wrecks. In one haunting story, ten dead men were found sitting around their schooner’s cabin waiting for judgement day.
Not all of the wrecks were New Englanders. There were Maritime schooners among the stricken fleet, and several larger vessels, Basques and brigs, had also been caught in the storm’s nets. No one was even sure how many wrecks there might be. The Gale had reduced many of them to so much anonymous driftwood, while an unknown number of vessels had simply disappeared, swallowed up by the ocean.
—Edward MacDonald, The Island Magazine, Fall, 1995
There have been many shipwrecks off the coast of Prince Edward Island in the almost-five-hundred years since it was visited by Jacques Cartier on one of his jaunts up the St. Lawrence. Maps have been made, showing where they took place. Books have been written about them (this is a pretty good one). But there has only been one “Yankee Gale.”
The devastation was almost incalculable, and has never been fully documented. Best guesses are that over 100 vessels were torn apart at sea, sank, or were destroyed when they hit rocks or shore. Hundreds of bodies were recovered, on land, at sea, lashed to the boats, and trapped onboard. Hundreds of bodies were lost forever. Bodies washed up on shore for weeks; the locals took them, tried to identify them, held services for them, and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. When that wasn’t possible, when identification was out of the question, or when they were overwhelmed by numbers, they held services for them and buried them in the rolling sand dunes between Rustico and Cavendish, erecting frail memorials to the unknowns as they went.
Much care was taken to identify as many bodies as possible as distraught relations in Gloucester wrote descriptions of their loved ones and sent them to the provincial capital, Charlottetown, where they were published in The Royal Gazette:
“I had a son lost off your Island in the ill-fated gale of October 3d and 4th; he was on board the schooner Statesman, of Newburyport, which went to pieces… near Malpec Harbor. … my son’s age was about thirty, but had a young look…. My son’s name was Terrance F. Goodwin. The five foot eight was his height; and he had a cross…. With a star on his hand…”
A magistrate in New London PEI recognized the description, and the family was notified.
In response to the Governor’s declaration that “all citizens should render all aid necessary to those starving and suffering from exposure,” the Massachusetts Gloucester News wrote, on October 23, 1851:
We learn of our fisherman who have returned from the scene of the late disaster that the proclamation… was unnecessary; for they all speak in the warmest terms of gratitude for all the universal hospitality and kindness they and all the shipwrecked men received at the hands of these generous and humane Islanders. In the midst of the storm they were on the beach to render every aid in their power to save life. After it abated they cheerfully offered their services to assist in the preservation of property. They bore from the wrecks the bodies of those who had perished, at their own expense prepared them for the grave, and administered to them the last sad rites of humanity. Nor was this all; they opened their doors to those who had no shelter, fed and clothed the destitute…. The PE Island papers are requested to make known… the feelings of grateful remembrance in which the wrecked fishermen of Gloucester will always hold the generous hospitality extended to them in their misfortunes.
It would be almost exactly 150 years before another province in the Canadian Maritimes was called upon, in unexpected and horrific circumstances, to offer aid and succor to its southern neighbor in her time of exigent need. And on September 11, 2001, Gander, Newfoundland, came through with flying colors, too.
I’ve written many times here of my family’s love for Prince Edward Island, the place where we spent many a long, lazy, idyllic summer vacation. And I’m steeped in its history and its tales.
Our friend Beecher Court, the patriarch of a family of fishermen we spent quite a bit of time with, was the son of William Court, who was born in 1841. William married rather late in life, and Beecher was born in 1888. William was widowed shortly thereafter,
William was ten at the time of the Yankee Gale; he and his father were among hundreds of other Islanders and their families who combed the beaches looking for bodies and burying them, often among the dunes, and taking in, and caring for survivors. His stories, as told to me by his son, made a deep impression, and I’ve never forgotten them.
This tale wouldn’t be complete without the appearance of Stephen, another colorful character from my Island childhood. Stephen was born in 1884 (so was in his late eighties at the time I knew him). He claimed to be (probably was) the descendent of a young Yankee Gale survivor from Gloucester, MA, who’d fallen in love with the rescuer who nursed him back to health, married her, and settled down in PEI.
On September 29, 1915, Stephen enlisted in the 105th Overseas Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, and set off for War. He was deeply affected by his experiences, and when we knew him, lived alone in a small house on property he believed to be his by right, and on which the actual owner had let him build and live. Every spring, the locals would band together and build Stephen a sturdy wooden porch with steps so he could get up and down, and out and about on his two favorite excursions–one to the Royal Canadian Legion in North Rustico for his daily dose of Seagram’s, and the other for the mile-or-so walk to the harbor, which is where we met him, always smartly turned out in military uniform. Every winter, Stephen would chop up his porch, piece-by-piece, and put the resulting firewood in his woodstove, burning it to keep himself warm.
He was a lovely man, and Dad very much enjoyed talking to him and listening to his stories, one of which was a highly detailed explanation of how he, and not the Royal Air Force, was the man who deserved credit for shooting down The Red Baron. I do know that it’s now generally held that von Richtofen was actually shot from the ground, not in the air, perhaps by an Australian, but I’m not sure how widely-disseminated that theory was in, say 1970 or 1971, or how Stephen would have got hold of it, when we first heard it from him. More research for me!
Like many of the folks I’ve known who have almost nothing to their name, he loved spending what little he had others, and giving small gifts to those he loved. My sister and I have fond memories of chocolates. Rest in peace, Stephen.
“In Memory of
New England and Maritime
Sailors who lost their lives
in the Yankee Gale
(Memorial in Cavendish Cemetery)
*What of our young friend, Elisha Baker? Astonishingly, he and the Abigail Gold survived the disaster, and he lived to tell the tale fifty-two years later, in the January 1903 issue of the Prince Edward Island Magazine. It’s a short, great, read and a first-hand account, when you’re going through hell, of what it takes to “keep going.”