On October 10 and 11, 1885, one of the worst gales in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador blew through, devastating everything in its path. The Times describes the damage and destruction as follows:
[The storm brought] mourning and misery to thousands of our people. It is said that no less than 80 fishing craft have been lost, and some 70 men, women and children perished in the boiling surf….Great damage has been done on shore. At one place a church has been blown down and houses and oil stores have been shaken to pieces.
Among the wrecked ships was the Excel, a schooner that had been anchored off Black Island hoping to wait out the storm. At approximately midnight on Sunday October 11, 1885, she broke from her chains and was driven ashore where she was pounded against the rocks and quickly began to disintegrate. In desperation, Captain George Morgan commanded that the masts be cut down in the hopes that they might create a passageway to land and safety. The foremast was first to fall and broke into three pieces. Better luck was had with the mainmast, which fell in such a way that it reached the rocks on shore. Several men and one woman, Miss Emma Jane Roache, had been huddling in a hatchway and seized the opportunity to escape the ship . Two more men, William Batten and Abram Morgan, were midway across the mast when it broke and plunged them both to their deaths.
Soon after, the Excel became a total wreck and sank after breaking into pieces. An estimated twenty-two men, women and children were lost, including the Captain and most of his family. Almost everyone on board was from Coley’s Point Newfoundland. The bodies of those lost were never fully recovered and most were never seen again.
Miss Roache and the few other men who had managed to get across the mast survived. They clung to the rocks and kelp in the raging sea until Mr. Stephen Russell found and dragged them to safety. Miss Roache eventually married and became Mrs. W. H. Littlejohn.
In the aftermath of the gale, although of no assistance to the Excel, rescue work was done by other ships that had not been severely damaged in the gale and by English fish carriers who had been bound for the Mediterranean markets. Harrington highly praises the work done by these Englishmen:
On them fell the immediate and exacting burden of thousands of people left without food, clothing or shelter, many of them hurt and bereft, with no means of communication with the outside world, and no means of reaching it. But rising to the occasion the English skippers threw away their orders, jeopardized their fish charters, risked their cargoes and the loss of the markets to relieve suffering and distress.
Relief ships were also sent from St. John’s and Harbour Grace, however, by the time they reached impacted areas, they found that most work had already been done by these kind men.
Although this type of incident is not uncommon in Newfoundland and Labrador, the gale of 1885 was particularly well remembered, as noted by Harrington:
The Labrador gale of October, 1885, was so unexpected, so violent, so destructive to life and property, so shining with self-sacrifice, courage and devotion, so full of heartbreak, that for a generation afterwards, all local history dated from it, e.g. “so many years before” . . . or “so many years after” the gale.
Unknown. 1885. “A Sad Blow for Terra Nova.” The Times and General Commercial Gazette (St. John’s), October 28.
Burrows, Roger. Cynthia Stone. 1991. “Coley’s Point,” Decks Awash. Vol. 20 No. 1. p. 13-16.
Harrington, Michael Francis. 1958. Sea Stories from Newfoundland. Toronto: The Ryerson Press.
Unknown. 1957. “Out Of The Past; The “Great Tragedy”—1885.” The Daily News (St. John’s) March 28.
Tags: The Excel