Friday evening, June 19, 1959, 54 fishing boats – most with two or three person crews — sailed from the sheltered harbour of Escuminac, New Brunswick to set their 1,600 metre long drift nets to catch migrating salmon. Once they had lowered their nets and marked them, they planned to stay attached to them, waiting until dawn when they would haul in their nets, retrieve their catch, and head for home.
When they sailed, the wind was blowing but the weather forecast issued by the Dominion Public Weather Office (now Environment Canada) at 4 p.m. Atlantic time called for “light winds tonight, tomorrow north-east 25,” (Saunders, 96; in 1959, Canadian weather forecasts referred to miles per hour). By 10 p.m., with the next forecast calling for “North-East Gales 35 shifting about Dawn to North-West 35” was issued (Saunders, 96), most of the boats were at sea. By then, however, the sea was increasingly rough. Boxing Champion Yvon Durelle, who lived at nearby Baie Ste.-Anne, started out then turned back. At 5 a.m. the next morning, on nearby Prince Edward Island, the wind was recorded as 88 kilometres an hour, gusting to 112 (Saunders, 100).
As the weather grew worse and the waves higher and higher, the crews of the boats huddled in their small cabins – known as “cuddies” – unable to sleep as their boats tossed. As the waves started crashing over the boats, one after another got into trouble. On one, the sails were torn apart. On another, the mast was broken. On several, the motors were swamped. Some tried desperately to bail but that was difficult in the rough weather. A few released their nets and tried to run for harbour but this made things worse: it was much rougher in the shallower water closer to shore. During that night and after dawn the next morning, 22 of the 35 boats were lost and 35 men and boys drowned. Eventually 13 of the 35 bodies were recovered. The impact, however, was even greater: some missing fishermen had as many as eight children. The tragedy left 26 widows and 83 fatherless children.
Not all of those on the 22 lost boats died. When a boat belonging to Jack Doucett disappeared beneath a large wave, some watching assumed his boat, Francine D, had sunk. In fact, the wave did kill George Manuel who was hit by flying debris. But Bernie Jenkins in Alda Marie saw that Doucett and his two sons were clinging to the wreckage and managed to toss them a rope and haul them onto his boat. He and his crew rescued the father and one son fairly quickly but it was another hour before they were able to rescue the other son, Alphonse, who had caught the rope twice and handed it to his father and brother (Saunders, 59). After the rescue, in an effort to keep the three drenched men warm, the crew of Alda Marie ripped the tires they used as guards on the side of their boat to use as fuel. For food, they ate some of their salmon catch. At one point, all of them – including the three they rescued, had to bail water to keep Alda Marie afloat.
By morning, those on shore knew there were problems and they gathered on the docks to watch and wait. Sometimes they would see a boat approach the breakwater then, on hitting the heavier seas in shallow water, turn and head out again. By then, word of the disaster had been relayed to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), which sent out search and rescue aircraft. But there was little the searchers could do. Bits of debris began to drift ashore as did some bodies. Some debris was recognized. Albany Martin of Baie Ste. Anne found the side of a wheelhouse, which he identified as part of his brother Andre’s boat. His brother, age 31, and Albany’s son, 22, who was with his brother, had been on that boat and were both lost at sea.
The tragedy was featured on CBC radio and television and led to the creation of a relief fund that eventually reached $400,000. Part of the money — $75,000 – came from the Canadian Disaster Relief Fund, money left over after assistance was given to victims of the 1950 Red River flood in Manitoba. In addition to money, supplies of food and clothing were also collected and shipped to the families of those lost. In Moncton alone, the Royal Canadian Legion collected five tons of canned goods, flour, meat, drugs and candy and arranged to have it sorted and delivered in packages to individual families (Saunders, 69).
The fishermen had headed out to sea on Friday, June 19. The first funerals were held Tuesday, June 22. First there was a Roman Catholic service followed by burial in Baie Ste.-Anne for William Manuel, Edgar Daigle and Remi Martin, followed by an Anglican service in Bay du Vin for Cunard Williston, Haley Williston and Harold Taylor. There were more funerals that Wednesday and Thursday as more bodies were recovered.
News of the incident reached the Queen and Prince Phillip who were in Canada on a Royal Tour. They made a personal contribution to the fund and, after some discussion, arrangements were made for the royal yacht Britannia to anchor off Pointe-du-Chêne wharf near Shediac and for the widows and their children to be bussed there to meet the Queen.
There is now a stone monument of a fisherman, 2.3 metres high, created by Acadian artist Claude Roussel. It is titled simply, “Les Pêcheurs – the Fishermen.” Those who sail from Escuminac have strong family ties. When Archie Martin compiled the list of those who died for the monument, he included three of his cousins, Raphael and Victor Robichaud and Alonzo Marin and one uncle, Andre Martin.
Tags: 1959 Escuminac
no one knew,,,, that i was the 84th fatherless child of the escuminac disaster,,,.my biological father remained a ‘secret’ to me until the age of 9 yrs,when i was introduced to him by my grand mother. mrs, george duplessis in 1954. i am so proud to have connected with him. he was a true gentleman in my eyes…and i regret that he didn’t live long enough to see what i have accomplished in my life.i recently wrote a song [registered with ‘socan music’ called ‘ i’m still your little girl’ i may record it next year if the good lord wills it.my name is mary margaret [margie]duplessis…williston. my father was oswald smith williston.he was one of the 35 men who was lost in the escuminac disaster. r.i.p. daddy.
Thank you, Margie, for taking the time to write and to let me know about your connection to the Escuminac disaster. I’d be interested in hearing your song, if you wind up recording it!
P.S.As you can tell,I am just learning to “type” on computer! Please forgive all my errors. I will get better as I go along, with the help of my husband Mike. Thanks for listening and may GOD BLESS ALL THE VICTIMS OF THAT TERRIBLE DISASTER.We keep you all in our prayers, Sincerely, Margie(Marguerite)Duplessis Freeborn.In case you are interested, I recorded a Special Tribute song to Yvon Durelle titled “Hands Of Steele, Heart Of Gold” I am so proud to have known this wonderful man , and his family. R.I.P. Therese and Yvon!
Thank you Margie for the recollection. I was 11 yrs.old at the time and from the shores of Bay du Vin Beach I watched a number of the boats make their way out on such a peaceful evening. Haines and Haley Williston were to be joined by Haines’s wife(Britten) and my sister Elizabeth(Woodbury/Gertrude)Williston who were in training at St.John General Hospital, but did not make it in time. What a blessing.
What a striking memory, David. Thank you for sharing it!