This song appears on the 2004 album Death on the Ice, The Ultimate Price by Gary Callahan, and appears with other songs specifically about the Newfoundland sealing disaster in 1914. That disaster involved the death of 251 sealers in two separate but simultaneous events during the same winter storm, involving the crews of the SS Newfoundland and SS Southern Cross. In addition to the deaths, many of the survivors sustained disabling injuries and amputations through frostbite.These tragedies were a result of a lack of communication systems between ships; systems that were available but had been considered unnecessary by ship-owners. The events caused a public outcry and d ultimately prompted government officials to change the way they regulated the seal fishery.
See the entry for Death, the Ultimate Price
For two days, 132 sealers were stranded on the ice in blizzard conditions with no food and no shelter other than what they devise with the meagre resources they had. More than two-thirds of the men died and many of the survivors lost fingers, toes, and limbs to frostbite.
The SS Newfoundland left St. John’s for the North Atlantic ice fields in March 1914. It was captained by Westbury Kean, and sailing nearby was the SS Stephano, captained by his father Abram Kean, a veteran sealer. Even though the two men worked for competing firms, they had agreed to work coperatively on the seal hunt.
On March 30, the Stephano found a herd of seals and signalled to the Newfoundland, but the Newfoundland was jammed in the ice about six miles away and could not reach them. Anxious to catch some of the seals, Westbury Kean sent the men to walk toward the Stephano, where they would have a day of hunting and then spend the night on board that ship.
Early on the morning of March 31, 166 men headed out for Stephano. As they walked many of the sealers recognized signs of an approaching storm and grew worried. At about 10 o’clock, 34 men turned back to the Newfoundland and the rest, 132 men, reached the Stephano by 11:30. On board they had tea and hard bread. While the men ate, Abram Kean navigated the Stephano towards a group of seals two miles to the south. Although it was snowing quite hard, Kean ordered the men off his ship at 11:50, with instructions to kill 1,500 seals before returning to the Newfoundland, which he thought was only about three miles away. (Unfortunately, the leader of the group, George Tuff, did not object to this order.) Then the Stephano steamed away to pick up its own crew members who were hunting further north.
By 12:45 the blowing snow forced the sealers to stop hunting and head for their own ship. Headway was slow against the wind, through the knee-deep snowdrifts, and across moving ice pans. At dark they stopped and built shelters from chunks of ice, but these were of little use against the harsh weather. Many of the men died during the night, and others arose with their limbs frozen and numb, barely able to walk. This song talks about Jesse Collins, from Hare Bay, who urged his shipmates up and kept them moving to prevent them from succumbing to exposure.
For the next day and night they tried, unsuccessfully, to reach their ship. Any slip or stumble, or mis-calculation of the icefloes by the exhausted and confused sealers resulted in immediate drowning in the freezing waters. Meanwhile, on board the two ships, each captain thought the sealers were safe on board the other ship.
The rescue party carries sealers off the ice to the waiting ship.
Early on April 2, after 53 hours in the blizzard without provisions or equipment, the men were spotted, crawling and staggering across the ice toward the Newfoundland. Unable to move his own ship in the ice, Westbury Kean improvised a distress signal to alert other vessels nearby. Crewmen from the SS Bellaventure went out on the ice with supplies and blankets, while the Stephano and SS Florizel helped in the search for bodies, finding 69 who had died from exposure on the ice. It was assumed that the other eight had fallen into the water, and they were never recovered. The survivors were brought to St. John’s for medical care, where another man died later from the effects of the ordeal, bringing the death toll to 78.
Witnesses have described watching the ship dock in St John’s with frozen bodies piled on the deck like cord wood. The incident prompted legislation that (somewhat) regulated the fishery, and tried to curtail some of the more egregiously negligent practices aboard the ships.
Thomas Dawson, from the SS Newfoundland, is carried ashore in St John’s.