At 8 AM, December 10th, 1919, the S.S. Ethie departed Port Saunders. The seas along the west coast of Newfoundland were smooth that day. However, around 6 PM, a storm started to form, just as the Ethie was arriving in Cow’s Head. Two hours later, the ship departed again, heading down the coast. An hour after that, the captain ordered the ship to change course to the west to combat increasing winds. Throughout the evening, the gales only grew stronger, reaching hurricane force and surrounding them with dense snow flurries. Ice began to form around the ship and by midnight, the entire crew was awake and working to keep the ship functional, throwing barrels overboard to break up the ice. By 4 AM the Ethie was driving broadside in the unyielding winds and roaring sea. The waves crashing over the deck caused a lifeboat to shatter in its davits. The sailors assisted the firemen in producing enough steam to save the ship. Water poured into the stokehole and engine room. But the crew held steadfast, expecting the winds to subside by daybreak. Their hopes were dashed, however, and with the rising sun the wind and snow seemed stronger than ever.
At 10:30 AM on December 10th, land was sighted through the near blinding snow. Captain Edward English and his officers carefully studied the coast and orders were given to equip the crew and passengers with life-belts. The orders were carried out, and soon the passengers came above to the upper deck. It was decided they would run the raging breakers at full speed in an effort to get to the shore. The ship rushed the reef, being carried over “by some unseen hand,” as the Chief Officer would put it. By noon, the ship had struck the rocky shore. The crew tossed a lifebuoy overboard, tied with a line. Men on the shore who watched the ship approach pulled in the buoy. Soon a sturdier line was fed along the original one, a chair was affixed to it, and they began ferrying passengers ashore. Of the forty-five passengers on board the S.S. Ethie, the six women were offloaded first, followed by a baby placed in a mailbag and lashed to the chair. The thirty-nine male passengers followed. The twenty-seven crew members were the last to leave. The locals in the area kindly housed the victims of the disaster, a welcome respite from the hours they had spent at sea in the storm.
The remaining wreckage of the Ethie can be found at Martin’s Point in Gros Morne National Park. Interestingly, a bit of a folktale has formed around the rescue, appearing in newspapers: a dog supposed braved the stormy waters to bring the line to shore. The story became so widespread that some Philadelphians sent Newfoundland an engraved silver collar, which briefly hung in the Newfoundland Museum in St. John’s, in celebration of the supposed canine hero! However, Thomas Decker — son of Reuben Decker, the man who actually caught the line — has gone on record explaining that while his father’s dog was by his side, the furry companion weighed all of twenty pounds and did nothing to help with the rescue.
A footnote: sources differ on the actual number of people on the S.S. Effie when she crashed. The primary source for this article claims seventy-two, others claim as high as ninety-two. Fortunately, what they all report is that everyone on board survived.
Newfoundland Shipwrecks, “The Wreck of the S.S. Ethie,” Accessed August 5th 2020.
Mary Birdson, Newfoundland Shipwrecks, “Hero, the Phantom Dog,” Accessed August 6th 2020.
Katherine Hudson, Saltwire, “Remembering the Stories; Ninety years later, memories of the S.S. Ethie still present in community,” Accessed August 6th 2020.
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