The Christie and Eleanor

The following story contains excerpts from “Lost at Sea”, a collection of Newfoundland sea stories, compiled by Robert C. Parsons of Grand Bank, Newfoundland. These excerpts describe the events leading up to and following the grounding of the Christie and Eleanor on a beach in Stephenville Crossing, on the west coast of Newfoundland on December 19, 1946. The story of the Christie and Eleanor is one of many sea stories that have been researched and compiled by Robert C. Parsons2. I have taken the liberty to insert graphics and pictures into Robert’s description.

“It was Friday, December 13, 1946, when the Christie and Eleanor, laden with salt herring, headed for Gloucester, Massachusetts, from Lark Harbour on Newfoundland’s west coast. With a long and productive career behind her, the Christie and Eleanor was engaged in the coastal run for J. B. Patten’s interests of Grand Bank. She had been built in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, in 1922.2.”

Schooner Christie and Eleanor (Under Sail)1

“At 8 a.m., in beautiful weather, she left the safety of Lark Harbour in company with the L. A. Dutton. Christie and Eleanor’s Captain, John Smith, was confident that he would be able to clear all the headlands by the next morning and reach the open waters of the Gulf. However, two hours later, both vessels ran into a sudden storm accompanied by thick snow.

Around ten o’clock that night, the winds increased to gale force. The L. A. Dutton, under Captain Robert Smith, found her engine power practically useless but was able to use the foresail to beat to the Eastern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence2.”

 

“The same storm that troubled the L. A. Dutton overwhelmed the Christie and Eleanor. Later Friday night, the jumbo sail was blown away; a little later after midnight the Christie and Eleanor’s engine gave out. Saturday morning saw the schooner floundering in seas in the Gulf with foregaff, foreboom, and one of her two dories carried away.

Without foresail or engine, the schooner was at the mercy of the elements. Despite the efforts of her crew and engineer George Sam Welsh, who worked all day and night to revive the engine, by the evening of Saturday, December 14, the Christie and Eleanor was barely 2 miles off Cape St. George. By this time, the second dory has disappeared, washed off the deck sometime during the previous night2.”

“All Sunday, with a fairer wind, the Christie and Eleanor’s crew were able to keep their schooner off the land. Chart positions showed they were near enough to Bay St. George to take advantage of it’s shelter. On Monday evening the wind and snow came again, making it difficult to navigate. By now the crew were fearful of escaping with their lives as both lifeboats were gone. They had no way of leaving the doomed craft which was slowly but surely being pushed onto the land.

That Monday afternoon, December 16, near Indian Head, the auxilary schooner ran solidly aground, about 300 yards from shore. Within a few moments after she struck, exposed to the full strength of the breakers, the rudder unshiped and a hole opened in the stern. Gale force winds drove huge breakers over the Christie and Eleanor. The crew were forced to lash themselves to the heaving vessel and remain there all night2.”

“Not long after she struck the rocks, a crowd of people, mostly from Stephenville Crossing, gathered on the shore watching the wreck of the schooner and wanting to be of some assistance to the men trapped on her. Without lifeboats and his vessel breaking up beneath him, Captain Smith realized that each man’s life was in jeopardy unless help came soon. He also knew the stranded schooner was too far from shore for a lifeline or breeches buoy to be setup.

In desperation, he wrote an urgent plea, asking to be taken off the wrecked schooner. The message was put in a bottle, in turn, put in an oil can with the hope it would drift to shore. Tide and wind carried the container to the beach. Would-be rescuers waiting on the shore received the request for deliverance2.”

“Keeled over on the sand bar, the Christie and Eleanor lies partially submerged amid the breakers of Bay St. George. Photo courtesy of Captain John Smith2.”

“Spurred for the appeal for help, local residents three times made an effort to reach the shipwreck. Charles Fleet and Ron McIsaac tried to get a dory out, but each time the small craft was swamped in the boiling surf and rollers crashing on the sandy shore.

Officers from the newly-established Amercan military base at Harmon Field stayed on the shore all night keeping the lights of an army vehicle shinning on the scene. Commanding Officer Maxwell of Harmon tried to slack off a dory from a nearby tugboat to the Christie and Eleanor, but contrary winds and heavy sea made the attempt impossible.

Only the wheelhouse showed above the water that night; the bulk of the schooner had slipped off the rocks and settled down a little deeper. Six men inside the wheelhouse, already weakened by cold and exposure, stood in water up to their knees. With the coming of daylight on December 17, almost two days after the vessel had first struck the land off Sandy Point, efforts to save the stranded men redoubled.

Two local residents, Ron Bennett and Fred Campbell of Stephenville Crossing, succeeded in getting a small dory through the boiling surf. At great risk to their own lives they reached the six shipwrecked mariners. Four of them, first mate Joe English, cook Charles Fizzard, seaman Morgan Trimm, and engineer Welsh, who were though to be in the worst shape, fell, stiff  and drained into the rescue dory. Half an hour later, a second trip brought Captain Smith and seaman John Manning of Oderin, Placentia Bay, to shore.

Despite prolonged exposure only John Manning remained in Stephenville hospital overnight suffering from frostbite to the hands and feet. The others were made comfortable by the citizens of the area until arrangements were made for the transportation to their coast homes2.”

Not all sea stories have a happy ending. Sadly, it is usually disaster that makes a sea story. One cannot help but be moved by the story of the Christie and Eleanor. It is a story of survival, a story of heroism, it is a story of people helping people, and that makes for a happy ending.

Local residents on the deck of the Christie and Eleanor (circa 1946-7) Source: unknown

As a child, growing up in Stephenville Crossing in the 1950s, the “old schooner”, as we called it, was moved up and down the beach by storms. At one point in time a rather large chunk of the schooner was located near where I lived. I recall a large rusting steel tank inside the structure. I recall many a lazy summer day, climbing on and swimming near the “old Schooner“. The beach at that time was quite pristine.

On a visit in December, 1977, I located the keel of the Christie and Eleanor not far from where I grew up.  

The keel of the Christie and Eleanor – December 1977, Photo – Wayne Young

A clam day at the beach in Stephenville Crossing

In 2006, 65 years after they rescued the crew of the Christie and Eleanor, Fred Campbell and Ron Bennett were recognized for their heroism. Member of the House of Assembly Joan Burke, Stephenville Crossing Mayor Brian Joy and the College of the North Atlantic campus administrator Brian Foley dedicated the Stephenville Crossing Learning Resource Centre in the names of Fred Campbell and Ron Bennett. Campbell and Bennett were presented with a plaque recognizing their heroism and a plaque with their names was put on display in the Learning Resource Centre.3

Ron Bennett (Benoit) passed on July 30, 2008 at the age of 87 years.

Fred Campbell passed on April 18, 2012 at the age of 95 years. 

Sources

  1. https://www.mun.ca/mha/pviewphoto/Record_ID/5033
  2. Lost at Sea, A compilation by Robert C. Parsons, Creative publishers, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 2001
  3. CURRENTS – News from the College of the North Atlantic, Summer 2006, Vol. 6 No. 4