A celebration at the Clarke’s Beach railway station
On New Year’s Day, 1915, a train pulled in to the Clarke’s Beach railway station. Her flags were flying and her whistles blowing. Hundreds of crying, jubilant, laughing and shouting people lined the tracks to witness a special event: the arrival home of the captain and crew of the Swallow who were, as one onlooker put it, “back from the dead.”
In the spring of 1914, 14-year-old Gertrude (“Gertie”) Frost, a North River resident who had lived on Bell Island for many years, boarded the “Swallow,” bound for the Labrador for a summer of fishing.
“For almost 500 years,” wrote the late John W. Hammond, who first related this story, “the waters off the Labrador have been acknowledged as being among the richest fishing grounds on the east coast. It is believed by many that Basque cod and whale fishermen fished there as early as 1470.
“Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, the ‘stationer’ or shore-based summer fishery in Labrador was prosecuted by east coast Newfoundlanders. Fishermen would sail from east coast communities, more especially Conception Bay, to fishing stations in the Strait of Belle Isle. They would sail in the spring of the year, catch and dry their fish on the Labrador, and leave for home in the fall.
“Young girls would often be taken along to cook for the fishing crews.”
Gertie Frost was given the task – and a task it was at times – to cook for six men. The captain’s name is unknown at this late remove, but it is known that he was from either Bareneed or Bay Roberts.
They fished and dried their catch from Domino. The Bell Island resident, Charles Morgan Sr., who was fishing at Black Tickle, later said that the “Swallow” left for home around Oct. 10, 1914.
Making her way down the east coast of Newfoundland, the vessel was struck by a hurricane force gale. The wind and waves were so great that, unable to bear up, the Swallow was left helpless in the white, swirling foam.
“Terror struck the hearts of both captain and crew,” Hammond continued, “as she sank down between mountainous waves.”
The mainsail, located behind the main mast; the foresail, set on a foremast between midships and bow; the flying jib, attached to an extension of the jib boom; and the staysail, a fore-andaft rigged sail, all blew off at the same time, leaving only the spars.
The Swallow drifted aimlessly out into the Atlantic. To make matters worse, the vessel began to take on water.
In time, a German ship appeared on the horizon and took the Newfoundlanders aboard. Meanwhile, the captain and crew were unaware that Great Britain and her colonies had recently gone to war against Germany.
Soon, the Newfoundlanders watched in sorrow as the Swallow disappeared into the depths. The German captain, showing great kindness, put the four teenage girls in his cabin.
Back at home, family and friends feared the Swallow, along with her captain and crew, had been lost.
Three weeks later, a large British warship was spotted steaming towards them. The German captain, fearing an attack, took the quartet of girls out on deck. Observing the skirts blowing in the wind, the British withheld fire. The Newfoundland and German crews were transferred to the British warship before the German ship was sent to its own watery grave.
Ironically, the Germans had saved the Newfoundlanders, while the Newfoundland girls had helped to save the Germans.
The Newfoundlanders were taken to Glasgow, Scotland, where they were treated kindly, receiving food, clothing, lodging and medical attention. They sailed back across the Atlantic to the port of Saint John, New Brunswick, where a message was sent to friends and relatives that the Newfoundlanders were safe.
Which is why there was such rejoicing aboard the train that rolled in to the Clarke’s Beach railway station on New Year’s Day, 1915.
— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org