‘Bull­dog of the North’ still mak­ing waves

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - — Neil Earle is a Car­bon­ear-born jour­nal­ist work­ing in Los An­ge­les. He made two trips to and from Labrador in the Kyle in 1949 and 1950.

In 2007, Flanker Press pub­lished “The Al­pha­bet Fleet: The Pride of the New­found­land Coastal Ser­vice,” by Maura Han­ra­han.

This year, 2013, is the 100th birth­day of the rugged old S.S. Kyle, which is now grounded at River­head, Har­bour Grace.

It seems a good time to re­view author Han­ra­han’s 238 pages of per­sonal rem­i­nis­cences, sec­ondary sources and scat­tered of­fi­cial pa­pers wo­ven in a solid text to de­tail the story of what was once a New­found­land and Labrador in­sti­tu­tion — the coastal boats owned by Reid New­found­land Com­pany.

The whole fleet was con­ceived in an 1890s in­spired flight of the bu­reau­cratic/en­tre­pre­neur­ial imag­i­na­tion. Its last in­car­na­tion is the now leg­endary S.S. Kyle, launched in 1913.

Made for ice

Han­ra­han aims to tell the story of the whole “al­pha­bet fleet,” son­amed from the ship ti­tles Ar­gyle, Bruce, Clyde, Dundee, etc. down to Kyle and Mei­gle — a fine col­la­tion of Scot­tish pa­tri­o­tism.

But, for any­one of a cer­tain age born near the sea in New­found­land and Labrador, it is the Kyle that in­evitably sneaks up on the reader. Her keel laid in New­cas­tle-on-Tyne on Oct. 12, 1912, the Kyle packed for­mi­da­ble en­durance power with a touch of old-time Ti­tanic el­e­gance, as this quote from Al­pha­bet Fleet makes clear:

“On her trial trip in May 1913 the Kyle did 12 knots. With a gross ton­nage of 1,055 she was sub­stan­tial for an Al­pha­bet Fleet boat … Des­tined for the Labrador run, the Kyle’s mu­sic room was done in bird’s eye maple and the pi­ano in the same ex­pen­sive wood. Her main saloon was in pol­ished ma­hogany. Her doors fea­tured vari-col­ored plate glass and tinted win­dows (pages 5-6).”

The lux­u­ri­ous as­pect of the Kyle never out­weighed her stur­dier qual­i­ties in pas­sen­ger’s minds though, as Han­ra­han notes:

“The Kyle was also an ice­breaker, which was cru­cial for both New­found­land and Labrador wa­ters. Noah Way, crew mem­ber on the Glen­coe, ex­plained that his ship once took three days to break free of the ice that en­snared it. The Kyle, how­ever, was more pow­er­ful. She had a round stem which en­abled her to run up on the ice, push it down and crush it. Says

Way, ‘The Kyle was made for ice.’”

The New­found­land govern­ment had es­tab­lished reg­u­lar steamship ser­vice along th­ese coasts by 1860. The old Spitfire steamer ar­rived in 1840. But, the Al­pha­bet Fleet of the Reid New­found­land Com­pany would en­ter the his­tory books.

It was the par­tial brain­child of Robert Reid, the ex­traor­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful Scot­tish en­tre­pre­neur who had al­ready gob­bled up most of the in­te­rior of the is­land in ex­change for build­ing a rail­way. Now, his new steam­ers would be nick­named “Reid’s yachts” and just be­fore the First World War they were ready to serve.

Nor was it all done with­out what to­day we would con­sider heart­stop­ping tragedy. One cap­tain har­ried fish­ing fam­i­lies on board so in­ces­santly that two fish­er­men fell over and were crushed by the wharf — a thing to fear when­ever those me­tal be­he­moths pulled up to berth, as I well re­mem­ber from early days on the pub­lic wharf in Car­bon­ear.

God and guess work

For most of its ca­reer, the Al­pha­bet Fleet had com­passes; not radar.

Capt. John Rus­sell of the Glen­coe re­ported on those early years that “our aids to nav­i­ga­tion were a far cry from to­day’s; only chart and com­pass, time and dis­tance most of all by God and some by guess work. No radar, no sounder, no lo­ran. Not even a ship to shore tele­phone” (pages 33-34).

The Kyle was blessed with a 150 mile wire­less com­pass but that didn’t avert all tragedies.

In the bit­ter win­ter of 1923, a crew­man was swept over­board while chip­ping away at the ice in the rig­ging.

Many were frost-bit­ten and trau­ma­tized in that hellish run along the south coast.

It was an icy late bap­tism for the ves­sel that would be ever renowned for sav­ing lives rather than los­ing them. Still in her maiden year, the Kyle was con­verted into a hos­pi­tal ship to res­cue pas­sen­gers from the SS Duchess of Corn­wall, ship­wrecked near Bat­tle Har­bour.

In the dread­ful spring of 1914, when the South­ern Cross dis­ap­peared with all hands and even the Kyle couldn’t find sur­vivors, her alert crew would later res­cue twelve des­per­ate men stranded at Grady. The “Bull­dog of the North” was earn­ing her keep.

That same year she re­ceived a wire­less from St John’s about a ty­phoid fever out­break in Hope­dale and Makkovik. The Kyle was or­dered in crisp tele­graph­ese to trans­fer her doc­tor to a wait­ing ship off Makkovik, which was car­ry­ing vi­tal medicines ashore.

The good old Kyle

Spring­ing to the res­cue would be­come her trade­mark. The web­site sskyle.com con­firms Han­ra­han’s ac­count of how in 1923 some 52 men and women were res­cued form star­va­tion at Pass Is­land near Har­bour Bre­ton.

Af­ter a win­ter block­aded by ice and all stom­achs growl­ing, Wal­ter Simms re­mem­bered com­ing home from school on the evening of April 9.

“I heard some boys yelling a steamer was plough­ing her way through the heavy ice … It was a won­der­ful sight and I could see her name on her bow very plain … it was the good old Kyle, Cap­tain Ben Tavenor in com­mand.”

No mis­tak­ing the happy sight — her smoke was of­ten vis­i­ble 10 miles way.

In 1927, the year Charles Lind­bergh took his sight­ings off St Johns, the United States Navy con­ducted a fruit­less search for Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst’s spe­cially-built mono­plane that had been lost at sea.

The Kyle turned up in St. John’s with the air­craft wing, a tro­phy that made her an in­ter­na­tional celebrity. Her le­gend grew. But, Han­ra­han is also good at the hu­man sto­ries, the peo­ple and the ex­otic car­goes she car­ried, ev­ery­thing from goats and hens to pack­ages for iso­lated out­porters from the world out­side, to wed­ding gowns wait­ing for ea­ger hands. In 1930, Nigel Rusted, a sur­name that still lingers in Car­bon­ear, was ap­pointed the first med­i­cal doc­tor up and down the New­found-Labrador coast, serv­ing on the Kyle for $200 a month.

Treat­ing beriberi with potato peels and rice and with only aspirin and codeine for pain re­lief, he ex­em­pli­fied the per­son­al­ized car­ing ser­vice that govern­ment nurses and doc­tors of that era of­ten man­i­fested.

“The Gren­fell boat charged 25 cents to pull a tooth, but Rusted did

it for free,” went the story.

The hu­man el­e­ment

Th­ese and other ver­bal snap­shots an­i­mate the nar­ra­tive. Some of it rings true even for me, who was only two years old on my first Kyle trip in 1949:

• The Mo­ra­vian Inuit band play­ing “God be with you till we meet again” as the steamer puffed out of Hope­dale and Makkovik. A soft mo­ment on a harsh shore, for hun­dreds of teary-eyed fisher fam­i­lies a brush with Wordsworth’s “emo­tion rec­ol­lected in tran­quil­ity.”

• The ves­sel’s 60 ports of call on the Labrador run with berths for 120 men and 40 women but hold­ing 300 to 350, ac­cord­ing to Jack Hol­well of Spot­ted Is­land. “By God there was peo­ple every­where, down in the hold, in ev­ery nook and cranny of her.” Both ro­mances and wed­dings on board ship re­sulted.

• Capt. Ed­ward O’Keefe re­mem­ber­ing his “num­ber one trip” in 1951 — St. John’s to Hope­dale in 12 days. Still a good voy­age with all the stops fig­ured in.

• The sac­ri­fic­ing, risky at­tempt of the Kyle at the scene of the St. Lawrence disas­ter af­flict­ing the US ships Pol­lux and Trux­ton in Fe­bru­ary 1942. Even the Bull­dog couldn’t butt suc­cess­fully against the howl­ing wind and waves to get in close. But those res­cuers on shore were cheered at the sight of her and that Capt. Con­nors and his crew “took great chances in try­ing.” The cap­tain turned her about and steamed the few miles back into St Lawrence pro­vid­ing ropes, axes and ship’s blan­kets and two nurses to be used for the re­lief ef­fort.

• Chil­dren look­ing wide-eyed into the Kyle’s din­ing room and those strange mul­ti­col­ored win­dows, of­ten re­ceiv­ing rare can­dies and treats from the servers. “It seemed like Christ­mas came in with the Kyle” for many out­port young­sters.

• Mil­i­cent Blake of Rigo­let rem­i­nisc­ing: “In our eyes the Kyle was a grand ocean liner. If you could get a peep in the din­ing room or the smoke room … well, your sum­mer was made … you had some­thing to talk about for a long time.”’

The most pho­tographed ship

Han­ra­han has an acute eye for un­even pay scales for the nurses and stew­ardesses who of­ten did equal work for unequal pay. Some­how, she missed the names of the two fe­male nurses dis­patched from the Kyle to help the Trux­ton and Pol­lux sur­vivors in 1942 (Reddy and O’Fla­her- ty) and an ex­pla­na­tion of the Kyle’s dis­tinc­tive “bluff bows” would have helped land­lub­bers like my­self. But, th­ese are mi­nor quib­bles and Han­ra­han de­liv­ers a long and com­pli­cated nar­ra­tive in­side a vivid and co­her­ent body of work.

Most read­ers know the story of the Kyle’s last years of ac­tive ser­vice be­fore be­ing towed to River­head in 1966, where she still sits, “the most pho­tographed ship in New­found­land.”

Tourists no­tice that some­thing spe­cial about her Ti­tanic-era trim lines and the saucy way she sits in the wa­ter. Re­tired by 1958, the ag­ing lady was sold to Shaw Steamships in Hal­i­fax but brought back to Car­bon­ear in 1961 by mer­chants Guy and Fred Earle for their jump into the seal­ing in­dus­try. More sto­ries, more leg­ends. Se­verely dam­aged in 1965, she now lies at an­chor.

The re­source­ful peo­ple of Har­bor Grace — al­ways quick to move on things like this — have erected a pic­turesque mu­seum near the rust­ing le­gend. Pow­ell’s su­per­mar­ket has a photo dis­play on its back wall to com­mem­o­rate the Kyle’s birth­day. It’s all well worth a look and if you spot a copy of The Al­pha­bet Fleet, be sure to buy it.

Sub­mit­ted photo

The cover of “The Al­pha­bet Fleet: The Pride of the New­found­land Coastal Ser­vice.”

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