‘Bulldog of the North’ still making waves
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.
The cover of “The Alphabet Fleet: The Pride of the Newfoundland Coastal Service.”