Re­mem­ber­ing the Wa­ter Witch tragedy

Cupids His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety un­veils new mon­u­ment to vic­tims, sur­vivors


A spe­cial sub-com­mit­tee of the Cupids His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety hosted a cer­e­mony on Dec. 8 to of­fi­cially un­veil a mon­u­ment to the vic­tims of Wa­ter Witch dis­as­ter, which took place on Nov. 29, 1875. Twelve of the 25 crew and pas­sen­gers on­board the schooner died in the tragedy, which oc­curred dur­ing a storm in a gulch near Pouch Cove. For com­pre­hen­sive cov­er­age of this emo­tional and well-planned event,

As Joyce Quelch stood atop Hor­rid Gulch near Pouch Cove last week, she couldn’t help but imag­ine the drama that unfolded there some 138 years ago.

Af­ter trav­el­ling from her home­town in Lin­coln, Mas­sachusetts, Joyce was drawn to the spot where her great-grand­fa­ther, Sa­muel Percy Sprack­lin of Cupids, barely es­caped death when the ill-fated schooner Wa­ter Witch foundered on the rocks, some 180 me­tres be­low, dur­ing a blind­ing snow­storm on Nov. 29, 1875.

“I needed to see it. It was amaz­ing,” Joyce stated. “It truly has the right name and it’s hard to imag­ine that peo­ple were in there.”

Joyce had trav­elled to her an­ces­tral home­land to at­tend a cer­e­mony com­mem­o­rat­ing the loss of the Wa­ter Witch and 12 of her 25 crew and pas­sen­gers, pay trib­ute to the lucky sur­vivors and the heroic ef­forts of the peo­ple of Pouch Cove.

The mov­ing cer­e­mony took place at Cupids United Church on a chilly Sun­day, Dec. 8, and in­cluded the un­veil­ing of a new mon­u­ment ded­i­cated to the mem­ory of those who died. It was all done un­der the stew­ard­ship of the Cupids His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

When it was all over, Joyce had a chance to ad­dress the sev­eral dozen peo­ple who took part in the cer­e­mony, in­clud­ing about a dozen other de­scen­dents of those on­board the Wa­ter Witch dur­ing that fate­ful voy­age from St. John’s to the ves­sel’s home­port in Cupids.

Joyce ar­rived in Cupids just as the church bell was tolling, min­utes prior to the start of the cer­e­mony, be­gin­ning a pow­er­ful re­con­nec­tion with rel­a­tives she had never met.

“I now have new-found rel­a­tives in New… found … land,” she noted af­ter­wards, dur­ing a meet-and-greet at the Cupids Legacy Cen­tre.

A heavy price

The Wa­ter Witch dis­as­ter had a shock­ing im­pact on the com­mu­nity of Cupids, and most no­tably the Sprack­lin fam­ily. Of the 12 who died, six were mem­bers of the Sprack­lin fam­ily (see fact box), in­clud­ing Sa­muel Percy Sprack­lin’s wife of four years, El­iz­a­beth A. Sprack­lin (Wells), and his brother, Moses Robert Sprack­lin.

Sa­muel’s brother and fel­low sur­vivor, Wil­liam E. Sprack­lin, also lost his wife, Malvania Cave, in the dis­as­ter.

Seven­teen years later, Sa­muel Percy Sprack­lin mar­ried Louisa Courage of Har­bour Grace, and like many at the time, they are thought to have re­lo­cated to Mas­sachusetts.

Joyce Quelch had of­ten heard her late mother, Lil­lian Adelle Sprack­lin, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 91, talk about the Wa­ter Witch. Lil­lian’s fa­ther was Fred Sprack­lin, who was the son of Wa­ter Witch sur­vivor Sa­muel Percy Sprack­lin.

“From that union, that’s why I’m here,” Joyce ex­plained.

Mean­while, the ship’s cap­tain, 50year-old Sa­muel Sprack­lin, is said to have scaled the cliffs of Hor­rid Gulch with two oth­ers and sum­moned help from res­i­dents of nearby Pouch Cove, with names such as Eli Lang­mead and Al­fred Moores be­ing given spe­cial men­tion for their roles in the res­cue ef­fort.

“No praise can es­cape the mer­its of the Pouch Cove peo­ple in the sav­ing of th­ese peo­ple, and the care and ten­der­ness they re­ceived,” said Norma Bon­nell, who told the story of the Wa­ter Witch sink­ing dur­ing the cer­e­mony.

An out­pour­ing of sup­port

Cupids re­ceived na­tional and in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion in 2010, on the 400th an­niver­sary of the found­ing of what is con­sid­ered the old­est English set­tle­ment in Canada.

Not long af­ter the hype from those cel­e­bra­tions died down, mem­bers of the Cupids His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety de­cided that more should be done to com­mem­o­rate the loss of the Wa­ter Witch.

An ex­hibit is on dis­play at the Cupids Legacy Cen­tre, and an an­nual re­mem­brance cer­e­mony is held in Pouch Cove. How­ever, of the nine vic­tims buried — three oth­ers were in­terred else­where — in the nearby ceme­tery, only three have headstones.

Ac­cord­ing to re­search, the nine vic­tims were buried in a mass grave be­hind the church, and only fam­i­lies with the fi­nan­cial where­withal were able to erect per­ma­nent grave mark­ers.

Mem­bers of the so­ci­ety felt this was an in­jus­tice worth cor­rect­ing, and formed a spe­cial Wa­ter Witch com­mit­tee to over­see the project. Af­ter many months of in­tense re­search, the com­mit­tee launched a fundrais­ing cam­paign re­cently, with hopes of rais­ing $10,000 to pur­chase a proper mon­u­ment for all the vic­tims.

Af­ter just three months, the money was in place, thanks to con­tri­bu­tions from de­scen­dants, busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als in this prov­ince, On­tario and Mas­sachusetts, and on Dec. 8, the im­pres­sive mon­u­ment was un­veiled.

It promi­nently fea­tures the names of all 12 vic­tims, in­clud­ing all four of the fe­males on­board that day.

Thou­sands of mourn­ers

Last week’s cer­e­mony took place in the same church — Cupids United — as the fu­neral ser­vice for nine Wa­ter Witch vic­tims on Dec. 6, 1875. It was said to be ar­guably the most sig­nif­i­cant fu­neral ser­vice in the town’s long his­tory, and was the firstever ser­vice held in the new church, which was barely com­pleted in the fall of 1875.

It’s thought that “thou­sands” of mourn­ers gath­ered for the ser­vice, with the min­is­ter, Rev. Charles Laven­der, preach­ing from atop the front steps of the build­ing.

“This church is for­ever linked to the Wa­ter Witch, since most of the vic­tims were mem­bers of this con­gre­ga­tion,” said Ross Dawe, who chairs the church’s board of di­rec­tors.

For those on hand last week, the sig­nif­i­cance of the event was very emo­tional, with one pre­sen­ter moved to tears, and var­i­ous ac­counts re­veal­ing the scope of the tragedy and its im­pacts on fam­i­lies and their com­mu­ni­ties.

“The dis­as­ter was fol­lowed by horror, shock and con­fu­sion,” said St. John’s res­i­dent Judy Foote, the great­grand­daugh­ter of another Wa­ter Witch sur­vivor, James Henry Wells.

James, just 16 at the time, was the last per­son to be res­cued from the gulch, hav­ing clung to the rocks all night.

Judy Foote be­gan re­search­ing her fam­ily his­tory three decades ago, and de­vel­oped a great in­ter­est in the dis­as­ter.

Amid the tragedy, she said there was an out­pour­ing of kind­ness, with the equiv­a­lent of what she es­ti­mates to be up to $42,000 in to­day’s dol­lars do­nated to a dis­as­ter relief fund for those im­pacted.

She said the dis­as­ter also for­ever linked the com­mu­ni­ties of Cupids and Pouch Cove, and is now woven into the cul­tural her­itage of both towns.

A climb to safety

Dale Rus­sell Fitz­patrick, who chairs the Wa­ter Witch com­mit­tee, said stand­ing in the church, nearly 138 years to the day from the date of the mass fu­neral, gave her cold-shiv­ers.

She made spe­cial men­tion of the tenac­ity, strength and sheer courage shown by the sur­vivors and res­cuers, not­ing there were no he­li­copters or spe­cial­ized res­cue teams avail­able in those days.

She also chal­lenged those who might sug­gest the cap­tain should have stayed with the ship, as is tra­di­tion.

“If he hadn’t scaled those cliffs …,” she said, sug­gest­ing the loss of life may have been greater.

More than a dozen de­scen­dants of those aboard the Wa­ter Witch when it foundered on the rocks near Pouch Cove in late Novem­ber 1875 were on hand for the un­veil­ing of a new mon­u­ment in Cupids on Sun­day, Dec. 8. Pic­tured here are: Front (l-r) — Judy Foote, Gertrude Foote, Joyce Lake, Nel­lie Whe­lan, Ruth Whe­lan-Baker, Betty Whe­lan-Burt, Joyce Quelch, Rev. Ber­nice Sprack­lin, Norma Bon­nell, Bernie Pick­ett (Pouch Cove Her­itage), Sue Gruchy (Pouch Cove Her­itage) and Gail Ever­son (Pouch Cove Her­itage); back — Vern Whe­lan, Frank Wells, Roy Nose­wor­thy (de­scen­dant of Pouch Cove res­cuer), Nel­lie Nose­wor­thy (Pouch Cove) and Cupids Mayor Harold Ak­er­man. Ak­er­man is also pres­i­dent of the Cupids His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

Mem­bers of the Cupids His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety’s Wa­ter Witch Com­mit­tee had the hon­our of un­veil­ing the new mon­u­ment. Tak­ing part in the un­veil­ing were, from left, Harold Ak­er­man, pres­i­dent of the so­ci­ety and mayor of the Town of Cupids; Roy Dawe, mem­ber of the Wa­ter Witch com­mit­tee; Dale Rus­sell Fitz­patrick, chair of the Wa­ter Witch com­mit­tee; Peter Laracy, gen­eral man­ager of the Cupids Legacy Cen­tre and mem­ber of the Wa­ter Witch com­mit­tee; and Rev. Ber­nice Sprack­lin.

There are no known photographs of the Wa­ter Witch. This model, which is on dis­play at the Cupids Legacy Cen­tre, was made by David Arscott.

In ap­pre­ci­a­tion for her ef­forts, mem­bers of the Wa­ter Witch com­mit­tee pres­i­dent com­mit­tee chair Dale Rus­sell Fitz­patrick with a bou­quet of flow­ers. Pic­turd here are, from left, Harold Ak­er­man, Dale Rus­sell Fitz­patrick, Ross Dawe and Peter Laracy.

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