Lost on the Cape ledges February 1860

Under command of Captain Jones she was bound for Portland from Liverpool and Queenstown with a valuable cargo of dry goods, 45 cabins and 80 steerage passengers, and a crew of 80. All 205 on board perished. From the time the steamer left Queenstown on February 9, nothing certain is known of her passage until eleven days later, when she ended her life on Cape Sable. Though this southernmost point of Nova Scotia lay directly in the main shipping lanes and had, from the first trans-Atlantic voyages, been dreaded because of its strong currents, frequent fogs and treacherous shoals, yet at that time it was without a lighthouse, or a warning signal of any kind.

With daylight those on board must have seen the utter hopelessness of their situation, for no boat -from ship or shore- could have lived for a moment in the terrible sea, increased in fury by the flood tide running against it. As the tide rose the seas mounted in size. Combers broke high on the Cape Ledge, rushed towards the ship in a wall of foam and struck with a shock that caused her to roll heavily.

Waves were soon pouring in cataracts over the fast-settling hull. After a series of these waves had submerged the hull, the mainmast fell with its human burden, and bitter cries went up from the watchers on shore. The smokestack began to fall forward and soon sank. The mizzenmast was the last to fall; it stood for an hour, swaying side to side with every sea, which indicated that the hull, though submerged, had not yet broken up. After the mizzenmast went, the only thing marking the spot was the lading, probably of the upper deck, which covered a wide space on the water, and looked like a huge raft of new boards. When the tide turned ebb, all this wreckage went out to sea.

Meanwhile, the wreck of an unknown steamer had been sighted from Cape Island. Knots of men gathered in agonised helplessness along the beaches. The Kenney’s of Clarke’s Harbor wanted to man the lifeboats and put out, but others persuaded them of the complete uselessness and certain doom of such an attempt. There was no knowing what ship had struck; no article from her had yet been washed ashore, and there seemed little prospect of learning anything that day. Later in the afternoon, however, the wind calmed and the sea subsided wonderfully. Several small boats —the only ones available put out towards the wreck, but night was approaching and February weather is treacherous; most of them soon turned back. Those who kept on could see nothing of the ship except a small portion of her bow above the water. But a short distance away they came upon the first ghastly find- the body of a man floating in a life preserver. The face had already been torn and mangled frightfully by gulls. The only living thing to reach shore was a small dog which crawled out upon the South Side beach to die, several miles from the wreck.

The following day was exceedingly mild and craft of every description rushed to the scene of the wreck. Through the clear water a full view could be had of the ruins of what was lately a splendid ship “One of the ghastliest spectacles of shipwreck and disaster that eye ever gazed upon.” to quote an eye witness. Twisted plates, broken beams, and crushed machinery lay in promiscuous heaps (reaching nearly to the surface at low tide), all wound and woven around with clothes broken loosed from their packages; and, among it all, sometimes held down by huge pieces of iron, sometimes tangled among the cloth, could be seen the corpses of the victims, often with only a hand protruding from the wreckage and swaying backward and forward with the tide. All bodies that could be recovered with the help of divers were extracted from the ruins and buried in the old churchyard at Clarke’s Harbor. Considering that 205 people perished, comparatively few bodies were found; a great many must have been swept out into deep water by the strong tides.

Touching incidents concerning the wreck of the Hungarian have become local folklore. On the beach the body of a middle-aged man (from his dress a steerage passenger) was being examined by the coroner for marks of identification. In the pocket of the coarse woollen coat, and carefully wrapped in a handkerchief, was a religious tract, such as were usually distributed among sailors and immigrants before they left ports. The dead man had doubtless been reading this little book on the day preceding the wreck, which had been Sunday. It began by reminding the reader of the uncertainty of life and that, although at the moment he might fancy himself secure, before another day should pass he might be “cast a lifeless corpse on some foreign strand with none but strangers to perform for him the last sad rites.”

The most widely remembered tale concerns a young lady who was returning to her home in the States from a European trip taken to restore her health. Before starting home she had written friends, “There are roses in my cheeks once more.” Her diary was found afloat. The last entry was, “The ship has struck, we shall be lost. Lizzie dies tonight.”

The Wreckwood Chair by Evelyn Richardson

May be purchased at the Cape Sable Historical Society

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