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1899 Voyage and Sinking of the Labrador

Taken from The Last Voyage and Wreck of the SS Labrador by Mrs. J.W. Smith, 1900

Mrs. Annie Park Smith, of Hamilton, Ontario, was to sail on the SS Labrador, of the Dominion Line, on February 18, 1899 from St. John, New Brunswick. The sailing, however, was delayed and left St. John Sunday, February 19. This is her account of the voyage.

...early in the forenoon. It was wet and foggy, so I had to remain below. While passing through the Bay of Fundy I was too seasick to be out of bed, therefore I am unable to describe it.

We reached Halifax about one o'clock Monday Feb. 20th, where we had to take on board passengers to complete our load for our homeward journey. I was all right again and up on deck. Here most of the passengers got on, and amongst them was Miss Maggie Arthur and her two brothers from Port Arthur, Ontario, who were going to pay a visit to friends in old Ireland. After watching the people loading up, and the bustle and hurry on the wharf for a while I went below into the sitting-room...

Tuesday Morning, February 21st.
There were large crowds on the wharf at Halifax to see us off on our homeward journey.

It was a beautiful fine morning. The flags were flying in the breezes, and the whole city was in holiday attire. All on board were in the best of spirits. I do not think that there ever was a ship left port under more favorable circumstances, for it was a splendid morning; sun shining, flags flying, people singing, guns booming, and the dear old ship was like a live beautiful bird skimming over the water...

Wednesday, February 22nd.
The boat was going along nicely all day, but most of the passengers were seasick...

Thursday, February 23rd.
This morning the sea was very rough; the wind had changed during the night; we could not go on deck, although we were getting over our sickness all right. Brought together in the cabin, the passengers got to know each other better...

Friday, February 24th.
It was still too rough to be on deck, so we had our little meetings and conversation down in the sitting-room.

Saturday, February 25th.
Saturday morning was beautiful and fine. Everyone was on deck. Our dear old ship was just humming along like a great beautiful bird toward old England, and everybody was happy and in the best of spirits. Over in the distance we saw a steamer going toward Canada....

Sunday, February 26th.
We ran into a fog and had to stop; then we went very slowly. We could have no church service, as there was no minister, so we did the best we could amongst ourselves by reading, singing and talking to one another. We were all very happy, although we could not go on deck, but enjoyed ourselves in every way, not one of us having any thought of danger ahead.

Monday, February 27th.
The fog cleared up a little, but is was still very hazy and misty. We were all very cheerful and happy and talked about seeing land on Tuesday. Nothing out of the ordinary took place. We still had our Bible reading and singing.

Tuesday, February 28th.
Tuesday was very foggy; the ship was going very slowly; we could not see very far ahead; we were expecting to see land at night, so we went along slowly all day. At night Miss Arthur and I were walking on deck, making arrangements for me to call her in the morning, as she was going to get off at Moville, Ireland. Just then the captain came along the deck, and I said: "Oh, captain, would it not be sad if anything was to happen us now that we are so near home, and after we have had such a pleasant voyage, and all have been so happy." He placed his hand on my shoulder (I can seem to feel it now): "Mrs. Smith," said he, "I have been across the Atlantic a good many times and have had nothing the matter; have no fear, we will get home in good time." Soon after the man in the crow's nest sang out: "I see a light!" The captain said: "Is it a fixed light?" "Yes, sir; all right." Soon after we went to bed for the last time on the dear old Labrador, where we had so many happy hours.

Wednesday, March 1st.
About six o'clock I arose and called Miss Arthur, and when we were dressed and had asked God to take care of us, I said: "Let us go up on deck and see if we can see anything of Moville or Ireland, and if the fog is cleared away." So up we went, and there a little distance off was a lighthouse. We stood looking at it and wondering if it was on the way to Moville. We thought we were near the Irish coast. A dense fog rolled over the waters, but no one seemed to have a thought of danger. We were so near home, (ah, me; so near home and loved ones) and every thought was of our meeting them so soon. Suddenly the man in the crow's nest sang out: "Breakers ahead!" and directly our good ship Labrador crushed upon MacKenzie Rock. It was as if the ship was a living creature, for she groaned aloud. The shock sent us reeling for a moment, then there was silence like death. The good ship seemed to be trying to steady herself. Someone cried out that the ship had struck a rock and was settling down. Never, never, as long as I live shall I forget the scenes that followed. I looked over the side and there was a great hole broken into the side of our poor ship and the cargo coming out all over the water. The captain, officers and crew were all energetic. The discipline and self-control was everything to be desired. The captain said there would be plenty of time to lower the boats, and with care, attention and obedience to orders, no one need be lost. The women and children were placed in order so that they could be put into the first boat. Women can, when put to the test, face danger as well as men, and sometimes better. Many of those present were delicately nurtured women, yet they faced death without one word of complaint from first to last. I never heard one cry (except from myself). When all was ready the captain said: "Women and children." Then to see the parting of husbands from wives, mothers from children, brothers from sisters, never expecting to see each other again. It was enough to unnerve the stoutest heart. There was no hurry or confusion in any way. Miss Arthur was the first to be swung over the side of the ship to the life-boat below. They took me next. I think I was the only one that spoke, or raised any objection to being put over the side. I knew it was death to stop where I was, but it looked far worse to go down on the end of a rope into that little boat that was nearly out of sight. I said: "Oh, don't put me down there!" The captain said: "Come on, there is no time for fooling," and over I was put. In going down my dress caught on the side of the ship and they had to haul me back a little way, then let go so as to tear the dress from where it was caught. When all the women and children were in they put down some blankets, a bag of bread and a compass, and the fourth officer took his place at the helm. He ordered every one to keep perfectly still and not to move. So we were cast off on the wild, wide raging sea.

In a little while we had lost sight of the other boats, the lighthouse, and our dear old ship. The sailors tried to row; they worked until the sweat poured off them in streams, laboring very earnestly, but the sea was so rough and running so high that it was no use. After trying for a long while the officer said, "It is no use, boys, we will have to trust to God's mercy now." There was no crying, no screaming. Everyone was trying to get ready to meet their God. Oh, I was glad that I was ready to live or die, but I was praying that if it was God's will He would spare me a little longer for my dear husband's sake. Just then a very comforting thought came to me. It was that there were so many praying for me I could not be drowned nor lost. I could not think that all these prayers were in vain; no, never, never–and so it proved. We were in this boat for nearly five hours. It was very cold. Miss Arthur and myself were the only ones dressed, all the others being taken out of their beds just as they were. Sometimes the water would come over us in great waves, striking us as if with a large strap. The water was in the boat up to our knees and we had nothing to bale it out with. One poor woman was crouched at my feet the whole time with her face in her hands.

No person spoke. Just then one of the boats that had been over to the lighthouse with some of the passengers came across us. Mr. Muir and Miss Arthur's two brother's were with them searching for their loved ones. They took Mrs. Muir and Miss Arthur into their boat and that gave us a little more room. In a very little while we lost sight of them again.

Then one of the dear sailor boys took off his shirt and fixed it up on the end of an oar and hold it up in the boat. Oh, to see us women huddled up in that boat, the water up to our knees, and then remember it was a bitter cold March morning, and we were drifting off the coast of Scotland. It was a terrible experience. Some of the delicately reared ladies in our boat were covered only with a skirt or night-dress, or perhaps a blanket. It was the saddest sight or experience I ever had, and I hope, please God, I will never have such another. There was no word, no cry; only shivering and quaking and waiting for death.

After about five hours of this tossing about and expecting death every moment to overtake us, one of the sailors saw smoke in the distance. Oh, we did pray and hope that they would see us. At last the officer said: "Cheer up, they have sighted us, and are coming for us." Then we all began to cry for joy.

It proved to be a coal boat, the Viking, which was looking for us. It was far more dangerous to be taken into her than it was to get off from the Labrador, as the sea was so rough and running so high, and the waves were washing right over her deck. They could only grasp us one by one, as the boat was brought up along side for a moment. But at last, with the blessing of God, we were all safe on board. There, with great joy, we saw all the rest of those from the good old Labrador, excepting a few that got safely to the lighthouse. We poor women were the first to be saved from the ship and the last to be saved from the sea. Then the captain turned his boat toward the shore, about thirty miles away and reached opposite Tobermory about nine o'clock at night. We had had nothing to eat or drink since the night before, and we were nearly exhausted. The boat could not go up the river into the bay, as the water was too shallow, so she kept firing rockets and blowing her whistle to call attention.

At last two boats came out to see what was the matter, and our captain of the Labrador went ashore to tell the people what had occurred and to make arrangements with the hotels for our accommodation. Then the little boats came to take us ashore and all the town came out to give us a welcome, and such a welcome we received as can only come from a good Scotch heart. God bless them, every one. Mr. And Mrs. Stuart, of the Western isles Hotel, deserve our special thanks, for they did everything in their power to comfort and cheer us when we got there. There was a fire in every room and a good hot supper, but our hearts were too full of joy over our escape to eat much. We were just like drowned rats, but after a while we got quieted down and obtained the loan of some night-dresses, and went to bed, the people stopping up all night drying our clothes. Miss Arthur and I wee give a room together, and the first thing we did when we went to our room was to kneel down and thank God for sparing us from a watery grave.

Mrs. Smith was to return to Canada on the steamship Dominion and, to her surprise, she was greeted by many of the same crew members who had sailed on the Labrador with her.

There were seven persons on the ship that were on the Labrador, but I was the only woman that any of them had seen since the wreck and they did all they could for my comfort, but I could not get over my nervousness. Every time the ship would roll or rock the least bit I would think we were going down, and if I heard the engine thump or anything fall down, I would nearly jump out of my boots. I never went to bed after the wreck but before I could get to sleep I would go through the wreck again. I would hear the man cry out, "Breakers ahead!" and feel the thump of the boat striking MacKenzie Rock. This feeling did not leave me until I got back home.

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© Marjorie P. Kohli, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 1997-2007
Last updated: February 17, 2007 and maintained by Marj Kohli