NOVA SCOTIA SHIPWRECKS – 1875-1914 (November 28/97)

Nova Scotia never claimed, like Britannia, that it ruled the waves, but this province can boast of once being a commercial sea-going power.

At one time Nova Scotia vessels sailed to ports world-wide. This was in the days of sailing ships and the major role played by Bluenose vessels has been chronicled in numerous books and documents. What perhaps hasn’t been adequately recorded is the hazardous life Nova Scotia’s mariners faced on the oceans of the world. Many of the sailing ships out of Nova Scotia ports had tragic ends. In the hundred or more years that Nova Scotia was a major shipping power, many vessels foundered and were lost; exactly how many went down at sea or were disabled on foreign shores will never be known.

Some records of Nova Scotia shipwrecks are available, however. Falmouth writer John V. Duncanson has compiled a detailed account of more than 250 Bluenose vessels that were shipwrecked or disabled in United States coastal waters between 1875 and 1914. Released this month by the West Hants Historical Society, the book will be a welcome addition to Nova Scotia sea lore and a handy reference that will be well thumbed by marine history buffs.

To compile this account of Nova Scotia vessels Duncanson accessed the records of the United States Life Saving Service which was established in 1871. Mr. Duncanson spent several of his winters in recent years pouring over the annual reports of the Service. This in itself was a chore since the reports were housed in several States, Florida, Alabama and Illinois, for example, and had to be tracked down.

Thankfully, the records kept by the US Life Saving Service were detailed. As a result, Duncanson was able to include in his account the names of vessels, home ports, voyage destinations, the names of captains, crew and passenger numbers. The account also includes the cargoes carried by the vessels, estimates of damage and the total number of persons lost or saved.

Readers will undoubtedly find the second part of Mr. Duncanson’s book the most interesting section. The chapter on statistical information is bare bones and dry. The second part is a mini-history of each vessel Duncanson listed in the statistical section. The narratives are matter of fact but they reveal the horrors and hardships that often befell Nova Scotia seamen in the old days.

Typical examples are the fates of two vessels out of local ports. The barquentine Albertina from Windsor, sailing from New York in 1904, went down off the coast of Massachusetts and the crew of 10 were lost. The schooner Bill Baxter out of Canning, disabled off of Rhode Island in 1875, went down with a loss of $7,360., a small fortune in those days. The crew of six were saved.

There are similar accounts of vessels built in small shipyards along the Bay of Fundy and the Minas Basin and its tributaries. Vessels with names that leave no doubt about their place of origin; schooners such as the Pereau, Sam Slick, Avon and Harold Borden, for example. While it was incidental, Mr. Duncanson’s inclusion of a shipmaster (Captain) index will undoubtedly be on help to anyone researching their mariner ancestors.

Duncanson’s book, which hopefully is the first of a series of two or three similar undertakings, is available from the West Hants Historical Society, PO Box 2335, Windsor, NS B0N 2T0. E-mail address: whhs@ednet.ns.ca

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