A SHIPWRECK ON THE CORNWALLIS RIVER (January 30/07)

Several years ago I noted in this column that many shipwrecks on our coast have gone unrecorded, and except perhaps for lore passed down in families, their stories have never been told.

Since Historian Dan Conlin of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic says there have been at least 10,000 shipwrecks on our coast and possibly as many as 25,000 in the last 400 centuries, my comment seems reasonable. These numbers are estimates, Conlin says, which to me indicates there are thousands of shipwrecks that never have been recorded.

Among those shipwrecks must be included The Whisper, a little two-masted schooner out of Kings County. The Whisper has the distinction of being a shipwreck in an area where such events rarely occur – upstream on the Cornwallis River. I first heard about The Whisper several years ago when I wrote a story about a shipwreck discovered in Wolfville harbor. When The Advertiser published the story, several people called to tell me about a schooner that was destroyed on the Cornwallis River during a storm. The details were vague. No one could give me a date or the name of the ship, or what caused the shipwreck. Eventually, I was contacted by a former resident of Port Williams who passed along some local lore about the schooner.

Harold Gates, who now lives in Canning, was just out of school when he started to work for George Chase in Port Williams. For a five-year period in the 1930s Gates worked during the fall as a timekeeper-checker when Chase was exporting apples. During that period, Gates occasionally would see the remains of a ship protruding from the south bank of the Cornwallis River.

“We used to see the hull of this old wooden ship come up once in a while and we’d laugh about it,” Gates said. “The old Whisper beginning to showing her tail, we’d say. It was down near the first bend in the river, about 150 yards below the wharf.

“The story we always heard was that she was tied up at the wharf and they had the sails up to dry them out. The Captain and his helper were eating dinner and this storm came up and broke the ship from its moorings. The wind blew her to the far shore and she toppled on a sandbank.”

The damage to The Whisper was so severe they never repaired her, Gates said. “They just left here where she was, stuck in the muddy bank of the river.”

Eventually, the erosive tides of the nearby Minas Basin buried The Whisper. The tides uncovered her and then covered her over and over again until only remnants of the ship were left; eventually, even this disappeared. However, those remnants kept the story of The Whisper alive. Today that story still exists in county folklore – and only in folklore, which I discovered when I tried to unearth some facts about The Whisper.

There are few cold, hard facts to be found, in other words. I’ve determined that the ship was owned by Williard Coffill of the Delhaven/Pereau area who had The Whisper built, that at the time she was wrecked she was in service carrying freight to and from ports on the Bay of Fundy and Minas Basin. In an interview with Myrtle Coffill, Williard’s daughter-in-law, I was told that possibly The Whisper was wrecked about a century ago. Myrtle, who is 97 and is clear-headed and mentally alert, added that the shipwreck occurred when her husband was six years old, hence the estimate that it was in 1907.

As shipwrecks go, the destruction of The Whisper on the Cornwallis River in the last century wasn’t that spectacular an event. However, it’s part of the sailing ship lore of Kings County, and in particular of Port Williams. I hope to unearth more details about the shipwreck and if readers have anything to contribute, please contact me.

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