TRAGEDY AT KINGSPORT IN 1909 (February 27/07)

In the era of the sailing ship they were sometimes called “August gales,” a deadly combination of high tides and high winds that often wrought widespread destruction. This mix of high tides and high winds cause “storm surges,” a rapid rising of tide waters well above normal levels. One of the most notable storms of this nature was the Saxby Gale in October of 1869. Notable because it was predicted, the Saxby Gale cut a wide, destructive swath through the Atlantic provinces and is still talked about today.

Sometime late in 1909 one of those notorious gales struck the Minas Basin. Myrtle Coffill, who is 97 and resides in Wolfville, says that according to family memories, the gale came in August and was accompanied by “a very high tide.” The gale brought tragedy for the Coffill family, destroying a ship Myrtle’s father-in-law Williard Coffill had tied up at Kingsport wharf and killing Williard’s brother, William.

The ship was the Hornet, which according to Myrtle Coffill was built by Williard Coffill in Mill Creek, a tiny harbor along the shore near Blomidon. Myrtle Coffill tells me Williard lived in Mill Creek and may have had a couple of partners when building the Hornet, one of them possibly a Kings County farmer named Starr Eaton.

I found the Hornet in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic shipwrecks database where only a few details on the ship are given. The Hornet is listed as a schooner with tonnage of 26. I take it from the database that the shipwreck of the Hornet occurred early in 1909, but this conflicts with what is remembered by Myrtle Coffill and her son, Robert of Delhaven. “I’m pretty sure it was August when the Hornet was wrecked,” Robert Coffill says.

The database states that the Hornet was a “total loss,” and that the cause of the shipwreck was “unknown.” Robert Coffill confirms that the Hornet indeed was completely destroyed. “My father said you could pick pieces of the ship up in your arms the morning after the storm,” Robert Coffill said. As for the cause of the shipwreck being unknown, Myrtle and Robert concur that a combination of gale winds and high tides destroyed the Hornet.

William Coffill lost his life during the storm when he and Williard attempted to get the Hornet to safety after the gale hit. The Hornet was tied up at the Kingsport pier when the gale swept across the Minas Basin. Robert Coffill told me that Williard and William were “trying to fend the ship off the wharf “ where she was being pounded by the winds. “They were trying to get something between her and the wharf. He (William) went down between the ship and the wharf and was killed.”

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