Magdalen Islands Shipwrecks
Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine form a small archipelago shaped rather like a fish hook, as if to snag unwary sailors. The islands sit roughly halfway between Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island on Canada’s east coast. They are part of the province of Quebec.
If you believe in such things, it’s almost as though some malevolent force put the shoals, sandbars, and rocks in a place where they might cause maximum sorrow.
Between 500 and 1,000 ships have come to grief on the shores of the Magdalen Islands. Most of the casualties were in the 18th and 19th centuries.
These were the days before lighthouses and the art of navigation involved a lot of guesswork and instinct. Charts were primitive with many hazards not marked.
In addition, the location was prone to high winds, heavy seas, and, in the winter, ice. Often banks of fog would roll in adding to the misery of ships’ captains.
In 1827, Captain Edward Boxer of the Royal Navy surveyed the navigation difficulties of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. In his report to the Grand Admiral of Maritime Britain he wrote:
“I have found a great need for lighthouses in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. On this sea, navigation is so dangerous because of strong and irregular currents, and there is not a single lighthouse in all the Gulf. It is truly lamentable to find so many shipwrecks at different places on the coast ... the number of lost lives is very large and certainly incalculable ...”
The Wreck of The Miracle
Mary Crumley, aged 40, and her two children, Rebecca, 9, and Thomas, 6, were aboard the ship The Miracle. Hardly ever was a vessel more inappropriately named. Survivors of the Irish potato famine, the Crumleys boarded the ship at Liverpool in March 1847 and set sail for Quebec and a new life. In mid-Atlantic, typhoid broke out among the passengers and 20 died, but there was worse to come for the 400 emigrants aboard.
On the night of May 9th, they ran into a fierce storm.
A report in The Armagh Guardian of July 1847) noted that the “… unfortunate vessel was driven ashore on a reef of rocks off the Magdalen Islands, in a few hours, she became a complete wreck.”
Heroic efforts got many of the passengers and crew ashore on the islands but nearly 70 drowned.
Saved by the Islanders
The captain of The Miracle was H.H. Elliot. He noted that 20 years after Captain Boxer’s report there were still no lighthouses on the Magdalen Islands, and he expressed his belief that such danger signals would have saved his vessel.
In his report of the wreck Capt. Elliot heaped kudos on the people living on the island. He wrote that “… with 446 souls on board, and through the exertions of Mr. James Clark and his sons succeeded in saving nearly the whole of them and they deserve great praise for their exertions, both in supplying them with provisions and shelter.”
Some of the passengers were still suffering from typhoid, so the Clarks and other islanders gave them shelter in barns, outbuildings, and even homes.
James Clark’s wife, Mary Goodwin, contracted the infection and died.
Population by Accident
It is not recorded whether or not the Crumley family was among those saved. Perhaps, Mary Crumley and her children came ashore, and perhaps, they stayed on the Magdalen Islands. That’s how many of the island’s residents settled there.
BBC Travel notes that “Only the most resilient survived, ultimately forfeiting their intended journeys and building a new life along the islands’ tempestuous shores.”
Today, the population of the Magdalen Islands is 12,800 and most of the people can trace their origin to storm-tossed arrivals. The majority of the population is French-speaking with 550 Anglophones.
The remnants of all those shipwrecks can still be seen on the islands. Many of the homes have been built with wood salvaged from the vessels that foundered there.
The CGS Simcoe was a lighthouse supply ship in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. On the night of December 7, 1917, her captain, W. J. Dalton, sent out an SOS that she was sinking a few miles southwest of the Magdalen Islands: “… lifeboats in water, sea is rough …” The Simcoe went down and all of her crew of 44 drowned. The wreck has never been found and what happened to the ship is unknown.
On August 13, 1955, the cargo vessel SS Loradore was sailing from Sydney, Nova Scotia bound for Montreal. In the late afternoon she encountered fog that became denser. At 1740 hours she slammed into Bird Rock, 32 km north of the Magdalen Islands. The crew of 32 got off the wreck safely and her master, Captain George Berry, was found guilty of poor seamanship by a board of inquiry. Today, the wreck is popular with divers.
The SS Corfu Island had once belonged to the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onasis. In December 1963, she was on a passage from Germany to Canada when she experienced engine failure and ran aground on a Magdalen Islands beach. The bones of her hull can still be seen where she came to grief. Among the Corfu Island’s cargo was a shipment of green paint and this accounts, it is said, for why many of the island’s houses were painted green for a while.
Leonard Clark is the great, great grandson of James Clark and Mary Goodwin who gave succor to so many of The Miracle’s passengers and crew. In 1969, he led a campaign to erect a cross at the place where it was thought the victims of the wreck were buried. Unfortunately, the following winter the more than 20-foot high cross blew down in a gale. Its brass plaque was recovered and sent to a museum.
Magdalen Island coastguard Charles Cormier told The BBC that many ship’s captains “… didn’t even know that an island was there. Once, 48 ships sank during a single storm.”
Before the 20th century, the Magdalen Islands were completely cut off during the winter by pack ice. An underwater cable was eventually installed to allow for communication with the mainland but it snapped in a storm in 1910. Madelinots wrote urgent messages of help and sealed them in a molasses barrel called a puncheon. They pushed the puncheon out to sea and it floated ashore on Cape Breton Island. The authorities were alerted and an icebreaker was sent to help.
- “Wreck of the Miracle and others in Storms.” Irish Emigration Database, undated.
- “Boxer, Edward.” W.A.B. Douglas, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 1985.
- “Magdalen: The Island of Shipwreck Survivors.” Amusing Planet, June 1, 2017.
- “Portrait of a Madelinot Driven by a Passion for Travels, Adventure and the Sea.” Tourisme Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, undated.
- “Board of Trade Wreck Report for ‘Loradore,’ 1955.”
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Rupert Taylor