THE MYSTERIOUS LOSS OF THE SS LION
Atlantic Advocate February 1960
By Michael Francis Harrington
On Old Christmas Day, January 6, 1882, the children of the light keeper of Baccalieu Island, which lies just off Grates Point between Conception and Trinity Bays, were having a little picnic on the beach. They were taking advantage of an exceptionally fine winter morning that had followed a cold, clear night. One of the children happened to ramble as far as Plymouth Cove and was frightened on seeing a woman’s body floating among some wreckage in the water.
The body was intact. A scarf, clasped with a brooch-pin over the dead woman’s breast, had not been disturbed. The right hand clutched a small parcel in death’s tenacious grip. When the children ran home with the news, word of their grisly find was immediately sent by a ferryman across Baccalieu Tickle to the mainland at Red Head Cove. From there an express courier took the message up the shore to Old Perlican and thence to Hant's Harbour in Trinity Bay, the location of the nearest telegraph station.
It was Sunday morning, January 8, before the first telegraph message reached St. John’s. It was sent by Eben March of Old Perlican to Walter Grieve and Company, a shipping, fishing and commercial firm in the capital, which sent vessels to the cod fishery and seal hunt each year. The message asked: “Is the Lion missing? Part of two boats with name on one picked up near Baccalieu Friday; also lumber and eight or ten kerosene casks, and the body of a woman found floating. The body is now at Red Head Cove; suppose her to be Mrs. John Cross of Trinity. What is to be done with the body?” A second telegram stated that more wreckage had been found including deck-ladders, hatch-covers and a box of clothes with a letter in it addressed “per S.S.Lion.”
The Lion was a Newfoundland sealing steamer of about three hundred tons. She had sailed from St. John’s for Trinity just before midnight on Thursday, January 5, 1882. The ship was commanded by Captain Patrick Fowlow of Trinity. She carried a skeleton crew and a small list of passengers: Rev. Mr. Foster and his bride, who were taking up residence in Trinity; Charles Power, a well-known and prosperous “planter” or merchant of that town; three Doherty boys, John, Edward and Patrick, all brothers; Mr. and Mrs. Snelgrove of Catalina; Mrs. James and her son John; James Grant; Helen Coleman; a girl named Maybee, and one or two others. Most of them belonged to Trinity, Catalina or other harbours in the Bonavista area. The list also had the name of Mrs. John Cross, wife of Grieve’s agent at Trinity. It was her body that floated into Plymouth Cove, Baccalieu Island on the Twelfth Day, the only body, in fact, the only person living or dead ever found.
All Newfoundland was perturbed over the event. The Evening Mercury summed up the general feeling of alarm and puzzlement when it said, “There is something peculiarly startling in this disaster. A splendid and powerful steamer, that had battled with icebergs for years, and cloven her way through the thickest ice fields, sails in a calm, clear night on a short coasting voyage, without a thought of danger on the part of anyone, and eight hours after leaving port, she meets her awful doom, and the pitiless sea swallows all on board. Her captain was an able seaman and familiar from youth with that very portion of the coast where the disaster occurred. Whether an unusual current deflected her from her course, or over-confidence led to a dangerous hugging of the coast, may never be known…”
Then the Mercury asked three pointed questions: Where was the steamer lost? How and by what agency was she lost? How did it happen that every soul on board sank and made no sign? The popular theory, which had quickly circulated, suggested that good fellowship had ended in bad seamanship which, aggravated by poor weather conditions, resulted in the steamer striking on Grates Point or some other promontory at full speed. Badly holed, she filled rapidly, her boilers burst on contact with the icy water, and she plunged to the bottom.
But said the Mercury “…the total absence of even a solitary splinter of wood from the solid hull…demolishes the theory of the boiler explosion, or, in fact, of any explosion through the agency of any other destructive force.” And that’s all the Mercury said. The paper left it to the imagination to decide how the Lion was lost and never answered or tried to answer its own questions.
But this theory must be considered in relation to all the circumstances surrounding the last voyage of the Lion, January 5, 1882 was a clear, frosty day, good, seasonable weather, not likely to change suddenly. The crew and passengers of the Lion went aboard not long after dark and the ship sailed a few minutes before midnight under a cold sky, brilliant with stars and a three-quarter moon. Trinity, her destination, was not more than six to seven hours away. The weather held fine and clear all night and well into the next day. Yet the three-hundred-ton ship and nearly two score people vanished some time in the early hours of the morning in a strait less than two miles wide, with people living on either side of it, and vanished almost without a trace.
If there was a boiler explosion it would most likely have been followed by a fire. The same would apply if the ship’s powder magazine exploded. Another Newfoundland sealing ship, the Viking, blew up in the latter fashion off the Horse Islands in 1931. Thirty men perished out of nearly one hundred and fifty. But the explosion was heard, and the subsequent fire seen, for miles. But in the case of the Lion there was little evidence of an explosion of any kind that would ordinarily shatter a wooden ship. Except for the damage the boats that could have been caused by a falling yard or the funnel as the steamer foundered, the wreckage found was merely flotsam. The noise, flame or smoke from an explosion would surely have been heard or seen by someone in the vicinity, but apparently no one did…except in a dream!
One other theory has been advanced, to which the author subscribes, for it sounds plausible and is not unlikely. It is known that the Lion was going to Trinity to make preparations there for sailing to the ice fields to the seal hunt early in March. It was a normal and routine procedure for St. John’s firms to send steamers to the seal hunt from ports on the northeast coast to save the sealers the drudgery and hardship of having to walk to St. John’s in order to “sign on”. If the Lion was scheduled to sail “to the ice” from Trinity then she must have had most of her stores and equipment on board when she left St. John’s; and all her coal, too. Food enough for a crew of nearly one hundred and fifty men, and coal enough to keep a ship in the ice fields for six or eight weeks added up to a big load.
The ship had a deck-load, that is obvious. Her bunkers would be filled with coal with an extra few tons in makeshift pounds. There is evidence that the ship was overloaded and perhaps carelessly loaded as well. At any rate if the pound boards were suddenly to collapse and the coal shift, on deck or below, the ship would be thrown dangerously out of trim in a few seconds, and before anyone could move a muscle, she would roll over and sink. This theory would also help to explain the absence of survivors, particularly as it is known that before leaving St. John’s, Mrs. Cross, for reasons of her own, had elected to bundle up in warm clothes and go to sleep on the deck, probably near the funnel. Such a theory if accepted would remove the charges of neglect or carelessness in navigation, discard the puzzle of a ship commanded by a captain who knew the waters like the palm of his hand piling ashore on a bright, clear night, eliminate the possibility of an explosion of any kind, and lead to the conclusion that the mishap was an undeniable Act of God.
There is much tradition and legend, as well as dubious fact, surrounding the mysterious loss of the Lion. Perhaps one of the most unusual stories had to do with a dream experienced by a woman, a cousin of the captain, at almost the exact moment the wreck is thought to have occurred. A short time after the tragedy a gentleman of St. John’s received by the coastal steamer Plover a letter from a resident of Catalina. It was so striking he showed it to the editors of the local papers and gave them permission to copy and publish an astonishing excerpt: “This is a sad affair,” the letter said, “that of the boiler explosion on the Lion. On Old Christmas morning, about half-hour before daylight my wife woke me in a fit of crying, telling me she was dreaming that she saw the Lion steaming along very slowly in Baccalieu Tickle. She was as she thought looking at her for some time going along very slowly. All of a sudden she saw her blow up and sink immediately. She fancied she heard a noise like a cannon in her head. She also saw at the moment of the explosion, her cousin, [Capt.] Patrick Fowlow, knocked off the bridge with his head gone from his body. That was the only man’s name she mentioned. ‘O my! O, my!’ she said. “Poor fellow, my poor cousin, what a sudden death you are come to!’
The papers that published this excerpt from the remarkable letter were assured that the writer was a most respectable and intelligent man, whose truthfulness could not be doubted. He had no possible motive for misrepresentation and the incident as described could not be a hoax. In any event it is the only “eye-witness” account of the mysterious loss of the steamer Lion, albeit it was the “mind’s eye” that allegedly saw the ship come to her dramatic end on the morning of Twelfth Day, 1882.
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