The 1929 Tsunami: Through Dinah's Eyes

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 07, 2011 5:00 PM
Dinah Ford

By Ella Hillier
Bath, Ontario

This is a retelling of my great-aunt Dinah Ford's personal account of the 1929 Tsunami that struck the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland.

She was born Dinah Bonnell on November 3, 1912, in the small outport of Taylor's Bay on the Burin Peninsula. In 1929, the community had 17 houses. Fishing stages and a community wharf lined the rocky beach. There was a one-room school and a small chapel. The area was connected to the outside world by coastal ferries and the rare wireless radios on a few of the vessels that arrived regularly. A single strand of telegraph wire ran north over the boggy barrens to St. John's. Some communities were getting a local phone, but there was no long-distance service. Taylor's Bay was an isolated community.

Dinah was the youngest daughter of 10 children born to Cyrus and Mary Ellen (nee Hodge) Bonnell. In 1929, Dinah was a teenager just shy of 17 years and was sharing the house with her parents, her younger brother John, and her older brother Bertram and his family. Bertram and his wife Elizabeth had eight-year-old Bessie and two little boys - John, 3, and Clayton, 7 months. Dinah often spent her summers in Lamaline where her sisters Martha and Gertie lived. They appreciated Dinah's help in managing their busy households. These summers gave Dinah the opportunity to visit a larger outport, where a greater diversity of families and the accompanying social outlets appealed to the teenage girl.

November 18 had been a sunny day with a crisp autumn chill in the sea air. Dinah had just returned from a pleasant day in Lamaline, visiting her sister and dawdling away some time in the local shop. The exciting news in Taylor's Bay was that Dinah's uncle had just had a telephone installed in the post office (which was in his home). To Dinah's great astonishment, a cousin arrived from across the road to tell her to run for the phone. It was around 5 p.m. and the November darkness had settled in. As Dinah approached the phone for the first time and heard her cousin Fred's voice across the wires, the first tremor hit. Dishes rattled, the walls trembled and the floor of the house/post office shook.

Dinah never got to hear any of Fred's conversation, as her uncle took charge and rallied all the children to his side. Panicked conjecture began, with everyone talking at once. Someone suggested perhaps it was an airplane. Dinah, as well as most of the residents, had never seen an airplane and all this discussion did was raise anxiety. Some said it was the end of the world! A second tremor struck at 5:35 p.m. By then all residents, even the animals, sensed something major was wrong.

"Run! Run for your lives!"
Dinah stayed with her cousins while the men rallied around indoors and outdoors, looking out to sea, checking boats and speculating on the cause of the tremors. Suddenly there was a terrible roaring noise and a huge white foamy wall almost a quarter-mile wide came bearing down on the community. Dinah's uncle charged in yelling, "Run! Run for your lives!"

Sheep, cows and horses joined the women, men and children climbing and leaping fences, seeking sanctuary on higher ground.

Meanwhile, at Dinah's house, her mother, Mary Ellen, was in distress. Being rather crippled with arthritis, she urged her 15-year-old son, John, to go on without her, leaving her to her own fate. A battery of huge waves swept her away like a ragdoll, her body entwined among drifting wharf supports. Incredibly, as the waves receded, she was able to cling to the wooden wharf supports and was found at dawn - cold, shivering and covered in sea kelp.

In the same house, Dinah's brother and sister-in-law, Bertram and Elizabeth, struggled to save their three children. Elizabeth screamed for her oldest, Bessie, to follow teenaged John, while Bertram snatched his two sleeping young sons from their beds and quickly rolled them in a quilt. As he charged across the yard, the sea surrounded him and he lost his balance. His two treasures were swept away. In the days that followed, the sea gave up the lifeless body of seven-month-old Clayton, but three-year-old John was never found.

Next door to Cyrus and Mary Ellen Bonnell lived their son, 35-year-old Robert, with his wife Bridget Susannah (nee Hillier) and their four children. When the water surged up the beach and over the road, carrying debris from the smashed wharf and shattered dories, Robert and his son Gilbert, 7, were able to reach the safety of higher ground. Bridget, meanwhile, pushed Cyrus, 2, and Amelia Alice, 3, under the chimney pipe in the kitchen, where they were later found alive but terrified. Bridget then ran upstairs to get sleeping one-year-old Mary Gertrude. Precious time was lost, and Bridget and baby Mary drowned. Mary was never recovered, but Bridget's body was later found among debris on the beach.

That night Dinah, still in the rose-coloured dress she had worn to Lamaline that lovely afternoon, huddled in the cold with other survivors. After several hours, they all descended cautiously to the schoolhouse, which appeared safe and intact. Immediately, the potbellied stove was stoked with whatever dry wood could be found, and the despondent group spent a sleepless night huddled around the fire.

Rescue and Recovery
As the misty dawn brought its dim light, the reality of the catastrophe became clearer. Survivors began searching for missing loved ones amidst the remains of their shattered community. The beach was littered in debris from the community wharf, fishing stages and dories. Drowned animals lay strewn on the rocky shore.

Since telegraph wires had been washed away all along the Burin Peninsula, news of the disaster didn't reach St. John's for three days. Residents did what they could to help themselves and each other until outside help arrived. Word finally got out via wireless message from coastal steamer SS Portia. A relief boat, SS Meigle, then arrived from St. John's equipped with physicians, nurses, medical supplies, food and building supplies.

Only five of the original 17 houses remained when the SS Meigle arrived. The relief team compiled injury and initial loss reports, which were included in its report to Prime Minister Squires. A government committee was appointed on November 25 in St. John's to deal with the conditions that arose as a result of what became known as "The South Coast Disaster."

Families did what was necessary as they struggled to rebuild. Dinah was sent off with her brother John to live with relatives in Lamaline. Their mother, Mary Ellen, was sent to stay with her sister in a nearby community while she recovered.

Robert Bonnell had to make arrangements for his motherless children. Cyrus, the youngest surviving child, was taken in and raised by his Grandfather Cyrus. (Young Cyrus later died at 19.) His sister Amelia Alice went to live with her Aunt Mary Hillier. But Aunt Mary died shortly after and Amelia Alice returned to Taylor's Bay to live with her maternal grandparents, Ruben and Mary Hillier. The little girl always had a headache. She died five years later at age eight, likely due to trauma and injuries suffered during the tsunami. According to local folklore, when Amelia Alice died, sand spewed out of her nose. Their older brother Gilbert was sent to Point au Gaul and then on to Lamaline North to be with family. Gilbert grew up an unhappy boy, not being content in either of his foster homes.

Bertram and Elizabeth moved to Fortune with their remaining daughter, Bessie.

Relief assistance was provided by the Newfoundland government based on property loss. With Dinah and John safe in Lamaline, and his wife Mary Ellen recovering with her sister, Cyrus was able to form a plan for reuniting his family. His claim to rebuild his house was $1,000, but he was only granted $500 from the government. His brother William had a house in Lamaline East that was empty and offered it to Cyrus for a temporary time. Dinah was happily reunited with her mother and father there.

Cyrus was able to salvage some clapboard from the remains of his Taylor's Bay house and, along with relief money, began building a temporary house in Lamaline. Dinah slept in a tiny room the size of a cupboard. That small house eventually became the barn.

The next few years were hard for Dinah as the family strived to recover from the turmoil brought on by the events of November 18, 1929. Church and family were her strength at this time in her life. Lamaline was Dinah's home until, at the age of 18, she headed to St. John's to earn a living and begin a new life. Taylor's Bay, with its tragic memories, was left behind.

At the time of writing, Dinah Ford is 98 years old and living in a nursing home in Waterloo, Ontario.