The Legend of the SS Ethie

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 30, -0001 12:00 AM
Wreckage of the SS Ethie at Martin's Point near Cow Head, N.L. (Leslie McNab photo)

The rusty remains of the SS Ethie jut out from the sea at Martin's Point, on the west coast of Newfoundland between Cow Head and Bonne Bay. Time will eventually erode what's left of its protruding hull and boiler, but the story of the wrecked ship remains the stuff of legends: a boat tossed by hurricane-ravaged waters until it ran aground and threatened to burst into flames; a few heroic fishermen and a dog onshore trying desperately to save passengers and crew; and a daring rescue of a baby stashed in an old mailbag dangling from a rope high above the roiling sea.

The 87-year-old tale has been retold in folk songs like "The Wreck of the Steamship Ethie," and more recently in historical fiction such as "The Wreck of the Ethie." There is even enough drama and inspiration in the story to fuel a 12-year run of a play called "Ethie" at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival in Cow Head. Gaylene Buckle, general manager of the theatre, says, "Ethie is the centrepiece of the entire festival. It's the anchor."

Despite the story's renown, debate remains among historians and trivia buffs about the specifics of the shipwreck. Was there really a baby on board who survived the wreck by being passed ashore in a mailbag? Was there a heroic dog that helped save passengers?

The only living person with a link to the truth is 89-year-old Hilda Menchions, and for most of her life she has been too modest to discuss her extraordinary part of the story: she was the mailbag baby. Complicating matters is the fact that Hilda suffers from dementia and her memories are slowly fading. But her husband of 53 years, Reverend Clayton Menchions, still manages to cut through the haze by touching her arm gently or looking into her eyes.

Sitting next to her in St. Luke's Nursing Home in St. John's, Clayton tries to coax Hilda into talking about why she never liked to discuss surviving the wreck of the SS Ethie. Her face reflects comfort when he is near, and her eyes search the room for him as regularly as a probing spotlight from a lighthouse.

Hilda and Clayton Menchions, pictured during a 2006 interview with Downhome. (Adam Killick photo)

Hilda's room is institutional with a small twin bed and a few shelves, but a homemade quilt, pictures and ornaments help make it cozy. Clayton has an independent apartment located on the premises about five minutes away, and he spends most of his day sitting with Hilda in her room. They met 60 years ago in Channel-Port aux Basques, where Hilda taught Grade 7 and Clayton taught Grade 8 at St. James High School. They have been together ever since.

"You didn't like to talk about the story of the Ethie, did you?" Clayton asks her. "Because it would give away your age and you were a proud lady, and like most women, you didn't want anyone to know your age."

"Well I can't say he's a liar," Hilda retorts with a smile. Her hair had been washed and styled earlier that morning and she occasionally touches the waves with surprise. She remembers, then forgets.

"He knows more about it than I do," says Hilda, "or he thinks he knows."

Clayton laughs at her teasing, enjoying this glimmer of the real Hilda - the one he knows best. The one who is so nonchalant about her incredible tale of surviving a legendary shipwreck. "I wasn't one to brag about anything," she says. "The only people who really knew about it were the people in Bonne Bay, where I'm from."

Nevertheless, Clayton prods his wife with questions about the details of that day when the SS Ethie ran aground at Martin's Point, during a winter storm on December 11, 1919.

The Ethie, a 400-ton coastal steamship, had left Daniel's Harbour and was on its way up the coast to Bonne Bay. Two of its 92 passengers were a pregnant Elizabeth Patten and her 18-month-old daughter, Hilda. They were on their way to visit Hilda's grandmother in Norris Point.

Suddenly the weather turned vicious with roaring winds, blowing snow and ice pellets. Waves smashed lights and windows, and the ship was encrusted in sheets of thick ice. Captain Edward English decided to steer toward the coast of Labrador in hopes of escaping the storm.

Hilda says her mother was lying down in her stateroom during this time. The crew had packed things around her so she wouldn't fall out of her bunk during the raucous night. When daylight broke on the 11th of December, Captain English discovered he was actually close to the same place he had been the night before.

The captain and crew decided they had no other choice but to run ashore at Martin's Point - a dangerous task because the Northern Peninsula coastline is notorious for cliffs and rocks as sharp as teeth.

Despite waves 20-30 feet high crashing over the ship, they managed to run the Ethie into the shoal - in the process breaking the stern frame and rudder. They sent out a test dory but it overturned in seconds in the tumultuous seas. There wasn't much time to get people off the ship. Damage from the impact meant the boiler room could explode at any second.

Rueben Decker was a fisherman who lived at Martin's Point. He saw the ship and went down to the beach to see if he could help, along with his crossbreed collie dog, Wisher, and neighbour Joe Gilley. Everyone on board the ship worked frantically to set up a bosun's chair (a harness rigged to a piece of rope). Decker, Wisher and Gilley caught the rope thrown from the ship and secured it to a nearby cliff. The first one off the Ethie was Walter Young, the ship's purser, who tested it to make sure the ropes were sufficient to carry the weight of the passengers.

Baby Hilda - the only child aboard - was next in line. She was wrapped in a blanket and put in a heavy mailbag. Mrs. Patten then watched from deck as her baby daughter was sent to shore hanging hazardously from a rope. Hilda recalled the trauma her mother felt at that moment in an anthology called Not Too Long Ago - a collection of seniors' memories.

"I did hear her say the worst time she ever felt was when she put me in that mailbag," Hilda says. "They had to put me down in the mailbag because you couldn't hold onto both a baby and the bosun's chair."

Hilda points to a picture of her mother holding the mailbag in Bruce Rickett's book The SS Ethie and the Hero Dog. "Eighteen months old and put in a mailbag," Hilda says emphatically. "I'm the one!" Even she sounds a little surprised at being the subject of such a dramatic rescue.

Hilda's mother kept that mailbag as a reminder of her baby's near-death experience. "She looked after it. There wasn't a bit of dust on it," says Hilda. She took the mailbag out each year to celebrate the fact that she and her daughter survived the ordeal. Clayton remembers watching Mrs. Patten quietly cry as she relived the details of that day while listening to Cassie Brown tell the tale of the wreck of the SS Ethie on a local radio station in the 1940s.

In 1986, Hilda and Clayton donated that very mailbag to the National Park Commission in Rocky Harbour. It's on display at the Lobster Head Cove lighthouse. In a mysterious twist, however, there is some doubt that the bag is in fact the same one Hilda's mother kept all those years.

When the Menchions took family visitors to see the mailbag years ago, Hilda was quite upset when she saw it on display. It looked different than the one she remembered. "You will notice the mailbag that's there now has a big wide strip, and that wasn't there (on the original)," says Clayton. He thinks the real mailbag was probably taken and used as a camping bag.

However, those are just minor details for Clayton. "The main thing is she got ashore - because if she hadn't, I would've had to marry some other woman," he says. - Story by Kristine Power


The Real Hero Dog

The existence of Hilda Menchions solves the mystery of the baby in a mailbag. But there is also the tale of Hero, the Newfoundland dog, credited with saving many lives on board the SS Ethie by bringing the bosun's chair line to shore.

Bruce Ricketts, author of The SS Ethie and the Hero Dog and owner of the "Mysteries of Canada" Web site, speculates that the real "hero" was Rueben Decker's cross-breed collie dog, Wisher. He adds that Wisher's role was likely exaggerated to create good newspaper copy in the post-war era, when people were desperate to hear something positive about the world. The story spread fast and the legend grew.

People all over North America donated money to create a 28-inch leather collar for the "hero" dog. It was adorned with sterling silver and included two shields inscribed with "The Starry Cross" honour for bravery. Through his Web site, Bruce heard from a Dottie Olsen in Wrangell, Alaska, who says she has had the collar hanging in her roadhouse bar for the past 18 years.

How can a dog collar in Alaska be traced back to Martin's Point? Well, Rueben sold Wisher and his collar to an entrepreneur who knew the dog's fame. The collar and dog traded hands a couple of times, and finally ended up with Dinty Kane, a wanderer from New Brunswick, who set out to seek his fortune in Alaska. By this time, Wisher had been replaced by an actual Newfoundland dog. Dinty made money telling the story of the Ethie and showing off the dog he claimed was Hero. Dottie received the collar in 1982 and was told it was found in an old trunk. - Story by Kristine Power