All Over in a Minute -The sinking of the Polar Star

By the second decade of the 20th century the trading schooners serving the Port of Charlottetown were tired and under-crewed. This in-named vessel was probably typical of the type. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

By the second decade of the 20th century the trading schooners serving the Port of Charlottetown were tired and under-crewed. This un-named vessel was probably typical of the type. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

The first of the bodies was discovered on the beach at Crown Point on the P.E.I. shore across from Governors Island.  A search of the pockets for identifying papers found only a tobacco pipe filled with sand and seaweed but a missing thumb and familiar clothing showed that it was the schooner’s captain, Fred Cormier of Souris. The families of the two crew members were not as fortunate.  Before bodies of the two Charlottetown men were found, one at Governor’s Island and the last, the two months after the accident on the shore of St. Peters Island, they had both deteriorated to the point where they could not be identified and so it was not known which grave held the remains of Henry Bushy and which was that of Andrew MacDonald.

The three men had constituted the entire crew of the Polar Star. She was a small schooner, just 76 register tons. Even with the simple schooner rig this was a small crew, especially as everyone aboard was between 45 and 55 years of age.  Small crews and old ships that were cheap to operate were what made sail still viable in the early 1900s when faced with competition from steamers. There were almost no new sailing vessels available as the shipbuilding industry had been in sharp decline for thirty years.

The Polar Star was a tired ship. She had been launched at Brooklyn Nova Scotia, not far from Bridgewater in 1875 and in 1897 was almost lost when she foundered at sea  Recovered and rebuilt in 1898 she was owned and sailed for some time out of Richibucto New Brunswick.  She occasionally appeared in P.E.I. ports carrying timber and other products. In late summer 1901 she fetched up on Tryon Shoals carrying a cargo of boards from Richibucto to Sydney. She capsized and filled with water and was believed to be a total loss as the tug Fred M. Batt was unable to haul her off. However a year later she was once more in service and it may have been at this time that ownership passed to coal merchant Charles Lyons of Charlottetown.  From 1906 she was a regular arrival at the port of Charlottetown, usually with coal from Inverness, Sydney or Pictou and now and then the odd cargo of limestone.  In 1912 she set a record of sorts by making three round trips with coal from Pictou within one week. In 1913 the wooden vessel had been at sea for thirty-eight years.

When she left Pictou just after daybreak on the 10th of June it was her regular run. A cargo of 105 tons of Pictou coal for the owner Charles Lyons, for his business on Queens Wharf. Just ahead of her on the outbound track was another coal schooner, the Boreas. Both schooners were passed by the steamer Northumberland on her way to Pictou in the morning and nothing was amiss.  As the two sailing vessels neared Point Prim at about 6 o’clock in the evening they were nearly abreast although the Polar Star was about three-quarters of a mile to the windward. The wind had piped up but had not reached gale force and the seas were choppy. Both vessels had gone through heavier weather. The crew of the Polar Star was seen to be reducing sail by taking in the flying jib and the peak of the mainsail but did not seem to be in  any danger. The Boreas was heavily loaded and was taking on water with a stoged pump so the crew were making all haste for sheltered waters of the harbour.  Shortly after the scene was described by a crew member of the latter vessel;

About twenty minutes after we saw the Polar Star taking in her jib, we saw her suddenly go down. She did not do any settling at all. She went down forward till her foremast head went in. She just almost turned a somersault, I guess. then I suppose her fore-foot must have struck bottom , and then settled down by the stern. She went down with all her sails hoisted with the exception of those that had been taken in shortly before.  . . .  I never saw anything so quick in all my life as how she went down. She must have parted forward somewhere. She might have been full of water same as ourselves, but unless some such thing happened she could not have gone down as quickly as that. And we could not go to her as we had to look out for ourselves.

The following day the Marine Department sent out Captain Batt in the tug Amherst with the lifeboat to search for bodies. The wreck was easily located as the masts of the ship were sticking about 15 feet above the water but they found no floating wreckage or bodies.  The ship lay on the bottom with all the sails still set although some of the rigging had been loosened by the wave action.  The wreckage lay in the harbour track and thus constituted a danger for other ships but it is not noted how, or if, the wreckage was removed.  Charles Lyons stated that no salvage would be attempted which is hardly surprising given the age of the ship.

A little more than a week after the sinking the site was already attracting the curious. Rowland Paton, son of a former mayor of the city had gone out to capture what the Guardian termed “a very pretty snapshot taken of the portion of the ill-fated Schooner” which featured the contrast between calm in which the photo was taken and the storm which sent the ship to the bottom “particularly suggestive of the cruelty as well as the beauty of the sea.” The mast tops above the water would have been visible to passengers on the Northumberland on daily passage between Charlottetown and Pictou.

There appears to have been no inquiry or inquest into the sinking of the Polar Star. The ship was partially insured and Charles Lyons may have received some compensation for the loss.  The reasons for the sinking were hardly in doubt. A wooden ship almost forty years old which had foundered once and gone ashore reckoned as a total loss had gone to the bottom with 105 tons of coal making sure that the sinking was fast, final and fatal.  It was a simply another reminder that the age of wooden ships and iron men could be a hard life and not necessarily the romance often attributed to the time.


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