Crushed by ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: the sinking of the steamer Tunstall

There are few better indicators of the reality of climate change than the state of sea ice. While there can be some variation from year to year it is clear that there are significant changes over the last few years which have seen far less ice both in Island harbours and in the Strait and Gulf. This change is dramatically illustrated by the story of the S.S. Tunstall which was crushed in the ice off the Island’s north shore in May of 1884.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

The Tunstall was an iron screw steamer of modern design launched in 1879 from the shipyard of Shore Bros. in Sunderland. The cargo steamer was 230 feet long, 32 feet wide and a depth of over 17 feet. She was powered by a 2 cylinder steam engine which drove a single screw propeller. She made a number of trips across the North Atlantic and in European waters and by 1881 was being operated by the Black Diamond Steamship Company of Montreal. Normally she operated between Montreal and coal ports such as Cow Bay (now Port Morien) and Sydney in Cape Breton, and Pictou but when Montreal was closed by winter she also carried coal to New York, Havana and other southern ports. She carried a crew of 20 officers and men.

Tunstall 2

Early May 1884 found the vessel loading at Pictou with a cargo of coal bound for Montreal. She completed loading about noon on Saturday the 3rd of May and steamed without difficulty but encountered a large field of ice at East Point. The vessel turned and made its way up Northumberland Strait hoping to avoid the ice but by noon on the 4th encountered heavy ice at Cape Traverse. In hopes the ice might move out she anchored but after a day she turned to try the East Point route once more. It was not until Friday the 9th of May that the Tunstall was able to round East Point and in company with another steamer, the Benona. With plenty of open water between the shore-fast board ice and the “running” ice of the floes she began to steam up along the North Shore, and by nightfall both vessels were near Cape Turner. On Saturday the captain reported the weather as “dirty, blowing hard and thick” and the ice, being pushed by the wind began to drive down on the land. The Tunstall turned and found open water again near Little Rustico, the channel at the east end of Robinson’s Island. The ship remained in that area all night fighting the wind which had shifted to the north west and was blowing hard with heavy snow. The vessel kept moving to keep clear of the largest pan bearing down on the Tunstall. By 10 am on Sunday morning the ship was completely pinched in the ice and the engines were unable to provide any movement. The Benona was about a mile and half distant but was in clearer water. Within an hour the ice had pinched the ship so tightly that it began to list and the ice began to pile up over the rails on deck. Suddenly the pressure caused the plates on the starboard side of the ship to give way and water began pouring in. To find and stop the leak the crew began desperately to unload the cargo of coal over the side but they soon discovered that the hole in the ship was larger than they had feared, about 2 feet square. Although the hole was plugged with ice if the ice moved the water would be impossible to stop.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Concluding that the ship was doomed the captain ordered the lifeboats lowered and dragged away from the ship on the ice. Refusing to do any more work to save the doomed vessel the crew left the ship and gathered near the lifeboats. As the now-helpless ship slowly filled with water the crew were able to land some of their valuables, clothing, and food. It was at this point that the only loss of life occurred. Two pigs aboard the vessel to supply fresh meat for the crew were slaughtered. The Tunstall sank, bow first, beneath the ice at about four o’clock in the afternoon of the 11th. Leaving the boats on the ice the crew struck out for the shore, walking across the ice in the increasingly bad weather. However they were compelled to return to the boats by the ferocity of the winds. Left with little shelter from the lifeboats in the teeth of the storm the crew spent the night on the ice. During the night the ice continued to drift eastwardly and in the morning the crew found themselves on the ice about six miles off the St. Peter’s Bay Lighthouse.

On Monday morning the officers and crew began to cross the floes to the shore. The St. Peter’s lightkeeper and another man came out on the ice with a boat to meet them and seventeen men were guided ashore. However, three of the crew, separated from the main body by open water, decided not to run the risk the dangerous crossing on the ice and lolly and turned back to the safety of the lifeboats. A rescue party from St. Peters and area was organized the following day and succeeded in bringing the men to shore in spite of thick fog in the area. A number of men from the community were later awarded $5 each for their heroic efforts to save the three crew. One of the boats left behind on the ice later drifted ashore at St. Margaret’s and was auctioned off to benefit the crew of the ship.

The Benona had spotted distress signals from the Tunstall and noted when she sank but was unable to offer assistance. She herself was trapped in the running ice and was being swept towards East Point into the Northumberland Strait. It was not until 19th of May before she was able to get free of the ice and continue on her voyage to Montreal.

In the haste to abandon the Tunstall the Captain had neglected to get a fix on the location where the ship had gone down and for many years the wreck was lost. In June 1884 it was reported that divers would be sent to the wrecksite to see if the ship could be raised but they were either unable to find the vessel or decided it was not worth salvaging and no salvage was attempted. However in the 1930s fishermen in the Covehead area had been complaining of fouled gear and lobsters with discoloration from coal and the wreck was eventually spotted off Covehead Harbour.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Resting in about 70 to 80 feet of water it has become a popular spot for recreational divers. Several videos have been posted to YouTube and Vimeo, one of the best being that of Justin Pater and can be accessed by following this link  

It is interesting to compare this real-life account with that of a fictional sinking some twenty-years later in W. Albert Hickman’s The Sacrifice of the Shannon

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