Prologue: September 28, 1854
Veils of fog swirled around the bow of the Canadian bark Huron. The gray mist closed in on the headsails, rendering them almost invisible from the poop deck. Bound for Quebec, Huron made her way under full sail toward Cabot Strait, a wide swath of current-ripped water between the islands of Cape Breton and Newfoundland, gateway to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the funnel of the vast St. Lawrence River estuary. She seemed to cut a path into oblivion, alone on an empty sea. The comforting warmth of fires burning in the kitchen stoves of the simple dwellings ashore was as distant as the wan sun hidden behind an overcast sky darkening with the approach of dusk. The day was much like any other in late September on the Grand Banks fishing grounds cold and damp with a mounting swell rolling in from the North Atlantic that foretold the arrival of yet another bout of stormy weather.
The lookouts stationed on the forecastle deck took turns blowing the little air horn. Each man spelled the other when his mate became winded, which did not take long. The shrill blasts of the horn, a trumpet-like device, could not reach the ears of crews aboard other ships unless they sailed near enough to pose an imminent threat of collision. But Captain Wall was a conscientious man, and with the owner's son, Wellington Cameron, aboard Huron, it was wise to adhere to the unwritten laws of the sea no matter how ludicrous it appeared to the sailors under his command. The faint bleats of the horn continued.
The fog, as it always did when the wind blew fresh, tore into patches, some thick and impenetrable, others with translucence that allowed visibility to improve up to a half-mile or more. Mindful of their duty, the lookouts took advantage of the breaks to redouble their vigilance, not wanting to miss an opportunity to spy danger. The Grand Banks represented an intersection of the coastal and transatlantic shipping lanes, and scores of fishing schooners peppered the sea. Even in late September, the summer fishing season at an end, the place was busier than most stretches of ocean. As the curtains closed in again, one of the lookouts straightened his back and quickly lifted his spyglass. Out of the gloom emerged a shape, slowly at first as the ship sailed on. It looked like a dory, perhaps one separated from the mother ship, her crew of fishermen wondering about the fate of their missing friends. However, it soon became apparent to the lookouts that the little craft was a lifeboat filled with men.
"Lifeboat fine on the starboard bow!" the lookout cried.
"Lifeboat to starboard, aye," the officer on deck responded.
Aft on the poop deck, Captain Wall raised his spyglass and squinted into the deepening darkness. Sure enough, the lookout's observation proved correct. It was indeed a lifeboat, and dangerously overloaded. The men in it paddled toward them with makeshift oars made of planks and axes. Some dug their hands into the frigid water to help propel the boat. It struck Wall as peculiar that the lifeboat lacked even one set of proper oars.
Wall turned to his first officer and ordered him to bring the vessel round, head almost to the wind. The helmsman turned the wheel slowly while the crew scurried on deck to man the braces and other lines needed to control the sails. Canvas shook and thundered in the breeze. Blocks banged on deck and in the rigging as the main topsail backed and fell still, the wind pressing it against the mainmast and shrouds. The ship's other sails still drew, forcing the bark to a stop.
The lifeboat was soon alongside, and Wall's crew helped the men stumble aboard. Weak and exhausted from their ordeal, many fell to the deck unable to walk or even stand. Two of the castaways refused to leave the boat. Their voices hoarse and ragged, they begged Wall to send a crew with oars and thole pins (oarlocks) into the boat, saying there was another survivor on a raft a short distance away.
A few minutes later, the lone man on the nearby raft, Peter McCabe, heard the splash of oars and the voices of the men in the boat. Inches from him, the white faces of corpses trapped beneath the raft, their bodies "much gnawed by fishes" and made buoyant from the life preservers, peered up at him from the spaces between the loosely lashed spars.
McCabe described his moment of salvation in the October 12 edition of the New York Herald:
I was alone on the raft, not a solitary being was alive out of [more than] seventy; but still my hopes continued strong. The night of the second day was about closing on me, and during the whole time I had been in the water I had not eaten a particle of anything or drank a drop. My strength I found was beginning to give way, and my sight had become so dim that I could not perceive objects a few feet off, even the ghastly faces of the dead, that looked up at me from under the raft, were hardly discernible.
I determined at making one more effort for life. I raised myself upon my knees upon the raft, and through the dusk of the evening I saw, or thought I saw, a vessel. My strength seemed to revive, and in a few minutes I heard the voices of persons in a boat approaching me. Ten minutes later, I too would have gone, but Providence had mercy on me, and after twenty-six hours of exposure I was by its mercy preserved from a watery grave.
When all the men came back aboard, Captain Wall, his officers, and Wellington Cameron learned the tragic details concerning the loss of the steamship Arctic with more than three hundred souls aboard. She was one of the largest and most luxurious passenger vessels in the world, the pride of the Collins Line out of New York, bound for that port from Liverpool. Plucked from the sea were Francis Dorian, third officer, twenty-six crewmen, including Peter McCabe, and five male passengers.
Dusk faded into night. Huron got under way with a raw southeasterly wind off her port quarter filling the sails wet with condensation. Water dripped from rigging and pattered on deck. The bow lifted and fell to the swells. Forward, on the forecastle deck, the lookouts blew the foghorn, its mournful wail dull and faint as it echoed over the waves through the heavy, moisture-laden atmosphere. At Wall's orders, other crewmen fired rockets in hope of attracting the attention of any other victims who might be clinging to wreckage in the ship's path. The fuses were lit. A hiss and a whoosh, followed with the thud of a muffled explosion, punctuated the intermittent silences between blasts of the foghorn. White halos appeared in the blackness and vanished, the sparks twinkling out one by one.
Standing on the windward side of the poop deck, alone and troubled, Captain Wall considered the events of the day. Shipwrecks were common enough in the waters of the North Atlantic and down the coast of the United States all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Every year, approximately ninety American oceangoing sailing ships sank in the dangerous waters of the Bahamas, Cape Hatteras, Nantucket Shoals, Cape Cod, Cape Sable, and Cape Race. Additional American coastal traders went down or were stranded on the beaches and rocky ledges.
The sea took European vessels as well. Just a few weeks past, cruising in dense fog, the brand new Inman Line steamship City of Philadelphia valued at $600,000 ran hard aground on the rocks off Newfoundland's Cape Race. The wreck counted as one of many losses to British shipping that occurred in 1854. However, no one perished when she struck, unlike what had happened to Arctic. That unfortunate conclusion became clear to Wall and the others aboard Huron after they listened to the stories of the rescued men. Yet some of the sailors seemed guarded in their testimony, as if they were selective in the details they related, and Wall did not understand why.
Snugging his heavy pea coat close, Wall followed the stripe of the latest rocket as it cut through the darkness and exploded with a distant boom. Questions nagged at him, deeply upsetting and persistent. A chill went through him, causing him to pull his coat even tighter to his chest. He felt the kind of cold touch that no amount of clothing could repel, a hint of unease he could not quite place but which was real enough. Like the flit of a bat's wing on a dark night, a shadow against the stars, it danced away before he could see the shape of its evil meaning.
Copyright © 2002 by David W. Shaw