By Belle Hatfield
For Dick Stewart the Feb. 17 sinking of the Miss Ally off Liverpool brought back a wave of memories. Memories of being a kid in Lockeport, in March 1961. Three trawlers – the Muriel Eileen, Marjorie Byrl and the Jimmy and Sisters – set out for the Scotian Shelf on a fishing trip from which they never returned. An unexpected gale blew in and the boats’ 17 crewmembers were lost to the sea. The small Shelburne County community was quite literally devastated, not only by the loss of husbands, sons, fathers, brothers and friends, but also by the economic hardship that the loss of those bread-winners created.
“It marks you forever,” says Stewart.
It is also, as the Miss Ally tragedy so painfully demonstrates, part of the fabric of coastal life.
Stewart is sitting in the archives at the Yarmouth County Museum surrounded by committee members who have organized the work that has gone into building the Lost to the Sea monument and finding the names of the people it will commemorate.
It was Stewart who, as a member of the Yarmouth Waterfront Development Corporation, originally made the motion to undertake the project back in 2005.
His goal was to see a memorial on Yarmouth’s waterfront to honour Yarmouth County’s connection to the sea and commemorate those from here who have been lost.
From the project’s original concept drawings rendered by James Colbeck in 2006, the monument has undergone many design changes, some prompted by funding limitations and others by logistical constraints, but as Stewart looks forward to the project’s completion and its eventual unveiling, he is satisfied with the result.
“When we started this I said I wanted water and a wheel, and we’ll have that.” A fleeting smile crosses his face. Life – as he learned in the aftermath of the devastation wrought on the Lockeport of his youth – is about moving forward and adapting to the unforeseen. Like life, the Lost to the Sea project has moved forward, despite unexpected hurdles.
Since its inception the project has both expanded and shrunk. Costings for the original design concepts forced a rethinking of its scale and a loss of some of the originally conceived elements – it was going to have a water wall, for instance.
But even as the bricks and mortar of the project were being down-scaled, it was becoming apparent that the research portion of the project – actually finding all of the people whose names properly belong on the monument – was more involved than anyone originally imagined. At some point it became apparent that a website was a natural and critical extension to the project. Now a searchable database with all the nearly 2,500 that have been collected is available at www.losttothesea.com. It is one of the project’s intangible legacies.
The research end of things was coordinated by the former archivist with the Yarmouth County Museum. Jamie Serran (who recently accepted a position at the Council for Nova Scotia Archives) oversaw the work of the volunteer team and the student interns who were employed to sift through thousands of documents, comb the archives and tramp through graveyards.
Nancy Hood, one of the volunteers, got involved because of her interest in genealogy, admitting that she finds looking for needles in haystacks an interesting diversion. Perhaps that’s because behind every needle/name found there is a story.
Take Jack Hatfield of Tusket. He was an officer in the air force and became the first Nova Scotian to die in aerial combat during the Second World War. His plane went down over the English Channel.
More recently, there’s the story of the Miss Charity. The lobster boat, with a crew of three, set out on Christmas Eve 1990 for the last trip before the holidays. The boat sank and the crewmembers were lost. It is suspected that the vessel was capsized by a rogue wave.
Former museum curator Eric Ruff also sits on the committee. He points out that finding the names of every person from Yarmouth County who has been lost to the sea is a daunting task. They have been combing records that date back hundreds of years. In many cases, he says, there are variations in how an individual’s name is spelled in the records. At one point in the region’s history some record keepers attempted to Anglicize French names, so Pothier might be Potter. Figuring out if the Potter mentioned in one record is the same person as the Pothier mentioned somewhere else has been a time-consuming challenge, he says.
Despite the hurdles and the naysayers, and the unexpected turns and twists, by staying focused on the goal and just putting one foot in front of the other, the project committee is almost ready to complete its work and turn over the monument and the website to the Town of Yarmouth.
The site preparations were finished last fall and installation of the panels and water/wheel feature is expected to be completed within a month.
The memorial is located on the northeast corner of Water and Glebe Streets, just below the parking lot in back of the town hall. Measuring 30 feet deep by 90 feet wide, it is backed by a 22-feet-high, 100-foot-long wall. The site is owned by the Town of Yarmouth and is near Frost Park (an early burial site) and very close to Yarmouth harbour.
The monument is scheduled to be unveiled on Yarmouth’s natal day, Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m. Phil DeMille is coordinating the musical entertainment for the afternoon ceremony, which will include performances of original compositions around marine themes. And there will be lots of stories.
With the addition of around 50 more names of people identified since November, the committee says the list is now just under 2,500. These names will be inscribed on seven granite panels, one of which will be incomplete to ensure room for additional names.
In a seafaring community, it is only a matter of time before more will be etched in stone.
In addition to the monument, there will be three display panels, including one at the Cape Forchu light station and in Tusket near the courthouse and archives.
To view the sources of funding for this legacy project click here.