One of my aunts is carrying out genealogical research into our family origins. Having just finished Revolver, set in the frozen wastes of north America, I vaguely recalled a story my mother had told about a sea captain being shipwrecked up there somewhere, so I asked her whether there was any truth in that. It transpires that it’s completely true. My mother’s grandfather, born in Horten, Norway, was a ship’s captain, based in Liverpool and normally plying the Liverpool-London route. But in 1903 he and his ship were chartered by a fledgling furrring company to sail across the Atlantic and from there up into the Hudson Bay. So that is what my maternal ancestor, Captain William Barry, promptly did. He loaded up at Quebec and then sailed north and then…. You can read the story from the Montreal Gazette below. It’s quite a story, especially if you trace their route on the map, with surreal episodes, like an encounter in the middle of nowhere with an English big game hunter. You can see a picture of the shipwrecked Eldorado if you Google the following: Eldorado Freres steamer 1903. What I find additionally fascinating is that nobody was aware of the drama until it was over.
THE GAZETTE, MONTREAL, OCTOBER 19 1903
WRECK IN FAR NORTH
Captain and Crew of Eldorado Have Hard Experience
THREE WEEKS CANOEING
Party Have Rough Work Making Way up Abitibi River-
Two Women and Little Girl in Party.
The captain and crew of the steamer Eldorado, which was wrecked nine miles from Fort George, on September 1st last, arrived in Montreal yesterday morning on their way home. As the ship had no agents in this port, and as the shipping master was out of town, Captain Barry appealed to the Sailors’ Institute, and Mr. J. Ritchie Bell, the manager, immediately made arrangements for their care until they can be sent to their homes.
The tales which the wayfarers recounted of their experiences were thrilling and the hardships they passed through were many and dangerous. The Eldorado had been chartered by Messrs. Revillion Freres, of Paris, France, and sailed from Quebec bound for Fort George, Rupert’s House, Moose Factory, Hannah Bay and Fort Albany, with provisions, supplies and requisites for the purpose of establishing the outposts for fur hunters that the firm were anxious to put up.
After leaving her pilot near Father Point, the Eldorado passed down the Gulf, through the Belle Isle Straits, round the Labrador coast, through the Hudson Straits as far as Charles Island before land was sighted. All the way the vessel was enveloped in thick fog and numberless icebergs were also encountered on the coast of Labrador, but none in the Hudson Straits. In these waters, as also lower down in Hudson Bay, the sailors describe the mirage as something wonderful, and most deceptive. Land is apparently visible where there is no land, ships can be seen in the clouds, and many other astonishing spectacular phenomena are visible hourly. The air in the region is so clear that many times objects such as land and rocks an be seen 60 miles away.
After passing down through the Hudson Straits, navigation becomes most difficult and dangerous. Rocks and shoals are abundant and the deviations and variation most extraordinary, varying as much as37 degrees or 2½ degrees. Much difficulty was experienced by the officers in getting their bearings and it was necessary to stop the ship every day to find her position. After passing the dangerous shallows full of rocks and boulders, near the Sleeper Islands, the steamer passed on and made for Fort George, and the navigation again became most dangerous.
One man on each side of the ship was kept continuously casting the lead, and the necessity of this was well proven when the depth at several points was found to be over 25 feet on the one side and only four feet on the other, showing the countless dangers which they were hourly facing.
GOES ON REEF
The steamer, however, went quietly on her way, till within nine miles of Fort George, where she went on a reef and found that it was absolutely impossible to get off again. The depth here was on an average of 12 to 14 feet, and the wonder is that the Eldorado, which has a registered tonnage of 820 tons and was carrying about 1,450 tons of cargo, drawing about 16 feet of water, had found a channel though all these death-traps. No ship had ever before coasted so near inland in these regions except the small Hudson’s Bay Company’s boats and steamers.
On September 4 at dusk everybody left the ship. The wind was blowing very strong and there was great danger of the ship breaking up during the night. On returning next day she was found to be in a very much battered condition; the cargo was floating around the ship and over three feet of water was found in the ‘tween decks. Provisions and live stock were salvaged, but the weather was too severe to make more than one trip.
On September 6 instructions were given to be in readiness to leave the ship. In the meantime the Hudson Bay Company’s representative, Mr. Gillis, appeared on the scene, and after conferring with Mr. D’Agnew, who was in charge of the expedition, arranged to assist in the rescue of the whole party on condition that they all moved from the scene at once. This decision was notified to the captain, who instantly refused to abandon the ship until all hope of salving her or the cargo had disappeared. Upon this Mr. Gillis objected that he could not assist only part of the company and leave the captain in charge of the vessel.
However, as it was a question of all going together or the party being left in the lurch on their own resources, hundreds of miles away from the nearest point from which they could proceed on their journey, the captain, to save the party, and seeing that there was little hope for the ship, consented, under protest, to leave with the rest, and orders were given to prepare to leave for Charlton with provision for fifteen days, and the party then proceeded upon the journey of 200 miles.
The party left on three of the Hudson Bay Company’s lighters and two of the ship’s lifeboats. The first and second mates were in charge of the life boats, Captain Barry in charge of the sailing lighter, while two of the company’s pilots were in charge of the two lighters, on which were Mr. D’Agnew and the rest of the party.
Having arrived at Charlton Island, the party, numbering forty-four, consisting of Mr. D’Agnew, his wife and daughter and maid, eleven carpenters, the officers and crew of the vessel then embarked upon one of the Hudson Bay Company’s small steamers to Moose Factory. Here, at most exorbitant prices, they obtained provisions, consisting of flour, baking powder, tea, pork and biscuits, and having obtained boats and canoes, set off up Moose River under the care of Indian guides.
HAD TO TURN BACK
Some distance had been traversed, but many difficulties were encountered, and the information that the river was more difficult of navigation higher up, caused them to return and pass up the Abitibi river. The hardships and difficulties which had to be overcome would require a many-paged book to recount. After getting over 16 portages, 20 rapids and through the two lakes, the party finally arrived at Douglas Farm.
During their progress up the Abitibi river the difficulties can hardly be described. The Indians who accompanied them firstly refused to work in wet weather and on Sundays. In passing the rapids and the portages much of the food got spoiled and provisions therefore ran short. The dangers of the river, which, in some places, was very shallow, and in other places very narrow, were not among the least of their troubles. Then, in the portages, the ladies’ skirts were found to be so much in the way that they were obliged to convert these articles of attire into pantaloons to enable them to make any progress over the land.
Every now and then a boat would be caught in the rapids and swung against boulder, capsized or otherwise injured, and one of the boats suffered to such a degree that the whole bottom had to be totally covered with the tin from cans.
Thus the 240 miles of river were passed, about four whole days having been lost through accidents and emergencies of one kind or another. On the Abitibi lakes the party met Major Rodgers, who communicated the news of the America Cup yacht races. The scenery along the banks of the river and river itself is described as gorgeous, and the big water falls, the tremendous force of water, the wild woodland scenery, were painted in glowing terms by the wanderers.
Douglas Farm having been reached, the baggages and canoes were placed on teams and sent by road to Temiskaming, and on October 16, when the party left Temiskaming by steamer for Liskeard, they slept for the first ime for many days in proper beds. Mr. D’Agnew, however, had been most provident, and had supplied the expedition with oilskins and sleeping bags, so that an experience that might have been too much for many of the party turned out to be merely a few weeks of hardship.
The officers and crew yesterday spoke most highly of Captain Barry, who gave his utmost endeavor to make everything as easy for the party, and worked harder than he allowed his men to do and is today suffering with a sore hand owing to his hard and energetic work.