Many was the shipwreck along or near the rocky shores of Newfoundland, but few (with the notable exception of R.M.S. Titanic) have attracted as much attention as that of the S.S. Ethie.
The Ethie was notable, not for loss of life, however, but for the 92 lives saved, which many attribute to the heroic actions of a Newfoundland dog. Just which dog, though, is a source of controversy.
The facts are that the Ethie was a 155 foot Glasgow built coastal steamer that ran along the west coast of Newfoundland in the early 20th century. Southward bound on December 11, 1919, she was caught in a blizzard with gale force winds and exhausted her coal trying to keep from running aground. When her skipper, Capt. Edward English realized his dilemma, he coolly made a decision which saved the lives of his 92 passengers and crew. On that freezing winter day, he boldly ran his ship directly into the beach at Martin’s Point, grounding her long enough to allow all his passengers, crew and last of all himself to reach safety.
This was not an easy task in churning and frothing waves, but with the assistance of locals and, as many reported, a sturdy Newfoundland Dog, a rope was carried from the vessel and a cable attached by means of which passengers lashed to a boatswains chair were ferried off one by one. The only exception was a two year old child who was placed in a mail sack, clasped in the arms of a male passenger and delivered ashore. Surely a “special” delivery if ever there was one.
Some say the heroic dog was a mixed breed named Wisher, owned by villager, Reuben Decker. With all the key dramatic elements, including babies, heroic dogs and tragedy averted, the story was picked up by the Associated Press and reported by The Philadelphia Ledger. Wisher soon had a collar complete with a Starry Cross medal emblazoned “Hero” hanging around his neck.
Whether Wisher was the dog in question was subject to some controversy as a female relative of Capt. Edward English in later years stated the dog in question was a Newfoundlander owned and kept aboard the ship, sent ashore with a rope to allow the cable to be attached. In fact early reports didn’t even mention a dog!
In any event the medal does exist and was awarded to Wisher. If you want to see it though, you will have to make your way to Dottie’s Roadhouse Lodge in Wrangell, Alaska.
If you want to see the remains of the Ethie you can do so by visiting Western Newfoundland’s magnificent Gros Morne National Park and making a visit to the S.S. Ethie site.
The Wreck of the S.S. Ethie
If You Go
The SS Ethie – Public Archives of Newfoundland, The Rooms, St. John’s, Newfoundland
Mixed breed Newfoundland dog, Wisher – Mysteries Of Canada
Painting of the SS Ethie, by artist Robin Cook (Railway Coastal Museum, St. John’s, Newfoundland)
All other photographs by George Burden – All Rights Reserved