In writing an essay for the Witness it is not my intention to relate any hair-breadth escapes of my ancestors, for, though they endured all the hardships incidental to the opening up of a new country, I do not think they ever had any hair-raising adventures with bears or Indians. It is my purpose, instead, to relate the incidents connected with the wreck of the celebrated "Marco Polo" off Cavendish, in the summer of 1883.
Cavendish is a pretty little village, bordering on the Gulf of St. Lawrence and possessing a beautiful sea-coast, part of which is a stretch of rugged rocks and the rest of broad level beach of white sand. On a fine summer day a scene more beautiful could not be found than the sparkling blue waters of the Gulf, dotted over with white sails and stately fishing vessels. But it is not always so calm and bright; very often furious storms arise, which sometimes last for several days, and it was in one of those that the "Marco Polo" came ashore.
The "Marco Polo" was a ship of the "Black Ball" line of packets and was the fastest sailing vessel ever built, her record never having been beaten. She was, at the time of her shipwreck, owned by a firm in Norway and was chartered by an English firm to bring a cargo of deal planks from Canada. The enterprise was risky, for she was almost too rotten to hold together, she made the outward trip in safety and obtained her cargo; but, on her return, she was caught in a furious storm and became so waterlogged that the captain, P. A. Bull of Christiania, resolved to run her ashore as the only way to save crew and cargo.
What a day that 25th day of July was in Cavendish! The wind blew a hurricane and the waves ran mountains high; the storm had begun two days before and had now reached its highest pitch of fury. When at its worst, the report was spread that a large vessel was coming ashore off a little fishing station called Cawnpore, and soon an excited crowd was assembled on the beach. The wind was nor'-nor'-east, as sailors say, and the vessel, coming before the gale, with every stitch of canvas set, was a sight never to be forgotten! She grounded about 300 yards from the shore, and, just as she struck, the crew cut the rigging, and the foremast and the huge iron mainmast, carrying the mizzen-top-mast with it, went over with a crash that could be heard for miles above the roaring of the storm! Then the ship broached-to and lay there with the waves breaking over her.
By this time, half the people in Cavendish were assembled on the beach and the excitement was intense. As long as the crew remained on the vessel they were safe, but, if ignorant of the danger of such a proceeding, they attempted to land, death was certain. When it was seen that they were evidently preparing to hazard a landing all sorts of devices to warn them back were tried, but none were successful until a large board was put up, with the words, "stick to the ship at all hazards" painted on it. When they saw this they made no further attempts to land and thus night fell.
The storm continued all night but by morning was sufficiently abated to permit a boat to go out to the ship and bring the crew ashore. They were a hardlooking lot tired, wet and hungry, but in high spirits over their rescue and, while they were refreshing in the inner man, the jokes flew thick and fast. One little fellow, on being asked "if it wasn't pretty windy out there", responded, with a shrug of his shoulders, "oh, no, der vas not too mooch vind but der vas too mooch vaterl"
Lively times for Cavendish followed. The crew, consisting of about twenty men, found boarding places around the settlement and contrived to keep the neighborhood in perpetual uproar, while the fussy good natured captain came to our place. He --is a corpulent, bustling little man, bluff and hearty - the typical sea-captain he was idolized by his crew would have gone through fire and water for him any day. And such a crew. Almost every nationality was represented. There were Norwegians, Swedes, Spaniards, two Tahitians, and one quarrelsome, obstinate little German who refused to work his passage home and demanded to be sent back to the fatherland by steamer. It was amusing to hear them trying to master the pronunciation of our English names. We had a dog called 'Gyp' whose name was a constant source of vexation to them. The Norwegians called him 'Yip', the irritable little German termed him 'Schnip' and one old man twisted it into 'Ship'.
But time passed all too quickly by. The "Marco Polo" and her cargo were sold to parties in Saint John, N.B., and the captain and his motley crew took their departure. A company of men were at once hired to assist in taking out her cargo and eighteen schooner loads of deal were taken from her. The planks-had so swollen from the wet that it was found necessary to cut her beams through in order to get them out and consequently she was soon nothing but a mere shell with about half of her cargo still in her.
One night in August about a month after she had come ashore, the men who were engaged in the work of unloading resolved to remain on the vessel until the following morning. It was wild to think of remaining on her over night, but, seeing no indication of a storm, they decided to do so. It was a rarely beautiful evening; too fine, indeed - what old weather prophets, call a "pot" day. The sun set amid clouds of crimson, tinging, dusky wavelets with fire and lingering on the beautiful vessel as she laid to rest on the shining sea, while the fresh evening breeze danced over the purple waters. Who could have thought that, before morning, that lovely tranquil scene would have given place to one of tempestuous fury! But was so. By dawn a storm was raging, compared to which, that in which the "Marco Polo" came ashore was nothing.
The tidings spread quickly and soon the shore was lined with people gazing with horror stricken eyes at the vessel, which, cut up as she was must evidently go to pieces in a short time. One can only imagine the agony of the relatives and friends of the poor men at seeing their dear ones in such danger and knowing that they were powerless to aid them. As the men themselves, they were fully alive to their danger, for they knew that the vessel could not hold together much longer. Their only boat was stuck in by the fury of the waves so that their sole hope of rescue lay in some boat being able to reach them from the shore which, in the then state of the rescue was impossible. In spite of the fact that the boat was full of water three of the men insanely got into it and tried to reach land. Of course the boat was instantly swamped and the men left struggling in the water. Two of them managed to regain the wreck in safety, but the third, a poor Frenchman called Peter Buote, was drowned instantly and, several days after the storm, his body was picked up some distance away.
The horror-stricken onlookers still kept their eyes fixed on the fated vessel, in horrible expectation of the inevitable catastrophe; suddenly a cry of horror burst from every lip as the ship was seen to part at the fore-castle head and at once go down. The next minute, however, it was seen that the windlass and a small piece of the bow still remained held by the anchors, and that the men were clinging to this. With the courage of desperation, several attempts were now made to reach the wreck but all the boats filled with water and were compelled to return. Nothing could now be done till the storm would abate and it was only one chance in a hundred that the fragment would hold so long.
Meanwhile the beach was a sight to behold; the vessel having broken up, the planks in her washed ashore and for miles the shore was piled with deals and all sorts of wreckage till it was absolutely impassible!
At last, towards evening, the sea grew a little smoother, and though the attempt was still fraught with much danger, a seine-boat was procured and a party of brave men went to the rescue. They reached the wreck in safety and hauled the men on board by means of ropes. Thus they were all brought safely to land, exhausted with cold, wet, and hunger, but still alive. What rejoicing there was when they were safely landed, and, as the kindly neighbors crowded around with that "touch of nature that makes the whole world kin", there was joy indeed except among the poor Frenchman's relatives, who were mourning the loss of their friend.
About a week afterward, in another gale, the last vestige of the vessel disappeared and that was the end of the famous "Marco Polo", celebrated in song and story, her copper bottom, chaimnns, anchors, etc., in all, it was said, about $190,000 are still there, and, though almost buried in the sands, in a clear calm day the little fishing- boats sailing over the spot can discern, far beneath the remnants that mark the spot where the "Marco Polo" went down.