The History of Long and Brier Islands

Sinking of The “S.S. Robert G. Cann”

by | Nov 23, 2021 | Brier Island, Long Island, shipwrecks | 0 comments

 “S.S. Robert G. Cann”

Before the 1950’s the roads around these coastal communities was mostly impassable, and if you wanted to go any distance it was better to travel by water.  Right from the founding of our Islands, residents travelled by passenger freighters. If you wanted to go visiting, shopping or go to a hospital, you would take a freighter to Saint John, Yarmouth, or any of the other ports in the Eastern United States, you travelled by freighter.

In the 1940’s if you wanted to go to Saint John or Yarmouth you would make the trip on the S.S. Robert G. Cann.

Built in 1911 in Shelburne, the Robert G. Cann was owned by the Eastern Canada Coastal Steamships Limited. It was heading back to Tiverton, Nova Scotia from New Brunswick when the blizzard and howling northwest gale struck. It was reported in the Halifax Herald at the time that a plank on the vessel had sprung, causing the ship to take on water.

Thirteen people climbed into the life-boat as the vessel sank on its way home to Tiverton, Nova Scotia. What these 13 people went through we will never know, the suffering is beyond my imagination. Exposure overtook the people in the life boat. Death kept coming. “At times, Captain Ells would leave the oars to mutter a short prayer over each body as the crewmembers perished, one by one.”

By the time the boat came ashore around 18 hours later, 11 were dead from exposure, including Capt. Emery Peters, who was reportedly the first to die within two hours of abandoning the ship.

It is now 75 years since this disaster happened, very few of our Islands residents, now, would remember the freighter and passenger steamer that plied our waters. Some remember Marion (Davis) Swift losing a brother in this wreck, his name was Richard (Dicky) Davis, fireman on board the S.S. Robert G. Cann. Captain Emery Peters, originally from Westport, Digby County, then a resident of Yarmouth. This wreck was a big loss to our communities after a 27-year service.

A piece of the seventeen-foot lifeboat that they escaped the Robert G. Cann in, 75 years ago, still exists. Someone had donated a side of it to the Islands Museum at Freeport where it is today.

Digby Courier; Feb. 21st 1946

Sinking of the Coastal Steamer Claims 12 Lives

One survived, 12 died

The only survivor of tragic maritime marine disaster was Capt. Arthur Ells of Port Greville, N.S.

The twelve who died were:

• Capt. Emery F. Peters, Yarmouth.

• Lewis David, deckhand, Yarmouth.

• Lawrence J. Jacquard, seaman, Yarmouth.

• Mary E. Jacquard, stewardess, and wife of Lawrence J. Jacquard.

• George A, Fitzgerald, fireman, Brooklyn, Yarmouth County.

• Cleveland C. Bent, seaman, Yarmouth.

• Richard P. Davis, seaman, Yarmouth.

• Thomas V. Bartlett, seaman, Yarmouth.

• George W. Pendrigh, seaman, Yarmouth.

• Joseph V. Jacquard, seaman, Yarmouth.

• William H. Logan, engineer, Granville Ferry.

Inquiry Results:

The sinking of the SS Robert G. Cann

At 3:30pm on Friday the 15th of February 1946, the 265 Ton SS Robert G Cann left St John, NB bound for Yarmouth NS. After following a South Westerly course that kept the Cann about a mile offshore until Point Lepreau, Capt. Ells was relieved by Captain Peters and headed towards Swallowtail light on Grand Manan Island, intending to overnight at North Head Harbour “because it looked like it would breeze up. The Court of Investigation determined that at around 9 p.m., she passed Swallowtail Light, Grand Manan NB and set course for Tiverton.  One hour later as she proceeded on her course across the Bay she encountered a raging blizzard driven by a strong northwest gale. This was about eight miles south east of Swallowtail. The first heavy sea from the sudden storm broke three un-shuttered glass windows in the saloon in the stern pouring water into the saloon and into the engine room down stairs and mixing a slurry of water and ashes, at this point Captain Emery F. Peters, a Westport native who had been on this run for 27 years decided to turn back to the port at Grand Manan at 10:05 pm. This clogged the steam pumps and prevented effective bailing of the ship. The 34 year old steamer began to leak badly from an unknown source, possibly a sprung plank and at 3:30 am the ship was abandoned after the rising water put out her boiler fire. She foundered 8 miles from safety. When the captain ordered the ship abandoned, the crew safely launched a 17 foot lifeboat with proper supplies, which were promptly washed overboard by the high seas driven by the gale, leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few sodden blankets. They then began the fight against a driving blizzard in sub-zero temperatures.

Thus began a nightmarish 19 hour ordeal, as their tiny craft was swept before the wind towards the Digby Neck. “I have never seen seas so big nor felt such intense cold,” recalled Capt. Arthur Ells, mate of the vessel, who took charge of the rescue attempt. “Our lifeboat was just a living foam all the time and the roar of the wind and seas drowned out everything.” Ells and Seaman Joseph Muise manned the oars while everyone else bailed to stay ahead of the waves that kept breaking over the lifeboat. The crew began to succumb to the cold, Captain Peters died first at about 6 a.m.  about two hours after entering the lifeboat[5]. As each person died, Ells said a prayer for them. Lawrence Jacquard died at 8 a.m.[5] then followed Lou David, Andrew Fitzgerald, Cleveland Bent, Dicky Davis, Tom Bartlett, Joseph Jacquard and Chief Engineer Harry Logan. Without food or water the survivors continued to row, bail and chip ice away from the lifeboat. Late in the afternoon the weather cleared and the desperate survivors sighted Boar’s Head on the Nova Scotia coast[5]. When Ells leaned over to tell Mrs. Jacquard the good news, she mumbled “I cant stand it any longer,” and died. George Pendrick, the ship’s Fireman died a few minutes later. Shortly before landing Muise slumped over his oar – too cold and too far gone to row another stroke.

It was not until 11:30 p.m. on Saturday that the lifeboat grounded on the beach at Riley’s Cove about a mile from the village of Lake Midway, Yarmouth County, NS. Capt. Ells exhausted after rowing for most of 19 hours, managed to bring Muise ashore and stumbled on frozen feet through the woods up a moonlit wagon track to the home of Mrs. J.T. Dimock, where he collapsed after telling his story. The RCMP arrived at the scene after 1 a.m. Sunday and found Muise delirious and wandering in the woods. He died enroute to the hospital. Ells miraculously recovered from shock, frozen feet and an injured left hand.

A court of investigation was ordered on 20 Feb 1946 and the report was completed on the 17th of May 1946. The Court of Investigation found that: The vessel:  was in good and seaworthy condition, and properly supplied with lifeboats, life saving appliances and distress signals and  that the cargo was light, properly stowed and secured and did not shift and that the hatches were covered, secured and protected, and that she had the proper trim, freeboard when she left St John.  There were no storm signals flying when she left and the weather forecast “prophesied north west winds”. As a result Captain Peters indicated that he planned on heading to Grand Manan and wait there to stay the night.  At 9pm when the Master set course for Tiverton the wind was still from the west at not less than 23 mph. At around 10pm the wind shifted to the North West and increased to 33mph in less than 10 minutes, increasing to about 55mph at about 3 am.  Between 10:05 pm when she was turned and 3:30am when she was abandoned the Robert G. Cann made no headway towards Grand Manan from the point where she turned and sank 8 miles south east of Swallowtail Light. The Master made all reasonable efforts to save the vessel and crew. The vessel was lost as the result of filling with water from an abnormal leak in the hull of unknown location or origin. The crew died from exposure to the elements in a lifeboat. No wrongful act or default on the part of the owners or any person other than the master caused or contributed to the loss. On the evidence the commissioner “cannot find any default or wrongful act on the part of the master, Capt. Peters, except with respect to his neglect to have the shutters put up and locked over the windows before departing from St John. Waves over the stern created by a sudden northwest storm broke the windows and water thereby reached the bunkers and ashes choked the pumps. Later an extraordinary leak developed in the hull. In my opinion, the most that can be said is that the default or neglect with respect to the shutters contributed to the loss of the vessel and the lives of Capt. Peters and his crew.” The commissioner adds that in any such future case of a like nature even a conjectural contribution to a shipping casualty might afford grounds for suspending a Master’s certificate. The commissioner also strongly endorsed a recommendation that coastal trading vessels operating in the Bay of Fundy be equipped with Ship-to-Shore radio sets.

Riley’s Cove, Digby Neck (just down the shore from Centreville)

In 2019 a new memorial was placed at Riley’s Cove

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