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The SS Ethie And The Hero Dog: The Mystery…

The SS Ethie And The Hero Dog: The Mystery Is Solved (2005)

by Bruce Ricketts

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Aren't you supposed to ask the questions before you give the answers?

That was how I felt upon getting to the end of this book and finding that the author concludes it with a discussion of a series of "controversies" which surround the 1919 loss of the S. S. Ethie. What makes these discussions odd is that the author has already given an account of what happened, expressing no uncertainties. So, for example, he says that 92 people were saved when the Ethie was wrecked. But on p. 59, he says "Were there even 92 persons on board (some accounts put the head count at 72 or 54) the Ethie? ... The answers to these questions, and many more, are lost forever."

It seems to me that that question could be adequately answered -- at least to the extent that we could say that it was "close to ninety," or "close to seventy," or whatever; although the Ethie's own records are lost, we could presumably count how many people bought tickets, and how many were taken ashore! Other questions probably are beyond answer, but at least author Ricketts could have presented the alternatives as we went along, so readers don't end up wondering what it was that they just read when they get to the end!

That not-so-little gripe aside, this is an important book. The wreck of the Ethie went into Newfoundland folklore; there is a song, "The Wreck of the Steamship Ethie," that is still remembered today, and there is also a play about the event that is still performed.

Let's give some background. The Ethie was a Newfoundland coastal steamer that connected the various small villages of Newfoundland's west coast; in 1919, she was making a last voyage before Christmas, trying (for example) to deliver people and gifts for the holiday. On her final trip, there were clear indications that a storm was brewing, but it wasn't clear how bad it would be -- and there was no good harbour in which to shelter anyway. So the ship tried to head for Bonne Bay, a good harbour, but a long way away. She didn't have enough power to make it. It eventually became clear that she was going to go ashore; the only question was where. A local, purser Walter Young, suggested Martin's Point, and Captain English accepted the idea. They headed for Martin's Point -- and almost made it, but the ship struck an underwater rock a few hundred feet from the shore. Fortunately, they were able to get a line to shore, and everyone on the Ethie managed to make it to safety, though it was quite some time before they could leave Martin's Point (which had no roads, no way to communicate with the outside world, and only two families!).

That's the story. The folklore is different -- it claims that a dog from Martin's Point swam out to catch the line from the Ethie, which made the whole rescue possible. The strong weight of evidence is that there was no dog -- or, rather, that Wisher, the dog of one of the residents of Martin's Point, was present but didn't do anything useful. Nonetheless, a bunch of dog fans made up a fancy collar for the dog, emblazoned "HERO," and eventually someone bought the dog to try showing it off in a trick to bring in money. The freak show failed -- the dog wasn't a Newfoundlander and didn't look the part. So eventually the new owner traded in the dog Wisher for a Newfoundlander and toured with that -- showing a dog that wasn't the dog that wasn't a hero anyway! In any rational world, he'd have been shut down as a fraud, but instead he managed to sell fake dog and real collar to an even nuttier nut.

The dog, of course, is dead. The collar survives. And therein lies the tale. The first part of the book is about the Ethie. The second is about the adventures of dog and collar after everyone else had gone home. And then there are all those variant possibilities at the end.

I didn't really care for the result. The story of the fake dog was noteworthy but told at much too much length ("The dog didn't do it, and the dog they showed wasn't the real dog anyway" is all that we really need to know). The material at the end, as I've already said, should have been worked into the main narrative. And yet, there is no other book on the topic. It is a thin little book (only 68 pages, in large type with many short chapters that leave a lot of paper blank; with a little reorganization, I suspect this could have been issued as a 36 or 40 page pamphlet), but it is the biggest memorial the Ethie has. ( )
  waltzmn | Apr 21, 2018 |
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For Anna, my wife
fellow adventurer.

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In 1919, a shipwreck on the shores of western Newfoundland spawned a mystery that would take almost 85 years to unravel.
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