Divine Intervention

We are very proud of our legacy as seafarers so it might come as a surprise to landlubbers that being close to land scares the living daylights out of the hardiest sailor.

Land is only a safe haven when you have both feet solidly on it. Until then, it is the greatest peril faced by men (and women) in ships. There is unpleasantness to be found in the open ocean to be sure but nothing as dangerous as the craggy rocks and sunkers that surround our shore.

The earliest venturers along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador found comfort in the efforts of others to safely guide them home.

Initially these efforts were simple beacon fires. They were the forerunner to an intricate network of different initiatives, now collectively known as the Aids to Navigation.

Permanent lighthouses started marking the most prominent capes so that nocturnal mariners could tell at a glance where they were (weather permitting).

Cape Bonavista light could be distinguished from the one on Baccalieu Island by the combined pattern of its flashes and the length of darkness in between. Within the bays, lights were erected to mark the towns along the shore and significant danger spots in between. 

Even the position and shape of church construction was an important aid to navigation.

On the night of Nov. 27, 1938, the schooner, Marion Rogers of Trinity, was bound home from St. Johnís with a full load of goods for the merchants of her home port. She had rounded Baccalieu Island that marks the point of separation between Conception Bay and Trinity Bay.

From there, she followed a compass bearing that would take her across the mouth of the bay to home. Her lights were seen from Port Rexton before a snow squall blew up. Cause for concern among the most seasoned sailors but no cause for panic. Expectant ears scanned the white oblivion for the strains of Fort Point foghorn at the mouth of Trinity harbour. It would take them safely in.

At the very same time, Trinity was playing host to the Anglican Bishop in a special evening christening service at Saint Paulís Church. It was an auspicious occasion because the Bishopís visits were few with intervals of up to five years between them. Everyone was expected to turn out and everyone did. Even the lighthouse keeper and his assistant had rowed over for the service.

Out there in the snow, aboard the Marion Rogers was Ed McGrath. One of a crew of seven, he was the only man aboard who actually lived in Trinity. He had cabled home that he was not coming by train as previously intended but had shipped on the Marion instead. 

On the morning of the 18th, a member of his family was walking the beach below his house and found a suitcase in the land wash. It was Edís! This was the first anyone knew of the terrible tragedy that had occurred the night before.

Proceeding through the snow, the Marion Rogers had run aground just beneath the silent foghorn. All on board perished while the oblivious citizenry were gathered before the Bishop.

Among those so sadly neglected in their hour of need were the captain, William Butler of Bonaventure and his brother, the shipís owner, William Hogarth of Trinity East and his son, father and son Alfred and Simon Pitcher, and Ed McGrath.

An inadvertent and painfully ironic battle of faiths took place that night: Faith in God versus Faith in men charged with your safety. There were no winners when the battle was over, only losers, both living and dead.

A subsequent inquiry into the disaster questioned the keepers as to their whereabouts at the time of the grounding. Their answers were vague and evasive but they were not pressed on the point. This may seem strange to us today but the church does not have the hold it once had.

To ignore an appearance before the Bishop would have been severely frowned upon. That others saw them in church that night but did not attempt to impress this upon the board of inquiry is in itself, mute testimony of the churchís drawing power.

Undoubtedly, church officials, the townís people and the keepers themselves deeply regretted what came to pass that night and would, if they could, have done anything to reverse the tragic outcome.

One of the victims lies buried in Port Rexton and on his headstone are the words .. Lost in the Mouth of the Horn.

Written by Bob Hyslop, The Packet, September 8, 2003

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