The Schooner Marion Rodgers and Her Crew – Lost to the North Atlantic
By Les Butler

            The North Atlantic changed my life forever, with one of its many acts of cruelty.  At 8:00 on a Sunday evening, November 27, 1938, there was not a sign of snow, but a strong southeast gale prevailed on the north side of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland.  The vessel, Marion Rodgers, owned by my uncle, Will Butler of Bonaventure with his brother Ellis, my father and five other crew members, was crossing Trinity Bay heading for Trinity harbour.

            The Marion Rodgers, with Captain William Hogarth at the helm, had passed through Baccalieu Tickle just ahead of the vessel Janet R., which was under the guidance of Captain Ronald Pelley.  Both vessels left St. John’s harbour at 2:00 a.m. that morning, in clear Fall weather.  The crew of the Marion Rodgers had no indication that their time on this earth would be reduced to mere hours.

            The Fort Point, Trinity light and horn is about eight miles east of the Horse Chops light and horn.  Horse Chops would sound its horn during inclement weather and Fort Point would respond at pre-determined intervals. The pending storm would test this system to the fullest.


The Vessel and its Owners

            The schooner, Marion Rodgers was constructed in 1924 at Fair Island, Bonavista Bay by a man named Malcolm Rodgers.  She was christened after his two-year old daughter, Marion.  The vessel was 57.5 feet in length, 19.7 feet in width with a draft of 8.6 feet.  She had a gross tonnage of 40.7 tons and net of 37.1 tons, wooden hull, one wooden deck and two masts.  There were numerous owners over the years after Rodgers, starting with Jesse Bourne from Greenspond. A.H. Murray and Company of St. John’s owned the vessel for about six years, then the Marion Rodgers is shown in the Ships Registry as being sold to Robert and Stephen Miller of Bonaventure.  About two months prior to the schooner’s loss she was purchased from the Millers by Will Butler, also of Bonaventure, Trinity Bay.

Reason for the Last Voyage

            Will Butler owned businesses in Bonaventure and Port Rexton. The recently-acquired Marion Rodgers was to be used in the business for coastal freighting.  The schooner was in St. John’s to take delivery of a load of goods purchased for stock at Will’s business locations.

            My father had intended purchasing items to complete the interior of our new home, as well as some special Christmas gifts for my mother and me.  My mom and dad had returned from the United States to live and raise a family in Port Rexton.  That November storm added finality to all their plans and dreams.

            Will Butler, 38 and Edward McGrath, 36, of Trinity were traveling as passengers from St. John’s.  Will wired a message to his wife Anne that he was returning home on the Marion Rodgers instead of by rail as planned originally.  My father had severely cut his hand requiring a visit to the Grace Hospital and Uncle Will decided he would be a back-up crew member because of this accident.

            Captain William Hogarth, 51, of Trinity East, an experienced and capable master, Lester Hogarth, 25, son of the captain, Alfred Pitcher, 55 and his son, Simon, 18, both of New Bonaventure and my father, Ellis Butler, 33, of Port Rexton made up the Marion Rodgers’ last crew.

            My Aunt Anne, wife of Will, was opposed to the purchase of the Marion Rodgers.

            Some people have premonitions of pending doom or disaster prior to danger to a loved one.  She had such an experience at that time.  Will’s wife spoke her fears in these words, “This boat will mean a watery grave for you if you make the purchase.”

            The manifestation of one’s psychic ability in the foretelling of future events happens often, but cannot be satisfactorily explained.  If these warnings are seriously accepted by those concerned and followed, perhaps dire happenings in their future might be prevented.  Was this a message from God?

            In the case of the Marion Rodgers’ disaster, Anne Butler wasn’t the only person with a psychic warning of the impending doom.  My father and uncle had both invited their younger half-brother, fourteen year old Levi, to accompany them on the trip to St. John’s,  my grandfather, Ambrose, in ruling on this request responded, “No, he is not going, I have two boys going now to be lost.  It won’t be three.”

            The family left behind in their grief can only wonder at God’s mysterious ways and, if indeed, this was a message from the ruler of heaven and earth that they should have followed his word.


The Years Prior to the Tragedy

            Ellis and Florence had no idea each other even existed when they resided at home in Newfoundland, yet they lived only about twenty-five miles apart.

            My parents both emigrated to Boston in the 1920’s, and met over a backyard fence.  Father lived with his sister, and my mother with her aunt.

            Ellis Butler was one of a large family from a sea-going background in the Trinity area.  Florence Coles, my mother, was from Elliston, Trinity Bay.  She was also a member of a large family, as were most people of Newfoundland, back at the turn of the century.  My dad worked as a licensed elevator operator, in Boston, back in the days when trained and uniformed operators were a must on all elevators.  Mother was employed in an ice cream plant, operating a piece of processing equipment.

            They remained for nine years in the state of Massachusetts, married there on New Year’s Day in 1931, but I didn’t see the light of day, until they arrived back in Newfoundland.  I came along on June 21, 1936 and was always grateful to my parents that was I born here on the island.  I couldn’t have been happier any other place on this earth than here as a Newfoundlander.

            Will married Anne Stone from Bonaventure, where they resided.  He owned a business in Port Rexton as well and my dad worked for him in running part of his operation.  Uncle Will had slowly expanded his business from two general stores, to purchasing  and exporting fish and fish products to some outside markets.  He left behind two daughters, Ruby and Mildred. Ruby is living in East Point, Catalina where her family is located, but Mildred passed away a few short years after her dad was lost.


The Running Aground of the Marion Rodgers

            The snow started suddenly on that fateful night, and a fierce storm was covering the area in an hour.  The storm started with a few snow ‘squalls’.  At 9:00 p.m. the wind had increased and the snow was fast and thick.  The North Atlantic needs no assistance in performing any cruel, devastating acts, but a circumstance would occur to aid and abet the sea’s fury, on that Sabbath Day.  Those who remember that night in 1938 say that the system of navigational aids, consisting of light and horn, did not perform their vitally essential tasks that evening.

            Some people in the area today attest that the Trinity horn sounded earlier than it should have, and not in response to the Horse Chops horn.  The Horse Chops horn was heard by the residents during the storm the old-timers vouch today.

            The lights of the Marion Rodgers were seen prior to the full fury of the storm.  She had gone through Baccalieu Tickle at 6:00 p.m. with her sails set and her engine working fine.  It was rumoured that the people from English Harbour, (approximately four miles east of Trinity), saw her light off Fox Island about 8:00 p.m.  With 29 nautical miles as the distance across Trinity Bay, Captain Hogarth was right on course, making good time.  Obviously the weather at that time could not have been very bad if they saw the vessel running for Trinity.  The lights were also seen by some of the magisterial inquiry witnesses, as they testified to a red light on one side of the boat, and a green one on the other.  Some uncertainty existed on actual times of the witnesses’ observation of the schooner.  One said that at 7:30 the lights were seen from Port Rexton, estimated to be over a mile from the observation location, and four miles from Fort Point Lighthouse.

            Another witness said that at 8:30 the lights were estimated to be a little over a mile off Fox Island, and four miles from Fort Point.  This would agree with the estimated time of the crash, but not the time of the bay crossing.  Could this sighting of lights have given some indication that Captain Hogarth had waited outside the crash point for a period of uncertain time, afraid of being too close to  land?  Was there no light or horn on the Marion Rodgers?  We will never know it seems.  At 8:40 p.m. Lightkeeper Henry Rowe said he saw no vessel lights at all on the Bay that evening.

            If the light and horn had been manned and operating, the Marion Rodgers, some people believe, would not have run aground that evening, directly in front of Fort Point Lighthouse.  She would have been safely guided by Captain Hogarth the few precious yards  the end of this jutting point and narrow land.

            On the direct approach to the lighthouse, the heavy snow with the accompanying gale force winds, now had obliterated the light to the Marion Rodgers crew.  The horn, if they heard it, was of no significance, because the exact distance of the sound was impossible to determine.  Crashing on the rocks was unavoidable and inevitable under these circumstances.


The Final Moments

            The blanket of fast swirling snow provided no preparation of their futile actions.  Perhaps, it was just as well.  Death stared them straight in the eye, with only a brief moment to ask God to take care of their families.  There were no good-byes under these circumstances.

            Suddenly the Marion Rodgers was breaking apart after the terrible crash and the men were in the water with no assistance from shore.

            Those who located and retrieved the bodies of my father and uncle indicated that they were probably dead before they went into the churning sea beating on the rocks.  Both had very similar head and chest injuries that were construed to be inflicted from the foremast falling on them, upon impact.  They must have been standing together, their eyes attempting to penetrate the heavy snow around their vessel.

            Those other five brave souls must have been the source of the yells and cries heard by some residents, who related later the sounds of human voices calling.  The residents were unable to determine the source of the cries for help, in the last moments of the men still alive in the water.


The Magisterial Enquiry

            My grandfather wrote a letter to his daughter, Mabel on December 13, 1938 in which he stated, “If I were home for the winter, I would call for an enquiry, which should be done.  The poor boys that are gone have no one to push it.”  In his period of mourning, he didn’t realize that somebody was already preparing such an action, on her own family’s behalf.

            Captain William Hogarth’s wife requested a magisterial investigation.  District Magistrate Arthur Squarey’s enquiry summarized the evidence taken and his report to the Secretary of Justice for Newfoundland, dated February 4, 1939, shows some interesting paragraphs, but no definitive reason for the vessel’s loss.

            An excerpt from page 4 of Squarey’s report says:

                        After having heard the evidence of Henry James Rowe, keeper of the light and fog alarm at Fort Point and William Arthur Rowe, Assistant, I have come to the conclusion they were hostile witnesses, that their evidence was contradictory and confusing, and in most cases avoided the issue by forgetting and not remembering what happened at certain times, simply to avoid telling the truth, especially as to time, but question favourable to themselves were answered promptly.

                        According to their evidence, in my opinion, the duties of both the Keeper and the Assistant Keeper have been performed in a slipshod manner, and in a good many cases the Alarm has been taking care of itself.  They seem to have no sense of responsibilities, or what their watchfulness means to those who go down to the sea in ships.

                        I feel sure that the Captain of the schooner, William Hogarth knew his position (I feel certain lights were seen from that schooner) and had shaped a true course for Fort Point Lighthouse and, before reaching there, a gale force wind and snow came on making it utterly impossible to see the light or hear the sound of the Fog Alarm, if it was going, which he expected to hear every minute.  Not hearing the Alarm kept his course till she struck rocks a short distance from the Alarm, with the result that the seven men comprising the crew and passengers were drowned and the schooner broken up by the sea.

                        In conclusion, I must admit that I cannot understand how a man with sea-faring knowledge, even if he knew his position a short time previous to the accident, should continue to run on the land in such a gale, when he could not hear the Alarm, and knew that he was getting in close touch with the land.  In my opinion, I would call it bad seamanship.

            In all, eleven witnesses gave evidence with varying and different opinions on when things happened.  The only two who mentioned cries or screams were in agreement that they heard the calls between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. (probably 9:15) to visit his sick father’s home, which was about 150 or 160 yards from the Alarm.  He stayed for about half an hour and returned.  This was the time given when witnesses stated that they heard the screams.

            The last sentence of paragraph 5, page 2 of Squarey’s summarization states:

                        In reference to the ending of Lightkeeper Rowe’s watch at 2:00 a.m. and changeover to Assistant Keeper’s watch: - I believe this statement to be a down right lie, as he made it clear himself after I got him into a corner.

            This pertained to the Keeper leaving his post again at 1:30 a.m. with no one on watch until sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m.

            There was no evidence given to provide any facts to say whether the light or alarm were ever on that night,  if both were on all through the storm, if only one was in operation or, if so, which one.  All witnesses were sure their statements were correct, but there was very little agreement on times that the Fog Alarm blast was heard.


Further Enquiry Excerpts

            William Bailey, a Trinity resident, described the scene on the morning of Monday, November 28 as follows:

                        My two sons came to the house and told me the “Marion Rodgers” was lost with all hands and that her quarter (meaning the after side) was washed in on Christian’s Beach. The register was also picked up in the same place.

On November 30, he recalls:

            I grappled until dark for bodies, but was unsuccessful.  The first thing I did was try and locate where the schooner struck the rocks.  I found one of her anchors (starboard one) about fifty yards from the Fog Alarm House.  About fifteen feet outside where I found the first anchor, I found the one which would be the port anchor.  From where I saw the first anchor, to the sea shore, would be about ten yards.  At low tide there would be no more than six feet of water on the anchors.  About 150 yards from where I saw the anchors, I saw the hull of the schooner bottom up in a cove, on the back of Bugden’s Rock, stern nearest the mainland, right underneath the lighthouse.  The sea shore near the lighthouse is perpendicular, and right underneath the lighthouse was the schooner.

The location of the anchors indicated where the Marion Rodgers went aground – fifty yards from the Fog Alarm House.  One other statement to the enquiry included these words – “Had the schooner come fifty yards further to windward, she would have come into Sam’s Cove and then would have had a chance.”

Monday, November 28 dawned to hurricane winds, from the southwest, which veered west and became much colder.  Searching for the bodies was impossible, and similar difficulties from a northwest gale, accompanied by snow flurries, prevailed on Tuesday.  Wednesday brought a southerly wind, but there was too much sea to get near the rocks around Trinity for searching.  Thursday, December 1 brought some success in the Fort Point search.  The bodies of Ellis and William Butler and William and Lester Hogarth were recovered.  As evening advanced, thick snow began and the search was suspended again.  By now, a week later, 300 men were engaged in the search, and the body of Simon Pitcher was jigged up in the Narrows area on Sunday, December 4, while light northerly winds prevailed.

With southerly winds and rain, Edward McGrath’s body was found on December 7.  Gale winds from the southwest prevented further searching for the final victim, Alfred Pitcher.  After December 9 the search was suspended, and the Atlantic claimed Mr. Pitcher’s body forever.  His family were denied honouring their loved one with a final resting place near his home.


Unanswered Questions

1.      Did Captain Hogarth make a poor judgment call in not remaining anchored offshore waiting out the storm as Master Ronald Pelley did in the vessel Janet R?  Captain Pelley figured the Marion Rodgers was three miles ahead of him going through Baccalieu Tickle, and when he was half way across Trinity Bay (10 miles), the Marion Rodgers should have been four or five miles from Trinity Harbour.

2.      Was Fort Point Light in operation that evening from the start of the storm until it was over at 12:30 a.m. Monday morning?

3.      Was the alarm sounding from its first heard blast at 8:15 p.m. until the storm had passed?

4.      If the light and alarm were in full operation that evening, would it have been any different if the Keeper had been at his post for all of his watch?  (The screams were heard a little after 9:30 p.m. and the Keeper states he was away at this time.)

5.      Was the Marion Rodges ‘hove to’ for approximately one hour, between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m., as details of some statements indicated?  Miller, of Champney’s East, one of the enquiry witnesses, saw the lights, estimating a time to Fort Point of 3 ½ hours.  This was around 7:30 – 7:45 p.m. while Ballett, of Port Rexton, another witness, estimated 3 ½ - 4 miles from Fort Point at 8:45 – 9:00 p.m.  If the Marion Rodgers were moving, she would have reached Fort Point an hour earlier than she did, if the statement by Miller was accurate.  As he said she was off Fox Head, we have to believe he knew what he was saying.  The only other explanation, if they were both correct, is that the Marion Rodgers was anchored waiting out the storm.


My Theory

            In summarizing what facts we know, there is a mystery hour not accounted for in the magistrate’s report.

Fact 1:  The Marion Rodgers had passed through Baccalieu Tickle at 6:00 p.m.

Fact 2:  The time stated by knowledgeable captains for crossing the twenty nautical miles across Trinity Bay from the Tickle to Fort Point by schooner was 2 ½ hours.

Fact 3:  The Marion Rodgers crashed on the rocks under the lighthouse at 9:30 to 9:45 pm., as verified by witnesses who heard the screams and cries.

Fact 4:  There is one hour accounted for in any documentation of the disaster.

Fact 5:  Witnesses who observed the lights of the schooner estimated the vessel to be four to four and one half miles from Trinity; one at 7:30 p.m. and one at 8:30 p.m.

            It is my opinion, from my research, that Captain William Hogarth did in fact apply common sense and good seamanship in his approach to Trinity under the extenuating circumstances of that evening.  I cannot agree with Magistrate Squarey’s assessment that calls Hogarth’s performance bad seamanship.

            Evidence presented at the enquiry does indeed indicate that Hogarth waited outside Fort Point approach to Trinity.  The enquiry failed, for some reason, to state that the Marion Rodgers was in the same location from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 pm.  William Hogarth’s presumption that the third time the snow came was just another squall was his fatal mistake, a fact in no way relating to his ability as a master.

            This mystery period of the evening has only one logical explanation – Captain Hogarth had the vessel ‘hove to’ until the weather broke after the second snow squall.  He then made a judgment call that the weather was only snow squalls, as indicated by the previous pattern of squall – break – squall – break, which had just ended.

            After the second squall it was clear weather.  If Captain Hogarth decided after two squalls to head her in to the harbour, then unfortunately the third supposed squall was the full-fledged storm that was to last about two and a half hours.  Was this a judgment call that went bad because he needed the light for guidance into the safe harbour?  The storm obliterated this navigational aid, and there was no observing it in thick snow.  Distance could not be ascertained by the horn, either in distance to take him to the right of the point, or to tell nearness in a straight line to the light.

            All evidence gathered by the Magistrate established that the light and horn were indeed in operation that evening.


The Past Reaches Out

            I have traveled the Trinity Bay area for all of my adult life.  Time had counted down half a century from the loss of the Marion Rodgers before the following incident transpired.

            In the Trinity Museum one day I was reading a small card on a post that said an anchor from the schooner Marion Rodgers was on display.  Being a person that missed nothing on the displays, I was now on the third level of the museum.  There was no anchor.  The attendant, a Mr. Goldsworthy, informed me that the anchor was outside and he would show me when I was ready to depart.

            On making him aware of my contact with the disaster, he informed me that the wheel of the Marion Rodgers was also in Trinity, on the property of a Mr. Jack Ploughman.

            I thanked him, obtained directions and in moments I was facing the wheel that perhaps my father had handled while on the vessel.

            With my heart beating rapidly, I was soon conversing with Jack Ploughman about how he obtained the wheel.  The wheel, on its shaft, was mounted on a display base and had the time and circumstances surrounding the schooner’s loss painted on a large thin piece of shale sitting next to it.

            Mr. Ploughman, after hearing about my connection with the Marion Rodgers said “There is no one better to own the wheel than yourself.”  He explained that he was hired to clean up the wreckage.  When the authorities said to dispose of the wheel with other wreckage, he decided otherwise, and brought it to his shed and stored it all these years.

            Mr. Ploughman told me he and his wife planned to move to a seniors’ home in the not-to-distant future.  He committed the wheel to me when they moved.  Their plans did not materialize.  Unfortunately, he passed away within the year, but his wife remembered me and contacted me to pick up the wheel.  It has now been on my property for more than ten years.  Did God have a hand in this transfer of the Marion Rodgers’ wheel?

            The next incident out of the past happened in the same year at Port Rexton Cemetery. I was there on a cool, misty Saturday to visit my dad’s grave.  I suggested to my wife that she remain in the vehicle because of the weather, and I hurried down through the older headstones to locate the right section.  Having no success, I spotted a man digging a new grave, and I headed in his direction for assistance.  I told the elderly gentleman what I was seeking, and he asked me a couple of pertinent questions.  Suddenly, he removed his work gloves and extended his hand to shake mine.  His comment was “I’m the man that removed your father’s body from the water.”  I stood speechless.  Only two people in the cemetery and this was our connection.  Was it meant to be and orchestrated that way?

            A third incident was yet to be played out, in relation to my father’s loss.

            While on vacation the next summer, my wife suggested visiting an art display at the Glynmill Inn.  We didn’t realize this would lead to an incident there regarding the Marion Rodgers.

            There was only one other couple viewing the many works of art and the woman was asking if there was a painting of Trinity.  The attendant located one in a bundle of art work not yet set up for display.  My interest was sparked and we stood behind this couple waiting to see the Trinity work.

            It was a good painting of the Fort Point and I excused myself to the lady for interfering with her viewing but explained to her my father was lost in a disaster right at that spot.  My answers to her questions about when and how this happened brought this remark, “My family were lighthouse keepers there for years.  In fact, my father would have been the keeper in 1938.”

            I acknowledged her and moved away.  This was no time to discuss any further what knowledge either of us had about Fort Point, Trinity in 1938.


The Marion Rodgers Not Forgotten

            Some people in the Trinity – Port Rexton area will tell you of mysterious lights in the bay which they claim are lights of the spirit ship.  I was told that if a light was showing on the shore on November 27, a ghost ship would head for shore, and come right in to run aground again and again.  Some would tell you that the departed seven have not found rest.  I suspect there is one more, making the total eight seeking their final rest.

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