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Alphabet Fleet

The Alphabet Fleet (so called because the initial letters of the names of the ships followed the alphabet) were mainly coastal vessels, carrying passengers and freight around the Island and north to Labrador, and were owned by the Reid-Newfoundland Railway. The first eight were built in Scotland in 1898, and each was given a name associated with Scotland: Argyle, Bruce, Clyde, Dundee, Ethie, Fife, Glencoe and Home. In subsequent years the fleet was increased by the addition of new vessels: the Inverness, Kyle, Lintrose and the Meigle. The Alphabet Fleet gradually disappeared from Newfoundland and by the 1970s the Kyle was the only one left in the Province. Property of the Newfoundland Government, she lies beached at Riverhead, Harbour Grace.

Bruce, S.S.

Built in 1897 by A. and J. Inglis, Glasgow, for the Reid Company Alphabet fleet qv, the 1100 ton Bruce, under Captain P. Delaney, arrived in St. John's in October of that year and was the first boat to carry passengers, mail and freight under contract between Port aux Basques and Nova Scotia. Prior to the arrival of the Bruce travel between Newfoundland and Canada was irregular and undependable but this steamship provided a regular triweekly service connecting passengers from the Port aux Basques railhead with the Intercolonial railway station at North Sydney. After nearly fourteen years of service, during which she carried almost half a million passengers on the Newfoundland-Nova Scotia run, the S.S. Bruce was wrecked in the ice near Louisbourg, N.S. on March 04, 1911. On her final voyage she carried 123 passengers, forty of whom were Newfoundland fishermen on their way to Vancouver to join the Pacific seal hunt. Two lives were lost during the rescue operations.

In 1911 a second Bruce was built for the Reid Newfoundland Company qv by the firm of Napier and Miller in Scotland (who also built the S.S. Bellaventure). The new 1700 ton Bruce (called at her launching ``The Marvel of the Clyde''), commanded by Captain Spracklin, arrived at St. John's on February 12, 1912, seven days, twenty-one hours and five minutes out from Greenock. Spracklin reported to a local newspaper upon the arrival of the Bruce that ``as a seaboat I never saw her equals. I tried her in every way coming out, but not a drop of water came over her for'd.'' She continued the mail and passenger service between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia until 1916 when she was sold to the Russians.

Dundee, S.S.

One of the Reid Company's *Alphabet Ships qv, the 439-ton Dundee was built by A. & J. Inglis at Glasgow in 1900 and registered in Newfoundland in the same year. It carried mail and passengers around Bonavista Bay and to points north until Christmas Day 1919, when it went aground on Noggin Island. The passengers and crew were stranded on the ship for two days because heavy seas and slob ice made rescue impossible. On the second day, when the ship began to take on water, the Clyde was able to reach the floundering Dundee and remove the passengers and crew before the ship sank. The S.S. Dundee was the second ship lost by the Reid Company in December 1919: the S.S. Ethie qv, the sister ship of the S.S. Dundee, had sunk on December 11 near Bonne Bay.

Ethie, S.S.

Used by the Reid-Newfoundland Company as a passenger and freight steamer, the Ethie was one of the *Alphabet Fleet qv. The ship was on its Labrador-St. Barbe run in December 1919 when it sank about 20 km (12 mi) from Bonne Bay. The shipwreck has caused some controversy in Newfoundland history. While approaching Cow Head on December 10 the ship encountered an unexpected violent hurricane. Having the responsibility for the safety of some ninety passengers, Captain English and first mate Gullage, were most concerned with getting the people off as quickly as possible. The Ethie's purser, a local resident, Walter Young, knew that strip of the coastline quite well and suggested that Martin's Point would offer the most favorable landing, with at least a chance of transporting some of those on board to safety.

Nevertheless the bottom of the Ethie was torn by the reef before it reached shore, and as well as its sinking, the captain and crew had to worry about an imminent explosion from the boiler room. The ``test'' dory that had been sent out was crushed by the heavy seas. Gullage then suggested that a ``boatswain's chair'' be rigged up by attaching ropes to a buoy which would be sent ashore with the prevailing currents.

Several people on the land waded into the water to retrieve the buoy, and a pulley system was set up. Through their efforts all of the passengers, including a baby, and the crew were individually pulled ashore in the chair.

The controversy surrounding this shipwreck concerns the alleged role of a Newfoundland dog in the rescue. In most written histories throughout the ensuing fifty or so years such a dog was supposed either to have swum out from the beach to retrieve the buoy, or to have been sent from the ship with the ropes in its mouth. The newspaper reports of the time are varied: The Evening Herald (Dec. 16, 17, 1919) makes no mention of a dog, while The Western Star (Dec. 17, 1919) and The Evening Telegram (Jan. 8, 1920) do. In all of these newspapers, however, it is noted that there was a lack of detailed information available.

Contemporary historians maintain that the part played by the dog was an exaggeration or complete fabrication. F.W. Rowe (1979) cites the obvious errors made in the story: none of the survivors or witnesses of the shipwreck that he interviewed a decade later could remember a dog as ``rescuer;'' in seas that could break a boat apart, a dog could not have survived; and at the time Newfoundland dogs on the west coast were very rare. The Evening Telegram (Mar. 12, 1920) noted that an American reporter who had been convalescing in Curling just before the time of the wreck had written a story for a Philadelphia paper about the praiseworthy actions of a dog. Paul O'Neill notes in The Evening Telegram (Dec. 3, 1977) that this may have had something to do with the ``dog'' legend. A mongrel was said to have been creating a furore on the beach and made several tugs on the ropes. The reporter may have ``beefed'' up the story to make it newsworthy for both the Newfoundland and the American press.

Whether or not the dog did participate in the rescue, its owner profited by the story when he sold his ``hero'' pet on the mainland, and the story inspired, in 1920, E.J. Pratt qv to write the poem ``Carlo,'' the story of a dog who performed the heroic feat of rescuing passengers from a foundering ship.


Built in 1881 by Barclay Curle and Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, this vessel, originally named the S.S. Dromedary, operated between Glasgow and Belfast as a mail-passenger ship from 1881 until 1909, when it was acquired by the Reid Newfoundland Co.

After arriving in Newfoundland the 975-ton vessel was renamed the M.V. Invermore (not the Inverness as some records indicate) and became part of the Alphabet Fleet qv. The ship replaced the Virginia Lake on the Labrador service, after that vessel was lost at the seal fishery. The Invermore served as a Labrador passenger and cargo ship for two years before replacing the S.S. Bruce on the Gulf service in 1911, after that ship was lost.

In 1913 the Invermore resumed the Labrador service. It was lost at Brig Harbour Point, Labrador on July 10, 1914. @BIb J.G. Bartlett (1980), Jack Fitzgerald (1984), Paul O'Neill (1976), Newfoundland Historical Society (Ship's File).

Kyle, S.S.

Built by Swan, Hunter and Co. at Newcastle-on-Tyne, England in 1913 for the Reid Newfoundland Co., the Kyle arrived in St. John's on May 20 and was described as a ``Splendid specimen of marine architecture.'' In the 1990s it was the only surviving member of the Alphabet Fleet qv still in Newfoundland.

The Kyle under steam

In 1915, after two years as a coastal boat on Newfoundland's Northeast Coast, the Kyle served as ferry on the North Sydney-Port aux Basques run. In 1926 the ship returned to Labrador service, beginning 33 years of operation during which it became a vital part of Labrador life. Each year Newfoundland ``stationers'' relied on the Kyle for transport to and from Labrador. Often the only link between Labrador and the outside world, it provided both stationers and ``livyers'' with supplies, transportation, mail service and medical care. The vessel also enabled clergy to visit isolated communities and carried children to and from boarding schools.

The Kyle could also provide entertainment: in the late 1920s a film shown in the ship's common room marked the first time native Labradorians saw themselves on film, while Ted Russell's poem Smokeroom on The Kyle illustrates a typical story-telling session aboard ship.

The Kyle attracted world-wide attention in 1927 when it picked up the wreckage of the American aircraft Old Glory, which had departed from Maine, hoping to become one of the first to cross the Atlantic, and went down off Cape Race.

In 1959 Shaw Steamships of Halifax bought the Kyle and renamed it the Arctic Eagle. Two years later, it was purchased by Earle Brothers of Carbonear and given back its original name. The Kyle operated as a sealer off coastal Labrador until 1967. When it returned from the front that year with heavy damage, it was decided to ``lay up'' the vessel. It was anchored in Harbour Grace, where during a violent storm it grounded at Riverhead. In 1991 the ship was still visible from the highway entering Harbour Grace.

Lintrose, S.S.

This addition to the *alphabet fleet qv was built by Swan Hunter Shipbuilding of Newcastle in 1913 -- the same year the company built the Kyle for service on the Gulf ferry route between Port aux Basques and North Sydney. Almost a sister ship of the second Bruce, she was strongly constructed for operation in ice, with steel plates 3.1 cm thick running from prow to midships, the remainder of the hull covered with 2.5 cm steel. Other ice-breaking innovations included a double hull with five watertight compartments. Like the rest of the alphabet fleet, the Lintrose was christened after a Scottish place name. Powered by four steam boilers delivering 3500 hp, the Lintrose had a maximum speed of 16 knots. With morocco upholstery in the smoking room and mahogany sideboards and stained glass doors in the dining saloon, the vessel provided ``sterling silver service'' to some 80 first-class and 150 second-class passengers for two years. In 1915 the ship was sold to the Russian government and renamed the Sadko. It operated for two seasons as an ice-breaking supply ship in the White Sea before running aground and sinking on June 20, 1918, enroute to Archangel. With only funnel and masts above water, the Sadko lay on the bottom until 1933, when it was refloated. It was later used in scientific expeditions in Russian waters north of the 80th parallel. See ICE-BREAKING SHIPS.

Meigle, S.S.

Built as the Solway by the firm Barclay, Curle and Co. of Scotland in 1886, this ship weighed 835 gross tons, was 220.2 feet long, and was powered by a 148 hp engine. It was purchased by the Reid Newfoundland Company on January 24, 1913, renamed the Meigle after a place near Robert G. Reid's birthplace, and served as a passenger and cargo boat before being laid up in St. John's in the early 1930s.

The Meigle had been out of commission for nearly a year when it was proposed to make it an auxiliary jail, as the penitentiary could not accommodate the many unemployed people incarcerated for rioting over government relief. Transferred to the Department of Justice, the Meigle was anchored midstream in St. John's Harbour on October 29, 1932, thereafter becoming known as the city's ``prison afloat,'' complete with warden, policemen and prison guards. The Meigle was used as a prison ship until June 30, 1933, when it was converted into a salt bulk storage hull.

In 1936 the Shaw Steamship Co. Ltd. of Halifax purchased the ship and it returned to its earlier duties. When World War II broke out the Meigle was again pressed into national service and had a couple of close encounters with the enemy. On August 16, 1943, loaded with fluorspar from the St. Lawrence mine, enroute to Canada in convoy, its cargo shifted and the ship developed a list and was forced to slow down. Captain Alf Kean was ordered by the convoy commander to abandon ship. Instead, he managed to trim the cargo and got into St. Pierre on an even keel. Later that same year, the Meigle had another narrow escape when the convoy it was in was attacked by U-boats and several vessels were torpedoed. The Meigle, however, escaped and made a safe landfall in Bay Bulls. But after surviving enemy attacks, the 60-year-old ship could not escape the wrath of the ocean. On July 19, 1947, it was wrecked at Marines Cove with a general cargo, including hundreds of livestock, hens and pigs. Fortunately the crew all survived.

Virginia Lake

Built in 1882 as the Conscript, the Virginia Lake was used in the coastal mail service for 12 years, running from St. John's to St. Anthony. From 1901 to 1908 it was engaged in the seal fishery, harvesting 158,476 pelts under the command of such noted masters as Job Knee, William C. Winsor, and Samuel Blandford and Jacob Kean qqv.

Repaired and outfitted after damage incurred in a January 1908 storm, the Virginia Lake, commanded by Kean, sailed from St. John's on March 10, 1909 with the annual sealing fleet. Near the Funk Islands the entire fleet became jammed in ice, and the Virginia Lake suffered severe damage including a broken propeller shaft. The Bellaventure got close enough to pass a towing line, but three times the manila line broke and a steel cable subsequently broke when it snagged under a pan of ice. When the decision was made to abandon the vessel the Bellaventure took aboard 110 men, while the remaining 50 walked to land over the rafted ice. The Virginia Lake burned for four hours before sinking.

Sagona, S.S.

Built in Scotland in 1912 by the Dundee Ship Building Company, the 175-foot Sagona could accommodate 50 saloon and 40 steerage passengers. With a hull of steel strengthened by double rows of pitch pine, it was one of the better icebreakers of its time. It arrived in St. John's on March 14, 1912 under the command of Captain Marshall, and was owned by the Newfoundland Produce Co. Making its first trip to the ice as a sealer on March 15, 1912, under the command of S.R. Winsor, the Sagona continued in the seal fishery until 1938 -- under captains Job Knee, Jack Randell, Lewis Little and Jacob Kean qqv -- bringing in 165,599 seals. In 1923 the Sagona was acquired by the Newfoundland government, as part of the arrangement that saw the Colony acquire the railway. It was used for many years on the northern coastal routes. The Sagona helped in the rescue of survivors of the Viking qv disaster in 1931. On April 4, 1931 it went aground on Green Island, near the Wadham Islands, but was refloated. In 1941 the Newfoundland Railway sold the storied ship to Colliford Clarke Company of London.

Portia, S.S.

The first of Bowring Brothers' ships to carry the name Portia (after a character in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice) was a sister ship of the Miranda and one of the original *Red Cross Line qv ships of 1884. Fitted with 60 luxury cabins, the Portia travelled between St. John's, Halifax and New York for 15 years until it was wrecked off Halifax in 1899. The original ships were replaced by two new vessels, the Rosalind and Sylvia. The second Portia was built in Port Glasgow in 1.105 as a sister ship to the Prospero qv. Accommodating 150 passengers, it became well known in coastal Newfoundland. Captain Abram Kean qv brought the vessel from Scotland on its maiden voyage and was master for most of the next 15 years. Wes Kean qv and J.W. Kean commanded the steamer in later years. When Bowrings' subsidized coastal steamer contract expired in 1923, ownership of the Portia was assumed by the Newfoundland government. It continued to serve as a coastal boat for the Newfoundland Railway until it was sold in 1940.

Prospero, S.S.

The ships of Bowring Brothers' steamship fleet in the late nineteenth century were given the names of Shakespearean characters and this tradition extended to the S.S. Prospero, named after a character in The Tempest. The coastal boat Prospero was the third Bowring vessel to carry the name. The first was a 257-ton cargo ship of Bridport, England, wrecked in 1854, two years after its launching; the second was a slightly larger ship built in Bristol in 1856-7 and lost in 1863. The third Prospero, along with its sister ship Portia qv, was built at the yard of Murdock and Murray, Glasgow in 1.105. After the Bowring firm secured a contract to provide steamship service around Newfoundland the Prospero became well known as a cargo and passenger carrier along the south and west coasts.

The Prospero at St. Anthony

Captain Thomas Fitzpatrick of Placentia was first master of the ship, until 1906 when Abram Kean qv took over. The latter's son, Wes Kean qv, also commanded it for a brief period beginning in 1919. Despite its long service the Prospero had few mishaps. Its grounding in Bonavista Bay in 1924 caused little damage. The Prospero acted as a rescue ship on several occasions, bringing in survivors of the wrecks of the Florizel, Viking and Stella Maris qqv. Other ships of the Red Cross Line were seasonally converted for use as sealers, but the Prospero made only one trip to the ice, in 1925. This followed the ship's acquisition by the Newfoundland government upon the termination of a 20-year lease. It returned to cargo and mail service after the spring of 1925. The Prospero was sold by the Railway Commission in 1937 after the acquisition of a new coastal boat, the Northern Ranger qv.

Caribou, S.S.

Built by A. Goodwin-Hamilton S. Adamson Limited in Rotterdam, Holland, and owned and operated by the Newfoundland (Government) Railway, it carried freight and passengers between Port aux Basques and North Sydney, Nova Scotia from 1925 to 1942.

The 2200 ton ship was 81 m (265 ft) long, 12 m (41 ft) wide, and able to carry four hundred passengers and fifty carloads of freight. It was designed for the ice conditions and heavy seas that occur in the North Atlantic.

The S.S. Caribou was launched in June 1925, arrived in St. John's in October of that year and in the same month sailed to Port aux Basques to begin its ferry service across the Cabot Strait.

The ship continued to operate during the early years of World War II. On October 14, 1942, however, while carrying 238 passengers and crew from North Sydney to Port aux Basques, it was attacked and sunk by a German submarine. The 101 people who survived the attack were rescued by ships of the Royal Canadian Navy; in memory of those who died a memorial was erected at Port aux Basques.

Northern Ranger

There have been two Newfoundland coastal boats with the name Northern Ranger. The first was built by Fleming and Ferguson of Paisley, Scotland in 1936. The 1366-ton vessel was purchased by the Newfoundland Railway for the northeastern Newfoundland and southern Labrador service. It could carry 120 passengers as well as freight, and replaced the Prospero and the Sagona qv. The Northern Ranger was to serve northeastern Newfoundland and southern Labrador for the next 30 years. Its regular route from St. John's took it to Twillingate and White Bay via Conception, Trinity, Bonavista and Notre Dame Bays; north to Battle Harbour and Blanc Sablon and then south along the St. Barbe coast to Corner Brook. The route became a popular one for tourists. After 1949 ownership was assumed by Canadian National. The Northern Ranger was retired in 1966 and sold for scrap.

The first Northern Ranger at Harbour Deep

Twenty years later the M.V. Northern Ranger was built at the Port Weller Dry Docks in St. Catharine's, Ontario. With a crew of 26, the new ship could accommodate 136 passengers and general cargo. It replaced the aging Bonavista and began on the Lewisporte to Nain run. Under the command of Captain Tom Lake, the new Northern Ranger served in the winters between Port aux Basques and Terrenceville.

Splinter Fleet

As a result of a 1942 Board of Trade recommendation that ships be constructed in Newfoundland with Newfoundland materials, ten identical 500-ton wooden vessels were built at Clarenville between 1944 and 1947 for the Department of Natural Resources. Designed by William J. Roue, and named for Newfoundland settlements (Bonne Bay, Burin, Clarenville, Codroy, Exploits, Ferryland, Glenwood, Placentia, Trepassey and Twillingate) they were to be used as minesweepers and cargo ships.

The Trepassey in Antarctic waters

In November 1944 the Clarenville, the fleet's flagship, was commissioned for the passenger/freight service on Newfoundland's northwest coast. After Confederation, it was purchased by Canadian National Railways for the coastal service. It was later acquired by S.W. Mifflin Ltd. of Catalina, to be used as a maritime museum, and in 1981 was sold in Ontario as a floating restaurant. The Twillingate, now the Avalon Voyager II, was also operated as a floating restaurant by the same owners. While en route to Owen Sound, it developed engine trouble in a heavy gale on October 30, 1980, and sank. The Trepassey, chartered by the Royal Navy in 1946/47, made two trips to the Antarctic. The second trip -- the British Grahamland Expedition -- provided weather reports for the Falklands and its dependencies. (The Trepassey's image appeared on a 1947 Falkland stamp commemorating the event.) On returning to St. John's, it engaged in the fish-carrying trade. In 1950 it was purchased by the Winsor Trading Co., and chartered by CNR for the northern Labrador service. As an icebreaker in the 1950s, it assisted Bowater's paper-carrier ships in the Bay of Islands. Sold in 1962 to maritime shipping interests, it sank July 19, 1964 while servicing an oil rig in the Sable Island area, following a fire in the engine room.

After Confederation, most of the fleet was sold to private interests. The Bonne Bay was wrecked at St. Shott's in 1946, while en route from Halifax to St. John's. The Placentia, bought by H.B. Dawe Ltd., was chartered to carry fish to the Caribbean. The Exploits was also purchased by the Dawe Company, which later sold it to mainland interests. It was lost at the seal hunt in the Gulf. The Glenwood (with the Exploits) was chartered for the seal hunt in 1952, and was later sold abroad. The Twillingate was sold to T. Hollett and Sons of Burin, and in succession to Puddister and Bennett and to an Ontario firm for service on the Great Lakes. Puddister Trading Co. acquired the Burin and Codroy. The Burin sprang a leak and was lost with a load of fish, while the Codroy (later under the names Avalon Trader and Northern Trader) was sold to mainland interests and, with the Glenwood, was crushed in the ice floes in the Gulf.)

William Carson, M.V.

Built in 1954 by Canadian Vickers Ltd. of Montreal, this passenger and cargo ferry was 335.6 feet long and 68.1 feet wide with a passenger capacity of 503. Strengthened for navigation in ice, it was considered one of the best icebreakers among the ferries then operating in Canadian waters. Beginning in 1955 the Carson served on the Port aux Basques-North Sydney run for almost 20 years.

The Carson began full service on the Labrador run in June, 1976. On May 31, 1977, commanded by Norman Hinks, it left St. John's for Cartwright, carrying freight and 37 passengers. Steaming at a reduced speed through an ice field after leaving St. Anthony it sprang a serious leak, its passengers and crew of 91 taking to the lifeboats before it sank. Its distress signal was picked up by the Coast Guard in St. Anthony. The icebreaker Sir Humphrey Gilbert, about 17 miles north of St. Anthony, went to the rescue. Some survivors were taken by its helicopter, others directly from the lifeboats, and the remainder by helicopters from Gander. There was no loss of life.

After a month of searching, the wreck was located in 504 feet of water, 31 nautical miles from Cape St. Lewis, Labrador. A judicial inquiry into the sinking began on August 1, 1977. It concluded that ``The sinking of the M.V. William Carson was caused by the rapid flooding of the forward motor compartment and the bow thruster compartment as a result of ice penetrating the hull about one foot below the waterline ....'' The blame was laid on CN, and on Hinks's inexperience in Labrador ice and his failure ``to appreciate the formidable hazard which [the ice] presented to the safety of his ship.'' From the beginning, however, Hinks remained firm in the view that the Carson had not struck ice and in a letter to the Canadian Merchant Service Guild, Hinks's lawyer stated that ``...the findings of the commission were inconclusive, inconsistent, contradictory and not supported by the evidence ... the findings did not say how or why ice penetrated the hull ... there was in fact no findings of negligence on the part of the Master, Captain Hinks.''

Bar Haven, S.S.

This ship was built in 1948 by the firm of Fleming and Ferguson of Scotland and sold to the Newfoundland Railway in the same year. It was used first by the Railway and later by Canadian National as a coastal vessel on the north and south coasts of Newfoundland. It was taken out of service and sold for scrap in 1973.

Nonia M.V.

A sister ship of the Bonavista, the Nonia was built for Canadian National Railways in 1956 at the Hall Russell yard in Aberdeen, Scotland. The diesel-powered ship was similar in design to earlier coastal steamers and could accommodate 90 passengers as well as freight. Commanded on its maiden voyage by Captain Joseph Prim, it replaced the Codroy on the run between Lewisporte and Baie Verte. In the summer months the Nonia delivered mail along the Labrador coast. In August 1961 the ship was called upon to assist the community of Musgrave Harbour when it was threatened by forest fire. It transported 760 people from the area to safety on Fogo Island. After 20 years in the coastal service, the ship was taken over by the federal Department of Fisheries. As a patrol boat it helped to enforce fisheries regulations within Canada's 200-mile limit. In 1980 the Nonia passed into private ownership.


The M.V. Taverner was built for Canadian National's marine service in 1965 at the Collingwood shipyard in Ontario. This 1135-ton vessel was named in honor of Captain Ben Taverner qv, who was master of the S.S. Caribou qv when it was torpedoed in 1942. The Taverner, equipped for both passengers and freight, was placed on the Lewisporte to Happy Valley-Goose Bay run. From June or July to mid-December each year the ship has made the trip north carrying mail and supplies to communities along the Labrador coast. It was used on the south coast service in the winter months.

Sir Robert Bond

The Marine Atlantic vessel Sir Robert Bond was built at the Port Weller Drydock, Ontario in 1975. The 10,500 ton ship was designed as a rail-car ferry, but went into service just as rail traffic in the Atlantic Provinces began to decline. In 1976 the Bond was in service on the run between North Sydney and Port aux Basques. When the passenger ferry William Carson qv was lost, the Bond underwent extensive renovations, and accommodations were provided for 200 passengers. It then replaced the Carson on the seasonal Lewisporte to Goose Bay run, carrying passengers and freight.

Source: Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador