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 K is for Kyle

Spelling out the Alphabet Fleet Story

Discover how costal boats earned their beloved place in the province’s history and how they still influence the communities they served.

Mussel shells crack in staccato rhythms beneath my feet as I clamber over rocks carpeted with mollusks and kelp. A solitary gull roused from slumber squawks indignantly in my direction, then glides away over the ocean. In the soft dawn light, the old vessel I’ve sought out takes on the qualities of a classic painting, with her mirror image reflected in placid waters. To some she is just a rusty relic of a bygone age. On calm summer mornings, however, the Kyle is still beautiful and remains one of the most photographed ships in the province.

Damaged but defiant, the Kyle appears frozen in time. A visitor admiring the Kyle from Stapleton’s Beach in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, might think the ship is steaming in to pick up passengers bound for the Labrador fishery. Nicknamed “The Bulldog of the North,” she could be returning from rescuing shipwrecked sailors or searching for downed pilots during the dawn of aviation. You can almost hear the folk music and the voices reciting Ted Russell’s epic poem, “The Smokeroom on the Kyle,” emanating from decks below.

The Kyle is the last remaining ship of the famed Alphabet Fleet, a series of iconic vessels used in the Newfoundland coastal service to connect remote communities. These ship, elegant for their day, were part of a provision of the 1898 Railway contract by which the Reid Newfoundland Company received a government subsidy to operate mail and passenger service to the outports. The vessels were named after places in Scotland, the native homeland of Newfoundland Railway’s founder, Sir Robert Gillespie Reid (1842 – 1908). For this reason they were also referred to as “Reid’s Yachts.” (Also, all the ships’ names had to end in the letter “e.” Since there was no suitable Scottish town that began with “J” and ended in “e,” the letter “J” was skipped in the Alphabet Fleet.)

Countless romances blossomed and adventures unfolded aboard these coastal boats, and the fleet’s influence has ripped across the decades to permeate all parts of the province in ways the original ship owners could never have envisioned. Songs, poems, books, plays and magazine and newspaper articles honour the vessels. Replicas, paintings, storyboards and Gerald S. Doyle’s classic Christmas cards depict them. Fleet mementoes fill museums across the island and community streets are named after them. Vessel’s in today’s ferry service (such as the Captain Earl W. Winsor on the Fogo Island run) commemorate prominent Alphabet Fleet captains. Children have been named after these boats and, in one case a pub has been dedicated.

Just as the Alphabet Fleet earned its place in Newfoundland culture, it also plays a role in modern-day tourism. The locations where the ships served – and sometimes met their demise – are along the most astounding sections of coastline in the province, attracting boaters, hikers, photographers and travelers in general.

Perhaps you’d like to take the “Alphabet tour” of the province this year. Here id our guide to the ships – letter by letter.

A is for Argyle

Built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Argyle was 155 feet long and 439 (gross) tonnes. The Argyle, synonymous with beautiful Placentia Bay routes, was sold in 1941 and lost near Cuba on July 14, 1946.

B is for Bruce

Built in 1897 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Bruce was 237 feet long and 1,154 (gross) tonnes. The Bruce, built to serve as a connector vessel between the Reid Newfoundland Railway and Canadian lines, was lost on March 24, 1911, near Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. Modern ferries such as the MV Caribou that depart from Port Aux Basques to cross the Gulf of St. Lawrence as sailing the route made famous by the Bruce.

(and Bruce II)

This is the only member of the Alphabet Fleet to share a letter. Built in 1912 in Glasgow, the SS Bruce II was 240 feet long and 1,553 (gross) tonnes. Her history is unknown after 1915, when she was sold to the Russian government.

C is for Clyde

Built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Clyde was 155 feet long and 439 (gross) tonnes. She operated in the scenic Notre Dame Bay. The Clyde was sold to Crosbie and Company in 1948. She was lost on December 17, 1951, near the isolated whaling factory as Williamsport in the Northern Peninsula.

D is for Dundee

The SS Dundee was built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland. She was 155 feet long and 439 (gross) tonnes, and operated in Bonavista Bay. The Dundee was lost on December 25, 1919, on Grassy Island near Carmanville, in Hamilton Sound.

E is for Ethie

Built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Ethie was 155 feet long and 439 (gross) tonnes. She was lost on December 11, 1919, at Martin’s Point near Bonne Bay. In one of the most dramatic rescues in the province’s history.

F is for Fife

Also built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Fife was 167 feet long and 441 (gross) tonnes. She was lost on November 14, 1900, in the rugged Strait of Belle Isle. Some of the Fife’s furnishings, including the sink and toilet, are on display at the Railway Coastal Museum in St. John’s.

G is for Glencoe

The SS Glencoe was built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland. She was 208 feet long and 769 (gross) tonnes. The Glencoe operated on the spectacular south coast for many years and was eventually sold for scrap in June 1959 at Sorel, Quebec. An excellent replica of the Glencoe is displayed at the Railway Coastal Museum in St. John’s. Communities on the south coast, like Francois, Grey River and Rencontre East, are a photographer’s paradise, and still depend on the coastal boat services today.

H is for Home

Built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Home was 155 feet long and 439 (gross) tonnes. The Home was sold in 1948 and lost in 1952 at Jersey Harbour, Fortune Bay.

I is for Invermore

In 1881 the SS Invermore was built in Glasgow, Scotland – 250 feet long and 922 (gross) tonnes. She was lost on July 10, 1914, at remote Brig Harbour Point (near Smokey) on the coast of Labrador.

K is for Kyle

Built in 1913 in Newcastle, England, the SS Kyle was 220 feet long and 1,055 (gross) tonnes. She was sold in 1959 and grounded during a storm at Harbour Grace in 1967, where her hull remains. The Kyle was touted as the fastest and strongest of the Alphabet Fleet, having been “strengthened” for the ice. Long associated with the Labrador runs and the seal hunt, the Kyle was famous for the search and recovery of portions of a downed American plane, Old Glory, that had competed to be one of the first to fly across the Atlantic in 1927.

The Kyle was also officially recognized by the U.S. Navy for her role in the rescue of sailors during the Pollux-Truxton disaster at Chambers Cove near St. Lawrence on February 18, 1942. Today a scenic hiking trail leads to the site of the dramatic rescue, immortalized in Cassie Brown’s book Standing into Danger. Because of her significance as the last of the Alphabet Fleet, the Kyle received a $136,000 face lift in 1997. the Kyle is one of the key tourist attractions in Harbour Grace.

L is for Lintrose

In 1913 the SS Lintrose was built in Newcastle, England. She was 255 feet long and 1,616 (gross) tonnes. Her history is unknown after 1915, when she was sold to the Russian government. Lintrose Place in Donovan’s Industrial Park, Mount Pearl, is one of several streets in that city named for the Alphabet Fleet ships. Others include Clyde Avenue, Bruce Street, Glencoe Drive, Kyle Avenue, Home Street and Dundee Avenue.

M is for Meigle

Built in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Meigle was 220 feet long and 839 (gross) tonnes. She was lost in July 1947 at St. Shotts, on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula. A hiking trail connects the town to nearby Cape Pine Lighthouse, a Provincial Historic Site. This section of the coast is prone to heavy fog and was called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to all the shipwrecks that have occurred here. This area has also become the subject of fascinating ghost stories and treasure hunts.

The Meigle was the last vessel to join the Alphabet Fleet and was the primary ship assisting the victim relief effort after the 1929 tsunami on the Bruin Peninsula. (Captain Cook’s Lookout in Bruin gives an overview of the area devastated by the wave.)

The Meigle also served as a prison ship (1932 – 1933) in St. John’s Harbour, to hold the overflow of convicts following riots at the Colonial Building and the Dole Marches around the island. Her role as a prison ship is commemorated in the song, “Twenty-One Years,” by Joseph Summers (1904 – 1937).

In Conception Bay South at the Meigle Lounge, the bar is shaped like a ship and all the portholes adoring it contain pictures of the Fleet. The Meigle’s deck plans and forward hold intake vent are also on display here.

 Source: Downhome Magazine, March 2008