Splinter Fleet

Alphabet Fleet

Early Shipbuilding

Shipbuilding Today




Contact Us



It was while researching the colorful history of the S.S. Kyle that I learned she also had some tough, even terrible experiences early in the century.

For example, read what happened not only to the Kyle but to other coastal and foreign-going steamships. Not to be forgotten is the fact that many Newfoundland sailing vessels, particularly, the square-riggers and their crews, had a dreadful time.

As and aside, a previous column featured a somewhat humorous recitation of an incident aboard the Kyle, one of the many fine steamers that made up the splendid fleet of ships. The subject of that indecent, Roy Strong of Mount Pearl, recalled that he and I were in attendance at the regular summer school of Memorial College in the mid 1930s. Thanks for the reminder, Roy!

The coastal ships provided, in the main, the key link in the chain of coastal communication during most of the 1900s. These ships were variously termed “Reids’ Yachts,” “The Alphabet Fleet” and various other labels. The column already mentioned above focused on the SS Kyle and highlighted the type of work performed by those lovely, little steamers when they carried out their duties.

Sturdily built and even lavishly fitted, several of them at various periods were put to work at the northern ice fields, were both ships and men, were assigned to the seal hunt and that part of their enterprise was frequently hazardous and sometimes completely disastrous.

Personally, I was very fond of the so called coastal boats and made half a dozen trips aboard such ships as the SS Home, Northern Ranger and Baccalieu; not to mention the remarkable and now almost as historic as the earlier ships, the ill-fated William Carson.

As a matter of historical interest in the brand new Kyle arrived in St. John’s early in the new year 1913, after an extremely stormy crossing of the North Atlantic and was soon out into regular service which, in her case was slotted as the Gulf run- Port aux Basques to North Sydney, N.S. The company lost no time. By Saturday, Feb. 3, 1913, at 10:45, she put to sea with no sign of bad weather.

Weather forecasting in those days, however, was anything but exact and the Kyle was barely out when she ran into a snowstorm. As might have been expected, the storm continued into the next day, and by late Sunday the small but sturdy steamship was ploughing through a raging blizzard along the southwest coast of Newfoundland.

The steamer plunged into the wild sea. Steaming east along the dangerous shore, her hull and superstructure were iced up time and again. It was decided that much of the buildup had to be cleared away before the Kyle became unmanageable. Her second officer, Robert Carter, with another crew member Fred Blackmore, were sent up to the forecastle deck to begin clearing the hull. Carter was using an axe, while Blackmore was shoveling the loose ice over the side. The latter was “taking a spell” as we say, leaning on the axe handle when an immense wave broke over the steamer hurling both men off their feet. Blackmore broke his leg as he hit the slippery deck, but the unfortunate officer Carter was thrown with great force over a considerable distance. His shipmates were convinced he had been killed instantly, for his body was seen floating on the water for a few minutes, quite near the ship, being buoyed up and kept afloat by a patent rubber suit the unfortunate man had been wearing.

The cry of “man overboard” immediately was raised and the Kyle was brought in an effort to recover the body. The ship’s bosun, George Feltham, even volunteered to jump over board with a heavier line attached, but the captain wisely stopped him. It appeared the rescue would be futile and there could be another loss of life.

With heavy hearts, the crew went ahead with their efforts to battle the storm as the ship was put back on course to try and ride out the tempest. Their comrade had been lost on Wednesday, Feb.7, and the Kyle had to lay to until it was decided to run into the waters south of St-Pierre and lay to that night.

Things began to look a bit better, but when morning came they found the ship’s steering-gear was out of commission.

After much difficulty and danger the crew rigged up wire cable on both port and starboard sides and by Thursday, the stout little steamer was under way. However it was another day and night before she made it back to Port aux Basques with her dreadful news.

There’s a great deal more to this remarkable story and we will continue it at another time. There may be readers who can provide further details!

The Evening Telegram

April 20, 1996