The Wreck of the Phoenix

Today, visitors to the East Point Lighthouse, at the extreme eastern and of Prince Edward Island, come away with the haunting feeling that they have been in touch with the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors. It is reassuring to see the trim white lighthouse tower and the well kept grounds, with the keeper's childern busy at play. But closer to the Point, Nature has set a more ominous stage. Along the cliff edge, an impenetrable tangle of gnarled and twisted white spruse trees forms a living bulwark against the prevailing wind and the salt spray.

Off the Point, however, there is no shelter. Men and ships are at the mercy of the restless wind, tidal rips, and three reefs, the longest and most dangerous called, simply, East Point Reef Here, the waves from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the north break abruptly against those of the Northumberland Strait to the south, forming a long line of distorted waters over the rocky, submerged ledge of the infamous reef A buoy, nearly two miles out, marks the end of danger.

The Death of the Phoenix

The Phoenix was a new vessel, a threemasted, composite steam sloop with 900 horsepower, built in 1870 (a sister to the HMS Doterel) and commissioned in 1880. On theniorning of the 12th, she had departed Gaspe', en route from Quebec to Halifax in company with the HMS Northampton The Charlottetown Examiner of 25 September would describe her as "...coming from the north-west under short sail before a heavy north-cast gale and sea with thick rain squalls. It was very dark.

In command of the Phoenix was 37 year old Hubert Grenfell, a career naval officer with 23 years experience and a minor reputation as an expert in naval gunnery. Through the storm, he could identify the beam from East Point Lighthouse. He judge he was on course to take his ship four or five miles beyond the reef, but, the Examiner continued, "...the deceptive distance of the light with probable error in calculating force of current which was setting on flood at a rate of five or six knots to W. S.W. as it does here during heavy easterly gales took her upon her port bow and swept her upon the reef"

There was a tremendous crash as the Phoenix struck. The London Graphic gave this version of what happened next:

The water-tight doors were immediatly closed, and all hands were summoned to save ship. The sailors worked calmly and without confusion. As she was bumping heavily on the reef stream was got up, when suddenly the sternpost was smashed, and the screw propeller dropped into the sea. There upon the captain ordered part of the men to construct a raft, the remainder being engaged on pumping, as sea had by this time forced its way through the bottom, and flooded the engine-room and cabins.

When day dawned, after a weary and anxious night, the sky was black, the wind was blowing hard, and the white surf which dashed against the red cliffs showed that there was no chance of launching a boat successfully.

The Phoenix bilged with water to the deck level but remaind upright. Still, her situation was perilous. All day Wednesday, the white-capped seas rolled in- as they always do there- to break in pounding surf on the reef and over the crippled warship.

When news of the wreck reached the local residents, some of the hardy fishermen travelled to the scene and watched from the cliff. They were unable until early Thusday morning, when four of them launched a boat and rowed out to the Phoenix. By then, Grenfell was preparing to have the life boats lowered. Eventually, all hands (about 100) reached shore safely. The first detachment to land, according to the Graphic lit a fire on the shore, "and boiled some cocoa for the men's breakfast". The worst was over.

Ship to Shore

Ad hoc quarters were quickly arranged for the British seamen. The ship's officers were cared for at the home of Alexander Beaton, the Lighthouse keeper, and in other homes in the area. The rest of the crew were given shelter on the bunkhouse of Gus Mclnnis's nearby lobster cannery. "The people there, on the Point, were wonderfully kind to us," Waiter Ireland, one of the ships officers, would recall many years later.

The Phoenix was also kind to some of them. "A bunch of the native 'Boys'," Ireland remebered, "lifted" a keg of the ship's rum that was being stored under his charge at the lobster factory. The next day, while taking a walk through the hills, he and another officer, "came upon the 'Boys', in a dell seated around the keg having a great old time." After the drama of the shipwreck, the incident provided some comic relief, and the two officers waited to report their discovery until the Phoenixs crew were well on their way back to England. " We had a good laugh over the matter," Ireland recalled, "and many times 1 have thought of those fellows seated around the rum keg, and the look on their mugs the next day. It was easy to see who had our rum."

As soon as possible, word was telegraphed to the Northampton- by this time in Halifax- to proceed with all speed to the site of the wreck. She arrived on the 16th, accompanied by two smaller vessels, the Foam and the Charger, whose duties would include salvaging the Phoenix's heavy equipment and guns. The latter consisted of a Gatling gun and six heavy guns, two of them 64 pounders of the most advanced design then current, weighing over four tons each.

On board of the Northampton was Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock, who was nearing the end of a three year term as Commander-in-Chief of the North American and West Indies station. Back in 1859, McClintock had earned lasting fame, and a knighthood, as the polar explorer who confirmed the fate of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition on search of the Northwest Passage. The weather, however, showed no respect for rank or title. Another storm struck on the day of the Admiral's arrival, and continued until Tuesday, September 19. Only then could the Captain and crew of the Phoenix be embarked, and arrangements made for their return to England on the hire,-' transport William Burkett (remembered years later by Waiter Ireland as "a tub").

It soon became evident that the Phoenix was doomed. Even after the removal of the heavy equipment and guns, she remained caught on the reef and could not be refloated. The Charlottetown Patriot of October 9, 1882 noted thaat a Mrs. Wylde, representative of the Quebec Wrecking Company, had bought the salvage rights for $3,000. A day earlier, Caleb C. Carlton, United States Consular Agent at Souris, recorded the latest developments in his journal:

Contest a war ship and Relief at anchor in the Bay (Souris). The Contest has been here sometime looking after the intrests of war ship Phoenix ashore at East Point but now is sold. The Relief has come to take the place of the Contest and take what is of any value off the stranded ship, she being sold for 3000 pounds or so reported.

It may have been around this time, when the Phoenix appeared abandoned, that a few East Point boys, looking for some excitement one fine night, decided to row out to the wreck. It seemed like a good idea until the first lad over the side of the ship was seizes by a gaurd and put in irons. The others in the party were able to get away, but British naval punishment was meted out to the prisoner. He was given a taste of the treadmill, prodded on each time he slowed his pace. Only the intervention of Alexander Beaton, local legend avers, saved him from the full prosecution of the law.

The Reason Why

Though no lives had been lost with the Phoenix, blame must me laid. Admiral McClintock had been charged to investigate the disaster and set up a formal inquiry. For some, its verdict would be a severe blow and, according to contemporary newspaper accounts, totally unfair.

The verdict given by the Court of Inquiry was reported in the Charlottetown Presbyterian on January 4, 1883, as follows:

... stranding due to the negligent navigation of said ship- that from time of sighting of East Point light to moment of striking reef, the proper precautions were not taken to ascertain distance of ship from light; and that from 9:35 p.m. the course steered under any circumstances were extremely hazardous; and that after ship took ground it was impossible to avoid total loss of the ship. Commander Hubert Herbert Grenfell to be severely reprimanded and discharged from the Phoenix; the lieutenant for navigating duties, John Hill, to forfiet a year seniority as lieutenant and be severely reprimanded; Gunner Joseph Merrett to be reprimanded and, the rest of the officers and crew were aquitted.

Despite the Court's findings, strong feeling persisted that the location of East Point Lighthouse was actually to blame for the disaster.*In September, 1879, the SS Quebec, a Dominion Line steamer on a voyage from Halifax to Montreal with 60 passengers, had struck within a few yards of where the Phoenix met her fate. After the crew jettisoned her cargo of sugar, salt, and iron, she slipped off the reef and continued on her voyage. Evidence before a Court of Inquiry of the Board of Trade into that incident showed conclusively "that the accident occurred through miscalculation of the distance of the light from the reef, the master supposing it to be upon the hill of the Point." "On the hill of the Point" was where East Point Lighthouse was marked on Admiralty Charts. In fact, the tower, which had been built in 1867, stood half a mile south of southwest of the Point. The Chart location was in error.

One man agreed with both captains that the beam from East Point Lighthouse was misleading to ships at sea in cause of both groundings. He was Dr. Ephraim Muttart of Souris, a Conservative Member of Parliament for the area 1879, when the Quebec went on the reef. Muttart agritated for the removal of the lighthouse to a more suitable location. This was done sometime between 1882 and 1886, when Dr. P.A. MacIntyre, also from Souris, held the Dominion seat for the Liberals.

The task if moving the 72 foot tower to a positions on the point of the Cape, in line with the reef, was entrusted to Bernard Creamer, a young construction engineer and carpenter whose skill and ingenuity would find expression in many imposing buildings os would and stone in the area during the course of his career. The structure was hauled over ways (greased timers laid rather like railway ties) using horses and a capstan. The lighthouse's successful re-location constituted one of Creamer's earliest feats.

In 1885, a fog alarm system was installed in the lighthouse. When later regulations required that the fog alarm be placed in front of the tower, the lighthouse was moved back a short distance(in 1908) to allow room for a new building to house the system. In 1935, a radio beacon was added, so that today, the waters around East Point are much safer for shipping.

The Fate of the Phoenix

Of course, all of this came too late to save the Pheonix. The December 21, 1883 edition of the Weekly Examiner and Argus gave the ship her final obituary: "The remains of the H.M.S. Phoenix wrecked off East Point is fast seeking lower regions….nothing to be seen now but a few broken ribs at low water mark. Good-bye, old Warship!"

But like the beautiful bird of the same name in the Egyptian myth, the Phoenix was rejuvenated---after a fashion. On the day her crew were finally able to reach shore, Dr. Bradley Gregory, the ship's staff surgeon, was asked to attend Mrs. Daniel J. McDonald, who was in labour. If the baby born that day had been called Bradley. It was a girl. A month later, on October 15, Rev. D. J. Gillis of St. Columba Roman Catholic Church Baptised her Mary Ellen Phoenix McDonald.

By Adele Townshend The Islander Magazine

Researched by