Reminiscences, or A few glimpses from over the sea by Janet. Philadelphia: Collins & Co., 1891, p. 295-302. (Book is inscribed on the first preliminaries by Mrs. Dr. D.W. Collins, a.k.a. N.J.H. Collins)
Friday morning, September 23, the sea was very tempestuous and our staunch vessel rolled considerably. The waves lashed against the port-holes and we were in a dense fog, moving very carefully. After breakfast, Captain Summer assembled all the cabin passengers in the dining hall and announced that the immense shaft that operated the steamer’s screw was badly cracked, and the vessel was, therefore, in such a disabled condition that it was not safe in view of possible stormy weather to attempt to proceed to New York. He, therefore, had been steering for the nearest port, St. John’s, Newfoundland, for two days previous, where the damage to the steamer could be repaired. He farther stated that the coast of Newfoundland was very foggy and the mouth of the harbor at St. John’s difficult to find, and if he could not find it, the only thing that could be done was to proceed to New York.
The words fell like thunderbolts. Faces blanched and lips quivered, and after a few moments’ silence, the situation was discussed in subdued tones. We committed ourselves anew to Him who commands the winds and waves, who feeds the ravens when they cry and lets not one sparrow fall without his care. All day long the doleful fog-horn sounded, and as night approached the vessel ceased her pounding, and we were again drifting on the billows, while the click, click of several hammers reached us from below. Wild stories of shipwreck and disaster began to circulate. They came from intelligent men, navigators who were on board and professed to know just where we were, and where lay dangerous rocks and reefs. Perhaps they did know; for their faces were full of dismay as they pointed out our position on their charts.
For two hours we drifted at the mercy of the waves in a fog so dense we could see it creeping around us, when we were again assembled and the captain announced the impossibility of finding the harbor. He said the machinery had undergone a thorough examination, and after consultation, they had decided to sail for New York. Late at night we took refuge in our stateroom and went to sleep. “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him and delivereth them.” The next day was Saturday, and in the morning at breakfast the peculiar quivering motion of the vessel ceased, and again we drifted in impenetrable fog. The day wore away, and the captain would not be interviewed. Passengers often gathered closely in groups and talked with anxious faces.
In the evening we were again called together, and a messenger from the captain announced the following to eager listeners: “We are now ready to move and can safely make New York.” When the moon rose we were astonished to find it on the wrong side of the vessel. No more announcements were made, and we went to sleep that night conscious that we were rocked on the same dangerous coast of water that carried us the night before. We talked over the peril, and the thought took possession with wonderful power. The important thing is to be ready, with oil in our vessels and our lamps trimmed and burning. When morning dawned, we were helpless on the ocean. No one, not even the captain, knew where we were, in the most dismal of fogs—a fog that could be felt. It crept over the vessel, so that objects at the farther end of the ship could only be dimly outlined. The fog-horn grew almost sepulchral in tone that Sabbath morning and sounded every few seconds. By and by it seemed to be answered and faces brightened. But listeners caught the sound of breakers and hope became fainter. God was giving us a display of his care and kindness and compelling the gay and flippant crowd to keep the Sabbath better than it would otherwise have been done and making them willing in some cases to learn its lessons.
At ten A.M. the fog lifted sufficiently to show us our peril. We were in a small bay or nook of the ocean bounded by tall, perpendicular rocks perhaps two hundred feet high, and our disabled vessel, that could not reverse its wheel because of its condition, was but a few feet from the rocks. The echo from these rocks had been the answer to our fog-horn, and the breakers were dashing against this riven, rock-bound shore. The vessel was turned slowly out of its dangerous position and kept along the coast. At three P.M. a government pilot came on board and with him came relief to the weary, waiting passengers. We moved very cautiously; for the fog had again settled upon us, obscuring everything but occasional glimpses of dark, towering, dripping coast-line. At five P.M., while most of us were crowded on the upper deck expectant and hopeful, the deep, heavy fog parted from the sea and ascended like a curtain, leaving a line of amber beneath. The cloud canopy rolled on and up, revealing the mouth of the harbor clear and well defined, as if a door had swung open hinges that were fastened in rock buttresses two hundred feet high, and the city of St. John’s—the city of our deliverance—rose before us, terrace upon terrace. It was very haven we desired to see. “Oh! that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men.” The cloudy vestment hung just high enough to let us in as we sailed in the narrow channel only five hundred feet wide. Great masses of dark, tumbling vapor were plied high on the dark, precipitous rocks on each side and were a wall unto us. We had cried unto the Lord, and we felt that he had heard our cry and wrought a great deliverance. These apparently marvelous things impress us. But our lives are full of just as wonderful escapes. Every day, every hour, every moment of our existence, our frail life trembles in the same balance. Scenes of danger make us more conscious of the easy turning of the scale; but it is none the less true that a soft breath—a vapor—vibrates it, and we drop into eternity.
The physical features of Newfoundland are interesting. It is situated near the highway of traffic between the Old and the New World and is separated from the North America by a strait only twelve miles wide. The coast is deeply indented with bays and harbors and is everywhere rocky, massive and abrupt. In some places the rocks rise to a perpendicular height of one thousand feet. It was apparently heaved out of the sea by some fearful convulsion and left to cool in an irregular mass. The edges and elbows of this mass are fretted and cavernous, and against them the sea scolds itself into a frenzy. It threatens and howls as the tide lashed the escarpment, each rising wave crested with, and bearing in its sweep, long stretched of feathery foam. A peculiarity of this coast is seen in the great depth of ocean at the coast is seen in the great depth of ocean at the base of these rocks, so that a shipwreck on the coast is usually most fatal. There are also a great number of islands and groups of islets and rocks, the latter scarcely seen above water, thus rendering navigation along the coast difficult and dangerous.
Newfoundland is the oldest English colonial possession. The Government is representative and consists of a Governor and Legislative Council appointed by the crown, and a House of Assembly elected by the people every four years from seventeen electoral districts. The inhabitants are almost entirely of British origin, the native Indians having entirely disappeared. The last one disappeared in 1823. The climate is so modified by the ocean that it is cooler in summer and milder in winter than the same latitude on the continent. We were told that it is very unusual in St. John’s for the mercury to fall below zero in winter or to rise above eighty in summer. There is, however, this discouraging feature, that the coast atmosphere is almost always damp and foggy, caused by the meeting and intermingling of the cold Arctic current with the warm Gulf Stream. In February and the spring months great quantities of icebergs drift along the east coast, producing a chilling atmosphere; but they come laden with myriads of seals, and is one of the chief industries to capture them and prepare their fur for market.
What are known as the Banks of Newfoundland lie southeast of Cape Race, the most southern point of the Island. They are rocky, submarine platforms with a depth of water varying from one hundred and twenty feet to over five hundred, and many hundred miles in length. These banks, three distinct ones in number, are the natural homes of cold-water fish, especially the cod. Codfish are more abundant here than in any other place on the globe.
The city of St. John’s has a population of 30,000. Its principal thoroughfares are semicircular, shaping themselves in harmony with the frontage of the harbor. The city is decidedly a British child, neat, but in substantial rather than costly dress. Our influx came as a sort of raid upon the city. The citizens were taken by surprise; there was no time to exhibit themselves in gala dress, but those we met were very genteel and exerted themselves not only to welcome us, but to make us believe this was the garden spot of the earth. Had it not been for the fog that enveloped every living and inanimate thing, we might have been coaxed into at least a partial acceptance of the statement; for the face of the country—as viewed from one of the lofty castellated bluffs overlooking “The Narrows” through which we sailed on the eventful Sabbath evening previous—strongly resembles parts of Scotland. There was the same kinds of ranges and crowns of hills with strips of forest and farm land, as if this island had floated off from North Britain and set up for itself in high style. The farm-houses looked comfortable cozy, and the outlook was rather pleasing. From the top of this rock which, by the way, was fortified with parapet and bastion, we counted four lakes. There are many lakes on the island; one has a regular tide like the ocean. The heather grows green on the hillsides, through a different variety from what we saw in Scotland and Ireland. We saw the Newfoundland dog on his native heath; and a number of the passengers invested in the infant variety of that species. There was a rage for souvenirs of our advent into this quarter of the earth; but we did not want a dog, not even one born on the soil.
We were much interested in the curing, drying and stacking for commerce of great quantities of codfish, and the distributing of squids to the outward bound fisher-boats. Squids are a kind of small fish used for bait in codfishing, the handling of which, at that time, was making the political sky squally between us and Great Britain.
Our great ship lay at anchor in this beautiful and peaceful harbor, and when we visited the coast, we had to climb down one at a time, a rather shaky rope ladder that landed us in the bottom of a little row-boat; and from there the oarsman pushed lightly off to shore with two or sometimes four passengers. The mishap to this vessel was a harvest to such traffickers. Our boatman was a lad of some eighteen summers. He hailed from Glasgow and seemed a hardened sinner. Not the least abashed, he told us he had run away from home, shipped as a hand on a sailing vessel bound for this port, and when he landed and received his wages, he went to a drinking saloon. The next day he woke to consciousness in the lock-up without a penny and friendless. We talked kindly to him and called up the image of his mother; but the daring, frolicking boy did not seem to feel. His mother may have been no better than himself; there are hosts of such.
The afternoon of September 29 (Thursday), the ship was ready for the bounding billows, although we scarcely believed it; for from the time the broken shaft was lifted out and the new one of solid steel twenty-two inches in diameter lowered into the hold, there was gratuitous information heralded about every hour that we would be ready to sail the next one. It was only true when the great anchors were lifted and we felt the swing of the vessel as she turned into “The Narrows” homeward bound. As a parting salute, the dense fog changed base and became a drizzling rain and, farther on, a pour. Until darkness set in, the coast line presented the same rocky ramparts, as if it guarded the island from all intruders, and old ocean hurled itself against it and fell back in a shower of spray. During no time did we enjoy the steamer’s wafting and rocking on the ocean more than the sail of 1200 miles from St. John’s to New York. The visit to a country at the expense of the Country not included in the original plan, notwithstanding its dangers, was full of interest, and we had learned more in this way than we had anticipated.