I found corners of the province that I might have missed on a road trip.
By: Karin Murray-Bergquist
The voices of lost sailors cry out when the weather is foul in Adam’s Cove. A bell sounds out from the depths, where it is said that a schooner mysteriously disappeared with its owner in Rocky Bay. A sailor curses at a passing ship, which turns and sails straight through his own vessel in another bay, Bonavista. These and other legends surround the coasts of the island of Newfoundland, recounting fragments of a past that was bound to the sea.
At the beginning of my graduate assistantship at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Folklore and Language Archive, I proposed making a map of local ghost legends. The first day in the archive, I realized that this would be impossible. This province is full of so many ghost stories that I would need significantly more hours in the archive — and the map would have been a headache to read. A map of shipwrecks would have also presented similar problems. Putting the two together, however, I had an idea. I decided I would look for stories of ghost ships.
I began to make notes of stories and locations using the archive’s file of local legends collected by previous folklore students and researchers. Once I had a list, I placed them on an interactive map through MapHub, a site that was user-friendly, easy to learn, and free. It was the start of both the project that would hold my attention for the semester, and the virtual journey around Newfoundland that filled my then-impossible wish to travel to these other places.
The stories told in the legend cards turned up different parts of history — in Placentia, two stories concerning French settlements sketched out the years in which English and French forces struggled for control. In Dunville, a ghost dory is heard being rowed to shore, and listeners assume that it is on its way to the old French fort. In another story, one of the oldest on the map, 17th century French customs officials hailed a vessel that failed to stop for them, fired at it, and finally saw it disappear completely.
Yet some stories seem to have no historical basis, or at least, none that makes sense. Also in Placentia Bay, a flaming Greek galley is said to disrupt fishing. Yet such a ship would not have been constructed or used in this region at that time.
The places that attracted the most ghost ship stories were the more populated areas, especially those closest to the university. The Avalon Peninsula, Conception Bay, and Placentia Bay were the busiest sites on the map, likely because they had been the sites of research.
I organized the map using colour codes for different categories: the known ship, the unknown ship, and the phantom of a person lost at sea. The latter category is the broadest, and encompasses stories such as that of the Southern Cross, a sealer that was lost with all 173 hands in 1914.
Several legend cards told of crew members appearing to their families at the time of the wreck. Such premonitions are a familiar story in maritime folklore — Helen Creighton’s Bluenose Ghosts recounts similar incidents, in which people witness those who have died in a shipwreck, and know that the disaster has occurred long before the news reaches them.
The variety of stories that the archive contained highlighted the role the sea played in people’s lives, and the ways that it could be the source of intrigue but also of pain. Some stories, such as that of the two treasure-hunters who met mysterious ends while digging for pirate gold, combine cautionary tales of cursed treasure with the ghost ship (or in this case, dory) motif. Others would be told as a way of commemorating tragedy
Along with histories at every scale, I found corners of the province that I might have missed on a road trip. I learned the names of small towns and random islands. In one case, I even learned that there actually was a place called Random Island! This tour of the island gave me a chance to travel, if by words alone.
I have never been to Green Island, but I know that there is a lighthouse from which two keepers once witnessed a phantom ship. The account of haunted lumber from the wreck of the steamer Blue Jacket in Conception Bay, conjured up a wind-swept beach, littered with wood and other debris. Several stories were lodged at a comfortable distance in the past, while others were close enough to be poignant, involving living community members, or local tragedies remembered throughout generations.
Working on these stories has brought me a new appreciation of local histories, and brought me closer to a community to which I am still a relative newcomer. In a year that began with a week-long snowbound state of emergency and continued with a pandemic, searching for maritime mysteries was a good distraction for me, and something engaging that I could share with others. The map is a work in progress, ready to be continued when it is once more safe to open the archive to students — and to conduct fieldwork.
Over the past year, people began to get in touch and tell me about their own stories, whether that meant their own encounters, or stories they had heard of in their region. When I presented my work at The Rooms last October, the organizer told me that she had heard as a child about one of the stories on the map — “Paddy Poor’s Light,” a phantom light that was used as a warning against staying out too late.
To know that these stories are still told, and that they are familiar to people who grew up in those places, is an encouraging thing to learn — it brings the map outside the archive, and turns it into a living project. Whether they commemorate a wreck, explain a mystery, or serve as a warning, these legends not only illustrate the many ways in which the sea has been central to Newfoundland life, but also show the crucial role of stories, something the map, I hope, reflects and illuminates.
Karin Murray-Bergquist is a student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, working on a PhD in folklore, and hoping to specialize in maritime legend. Along with the constant chaos of academia, Karin is also an actor, writer, and artist (in stained glass and watercolours), and one half of the Practical Fantasists creative team. Instagram: @peregrineglass and @practicalfantasists. Website: https://practicalfantasists.wordpress.com.
Feature photo credit: Karin Murray-Bergquist
Photo #1 credit: Karin Murray-Bergquist
Photo #2 credit: Southern Cross, courtesy of Maritime History Archive at Memorial University of Newfoundland
Photo #3 credit: Karin Murray-Bergquist
Photo #4 credit: Karin Murray-Bergquist