The spring of ice and sadness

Rick Barnes
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Gregory Chaytor never liked St. John’s winters, and in April 1961, when he was 50 years old, he was tired of waiting for signs of spring.

As usual, he had stored his giant, finned Dodge Regent for the winter and was looking forward to getting it back on the streets.

But that April, the ice and snow wouldn’t let spring anywhere near St. John’s. Constant strong winds from the east packed ice around the island, creating an ice field 200 miles deep off the coast.

Described in The Evening Telegram as “Pure Arctic ice hard and blue,” the ancient floe jammed into Bonavista Bay, Conception Bay and even through The Narrows into St. John’s harbour, making it impossible for ships to enter or leave the sheltered port.

Trapped in the harbour were a tanker, the Imperial Sarnia; a British vessel, the Manchester Shipper; and a Danish vessel, Etly Danielson. The Etly Danielson had crossed the Atlantic three weeks earlier en route to Bay Roberts to collect a load of fish. Since then, ship and crew had been sitting idle at the St. John’s dock waiting for the ice to recede. The Danish captain had sailed once in an attempt to get into Conception Bay, but was forced by the heavy ice to turn his ship back and head for the safety of St. John’s.

Chaytor, a boilermaker by trade, was a foreman at the Newfoundland Dockyard. The ice, nuisance that it was, often meant brisk business for the dockyard and on Saturday, April 8, 1961, he had worked overtime on ship repairs.

He came home late in the afternoon, washed and shaved, and put on a brown suit, tweed overcoat and a hat. With a number of ships stranded in port, it was likely there would be a few drinks and a poker game aboard one of the vessels.

He called a taxi, and shortly before 6 p.m., left his home at 3 Allan Square for the last time.    

Not long after six o’clock, Chaytor was seen at the dock. Later that evening, around 9 p.m., a Captain Brown of the MV Barr, docked at Bowring’s wharf on the south side of the harbour, reported to police he thought he saw a man splashing in the water off the head of the CN dock. And, in the dim light of the dock, Brown saw something float away that might have been a man’s hat.

The Newfoundland Constabulary responded and searched the area around the dockyard with flashlights, but did not see anything unusual.

Sunday morning, Chaytor was still not home, but an all-night poker game was an occasional diversion for the hard-living dock foreman, so no alarm was raised.

But after a sleepless night, the grey light of Monday, April 10, came to her bedroom window and Chaytor’s wife, Helen Chaytor, was truly worried. Her inquiries determined that her husband was not at work and nobody had seen him since early Saturday evening. She reported him missing to the Newfoundland Constabulary.

By Tuesday, the Constabulary’s criminal investigations division had surmised that it was Chaytor that Brown had seen in the water off the CN dock, and dragging operations began at the west end of the harbour.

The ice continued to press onto the coast of Newfoundland, and jammed the Strait of Belle Isle. A 50-year veteran coastal pilot, Capt. Percey Knee, said it was the worst spring he had ever seen.

Sealing vessels enlisted the help of the icebreaker Sir Humphrey Gilbert to push a channel through the heavy ice. Capt. Joby Cain of the Algerine complained the icebreaker travelled too quickly through the ice field, leaving sealing vessels far behind. The heavy ice closed in, once again leaving them trapped and drifting helplessly with the Arctic ice.

In St. John’s, the easterly wind forced heavy ice into the harbour, frustrating dragging operations for the missing dock foreman. On Saturday, April 15, many of Chaytor’s CNR co-workers came on their day off to help police drag the west end of the harbour, but no body was found.

By April 18, the ice was packed so tightly in the harbour, it was impossible to continue dragging. That spring of 1961 was terrible for my family.

Chaytor was my grandfather, and coupled with the grief that he was most likely drowned and suddenly gone from our lives forever, was the bizarre circumstance of not having his body.

People said his body had slipped under the ice and it would be carried out to sea when the wind finally changed, but it continued to be a nagging mystery. It was the shocking puzzle of his disappearance that pre-occupied my six-year-old mind, more than his presumed death.

Hoping for information that might help make sense of my missing grandfather, I focused on the news.

There was much talk of the “ice blockade.” The Cabot Strait, too, was jammed with Arctic ice, more than 10 metres thick in places, and it sometimes reached to the very bottom of the strait.

North Sydney, the mainland terminus for the Newfoundland ferry, was so choked with ice, the CNR ferry was forced to travel to Mulgrave in the Canso Strait of Nova Scotia. At Portugal Cove, the icebreaker Humphrey Gilbert kept a channel open for the Bell Island ferry, John Guy. Wind from the east kept the ice tightly packed into Conception Bay, and icebergs were seen as far south as Cape Race.

At that time, the railway was the main supply line for goods from the mainland, and St. John’s soon ran short of fruit and vegetables while 700 train cars loaded with freight waited on the tracks at Mulgrave and North Sydney. The ice pack cut off the island’s supply of everything from fresh eggs to big-ticket items. Stranded on the mainland were 150 freight cars loaded with shiny new automobiles destined for Newfoundland roads.

The vast ice field stalled the big steel ships and inconvenienced many islanders, but the unusual ice conditions brought oddities, too. People flocked to Signal Hill to watch seals frolic on the ice just outside The Narrows. A polar bear walked ashore and appeared in the Barrys’ garden at Jean de Baie on the Burin Peninsula. Boys walked across the ice from the north side of St. John’s harbour to the south, and the Newfoundland Constabulary warned the public about the danger of walking on the floating ice.

It seemed to me that while the entire island was paralyzed, engulfed by Arctic ice, the rest of the world was rapidly changing.

On Wednesday, April 12, the handsome young cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off into space and made two orbits around the planet before returning to Earth as a hero. There he was, smiling back at me from the newspaper after being away from our home planet, outside the atmosphere in the cold silence of space.

Gagarin’s bulky white spacesuit reminded me of the diving suit my grandfather had worn.

Dockworkers helped my grandfather dress in a white suit, leather shoes with lead soles, and a bolt-on brass helmet that sealed in air pumped from the surface through hoses. He would be lowered into the harbour to inspect a ship’s propeller or damaged hull through the glass of a round window in his huge copper helmet.

As I drifted off to sleep at night thinking about the cold ice packed around the island, I envisioned my grandfather’s body tumbling lifelessly around the harbour, trapped under the ice.

I understood that he would be dead and beyond harm, but so much was frozen in place, waiting for the ice to leave, I imagined that he was waiting, too — patiently waiting for the dim grey light that the ice permitted into the harbour to transform into the golden sunlight of a warm spring.

Sometimes I dreamed of him floating in space in his diving suit, hoses connected to the back of his brass helmet.

The heavy ice continued to plague Newfoundland mariners. The sealing boats Arctic Eagle (formerly the Kyle), Finback, Sainte Andresse, Algerine and Arctic Prowler became stuck in the ice and drifted helplessly off Cape Bonavista. The ice was so tightly packed, 35 of the Arctic Eagle’s 82-man crew walked ashore over miles of ice to their homes in Bonavista, as well as three of the Finback’s crew, nine from the Sainte Andresse and one from the Algerine.

It seemed unjust, I thought at the time, that boys could cross the harbour ice, sealers could leave their ships and walk for miles atop the open sea, a Russian could go into space and all were returned safely to their homes. Yet my grandfather could be forever lost, suddenly swallowed by the cold murky water of the harbour where he had worked every day for so many years.

The icebreaker d’Iberville attempted to free the Sainte Andresse, but the ice was too tight for even the powerful icebreaker to penetrate. The pressure was so great, the ice had lifted the Sainte Address so that its propeller and rudder were visible. After a month jammed in the ice off Cape Bonavista, the Sainte Andresse finally freed herself, and her captain, Fred Blackmore, headed for St. John’s, arriving Friday, May 5. By this time, 33 of her original 68-man crew had left the ship and walked to shore at Cape Bonavista.

It was May 15 before the Cabot Strait was ice-free, and CNR went to work on the remaining backlog of 450 freight cars still waiting on the mainland. The island had been surrounded by ice for a full two months before wind from the west finally cleared most of it away.

A week later, the Halifax company T.C. Gorman was still waiting on equipment trapped in ice at Quebec needed to begin construction of a marginal wharf, service road and dredging on the north side that would change St. John’s harbour forever.

There was really no spring that year. It seemed we went from May snowstorms right into the heat of summer, and on Thursday, July 27, a body was spotted floating near the Newfoundland Light and Power steam generating plant on the harbour’s south side.

A Southside East fisherman, Douglas Wareham, boarded his boat, secured the body and towed it ashore. Wareham told The Evening Telegram it was possible that if he hadn’t noticed the man’s body it would have floated beyond The Narrows and might never have been seen again.

My father identified the body as that of his father-in-law, Gregory Chaytor.

Remarkably, after more than three months in the water, his body was in very good shape. People said the rate of decay had been slowed by the presence of the great volume of ice that kept the water unusually cold.

The following Saturday morning, July 29, after a Requiem mass at the Basilica, my grandfather was buried in a family plot in a sunny corner of Belvedere Cemetery.

Missing for 110 days, he was finally laid to rest. The funeral rite, though sad, held an undercurrent of relief for my family. It was a beautiful day, and with the sun high in the sky, I imagined that my grandfather, unable to avoid his sudden early death, had waited out the ice and late snows of the spring of 1961, for a warm summer day to say goodbye to us all.

Organizations: Imperial Sarnia, CN

Geographic location: Bonavista Bay, Conception Bay, Newfoundland Atlantic Bay Roberts Arctic North Sydney Mulgrave Nova Scotia Portugal Cove Bell Island Cape Race Signal Hill Barrys Quebec

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Recent comments

  • Anna Chaytor Power
    April 11, 2011 - 21:23

    Rick Barnes has captured the full impact of the spring of 1961. The events listed in his article are very accurate and captures the heart and soul of our family's ordeal. The 110 days that our Dad was missing was almost unbearable for us as a family. We will always be thankful to Douglas Wareham for enabling us to lay our father to rest. Thank you Rick for remembering and paying tribute to your Grandfather. He was a wonderful man and we miss him.