Ghost ships that pass in the night

Dale Jarvis
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Older readers with knowledge of Bell Island and surroundings may have memories of retired ferries like the Kipawa and the John Guy. Descriptions of those ferries, along with many of the ferries that predated them, can be found on the website for Bell Island (, which includes a good article by Addison Bown on the Bell Island ferries of former years.

“Another famous name made its appearance in local shipping circles in the summer of 1907,” writes Bown. “SS Mary was purchased in Quebec by the Bell Island Steamship Company and used at first as a freighter between St. John’s and the Island. When she arrived off the Beach in August that year with her first cargo, she was too big to berth at the public wharf and the freight had to be discharged in boats and lighters. The Mary replaced the Progress on the Tickle in September when the latter went to St. John’s for refit.”

The SS Mary was licensed to carry 60 passengers, according to Bown, and initial response to the ship seems to have been positive, though she soon ran into a few problems.

The “Harbour Grace Notes” section of The Evening Telegram for Aug. 27 of that year relates: “The Bell Island steamer Mary arrived from the Island on Saturday last with a number of passengers, men who came home to spend Sunday with their friends. The Mary is a most suitable boat for the service, and the workmen are delighted with the opportunity of spending Sunday at home. … On Sunday evening she returned to take the men back to the island, and while being berthed she struck the public wharf, damaging it somewhat.”

By November, the steamer had run into trouble again. As The Evening Telegram reported on

Nov. 9, “yesterday she grounded near the wharf that is built out from the beach at the island, and had one of her propeller blades broken. Capt. Dawe asked us to say that if the wharf was 10 feet longer, it would not have happened, and he strongly recommends this addition.”

The damage could not have been extensive, as the Mary was back in service by December, making runs to Harbour Grace, Carbonear, Bell Island and into St. John’s.

It was on one of these runs into St. John’s that the SS Mary had an encounter with what some of the crew believed to be a ghost ship. A few days after Christmas, the ship was almost run down by a ship which vanished in a strange fashion.

On Dec. 28, 1907 — in a short article entitled “What Was It?” — The Evening Telegram reported the event as follows:

“The crew of the steamer Mary, which arrived from Bell Island at midnight last night, told us today that before they entered the Narrows, a large steamer was seen by them in the strain of Black Head with red and blue lights hoist in her rigging.

“She came like a flash towards them and the engineer of the Mary thought that they would be run down. She passed, so he states, at the rate of 25 miles an hour, and the most mysterious thing about her was that they lost sight of her; after she got near Sugar Loaf she disappeared from view. They are conjecturing today what ship it was and whether it was a phantom ship or not. The engineer said that he never witnessed the like of such a scene in all the years he has been going to sea.

“We thank the crew for this Xmas Ghost Story,” added the anonymous writer of the article.

I have come across a few references to ghost ships near The Narrows, including ghost schooners, and one story about a black barquentine which is always seen as a token of impending doom. If anyone has heard stories of a ghostly steamer with red and blue lights in the rigging, I would be interested in hearing more.

Dale Jarvis can be reached by email


Organizations: Bell Island Steamship Company

Geographic location: Bell Island, Quebec, Sugar Loaf

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