Over the Waves (Hallowe'en Edition): SS Blue Jacket

This week was Hallowe'en! In honour of what is, honestly, my favourite holiday, I decided to seek out a story that tied in marine history and an excellent ghost story. For help, I reached out to the ever-fantastic and helpful Dale Jarvis - folklorist, storyteller, and creator of the St. John's Haunted Hike. Dale sent me in the direction of the story of the SS Blue Jacket, a story that combines heroism, terror, and the a ghost story that has continued on from 1862 to present day.

Ship Stats

  • Nationality: British (Newfoundland)
  • Class: Steam packet-boat
  • Crew: 7
  • Capacity: 12

On April 17, 1862, the packet-boat steamer SS Blue Jacket was preparing to depart on its scheduled route, leaving Portugal Cove for Brigus and Harbour Grace. Although there were high waves and strong winds, the Blue Jacket, under command of Captain John Murphy, kept to its scheduled departure time and sailed out across the bay, and into the storm, towards Brigus.

As she continued to make her way into the open water, both the waves and wind grew until gale-forced gusts hammered the small vessel. The Captain and his crew continued to push against the waves, until suddenly the ship listed to starboard. Three miles away from Brigus, the Captain ordered all hands - passengers and crew alike - to head below and redistribute the cargo on board to try and balance her back out. Everyone scrambled, and quickly the Blue Jacket settled back, upright, in the water. A quick investigation revealed that the port boiler had gone dry, throwing the ship off.

Unfortunately, this was no time to breathe a sign of relief; smoke began escaping from below decks. The overheated pipes of the boiler had ignited some of the woodwork, and the fire was beginning to spread. The engines were shut down, water drawn to dump on the ashes, but it was too late. The flames ate through the decks, and the order was given to abandon ship.

The problems just kept coming. Without the engine power, the ship drifted broadside to the wind. The longboat was lowered into the water, but many accidents prevented it from being immediately launched. With the bucking waves and gusting winds, trying to keep the bow of the boat away from the side of the ship proved difficult. Fifteen of the nineteen people on board piled into the longboat, which one passenger later noted was too many for the weather conditions, but the fire was spreading. Equipped with only a set of paddles, one oar, and no oarlocks, the boat sat low in the water and slowly pulled away from the sinking ship. The Captain, the cook, the engineer and a passenger named Mrs. Foley were left to watch. The Captain asked for the boat to return, but they kept going, advising him to use the small dinghy on board.

The Captain and the cook tried to get the dinghy in order, but waves kept overwhelming it and filling it with water. The Captain and cook bailed it over and over again, trying to make it stable. They finally got it into the water, and began to try and follow the longboat. Mrs. Foley cried out for them to come back, and said that she could jump in the water and swim for it. The Captain warned her that if she did, they couldn't save her if she started to drown, and so she stayed at the rail, screaming out into the storm as the two boats made for Kelly's Island. The Captain kept trying to hail the longboat to help them as the dinghy was repeatedly swamped and bailed, but he was only greeted by a voice calling back "It's no time now to be looking out for others. It's every man for himself!"

The longboat and the dinghy made it to a small cove on the island and found a few other vessels taking shelter from the storm. The Captain asked the skipper of a fishing skiff, Mr. Henry Gosse, to return to the burning Blue Jacket and rescue the last two souls on board. The skipper, skeptical but understanding that time was of the essence, agreed and set out for the ship. As he arrived, he found the following scene:

It was a dreadful scene to witness, a helpless female kneeling on the stem with her arms flung open and screaming in a dreadful manner the steamer was about three hundred yards from the shore with the sea dashing against her, and every part of her, but the stem, on fire. We… threw two ropes to the female one of which she succeeded in catching and attaching to her person. We told her she would have to leap in the water and we would save her, which she accordingly did, and we hauled her into our boat. When she came to herself we inquired what had become of the man (the chief engineer). She said he gave her a life buoy and took one himself and leaped overboard.
— Henry Gosse in a letter to the Harbour Grace Standard, 1862.

The body of the chief engineer was never recovered, but he was the only life lost in the wreck. And usually, this would be where my story would end, but there is still a bit more...

According to local folklore, many people of the area claim to have seen the SS Blue Jacket sailing in the bay, long after her demise. There have been sightings of it in the bay, ablaze and sinking, or approaching a vessel on the fishing grounds only to disappear without a trace. The most eerie of the sightings, in my opinion, is the claim that it can be spotted sailing into the bay. Spotting the spectral ship can indicate bad weather is on its way, but there can also be a darker, more sinister indication; seeing the ship can mean it is bringing death in its wake. If the ship is sailing towards you, death is very close at hand, but if it is sailing away from you, you have a bit of time to get your affairs in order. As Dale Jarvis points out in his book Haunted Shores, plenty of people have said they have seen the ship and are still around to tell it. You have to wonder though, what if you were one of the few to spot it? Would you be willing to bet that you'd live to tell the tale?

That's all for now! I hope you all had a wonderful Hallowe'en!

Dale Jarvis is a Newfoundland storyteller, folklorist, author, and generally all around awesome person. You can check out his webpage, or follow him on Twitter @DaleJarvis.