January 26, 1938
New Ghosts In The Atlantic Graveyard
By WESTON GAUL
IN LIBERTY MAGAZINE
One hundred and sixty-five miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada - a sand bar bearing the semblance of solid land, with ponds, and a lake in the centre of it, with flowers and berries and grasses all growing in wild profusion, smack in the middle of the North Atlantic; of roaring gales, hurricanes, treacherous currents, and changing moods; with submerged sand arms snaking out to almost caress the brooding steamer lanes between Europe and America. That's Sable Island, the graveyard of the Atlantic. One hundred years ago, the most dreaded isle in the world. Today center for one of the most titanic battles between science and nature ever waged. Conquered years ago, this island is now preparing to turn the tables on science. There is every modern navigation aid on it. Where forty years ago it claimed twelve ships a year, today it scarcely averages one. But all this is paled by a new danger.
For Sable is rapidly submerging. The island is dwindling before the onslaught of wind and tide. The sand is being washed up on the sand bars, making them linger; pushing them out farther toward the steamer lanes. A new trap for shipping is in the making.
As bad as the Sable of old? A new graveyard? Maybe, unless science stops it in time. Since 1800 these bars have sucked down two hundred ships; more than one thousand lives. Modern navigation aids hold them in check today. But if Sable submerges, there will be nothing to stop the bars.
Horrible history is on the way to repeating itself here. Stop it, if you can, science!
"It was formed," said Reuben Naugle, an ex-coxswain of the Sable Island lifeboat crew, one night as I sat in his little home on the shores of the Atlantic at Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia, "with waves blown up by ocean winds, debris left behind by melting icebergs, and miscellaneous drift from the Atlantic tides!" He shuddered a little at the thought of years spent on the graveyard.
1870 ... The world hears in silence reports about a terrible island off the coast of Nova Scotia. It has great sand bars reaching out from either end under water. Ships that get caught on them never get off.
Sailors and passengers marooned there seldom escape. They live for a time off the meat of wild ponies, part of a band that bred from a few aboard a Portuguese ship which beached there. And seals. But in the end, loneliness and exposure kill them.
Pirates make the island a rendezvous. They prey on the ill-fated ships and passengers. Lure additional rich passenger ships ashore with false beacons.
There's a mound of sand there, over which is scrawled on a wooden cross, "The French Gardens," burial place of French convicts marooned on the island away back.
The world listens and wonders. Its respect mounts steadily. Its anger mounts too. A great hue and cry is raised. Rid the Atlantic of this evil monster!
1873 ... The mainland of Nova Scotia buzzed with excitement. Every citizen is afire with talk about Sable. The government is fed up with it too! Lifeguards and modern lighthouses will be put there.
Conquer Sable? Others before them have tried and failed.
Many years before, the government allowed several mainlanders on Sable. They had taken lifesaving equipment too. They had found work to do with it all right. But many of them had died doing it. The makeshift lighthouses had been torn down. Sable had kept right on claiming the best in ships and men.
Sable was a no man's land!
There's an island waiting to be conquered, men! Will you go?
Will we go! The men fell over themselves to go. But only about twenty in all, brawny seawise fellows, went. Perhaps they didn't know what they were in for? It was just as well.
It was plenty!
Perhaps they expected to find lifesaving work their big problem here. Perhaps it was pirates. No matter; they didn't expect to find what they did - a danger that dwarfed any other they were to encounter. One look about them and they sensed it.
This island stretching for about thirty miles long and two miles wide had practically no vegetation on it. It was nothing but a great heap of sand; fine silky sand, all open to the Atlantic.
Every time gales raced in off the open Atlantic and struck the attenuated line of sand on that thirty-mile front - sometimes a seventy-mile-an-hour hurricane - the newly erected stations shook. Sand buried them up tot he eaves. Glass in windows crashed. Horses stumbled, died; shrubbery was uprooted; gardens too!
Grisly secrets popped out of the craterlike bowls; ships' timbers; old shoes with bones of human toes rattling inside!
The men had come expecting to face many dangers. None had expected to find his job easy. All knew Sable's terrible record. They had bargained for many difficulties. But not for this kind.
The esprit de corps of the men weakened. Whispers about ghosts didn't do it any good.
An Islander who chanced to whistle the Marseillaise passing by the French Gardens one night rushed back to his fellows and swore he had seen the dead convicts come up! Another met a woman whom pirates had murdered for her diamond ring. Walking on the beach holding aloft the stump of the ring finger.
The French Gardens were given a wide berth. None would walk the beach alone at night.
The leaders of the band laughed nervously.
It was hard to laugh off the phantom thirteenth man in the lifeboat, though. They could ridicule the other superstitions perhaps; but this was different. The phantom oarsman was real.
Real every time they passed the point near the ends of the bars. He appeared in the seat beside the stroke oarsman; came, as it were, out of nowhere. He remained in the boat when the crew boarded a wreck, returned with them as far as the point. Here he disappeared.
When one of the men uncovered a small steel box in the sand and found a book that had served the earlier islanders as a lighthouse log, the mystery was solved.
"Friday, September 10th, 1856," read the log. "Stormy. Wind blowing S. E. No vessels spoken. Howard Murray is dead. He died at ten o'clock this morning. The gash in his right cheek festered and blood poisoning set in. Before he died he said he would come back; that he would always go out with the lifeboat in which he had rowed stroke oarsman for many years. I wonder if he will. We buried him this afternoon on the point."
There was only one antidote to make them forget such things, the band decided; work. They threw their all into their jobs.
They commenced a daily patrol of the beach. It didn't matter that there was thirty miles to travel between the two lights; they did it daily on horseback. Scanned the bars for wrecks.
The lifeboat got in its good work without fail if ships went down inside the bars. Not always, though, when the ships struck on the ends of the bars. Here they drove over and foundered fast. Almost too fast for the lifeboat to get there in time. For it had to go through two breakers twenty feet high!
But they did it many times. Tried it every time!
And so they gambled with their lives for many years; held high the torch thrown to them; cheating Sable of victims, but blind to approaching danger.
1900 came and went. The old lifeguards passed out of the picture. New ones took their place.
Suddenly there came a terrific storm, and in its wake a terrible truth dawned upon them: The island was fast diminishing in size!
Only one mile of land remained between the West Light and the sea. When the light had been established there had been five!
The hearts of the islanders froze. They shuddered as huge bluffs of land, their barns, their lifesaving houses were pulled under by the advancing seas.
The government ordered the West Light moved.
But it was useless. The sea continued to advance. The old site submerged. Soon the new site was threatened.
They moved the light on two more different occasions before it fell prey to swirling seas.
Well, build a new one.
They did; a splendid structure that cost $40,000; but it, too, was soon undermined and swept away.
Then, for no reason at all other than a whim of Neptune, we suppose, the storms suddenly let up.
The lifeguards took advantage of the lull to equip the lighthouses more securely. Foghorns boomed out. They were of little use though. The sound would not reach beyond the bars in storm.
The bars were longer now, too. The erosion on the island was being craftily maneuvered by Neptune. Wind and tide were ripping Sable asunder to build a greater trap for shipping!
Weren't the lighthouses functioning? Yes. But it was hard going with a pea-soupy fog, which grips Sable four months of the year, against them.
Years passed and ships crack up: the British steamer Eric; the Norwegian steamer Beimdal; the American steamer Silverwings; the Greek steamer Platea. The last came ashore in a roaring gale, hit and jumped three bars, and stuck her nose up high and dry on the beach. She sat just the same as in dry dock.
In the end, the government tried a new weapon.
On Sable it planted 81,345 trees of the variety which has succeeded well in the drifting sands in France. These would surely hold the sand dunes in place and leave the islanders to concentrate on other things. But in no time they were all uprooted by storms!
Sable's maw continued to eat its fill. The land continued to dwindle in area. Science was up against a blank wall. It continued its battle o two fronts until wireless came into its own aboard ships. It proved a boon in stopping wrecks there. Storm warnings were relayed regularly along the coast.
In 1920 the government encircled Sable with direction finders, and the hunger pangs of Sable increased; the island was still dwindling in area, however. In 1800 it was possibly 100 miles in length and about ten miles wide; in 1920 it was less than twenty-five miles long and about a mile and a half wide.
"Fortunately, the erosion has gone on slow of late years," said the excoxswain near the end of his tale. "The past ten years has seen very little of the island disappear.
"But then, as if to hurry things," he hurried on, eyes smoldering, "lightning struck the East Light in 1930. It went up in flames and a new one was built.
"Then, this past fall, although equipped with wireless, the sturdy Halifax beam trawler Lemberg got caught on the northeast bar, and broke up. Her crew barely escaped, being rescued by the lifeguards.
"Little wonder," he sighed, "that I think maybe nature will win out in the end."
There was a silence in the little room. I thought of Sable Island as she is today. Better equipped than ever before. She had been made safer after a most amazing struggle. But what of her future?
She is constantly wearing away. The sand bar on the west end of the island stretches nearly eighteen miles off and is all submerged in storm. The one on the east end goes out five miles that you can see, and fourteen more miles with a fathom or so of water covering it.
These bars were not this long ten years ago; the conclusion is - scientists have verified it too - that further erosion will wash the sand on to the bars in increasing quantity.
What can science do to stop it?
If it doesn't find an answer in the next forty years, it may be too late. Neptune may have the last laugh in this age-old battle.
Science will have to place a lightship off there then. It won't be an easy job. Sable's shifting sands and cross-currents will see to that.