Group raising money to buy gravestone for 'hero of the SS Atlantic'

·5 min read
William Notman took this photograph of the scene after the ship had mostly sunk.  (Nova Scotia Archives - image credit)
William Notman took this photograph of the scene after the ship had mostly sunk. (Nova Scotia Archives - image credit)

A group of Americans and Canadians have come together to raise money to buy a gravestone for a Nova Scotian who played a famous role in the SS Atlantic rescue in 1873.

The steamship left England for New York that March, but ran low on coal. The captain changed course to Halifax.

The huge ship ran ashore near Lower Prospect, N.S., at Marrs Island.

The ship sank on the morning of April 1 and 565 passengers and crew drowned.

But hundreds survived and packed the sinking deck of the stricken vessel. Crew members tied lines to a rock and ushered about 200 passengers along the 37-metre trip to safety.

However, the chief officer could not swim and clung to the mizzen rigging as the waves smashed the ship below him. At one point, 32 people hung from the rigging.

Most were rescued by locals on small boats. But the tide rose and the rescuers decided it would be too dangerous to get the chief officer, a woman and a teenager until lower tide.

The woman grew weak from hypothermia and died, leaving two.

Enter Rev. William Ancient, the Anglican priest at Terence Bay, and before that a sailor with the Royal Navy.

Nova Scotia Archives
Nova Scotia Archives

"He saw them up in the rigging. Being a man of action, he got a boat, got a few people, went out and made the rescue," says Bob Chaulk, a member of the SS Atlantic Heritage Society and author of the upcoming book, Atlantic's Last Stop: Courage, Folly and Lies in the White Star Line's Worst Disaster Before the Titanic.

Ancient might have arrived around the same time as the journalists, as reporters quickly focused on his heroics, forgetting about the many people who rescued hundreds of survivors.

"They were still there, doing their duty after being at it all night, waiting for the tide to go down. Ancient arrived at just the right time. The leader of the rescue had gone home to put on dry clothes. When he came back, Ancient was out there — with his boat — doing the rescue."

Ancient rowed his boat to the bow of the shipwreck around 2 p.m.

The last survivors had been clinging to life for 10 hours. The teenager fell or jumped into the water and was pulled to safety. That left the chief officer — a man who could not swim.

Ancient pulled himself onto the sinking ship, climbed the rigging and performed some acrobatics to get a rope tied around the survivor. The man fell into the water, but Ancient kept hold on the line and guided the man to the rescue boat.

Chaulk says Ancient took it upon himself to see that the strangers who died far from their homes got proper burials. Some 277 were buried just outside a Protestant cemetery — now the site of the SS Atlantic Heritage Park — and 250 just outside the Roman Catholic cemetery.

Nova Scotia Archives
Nova Scotia Archives

Thirty-two years after the tragedy, Ancient returned to the site to unveil a monument to the dead. Ancient died three years later, in 1908, and was buried in St. John's Cemetery in Halifax.

But no gravestone marks Ancient's resting place.

"It might have been a wooden one. Ancient was not well off, so perhaps the family couldn't afford stone or marble. We don't really know," Chaulk says.

The location of his grave was lost in the subsequent century. That didn't sit right with Frank Jastrzembski, an American author and historian.

He visited Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in 2017 and saw Ancient's name in one of the exhibits. Curious about a priest in a naval rescue, he jotted down his name.

"People who are very selfless, it gives me an example in my own life of how to live," he said.

He later contacted St. John's Cemetery to ask about the condition of Ancient's grave. He learned it was unmarked.

Jon Tattrie/CBC
Jon Tattrie/CBC

Jastrzembski started a group called Shrouded Veterans a few years ago to get grave markers for American soldiers, often from the 1860s U.S. Civil War or the 1840s Mexican-American War. Usually, U.S. Veterans Affairs pays for it — but Ancient was British and Canadian, and no one offered to pay for it.

So he took on the duty of organizing it himself from his home in Wisconsin. He learned he needed the consent of one of Ancient's descendents to add a marker.

Amazingly, he tracked down a distant relative in Ontario. They got on board and sent a notarized letter granting consent.

The black granite stone will have an engraved image of Ancient, and his legendary words from the rescue: "Never mind your shins, man, it is your life that we are after!"

"I think it will lead people to investigate it. If they're walking through the cemetery, they might look it up and be like, 'Wow that's a powerful thing,'" he says.

Jastrzembski estimates he's gotten tombstones for 40 or 50 graves in the last two years. Ancient is his second Canadian project: he's created a grave marker for William Britt, a Union general buried in Quebec. He's raising funds to have that one installed.

He needs to raise about another $1,000 to pay for Ancient's stone.

"I would love to get it done before the end of the year. We would like to have the stone placed or at least dedicate the stone on the anniversary of the Atlantic wreck. I think that would be super cool," he says.

He hopes to return to Nova Scotia to see it installed.

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