"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, February 26, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: North Star

“Miss Grace Boomer and friend Miss Richards and little Elizabeth Bishop all of Boston arrived home the latter part of last week, and are visitors with Miss Boomer’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Boomer. These young ladies were passengers on the ill fated Steamer North Star, which was wrecked on the voyage from Boston to Yarmouth.”

Truro Daily News, 13 August 1919

Imagine my surprise when I read this notice one spring day in 1991 (a little shuffle of those 1s and 9s), sitting at a microfilm reader at the Nova Scotia Archives. Grace was bringing Elizabeth back to Nova Scotia after living in New England for a year and a bit. “The ill fated Steamer North Star”! What was that, I wondered? It didn’t take me long to discover the dramatic story of this Eastern Steamship vessel.

Early on the morning of 8 August 1919, the North Star was making slow progress towards Nova Scotia in a heavy sea and dense fog when it struck Green Island off the coast. Literally, the large vessel slid right onto the rocks, tearing a hole in its hull. It took hours, but all the passengers were taken off (fishing boats from coastal communities enacted the rescue). Amazingly, there was no loss of life and only minor injuries. The North Star was stripped of all that could be remove and left to the elements of the open Atlantic. It eventually broke apart and disappeared.

I was so intrigued by this story and wanted to learn more that I went to the Yarmouth County Museum Archives, a wonderful place of seafaring artifacts, including the magnificent ship’s bell and wheel from the North Star. I got to ring the great bell and see pictures of the steamer with its large solitary funnel stranded and tilted on Green Island. As I talked with the archivist, she remembered that sometime in the late 1970s an elderly woman had come in asking about the ship because she had been one of the children on board. "Yes," she said, "I think the newspaper even came and took her picture." Off she went to locate the file containing that photograph. Elderly woman, late 1970s...could it be? The archivist returned with the file. I opened it. Alas, no, not Elizabeth Bishop, but one of her fellow passengers who nearly 60 years before had also been aboard the "ill fated North Star."

For someone so fascinated with seafaring and shipwrecks (a fascination which came primarily from the marine lore and oral tradition of her mother’s family), it is puzzling that Elizabeth Bishop never directly wrote or spoke about her own shipwreck – and not on just any ship, but one uncannily called North Star. Elizabeth was eight years old when she had this adventure, which certainly did not deter her from travelling on steamers and freighters right up to the end of her life. Indeed, a ship was her preferred mode of transportation. Perhaps there is an echo of the North Star in the title of her first book, North & South.

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