The Rescuers
Grit, Determination and Heroism


The Reverend W.J. Ancient

Not long after the Atlantic struck the rocks off the western side of Meagher's Island, Michael Clancy was awakened by the sound of escaping steam. From his home, he could not see the stricken ship but when he looked out the window he saw blue distress rockets flying into the air.
 
His was the only house on the island and it was about to be thrown into turmoil. He quickly dressed and, with his brother and son, headed towards the sound, about half a kilometre away.
 
In the pre-dawn  morning of April Fools' Day, 1873, the three soon stood staring at the 437-foot steamship Atlantic, just offshore and heeled over on her side, with her four huge iron masts at a forty-five degree angle pointing away towards the dark sea, her stern submerged and bow jutting out of the water, covered with frantic men awaiting certain death. Most of the women had already perished, along with their children and husbands, and only single men and one boy from the nearly 1,000 people aboard now clung to a precarious existence.
 
The Atlantic was woefully off course, and had been heading to Halifax to take on coal to ensure a safe arrival at New York. She was the second steamship built for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, an enterprising young British firm better known today as the White Star Line. The ‚ÄčAtlantic would be their first loss, and as Clancy stared out at the enormity of the calamity before him, he could never imagine that worse would befall the company, for their greatest catastrophe still lay in the future.
 
The liner was aground on Meagher's Island near Lower Prospect, Nova Scotia and was on her way to becoming the worst trans-Atlantic passenger ship disaster of the nineteenth century. The Titanic would claim the dubious honour for the twentieth century.

The Atlantic almost finished the young company but they survived it. They would not, however, get over the horrific losses of the Titanic and her sister ship Britannic, as an ailing White Star Line was taken over by its arch-rival Cunard in the 1930s.

The Atlantic was on her 19th voyage from Liverpool to New York with about 975 people on board. Constructed of iron, she was 437 feet long and had 4 iron masts and one funnel to service her 11 boilers. Her captain, James Williams, had decided to put in to Halifax because coal was running short after a stormy crossing and there might not be enough to reach New York if the weather turned nasty again. Fourteen hours after the decision to change course, the Atlantic struck what today is called Meagher's Island, at 3:15 on the morning of April 1, 1873.

Within minutes the stern sank and she heeled to port and filled with water, drowning hundreds in their beds. With land close by, some tried to swim ashore, but the huge waves and the freezing water were too much for them and almost everybody who tried ended up perishing. Some of the passengers and crew climbed up the masts, but it was the middle of the night in early spring and they were seriously exposed and poorly dressed, many still in their night clothes.
 
The crew managed to rig a line to a slippery rock between the ship and shore, and some of the passengers succeeded in reaching it. Clancy and other fishermen from Lower Prospect went to work rescuing them by going out in their rowboats to the rock, fighting against time and the rising tide.

The first boat was hauled across the island and launched by 6 A.M. followed by the second half an hour later. The third, crewed by men from Upper Prospect, was on the job by 8 A.M. Each boat had a crew of five and they took loads of eight to ten survivors from the rock and the ship. It was estimated that they got around 370 of the 430 or so that made it ashore alive. The others managed to survive the gruelling task of pulling themselves ashore on one of the ropes and a few by swimming the whole distance.
 
Michael Clancy's daughter, Sarah Jane O'Reilly, led the effort to resuscitate the survivors, getting hot drinks into them and crowding them into the warmth of the little house, where so much water accumulated that they had to bore holes in the floor to drain it away. Kate and Agatha O'Brien, Elizabeth Ryan and others were doing their best to care for the shocked passengers but there were not enough homes to shelter everyone.
 
The rescue took until mid-morning and by afternoon, all the living had been saved or swept away, except a youth and a man and a woman still lashed in the rigging on the mizzenmast, which was sticking at a sickening angle out over the water towards the horizon. The man was John Firth, the First Officer of the Atlantic, who had tied the woman to the mast and remained with her since before daylight.

Her husband had succeeded in reaching the deck with her and their child and was helping them into the mizzen rigging, when a wave snatched the child. Then, Captain Williams ordered everyone to get into the fore rigging because that part of the vessel was higher and more sheltered. The woman was too exhausted to attempt the move but she encouraged her husband to save himself, which he did. She was dressed only in a thin night-gown and had tried to keep up her spirits by singing hymns but now she had expired from exhaustion and cold. The sea was swirling violently around the ship so that the boats could not venture near enough to rescue them.

Reverend William Ancient, the Anglican clergyman at Terence Bay arrived on the scene in the early afternoon, having been busy helping with the survivors and organizing those on the mainland.  It looked like the rescue was over and there were no more survivors aboard, but he saw Firth and his two companions in their lonely perch out over the water, and asked why they had not been rescued.

He got the reply that it was too rough, and impossible to get in below the mizzenmast, which was attached to a submerged part of the ship. The fishermen were waiting for the tide to fall so they could get into position to attempt a rescue. The clergyman pointed out that he knew exactly what to do because of his training in the Royal Navy and that he could rescue the three. He persuaded a crew, consisting of  Patrick Duggan, Samuel White, James Power, John Blackburn and John Slaunwhite to take him out. They succeeded in saving the youth and Firth but the woman had died.
 
Ancient's daring rescue caught the imagination of newspapers around the world and he got credited with leading the rescue from start to finish. The fishermen got overlooked and to this day many articles survive that credit Ancient for doing something he did not do—nor did he claim to.

The only child to survive of the many that embarked on the ill-fated Atlantic was John Hanley. He was emigrating from England with his parents and older brother to join two married sisters in New Jersey.  When the ship suddenly tipped, he followed some men into an upper berth in the steerage compartment and managed to stay above the rapidly rising water. The men broke open a porthole and someone pushed the boy while a man outside  pulled him up to the sloping side of the ship.

Although there were at least 138 women on board the Atlantic not one was saved. Very few succeeded in even reaching the deck. Some were in the lifeboats that capsized and others were swept overboard with their children because they did not have the strength to hang onto the rails or the rigging.  

At daylight the next day, the Federal Government steamer Lady Head  and the Cunard steamer Delta, carrying Customs officials and newspaper reporters, and the steam tug Goliath arrived from Halifax to take the survivors to the city. The steamers anchored offshore while the Goliath, with lifeboats in tow, went in to pick up the shipwrecked men. Most of the passengers on the Atlantic were from mainland Europe emigrating to the United States and soon they were on board—dressed in borrowed clothes from the locals, who had very little themselves to provide. Many without shoes and stockings had their feet tied up with bits of straw and old pieces of cloth. They were so bruised and sore from their ordeal that they were scarcely able to stand. One man had both legs broken.

On April 3rd the tug Henry Hoover left Halifax towing the schooner Amateur, loaded with 200 coffins and lumber for building more. Aboard the Hoover were some who had come to Halifax to identify dead relatives. Lying in rows on the rocks were almost 200 bodies recovered from the sea—men in heavy seamen's clothes, women in dresses torn to rags in the waves, children covered with sailcloth. The bodies were examined by the local magistrate, Edmund Ryan, and those unidentified or unclaimed were placed in coffins for burial. Cunard's Halifax office, which was acting as agent for the White Star Line, sent down extra picks and shovels, along with gravediggers to help the men of Lower Prospect and Terence Bay.
 
In the little cemetery in Terence Bay, near the ocean below his church, Rev. Ancient read the funeral service above a large common grave that would eventually hold 277 Protestants, while the villagers and a few visitors from Halifax gathered nearby. Rev Martin Maas, the Roman Catholic priest from Upper Prospect, officiated at the burials of some 150 Catholics who were interred in the Star of the Sea Cemetery at Lower Prospect. The cost for the burials was  paid by the government of Canada, subsidized by unclaimed money and valuables recovered from the bodies.

William Johnson Ancient, the man responsible for John Firth's redemption, was a native of Lincolnshire, England, who had served in the Royal Navy before joining the Anglican clergy and being posted to Halifax as a scripture reader. Soon after that, he was sent as a missionary to Terence Bay, where he served until later in the summer of 1873, and was posted to several locations in Nova Scotia. He died in 1908 and is buried in Halifax.

Ancient's bravery in rescuing Firth from the rigging caught the imagination of the world. The Chicago Relief Committee sent a magnificent watch to the clergyman (now displayed at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax) and a sum of money to be distributed to the rescuers. They also remembered some of the young women who had been so kind to the shipwrecked passengers as they sent a gold locket and chain and twenty pounds sterling to Sarah Jane O'Reilly, and a gold locket and chain and ten pounds sterling each to the Misses Agatha and Kate O'Brien. Funds were raised in Boston and other cities and sent to be distributed among deserving families of Lower Prospect, Upper Prospect and Terence Bay who had rendered service to the shipwrecked passengers and crew.
 
The Canadian government, assisted by the White Star Line, reimbursed those who participated in the rescue and others who incurred expenses by billeting, feeding and clothing the refugees. The government also paid rewards to the men who manned the rescue boats and risked their lives in getting the living passengers and crew to shore. Prominent in the rescue were members of the Clancy, Ryan, Blackburn, Coolen, O'Brien, Dollard, Brophy and Lacey families from Lower Prospect, the Purcells, Whites, Powers and Duggans from Upper Prospect, Thomas Twohig from Pennant and John Slaunwhite from Terence Bay.