Articles

THE FIERY PHANTOM THAT SAILS BAY CHALEUR

For generation Maritimers have told of a flaming ship that sails New Brunswick's north shore. Some have even pursued it.

IAN SCEANDERS June 15 1951
Articles

THE FIERY PHANTOM THAT SAILS BAY CHALEUR

For generation Maritimers have told of a flaming ship that sails New Brunswick's north shore. Some have even pursued it.

IAN SCEANDERS June 15 1951

TENS OF THOUSANDS have watched its eerie performances, scientists have tried for half a century to unlock its secret, and adventurous fishermen have attempted to overtake it with their schooners. But the “Fire Ship” that cruises Bay Chaleur, between New Brunswick’s north shore and Quebec’s Gaspé coast, is as much a mystery as ever.

Although it has been witnessed by more people than any other unexplained apparition in Canada — and perhaps in the world — it has the elusive quality of the end of a rainbow. Those who have pursued it say it always remains the same distance away, and those who have studied it through telescopes say a strong lens brings out no details not equally visible to the naked eye.

It looks to most like a sailing vessel in flames.

Professor Ralph Childs, of New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, collects data about nautical phantoms and, according to his records, fifteen or twenty of them voyage aimlessly around this continent’s northeastern seaboard. The Fire Ship is the undisputed queen of the shadowy fleet—as far superior to the average ghost ship as a passenger liner is to a smudgy tramp freighter.

Its rivals are furtive and vague. They appear at rare intervals, and only to one or two individuals whose evidence is suspect because it cannot be corroborated. But the Fire Ship is sighted several times a year by whole communities.

It ranges New Brunswick’s north shore for one hundred and twenty-five miles, from the thriving pulp and paper town of Dalhousie, near the mouth of the Restigouche in Bay Chaleur, to Miscou Island, where Bay Chaleur joins the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Occasionally it crosses to the Gaspé coast to visit such centres as Carleton, Bonaventure and New Carlisle.

It may hover for hours in one spot and gradually fade, or it may glow brilliantly and suddenly vanish, or it may whisk over the waves like the wind. Some claim to have seen the Fire Ship by day but most evidence indicates it appears only at night.

Nothing is easier than to drum up an argument among fisher folk on whether the Fire Ship is a natural phenomenon or a supernatural manifestation. Many say that those who believe it’s a ghost are silly and ignorant. Yet hundreds of men and women of acknowledged standing in their communities insist they have seen a flaming ship that cannot be explained in scientific terms.

The ship’s favorite haunt is Caraquet, and a motion picture director couldn’t select a more suitable background. The two-hundred-year-old New Brunswick cod port, once the principal fishing port of British North America, has six thousand residents and a single street that winds along Bay Chaleur for twenty miles. At places this street is so close to the water that salt spray lashes it when there’s a storm.

Sea-Gull Inn, the best hostelry, is a wooden mansion erected generations ago by a Jersey Islander who struck it rich in the cod trade. It is run by two female descendants, the Rive sisters. High on a hill, the building creaks and groans in a gale. Cod barons of another age stare down on the paying guests with mild distaste from ornately framed oil paintings in the lounge. In the library are old books and pictures of barques and brigantines. The house has an atmosphere of the past, even when it is crowded with tourists.

This same atmosphere surrounds the whole village, as though the inhabitants who salt and sun-dry codfish had a similar process for preserving their traditions and memories.

Everybody in Caraquet, from P. J. Carroll, general-manager of Gorton-Pew, the biggest fish-packing company in northern New Brunswick, down to the dark-eyed Acadian girl who waits on tables at Sea-Gull Inn, has seen the Fire Ship. Carroll, a thirty-seven-year-old New Englander, moved to Caraquet from Gloucester, Mass., in 1939. One dark night when he was still a newcomer he excitedly telephoned the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that, a schooner was burning a couple of miles from shore.

“Don’t worry,” said the officer who answered. “It isn’t a schooner. If you believe in ghosts, it’s a ghost. If you don’t believe in ghosts, it’s a natural phenomenon. It’s the Fire Ship. You’re a stranger here, but you’ll get used to it.”

Peter Fiott, now in his middle eighties, is a much-respected citizen. With his snow-white hair, courtly manners and fastidious dress, the phrase, “gentleman of the old school,” suits him perfectly. Born on Jersey Island, he was for more than fifty years Caraquet manager of the salt cod firm of Robin, Jones, Whitman, founded by Jersey Islanders in 1766.

“I have seen the Fire Ship hundreds of times,’' he told me. “It takes various forms. Usually it is a sailing vessel wrapped in flames. It has also been a shapeless ball of fire, a ship’s lantern, and once in 1906 it was a burning steamer.

“How do I explain the Fire Ship? There are those who say it is a mixture of imagination and phosphorus, or imagination and St. Elmo’s Fire. For myself, I can’t explain the unexplainable, but I have seen it—yes, hundreds of times.” (St. Elmo’s Fire is a flame-like electrical phenomenon seen in the rigging of ships and along the wings of aircraft.)

Mr. Fiott has yet to observe figures of tortured seamen on the Fire Ship. Not so other witnesses.

Walter Good is a middle-aged man, well-educated, intelligent, with a reputation for honesty. He owns a prosperous farm on the outskirts of Bathurst.

“I saw the Fire Ship twice,” he said. “It looked exactly like a three-masted, full-rigged vessel with sails blazing. There were tiny things squirming up through the flames—black things like men climbing the rigging.”

In 1937 the phantom veered off its regular route and put on a vivid show in Northumberland Strait. One of many who watched was Albert Robichaud, of Tracadie, who told a newspaper reporter: “I could see the rigging burning and men hurrying around the deck as though fighting the flames. Some were climbing the masts and some were in the shrouds. They were apparently living men, but of course it was an illusion.”

Willie Chiasson, storekeeper and fisherman of Shippigan Island, claims that the Fire Ship nearly lured him to death. On that occasion it was a small fishing schooner and wasn't burning.

“I was out fishing fall herring,” Chiasson relates. “A thick fog blew in and I started for port. There was a boat ahead of me so I decided to follow it ashore. Suddenly I realized I was almost on top of a treacherous reef. I also realized that if the boat I’d been following was a real boat I couldn’t possibly see it—not through a pea-soup fog. Yet I could see it plainly. It was the Fire Ship—nothing else.”

The loneliest place in New Brunswick is Miscou Island. To reach it you take a ferry from the mainland to Shippigan Island, drive across Shippigan Island and board another ferry for Miscou, which is flat and bleak and wave-beaten and strangely beautiful.

The Ghost Won the Race

Fragrant little orchids and pitcher plants and wild cotton grow in the swamps, and there are stretches where the trees are stunted because there is no soil, only peat moss. There are quicksands that will swallow you, and fine white beaches on which the sea tosses up black chunks of coal from a submarine vein, and in the spring herds of seal pass on the ice floes.

Lester Marks, keeper of the Miscou light and fog-alarm station, tells of being on the fishing grounds with a fishing companion at night, drifting for mackerel. They saw a lantern at a ship’s mast and it cast such a strange glow they decided to wait and watch. The lantern was motionless until dawn, when it faded like a star. Marks says he has also seen the Fire Ship when it was a vessel belching flames and smoke. He holds that its appearance invariably forecasts a storm.

One night several years ago the spectre sailed past Lameque, the business centre of Shippigan Island off New Brunswick, at its blazing best. There were a dozen schooners at the wharf and George LeRiche, Shippigan manager of Robin, Jones, Whitman, persuaded fishermen to sail in pursuit. They piled on canvas and chased it to the Quebec side of Bay Chaleur without gaining an inch.

Mrs. Marie Allard of Pokemouche, who died recently at 104, often said that people who were very old when she was young told of seeing the Fire Ship from their childhood. One of Canada’s first amateur photographers in the tintype days, she tried often to bring the apparition within camera range but always failed. Nor has anyone else been able to photograph it.

Mrs. Allard referred to the spectacle as le feu du mauvais temps—the bad-weather light—and denied it had the shape of a ship. She said it was a light which rose from the water before a gale. Her son, Msgr. Auguste Allard, also calls the Fire Ship a weather light and contends it’s simply a ball of fire “that our scientists will explain some day.”

One scientist who tried to explain it was Dr. J. Orne Green of Boston, a professor at Harvard Medical School. He was so eager to solve the mystery that in the 1890s and the first decade of this century he spent several weeks each summer in the Bay Chaleur region.

A paper published in 1907 by Dr. W. G. Ganong, a New Brunswick scholar who became professor of botany at Smith College, Northampton, Mass., summed up Dr. Green’s research: “He came to the conclusion that while the stories were mostly exaggerated and distorted there was some basis for them in fact, and there does occur . . . some natural light of the general nature of St. Elmo’s fire.”

Ganong was one of New Brunswick’s most versatile scholars. While working at Smith College, he returned to his native province for his vacations and won an outstanding reputation as a historian, cartographer and authority on the language and customs of Micmac and Maliseet Indians. More than eight hundred places in New Brunswick have Indian names. Ganong tracked down the meaning of them all.

In addition Dr. Ganong carried on his own investigation of the Fire Ship and announced:

“Grouping together all the evidence it seems plain,

“First, that a physical light is frequently seen over the waters of Bay Chaleur and vicinity;

“Second, that it occurs at all seasons, or at least in winter as well as summer;

“Third, that it usually precedes a storm;

“Fourth, that its usual form is roughly hemispherical, with the flat side to the water, and that at times it simply glows without much change of form, but at other times it rises into slender columns, giving an appearance capable of interpretation as the flaming rigging of a ship, its vibrating and dancing movements increasing the illusion;

“Fifth, its origin is probably electrical, and it is very likely St. Elmo’s Fire.”

A Wailing Pirate Crew

The explanation offered by Dr. Green and Dr. Ganong has been rejected by many fellow scientists, who note that St. Elmo’s Fire—electricity slowly discharged from the atmosphere to the earth—ordinarily shows itself as a tip of light on a pointed object, such as a church steeple or a mast. In addition, it is accompanied by a crackling noise. Bay Chaleur’s apparition, the dissenters say, is not attracted by pointed objects, appears only over expanses of water, and is silent.

Another theory is that the Fire Ship is inflammable gas, which could conceivably be released from a submarine seam that litters Miscou Island’s white beaches with lumps of bituminous coal. But what would ignite the gas? And if it rose from one spot, as it presumably would, why could it not be approached? Why would it always remain the same distance from boats which chased it?

Still another idea is that the Fire Ship is some kind of phosphorescent marine life. Biologists of the Department of Fisheries chuckle at this, since the Fire Ship has been seen in winter when Bay Chaleur was frozen.

A nautical phantom has to have a legend behind it. According to Caraquet folklore, the Fire Ship was once a corsair and met with a horrible fate in Bay Chaleur in the seventeenth century. This tradition is recounted in a poem by Arthur W. H. Eaton:

Strange is the tale that the fishermen tell:

They say that a ball of fire fell

Straight from the sky, with a crash and a roar,

Lighting the ship from shore to shore.

That was the end of the pirate crew.

But many a night a black flag flew

From the mast of a specter vessel, sailed

By a specter band that wept and wailed.

West of Caraquet, at the head of Bay Chaleur, the Fire Ship is generally linked with the Marquis de Malauze, a French frigate driven into the Restigouche River and sunk by the British in 1760. This version might be more acceptable if what’s left of the Marquis didn’t repose peacefully in a monastery garden at the Indian Reserve at Cross Point, Quebec. After lying on the bottom for 179 years her hull was salvaged timber by timber by Capuchin monks, who, with the aid of a sea captain, eventually managed to fit the pieces together.

East of Caraquet, at the mouth of Bay Chaleur, the Fire Ship is called the John Craig. That was the name of a barque which sank off Shippigan Island around 1800. All hands drowned except a cabin boy, who reached shore, then died of exhaustion.

Cooper Union’s Ralph Childs points out that ghost ships have been reported since the beginning of nautical history, and are described in earliest literature. Childs popped into the limelight as an authority on them when he addressed a meeting of the New York Folklore Society a few years a go. A digest of his speech was published in hundreds of U. S. and Canadian newspapers.

For weeks afterward he was snowed under by mail from all over the continent, from individuals who were interested enough to offer him further information. He soon gathered that almost everybody had seen a ghost ship except himself!

Childs grew up on the coast of Maine, has long been a yachtsman, and was in the U. S. Coast Guard during World War Two. But he has encountered ghost ships only in books, in musty archive records, and in letters from self-appointed assistant researchers.

He has accumulated a massive amount of data about fifteen which haunt North America’s northeastern shores, and sketchy data on several others. Bay Chaleur’s Fire Ship is outstanding among five marine apparitions which resemble burning vessels, he says. Outside of collecting historical evidence, however, Childs hasn’t much faith in ghost ships.

“I believe,” he says, “that there are nautical phenomena which people mistake for ghosts. I myself have never seen a phantom ship, I never expect to see one, and I don’t believe they exist.”