Lost in the Fog

This story concerns the final voyage of the S.S. Labrador. The Labrador was built in 1891 at the Harland & Woolf shipyard at Belfast , Northern Ireland . Her dimensions are; 401 feet (122.22 metres) long, 47 feet 2½ inches (14.37 metres) wide, 28 feet 3½ inches (8.61 metres) deep, had a gross tonnage of 4,737 (2998 net tonnage), registered at Liverpool, England. She carried both passengers and cargo across the Atlantic for her owners, the Mississippi and Dominion Steamship Company Limited (more popularly known as the Dominion Line). A three-cylinder triple expansion steam engine, which developed 573 horsepower, powered her single propeller up to a maximum speed of 15 knots. She had accommodation for 100 first class, 50 second class, and 1000 third class passengers, together with a crew of about 150. The livery on her funnel was, from the top, a black top, one red band, one white band, and the remainder being red to the superstructure. The rest of the ship had a black hull with red deck; white forecastle, superstructure, and poop; buff masts and white lifeboats. It is claimed, by the majority of shipping agents, that she was the finest four masted steam ship of her day. She was also a Royal Mail Ship (RMS) – licensed to carry mail by the British Post Office. Her first port of call after making the eastern crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was expected to be Moville in County Donegal , Northern Ireland . Moville is situated just to the right of the sea entrance to Londonderry in Lough Foyle.

The final voyage of the Labrador began, in early February 1899, when she left St. John, New Brunswick with a cargo of grain, bags of mail, and 17 horses (under the control of a man known as ‘Scotty’). En route, to Liverpool , England , she called at Halifax , Nova Scotia to collect and deliver any mail. Her final call before starting her Atlantic journey was at St. John’s , Newfoundland where she once again collected and delivered mail. The passenger list comprised of 31 First class, 19 Second class, and 24 Third class, and the crew of 92, making a total of 166. Delivering and collecting mail from British colonies en route was the normal duty for a RMS ship. The crossing of the Atlantic was pretty uneventful until they ran into a haze, which quickly grew by the hour into a very thick fog. At the point when this fog was at its thickest, on the 26 th February 1899 , the only navigation that could be done was by dead reckoning such was the fog’s intensity. Even the regular sightings taken at noon could not be done for three days. In the very early hours of the 1 st March 1899 , during this thick fog, that her captain (T. W. Erskine) estimated that she was off the north coast of Ireland . In fact they were some sixty miles further north than expected, and at 7:00am a shudder ran throughout the ship, just as the passengers were waking. All soundings revealed that she had run aground, and was stuck hard and fast on the north-eastern side of McKenzie’s Rocks. McKenzie’s Rocks are a remote group of rocks that are a known hazard to shipping, and some 15 miles to the west of the nearest landfall at Hynish, Tiree, Scotland . As a precautionary measure the eight lifeboats were prepared and lowered. An examination of the holds, tanks, and forepeak took place by the ship’s carpenter and he reported that she was taking in water over her entire length. This intake of water was soaking her cargo of grain, which had begun to swell and break through the hold covers. At this point Captain Erskine decided to abandon ship, and all the passengers (74) and crew (92) took to the lifeboats. Because of the angle the ship had run aground the passengers had to be lowered into the lifeboats by rope. Before ‘Scotty’ left the ship he cut the horses loose, and left them with a feed of corn. By the time the first boat (with 12 people on board) had left, and headed for the Skerryvore Lighthouse, the fog had lifted. The other boats saw the shape of a ship nearing them and headed towards this ship. By luck the nearing ship was the Norwegian S.S. Viking (Captain – Mr. Hunland), also off her regular course ( Glasgow to Stornoway) due to the fog, picked up the survivors from all but one of the lifeboats. The other lifeboat had managed to reach the safety of Skerryvore Lighthouse, situated about three miles to the east of McKenzie’s Rocks. The Viking landed all the survivors she had collected at Tobermory, on Wednesday evening, where Mr. & Mrs. McLean of the Mishnish Hotel looked after them. The twelve survivors who reached the lighthouse included, Agoncillo (a Philippine agent who was driven out of the United States ), Captain Bowles (of the ‘Empress of India), and Captain Chisholm (who was affectionately referred to as the ‘old hero’. These survivors remained at the lighthouse until rescued by the lighthouse steamer, which left Oban on Thursday 2 nd March. It was to rescue the survivors from the lighthouse and salvage any mail. Incidentally the Skerryvore lighthouse was built to act as a warning to seafarers, not to prevent disasters.

This incident happened at grid reference 56.17.30N 07.10.30W, on 1 st March 1899 at 7:00 am on the northeastern side of McKenzie’s Rocks. The Viking would have steamed past the Labrador unaware of her plight if a member of her crew had not spotted steam escaping from her steam whistle. The steam pressure was insufficient to voice the whistle. By the 6 th March 1899 the grain, due to the seawater, had swollen to such an extent that the Labrador split in two and it was regarded as a total loss. Since the incident the Labrador has been largely salvaged for scrap. The cargo comprising of grain and 153 bags of mail were left to the ravages of the sea and weather.

Captain Erskine sent a message to his headquarters of Messrs. Richards, Mills and Co., (managers of the Dominion Line of steamships) in Liverpool , it read

‘ Labrador , during thick fog, ran on the Mackenzie Rock at 7 a.m. yesterday, four miles from Skerryvore Lighthouse. She struck the rocks amidships, and the sea is breaking over her. One, two, and three holds are full of water. Passengers and crew were all saved, and left the ship in boats. One boat with passengers landed at the lighthouse. All other boats were picked up by German steamer Viking. If ship does not break up I will endeavour to save mails’.

When the managers read this message they immediately dispatched the Liverpool tug, Great Emperor, with a crew of divers. The Oban lighthouse steamer appears to have been unsuccessful in salvaging any mail. An unknown number of these bags of mail were salvaged and delivered to the postal authorities at the ports of Glasgow and Liverpool . It appears that more than one ship salvaged these bags of mail; otherwise they would have all been delivered to the same port at the same time. It has neither been recorded how many ships salvaged mail from this wreck, nor how many bags were delivered to each port. It is quite probable that the Viking and Great Emperor managed to salvage some mail bags on their travels, and delivered them to their respective ports (Glasgow for the Viking, and Liverpool for the Great Emperor), on their return.

Captain Erskine made reference to SS Viking as being German, but the latest references indicate that it was in fact Norwegian. Both the books referred to below were published within the last seven years, and contain material from eminent maritime historians, that has lead to the unearthing of this original error. This latest information has been accepted as being true and used for this article.

Ken Lewis