Nova Scotia

Descendants of 'heroic people' mark anniversary of SS Atlantic wreck

Many Nova Scotians-- including direct descendents of those involved--know little about the sinking of the SS Atlantic off Terence Bay in 1873.

The 1873 sinking killed 550 people, but local rescuers saved 400 more

Descendants of the survivors and rescuers of the SS Atlantic disaster gather in Terence Bay Sunday. (Marina Von Stackelberg)

It may not be as well known as the Titanic, but the sinking of the SS Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia nearly a century and a half ago left no shortage of stories to be told.

On Sunday, descendents of both survivors and rescuers joined together in Terence Bay, N.S., to mark the 145th anniversary since the ship's sinking off the same shores.

The disaster, on April 1, 1873 killed 550 people. The majority of those were women and children. It is the province's second-worst loss of life incident, after the Halifax Explosion.

Sarah Jane Clancy was one of the rescuers of the survivors of the SS Atlantic. The photo was taken in 1906, as she is holding her granddaughter Gladys. (Contributed by Bob Chaulk)

What is less known is the story of the 400 people who survived thanks to rescue efforts of the locals in the Lower Prospect area.

Two of those key people were Michael Clancy and his daughter Sarah Jane. Their family was the only one living on the island that the ship struck.

Clancy sounded the alarm after the ship began sinking at about 3:45 am, gathering the different families from the area to help in the rescue.

"They got their fishing boats out of winter storage, they dragged them across the island, down the cliff like a toboggan into the water. It's a wonder they didn't kill themselves," said historian Bob Chaulk, who has written extensively about the SS Atlantic disaster.

"Over the next three hours they got around 375 people ashore, and about another 40 or 50 got ashore either by a rope or by swimming."

Many of the people who gathered on Sunday were descendents of those families, including Laura O'Hearn, the great-great-great granddaughter of Michael Clancy.

But O'Hearn didn't know much about her history until Chaulk approached her.

"That my ancestor was so involved in saving so many people, that was really fascinating for me. A lot fewer people would have lived that day if it wasn't for them," she said.

Shirley Jollimore is descended from Sarah Jane Clancy, one of the leaders of the rescue of the SS Atlantic survivors. (Marina Von Stackelberg)

Shirley Jollimore is descended from that family too, but knew only a little about what her ancestors did. She says she was shocked to hear her family housed hundreds of soaking wet survivors in their home that night.

"They actually had to drill holes in the floor to let the water run out of the house. I mean, to me that's just amazing," she said.​

Chaulk says many descendents don't even know the history of what happened, until he tells them. 

"For some reason the event is not known hardly at all in Nova Scotia," he said. "People just don't seem to know."

A newspaper illustration of the day showed Michael Clancy and Sarah Jane helping the victims of the shipwreck. (Contributed by Bob Chaulk)

The SS Atlantic Heritage Park Society, which runs an interpretation centre at the site, is working on getting the area declared a national historic site, he said.

He hopes connecting them to their past will help keep the story of the SS Atlantic alive. 

"We have to understand who we are. The folks that are sitting here today are descendents from heroic people."

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca