Nova Scotia

Titanic gravestone mystery led to five year search

The man responsible for discovering the origin of 149 tombstones marking the graves of Titanic victims spent five years on an intense search to solve the mystery.

Clarke used aerial photographs from 1935 and a handheld GPS to help narrow his search to 14 quarries in N.B.

The man responsible for discovering the origin of 149 tombstones marking the graves of Titanic victims spent five years on an intense search to solve the mystery.

"It was just one of those Sherlock Holmes kind of problems you just love to get your hands on," said Barrie Clarke, a petrologist and professor at Dalhousie University.

When Halifax decided to replace the headstone of linen steward Thomas F. Baxter, in 1999 they discovered they didn't know where the markers came from.

The city decided to restore the gravestone instead, but the question of what quarry the stone came from captured Clarke's interest.

Clarke realized he had seen similar granite used in Scotland, where he had been a student. 

But he had no luck there. An estimate dated the granite 40 million years younger than researchers had originally thought, ruling Scotland out entirely. 

With this new information, Clarke searched for the 422 million year old granite in cemeteries throughout Maine and into New Brunswick. 

"We try and match the age," said Clarke. "We try to match the minerals and we try to match the texture, which is the way the minerals grow together. That's what I can see when I go from headstone to headstone."

It wasn't until Clarke reached the New Brunswick border that he found headstones similar to the Titanic grave markers.

Searching for quarries

"Old quarries are very hard to find, especially if they've been closed for 100 years," he said.

Clarke used aerial photographs from 1935 and a handheld GPS to help narrow his search to 14 quarries in New Brunswick. 

"They're black and white, they're grainy, but at least they were taken in, say, 20 years of a quarry being open, and I could see the quarries really well," Clarke said of the old photos.

It was at the Hanson Quarry near the St. George-Saint Andrews corridor where he found a match.

Samples of the rocks were taken from the quarry and the chemical composition was compared to a sample taken from the Titanic headstones.

"Scientifically we can never say 100 per cent but I think I'm about 99 per cent sure that we found the right one," Clarke said.

Now that Clarke has solved the mystery of the Titanic grave makers, he's taken on a new search.

He hopes to find the origin of kerosene inventor, Abraham Gesner's gravestone, he said.

"Oh, I think everyone loves a mystery," said Clarke.

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