'A hero's death': Ottawa-area town honours 1st radio telegrapher to die at sea

The town of Mississippi Mills, Ont., has declared Aug. 26 George C. Eccles Day in honour of a local hero whose sacrifice saved more than 200 people from drowning to death.

George C. Eccles saved more than 200 lives by refusing to leave his post

This sign marks the eastern Ontario farm where radio telegraph operator George C. Eccles was born in 1873. The town of Mississippi Mills, Ont., has declared that Aug. 26 will officially be known as George C. Eccles Day. (Shaun McLaughlin )

When the S.S. Ohio crashed into a rock on a pitch black night in 1909, radio telegrapher George C. Eccles refused to budge.

As hundreds of people crammed onto lifeboats, Eccles remained at his post, sending out SOS signals in Morse code to nearby boats.

His efforts saved the lives of more than 200 people, but Eccles didn't survive the shipwreck.

He became the first radio telegrapher to die at sea — and now, 109 years to the date of his death, his hometown of Mississippi Mills, Ont., is honouring his heroism.

This gravestone for radio telegrapher George C. Eccles was unveiled on June 3, 2018. (Shaun McLaughlin )

Should not be forgotten

The community has proclaimed Aug. 26 to be George C. Eccles Day.

"He was basically a normal guy, who at the call of duty, stood up and did his job at a great personal sacrifice to himself," Mississippi Mills Mayor Shaun McLaughlin told CBC Radio's In Town and Out.

"That kind of person should not be forgotten, because they are a role model for every one of us,"

Eccles was born in 1873, grew up on a local farm, and moved to Almonte, where he learned how to be a radio telegrapher.

He was serving on board the S.S. Ohio when, on the night of Aug. 26, 1909, the 100-metre-long steamer struck a rock off the coast of British Columbia.

Eccles, however, wasn't supposed to be working that day.

He had been hired as an operator on land, but according to McLaughlin, when the S.S. Ohio's scheduled operator failed to show up, his employer asked Eccles to fill in.

About 210 people were on the ship when it hit the rock. Because of Eccles's efforts, only five died — including himself.

'A hero's death'

"If they had not been picked up by the two ships that George contacted, they [all] could have died," McLaughlin told In Town and Out. 

"The distance for a telegraph at that time, a wireless telegraph, wasn't very far. He had to wait for the right conditions. The ships had to be fairly close."

After Eccles successfully reached the other ships, he went below board to make sure there was no one left on the S.S Ohio.

When he returned to the main deck, the ship suddenly lurched. Eccles struck his head, McLaughlin said, and slid into the sea.

"He died a hero's death," he said. "He was feted all the way across the country."

Eccles was buried in a family plot in the town, but his plot was never marked with a gravestone.

McLaughlin said it's not clear why that was — especially given how much adulation he received at the time of his death — so the town also commissioned a gravestone to be placed on Eccles' burial site.

It was unveiled in June at the St. Paul's Anglican Church cemetery on Wolf Grove Road. 

With files from Jessa Runciman