Stories My Grandfather Told Me

Stories My Grandfather Told Me

When I take the ferry from Quebec City over to Lévis, I often see Coast Guard icebreakers lined up at the wharf, as in the feature image at the top of this blog. The middle ship is of course the Amundsen, on which I spent three dramatic weeks overwintering in the Beaufort Sea, when making my film The Blinding Sea.

I am thinking a lot about my grandfather Guy Tombs these days. I suppose it comes from living between Quebec and Lévis, and daily rediscovering the St. Lawrence River with its moods and fogs and incoming saltwater tides and passing ships of all kinds. He was a magnificent storyteller, and his favourite subject was men, ships and navigation.

A portrait by Notman of Guy Tombs from 1909

For example, before the First World War, in addition to his duties as general agent of the Canadian Northern Railway my grandfather was also general agent of the Royal Line of passenger steamships, which consisted of two vessels, the Royal Edward and the Royal George, sailing from Bristol to Quebec and Montreal. They had steam turbines and three shafts, a top speed of 19 knots, and accommodation for 1114 passengers, 344 of them in first class. Many people in steerage, coming over from Bristol, were immigrants seeking a new life homesteading on the Canadian Prairies just before the outbreak of war.

The Royal Edward was one of two passenger liners operated on the North Atlantic by the Canadian Northern Railway. The service came to an abrupt end when the First World War broke out, and the two vessels were requisitioned as troopships by the Canadian Expeditionary Force
The Royal Edward was torpedoed and sunk by UB-14, a German submarine, off the Dardanelles in August 1915, with great loss of life. The number of casualties has never been precisely determined, although the Admiralty estimated that 864 men drowned. The painting above, by Willy Stöwer, is typical of wartime German propaganda celebrating mass death on the high seas

After the First World War, and the demise of the Canadian Northern Railway, my grandfather started his own company in 1921, handling all the freight for the Canadian Export Paper Company.

The Sable I: note the icebreaking bow of this unique ship

But in the early 1920s, he also found the time to serve as general agent for an innovative icebreaking coastal freighter, the Sable I, operated by the Bras d’or Navigation Company between Montreal, Anticosti Island and outports along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In the mid-1930s, my grandfather had a series of coastal ships built at the Wee Davie shipyard in Lévis. They have sometimes also been referred to as newsprint barges. However, in addition to newsprint, they transported clay, gypsum, lumber, machine parts, package freight and even a few paying passengers along the St. Lawrence, Ottawa, Richelieu and Hudson Rivers. In French they are often referred to as caboteurs or coastal ships, which strikes me as more accurate. These diesel-powered vessels called at many ports both large and small between Montreal and Manhattan, sometimes venturing up to Lake Ontario or down to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Here is a detail from a photograph taken over the winter of 1949-1950 at the Davie Brothers yard in Lévis, showing the Kermic and GTD hauled out of the water to avoid being crushed by winter ice:

The Kermic and GTD hauled up out of the ice beside the A.C. Davie historic site, next to the ferry dock in Lévis, over the winter of 1949-1950. The houses at the top of this photo are along rue Fraser on the heights

Finally, here is a photo of one of the vessels, named in honour of my grandmother Ethel Tombs. I remember as a little boy how my grandfather used to tease my grandmother, saying old Ethel Tombs was scraping her bottom in the canal! My grandmother always blushed at these words!

The Ethel Tombs, one of my grandfather’s coastal ships. She was eventually scrapped at Les Méchins on the Gaspé Peninsula; another of the seven vessels was sold to a ship operator in Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly just upstream from Lévis (who then sold her to a sugar plantation in Haiti); one more has found a permanent home in a dry dock in Lotbinière; I visited two more in a deteriorated state at the Groupe Océan dock in Cap-de-la-Madeleine; and I saw the last two after they were driven ashore during a furious winter storm at L’Anse Pleureuse on the Gaspé coast – ultimately, they had to be scrapped due to environmental concerns.

I have always seen the St. Lawrence River, from Quebec City downstream, as the gateway to the Atlantic, and there are moving stories to tell, about schooners plying the gulf and blue whales suffocating under thick ice cover (for example, during the winter of 2013-2014) and passenger liners dodging icebergs and innovative companies inaugurating icebreaking freighters and of course the coastal ships my grandfather owned and/or operated. Ships were smaller then.

When I think of the size of my grandfather’s vessels as compared to polar ships in my film The Blinding Sea, I come up with the following comparisons:

Nansen’s polar ship Fram: 127 feet long (39 metres)

Gerlache’s polar ship Belgica: 118 feet (36 metres)

My grandfather’s seven coastal steamers: 106 feet long (32 metres)

Amundsen’s second polar ship Maud: 98 feet long (30 metres)

Amundsen’s first polar ship Gjoa: 70 feet long (21 metres)

So they were roughly in the same range.

Ships and their fates provide analogies for the destinies that await each one of us. There is after all something imponderable about the fate of ships, whether due to tides, currents, freak storms, normal wear and tear, torpedo attacks, icebergs low in the water, collisions with other ships … I remember being on a cargo ship once, in Ungava Bay, when we lived through a violent storm (Beaufort 11), just a few knots short of a true hurricane. Quite the experience. It was fantastic to survive a storm like that, find a safe anchorage, go ashore and get our land legs back!

The cargo ship Donpaco, undergoing sea trials on the St. Lawrence River in 1935. My grandfather’s company operated her from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s, initially hauling newsprint for the Donnacona Paper Company, but then branching out to other cargoes

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