It was a dark and stormy night when I began reading Earl Pilgrim’s Drifting into Doom: Tragedy at Sea. Winter rain blew at the windows and tree branches hit the house. Reading about two men drifting in a dory during a January 1883 storm on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, I got chilled and thought “I knows how you feel!” Then I recollected myself, realized I was in a warm house, on a couch, with the wind and rain outside. No, I had no inkling of how Howard Blackburn and Tommy Welsh felt.
The story of the Banker schooner Grace L. Fears and the loss of one of her dories is itself a harrowing one. Trawling cod from tiny two-man boats set off the side of a schooner was a hard way to fish, especially for the dorymen. Many lives were lost on the Grand Bank fishery.
This is the story of the loss of Tommy Welsh, a 16 year old from Grand Bank on the south coast of Newfoundland. It is also the story of the saving of the life of his dory mate, Howard Blackburn, an experienced fisherman originally from Nova Scotia who worked out of Glouchester, Mass.
Blackburn got the dory to shore near the tiny settlement of Little River (later called Grey River) on Newfoundland’s south coast. His frozen fingers and toes could not be saved but his hands and feet were by the skill of a local woman called Aunt Jenny Lushman. She was helped by a Mi’kmaq woman named Susie Bushney. Experienced healers and midwives that they were, neither woman had ever dealt with frostbite so severe. But Mrs. Bushney’s advice and Mrs. Lushman’s steely nerves kept Blackburn alive.
Blackburn went on to become a well-known businessman in Glouchester and a world adventurer. His dorymate Tommy Welsh was buried in Little River. The story of these men was not lost on the Grand Banks. Accounts were published at the time and Pilgrim uses these to tell a tale that lets you get to know them, the Blackburn family, the fishing company personnel and the people of Little River and Burgeo. As the cover blurb says, it keeps you “spellbound”.
The Lushman Family
Another story came from this one. Aunt Jenny Lushman lives on her own with her grown children. Without a Mr. Lushman. That’s the other story. As a result of publicity over Blackburn’s rescue, the story of what happened to Mr. Lushman came to light. It is also one of unbelievable happenstance and hardship. Probably it too is not an isolated case of people lost and believed gone, but it is one that became known. Its loose ends could be tied up. It is as epic as is the story of Howard Blackburn.
Jenny Lushman’s husband and one son left Little River for the United States in search of work. I found the story of what happened to them in a December 1912 Newfoundland Quarterly article by Sir Edward Morris.* You’ll want to be tucked up in your Snuggly while reading it too. Thank you, dear reader Jim F., for this book. And Newfoundland filmmakers? Movie here!
*See my transcription of Morris’ NQ article at A Tale of the Sea and my post A Tale of the Sea, etc. for more. The entire Dec. 1912 NQ can be seen at the MUN digital archives (link in previous paragraph). For books on Amazon by Earl B. Pilgrim, click his name.