Tag Archives: Earl Pilgrim

Frissell’s The Viking

Amazon link for The Viking
Amazon link

The Newfoundland Museum, when still on Duckworth Street, had a small collection of films to screen for visitors. The first one I ever showed was The Viking. I had never heard of the film or the story behind it. After I got the reel running, I stood in the doorway to make sure it was working okay. And I began watching. Finally I pulled a chair over so I could watch the movie more comfortably while also keeping an eye on the lobby. It was spellbinding – the 1930 seal hunt with ice and cold and deprivation, and a romance and survival story.

Later I learned that the sealing ship, SS Viking, had exploded during the filming and 27 men had died. One of them was the film’s producer Varick Frissell, along with his dog Cabot. The real life story was as filled with ice and cold and deprivation as the fictional one. And it had a much worse ending.

Pilgrim cover Varick Frissell and dog CabotI read Earl B. Pilgrim’s book The Day of Varick Frissell. It is wonderful. Pilgrim tells how Frissell came to Newfoundland and how he came up with the idea for a movie he called White Thunder and got practical and financial backing for it. The Viking sailed to the sealing grounds with a film crew aboard. She had two captains for that 1930 voyage. Captain Sid Jones commanded her and real-life captain and explorer Bob Bartlett portrayed her captain in the movie.

Loss of the SS Viking

Frissell didn’t get the dramatic shots of the huge ice fields, the “white thunder,” that he wanted. The following year, in March of 1931, the film crew sailed with the Viking again. Captain Abram Kean Jr. was in command. The objective was less to seal and more to film, and dynamite, the northerly ice fields. The journey soon became disastrous, due to human error as much as nature.

Camera Crew The Viking CNS MUNPilgrim includes a full list of all aboard the Viking on her final voyage and of the men who lost their lives on her. Despite the loss of the ship and men and presumably the footage shot on that second journey, the film was released in 1931 as The Viking.

A dangerous beauty

It is a tribute to the men who sailed on the Viking and other sealing vessels. It is also a tribute to Varick Frissell who saw the beauty of the sea-ice and the men who battled it every spring. He also believed it was important to share that dangerous beauty with a world that enjoyed seal fur without thinking of the rigour of its production.

ssviking-1Pilgrim’s book pays further tribute by giving us a glimpse of the real and tragic events, through reconstruction of known facts and surmise of what may have happened. He tells also of romance in Frissell’s life, with a Grenfell Mission nurse named Sarah who came from north of St. Anthony. If her existence is fact, I wonder who she was.

Here are Brooklyn newspaper accounts. The Day of Varick Frissel is available on Amazon. If you are connected to the Northern Peninsula Kean family of ship captains, you’ll be especially interested in this story. See my Mr. Otto Kelland for more on the old museum on Duckworth Street.


A Tale of the Sea etc.

Amazon link for Lone Voyager, story of dory lost off Nfld south coast
Amazon link for Lone Voyager

In January 1883, a dory was lost at sea off the south coast of Newfoundland. On it were Howard Blackburn and Tommy Welsh. They became separated from their schooner in a sudden storm. The Captain and crew reluctantly had to give them up for dead.

Sixteen-year old Tommy Welsh did die, but Howard Blackburn managed to put in at the tiny village of Little River (now Grey River) near Burgeo on the south coast of Newfoundland. There, through the skill of Jenny Lushman and Susie Bushney, he was brought back to health, minus his fingers and toes.

Howard Blackburn Great Republic sailboatAn incredible story, made more incredible by Blackburn’s continued adventures sailing solo across the Atlantic and north on the Pacific. His rowing abilities are commemorated in The Blackburn Challenge, a rowing event in Glouchester Mass. But the story doesn’t end with him. Publicity around his survival led to the reunification of a family after fifty years and the discovery of branches of the family totally unknown to each other.

Lushmans of Little River and USA

Blackburn had lived with the Lushman, or Lishman, family of Little River. The story  of his rescue came across the desk of a Massachusetts newspaper editor named Litchman Howard Blackburn's tavern, now a museum, Glouchester Mass.who showed it to his father. The senior Mr. Litchman, as a boy, had left Newfoundland with his father in search of work. The father then left Massachusetts and the son stayed, later changing the spelling of his name from Lishman to Litchman.

Hmm, the Litchmans thought, worth a letter to Little River. So the Lishmans of Little River found their brother who had left for the United States 50 years earlier. Siblings were reunited, but what had happened to the father who had left Newfoundland and then Massachusetts?

Publicity about this led to another man making a connection. A letter he’d found in his late father’s possessions explained the missing father. He had gone to Louisiana and indeed had tried to find his son in Massachusetts.

The trail went cold until a woman from Minneapolis contacted the Litchmans. She had been born a Lishman in Louisiana. Her late father had come from Newfoundland. She knew nothing more about his family. Yes, she was a half-sister.

Nfld. Quarterly Dec 1912 H Blackburn on Newfoundland south coastHere’s my transcription of the story from the Dec. 1912 Newfoundland Quarterly by Sir Edward Morris, Prime Minister of Newfoundland. The only point that confuses me is that Francis Lishman says his mother’s name was Susannah née McDonald. In Earl Pilgrim’s book* she is called Jenny. But that’s a small mystery compared to those with which these people lived. Family vanished – abandoned or lost, a daughter orphaned. Loss and grief, betrayal, survival, reconciliation and renewal. As Morris says, it’s the stuff of novels. I say movies too.

*I wrote about Earl Pilgrim’s Drifting Into Doom here. It is the book that led me into this incredible tale.

Drifting into Doom: Book

link to DRC Pub for Drifting into Doom by Earl B. Pilgrim
Click to see on DRC Publishing

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 1890 painting, G. F. Gregory, Storm King at seafrom 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.

Howard Blackburn in later life sailingBlackburn 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 photo of Grey River by Holloway 1933result 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.