Gifford, William

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                                   WILLIAM GIFFORD
                                    By Judy Cross


October 17, has a special significance for William Gifford. The 82 year old Newcastle resident vividly remembers an experience which he endured October 17, 1936. He remembers clinging to a sinking ship in Lake Erie, waiting over 10 hours to be rescued from the freezing cold water. He remembers seeing 19 members of the ship’s crew drown.

Mr. Gifford had been working on the Sand Merchant, a “sandsucker’ on the Great Lakes for four years when the tragedy occurred. He was one of seven survivors who clung to the Sand Merchant, and helplessly watched the lights of Cleveland, Ohio some five miles away.

                                Signals went Unnotices

“We were close enough to shore that we could see the lights of the city so clearly. There was a lighthouse in Cleveland and we could see the people who worked in it walking around. We sent out rockets and lit a bed-sheet which had been soaked in oil, but nobody saw our distress signals,” he remembers.

The Sand Merchant, like most of the Great Lank sandships, had not been equipped with radios. Mr. Gifford explained that they were usually so close to shore that radios “just didn’t seem necessary.”

The loss of the ship was valued at close to half a million dollars, and though a lengthy inquiry followed the tragedy, no cause of the accident could be determined.

Among the 18 men and one woman, (a wife of one of the crew members who had been picked up a few hours before in Point Pelee, and who came along for the trip) were former New Brunswickers. One man who drowned was Walter McInnes, the ship’s chief engineer and a resident of Bay du Vin.

Mr. Gifford recalls that he had been off duty at the time of the accident. The crew members worked a six-hour shift followed by a six-hour break. He had been asleep, when at 9:00 p.m. he was called on deck. The Sand Merchant was loaded with a cargo of sand and when the wind came up, she started to list. The ship gradually sunk, with the seven lifeboats on board being the first items to be lost.

                                  Good Swimmers Drowns

“It seems that the best swimmers were the first to drown. I couldn’t swim myself, so I had to hang on. Rollie DeMille was like an eel in the water, he was one of the best swimmers I’ve ever known, but yet he was one of the first to drown.”

“I remember hanging on to Grant White by the coat collar, and I kept hanging on long after I knew that he had died. The cold water wasn’t as hard to take as the cold air was. It was an awful feeling to have that cold air hitting you. It seemed to be getting colder every minute.”

The ten-hour ordeal ended with daylight and the morning departure of ships from Cleveland. Mr. Gifford was among the least seriously injured by exposure. When the Thunder Bay Quarries, the ship which rescued him, was pulling up to the sunken ship, Mr. Gifford’s knee caught between the two vessels. He wasn’t seriously hurt and was released from the Cleveland Lutheran Hospital after a few days.

                                      Captain Rescued

Mr. Gifford was one of the two New Brunswickers rescued. The other, the ship’s captain, Graham MacLelland, was a resident of Cape Tormentine. Mr. Gifford explained that many New Brunswickers made the annual journey to Ontario to work on the “sandsuckers”. The Charles Dick, another “sandsucker,” was captained by a Rexton Man and also had several crew members from New Brunswick. At one point, the Charles Dick came to the Miramichi to load a cargo of sand.

                                      Annual March Trek

During the depression years, the annual March trek to the Great Lakes and life on the sandsuckers was one of the few good ways to make a living. “It was a good life. It was good, steady work; no days off, but good pay and we were well fed. Henry, one of the men who drowned, was an awfully good cook,” he sadly recalls.

The men from New Brunswick who worked the Great Lakes usually returned home around the end of October or the middle of November. One year, though, Mr. Gifford didn’t arrive home until Christmas Eve. His wife and two daughters aged 12 and 14 waited anxiously, convinced that he would not be home for Christmas.

                                     Captain Exonerated

Mrs. Gifford did not see her husband until over a month after the accident. He had to stay in Toronto and testify at the widely publicized inquiry. At the inquiry, Captain MacLelland was exonerated of any blame for the tragedy. The inquiry which followed the sinking of the Sand Merchant was another ordeal which Mr. Gifford vividly remembers. The repeated testimonies of the seven survivors were difficult tasks for men who had lost close friends, and in one case, two brothers.

In addition to having to relive the experience over and over again, Mr. Gifford recalls the annoyance of being badgered by reporters. “They were everywhere it seemed, you just couldn’t get around them. To this day, I can’t help but sympathize with people who are being questioned by dozens of reporters,” he notes.

Surprisingly enough, Mr. Gifford returned to the Great Lakes again the next spring and worked another two seasons on the sandsuckers. When asked if he wasn’t afraid to go back to working on the water, he replies, “Well, it was during the depression, and we had no choice. It was go back to work, or starve.”

Mr. Gifford has retained his sense of humour through a life touched by tragedy. When asked if he felt somewhat of a celebrity when he returned home after having his name mentioned in newspapers across Canada, Mr. Gifford shakes his head.

The he chuckled and noted that he has touched elbows with celebrities more than once. He spent a period of his childhood with his great uncle, George Robertson, proprietor of the old Robertson Hotel in Bathurst. As a child, young William would help out around the hotel. One hunting party in particular whom Mr. Gifford recalls staying at the hotel was made up of four gentlemen from New York City. Their names are signed in a register which Mr. Gifford has saved as a souvenir. The entry for October 15, 1906 is signed: Joseph P. Howe, John D. Rockerfeller, Andrew Carnegie and Pierrepont Morgan.

Mr. Gifford notes that he was too young to understand who the important visitors were, but one celebrity whom he is very proud to be acquainted with is K.C. Irving. Mr. Irving and Mr. Gifford grew up together in Rexton and are first cousins.

The Sand Merchant sunk on Lake Erie on October 17, 1936, taking the lives of 18 men and one woman. Seven people survived. Two of them were New Brunswickers. Among the survivors was William Gifford of Campbell St., in Newcastle.

Mr. Gifford, a retired volunteer fireman, met with a reporter from the North Shore Leader on the 42nd anniversary of the tragedy. At the age of 82 years, Mr. Gifford still remembers, all too vividly, the agony of clinging to a sunken vessel in the freezing water. Though they were close enough to shore to see people working inside the lighthouse, the seven survivors were rescued after 10 hours in the water and were taken to Cleveland Lutheran Hospital in Ohio where they were treated for exposure.

                           Telegram Received Forty-Two Years Ago

“Regret to inform you that S.S. Sand Merchant floundered in Lake Erie last night. Some of the crew have been reported rescued. As soon as further details are known, you will be notified.” Ida Gifford still remembers the telephone call which she received 42 years ago. “When I heard the man reading the telegram, I could feel the blood draining from my face. I was alone in the house, it was a neighbour’s house. Since we didn’t have a phone, I had been called there. The children were at home, and though I thought I was going to faint, I managed to get back to them. I’ll never forget that telephone call,” recalls Mrs. Gifford.

She received that memorable phone call at about two o’clock on Sunday afternoon, October 18, 1936. She contacted her brother, Jim, who was living in Moncton. In order to prevent his sister from receiving further word of her husband through an impersonal telegram, Jim went to the offices for the Moncton Times. He sat there and waited until about 7:00 p.m. until the names of the survivors came over the wires. He heaved a sigh of relief. The name of his brother-in-law, William Gifford, was on the list.

Once Mrs. Gifford knew that her husband was safe and had been taken to a Cleveland Hospital she tried to telephone him. The wires were down because of a windstorm, and the whole ordeal can be summed up in her memory “as an awful period of waiting and waiting.”

Interestingly enough, Mrs. Gifford started to keep a scrapbook from that time, and has always kept one since. It is almost as if her husband’s near encounter with death sharply reminded her of the fragility of human life, and the suddenness with which it can be lost.


Source: North Shore Leader – October 25, 1978


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                           Advise 60th anniversary couple
                             ``Rough times pass``


Bill and Ida Gifford, Campbell Street, Newcastle, celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this weekend, have some rough times behind them.

Just a month after their 16th anniversary, in fact, it looked as if the Giffords might not celebrate another.

A sand dredging ship on which Mr. Gifford worked during the Depression sank on Lake Erie. Mr. Gifford, unable to swim, clung to the maimed vessel in freezing water for 10 hours before help arrived.

Mrs. Gifford, back in Newcastle with their two young daughters, received word that the Sand Merchant had gone down. She vividly remembers the agonizing 24 hours of waiting to hear if her husband was among the 19 drowned crew members.

Mr. Gifford was among the seven who survived. He considers himself lucky to be alive and in good health 44 years later.

Mr. Gifford, 84, retired from Crocker’s Men`s Wear 10 years ago. A volunteer firefighter for 26 years, he proudly displays the plaque presented to him upon his retirement from active duty in 1970. Though he no longer picks up a water hose, he volunteers his time to the Newcastle Fire Department`s weekly bingos.

Keeping in touch with the community, gardening and reading keep her husband young, says Mrs. Gifford. “Ìt’s important, I think, for men to be with men,” she says.

Mrs. Gifford, 83, bakes her bread and does all of her own cooking. This week, she “was up to the arms in dough”, in preparation for a visit from their two daughters and two granddaughters.

A quiet family gathering will mark the Gifford`s 60th anniversary, as it did their wedding day. “We were married in my mother`s house on Station Street, the one now owned by Eva and Joe O`Neill. It was an afternoon ceremony performed by Rev. L.H. O`Neill. A friend of mine played the bridal march. I wore a two-piece suit. We didn`t go for big weddings with lots of flowers and attendants in those days. Fancy church weddings were only for the rich,” says Mrs. Gifford. Ordinary people like us were lucky to have the man and the woman,” she adds with a chuckle.

About 30 guests, including “family and a friend or two” celebrated the couple’s wedding day, Sept. 6, 1920. This Friday evening, a family dinner with a dozen guests will include the Giffords two daughters and two granddaughters, all from Ontario.

The Giffords have seen many changes in their 60 years of marriage. The biggest change, they agree, is in the emphasis on material possessions. Says Mr. Gifford: “We used to start at the bottom and work our way up. Today, they do it the other way around.”

Mrs. Gifford adds: “People today spend much more on appearances. Keeping up with the Joneses. We considered ourselves fortunate during the Depression because we managed to stay off the dole. I think one of the reasons so many marriages break up today is because of squabbles about money. People seem to want everything right away.”

                               Any advice to newlyweds?

“Stay together. Rough times always pass and things become better than before. After 60 years, we’re still going strong,” says Mrs. Gifford.

                               Many cups of tea shared

Ida Gifford pours a cup of tea for Bill, her husband of 60 years. The Giffords, who live on Campbell Street, Newcastle, will celebrate their 60th anniversary Sept. 6. They have seen many changes over the years and say that today`s young couples have “a harder time making a go of a marriage” because they’re under greater pressure to keep up appearances.


Source: Miramichi Leader – September 5, 1980

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