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Newfoundland & Labrador's Maritime Heritage

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SS Kyle's aged hull holds memories of a former era


As you drive north down the highway to the old and historic port of Harbour Grace on Conception Bay North, the water suddenly comes into view and there, just offshore and listing slightly in the shallows, lies an old-fashioned steamer. She is the much loved coastal boat from yesteryear, SS Kyle.

SS Kyle At Riverhead

SS Kyle; at Riverhead, Harbour Grace, in 1999

The Kyle has rested a grounded derelict in that spot for over 40 years, victim of, first, iceberg damage and, later, a lost mooring further down the harbour in a wild nor'easter. With observances of Newfoundland and Labrador's 500th anniversary in 1997, government found some money to paint the Kyle's rusting old hulk in the colours she displayed back when she carried passengers and freight around the province's shores.

It was a wonderful transformation. At least outwardly, Kyle was restored to her appearance in an era long forgotten to many people and virtually unknown to younger generations. The Town of Harbour Grace built a tourist information booth beside the highway opposite the Kyle and filled it with memorabilia of the old ship, probably the last of her kind in the world.

She was one of two nearly identical steamers commissioned about 1912 by the Reid Newfoundland Company. First down the ways of the Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson shipyard in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, was the SS Lintrose on Jan. 21, 1913. The Kyle followed on April 7, with Mrs. R.G. Reid, wife of the owner's president, wielding the champagne bottle, and the ship joined Reid's "alphabet fleet," as it was familiarly known, on May 20 that year. Glowing praise greeted the Kyle and Lintrose in the newspapers of the day on their arrivals in St. John's.

The ships were about 225 feet long and had been built with heavy steel plate in their rounded bows to help break through ice that was a common navigational hazard in their home waters. Both vessels were named after places in Scotland.

While the Lintrose went to work as a ferry on the Cabot Strait run between Port aux Basques and North Sydney, N.S., the Kyle spent her first two years serving communities on the northeast coast of the island and Labrador.

One year into World War I, the British Admiralty requisitioned the Lintrose and another Cabot Strait ferry, SS Bruce, for sale to Imperial Russia for their war effort. The Kyle was transferred to the ferry run and served there for the next 10 years, becoming familiar to a great many Newfoundlanders and Canadians crossing between the two dominions.

The Railway Coastal Museum in St. John's includes anecdotes from the Kyle's long career on its website here. You can also see a photo of the steamer arriving in St. John's from the builders in 1913.

After the war the Reid company, which operated the cross-island railway as well as the ferry service, decided to leave the transportation business and turned it over to the colonial government. A new ferry, the ill-fated SS Caribou was built in 1925 (she was sunk in 1942 by a German U-boat in the Cabot Strait with the loss of 137 lives). When the Caribou entered the Cabot Strait service the following year, the Kyle was sent back to the Labrador run where she performed faithfully for 33 years. In fact, the steamer served the northern run so well in all weathers and winds that she earned the nickname "Bulldog of the North."

A bit of folklore grew about the Kyle over her lifetime. In 1927 the ship had the sad task of collecting wreckage off Cape Race, at Newfoundland's southeast tip, of the U.S. aircraft Old Glory which had crashed into the sea in a pioneering trans-Atlantic flight attempt from Maine to Europe. Among countless passengers travelling on the old steamer, story telling was a popular way to pass the time. A Ted Russell poem, "Smokeroom on the Kyle," describes one such event. Click here to read the poem. More about Old Glory can be read here.

In 1959 Shaw Steamships of Halifax bought the 46-year-old coaster, renamed her Arctic Eagle, added her to their Arctic Shipping firm and operated her as a sealing vessel off the Labrador coast. The next owners were Earle Brothers Fisheries of Carbonear who bought her in 1960 for $100,000 and restored her original name. She served as a sealer for the next few years and it was in that role in the spring of 1965 that the Kyle sustained damage by an iceberg.

By then a ripe old age of 52, the wounded coal-burner was moored at nearby Harbour Grace awaiting her fate. Eventually, Earle Brothers decided to sell the Kyle for scrap to Dominion Metals Salvage Co. When the gale fetched her up in the shallows off the community of Riverhead in 1967 it was the end of her days afloat. In 1972 the provincial government paid $4,000 for the relic of a past era but she continued to moulder away for another quarter-century.

Today she still rests grounded at the end of Harbour Grace, her bow raised slightly so you can see how it curved at the bottom to ride up on the ice. The paint that partially restored her former glory in 1997 is fading and peeling, and rust again is showing around her edges. Will funds be found to keep her empty hulk looking presentable...who knows? Though her future is uncertain, there is no doubt the Kyle still inspires fond memories for those who once knew her well.

Photo credit: Daphne With

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