K is for Kyle
Spelling out the Alphabet Fleet
Discover how costal boats earned their beloved place in the
province’s history and how they still influence the communities they
Mussel shells crack in staccato rhythms beneath my feet as I clamber
over rocks carpeted with mollusks and kelp. A solitary gull roused from
slumber squawks indignantly in my direction, then glides away over the
ocean. In the soft dawn light, the old vessel I’ve sought out takes on
the qualities of a classic painting, with her mirror image reflected in
placid waters. To some she is just a rusty relic of a bygone age. On
calm summer mornings, however, the Kyle is still beautiful and remains
one of the most photographed ships in the province.
Damaged but defiant, the Kyle appears frozen in time. A visitor
admiring the Kyle from Stapleton’s Beach in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland,
might think the ship is steaming in to pick up passengers bound for the
Labrador fishery. Nicknamed “The Bulldog of the North,” she could be
returning from rescuing shipwrecked sailors or searching for downed
pilots during the dawn of aviation. You can almost hear the folk music
and the voices reciting Ted Russell’s epic poem, “The Smokeroom on the
Kyle,” emanating from decks below.
The Kyle is the last remaining ship of the famed Alphabet Fleet, a
series of iconic vessels used in the Newfoundland coastal service to
connect remote communities. These ship, elegant for their day, were part
of a provision of the 1898 Railway contract by which the Reid
Newfoundland Company received a government subsidy to operate mail and
passenger service to the outports. The vessels were named after places
in Scotland, the native homeland of Newfoundland Railway’s founder, Sir
Robert Gillespie Reid (1842 – 1908). For this reason they were also
referred to as “Reid’s Yachts.” (Also, all the ships’ names had to end
in the letter “e.” Since there was no suitable Scottish town that began
with “J” and ended in “e,” the letter “J” was skipped in the Alphabet
Countless romances blossomed and adventures unfolded aboard these
coastal boats, and the fleet’s influence has ripped across the decades
to permeate all parts of the province in ways the original ship owners
could never have envisioned. Songs, poems, books, plays and magazine and
newspaper articles honour the vessels. Replicas, paintings, storyboards
and Gerald S. Doyle’s classic Christmas cards depict them. Fleet
mementoes fill museums across the island and community streets are named
after them. Vessel’s in today’s ferry service (such as the Captain Earl
W. Winsor on the Fogo Island run) commemorate prominent Alphabet Fleet
captains. Children have been named after these boats and, in one case a
pub has been dedicated.
Just as the Alphabet Fleet earned its place in Newfoundland culture,
it also plays a role in modern-day tourism. The locations where the
ships served – and sometimes met their demise – are along the most
astounding sections of coastline in the province, attracting boaters,
hikers, photographers and travelers in general.
Perhaps you’d like to take the “Alphabet tour” of the province this
year. Here id our guide to the ships – letter by letter.
A is for Argyle
Built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Argyle was 155 feet long
and 439 (gross) tonnes. The Argyle, synonymous with beautiful Placentia
Bay routes, was sold in 1941 and lost near Cuba on July 14, 1946.
B is for Bruce
Built in 1897 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Bruce was 237 feet long
and 1,154 (gross) tonnes. The Bruce, built to serve as a connector
vessel between the Reid Newfoundland Railway and Canadian lines, was
lost on March 24, 1911, near Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. Modern ferries
such as the MV Caribou that depart from Port Aux Basques to cross the
Gulf of St. Lawrence as sailing the route made famous by the Bruce.
(and Bruce II)
This is the only member of the Alphabet Fleet to share a letter.
Built in 1912 in Glasgow, the SS Bruce II was 240 feet long and 1,553
(gross) tonnes. Her history is unknown after 1915, when she was sold to
the Russian government.
C is for Clyde
Built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Clyde was 155 feet long
and 439 (gross) tonnes. She operated in the scenic Notre Dame Bay. The
Clyde was sold to Crosbie and Company in 1948. She was lost on December
17, 1951, near the isolated whaling factory as Williamsport in the
D is for Dundee
The SS Dundee was built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland. She was 155
feet long and 439 (gross) tonnes, and operated in Bonavista Bay. The
Dundee was lost on December 25, 1919, on Grassy Island near Carmanville,
in Hamilton Sound.
E is for Ethie
Built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Ethie was 155 feet long
and 439 (gross) tonnes. She was lost on December 11, 1919, at Martin’s
Point near Bonne Bay. In one of the most dramatic rescues in the
F is for Fife
Also built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Fife was 167 feet
long and 441 (gross) tonnes. She was lost on November 14, 1900, in the
rugged Strait of Belle Isle. Some of the Fife’s furnishings, including
the sink and toilet, are on display at the Railway Coastal Museum in St.
G is for Glencoe
The SS Glencoe was built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland. She was 208
feet long and 769 (gross) tonnes. The Glencoe operated on the
spectacular south coast for many years and was eventually sold for scrap
in June 1959 at Sorel, Quebec. An excellent replica of the Glencoe is
displayed at the Railway Coastal Museum in St. John’s. Communities on
the south coast, like Francois, Grey River and Rencontre East, are a
photographer’s paradise, and still depend on the coastal boat services
H is for Home
Built in 1900 in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Home was 155 feet long and
439 (gross) tonnes. The Home was sold in 1948 and lost in 1952 at Jersey
Harbour, Fortune Bay.
I is for Invermore
In 1881 the SS Invermore was built in Glasgow, Scotland – 250 feet
long and 922 (gross) tonnes. She was lost on July 10, 1914, at remote
Brig Harbour Point (near Smokey) on the coast of Labrador.
K is for Kyle
Built in 1913 in Newcastle, England, the SS Kyle was 220 feet long
and 1,055 (gross) tonnes. She was sold in 1959 and grounded during a
storm at Harbour Grace in 1967, where her hull remains. The Kyle was
touted as the fastest and strongest of the Alphabet Fleet, having been
“strengthened” for the ice. Long associated with the Labrador runs and
the seal hunt, the Kyle was famous for the search and recovery of
portions of a downed American plane, Old Glory, that had competed to be
one of the first to fly across the Atlantic in 1927.
The Kyle was also officially recognized by the U.S. Navy for her role
in the rescue of sailors during the Pollux-Truxton disaster at Chambers
Cove near St. Lawrence on February 18, 1942. Today a scenic hiking trail
leads to the site of the dramatic rescue, immortalized in Cassie Brown’s
book Standing into Danger. Because of her significance as the last of
the Alphabet Fleet, the Kyle received a $136,000 face lift in 1997. the
Kyle is one of the key tourist attractions in Harbour Grace.
L is for Lintrose
In 1913 the SS Lintrose was built in Newcastle, England. She was 255
feet long and 1,616 (gross) tonnes. Her history is unknown after 1915,
when she was sold to the Russian government. Lintrose Place in Donovan’s
Industrial Park, Mount Pearl, is one of several streets in that city
named for the Alphabet Fleet ships. Others include Clyde Avenue, Bruce
Street, Glencoe Drive, Kyle Avenue, Home Street and Dundee Avenue.
M is for Meigle
Built in Glasgow, Scotland, the SS Meigle was 220 feet long and 839
(gross) tonnes. She was lost in July 1947 at St. Shotts, on the southern
tip of the Avalon Peninsula. A hiking trail connects the town to nearby
Cape Pine Lighthouse, a Provincial Historic Site. This section of the
coast is prone to heavy fog and was called the “Graveyard of the
Atlantic” due to all the shipwrecks that have occurred here. This area
has also become the subject of fascinating ghost stories and treasure
The Meigle was the last vessel to join the Alphabet Fleet and was the
primary ship assisting the victim relief effort after the 1929 tsunami
on the Bruin Peninsula. (Captain Cook’s Lookout in Bruin gives an
overview of the area devastated by the wave.)
The Meigle also served as a prison ship (1932 – 1933) in St. John’s
Harbour, to hold the overflow of convicts following riots at the
Colonial Building and the Dole Marches around the island. Her role as a
prison ship is commemorated in the song, “Twenty-One Years,” by Joseph
Summers (1904 – 1937).
In Conception Bay South at the Meigle Lounge, the bar is shaped like
a ship and all the portholes adoring it contain pictures of the Fleet.
The Meigle’s deck plans and forward hold intake vent are also on display
Source: Downhome Magazine, March 2008