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MARVELOUS LADY: An Island Journal

David P. Stephens

Cape Breton Island

So, following our "cesspool" encounter, Anna and I retreated back to Sydney where we relayed our experience to Cathy. She gave us that familiar look like we were crazy to continue this relentless endeavour. Yet, undaunted, Anna and I resumed our search the next morning, armed with the classified section of the Cape Breton Post, the Maritime Merchant, and plenty of loose change for pay phones. It was a beautiful day for June, the sun rose early and slowly stretched across the landscape, warming the good earth and giving a sense of new meaning to our mission. We were sure that this day would yield positive results. We started out early, lazily winding our way along the rugged coast line through South Bar, on to New Victoria, New Waterford, Lingan Bay, and on through Dominion to Glace Bay. All the while our eyes quickly scanned the landscape in search of that distinct Cape Island style hull. We talked to fishermen and locals along our picturesque route and followed up on a couple of leads to no avail.

Whenever we'd pose the question,"do you know of any Cape Islander's for sale around here?", the response was hauntingly familiar. The strong shoulders of each self-assured character immediately slumped, their eyes cast downward, and mouths curled at the corners as if the question caused them grief, sorrow, or pain. It was like being caught in some strange movie where each person we talked to was a mirror of the previous. They each shook their heads from side to side, while rubbing a weathered hand over their whiskered faces, creating a sound like sandpaper on a boat hull . Then, cupping their chin, squeezing their faces and flaring their nostrils, they'd inhale deeply, sigh, and respond, while exhaling, "No bye, no, no, nothin' left around here".

We dropped in to the local Tim Horton's in Glace Bay for a coffee, and perched ourselves at a window seat, circling the various classified ads which sounded like good prospects. "Here's one David", said Anna. "Tell me what you think of this". She read the ad with her ever exuberant voice, full of cheerful optimism. "Must sell, 30 foot Cape Islander, great condition, fiberglass over wood, six cylinder Chevy, marine manifold, trailer, many new parts, requires minor repairs". "That might be all right!", she said with a broad and energetic smile. We finished our coffee and strolled across the street to the Needs convenience store to use the pay phone. I dialed the number, it rang several times, with no answer. "Probably still in bed", said Anna. "Let's go back to the Jeep and wait a few more minutes before phoning again". So, we sat in the Jeep, talking of boats, and summer, and paintings, and houses, and Houston, and, of Anna's 1955 Chevy truck affectionately known as "Old Nelly", which was still in Houston. We were devising a plan of action which would allow us to bring "Old Nelly", an illegal alien, across the border to Cape Breton. (As of this date, the old girl is still in Texas, although Anna and I have tentative plans to spirit her out of the country in June - but, that's another story!).

I decided to try the phone number again and met with success after about ten rings. The young lady who answered was quite groggy, probably just woke up to answer the phone. I inquired about the Cape Islander and she replied in a sleepy voice, "He's not up yet, I'll wake him. The boat is in his mother's yard. I'll wake him up and tell him to meet you there". She gave us the address and Anna and I immediately set off on the next leg of our wild goose chase. We located the weary old boat sitting quite precariously on a homemade trailer in a side yard. We tried ringing the doorbell of the home and knocked on the door to no avail. It appeared that there was no one home, or, they too were in bed. We took a quick glance at the boat. The engine was fully exposed, and had obviously been tinkered with as the air cleaner was laying up against the block. I noticed that the vessel had an automotive transmission, in sad shape, saturated with transmission fluid. The electrical system was in complete disarray, with switches and fuses held together with duct tape. I noticed the fuel tank sitting in the stern and pointed it out to Anna. "Look at this mess!", I said. "That's an aluminum draft keg he's using for a gas tank!" Anna laughed out loud and said, "let's get the hell out of here before the guy arrives and we have to waste our time talking to him". So, once more, we jumped in the Jeep and drove off, empty handed.

We thought it best to head back home to recharge our batteries. On the way, I said to Anna, "Let's take a run out to Louisbourg and see what might be laying around out there. We're sure to discover a lead on something". Anna, being ever adventurous, quickly replied,"Good idea". And with that nod of approval, I pointed the Jeep in the direction of Louisbourg. Now, I feel it necessary to give a bit of background information on Louisbourg and my own connections with the town and surrounding area.

(Photo at right: Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park. Courtesy of Warren Gordon, MPA. Steel Town Publishing, Sydney, N.S.)

Louisbourg is a small historic fishing town on the Atlantic coast. Although the fishery has been in decline, tourism has increased over the years, mostly due to the partial restoration of the 18th century French fortress town, named in honour of King Louis XIV. Louisbourg was settled by the French but the area was also home to Basque and Portuguese fishermen, as well as the native Miq-maw who fished and hunted here.

Part of the colourful and intriguing maritime history of Louisbourg includes the numerous tales of ship wrecks in Kelpy Cove, Kennington Cove and surrounding area. One such tale is that of the French pay ship Le Chameau (Dromedary), and of how she was lost in a sudden storm on August 26/1725. She was violently flung up onto the jagged rocks off Port Nova Island (since known as Chameau Rock), twelve miles from the fortress. All souls perished. Villagers in nearby Little Lorraine (where Anna and I were to discover the Marvelous Lady some 275 years later), recovered flotsam which identified the vessel as belonging to the Crown.

Numerous attempts were made to salvage the wreck and her valuable cargo. While some goods were recovered, including masts and rigging, barrels and textiles, the bulk of her treasure was swallowed up by the sea, tides and shifting sands. A diver named Tempete (Storm) was one of a small crew hired in 1726 to attempt salvage, to no avail. The precious cargo of Le Chameau lay at the ocean floor for over 200 years until Alex Storm, Dave MacEachern and Harvey MacLeod made a successful dive in 1965. They had discovered Le Chameau lying in 75 feet of ocean. They also found a sizable portion of the payload of 82,000 livre tourneau in silver and gold coins, as well as numerous other artifacts, including the Cross of the Order of St. Louis.

It is interesting that Le Chameau went down in a storm in 1725, that the first person to attempt salvage in 1726 was named Tempete, or "Storm", and that she was "raised" by Alex Storm in 1965, more than two centuries later.

My parents, both numismatists, were retained as agents by Alex Storm and his partners. Together, they went through the tedious process of documenting, researching, and pricing the coins and jewellery. I can recall as a child, viewing and handling these rare artifacts, my mind racing with thoughts of privateers, buried treasure, and adventure on the high seas.

My parents also acted as agents for Storm and associates when they made yet another discovery, the cargo of the Feversham, another French pay ship lost to the unpredictable Cape Breton coastline. I remember my parents making the trek to New York in 1971 where they had arranged to have the Chameau treasure sold at auction at the Madison Ave. Parke-Bernet Gallery. My mother actually wore some of the jewellery during the flight to New York, while they carried the remainder of the treasure as luggage.

That period in my life has affected me deeply. It has instilled in me a thirst for adventure, a need to seek out and discover what is hidden, a longing and a passion to explore the many corners of this wonderous world we share.


Click here for the next Marvelous Lady installment, as Anna and I tell the tale of Jimmy with the hole in his pants!