A chilling distress call

Marconi radio station at Cape Bear first in Canada to hear distress signal from Titanic

Steve Sharratt comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on April 14, 2012
Thomas Bartlett is believed to be the only Marconi radio operator in Canada to pick up the signal that the Titanic was in distress. He was quick to contact marine authorities in Halifax.
Submitted photo

The tragedy of the Titanic and its unsinkable connection to the world is a tale steeped in morality, says one of P.E.I.’s most respected academics

“Even a century after its sinking, the Titanic continues to resonate with people around the world,’’ says Dr. Ed MacDonald, history professor at the University of Prince Edward Island.

“It is not, I think, because of the magnitude of the tragedy — although considerable — but the plot line.”

MacDonald says the Olympic-class ocean liner touted as “virtually unsinkable,” and lost on its maiden voyage after striking an iceberg off Newfoundland, is a moral conundrum.

“It was nature’s rebuke to the arrogance of human invention,’’ he says. “And so, Islanders valued — and still value — their connection to one of the most famous marine tragedies.”

Michael Glover has a connection to the Titanic. The house he grew up in the Beach Point area was the original Marconi Station at Cape Bear.

His grandparents purchased the station after it was decommissioned and his parents now call it home after moving it to nearby Guernsey Cove.

“The original point of land where the light and the station were once situated is long gone,” said Glover, who lives in the area. “The erosion took it all away over the years. But I remember the story that this was the only station in Canada to pick up the Titanic distress call.”

Glover says the signal was picked up in Canada’s youngest province as well, but Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada until joining Confederation in 1949.

“Thomas Bartlett did have a phone as part of his position, but unlike today, the news of the Titanic tragedy likely would have taken some time to make its way here,” says Cape Bear lighthouse curator Donna MacNeill, where a Bartlett radio room is featured.

CLICK HERE TO READ FICTIONALIZED ACCOUNT OF BARTLETT RECEIVING THE DISTRESS SIGNAL

Prof. MacDonald says to the people who live on Prince Edward Island and once went down to the sea in ships; the Titanic is a grim reminder.

“It reminds us that the North Atlantic can be a graveyard as well as a highway.”

BEACH POINT — Thomas Bartlett never anticipated his unsinkable role in history when he pulled the graveyard shift on that night in April.

The native Newfoundlander was a radio operator at the only Marconi station in Prince Edward Island, and from the southeastern end of the province, a trio of operators served around the clock to assist mariners travelling the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Atlantic seaboard.

Being the chief operator, Bartlett lived in the house near the Cape Bear lighthouse and knew he’d have time during the night shift to wrap a gift for his bride.

When dawn came and his work was done, he’d celebrate the day three years ago that he and Beth Harris had exchanged vows. The boy from Brigus had married the local Beach Point girl on the lighthouse grounds in 1909 and now they were back so Beth would be close to her family.

The stove was dying down when Bartlett entered the small radio room connected to the house provided by the federal government. Before feeding it, he looked out on the cold, clear night and the stream of brightness shimmering across the Northumberland Strait from the Cape Bear light. He’d only been posted here since January and was glad winter was ending.

Since the rise of steam and the decline of sail, the shipping industry was becoming busier every year and he mulled over the rapid changes invading his once constant profession.

After five years of the S.O.S call being used for the call of distress, there were those advocating the C.Q.D. emergency method of communication. C.Q.D. was the new code being used by some wireless systems followed by the call sign of the ship or vessel.

Bartlett was reluctant to change, but appreciated the need to identify the ever increasing number of ships now traversing the coastline and crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

He had barely sat down for his midnight shift when the wireless began to sing. It was 12:15 a.m. and he grumbled at the tapping. The signal was in that new code. He grabbed for his head set and searched for a pencil.

The signal sang “C.Q.D MGY”.

Bartlett was unsure of the call sign. He checked his ship log while the signal tapped again. He scanned the charts for the ship letters “MGY” when suddenly the wireless signal changed to S.O.S.

It was the distress code he was most familiar with and when he found the call letters “MGY” — he couldn’t believe his eyes.

The most ostentatious and unsinkable ocean liner in the world was in distress and Bartlett — believed to be the only Marconi radio operator in Canada to pick up the signal — was quick to contact marine authorities in Halifax.

When he finished his shift on the morning of April 15, 1912 and headed to the kitchen for breakfast, Thomas Bartlett had no idea the Titanic had sunk to the ocean floor as he toiled over wrapping the gift for his anniversary bride.