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S.S. Caribou remembered in online museum

From left: Jennifer Morgan, Neil Burgess, Nadine Osmond, and Yasmine Hubert during the presentation at the Railway Heritage Museum. – © René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

  1. with files from Renè J. Roy

PORT AUX BASQUES — On Apr. 23 at 2:00 p.m., a new online museum exhibit on the sinking of the ferry, S.S. Caribou, during World War II was launched by the Railway Heritage Museum. The sinking, which resulted in the death of 137 people, is considered the deadliest enemy attack in both Canadian and Newfoundland waters during the war. The Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, formed in 2012 to promote and protect shipwrecks around the province, in partnership with the Southwest Coast Historical Society, created the virtual exhibit to tell the story of the U-boat attack, the sinking of the Caribou, and the response by Navy escort ship, HMCS Grandmère, and the recovery of bodies by fisherman local to the area. The virtual exhibit also contains eyewitness accounts from survivors, both crew and passengers, who shared the true horror of the torpedo attack and subsequent struggles to survive by those on board. In the joint announcement, they stated that the sinking left a lasting impact on Port aux Basques. “With family stories passed down to children and grandchildren of eyewitnesses, some artifacts from the S.S. Caribou are on display at the Railway Heritage Museum. Outside the Museum, the S.S. Caribou Memorial lists the names of the 137 crew and passengers who lost their lives in the sinking,” said Jennifer Morgan, who wrote the essays. “We are thrilled to be able to offer this wonderful resource to visitors, researchers, educators and students. This virtual exhibit captured the essence of these important events in our history through stories, images, and video. We are embracing the potential of the Internet to enhance our storytelling and reach a global audience.” Neil Burgess, President of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, has previous experience with this type of virtual exhibit. “We did a similar online museum exhibit for the Bell Island Museum on the four Bell Island shipwrecks that were also sunk by U-boats and so I figured out where a lot of the historical documents were from the second world war, the U-boats in Germany, all that kind of stuff. And once we finished the Bell Island project, I was thinking with the other board members of the Shipwreck Society, what other important shipwrecks happened in the Second World war that we could promote, that we could educate the public more about, and the Caribou was the first one that came to the top of the list.” Burgess was the one who got the ball rolling. “I knew Nadine (Osmond) from the Museum Association that I also belong to, and I called her up and she was enthusiastic about it, she thought it was great and we should get the word out,” said Burgess. “That was three years ago. We got started in 2020, just about the time that COVID hit, and that slowed us down because a lot of the museums and archives shut down for eight or nine months at the beginning of COVID and we had a hard time getting access to documents that were in Ottawa, or London, England, or over in Germany. That slowed us down a bit, but we got great cooperation from local families here whose relatives were on the Caribou, the crew and passengers. So we got a lot of stories from the families and we had access to a lot of historical documents that had a lot of eyewitness accounts from survivors of the sinking.” Luckily a lot of steps for the website were already completed. “It’s a really neat system where Digital Museums Canada, which is based in Gatineau, they provide a kind of website template, and then we fill it in with the contents, the text and the photos and videos and audio clips, that kind of stuff, but we don’t have to do the page layout and all that kind of thing,” explained Burgess. The site can be kept updated. “The way it works is, the website is fixed for now, but the museum here and the Shipwreck Society, we can take the contents of it and copy it, then we can update our own version of it, and that’s definitely something I want to do,” shared Burgess. “We’ve got a couple of ships heading over this direction this summer that may be able to spend a bit of time looking for the wreck, and it would be dynamite to be able to find it.” Burgess will still play a role with the website moving forward. “I deal with providing feedback for any of the comments or questions that get posted. There’s a comment section where you can ask questions, and we get quite a few questions on the Bell Island site, which is on the same system, from schoolkids doing term papers or science fair projects, heritage days and that sort of thing, and so I do my best to answer them as best I can,” said Burgess. The project would not have been possible without financial support. “Digital Museums Canada provided the majority of the funding to help do this, but we also got some funding from the provincial government, from the Department of Tourism, Arts and Recreation. They have a program called CEDP which supports community museums like the Railway Heritage Museum here, and that was great for us to get because it allowed us to hire the folklore student to help us with the research which was a huge benefit.” Jennifer Morgan was the one who supplied the researcher with some of her primary research that she has been collecting for over a decade. “My great-grandfather on my father’s, mother’s side, my Nanny Morgan, her father was Thomas Moist who was the second engineer,” said Morgan. “When I was a little girl, my Nanny Morgan would tell us a story. She was a real storyteller. And that was every October, she would point to his picture on the piano, and she would explain that was her father, and it was his birthday. He died on his birthday, October 14.” It was Nadine Osmond who put Morgan in touch with Burgess. “Neil had the idea, and Nadine said, ‘Well, Jennifer has all this research’, because I came down here when my book came out. I wanted to do a bit of a book activity and launch down here, and I met a lot of other people who were descendants, related to people who had been on the Caribou.” This project is something they’ve been working on for years. “I think it was 2019 that we were filling out the forms, making the application and the proposal, and it took a bit of paperwork to get the virtual museum’s Ottawa crowd on board. That was thanks mostly to Nadine and Neil, and I was just helping them brainstorm on the different pages and the different topics.” While she may not be directly involved with the site moving forward, Morgan still has more plans. “What I’m going to do moving forward is get into writing a larger, more expanded graphic novel, and I’m hoping the site will be used by researchers who are doing creative projects or research projects like that. I’m very happy to help promote it.” Morgan believes these kinds of websites are extremely important for research moving forward. “I think that websites are the record of the day and, if you don’t have a website something didn’t happen, as far as younger researchers are concerned. So the virtual museum project is really, really great and it’s a really great resource for those of us who are doing research in Canada. It gives this story a footprint in contemporary society and a place where younger researchers in particular can find the story and do this kind of research and extend this kind of research.” ‘The Tragic Sinking of SS Caribou’, is available online in both French and English at: http://www.communitystories.ca/v2/tragic-sinking-ss-caribou_naufrage-tragique/.

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