NEWS

Pictou Harbour mystery wreck may be identified

07/27/2015 06:00 EDT | Updated 07/27/2016 05:59 EDT
The clues gathered by the first divers to visit a mystery wreck in Pictou Harbour may be enough to confirm the ship's identity.

The well-preserved wreckage was first spotted during a routine survey of the harbour by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. The discovery came as a surprise to people in the town, who weren't aware that a large ship was lying so close to shore in relatively shallow water.

It took just days to organize the first dive trip to the wreckage and the information gathered by those divers points very clearly to a specific vessel.

The steamship Dieuze was built in Montreal in 1919 for the French government and sank in Pictou Harbour in 1925.

It was commissioned during the First World War, when steel was needed for the war effort. As a result, it was built with a wooden hull at a time when steamships had long switched to steel and iron.

Records from the Fraser Brace shipyard show that the Dieuze was almost 60 metres long, weighing 1128 gross tons with twin screws.

That matches exactly the description of the wreck gathered by the dive team, including a CBC journalist, who surveyed the site on Friday.

They measured the ship at 59.7 metres, noted the twin propellers and were intrigued by the fact that a steamship of relatively late design was built with a wooden hull.

They also saw that the anchors appeared to have been in use, which tallies with the fact that the Dieuze was anchored at the time of its sinking.

Perhaps the clinching argument is that the divers noted fire damage on the wooden vessel. The Marine Heritage Database kept by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic states that the Dieuze was "burnt" at Pictou harbour on Sept. 25, 1925.

A contemporary account of the sinking in the Eastern Chronicle records that "the wooden steamship Dieuse (sic) burned to the water's edge then sank in Pictou Harbour."

The newspaper says the steamer had been used to carry coal and gravel between Pictou Landing and Charlottetown. The captain was apparently the only person on board when the fire started, but he managed to escape.

A more dramatic account in the Pictou Advocate described "one of the most spectacular fires ever seen in Pictou County," going on to say how the ship "blazed fiercely for hours, illuminating the sky for miles around."

It also says that Captain Gray of Granton smelled fire, and upon investigation, discovered flames near the cook's galley.

The Advocate reports that Gray, regarded as one of the leading masters in the province, could not understand the origin of the fire. The newspaper reported that there was nothing that could be done to stop the flames and the fire was only extinguished when the ship sank.

In an interesting economic aside, the paper noted that the ship had been built in 1919 for $300,000 but that the same ship could be built in 1925 for a third of that cost.

No photos of Dieuze

No pictures of the Dieuze have been found so far, but it was one of eight almost-identical cargo ships the Fraser Brace yard built for the French government, all of them named after French communes.

By the time they were launched, the war was over and the ships were sold to commercial owners. A picture does exist of at least one of the Deuize's sister ships, the Fenestrange.

None of the eight vessels had a long career at sea. One, the Colmar, also sank in Canadian waters, foundering off Sable Island just weeks after it was launched.

The rest of the cargo vessels, built in a hurry during wartime and likely of poor quality, were scrapped within five years of their launch.

The man who organized the survey dive on the wreckage plans to return there are as soon as possible.

Local diver and wreck enthusiast Rob MacKay wants to find proof that this forgotten wreck is in fact the Deuize.

That may come by finding a manufacturer's plate on some of the remaining machinery which would definitively show the ship's identity and restore its place on the long list of named wrecks around Nova Scotia's coastline.

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