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Monument to Canadian shipwreck hero unveiled in Anglican church cemetery

Posted on: June 6, 2018 9:43 AM
The SS Ohio, pictured off Nome, Alasaka, after hitting ice two years before she foundered in a separate incident off British Colombia.
Photo Credit: F H Nowell / University of Washington Digital Collections
Related Categories: Canada, disaster, memorial services, Ontario

[Anglican Journal, by Art Babych] A long-forgotten Canadian hero buried in an unmarked grave in an Anglican cemetery near Almonte, Ontario, for more than a century now has his own headstone. Canon Pat Martin, Rector of St Paul’s Anglican Church in Almonte, unveiled the monument to George Eccles at a service on Sunday (3 June) in the church’s cemetery on the outskirts of the town. Eccles, an Almonte native, was credited with saving the lives of over 200 people when the passenger-cargo steamship SS Ohio hit a rock off the British Columbia coast and sank on 26 August 1909. As the ship’s radio telegrapher, Eccles stayed at his post, signalling for help from nearby vessels. His new headstone concludes: “It cost him his life.”

Eccles, 36, became famous for being the first radio telegrapher to die at sea, and his heroism was celebrated in his hometown and abroad. But as time passed, and since his grave on the family plot in St Paul’s Anglican Church Cemetery was never marked, the memory of George Eccles faded away. Until the summer of 2014, that is. That was when local resident, actor and history buff David Frisch came upon a weather-beaten sign along a concession road outside Almonte marking Eccles’ birthplace.

“I had to stop to see the sign facing the road,” he told the small group gathered for the unveiling ceremony. “The sign was rotting and paint was bleeding so badly I had to struggle to read the description.”

The sign showed that 208 lives were saved through Eccles’ efforts, that he was buried with full civic honours and that his fame was worldwide. But Frisch indicated that no one he spoke with in Almonte seemed aware of Eccles’ heroism. “He stayed in the radio room of the rapidly sinking ship, continuing to guide two nearby ships to the site,” said Frisch. “Others encouraged him to abandon ship, but we know Eccles refused.”

Eccles finally gave in to the pleas of his crewmates, said Frisch. But as he was about to jump into the last lifeboat, the sinking ship “shifted rapidly,” he said, “and Eccles fell and hit his head in what was a fatal blow.”

Through the lobbying efforts of Frisch and others, a larger, more durable sign was erected near the former Eccles farm last November. But the effort to further honour George Eccles didn’t stop there.

After the Ottawa Citizen reported on 8 November 2017 that Eccles was buried without a stone or marker, Reg Gamble, retired founder of C R Gamble Funeral Home & Chapel in Almonte, and John Bowes of Kinkaid & Loney Monuments Ltd of Smith Falls, Ontario, went into action. “We decided we were going to fix this,” said Gamble at the service. “We were astounded that a native son of Almonte, and a man of such quality and bravery – a hero, in every sense of the word – was buried in our community and that his grave had never been marked.”

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The new headstone for George Eccles is unveiled by Reg Gamble (left), Canon Pat Martin, and John Bowes at St Paul’s Church cemetery in Almonte, Ontario.
Photo: Art Babych / Anglican Journal

George Eccles “rested under the Lanark County sod for more than a century without most of our population knowing who he was and what he did,” said Gamble, whose company and that of Bowes, shared the $4,000 [CAD, approximately £2,300 GBP] cost of the granite headstone. Martin unveiled the monument with the help of Gamble and Bowes. She also led in the prayer of thanksgiving and gave the final blessing.

The opening Scripture, also delivered by Martin, was drawn from John 15:12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” About 40 people attended the service, which included the participation of Pipe Sergeant Jenny Putinski, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Pipe Band.