The uncertain fate of the S.S. Kyle

Structure collapse on historic ship helps Bay Roberts man relive his time onboard

Melissa Jenkins
Published on April 16, 2014

It's Tuesday morning and 97-year-old Fred LeDrew is relaxing at a retirement home in Bay Roberts when his phone rings. He answers with a businesslike tone. I

t's a newspaper reporter, seeking his reaction to news that a section of the SS Kyle's superstructure had collapsed, once again igniting the debate about what should become of the venerable old ship grounded in Harbour Grace.

LeDrew, who twice went to the Front aboard the Kyle in search of seals during the 1960s, was unaware of the cave-in, but is not surprised.

The collapse happened in recent weeks, but some say it was years coming to a head. LeDrew agrees.

His words are few, but he shows passion about his experiences on the vessel and describes how he feels about the current state of the ship.

"Someone should have done something about it a long time ago, and kept it in good shape," he says.

Part of the collapsed structure had been visibly leaning for some time, and rust developed along the bow of the ship, down to the stern.

Many residents have been saying for years the vessel, which is the last of the Newfoundland Alphabet Fleet, should have been restored. But the funds had not been available.

Government financial assistance has been denied. The only funding has been through fundraising efforts.

In 1996, the ship received a new coat of paint to restore it to its original colours, but that was the last time anything had been completed.

LeDrew wishes more were done.

"She was a nice boat," he says.

Infamous smoke room

LeDrew doesn't see himself as being a part of history. But as one of the last people to sail aboard the ship, many would say he is.

He laughs at the thought, but doesn't immediately respond.

After a moment, he changes the subject.

"I haven't been down that way (to see the ship) in a long time," he admits, adding it had been several years.

He does, however, remember the trips to the ice. During that time, LeDrew had the opportunity to take in much of the 67-metre vessel, including the notorious smoke room, which collapsed.

"I was all over (it)," he explains. "I spent a fair bit of time on (the Kyle)."

The smoke room was made famous in the song, "Smoke room on the Kyle," written by the late Ted Russell. It has been performed by both Ted and, more recently, his son Kelly. In the song, the smoke room is described as a place where the sailors and crew tell tall tales of their adventures on the sea.

LeDrew doesn't remember the room the same way. He says it wasn't somewhere those on board spent a lot of time.

"We went in there sometimes. Not very often, just the same," he says. "Sometimes when you (went) in there, the captain would be in there, the mate and a few engineers."

The room now lies under a pile of rubble.

Financial stalemate

The provincial Department of Municipal Affairs owns the vessel.

Minister Steve Kent said in an email to The Compass the government can't afford to aid in the restoration of the 101-year-old Kyle.

"Given the significant funding pressures for municipal infrastructure, we are not in a position at this time to provide any financial support for restoration," the email says.

"Should the Town of Harbour Grace or a private company or organization want to invest to bring the SS Kyle up to standards for heritage purposes, I would gladly provide a written letter of support. I would encourage and support a community solution."

A former municipal leader in Harbour Grace explains there was an attempt by a group to acquire the vessel about 20 years ago, and the cost for restoration at that time was close to $1 million.

It is unknown how much a restoration would cost now, but some say it would be much higher than the initial price tag. There haven't been any formal offers to take on the project.

Another possibility is dismantling the vessel, something LeDrew does not approve of.

"I wouldn't like to see her torn apart," he says.

The final option would be to leave it there, deteriorating in the harbour.

There have been some concerns mentioned about the environmental factors if the vessel continues to remain. It is unknown at this time if there is any threat to the marine ecosystem.

There are many unanswered questions, most of which will likely be discussed in the coming months by the Town of Harbour Grace and those with an interest in the vessel.

It is unknown what the future holds for the historic ship. But LeDrew will always cherish the memories of his voyages on the ice during his trips on the SS Kyle.

LeDrew denies having stories from his trips offshore that he can share. But with a laugh, he makes it known the ones he does have will remain a part of him, even if the vessel is dismantled.