By Elaine Murray
Special to The Telegram
My great-uncle, Capt. Joachim Murray, was described in “Doreys and Doreymen” by Otto Kelland (of “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s” fame) “as one of these young men from Newfoundland, who through sheer courage and perseverance, in an amazingly short time, raised themselves from doreymen to captain on board fishing vessels out of Gloucester, Massachusetts.”
Joachim was the elder brother of my grandfather, Maurice Murray, of Marquise at Argentia. He migrated to Gloucester from Argentia in the latter part of the 19th century.
Joachim married Esther Williams of Bay Bulls and they settled into a private life with their young daughter, Louise, at 20 Leighton Ct., Gloucester.
On Jan. 29th, 1897, the Gloucester schooner Helen G. Wells arrived in Boston, its flag at half-mast. Its captain, William N. Wells, had been swept overboard in a gale and lost at sea.
The next episode in the life of the Helen G. Wells began when the ship was taken over by the firm Gardner and Parsons, under the command of Joachim
Accounts of the Helen G. Wells’ near fateful halibut trip to the Grand Banks on Oct 29th, 1897 were also related in “Doreys and Doreymen,” and in newspaper clippings. A heavy northwest gale descended as the schooner was anchored on the Green Bank on Nov. 10th. The cable parted shortly after midnight, and a huge sea broke over the boat, rolling it over until it was bottom up.
As a second enormous comber broke, the men dove for the cabins. Seven were trapped there, with 11 in the fo’castle. The men thought their time had come but battled fiercely to stay above water. Joachim was washed in and out of his cabin twice. As the men tried to clean up the wreckage, the schooner was boarded by another comber.
With the vessel once again righted, the crew took stock. The foreboom gaff and foresail, the mainsail and main gaff, were gone. The main boom, a spar as thick as the average man’s body, was broken in six pieces. Halyards, stays and topmasts, were stripped. Miraculously, the 20 crewmembers were still standing.
On Nov. 12th, 1897, the ship arrived in St. John’s and was said to be in the worse condition of any vessel entering the harbour to that time. It was repaired in St. John’s, arriving back in Gloucester Dec. 6th, 1897.
Joachim continued to captain vessels to the Grand Banks. In March 1916, he joined the U.S. navy Reserve at age 50, while the First World War was raging in Europe. In the spring, he enlisted in active service in the U.S. navy, serving as boatswain — a ship’s officer in charge of equipment and crew — on the USS Anderton.
While at sea, Joachim’s letters from “Somewhere in Europe,” written on Young Christian Men’s letterhead, were delivered regularly to his wife, Esther, at home. In a letter dated Sept. 18th, 1917, Joachim wrote, “I wish to God I was only 20 instead of 51 years, anyhow I will do what I can.” On Sept 29th, he described a magical encounter to his daughter: “I was watching a leprechaun tapping his shoes on a mulberry bush, he looked like your Uncle Tim Donovan!”
The last letter to Esther, dated Oct. 4th, 1917, made no mention of illness. But on Oct. 29th, a Western Union Telegram from Brest, France, informed Esther that her husband had been taken from his warship on Oct. 15th and admitted to the Naval Hospital at Brest. He was diagnosed with typhoid fever. His intestines were perforated and he died on Oct. 26th. He was 51.
Esther wrote to Joachim’s niece, my Aunt Anna, a RN in New York City: “Of course God knows how I wish I could have his body to bury, he was my all in this world. I can’t realize he is gone.”
While Esther was making arrangements related to her husband’s death in a public office, she collapsed. She eventually met her husband’s remains in New York and attended his funeral at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, with all burial costs covered by the United States government.
I have a list of Great Uncle Joachim’s possessions, stored in a trunk. They were sent by Esther to her husband’s namesake, his 12-year-old nephew, Joachim, the youngest of three sons at Marquise. He was my father.
Used to stories about the exploits of his Captain Uncle, the boy now had to absorb the harsh lessons of war. In the aftermath of the loss, the boy’s father, Maurice uttered only the words, “Enough, Enough!”
The last generation of Murrays would have been horrified had they known about the devastating effects of the Second World War at Argentia. Not only the Murrays, but more than 500 residents were forced to leave Argentia during the 1941 expropriation. Homes and the entire community — church, schools and hospital — were bulldozed and burned to make way for the construction of the United States naval base. Even three graveyards were not spared, with the remains disinterred and reburied in Freshwater’s Holy Rosary Cemetery in 1942.
The well-built, spacious Anglo American Cable House in Placentia, constructed by Roger Sweetman of Waterford, Ireland in 1876, was decommissioned in 1938, because of Allied security concerns.
By now, with his parents dead, his Argentia properties expropriated and the spacious Anglo American building and land up for sale in Placentia, my father Joachim bought it as his new home on Aug. 22nd, 1941, using proceeds from the sale of expropriated properties. He brought all his worldly possessions, including the fishing schooner his father had made him, to his new home in Placentia.
The first few months he lived alone in Placentia. William Flynn, 86, of Toronto — formerly of Placentia — told me he remembered back in 1941, when he was 10, seeing the boat in the window of the Anglo American and meeting the tall, slim man who had just moved into the house.
On Nov. 6th, 1941, Joachim married Margaret Wyse of Placentia, who taught school for 11 years at Holy Rosary School in Argentia. The happy couple married in St. John’s and honeymooned in Brigus. For 55 years they raised their family of five in the former cable house, with lots of love, fine meals and wonderful music.
By the time of my father’s death at 90 in 1995, the almost 100-year-old boat made by his father was in a serious state of disrepair.
In January 1997, for the Cabot 500 celebrations, master shipbuilder William Wakeham, formerly of Port Royal, agreed to restore it in his workshop, delivering her back home on St-Jean Baptiste Day, June 21st, 1997. Back it went into the window of the house.
Mother’s dear friend, Lizzie Ryan, made her sails, a Placentia friend made the yellow dory for the deck, an Argentia friend gave me a sea captain figure and another Argentia friend sewed the old Newfoundland and Labrador flag that flies from the topmast. The finishing touch was provided by John Maher of Express Signs, Placentia, who positioned the name “Joachim II” on the bow of the schooner. The Mahers were neighbours of the Murrays at Marquise.
Joachim II is in memory of my father, the boy who had loved the boat his father built and which he’d sailed on Shag Pond.
Since June 21st, 1997, I’ve kept a light on the deck in memory of Great-Uncle Joachim, who loved the sea.
Oct. 26th, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of his death. On Nov. 11th, I will lay a wreath in his memory at Placentia Bay Veterans Cenotaph in the town square at Placentia.
Esther’s deep sense of loss and careful recording of Joachim’s death made me decide to retell his life story.
If anyone has information to share about Esther Williams Murray and her daughter please contact me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org