The sign on Ramsay Conc 8, marks the birthplace of George Eccles, who died in 1909 while trying to save the passengers of the SS Ohio, a 340-foot steamer that struck a rock off the coast of British Columbia in the dead of an August night.
In the 30 or so minutes before the ship sank — “in the hungry maw of the sea,” wrote one excited typist — Eccles used his wireless telegraph to alert two nearby ships to the emergency and send out the vessel’s location, while frantically sticking to his duties until more than 200 passengers were safely disembarked.
Even with water lapping at his feet, he is said to have gone searching for a shipmate below decks, a decision that probably cost him his life.
Heightening the drama were Eccles’ final, desperate transmissions, as reported in multiple newspapers: “Passengers all off and adrift in small boats. Captain and crew going off in the last boat, waiting for me now. Good-bye. My God, I’m …”
And there the words ended. His last breath wasn’t far behind.
Picture of George Eccles, who in 1909 sacrificed his life to save more than 200 people during a shipwreck on the S.S. Ohio off the coast of British Columbia. (Jean Levac / Postmedia News)
What is remarkable about the full Eccles tale is the way he was celebrated as a hero around the world while living his own back story of personal redemption.
In 1909, wireless transmission was a new technology, so new that Eccles is described as the first wireless operator to die in a shipping accident, just three years before the Titanic. (He is recognized in a plaque in Manhattan’s Battery Park at a monument erected to fallen “wireless boys.”)
The youngest of eight children, Eccles was born in 1873 and, as a young man, learned the new art of telegraphy from the resident CPR ticket agent in Almonte. At one point, he moved to Ottawa to be a sessional clerk at the House of Commons but wireless communication appears to have been his passion.
The skill took him to Winnipeg to work in the rail yards, then Seattle, where he hooked on with the firm that ran the SS Ohio to Alaska. While in Winnipeg, he married Nettie Barry, had two boys and was blamed, perhaps unfairly, for a workplace accident in 1905 that no doubt scarred him. One newspaper report said he had been at his telegraph station for 36 hours straight when a communication error led to a head-on train collision that resulted in at least one fatality. He was dismissed.
(Adding to the cruel timing of the sinking, too, was the fact Eccles had given notice of his resignation and the fateful trip was to be his last one.)
In Almonte, meanwhile, he was mourned like a hero for the ages. At his funeral, the town literally shut down and the mayor and councillors led hundreds in a cortege described as “the largest in the history of the town.”
The newspapers, meanwhile, tripped over themselves with portraits of glory.
“It is surely not possible that the people of Canada will let pass unheralded the steamship Ohio tragedy,” began a piece in the Montreal Star.
“Every Canadian’s breast should swell with pride at the name of Eccles. Let us know something of the man; let us help his wife and family, if he has either. Tell us of his father and mother. Don’t let him lie at the bottom of the ocean unnoticed. Eccles has shown to the world what a man’s sense of duty is.” (excerpts from Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen 9 Nov 2017).
GEORGE ECCLES FINALLY GETS A HEADSTONE
Although George Eccles had a large funeral ceremony, but for reasons unknown, the grave was never marked. Until 3 June 2018 (109 years later) that omission was remedied, thanks to the efforts of C.R. Gamble Funeral Home of Almonte, and Kinkaid & Loney Monuments of Smiths Falls. The headstone is located int the cemetery of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, 135 Wolfgrove Road.
The cemetery is approximately 500 metres west of the intersection of County Road 29 and Almonte Rd/Wolfgrove Road.
GEORGE C. ECCLES DAY
The community has proclaimed Aug. 26 to be George C. Eccles Day.