Community to remember Burke's Titanic message

Andrew Wagstaff
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Pam Harrison shows off one of the new signs that will be displayed in Joggins to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The signs will be placed near the location of Edmund Burke's home, where he heard some of the first radio messages as the disaster unfolded.

JOGGINS - One hundred years after Edmund Burke received one of the most tragic news scoops of the century, his community is remembering his achievement.

The 19-year-old was listening to messages on his homemade wireless radio, at a time when having radios of any kind in homes was unheard of, especially in rural Cumberland County, where news traveled slow.

It turned out Burke was among the first to know about the sinking of the Titanic, which took 1,517 lives on April 15, 1912.

"It's phenomenal, in my mind, that this young man whose family lived in Joggins and visited relatives in Boston... he learned about Marconi's technology, sending messages on wireless, and he came home and figured out how to build that," said Pam Harrison, one a of a group of volunteers organizing a commemorative event in Joggins on Saturday, April 7. "He was brilliant, but underappreciated, of course."

Burke was listening in on various stations with his friend Fidele Ouellette on the night of the sinking. Ouellette left after the 11 p.m. news, but Burke remained listening, and sometime after midnight heard the fateful distress call by Morse Code from the Titanic, "We have struck iceberg. Sinking fast. Come to our assistance," followed by transmissions from the Capathian and the Virginian, two Allen line ships that were searching for bodies and collecting the dead.

Burke posted a bulletin in his shop window about the sinking, despite insults and threats from those who did not believe him, and he and Ouellette spent most of the next day listening to reports of the identities of bodies as they were recovered.

Directors of the Maritime Coal, Railway and Company, who were in Joggins on a mine inspection, visited Burke to try and learn the fate of friends they had on board the Titanic.

What Burke was able to accomplish was fascinating, and is not as well known as it should be, according to Harrison.

"That story has always inspired me, and I feel it's the untold story," she said. "One hundred years later, it's time to tell the story."

Large new signs have been made to be installed on Main Street in the area where Burke's shop was located. On Saturday, a group community picture will be taken of 100 people at the sign, who will then have a chance to get a copy of the photo along with a commemorative stamp being released by Canada Post.

Canada Post representatives will be on hand at the legion to assist with this effort. Also featured will be a presentation from Grade 5-6 students at River Hebert Elementary School, who have designed models of the Titanic as a class project.

The highlight for many will be a talk from Leo Burke, son of Edmund, who will share the stories of the event told to him by his father.

A wreath will also be laid at the sign, in memory of those who lost their lives when the Titanic sank. The wreath will be made from blue forget-me-nots with more than 1,517 blossoms.

The group photo and laying of the wreath will take place at 2 p.m., followed by the presentations from the students and Leo Burke at the legion around 2:30 p.m. Also on hand will be chef Glenn Wheaton, serving Waldorf Pudding, believed to be the last dessert served aboard the Titanic.

Organizations: Canada Post, Maritime Coal, Railway and Company, River Hebert Elementary School

Geographic location: JOGGINS, Cumberland County, Boston

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Recent comments

  • Andrea Jolly
    April 09, 2012 - 11:36

    This is amazing... Cumberland county has had so much rich heritage...Thanks Pam for bringing this more to light and sharing the history of your community once again.

  • Chris F Cameron
    April 04, 2012 - 11:50

    Nice to hear about past community history being honored and acknowledged in such a way, thanks to strong community leaders. Best wishes for a successful event.