Mary Celeste heritage celebrated

Andrew Wagstaff
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Cairn unveiled at Spencer’s Island beach 50 years ago

SPENCER’S ISLAND – Much like on the sunny day in 1963 when it was unveiled, beautiful summer sunshine greeted the crowd at Spencer’s Island beach Wednesday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mary Celeste cairn.

The small gathering was treated to cake, refreshments, live music, and a few speeches on the significance of preserving local history. The world-famous mystery ship was built and launched in Spencer’s Island in 1861.

Among those in attendance at the event was Ralph McLellan, who was also there the day the cairn was unveiled in 1963. His father Stephen was an instrumental player in that project.

“His father had a boat house here, and he was more or less interested in the sea,” recalled McLellan, about his grandfather, Baxter McLellan. “He was the first keeper of the lighthouse, and the one that got it built. There used to be a bell on the end of it, and I remember as a kid having to climb up and wind it up.”

That interest in preserving local history was passed on to Ralph, whose wife Heather was a key organizer of Wednesday’s event.

Local county councilor Don Fletcher read an article describing the 1963 event, which featured noted historian Will R. Bird as guest speaker. At that time, Bird described the story of the Mary Celeste, which was found drifting in the Atlantic in 1872 with all sails set, everything in order and not a soul aboard, as “the greatest story of the sea that we have.”

“It’s very important to maintain history, especially here in Nova Scotia, and especially to do with the sea, because we’re surrounded by it,” he said.

Also on hand was Cumberland South MLA Jamie Baillie, who agreed on the importance of celebrating history, but reminded all that the story of the Mary Celeste was not one of celebration, but rather “one hardship after another.” Her first three captains died in her service, the fourth was fired for ramming another ship, and the fifth disappeared with his family and the rest of his crew near the rock of Gibraltar on that fateful 1872 voyage.

“It’s very important for those of us here to remember events like this, to celebrate history, and make sure we continue to tell those stories and pass them on to our children from one generation to the next,” he said. “We gather here to honour those from Spencer’s Island and Cumberland County that came before.”

But looking to the past is only one way to honour those people, according to Baillie, whose campaign-style speech reminded those present of the expected call of a provincial election to come soon.

“There is one more way to honour those who built what we have here in Cumberland County – not to look to the past, but to look to the future,” said the Progressive Conservative party leader. “Let’s see how we can build up Cumberland County again, and how we can make sure to have modern and dynamic and sustainable communities, economy and jobs here.”

Also speaking was Lorna Fletcher, president of the Spencer’s Island Community Association, who recognized Jim Slemp for the refurbishment work he did on the cairn in 1992.

Scheduled to speak was former local MP Bill Casey, who had to cancel after suffering two heart attacks last weekend. He was wished a speedy recovery by those present.

Twitter: @ADNandrew

Organizations: Island Community Association

Geographic location: Cumberland County, Atlantic, Nova Scotia Gibraltar

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