On Christmas day 1881, some of our predecessors were adrift in the Pacific Ocean without knowing what the future held and the perils they were about to face. Captain Henry MacArthur from Maitland, his wife Kate and two children Archie (4), Frankie (2) and a crew of 19 drifted in life boats as they watched their vessel burn.
The Milton (1879, Selma) built by Brown and Anthony, set sail on August 9th 1881 from Shields, England bound for San Francisco with a cargo of coal. Unknowingly, this would be her final voyage and would seal her fate yet enhance the indomitable spirit of East Hantsonians.
On the evening of December 22nd 1881, smoke generated by the heat and gases from the coal in the hold, was seen billowing from the hatch of the ship. Despite all efforts to extinguish the fire, they were unsuccessful and the captain ordered the crew to board the life boats taking with them any provisions they could muster. Kate, a keen musician, begged someone to rescue ‘Jenny’ her beloved organ. A ‘burly’ sailor obliged and carried ‘Jenny’ from the burning wreck. They remained near the flaming vessel for two days and then, in three life boats, set adrift into the vast darkness. Kate remarked, “She was a fine ship and we loved her as our home. It seemed such a shame to see her go to ruin.”
On Christmas Eve, the third life boat pulled alongside the Captain, the crew said “Good night and Merry Christmas”. They were never seen again. The two remaining life boats traveled northwards together. On January 2nd 1882 they lost contact with each other. One boat was rescued on January 15th by the British ship Cochin, the other, containing the Captain, his family and a few crew members still drifted on the Pacific Ocean.
Those on board the life boat suffered greatly from exposure and dehydration. They ran out of food and water. The Captain managed to engineer a condenser using tomato tins and fire using timbers from the boat. “We used to sit and count the drops” said Kate, “The memory of every drink I had ever had came back to tantalize me”. Sadly this was not enough. On the 42nd day, Kate's youngest son Frankie died in her arms. The following two days saw the ships carpenter and the able seaman die. Hunger and dehydration were beginning to take their toll.
Despite the grave situation, Kate played her organ to boost morale and keep hope alive. It is rumoured that the sound of her music carried across the ocean and was heard by their rescuers. On their 46th day at sea, having traveled approximately 4000km in a life boat, Captain MacArthur and his family were rescued by the Mexican Thor, then transferred to the American Newbern, captained by Thomas Huntington. During the rescue Kate gave birth to a 3lb baby boy who was aptly named Newbern Huntington.
Recovery from the ordeal was long but it came. Captain MacArthur suffered tremendous eye trouble caused by strain of using the sextant. When he sought medical treatment and asked the fee, the reply was, “Nothing, to a man like you”. The family regained their health, returned to the sea, then chose to settle in California. Interestingly, Readers Digest ranked the sinking of the Milton as one of the top 50 adventure stories in Canadian History.
The little organ that allegedly prompted the rescue was left in the Campbell household in Maitland for safekeeping. Kate asked that ‘Jenny’ never leave her home village. Upon the sale of the Campbell house however, ‘Jenny’ was taken to a private home in Wolfville, then after many years, was given to the Randall House Museum.
The new owner of the Campbell house happened to visit the Randall House Museum and spotted ‘Jenny’. He told the curator the tale of the little organ and of its seafaring family. Discussions took place and it was decided ‘Jenny’ should be returned to her home in Maitland as per Kate’s wishes.
Today ‘Jenny’, although somewhat scorched and charred, sits with pride in the East Hants Historical Museum in Lower Selma where her and her family’s story of courage and survival is an inspiration to all.
- Kate Robson