For nearly a century, a pair of hand-painted crosses on Sugarloaf Mountain in Campbellton, New Brunswick, has been a not-so-subtle reminder of how fragile life can be.
On a cool fall evening in 1924, local sisters Dorvil [Ramsay] McLean and Lottie Ramsay plunged to their deaths on the north face of the 1,000-foot extinct volcano.
Dorvil [left] was 22. Lottie [right] was a few years younger. The girls came from a large family; they had six siblings — two sisters and four brothers.
A light blanket of snow had fallen that fateful Sunday, 9th November, making the hike dangerous. Conditions were such that someone could easily slip and hurt themselves.
It was around four in the afternoon when the Ramsay girls set off to climb the Sugarloaf. They reached the top by way of a path on the eastern spine of the mountain — the same trail hikers use today.
It was getting dark when the two sisters stood on the summit of New Brunswick’s best-known mountain. It was also a tad chilly — but the view spectacular, as always. Spread out beneath them were the lights of Campbellton and surrounding area.
We’ll never know what possessed the girls to climb down the front of the Sugarloaf, a high-risk venture even in broad daylight.
We could analyze and parse this for eternity but, bottom line, no one really knows what happened that night. Too much time has passed. Key information is missing — and will always be missing.
Dorvil, married just 14-months earlier, had a 7-month old boy at home to tend to. Little did the young mother know but she’d never see her child again. If you believe in a Heaven and a life beyond this one, mother and son would meet again — in the mid-1940s. More on that coming up.
When Dorvil and Lottie failed to show for supper, their parents, Jane and Sydney, sensed that something was amiss.
Jane was a stay-at-home mom, not uncommon in those days. Sydney was a railway fireman who earned his pay cheque the hard way … by shoveling coal on the old steam locomotives.
Mom and dad had no idea where their girls were — and not knowing was giving them fits. Understandably, there was tension at the Ramsay household at 15 Hillside Street, down by the train tracks. A younger brother of the girls was given ‘a few cents’ and told to leave the house for a spell while the adults tried to make sense of things.
When Dorvil and Lottie failed to come home that night, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. No one slept well. Everyone dreaded that knock on the door …
Up until now, few people [outside of family members and close friends] even knew what the Ramsay girls looked like.
When the sun was up, a small search party set off to find the missing sisters. Gingerly making their way down the face of the mountain, several men followed a set of footprints in the thin layer of snow. The path zigzagged here and there, as though the girls weren’t sure where they were going.
About halfway down the mountain, hearts sank when the trail ended at the edge of a steep cliff. The men peered over the side and called out. No response. The eerie silence signaled they were no longer on a rescue mission.
Hundreds of feet below, a number of searchers — including a policeman — located the battered, bloodied bodies, wrapped them in blankets and carried them down the mountain.
Police then went around to the Ramsay house on Hillside where a grim-faced officer gently tapped on the door. He had some heartbreaking news no parent should ever hear …The bodies were taken to Graham’s ‘undertaking rooms.’
There was no autopsy. There was “no need,” according to the coroner, a Mr. Martin. The doctor came to the conclusion that both girls had died from acute head injuries.
Dorvil and Lottie Ramsay’s tombstone can be found in the sprawling Rural Cemetery in the west end of Campbellton.
Little is known about the Ramsay girls, in part because the accident happened long ago — but also because family members just didn’t want to talk about it. So deep was their pain.
Death certificates now shed more light on the girls … and how they perished.
Arabella Dorvil [Ramsay], born in Campbellton in 1902, was married to Edmund McLean. On the official statement of the cause, date, and place of death, ‘Occupation of Deceased’ was listed as housewife. ‘Cause of Death’: The skull was fractured in many places, making [a] lot of compressions.
‘Contributory’: Fall from top of Sugarloaf Mountain in Campbellton, NB.
Lottie Sarah Ramsay’s death certificate lists her occupation as a restaurant waitress. Lottie, who was also born in Campbellton, was single. Incredibly, Lottie has three different birth dates. Her death certificate [see below] lists her date of birth as 1904. However, her birth certificate indicates she was born in 1906. Lottie’s tombstone [see photo above] has 1905 as the year she was born. Take your pick.
Back then, vital stats — including the correct spelling of names — weren’t so important. Vital, if you will.
Lottie also died from massive head injuries.
“I don’t remember having seen her before,” writes Martin, who filled out Lottie’s death certificate, “… I only [saw her] as a coroner.”
Under ‘Contributory,’ the coroner noted: Feet slipped on ice on top of Sugarloaf Mountain causing fall down the mountain …
It’s interesting Martin came to that conclusion. It could be that someone — perhaps the coroner himself or a police officer — spoke with those who had followed the girls’ tracks to the edge of a cliff.
As part of an investigation, members of the search party were most likely interviewed to help determine if the deaths were an accident or the result of foul play. That’s standard procedure nowadays and I suspect it was like that 100 years ago.
Rumours of the girls being ‘chased by a bear’ … hmmm … that doesn’t make sense. Bears had already been hibernating for a month. And if a bruin was not in its den that particular evening — for whatever reason — it would have been out searching for food and water, and there wasn’t a lot of that at the top of the mountain.
Keep this in mind as well. No one reported seeing bear tracks.
Some have speculated the girls may have been alive for a while after they hit bottom. That’s unlikely, given their severe head injuries. Owing to the long drop — we’re talking hundreds of feet here — both Dorvil and Lottie were most certainly unconscious within seconds and dead within minutes.
Their parents were forever in mourning. The same could be said for many in the small, tightly-knit community where everyone seemed to know each other. The entire town was in mourning — and in shock.
One can only imagine the number of prayers whispered for the two girls. Then and now.
In death, a waitress and a stay-at-home mom have become some of Campbellton’s best-known citizens — not because of who they were, but how they died.
ALEX JOHNSON, PAINTER
Alex Johnson went beyond making devotions. On Thursday, May 28, 1925, the former World War I sniper took aim at creating a unique memorial for his dear friends.
With the help of his older brother Seely, the 26-year-old climbed the face of the Sugarloaf, carrying gallons of paint to where the bodies were found. He then pulled out a brush and began painting two rock surfaces.
It was a full day’s work.
Next morning, people in Campbellton woke to find a pair of white crosses on their mountain. Everyone knew what they were about.
Alex’s father, an immigrant from Norway who ran a painting business in town, supplied the paint … but his youngest son provided the manpower.
He also provided some form of closure — not only for himself but for everyone in Campbellton.
Alex painted the crosses on his own time, without compensation from anyone … or handouts from charities. Back then, that’s how things got done.
It was, as they say, a labour of love.
Angie Johnson recalls her father talking about the ‘great sadness’ in town when the Ramsay girls died and that he wanted to do something special so people would never forget them. The result was a pair of large crosses that could be seen for miles.
In an ironic twist, the photo of the sisters [above] shows both wearing tiny crosses.
Thanks to a sturdy leather harness, Alex Johnson was able to safely paint the memorials without becoming a fatality himself.Perhaps it didn’t occur to Alex at the time — although maybe it did — but his crosses have saved lives and injuries simply by being that constant reminder.
A novice climber would think twice about scaling the north face. No one wants to be that third cross.
Johnson, a founding member of the Royal Canadian Legion in Campbellton, died in 1997. He was 98.The man who initially painted the crosses on Sugarloaf Mountain is buried in the same cemetery as Dorvil and Lottie Ramsay.
RAMSAY FAMILY REACTION
The two crosses didn’t go over well with the Ramsay family, especially Jane, the mother.
That’s understandable. Seeing the two memorials day in and day out was a painful reminder for mom that her two girls were never coming home.
DORVIL’S ONLY CHILD
Dorvil had married when she was 20. Her husband, Edmund, was 22.
The young couple took their vows on August 21, 1924. They hadn’t been married 18-months when Dorvil lost her life on the mountain.Dorvil and Edmund had one child, Sterling Edmund.
Edmund Junior never really knew his mother because he was an infant when she died. Before young Edmund could finish high school — like so many teens back then — he signed up at a military recruiting office, was given a uniform and shipped overseas to fight in the ‘European Theatre’ of World War Two.
Trooper McLean [Reg # G3906] ended up with the 28th Armoured Regiment [tanks], based in British Columbia.
And like so many young men, he never came home.The young soldier was killed on April 25, 1945, when his tank exploded in Friesoythe, near Bremen in northwest Germany — only days before the Nazis surrendered.
Edmund Junior had just turned 21. Like his mother, he also died at an early age.
Trooper McLean is one of 1,382 soldiers interred in a Canadian War Cemetery in Holten, Netherlands … about two hours’ drive from where he was killed.McLean is buried with a group of young soldiers [ages 19 to 26] in a corner of the well-kept cemetery.
On the white tombstones are some touching tributes: “Far from home he died that we might enjoy life” … “memories are treasures no one can steal; death leaves a heartache no one can heal” … “he is not dead, he is just asleep” and … “far from those who loved him but in eternal peace with God …”
On the tombstone of Dorvil Ramsay’s son, however, there is no personalized tribute — only a name, rank and a tiny cross.
Turns out, Sapper McLean had been engaged. In an apartment in downtown Montreal, Evelyn Gallant paced the floor, unaware of the fate of her fiancé …
To get answers, Evelyn wrote to the army and someone [with three initials] responded on behalf of a colonel …
Here’s a short video clip [:25] that shows the rugged rocks where the girls fell. Click on the arrow to view it.
The clip will appear in 720p quality, which is okay but nothing to write home about. If you’d like to watch it in higher definition [1080p, Blu-ray, showing more detail], first click on ‘SHARE’ [top right corner], then click on either ‘ORIGINAL’ or ‘MP4.’ You should be good to go.
To download the clip, go to ‘SHARE’ … then click on ‘OGG.’
SLIPPING BACK TO 1924 …
It’s always difficult to imagine what life was like before we were born. But through popular songs from the “Roaring ’20s” [specifically 1924] and some key events from that year — we can get a ‘feel’ for what life was like back then.
1924 was the year Prince Edward Island switched driving from the left side to the right side of the road … the Royal Canadian Air Force was formed … Prime Minister Mackenzie King made radio history by broadcasting the first federal speech … and in hockey at the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, Canada [represented by the Toronto Granite Club] beat the United States 6-1 in a fiesty, injury-filled game. Some things never change.
Let’s hear a few hit songs from 1924 … California, Here I Come [Al Jolson]; It Had To Be You [Isham Jones & His Orchestra]; Somebody Loves Me [Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra] and The Charleston [Arthur Gibbs & His Orchestra]. Total time 04:36
JOHNSON’S WORK LIVES ON …
AN EVERLASTING MEMORY
Angie Johnson, Alex’s oldest daughter, lives in the small house her father built on Aucoin Street in the west end of Campbellton.
When the 73-year-old relaxes on her south-facing balcony, overlooking the mighty Sugarloaf, she reflects on the crosses, the two Ramsay girls — and her dad.
“My father …” Angie offers, tearing up, “was such a kind man.” Motioning to the crosses on the mountain, she adds, “Look at what he did! I am so proud of him …”