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A rare photo of the victims: Dorvil and Lottie Ramsay [image courtesy of the Ramsay Family, enhancement courtesy of John Van Horne].

 

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 …

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To see more detail, click to enlarge. [Photo by Author in early October 2017]

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.

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The gravestone of Dorvil and Lottie Ramsay. Click to enlarge. [Photo by Author]

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DEATH CERTIFICATES

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.

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Dorvil’s Death Certificate [Document courtesy of the Ramsay Family] Click to enlarge.


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Lottie’s Death Certificate [Document courtesy of the Ramsay Family] Click to enlarge.


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.

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Alex Johnson made the climb time and time again to repaint the crosses. Here he is at the foot of the main cross in May 1955. Note the cross stitched on his jacket. Click to enlarge. [photo supplied by John Van Horne]

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.

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The safety harness used by Alex Johnson. [Photo by Author] Click to enlarge.

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.

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Teenager Alex Johnson, a sniper, fought in France and Belgium. [Image courtesy of Angie Johnson and John Van Horne.]

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.

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The ‘Official Notice of Marriage’ for Edmund McLean and Dorvil Ramsay. Edmund is listed as a ‘bachelor’ … and Dorvil as a ‘spinster.’ “Can the bridegroom read? Yes. Write? Yes.” “Can the bride read? Yes. Write? Yes.” Click to enlarge. [Source: Ramsay Family.]

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.

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[Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.]

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.

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August 1943. Stirling McLean visiting his father in Low, Quebec [north of Ottawa] prior to embarking overseas. He received his training in England and took part in the D-Day Invasion and the liberation of Holland. [Photographer unknown]

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This is what an email from the military looked like in 1945. Millions of telegrams [like the one above] were delivered all over the world. Click to enlarge. [Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.]

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 …

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War is hell on the homefront too. Click to enlarge [documents courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.]


VIDEO CLIP

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


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JOHNSON’S WORK LIVES ON …

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A number of volunteers have repainted the crosses and removed trees and shrubbery so they can be seen. As well, some hikers have made the climb to ‘connect’ with the iconic landmark. Author’s estimate of the height of the main rock face is 50-60 feet. [Photo by Author.]

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This is not how the Sugarloaf looked like in 1924, not even close. There were far fewer trees on the mountain the year the girls died. Click to enlarge to see the jagged rocks in more detail. [Photo by Author in early October 2017]

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A view of the Sugarloaf in 1927. Owing to a fire, there weren’t a lot of trees at the eastern end of the mountain. [Photo courtesy of Edie Powers] Click to enlarge.

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October 4, 1922: the Sugarloaf on fire. Click to enlarge. [Photo courtesy of historian Irene Doyle.]


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 …”


 

 

 

 

19 thoughts on “Sugarloaf Deaths – New Info

  1. I would like a story on The Van Horne Bridge. I remember us playing underneath on the catwalk during construction. What a nice revisit.

    Like

  2. Wow, What a story. I always wondered what was the truth behind the crosses on the Campbellton Sugarloaf Mountain. Now I know.

    No more is it a mystery to me and many others.

    Well done.

    Like

  3. This is absolutely a wonderful recollection of what’s behind the two crosses!

    I’ve lived in Campbellton till 1979 prior to university and honestly had no full understanding of all the facts behind the tragedy.

    Thanks for sharing and again showing why Campbellton is a great humanitarian city!

    Like

  4. John Ross, born in Campbellton now lives in Miramichi with his cousin Jack Miller, who lives in Fredericton, climbed the path on the eastern side of the mountain in August 1951 … had a picnic there. Beautiful view of Campbellton.

    Thank you to the person that posted this article.

    Like

  5. Wow. That is truly an in-depth look at the two crosses.

    It’s nice to be able to get so much information about them.

    Thank you for sharing.

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  6. Very well done. Climbed the mountain many times in 1960’s and 70’s.

    The last part of east side path was a rock climb. Also remember the path in woods from Brookside to the mountain. Always thought it was spooky in there.

    Would like to see more history on my hometown.

    Like

  7. I enjoy your articles and images whenever they come up on my Internet horizon. Keep up your fine work!

    Best regards from a fellow Campbelltonian now living in the balmy South at sunny Shediac.
    Louis Allard (formerly of Queen Street)

    Like

  8. We used to climb the Sugarloaf often as kids in the 1960s.

    Our family always talked about the Ramsay sisters, telling us to be careful going up there … and to watch for the bears.

    Thank you for sharing so many more facts. Interesting read.

    Like

  9. Thanks for again writing a great article about our hometown.

    My Mom had told me some of the story about the Ramsay girls when I was a child as I wondered what those crosses were all about.

    Like

  10. Pingback: My Love Affair with a Mountain ♥ | Byron Christopher

  11. Beautifully written. You tell the story with heartfelt sincerity, a poignant tribute to the girls, their family and their place in the history of Campbellton. Thank you.

    Like

  12. Having lived the first 19 years of my life in Campbellton, I’ve always wondered about the significance of the two crosses painted on the face of the Sugarloaf … now I know the facts.

    Thank you for sharing. Very well done.

    Like

  13. Have been going up the mountain a few times a week for the past 40 years and although I knew the crosses represented the deaths of the Ramsay sisters it was nice to read the actual story.

    Thanks for sharing.

    By the way, 22 years ago I took my daughter [who was around 13 years old at the time] up to the crosses. It wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did and was reminded often by the mother. We were able to touch the large cross but couldn’t reach the small one.

    Like

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