For nearly a century, two large, painted crosses on Sugarloaf Mountain in Campbellton, New Brunswick, have been a not-so-subtle reminder that life can vanish in the blink of an eye.
On a frosty fall evening in 1924, local sisters Dorvil [Ramsay] McLean and Lottie Ramsay took the worst possible route down the 1,000-foot high extinct volcano — the North face. The young women paid the ultimate price, plunging to their deaths.
Dorvil [left] was 22; Lottie [right], a few years younger.
Let’s turn the ‘pages of time’ and go back to when it all happened …
HOW EVENTS UNFOLDED
Sunday, November 9, 1924
It was around four in the afternoon when Dorvil and Lottie set off to climb one of New Brunswick’s best-known clumps of rock. The girls used a trail that snakes up the eastern spine of the mountain, the same one hikers use today.
Rocks on the trail were slippery; someone could easily slip and get hurt.
Darkness was fast approaching when the girls stood on the Sugarloaf’s highest point, a popular tourist destination, even then. It was also a tad chilly — but the view … aaah! … postcard-beautiful! As always. Spread out beneath them were the twinkling lights of Campbellton and area.
We’ll never know what possessed the Ramsay sisters to climb down the front of the mountain, a high-risk venture at the best of time.
We could analyze this for eternity but, bottom line, no one can say for certain what happened that fateful day.
Nobody saw the girls fall, mainly because the area around the Sugarloaf wasn’t developed like it is today. Their screams must have been heard for miles … but apparently nobody heard them.
What it all boils down to is that key information is missing — and will always be missing — because too much time has passed.
THE FAMILIES & THE SEARCH
Dorvil [Ramsay] McLean, married just 14-months before, had a seven-month old boy at home. Little did the young mom know but she’d never see her child again.
If you believe in a Heaven and a Life beyond, there would be a mother and child reunion in the 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 unusual back in the day. Sydney was a railway fireman who earned his paycheque the hard way — by shovelling coal on the steam locomotives.
The girls came from a large family. They had six siblings — two sisters and four brothers.
Understandably, there was tension at the Ramsay household at 15 Hillside Street, down by the train tracks. Mom and dad had no idea where the girls were … and not knowing was giving them fits.
They reached out to relatives and neighbours, but no one had seen them. It wasn’t a good sign.
A younger brother 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 return home that evening, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. It was unlike them to not let family know where they were.
Around 10 o’clock, a group of men — armed with flashlights and high hopes — went searching for the girls. No luck.
Where were they??
Dreading that proverbial knock on the door, family members nervously paced the floor.
Prayers, uttered non-stop, were for naught. The girls were already in Heaven.
No one slept well that night.
When the sun came up, a small search party set off to find the Ramsay girls. Four men reached the top of the mountain where they picked up the sisters’ trail. Following a set of footprints in the thin layer of snow, searchers gingerly made their way down the face.
The trail zigzagged here and there, as though the girls didn’t know 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. There was no response. And so they called out again. The silence signalled they were no longer on a rescue mission but a recovery mission.
Hundreds of feet below, three more members of the search team — policeman William Smith and two civilians, Mr. J.H. Moores and a Mr. Gay, located the cold, lifeless bodies.
According to a 1924 story in the Campbellton Graphic, the first victim found was Dorvil McLean. Her remains were located among the rocks.
Her sister’s body, a short distance away, was caught on a tree.
The two bodies were wrapped in blankets and carried down the mountain.
A grim-faced police officer then went around to the Ramsay house and gently tapped on the door. He had some heartbreaking news no parent should ever hear.The bodies were taken to Graham’s ‘undertaking rooms’ in Campbellton.
There was no autopsy. “No need,” according to coroner Doctor Martin who quickly came to the conclusion the girls had died from acute head injuries.
The funeral, held mid-afternoon, was one of the largest Campbellton had seen. Here’s a portion of the write-up that appeared in the Graphic back then: “A large number of autos, [horse] carriages and people on foot followed the funeral cortège to the rural cemetery. Floral tributes were many and beautiful, showing the esteem in which the two young ladies were held …”
Dorvil and Lottie Ramsay’s tombstone can be found in the sprawling Rural Cemetery in the West end of town.
Little is known about Dorvil and Lottie because the accident happened so long ago. But there’s another reason. Family members — especially Mom and Dad — simply didn’t want to talk about it. So deep was their pain.
Death certificates 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 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.’ Translation: massive head injury.
Contributory: ‘Fall from top of Sugarloaf Mountain in Campbellton, NB.’
Lottie Sarah Ramsay’s death certificate lists her occupation as restaurant waitress. Lottie, also born in Campbellton, was single.
Incredibly, Lottie has three different birthdates. Her death certificate [see below] indicates she was born in 1904. But according to her birth certificate, the year was 1906. However, Lottie’s tombstone [see photo above] lists 1905 as the year she was born. Take your pick.
Back then, vital stats — including the correct spelling of names — apparently wasn’t a big deal.
“I don’t remember having seen her before,” writes the coroner who completed Lottie’s death certificate, “… I only [saw her] as a coroner.”
Under Contributory, Martin noted: “Feet slipped on ice on top of Sugarloaf Mountain causing fall down the mountain …”
It’s interesting the good doctor came to that conclusion. Could it be that someone — perhaps the coroner or a police officer — spoke with searchers who had followed the girls’ tracks to the edge of a big cliff?
As part of an investigation, members of the search party were 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 things were no different back then.
Rumours of the girls being ‘chased by a bear’ … hmmm … perhaps not. That’s because bears had been in hibernation for a month when the girls died. And if a bear was not in its den that particular evening — for whatever reason — it would have been scrounging for food and water … and there wasn’t a lot of that at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.
And keep this in mind. No one saw bear tracks.
Some have speculated the girls may have been alive for a while after they hit bottom. Given the severity of their head injuries, that didn’t happen. Owing to the long drop — we’re talking hundreds of feet here — Dorvil and Lottie were most certainly unconscious within seconds and dead within minutes.
Their distraught parents, Jane and Sydney, were forever in mourning. The same could be said for many in the tight-knit community where everyone seemed to know each other.
One can only imagine the number of prayers whispered for the two girls. Then and now.
A young waitress and a stay-at-home mom have become some of Campbellton’s best-known citizens — because of how they died.
The Ramsay girls will never be forgotten. 300 years from now, people will still be talking about them … more so than any Campbellton politician, soldier, doctor, sports hero, ship maker … you name it.
PAINTER ALEX JOHNSON
Alex Johnson went beyond making devotions for the girls. On Thursday, May 28, 1925, the former World War I sniper took aim at creating a unique memorial.
With the help of his older brother, Seely, the 26-year-old made his way up the mountain, carrying gallons of white paint. He then pulled out a brush and began painting two rock surfaces.
It was a full day’s work.
Would he have gotten permission from whoever owned the mountain? I suspect not. Times were different then.
Next morning, people in Campbellton woke to find a pair of crosses on their mountain. Everyone knew what they were about.The paint was a gift from Alex and Seely’s father, a Norwegian immigrant who ran a painting business in town.
Alex Johnson provided some form of closure — not only for himself but for everyone in the community.
It was essentially a labour of love. Alex continued to paint the crosses on his own time — without any compensation. That’s how things got done back in the day.
Angie Johnson recalls her father talking about the ‘great sadness’ in town when the girls died, and that he wanted to do something special so they’d never be forgotten. The result was a one-of-a-kind memorial, one that could be seen for miles.
In an ironic twist, the photo of the Ramsay sisters [above] shows both wearing tiny crosses.
Thanks to a sturdy leather harness, Alex Johnson was able to paint the large crosses without getting hurt or 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 will think twice about scaling the north face. No one wants to be that third cross.
Irene Doiron enjoyed climbing the Sugarloaf with friends when she was a kid. Irene’s mother worried she’d get hurt and so to discourage her from climbing the mountain, she showed Irene a scrapbook containing newspaper stories of the accident.
Alex 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 large crosses didn’t go over well with the Ramsay family, especially the mother.
That’s understandable. Seeing the crosses day in and day out was a painful reminder for Jane 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, 1923.
They hadn’t been married 18-months when Dorvil was killed.Dorvil and Edmund had one child, Sterling [Edmund] Sydney. Edmund Junior never knew his mother because he was only six months old when she made that fatal trip up the mountain.
Before Edmund could finish high school — like so many teens in the day — he signed up at a military recruiting office in Fredericton where he was given an army uniform. The youngster was soon on a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean for training in England — and to fight in the ‘European Theatre’ of World War Two.
Trooper McLean [Reg # G3906] was a member of the 28th Armoured Regiment [tanks], based in British Columbia.
And like so many teens and young men back then, Junior never came home.Trooper McLean was killed on April 25, 1945 in Friesoythe, near Bremen in northwest Germany … only days before the Nazis surrendered.
Like his mother, Edmund Junior died young. He’d turned 21 about a week earlier.
McLean is one of 1,382 soldiers interred in a Canadian War Cemetery in Holten, Netherlands, about two hours’ drive from where his tank exploded.McLean is buried with a group of young soldiers in a corner of the well-kept cemetery. When I say ‘young,’ their ages ranged from 19 to 26. Seems like a misprint, doesn’t it?
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 cross.
ON THE HOMEFRONT
Sterling Edmund McLean was engaged to a young woman who lived in a four-story apartment building on Pierce Street in downtown Montreal, in the shadows of beautiful Mount Royal.
Evelyn Gallant paced the floor in her unit, terribly worried about her fiancé because she hadn’t heard from him in a while. Sterling’s censured letters from Europe had stopped coming.
Was Sterling hurt and recovering in hospital? Perhaps he was on his way back to Canada and they’d be together again. Or …
Evelyn had no idea what was going on, and so she wrote to Army Headquarters in Ottawa. Click on her short letter [lower left] to see what she had to say.
It wasn’t long after that the mailman arrived with an envelope from the military. Now Evelyn would know. She tore open the envelope and read the typed letter. Evelyn’s worst fears were realized. The young woman burst into tears.
She read the letter again and again. As the country song goes, war is hell on the homefront too.
Here’s a short video clip [:25] showing the rugged rocks where the girls died. Click on the arrow to view it.
The clip will appear in 720p quality, which is okay … but nothing to text home about. If you’d like to watch it in higher definition [1080p], 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.’
LIFE IN 1924 …
It’s always hard to imagine what life was like before we came into the world. 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 … 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 testy, injury-filled game. Some things never change.
Let’s hear a four and-a-half minute compilation of 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].
JOHNSON’S WORK LIVES ON …
AN EVERLASTING MEMORY
Angie Johnson, Alex’s eldest daughter, now in her 70s, lives in the small house her father built on Aucoin Street in the West end of Campbellton.
When Angie relaxes on her south-facing balcony, overlooking the mighty Sugarloaf, she thinks about the two Ramsay girls — and her dad, the painter.
“My father …” Angie offers, tearing up, “was such a kind man.” Motioning to the crosses, she adds, “Look what he did! I am so proud of him …”
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of people — perhaps millions — have reflected on the two crosses Alex Johnson painted.
Now, that’s a tribute.