For nearly a century, a pair of red and white crosses on Sugarloaf Mountain in Campbellton, New Brunswick, has been a constant reminder of how fragile life can be.
On a cool evening in November 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 was 22. Lottie was 19 but just weeks shy of turning 20.
A light snow had fallen that fateful day, 9th November, making the rocks extremely slippery.
It was around four o’clock in the afternoon when the Ramsay girls set off to climb the Sugarloaf. They reached the summit by hiking up a path on the eastern spine of the mountain.
When the sisters failed to return home for supper, their parents sensed that something was amiss. Where were the girls, they wondered. Could they be lost on the mountain … or perhaps just visiting friends?
Not knowing the answer tormented them. We can only imagine how anxious those moments were.
One of the children at the house was given ‘a few cents’ and told to leave for a spell while the adults tried to make sense of things.
When the girls didn’t come home at all that evening, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong.
No one slept well that night.
We’ll never know why Dorvil and Lottie decided to come down the face of the Sugarloaf, a dangerous thing to do at the best of times.
As soon as the sun was up, a search party set off to find them. Gingerly making their way down the face, several men followed the girls’ tracks in the thin layer of snow.
Their hearts sank when the trail ended at the edge of a steep cliff. The men called out … but there was no response. The eerie silence signaled it was no longer on a rescue mission but a recovery mission.
Hundreds of feet below, a number of searchers — including a police officer — soon located the battered bodies, wrapped them in blankets and carried them down the mountain.
Police hurried around to the Ramsay house on Lansdowne Street, between Sugarloaf and Cromwell. A grim-faced policeman then knocked at the door bearing heartbreaking news no parent should ever hear.There was no autopsy. According to the coroner who filled out the death certificates, there was no need for one. He came to the conclusion the girls died from massive head injuries.
Dorvil and Lottie Ramsay are buried in the Campbellton Rural Cemetery, at the west end of town.
Little is known about the young women, partly because the accident happened so many years ago.
Death certificates now shed a bit more light on the victims and how they perished.
Dorvil, 22, born in Campbellton [May 21, 1902], was married to Edmund McLean. ‘Occupation of Deceased’ was listed as a 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’s death certificate lists her occupation as a waitress at a restaurant. The teen, who was also born in Campbellton [December 29, 1904], was single. She too died from massive head injuries.
“I don’t remember having seen her before,” writes the doctor 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 the doctor came to that conclusion. Had he spoken with one of the searchers who’d followed the girls’ tracks to the edge of a cliff? I suspect he did, as part of his investigation.
Rumours of the girls being ‘chased by a bear’ … hmmm … perhaps not. Bears are usually in hibernation in mid-November. And if they were not in hibernation, for some reason, they’d be looking for food and water — and there wouldn’t be a lot of that at the top of the Sugarloaf.
Another thing. There was no word from any of the searchers that bear tracks had been spotted in the snow.
Some have speculated the girls may have been alive for a while after they fell … but given their severe head injuries, that likely wasn’t the case. Owing to the long drop, both Dorvil and Lottie were most certainly unconscious within seconds and dead within minutes.
The girls’ parents, Jane and Sydney, were forever in mourning. The same could be said for many in the tightly-knit community where everyone seemed to know each another. The entire town was in mourning — and in shock.
One can only imagine the prayers that were whispered for the two girls.
In death, Dorvil and Lottie Ramsay have become Campbellton’s best-known citizens, better known — in the region anyway — than any local politician or sports celebrity.
ALEX JOHNSON, PAINTER
Alex Johnson went beyond praying and on May 28, 1925, he took it upon himself to build a unique memorial to his dear friends.
With the help of his older brother Seely, the 25-year-old carried up gallons and gallons of white paint to a spot where the bodies had ended up. He pulled out a brush and began painting two rock surfaces.
Next morning, Campbelltonians woke up to find a pair of crosses on their mountain.
Alex’s father, a native of Norway who ran a painting business in town, provided the paint … but his son provided the muscle.
He also provided closure.
Johnson painted the crosses on his own time, without asking for compensation from anyone … or handouts from a charity. That’s how things were done back then.
Angie Johnson recalls her father talking about the great sadness in the town after the girls died, and that he wanted a memorial for the girls so people would never forget them. In an ironic twist, the above photo of the girls shows them wearing tiny crosses.
Thanks to a sturdy leather harness, Alex Johnson was able to safely paint the crosses without becoming a fatality himself.Perhaps it didn’t occur to Alex at the time — although maybe it did — but his crosses have no doubt saved lives and severe injuries simply by being a constant reminder. After seeing the crosses, a novice climber would think twice about scaling the north face. No one wants to be that third cross.
Johnson, a former soldier and a founding member of the Royal Canadian Legion in Campbellton, died in 1997. He was 98.
The man who initially painted the Sugarloaf’s famous crosses is buried in the same cemetery as Dorvil and Lottie Ramsay.
RAMSAY FAMILY REACTION
The crosses didn’t go over well with the Ramsay family, particularly the mother.
That’s understandable. Seeing the two memorials on the mountain, so often, was a painful reminder for Jane that her two girls would never come home.
DORVIL’S ONLY CHILD
Dorvil and Edmund McLean had one child — Edmund Junior who joined the Canadian army and fought in WW2.
The young man [he was in his 20s] was killed in Holland on April 25, 1945 — just days before the Germans surrendered.
Edmund Junior, who was with an armoured division, died when his tank exploded.
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.
It’s on her south-facing balcony, overlooking the mighty Sugarloaf, where the 73-year-old reflects most about the crosses and the people they commemorate. “They were good girls,” she says, “and how sad everyone was when they died …”
“My father …” Angie adds, tearing up, “was such a kind man” She then motions to the fabled crosses. “Look at what he did. I am so proud of him …”
Here’s a short video clip [:25] that shows the area of the mountain where the girls fell. Click on the white arrow to view it.
The clip will be shown in 720p quality, which is okay … but, let’s face it, nothing to write home about. If you’d like to see the clip in higher definition [1080p, Blu-ray, which shows more detail], first click on ‘SHARE’ [top right corner], then click on either ‘ORIGINAL’ or ‘MP4.’
To download the clip, go to ‘SHARE’ … then click on ‘OGG.’