For nearly a century, two large, painted crosses on Sugarloaf Mountain in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada, have been a not-so-subtle reminder that life can vanish in the blink of an eye.
On a frosty evening in the fall of 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 adventurists paid a terrible price, plunging to their deaths. They died instantly.
Dorvil [left] was 22; Lottie [right], a few years younger.
HOW EVENTS UNFOLDED
Sunday, November 9, 1924. A light blanket of snow was making a trek up the Sugarloaf a bit tricky. The large rocks on the trail were slippery; someone could easily slip and get hurt.
It was around four in the afternoon when Dorvil and Lottie set off to climb one of New Brunswick’s best-known peaks. They used a trail that snakes up the eastern spine of the mountain, the same route hikers use today.
Darkness was fast approaching when the Ramsay girls stood on the highest point of the Sugarloaf. 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 pair to climb down the face, a high-risk venture at the best of time.
Nature can be so unforgiving …
We could analyze and parse this for eternity but, bottom line, no one can say for certain what happened that fateful evening. Nobody saw the sisters fall and, far as we know, no one heard the screams.
That’s because there was just no one about. The area around the Sugarloaf wasn’t developed like it is today.
What it all boils down to is that key information is missing — and will always be missing — because there were no witnesses and 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 would never see her baby 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 old 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 their girls were … and not knowing was giving them fits.
They reached out to relatives and neighbours, but no one had seen them or heard from the girls. That was not 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 something had gone terribly wrong.
Around 10 o’clock, a group of men — armed with flashlights and high hopes — went looking for the girls. No luck.
Where the heck were they??
Dreading that proverbial knock on the door, more than one family member paced the floor that night. However, their prayers 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 where they picked up their 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, battered 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 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.’
There was no autopsy. “No need,” according to the coroner, a Doctor Martin, who quickly came to the conclusion the girls 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 cortege 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. Their pain was so deep.
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, who was also born in Campbellton, was single.
Incredibly, Lottie has three different birthdates. Her death certificate [see below] shows 1904. Her birth certificate indicates that she was born in 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 weren’t a big deal.
“I don’t remember having seen her before,” writes the man 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 those who’d followed the girls’ tracks to the edge of a 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. Bears had been in hibernation for a month when the girls fell to their deaths. 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’s very unlikely. 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 parents, Jane and Sydney, were forever in mourning. The same could be said for many in tight-knit Campbellton where everyone seemed to know each other.
One can only imagine the number of prayers that were 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 and where they died.
They’ll never be forgotten, that’s for sure. 300 years from now, people will still be talking about the Ramsay girls … more so than any Campbellton politician, soldier, doctor, sports hero, ship maker … you name it.
PAINTER ALEX JOHNSON
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 friends.
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.
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.
His sons provided the manpower. Alex also provided some form of closure — not only for himself but for everyone in Campbellton.
It was 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 lost their lives, and that he wanted to do something special so they would never be forgotten. The result was a one-of-a-kind memorial 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 memorials 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, who now resides in a senior’s home in Campbellton, liked climbing the Sugarloaf with friends when she was a kid. But her mother was worried she’d get hurt and so to discourage Irene from climbing the mountain, she showed Irene a scrapbook containing newspaper stories surrounding the deadly accident.
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 perished.Dorvil and Edmund had one child, Sterling [Edmund] Sydney. Edmund Junior never knew his mother because he was only half a year old when she made that fatal trip up the Sugarloaf.
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 a new 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] ended up with the 28th Armoured Regiment [tanks], based in British Columbia.
And like so many teens and young men, Junior never came home.Trooper McLean was killed on April 25, 1945 in Friesoythe, near Bremen in northwest Germany … just days before the Nazis surrendered.
Like his mother, Edmund Junior died young. He had 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 we find 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 living in a four-story apartment building on Pierce Street in downtown Montreal, in the shadows of Mount Royal.
Evelyn Gallant paced the floor in her unit, terribly worried about Sterling. She hadn’t heard from her fiancé in a while. His censured letters from Europe had stopped.
Was Sterling hurt and recovering in hospital? Perhaps he was on his way back to Canada and they’d be together again. Or …
To find out what was going on, she wrote to Army Headquarters in Ottawa. Click on her short letter [lower left] to see what she had to say.
The mailman soon arrived carrying an envelope from the military. Now Evelyn Gallant would know. She tore open the envelope and read the letter. Her 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 fell. 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, Blu-ray], 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 hard to imagine what life was like before we were around. 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 testy, 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 …
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 …”
At the time, thousands reflected on the two crosses Alex Johnson painted so many years ago now. It’s safe to say his artwork has now been seen by millions. Now that’s a tribute.