For nearly a century, two rock-painted crosses on the side of an extinct volcano in Campbellton, New Brunswick, 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 chose the most dangerous route down 1,000-foot high Sugarloaf Mountain — the North face. The young women paid the ultimate price, plunging to their deaths.
Dorvil [left] was 22; Lottie [right], a few years younger …
Your choice … silence or a gentle piano number by Michael Ortega [“Broken Hearts”] … available on iTunes.
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. They followed a trail that snakes up the eastern spine of the mountain, pretty much the same one tourists and hikers use today.
There had been some precipitation and rocks on the path were slick, making it easy to slip and fall.
Darkness was fast approaching when the girls stood on Sugarloaf’s highest point, a popular destination, even then. It was also a tad chilly — but the view … aaah! … postcard-beautiful! As always.
When the sun went down, out came the twinkling lights of Campbellton.
It’s quite likely that some three-masted sailing ships bobbed gently in the harbour that day. The big wooden ships, however, wouldn’t be in town for long; winter was just around the corner and the Mighty Restigouche would soon be frozen over and covered in snow.
We will never know what possessed the Ramsay sisters to make their way down the front of the mountain, a high-risk venture at the best of time. But at that hour?? Wow. Risky, for sure.
We could analyze this for eternity but bottom line, no one can say for certain what happened that fateful day. Many questions went unanswered at the time. A century later, there are still no answers …
Apparently no one saw the girls fall, mainly because it was dark, or about to be.
The girls’ screams must have been heard for miles, but no one heard them. That’s because the area around the Sugarloaf wasn’t developed like it is today … there was no groomed, well-used hiking trail circling the base of the mountain.
What it all boils down to is that key information is missing — and, unfortunately, will always be missing. Too much time has passed.
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 old steam locomotives.
The girls came from a large family. They had six siblings — two sisters and four brothers.
Understandably, a feeling of dread overcame 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. Not a good sign.
At this point, the emotional strain was unbearable. You can imagine. 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. It was unlike them to not let family know where they were.
Around 10 PM, a group of men — armed with flashlights and high hopes — went searching for the Ramsay sisters. No luck.
Where were they??
Dreading that proverbial knock on the door, family members nervously paced the floor. Turns out, their prayers — uttered non-stop — were for naught. The girls were already in Heaven.
No one got a good night’s sleep.
When the sun came up, a small search party set off to find the missing girls. Four men reached the top of the mountain where, in a thin layer of snow, they picked up the girls’ trail. It led towards the face. Oh oh.
Following a set of footprints, searchers gingerly made their way down the front of the mountain …
Dorvil and Lottie’s trail zigzagged here and there, as though they didn’t know where they were going. About halfway down the mountain, hearts sank when the trail ended at the edge of a very steep cliff. No one could survive a fall from there.
The men cautiously peered over the side and called out. No response. And so they called out again and 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, Dorvil was the first victim to be found; her remains were located among the rocks. A short distance away was Lottie’s body, 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 girls’ remains 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 sisters had died from severe 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: “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 Ramsay because the accident happened a century ago. But there’s another reason. Family members — especially the parents — 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 1904. But according to her birth certificate, she was born in 1906. Lottie’s tombstone [see photo above] lists 1905 as when 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 medical doctor who completed Lottie’s death certificate, “… I only [saw her] as a coroner.”
Under Contributory, Doctor 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 followed the girls’ tracks to the edge of a big cliff?
As part of an investigation, members of the search party were quite 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 in 1924.
Rumours of the girls being ‘chased by a bear’ … hmmm … perhaps not. When the girls perished, bears had hibernating for at least a month. 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 reported seeing bear tracks.
Something else to think about: going down a mountain can be more dangerous than going up a mountain, especially the Sugarloaf. Campbellton’s mountain has trees and bushes and, in spots, the descent seems no different than a rough hike in a forest. What’s deadly deceptive is that because tree branches and shrub hide your view, one moment you’re on solid ground, safe as can be, next moment you’re walking on thin air — and down you go.
Given the lateness of the day, perhaps this is what happened to the lead girl … and when the second one reached out to grab her, they both fell. Who knows.
Some have speculated the girls may have been alive for a while after they hit bottom. Given the severity of their head injuries, that likely 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 sudden deaths of their children hit them hard. The same could be said for many in the tightly-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 — not because of who they were but how they died.
The Ramsay girls will never be forgotten. 300 years from now, Campbelltonians will still be talking about them … more so than any local 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 the Sugarloaf. 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 Campbellton.
It was essentially a labour of love. Alex continued to paint the crosses on his own time — and without compensation. That’s how things got done back in the day.
Angie Johnson recalls her father talking about the ‘great sadness’ in town, and that he wanted to do something special so the girls would 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 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 15-months when Dorvil was killed.Dorvil and Edmund had one child, Sterling [Edmund] Sydney. Edmund Junior never really 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. After he completed basic training, Edmund was on a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean for more 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 had just turned 21.
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 an apartment building on Rue Pierce in downtown Montreal, in the shadows of beautiful Mount Royal.
Evelyn Gallant paced the floor, 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 wounded 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 …
Not long after, the mailman arrived with a letter from the Canadian 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 see it.
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 initially painted by World War I vet Alex Johnson.
Now, that’s a tribute.