For nearly a century, a pair of 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 evening in the fall of 1924, local sisters Dorvil [Ramsay] McLean and Lottie Ramsay plunged to their deaths on the north face of the 1,000-foot high 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 a hike up one of New Brunswick’s best-known mountains 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 massif — the same trail hikers use today.
It was getting dark when Dorvil and Lottie stood on the summit. It was also a tad chilly — but the view spectacular, as always. Spread out beneath them were the lights of Campbellton and area.
We’ll never know what possessed the girls to try to climb down the front of the Sugarloaf, a high-risk venture at the best of times.
We could analyze and parse this for eternity but, bottom line, no one really knows what happened that fateful day. Key information is missing — and will always be missing. Too much time has passed.
Dorvil, married just 14-months earlier, had a 7-month old boy at home. Little did the young mother know but she’d never see her baby again. If you believe in a Heaven and a life beyond, mother and son would reunite 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 back in the day. Sydney was a railway fireman who earned his pay cheque the hard way — by shoveling coal on the steam locomotives.
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. 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 return home, it was clear something had gone terribly wrong. Dreading that knock on the door, no one got a good night’s sleep …
When the sun came up, a small search party set off to find the missing sisters. Several men, following a set of footprints in the thin layer of snow, gingerly made their way down the face.
The girls’ trail zigzagged here and there, as though they had no clue as to where they were going. About halfway down the mountain, hearts sank when the trail ended at the edge of a steep cliff.
The searchers peered over the side and called out. No response. Damn. The eerie silence signaled they were no longer on a rescue mission.
Hundreds of feet below, more searchers — including a policeman — located the lifeless, battered bodies, wrapped them in blankets and carried them 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 remains were taken to Graham’s ‘undertaking rooms.’
There was no autopsy. “No need,” according to the coroner, a Doctor Martin. He came to the conclusion that both girls 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.
Little is known about Dorvil and Lottie, in part because the accident happened long ago — but also because family members didn’t want to talk about it. So deep was their pain. One can only imagine.
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, also born in Campbellton, was single.
Incredibly, Lottie has three different birthdates. Her death certificate [see below] shows her date of birth as 1904. However, her birth certificate indicates she was born in 1906. Lottie’s tombstone [see photo above] has the year she was born as 1905. Take your pick.
Back then, vital stats — including the correct spelling of names — weren’t so important.
Lottie, too, died from massive head injuries. “I don’t remember having seen her before,” writes Doctor Martin, who completed Lottie’s death certificate, “… I only [saw her] as a coroner.”
Under ‘Contributory,’ he noted: Feet slipped on ice on top of Sugarloaf Mountain causing fall down the mountain …
It’s interesting the coroner came to that conclusion. It could be that someone — perhaps he 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 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 back then.
Rumours of the girls being ‘chased by a bear’ … hmmm … don’t know about that. 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 scrounging for food and water, and there wasn’t a lot of that at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.
Keep this in mind as well. No one reported seeing bear tracks.
Some have speculated the girls may have been alive for a while after they hit bottom. Given the severe head injuries, that’s 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.
Jane and Sydney Ramsay were forever in mourning. The same could be said for many in the small, 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.
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 friends.
With the help of his older brother Seely, the 26-year-old climbed the face of the Sugarloaf, carrying gallons of white 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.
Alex’s father, an immigrant from Norway who ran a painting business in town, supplied the paint … but his youngest son provided the manpower.
Alex also provided some form of closure — not only for himself but for everyone in town.
He often painted the crosses on his own time, without compensation. 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 girls died and that he wanted to do something special so people would never forget them. The result was a unique monument that would be seen for miles.
In an ironic twist, the photo of the sisters shows both wearing tiny crosses.
Thanks to a sturdy leather harness, Alex Johnson was able to safely 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 would think twice about scaling the north face. Nobody wants to be that third cross.
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 memorial 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, 1924. They hadn’t been married 18-months when Dorvil lost her life on the mountain.Dorvil and Edmund had one child, Sterling [Edmund] Sydney. Edmund Junior never really knew his mother because he was only half a year old when she died.
Before Edmund could finish high school — like so many teens in the day — he signed up at a military recruiting office where he was given a uniform. He was soon shipped overseas for training 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, he never came home.Trooper McLean was killed on April 25, 1945, in Friesoythe, near Bremen in northwest Germany — only days before the Nazis surrendered.
Edmund Junior had just turned 21. Like his mother, he too died young.
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 [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.
ON THE HOMEFRONT …
Turns out, Sterling Edmund McLean had been engaged to an Evelyn Gallant of Montreal. The young woman paced the floor in her downtown apartment, worried about her fiancé.
To get answers, Evelyn fired off a letter to army headquarters …
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 write 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 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 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 …
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 Angie relaxes on her south-facing balcony, overlooking the mighty Sugarloaf, she reflects on the fate of 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 …”