For nearly a century, a pair of rock-painted crosses on the side of an extinct volcano in Campbellton, New Brunswick have been a grim 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 casually hiked up 1,000-foot Sugarloaf Mountain. To descend, however, they chose the most dangerous route — the North face. Huge mistake! 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 [“Broken Hearts”] by Michael Ortega. The piece runs for five and a half minutes. You can find it on iTunes.
Sunday, November 9, 1924
It was around four in the afternoon when Dorvil and Lottie set off to climb one of the Maritime’s best-known clumps of rock, Sugarloaf Mountain in Northern New Brunswick. They followed a trail that snakes up the eastern spine of the mountain, the same route tourists and hikers use today.
There’d been a light rain and rocks on the path were slippery, making it easy for someone to lose their footing. One cautious step at a time, the girls slowly made their way up the mountain …
Darkness was fast approaching when Dorvil and Lottie 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.
A three-masted sailing ship likely bobbed gently in the harbour that fall day. The big wooden ships wouldn’t be in town long; the bite of winter was already in the air. The Mighty Restigouche would soon be a blanket of snow and ice — ice so thick that horse-pulled wagons could safely make their way across to the Quebec side.
When the sun dipped beneath the horizon in the Matapedia Valley, out came the twinkling lights of the Town of Campbellton and surrounding villages.
We’ll never know what possessed the Ramsay sisters to make their way down the face of the mountain, a high-risk venture at the best of time. But at that hour?? Risky, for sure.
We could analyze this for eternity but, bottom line, no one can say with certainty what happened that fateful day. At the time, many questions went unanswered. A century later, there are still no answers — only theories, and everyone in town seems to have one.
What it all boils down to is that key information is missing and, unfortunately, will always be missing. Too much time has passed.
No one saw the girls fall. Their piercing screams must have been heard for miles, but no one heard them, and that’s because the area wasn’t developed like it is today. In the 1920s, there was no groomed hiking trail at the base of the mountain, just wilderness.
FAMILIES & THE SEARCH
Dorvil [Ramsay] McLean, married for just over a year, 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, 1945 would see a mother and child reunion. More on that coming up.
When Dorvil and Lottie failed to show for supper, their parents, Jane and Sydney, knew 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. There was a loving mom and dad and six siblings — two sisters and four brothers.
It didn’t take long for apprehension, then panic, to set in 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. Not a good sign.
At this point, the emotional strain was unbearable. We can only 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 so unlike the girls not to let family know where they were.
Around 10 PM, a group of men armed with flashlights and high hopes went searching for them. No luck. Where could Dorvil and Lottie be??
Dreading that proverbial knock on the door, Mom and Dad nervously paced the floor. Turns out, their prayers — uttered non-stop — were for naught. The girls were already in Heaven.
No one slept well that night. There was absolutely no sign of Dorvil and Lottie. When the sun came up, a small search party set off to find them. 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 worst possible place: the face! Oh oh …
Following a set of footprints, searchers gingerly made their way down the front of the Sugarloaf …
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 cliff with a drop of more than one hundred feet. No one could survive a fall from that height.
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.
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 local newspaper, The Graphic, Dorvil was the first victim found; her remains were located among the rocks. A short distance away was her sister’s body, 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 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 died from severe head injuries.
The funeral, held mid-afternoon, was one of the largest Campbellton had seen. Here’s a portion of a write-up 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 long ago. But there’s another reason. Family members — especially the parents — simply didn’t want to talk about it. So deep was their pain.
Official 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 began her first trip around the sun 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 physician 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: descending a mountain can be more dangerous than ascending, especially the Sugarloaf. The 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 one’s view, one moment you’re on solid ground, safe as can be, next moment you’re walking on thin air.
Given the lateness of the day, perhaps this is what happened to the lead girl … and when her sister reached out to grab her, they both tumbled over the edge. 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.
When Irene Doiron was a kid, she enjoyed climbing the Sugarloaf with friends. Irene’s mother worried she’d get hurt and so to discourage her from climbing the mountain, she showed her 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, Stirling, 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. He never really knew his mother because he was only six months old when she made that fatal trip up the mountain.
Before Stirling could finish high school [like so many teens in the day] he eagerly signed up at a military recruiting office in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he was given an army uniform. After Stirling completed basic training, he 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, Stirling 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, Stirling 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 he died.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 in Holten 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, 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 read 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.