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Fundraiser launched to buy headstone for reverend who participated in a daring rescue nearly 150 years ago

The SS Atlantic sank on April 1, 1873 near Terence Bay
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SS Atlantic Heritage Interpretation Park (Meghan Groff/HalifaxToday.ca)

A Wisconsin man has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to buy a headstone for a reverend who participated in a daring rescue nearly 150 years ago, when the SS Atlantic sank on April 1, 1873 near Terence Bay.

The steamship had been carrying around 1,000 people from Liverpool, England to New York, when Captain James Williams feared they were running out of coal and decided to head for Halifax. 

However in the early morning hours of that fateful day, due to a navigational error, the ship ran into the rocky shoreline off Lower Prospect.

There were 420 survivors of the wreck, but around 550 people died, making it the biggest shipwreck in Nova Scotia history.

Frank Jastrzembski visited Halifax a few years ago and heard about the heroic rescue by a crew organized by Reverend William Ancient, an Anglican priest and a retired sailor of the Royal Navy.

Following the crash, a rescue operation was quickly launched by local fishermen, who braved larges waves and frigid waters to save as many lives as they could. 

By early afternoon, all but a man and older teenager had either been brought to shore or swept away.

Rescue boats tried to reach the pair but weren't able to get close enough for fear of wrecking themselves in the attempt. 

"Ancient went out twice with a crew of four men," Jastrzembski explained. "When he reached the ship, an 18-year-old or 19-year-old boy actually fell off the ship into the water and climbed aboard the boat, so they took him back to the shore."

That left just John W. Firth, who had been clinging to the ship's rigging for over 10 hours. The first officer of the Atlantic wasn't able to swim.

"So Ancient pulls up next to the ship, climbs on the ship, fashions a rope and is able to throw it to Firth," Jastrzembski told NEWS 95.7's The Rick Howe Show. "During the process, Ancient is able to pull him out and take him back onto the boat."

Ancient died several years later on July, 20 1908 in Halifax. He's buried in the St. John's Cemetery near the Windsor Street Exchange.

Jastrzembski learned about Ancient and the sinking of the SS Atlantic when he visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

"I was hooked after reading his story," he told NEWS 95.7's The Rick Howe Show. "I was doing some research and I found out where he was buried, and I found out he was buried in an unmarked grave."

"I got in touch with the  SS Atlantic Heritage Interpretation Park and right now we're working toward getting a stone up on his grave."

With the engraving, tax, delivery and installation, it's expected to cost $3,115.

"It's not a cheap process, but I think it's well worth it," Jastrzembski said.




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Meghan Groff

About the Author: Meghan Groff

Born in Michigan, raised in Ontario, schooled in Indiana and lives in Nova Scotia; Meghan is the community editor for HalifaxToday.ca.
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