Snowbound (Part I of II)

Kathleen
Kathleen Tucker
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Millie is worried

It happened 48 years ago and memories have faded over time, but nobody has forgotten the deep sympathy they felt for the little boy who was lying unconscious at his mother’s feet.

In the mid-1960s, Route 430 had just opened up a whole new world of travel on the Northern Peninsula. Instead of having to go by boat to visit friends and relatives, communities were now connected by a highway.

Roland Dredge of Black Duck Cove—a village located just south of the St. Barbe ferry—owned a brand new 1967 Mercury Meteor, a blue 4-door sedan with attractive chrome accents and plenty of interior space. On that fateful March morning, six people set out for St. Anthony in the new car: 20 year-old Jim Dredge, his mother Amelia (Millie), his 15 year-old sister Caroline, his five year-old brother Barry, and two friends of the family, Rowena Dredge and Marion Dredge. Caroline had a job interview at the old hospital and Millie was taking young Barry to see a doctor about getting his tonsils out. Rowena and Marion would spend the day shopping. 

As she got into the car, Millie cast an anxious look at the sky and remarked, “It’s going to be a bad day.” Young Jim, eager to drive his father’s new car, scoffed and replied, “Nah! It’s not so bad!”

Caroline looked up and saw only blue sky. It was flakey…snowing a bit, and there was some low drift, but nothing she could see to be worried about. 

All the same, Millie was troubled, and the words she had spoken as she stepped into the car would be a prediction of the worst kind.

 

The old highway

 

A current Newfoundland map indicates that Route 430 follows the coast on its western edge as far as Eddie’s Cove East, then cuts directly east, overland, before swinging south towards St. Anthony. In 1967 the old highway ran ‘straight up the beach’ towards Boat Harbour, then east to Route 435. It was this road that the Dredges traveled along. As they drove further north, fingers of snow, driven by a freshening southeast wind, began to creep across the highway. At Eddie’s Cove East that the weather became menacing and just before Big Brook snow squalls blew in, fast and furious. The windshield wipers were no match for the pelting snow. 

At a place called Watson’s Water they met snow-plow operator Ray Diamond. Ray had come from Burnt Head camp and was on his way to Big Brook in the plow. He advised Jim to turn around and follow him to Big Brook, saying they would not be able to make it to the camp, but the Dredges decided to press on in spite of his warnings. Later, Diamond would leave Big Brook to search for the party of six, but he would be forced back by the storm. 

Farther up the road the Meteor hit a drift and slammed to a halt just inside a rock cut. After a few minutes spinning his tires, Jim and the others clambered out of the car and pushed the car on either side, while a plume of black exhaust belched from the tailpipe. The car’s snow-grip tires were no match for the drift and the Meteor embedded itself more deeply in the snow. 

Eventually, wet and tired, they clambered back into the car and turned on the heater to warm up. Jim, in the front seat with his mother and five year-old brother Barry between them, wasn’t sure what to do. Caroline, in the back seat with Rowena and Marion, climbed up front to sit beside her mother and offered what comfort she could. The little boy, unable to understand their predicament, complained that he was hungry and thirsty, but the only thing Caroline had to give him was a stick of gum.

Suddenly, hope loomed up from behind in the shape of an oil delivery truck. The driver stopped and asked what he could do to help. Company policy prohibited him from taking passengers, said the driver, but he promised that he would stop at the Highways Camp at Burnt Head and send help. Seconds later the oil truck vanished into the drift.

A short time later, the storm unleashed its full fury, winds howling and snow falling heavy and wet. Jim routinely got out and kicked the snow away from the exhaust pipe. Inside the idling car the six of them huddled together with the heater running, listening to the radio and hoping they would soon be rescued.

 

The Highways Camp

The Department of Highways Camp at Burnt Head—then located at the intersection of old Route 430 and Route 435—was equipped so that operators could stay all night during inclement weather. There was a cookhouse and a bunkhouse with beds and cots.

During that March blizzard there were two shifts of men at the camp waiting for the blizzard to blow over so they could get out on the roads: the foreman, a couple of mechanics, a truck driver, two tractor operators, two snow-blower operators, two grader operators, and others. 

For the men who worked at the Camp, it was generally known that from Eddie’s Cove East to Burnt Head, they could always expect heavy drifting, especially on the section of road from Lower Cove to Burnt Head, and there was always heavy drifting further north around Pistolet Bay. Operators were aware that anytime there was a blizzard, it wasn’t unusual to find someone stuck in a snow bank somewhere along this route.

 

Lights in the distance

The stranded car, located in a rock-cut between Watson’s Water and the Highways Camp, idled occasionally beneath its blanket of snow. Morning had turned to afternoon and afternoon into evening. Outside, the wind howled, and snow, drifting over the lip of the rock-cut above, deepened around the stranded Meteor. Barry whimpered with hunger and thirst; then he complained that he was too hot, and then he complained he was too cold. When he fell into a fitful sleep under the dashboard at his mother’s feet, Rowena looked with pity on the little boy, murmuring, “Poor little doll. You must be cold.” She shrugged off her long red coat and covered him.

It was into the long hours of the night when Caroline spotted blue flashing lights in the distance, and pointed them out to the others. They were overjoyed. At last the grader was coming to get them! They watched for a long time but the lights never came any closer and no rescuers arrived to dig them out.

 

Only one phone in Black Duck Cove

At home, Roland Dredge was a worried man. The flakey snow that had been gently drifting across the landscape when he said goodbye to his family had begun to drift in earnest. A southeast wind sprang up and clouds moved in, and heavy, wet flakes were soon driven almost horizontal by the wind’s velocity. He was sure his family was in trouble; he had a ‘knowing’ deep down inside that they were in peril. Elizabeth tried to calm her father but he would not be comforted. He had no car, and he knew snowmobiles were a poor bet in such weather.

Not knowing where to turn, he strode down to the only shop in Black Duck Cove and asked to use the only telephone in the community, but after numerous tries he was unable to get through to the Highways Camp to let them know his family was stranded on the road. Wilfred Dredge, Elizabeth’s husband, heard him repeat, “I have to get through to Highways somehow.” He was back and forth to the telephone all night, but was unable to make a connection.

Turning to Elizabeth, his face tortured with grief, he cried, “They’re all gone!”        

 

Johnny Coates

 

 Johnny Coates had grown up in Cook’s Harbour; the son of George and Catherine Coates. He worked for the Department of Transportation at Burnt Head as a snow-plow operator. He was short and stocky; a bluff, friendly man who always had a joke to tell. It’s been said that he was so tough you couldn’t kill him with a maul. Johnny didn’t mind being out in ‘dirty weather’, either, often donning a pair of snowshoes to walk a distance of three to five kilometers from Burnt Head to the highway to scout out where the roads were drifted in before taking the plow out to clear his route.

Morning had broken and the storm hadn’t yet blown itself out, but sometime around noon Johnny set out on snowshoes to find out if snow-plow operator Ray Diamond was snowbound, because he hadn’t returned to the Camp. At the same time, he would check the condition of his route for heavy drifts.

He didn’t find Ray Diamond, who had holed up for the night in Big Brook, but he found something else. In the mounds of drift, something slender, shiny and silver poked up out of the snow and glittered in the light of a pale sun. Johnny stepped closer and bent down to take a look, and what he saw startled him.

It appeared to be the antenna of a car.

 

Editor’s note:

Be sure to pick up next week’s paper for the exciting conclusion to “Snowbound”.

Organizations: Department of Highways Camp, Department of Transportation

Geographic location: Big Brook, Cove East, Newfoundland St. Anthony Boat Harbour Lower Cove Pistolet Bay

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Recent comments

  • BenP
    March 25, 2014 - 14:48

    The people of this area have not learned a thing from years ago. They continue to travel in this area when it is not fit for any man, woman or child to be outside! While this happened almost 50 years ago you still have people who do not listen to the highway workers when they say 'its not fit to be on the highway'. And anyone reading this would have to experience travelling this section of highway when there is stormy conditions, there is nowhere else in the province like it! Just last week a buddy of mine who works for Trans & Works said they spent 2 days pushing people out of white out areas, putting themselves and the stranded people in danger of being run into. Its easy enough to travel this area in the summer with your sneakers on but stay home if its not fit to be out. Getting stuck in this weather is one thing but leaving in it or knowing its coming is even worse . Hopefully this story will warn people of putting themselves and others in situations where a tradegy could happen.

  • BenP
    March 25, 2014 - 14:47

    The people of this area have not learned a thing from years ago. They continue to travel in this area when it is not fit for any man, woman or child to be outside! While this happened almost 50 years ago you still have people who do not listen to the highway workers when they say 'its not fit to be on the highway'. And anyone reading this would have to experience travelling this section of highway when there is stormy conditions, there is nowhere else in the province like it! Just last week a buddy of mine who works for Trans & Works said they spent 2 days pushing people out of white out areas, putting themselves and the stranded people in danger of being run into. Its easy enough to travel this area in the summer with your sneakers on but stay home if its not fit to be out. Getting stuck in this weather is one thing but leaving in it or knowing its coming is even worse . Hopefully this story will warn people of putting themselves and others in situations where a tradegy could happen.

  • Daisy Drudge Oliver
    March 25, 2014 - 14:35

    My father is from Old Fort Bay in Quebec and his last name is Drudge. Does anyone know if that is the same family?

    • Natasha Martin
      March 25, 2014 - 16:36

      Hi Daisy, no this is not the same family.

  • Daisy Drudge Oliver
    March 25, 2014 - 14:33

    My father is from Old Fort Bay in Quebec and his last name is Drudge. Does anyone know if that is the same family?