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Famed N.L. ship’s propellers should be displayed: retired captain

Says he was told years ago that a proper display for MV William Carson’s props would be made

There are two huge, heavy, metal propellers sitting on the grass behind the Marine Institute in St. John’s that once pushed the province’s first ice-breaking ferry through the testy waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along often ice-packed Labrador coast.

The propellers were the original set on the MV William Carson, a large passenger-vehicle ferry commissioned in 1955 for the gulf ferry run between Port Aux Basques and North Sydney. The Carson plied the waters of the gulf for many years before being reassigned to the Goose Bay to Lewisporte seasonal coastal service in 1976 after more fuel-efficient vessels were introduced into the gulf service.

The Carson sank off Labrador in June 1977 after hitting a small iceberg, reportedly a growler. All 129 passengers and crew on board at the time were able to get into the lifeboats and watch helplessly as the proud vessel sank.

Marine Institute students these days may sometimes sit or stand on the blades on a sunny day during a break in class but, unless told, the only way to know the propellers are from the famed ferry is by the name of the ship written on one blade of each propeller in now faded paint.

That’s not the way it was supposed to be, says retired Capt. Joe Primm.

Primm had captained the Carson — in fact he had brought the ship into St. John’s harbour before being relieved by the next crew who would take the ship to the Labrador coast on its final voyage.

Capt. Joe Primm has fond memories of being master of the Carson saying it was the first modern ice-breaking ferry to come to the province and was probably the first vessel in the world to carry containers.

Primm says the propellers behind the Marine Institute are the original ones, but they had to be replaced on the ship due to a vibration they caused. After they were removed, they sat in the dockyard in St. John’s harbour for about 20 years, then were donated to a group trying to develop a marine archive at Pippy Park, which failed. They were then given to what was then the Fisheries College. They were supposed to eventually be put in a proper display in front of the building to mark that era in Newfoundland and Labrador shipping and passenger service. That was about 30 years ago.

“Those blades should be displayed in a place of prominence such as the Marine Institute or the Harbour Park,” Primm says. “I was promised over 20 years ago that they would be placed in front of the Marine Institute.

“The spare anchor from the Carson is on display in North Sydney.”

The Marine Institute, in a statement, said it wanted to thank Capt. Primm for bringing the issue back to the forefront.

“While we are not aware of the complete history of the donation of the propellers or what has happened in the intervening years,” the statement reads, “Glenn Blackwood (vice-president of Memorial University for the Fisheries and Marine Institute) is recommitting the Marine Institute to look at what we can do to recognize this contribution.

“We are going to consider how we can go forward with the development of a permanent display, possibly with the assistant of a donor, to properly showcase the propellers, the donation and the history of the Carson. Capt. Prim and his colleagues have been good friends to the institute over the years and we want to be able to do our best for them on this matter.”

Primm has fond memories of being master of the Carson saying it was the first modern ice-breaking ferry to come to the province and was probably the first vessel in the world to carry containers.

He also noted the vessel operated out of the province with an all-Newfoundland and Labrador crew.

“The Carson was a good boat, quite manoeuverable,” Primm said. “She cut out many vessels from the ice in the gulf.”

The propellers weigh between 10 and 12 tonnes, Primm figures, and are about 12-feet across. He said they were built from a special alloy for year-round operation and certified for ice.

They are among the few artifacts left from that era of shipping, other than the grounded SS Kyle in Harbour Grace, he said.

The Carson was a CN Marine vessel named in honour of Scottish-born Dr. William Carson (1770-1843), best known as a political reformer in Newfoundland and Labrador. He carried out a public fight against injustice which helped secure representative government for Newfoundland in 1832.

He arrived in St. John’s in 1808 and for a quarter of a century battled British governors and the ruling elite with his pen and tongue. In 1812, he wrote a formal address to British MPs entitled “The Reason for Colonizing the Island of Newfoundland” in which he attacked settlement laws and the dictatorial naval governors.

Primm said the MV William Carson was a huge ferry for its time. For the first two or three years, he noted, the vessel could not dock at Port aux Basques and had to use Argentia as a port until facilities were upgraded at Port aux Basques.

The Carson was more than 350 feet long and could carry more than 100 vehicles and up to 500 passengers.

When the Carson sank she reportedly had been carrying 128 passengers and crew (all of whom survived), about 1,100 tonnes of general cargo, about 50 vehicles, and more than 4,000 cases of beer for the Canadian and American bases in Goose Bay.

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