Another rolling night takes us to a place just off Cape St Charles. After two days of visiting isolated 21st century communities, we are now back to what was left behind. Only ghosts live in Cape St Charles most of the year. In the summer some past residents return to the remnants of a life they knew or a childhood lost.
Through my porthole I can see that the fog is thick. I mentally remove a walk to the point from my agenda for my time on shore. Cape St Charles‘ headland is at 55o 37’ 15”W. It is the most easterly point on the North American continent but truly I have to take the fact that it is out there on trust!
Ashore, I grab my tripod and wander my way past curtained windows and latched doors. Paint is peeling and weathered wood merges with the fog. The horseshoe on one door clearly says the luck ran out for this fishing community. There was a time, when the inland fisheries were at their peak, that this isolated community was full of life and defined by hard work on an unforgiving sea.
The history of Newfoundland’s cod fishery dates back to the 15th century. Early on, ships from Spain, Portugal and France fished right on the Grand Banks, salted their catch and went home. Because less salt was available to them, both the English and the Newfoundlanders took to drying their fish on land on flakes and salting them more lightly than the Europeans. Inshore fishermen had to know their fishing grounds. Certain harbours and inlets held more fish. Men went out in small boats from a string of tiny settlements that dotted the coastline. They jigged for then plentiful northern cod.
Through centuries and wars, the areas designated for international fishing changed. Fishing vessels were replaced by trading ships that came to exchange their goods for fish. The development of a mercantile system soon resulted in the development of the protected capital of St John’s.
From what I can see here in Cape St Charles, life looked to be simple and hard. The small church had well worn pews. Most houses hugged the harbour while a few ambitious and independent souls took to the hills. There is no evidence of a road. Only a footpath, partly overgrown but still noticeable, leads me past berry patches towards the outhouse! A visit must have been an adventure on a rough day!
Back on board, I hunker down for a warming lunch and a short voyage along a fog shrouded coast. Eventually I’m told we are at anchor off Battle Island. Could fool me, it’s still grey everywhere. Not easily deterred, I make my way to my cabin to gear up for a landing at Battle Harbour.
As I walk the dock at the landing, I try to picture this fairly deserted village as a bustling economic and social center. Its houses, stores, and fishery buildings have been restored. Just the people are missing.
Back in the early 1770’s, John Slade and Company from Poole, England used the island. By the mid 1800’s there was a population of 350. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, who provided medical care along the Labrador coast, established the first hospital outside of St John’s here. Opened in 1893, the facility was destroyed by fire in 1930.
The Canadian Marconi Company built two wireless towers at Battle Harbour. In 1909, Robert Peary, used this facility to wire his controversial claim of reaching the North Pole to the New York Times.
Twice, the island was to change hands, first to Baine Johnston and Co. in 1871 and then to Earle Freighting Services of Carbonear in 1955. By the 1960’s families began to leave Battle Harbour. In the 1970’s others were relocated by the Government as the fishery began to fail even more. The Earle’s continued to operate here until the cod moratorium in 1992.
The moratorium brought to an end a tradition that had shaped the history of eastern Canada for nearly 500 years. The introduction of high–tech trawlers that were capable of fishing larger areas at greater depths reduced stock to the point that it could not replenish itself. The cod stock had fallen to 1% of its former level. The eco–system was disrupted further as non-economic species were caught in the nets. Capelin were caught too and this reduced the cod stocks’ ability to rebuild itself. The most acute impact of the moratorium was felt in Newfoundland. 35,000 fishermen in 400 coastal communities became unemployed.
Displaced fishermen received economic assistance from the Federal government. Retraining was provided. Some men left for the Alberta oil fields in order to support their families.
Walking the paths through the village of Battle Harbour, past the hotel and oldest Anglican Church in Newfoundland, (Built 1857) it’s not hard to fill in the blanks and see children laughing and skipping along the waters edge. It’s not hard to imagine the fishermen bringing in the catch or the salt cod being spread on the flakes to dry.
I leave the museum buildings to last. The displays help to consolidate my growing understanding of the fishing industry. When the Earle Freighting Service gave the site to the Battle Harbour Historic Trust, artifacts pertaining to the industry were gathered for its collection. Block and tackle that hang in a loft, speak to the hard work involved in this type of fishery. From the salt storage area in one of the buildings on the wharf, I can see down the narrow and nearly empty harbour. I try to imagine it with ninety-two fishing vessels huddled to shelter from the sea. That’s how Bishop Field reportedly saw it in 1851.
By 2006, the cod stocks were beginning to show improvement. By 2010, a 69% recovery since 2007 was reported for Newfoundland waters. As late as 2013 landings of cod are still reported as poor but the fishery has reopened on a limited basis.
Battle Harbour is a living museum–one that should find itself on Canadian Bucket lists. Today, one can book a holiday and stay at the hotel, learn to bake buns in a traditional manner or wander the hills. One can even book the church for a wedding.
When we headed for shore from the ship the town was shrouded in fog and some stayed over the land all afternoon. Now as we leave, the location of the ship is the mystery until out of the fog looms our “ghostly galleon”.
After supper, as my roommate packs, again, in the hope of a morning departure, I download my images and stare in disbelief when they appear to have gone to cyber space instead of to a file with the title “Battle Harbour” . Oh well, I’ll think of it tomorrow at Tara! …….Oh!, make that L’Anse aux Meadows. Labrador will be behind me and I will be in Newfoundland.
References:www.newfoundland.com,www.battlehoarbour.com,www.wikipedia.org,www.cdii/cod/history5/htm,The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes