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Miscellaneous Articles of Historical Significance
On the West Coast of Newfoundland
History of the Bay of Islands



Western Star, Tuesday April 4, 2000 100th Anniversary, Special Edition

Reprint of article from Tuesday April 4, 1950 by Elizabeth Smith


Great Fire of 1899 Recalled-Summerside Once Chief Settlement

While the Avalon Peninsula and the east and north-east coasts of NF had long since been established, the inhabitants of the western section of the island a hundred or so years ago consisted of a struggling, persecuted, but persistent group of French, Acadian and English speaking peoples scattered along the shoreline and in the many beautiful bays from Cape Ray to Cape Bauld. These people had but one determined goal-to make life worthwhile in their adopted land, and today, just a century later, it is certainly safe to say that goal has been reached beyond even their fondest hopes and prayers.
Bay of Islands, like all her neighbours, was among those places where the French and English fought their battles - sometimes battles of words, of treaties and other regulations, but nevertheless battles which left their mark on the hundreds of settlements along what is known as the Treaty Shore. Those who suffered most through these battles were the pioneers who sought above all else to make homes for themselves and their families and to whom treaties and such like were more of a milestone about their necks rather than a help in their hours of need.


The story of the French Treaty Shore is intermingled with courage of those English-speaking and native French people who had carved out their homesteads along the coast, and who, despite the omnipresence of both French and British warships, neither of which seemed to be their friends, kept on at their daily toil to build homes out of the chaos, created mostly by the continual wars between those two great nations at the time.
Despite handicaps, the two main fishing industries-herring and lobster- bagan to fluorish and developed into two of the most promising and lucrative trades of the day of the whole North American continent. Agriculture took its proper place in the fertile lands near the Humber River and in the Codroy Valley. Even the tourist industry was a flourishing one and hundreds of American tourists spent their annual vacations along the Bankss of the streams of Newfoundland's west coast or hunting the caribou in the autumn and winter.


As far as is known, no precise history of the early days on this coast has ever been written. There have been many, however, who have thought it worth mentioning that living was most active in these parts, and it is from the pens of some of those people that we have been able to piece together this story, which, it is hoped, will give the reader an insight into the colourful and intriguing adventure which built our western section of the island into the beehives of activity witnessed today.
We are grateful to the late Rev. Father Bronson of Petries whose "Pioneer History of St. George's Diocese" has been the source of many highlights of this compilation of west coast facts.
Thankful too, are we for the "Reminiscences of My Life" by Rev.U.Z.Rule, who was the Anglican minister in the Bay of Islands mission at the turn of the present century; to John A. Barrett, who came to Birchy Cove (Curling) at an early age and who has given much to enlighten the reader in his "Reminisceces of Bygone Days" which have been appearing in The Western Star for several years past. Added to these are the many "Letters to the Editor" written to the St. John's newpapers in the early days by residents of the Bay of Islands, as well as the news items, editorials and letters appearing in our Western Star since it was first published just fifty years ago. Many stories were also written by visitors to our shore for American, Canadian and English publications, and these give vivid discriptions of life here many years ago.

Some years ago, Thomas W. LeBlanc (White) of St.George's compiled a series of articles on the Acadians-French speaking people of Nova Scotia-and their influence on the development of Western Newfoundland. From his writings we have taken the following: Mr. White, who still lives at St.George's, is a descendant of these early Acadian-Newfoudnlanders, his French name being LeBlanc. With the LeBlancs came the Benoits, Gaudets, Blanchards, Doucettes, Cormiers, Tesseaus, Delaneys, Alexanders, Youngs - the later two names having been changed from Pierrot and Lejeune.
Of his own family name, Mr. White states that Etienne and Celectine LeBlanc came from Margaree, Cape Breton, to Indian Creek -the name originally given to Stephenville- around the year 1840. Like other families, the LeBlancs brought their animals, their seed grains, their farming instruments, their looms for weaving and other articles with them. They cleared farms, built houses and barns, and later, with the coming of ministers and priests to their settlements, they built churches, schools, convents and parish halls, and so forth. Their descendants, along with the grandchildren of the Aucoins, Deveaus, Luedees, Muises and the Madores, still live in the Bay St. George, Humber River and adjacent areas, many of them still speaking French most fluently.

Father Brosnan, in his book on the life of Monsignor Andrew Sears, gives us a more romantic history of the origin of the Benoits in these parts. According to his story, a Henri L'Official came to Quebec during the early part of the 18th century from his native France. There he met and subsequently married a French-Canadian lass whose name was Nanette. Shortly after their marriage the two sailed down the Gulf of St. Lawrence in a small craft made by Henri himself and headed for the Straits of Belle Isle. They met with adverse weather, however, and the frail boat was driven ashore some miles north of Bay St.George. After spending a cold and hungry winter there, the young couple made their way to Sandy Point the following summer and made their home with the residents of what was at that time the chief place in the Bay. Two daughters and one son came to the L'Officials. There is no trace of the son, but it is known that one of the daughters married in Cape Breton while the other formed an alliance with a Frenchman born on the passage from France. This man's name was Benoit.
From this union sprang a long lineage. The name Benoit is common in all parts of the St. George's Bay and Bay of Islands, either in its French or in its English translation- Bennett.

It is believed that many of these Acadians who settled on Newfoundland's west coast were the direct descendants of those immortalized in Henry Wadsworths Longfellow's "Evangeline". After their expulsion from Nova Scotia by the English over 200 years ago, these French-speaking people wandered for many years to widespread parts of the North American continent, some going as far as Louisiana and to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. In later years, it is believed several families who had returned to Nova Scotia, migrated to the west coast of Newfoundland, especially to the St.George's - Port-au-Port - Bay of Islands areas, and it is from these that we have such family names in our midst today.

Although the popular belief today is that Curling was-before the advent of the huge newsprint mills at Corner Brook in 1925-the chief settlement in the Bay of Islands, this is definitely not according to the official records. Before the coming of the cross-country railroad in 1898 the most important place in the whole bay was Summerside, and here most of the business and industry of the bay was carried on. Even branches of mainland business had been established at the thriving town of Summerside, which, by the way, was believed to have been called Sunnyside or Pleasant Cove many years ago.
A Lieutenant Brown, chief naval officer in these waters in 1871, wrote many interesting articles on his visits while stationed here. Of the Bay of Islands he had this to say in an article written for the Journal of the Legislative Council of the Newfoundland Government for the year 1872:
"There are numerous small settlements on the Bankss of the Humber River, the principal being Pleasant Cove or Petipas Cove on the left side going up, Birchy Cove nearly opposite it. We found good anchorage ground off Birchy Cove, nearly abreast of the Anglican Church. The settlers in the Humber River number about 200 families and are about equally divided between the Protestant and Roman Catholic religions, with a minister or priest of each denomination residing amongst them.
The people seem to be healthy, orderly and industrious, being moderately well-to-do. No cases of severe sickness came under our notice although we had numbers of applications for medical assistance. Doctors Gabriel and Trousdell (aboard the warship) vaccinated about 50 children and adults."

Names mentioned in Lieutenant Brown's report included those of Ryan, Shaw, Silver, McLeod and Brake, while the following names of places are also spoken of: Spurn Point, Kiver's Point, The Farm, Mader's Point, Carrick Head, The Beech, Benois Cove, Cook's Brook and Murphy's Cove.
"A number of settlers on the Humber River," continued Lieutenant Brown, "are turning their attention to farming. The soil is very good but the Bankss of the river are in most places too steep to render it easy to clear or cultivate them. However, when the ground is cleared, crops flourish. Hay is abundant and of good quality, and all sorts of vegetables grow freely.
The principal support of the people is the herring fishery, which commences in October and ends in May, broken only when the ice is forming and breaking up. It is reported that last year (1870) 60,000 barrels of herring, valued at nearly $150,000 were taken. At the head of the river are two families of the name of Brake who live entirely by the proceeds of the salmon fishery. The people also go out to the headlands to prosecute the codfishery and have taken this year (1871) sixty quintals per man.
Up the main river, towards Deer Lake, the timber is very fine. Spars 60 feet long and 30 inches in diameter, without a knot, have been cut there. A Mr. Silver has built a mill at Mill Brook(Corner Brook) and is cutting lumber there."
Continuing our quotations from the young naval officer's report to the Newfoundland Government in 1871-which is probably one of the most enlighening of all historical data on the Bay of Islands - we see him observing the "marble quarries" up the Humber River containing "white, black and variegated marbles, but which are not worked at this time."
While at Lark Harbour, the naval offiver and some of his men made their way by land to Little Harbour, about one and a half miles away, where they found one English family by the name of Parke.
Wrote the Lieutenant: "Mr Parke has been at Little Harbour for forty years and occupies himself in the summer with fishing, taking about 100 quintals of cod each year. The remainder of the year he devotes to his farm which he cultivates with such success as to be able to supply the French, who, in May and June frequent this port to fish and cure their catch. Mr. Parke also takes care of the Frenchmen's boats and whatever else they leave during the winter.
Mr. Parke speaks very highly of the good conduct and kindness of the French, and at the time of our visit there are 20 small boats on the beach, also a wooden building with 32 bunks in it, and two small sheds for storing fish-all of which were roofless."

The most comprehensive history of the town of Birchy Cove-named Curling in 1903- is to be found in the prolific writings of John A. Barrett. In those "jottings" the reader will learn of the growth of the town from its infancy, the great fire of 1899 which destroyed hundreds of buildings and left practically all the residents homeless, of the establishing of postal facilities in the Bay of Islands, of the opening up of the cross-country railway, and others. We will quote from several of Mr. Barrett's articles which are part of the historical background of the bay.

"In 1877, after protracted negotiations and repeated applications to the Imperial Government, Commander William Horworth, Royal Navy, was appointed the first stipendiary magistrate on the west coast, with jurisdiction over 400 miles of coast extending from Cape Ray to Cape Norman. He was also wreck commissioner, relieving officer and customs official.
One of the stipulations made by the new Magistrate Howorth was that his headquarters be Bay of Islands. He arrived at Curling on December 16, 1877 and took up temporary residence at Pleasant Cove. During the following year he was invested with powers of a district judge to adjudicate on civil cases.
During the first year of Commander Howorth's tenure of office, court houses were erected at Curling, Bonne Bay and Flower's Cove, as well as the palatial residence for himself, which latter building was completed at Curling in the fall of 1878.

The west coast was divided into three magisterial districts upon the retirement of Commander Howorth, with Dr. Alexander MacKenzie, a native of Scotland, appointed to the Bay of Islands section. After his death, in 1886, George R. Lilly, a native of St. John's was appointed and served in this district for seven years.

"Previous to the introduction of the railway," states John A. Barrett in one of his articles, "the winter mail service on the west coast consisted of some three or four deliveries from the time navigation closed until it opened again. There was a fortnightly steam service between St.John's and Channel and between there and the northern towns mails had to be transported by couriers with dog teams, bridging numerous treacherous rivers and encountering the many blizzards of those "old fashioned" winters.
Even after the railway service was instituted, there were winters when the mails for the west coast had to be delivered by dog team either from Channel or over the Topsails.It is within our memory when John, George and Joshua Gillard of Hall's Bay, used to convey the mails from Millertown Junction to Curling. They were strapping specimens of humanity and were possessed of great powers of endurance. Their outfit usually consisted of three 12-foot comatics drawn by some 30 well-trained husky dogs. The 198 miles from Millertown Junction fo Curling was usually covered by them in three or four days, the couriers having to wear snowshoes the entire journey.
When the mails came by way of Channel they were brought along the coast by relays of dog teams and couriers. One set of mailmen would bring the mails as far as Sandy Point, another from there to Bay of Islands, and a third would proceed to Woods Point, Bonne Bay. During "open" winters in Bay St.George, the mails would be loaded on a boat at Sandy Point and conveyed as far as Main Gut. From there the couriers would proceed over the marshes and along the Bankss of Harry's Brook to George's Lake, thence to Cook's Pond and Burnt Pond to Curling.

In Curling the arrival of a mail in winter would be denoted by the hoisting of a flag on a pole erected by or upon the building in which the post office was located. At some other places along the route the sounding or blasting from for-horns would announce the arrivals of mails, the nothern or southern mail being indicated by the number of blasts from the horn.
There were no such conveniences as letter boxes in the offices in those days, and very few of the offices were equipped with defacing or dating stamps. In some places the offices were more or less `open houses' where it was not unusual for those seeking mail matter to help themselves.

The first established post office at Curling was located in an upstairs corner of a building used as a retail store by Bagg Brothers. The late E.A.Bagg was postmaster at Curling for nearly 20 years. It was not until 1905 that arrangements were made for the erection of a building in which to carry on both postal and the telegraphic work in the community."

The 11th and 12th of June, 1899 will long remain vivid memories for many people in the Bay of Islands, particularly in the settlements of Georgetown, Mt. Moriah and in Petrie Valley. It was on those days that one of the most devastating fires ever known in this country raged through settlement after settlement, rendering many families homeless and destitute. Mr. Barrett remembers the fire well, and tells the story like this:
"The fire was said to have been caused by sparks from a railway locomotive about four miles west of Mount Moriah. It happened when the countryside was in a dry state due to the absence of rain for several weeks, and as there was a strong southerly wind at the time, the fire quickly gained headway. It spread from the railway through to Georgetown and down the Petrie Valley, enveloping the whole section between there and the railroad at Mount Moriah.
Some of the men of that section of Bay of Islands had gone on their summer voyage to the fisheries and others were in readiness to leave. Those at home fought valiantly to stay the progress of the fire and by doing so had all their own property and effects licked up by the devouring element.
The stirring breeze carried burning embers across the Humber Arm to Meadows and the great stand of timber on that side of the bay was in danger of being destroyed.
The fire continued for two days and nights and spent itself when it reached the water's edge at the Humber. As a result of this conflagration some 47 houses were destroyed and the families left destitute of all belongings. The loss was in the vacinity of $20,000.
The people of the area were undaunted by this great loss and it must remain ever a credit to their courage that by the following year witnessed the rebuilding of many of the homes and other buildings which had been destroyed. Before the next winter came all the burned-out families were comfortably settled in new frame houses."

Sufficient limestone to supply the need of the surrounding communities-including the large newsprint mill at Corner Brook are still being taken from the hills and mountains in the valley of the Humber River. The clean white limestone is taken from the quarry near Steady Brook while the gray limestone is quarried near Dormston Farm, east of Corner Brook.
Through her vast herring and lobster fishing in the late 80's and early 1900's, Bay of Islands did her own advertising as far as tourist trade was concerned. When we realize that there were as many as 80 American vessels in the bay during the fall herring fishery, it is not difficult to imagine that stories of the lakes teeming with trout, the number and size of salmon to be found in the rivers, and the game in the forests were told by the captains and crews upon their return to their Massachusetts homes.
All through the early issues of The Western Star are personal items about the arrivals here of countless numbers of American milllionaires, many of them spending the whole summer aboard their own yachts in the scenic Bay of Islands. It was not unusual, either, to read that Millionaire So-and-So, after spending two or three months salmon fishing on the Serpentine or Humber, decided to prolong his visit so that he could take in a little hunting when the season opened in the fall. Others would come to the Bay of Islands for the fishing season one year and return the following year for the caribou hunt.
Many pounds of good US gold-the currency of those days-found its way to the coffers of Newfoundland guides, hotel keepers and others. As far as tourism was concerned, the Bay of Islands had its full share in the early days. This can be seen when it is known that there were no less than a half dozen fairsized hotels or inns operated at various parts of the bay in 1900. Included among those were the Humber House at Summerside, the Petrie House at Pleasant Point, Petries, Carter's Hotel at Woods Islands, Victoria Place Hotel, Gilker's Hotel at Curling, and Farnell's Hotel at Corner Brook.

And is there any wonder that the Bay of Islands and the surrounding country attracted many hundreds of people when articles like the following can be written about the scenery:
"In articles I have made passsing reference to the coastal scenery of Bay of Islands and Bonne Bay, which is some of the most magnificent to be met with perhaps in North America. All tourists visiting this section speak in the most glowing terms of it. The towering mountains which rear their bare, brown-topped or snow-clad peaks to the skies, are scored by many deep gorges, the dense, dark foliage of those wooded slopes present a fine contrast. The fantastically sculptured cliffs facing the sea-board, indented by numerous coves and arms dotted with islands, all lend most striking and picturesque features of unsurpassed beauty and variety.
I have sailed both close inshore and further out into the Gulf from Cape Ray to the Straits of Belle Isle, and from personal observations, I came to the conclusion that in point of scenic beauty and variety, the West Coast certainly surpasses any other portion of Newfoundland. The low-lying shores and long stretches of sand beach characteristic of some parts of the Bay of St.George and Port-au-Port, give way to towering, precipitous cliffs and rugged mountain ranges of Bay of Islands and Bonne Bay, to be succeeded further north by the low, flat limestone ledges of the Straits of Belle Isle."

One of the most conspicuous mountain ranges commences its rise near Broad Cove, on the eastern side of Port-au-Port Bay, about 14 miles north of the Gravels, or isthmus of Port-au-Port. Bluff Head, a very high promotory presenting a bold escarpment to the sea, may be considered the western end of the range. This Serpentine Range is generally termed the Lewis Hills, the extreme height of which is said to be 2,763 feet-the highest peak in the country. In the interval between the two forks of Bluff Head Brook is where a large deposit of chrome iron was discovered over half a century ago.
The Serpentine Range, on approaching the Serpentine River, sweep away easterly, leaving a wide, flat valley near the coast, and run in the direction of Serpentine Lake, where they terminate, being just about 16 miles in length. The Blomidon Mountains which rise immediately to the north of Serpentine River, though now separated from the Lewis Hills by the intervening low valley, were according to geologists, part of the same range which must have formed a continuous mountain chain from Bluff Head to the shores of the Bay of Islands.
There is another, or coast range, commencing at Bear Head, north of Serpentine River, and occupying the shore to South Head, Bay of Islands. This range consists of a confused mass of material said to be in a great part of pure volcanic origin. This igneous range rises in sheer, vertical, sometimes overhanging cliffs, to a considerable height between Bear Cove and South Head, especially in the vicinity of Little Port and Batteau Cove. Frenchman's Head, the most conspicuous point, attains an elevation of some 1500 ft. It was from this height that a member of a French fishing vessel leapt to his death, and since then, the promontory has been known as Frenchman's Head. This rugged coast range is entirely distinct from and independent of the Blomidon-Serpentine range. A wide,low valley separates them, extending from York Harbour, locally known as Broom's Bottom, to Serpentine River.
(sections of article not transcribed: Mining Prospects, Slate Deposits, Oil Wells and Parsons Pond Oil Wells) End

Page transcribed by: Linda Elkins-Schmitt with the kind permission of The Western Star, 29 November 2000.
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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