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April 11th, 1839. Sailed from Liverpool in the merchant brig Diana, bound for St. John's, Newfoundland.
May 4th. The temperature of the air on the open sea had been mild and pleasant, the thermometer frequently rising to 60° in the middle of the day; for the last day or two, however, it had been gradually falling. Today, being in long. 48° W., lat. 47° N., there was a thick fog, occasionally lifting and clearing off in open drifts in various directions, and suddenly closing in again. The temperature of the water fell rapidly as we proceeded on our course, and about two o'clock it was only 35°. The air, which at ten AM was 54, had likewise sunk to 38°. The swell of the sea gradually subsided, and the vessel was steadier than it had been since we sailed. A sharp lookout was accordingly kept, and as we were sitting after dinner in the cabin, about four PM, the cry of "Ice a-head" brought us all on deck, and the vessel was put about immediately. I peered over the side into the driving fog, but could see nothing but small jagged pieces of white ice, hardly to be distinguished from the foam on the crest of a wave, whirling about in the eddy of the vessel. Beyond them was a kind of white obscure, that might probably be the sheen of the ice through the fog. Practiced eyes, I suppose, saw more, and it was said to be the edge of a large field of ice, or rather to be the edge of "the ice," which was apparently understood to extend to the north for an indefinite distance. We soon left it far behind, and drove off to the southward. On returning to the cabin, the captain was congratulated on having made a good "ice-fall," and hopes expressed of as good a landfall. Had we struck the ice in the night, we should probably have got entangled among it, and been greatly hindered and delayed on our voyage. During the two or three following days, large pieces of ice and small icebergs were frequently seen. Fogs also were frequent, occasionally clearing off entirely, and when recurring in a most singular manner. There seemed to me be large well-defined Bankss of fog resting on the sea in various places, or moving slowly about, into and out of which we passed I most instantaneously, and which were not very easily observed by a person a little distance outside of them, with a bright sun overhead.
May 8th. -At sunset last night we saw the high land about Cape St. Francis, clearly defined on the horizon. At the sight of it, I seemed to myself, for the first time, really to have left the English shores. The vessel had unconsciously been associated in the mind with England, and appeared as it were a part of it: now, however, we looked on a distant land, and were really about to enter on a strange scene.
On coming on deck this morning we were close inshore, standing backwards and forwards across the mouth of the harbour, with a light, but bitterly cold breeze blowing off the land. The cold wind blowing over the ice the other day was not to be compared to the biting keenness of this, although the thermometer was a degree or two higher, being about 41°. We were compelled, for the first time since leaving Liverpool, to light a fire in the cabin stove, in order to breakfast in comfort. The first new of the harbour of St. John's is very striking. Lofty precipitous cliffs, of hard dark red sandstone and conglomerate, range along the coast, with deep water close at their feet. Their beds plunge from a height of from 400 to 700 feet, at an angle of 70°, right into the sea, where they are ceaselessly dashed against by the unbroken swell of the Atlantic waves. This immense sea-wall is the side of a narrow ridge of hills, which strike along the coast here, and through which there are occasional narrow valleys or ravines. These transverse valleys cut down through the range to various depths, and the bottom of one being about fifty or sixty feet below the level of the sea forms the entrance to the harbour of St. John's, and is appropriately termed the Narrows. Inside, the harbour expands and trends towards the S.W., and the land on the other side of it has a much more gentle slope, and a much less height than that immediately on the coast. It is also of a better quality, and more fertile. The dark naked rocks that frown along the coast near St. John's, their stern outlines unbroken by any other vegetation than a few stunted firs that seem huddled together in the more sheltered nooks and hollows, give a stranger but an unfavourable idea of the country he has come to visit, and seem to realize all the accounts he may have heard or read of the coldness and barrenness of the land. As we sailed backwards and forwards across the mouth of the Narrows, which in one place is only 220 yards across, with rocky precipitous heights of 500 feet on each side, we caught a view of the town, which, from its being built for the most part of unpainted wood, had a sufficiently somber and dismal appearance. The harbour, however, was full of vessels, and on landing there seemed to be much bustle and business going on. The melting of the previous winter's snow had, however, furrowed the streets in various places with gutters running across them, while from their ill-kept state, from their long, straggling, and irregular appearance, the narrow dirty alleys and lanes leading out of them, the dingy aspect of the unpainted houses, and the groups of idle and half-drunken sailors and fishermen, the absence of street lamps and drains, the entire want of all police, and the air of disorder and confusion which reigned throughout, it was evident that the scene was a foreign one. I found afterwards that it was just the season when a number of vessels, having shortly returned from the sealing expedition, their crews were all loitering about with money in their pockets, and the merchants' wharfs and premises were crowded with their men unloading the vessels, and preparing the seals for the oil-vats. My first impulse on landing was to ascend the ridge on the southeast side of the harbour, which, from the people all using compass bearings instead of the true, is called the south side, and the ridge the South Side Hill. From its top, which is about 750 feet above the sea, there was an extensive prospect over sea and land. On returning to the town, myself and a fellow voyager found it quite destitute of inns and hotels, but were lucky enough to engage very comfortable rooms in a private lodging-house.
May 9th to 20th. -Having called on the governor and delivered my credentials, I found myself most kindly and hospitably received, not only by himself and family and the authorities generally, but by a number of private persons and families, to whom I was gradually introduced. And here, once for all, let me record my thanks to the many kind friends I had the pleasure of making, for their abundant hospitality, and assure them, at the same time, that I shall studiously avoid the ill judged ostentation of gratitude, of dragging their names before the public. On the evening of May 12th, we were alarmed by the cry of fire, and in a few hours a block of houses in the principal street, in the centre of the town, was burnt to the ground. The behavour of the military and the fire companies was very good, and to their exertions and those of the more respectable inhabitants was owing the preservation of the town. I was, however, much struck with the stupid indifference of a large part of the lower class of the population, as compared with the great, and sometimes self baffling readiness and eagerness of the population of any large town in England, in similar circumstances. No inducement or excitement beyond that of present pay and reward seemed sufficient to rouse one of the hundreds of great idle fellows that stood around to stir hand or foot for the preservation of the houses and property about. I was afterwards told, indeed, that by far too many of the population looked upon a fire as a godsend, more especially if it reached or threatened a merchant's store, when a regular system of plunder was carried out unblushingly, and, as it were, by prescriptive right.
I think I afterwards perceived the causes of the low state of moral feeling exhibited on this and one or two similar points, by people that in other respects had many excellent qualities.
During these first ten days I rode out several times with the governor and the surveyor-general, visiting Portugal Cove, Logy Bay, and some other parts of the neighbourhood. Several roads out of St. John's have been recently constructed, and are, for about five miles, sufficiently good to ride or drive on. The road to Portugal Cove is finished from end to end, being about nine miles and a half. The other roads beyond the first five or six miles are either bare rugged rock, wet moss and morass, or a bed of boulders, like the bed of a torrent. Sometimes a combination of all three within the space of twenty yards offers a choice of evils. Except on a regularly constructed road, or over a cleared and cultivated field, it would be quite impracticable to take either horse, mule, or ass a single yard. The country in the interior rises into many flat-topped or rounded ridges, having an average height of 500 or 600 feet above the sea. One rounded hill, five miles southwest of St. John's, called Branscombe Hill, is nearly 900 feet high, and from its summit there is an extensive panoramic view of the land between the east coast and Conception Bay. The land hereabouts was formerly nearly all covered with wood, consisting principally of various species of fir, spruce, and larch, with some birch. The wood is of a stunted growth, small pole-like trunks growing close together, with branches and twigs thickly interlacing from top to bottom: these, with the old trees falling across each other in all directions, form a matted thicket which is nearly impenetrable. In the immediate neighbourhood of St. John's, and occasionally along the line of the roads leading from it, these woods have been partially cleared, and those spots in which vegetable mould either was found, or could be formed, are turned into fields and gardens. The tops of the hills and ridges, more especially of the South Side Hill, are quite incapable of cultivation, being covered merely with dwarf berry-bearing bushes. Such spots are called "barrens." The hollows and slopes of the hills, and the bottoms of the valleys, contain generally either a pond or a marsh. A marsh is a tract of moss, which is sometimes several feet in depth, like a great sponge, and, of course, always wet. The term pond is applied indiscriminately to all pieces of freshwater, whatever may be their size; the grand pond on the western side of the island being fifty miles long. These ponds or lakes are inconceivably numerous, the whole country being dotted over with them. Hundreds of lakes, two or three miles long and upwards might be found, while those of a smaller size are incalculable. Immediately north of St. John's, and close to the town, which is built on the low ridge that separates the harbour from it, is a pretty little lake about a mile long, called Quidi Vidi Pond. About half way to Portugal Cove the road winds for two miles along the Bankss of another, called Twenty-mile Pond or Windsor Lake, which with its surrounding woods is a characteristic and striking scene. On approaching Portugal Cove the eye is struck by the serrated and picturesque outline of the hills which run along the coast from it towards Cape St. Francis, and presently delighted with the wild beauty of the little valley or glen at the mouth of which the cove is situated. The road winds with several turns down the side of the valley, into which some small brooks hurry their waters, flashing in the sunshine as they leap over the rocks and down the ledges, through the dark green of the woods. On turning the shoulder of one of the hillside slopes, the view opens on Conception Bay, with the rocky points of the cove immediately below, and the smooth and fertile-looking Bell Island in front at about three miles distance, beyond which the high lands of the other side of the bay were seen still streaked and patched on their summits and sides with snow. On returning this day (May 13th) from Portugal Cove, we were overtaken by two or three smart snow-storms.
Logy Bay is a small indentation of the coast, about four miles north of St. John's, and is remarkable for the wildness of its rock and cliff scenery: nothing like a beach is to be found anywhere on this coast, the descent to the sea being always difficult and generally impracticable. In Logy Bay, the thick-bedded dark sandstones and conglomerates stand bold and bare in round-topped hills and precipices, 300 or 400 feet in height, with occasional fissures traversing their jagged cliffs, and the boiling waves of the Atlantic curling round their feet in white eddies, or leaping against their sides with huge spouts of foam and spray. Just by Logy Bay is a mineral spring, containing among other things a large proportion of iron in solution. At the period of our visit to this place, the scattered wooden huts were empty and deserted, and the fish flakes and stages out of repair, as the people only reside during the summer season.
I had now been regularly installed as Geological Surveyor, and instructed to examine into the structure of the country, directing my attention in the first instance to the neighbourhood of the principal towns and inhabited places. A strong prejudice existed that coal was to be found near St. John's. It behoved me, therefore, to find out in what direction it could possibly lie. I shall not enter, however, on geological matters in these notes, but refer the reader interested in them to the Report in the Appendix. My first care was to engage a man who was acquainted with the country, as a guide and servant. Accordingly a rough-looking subject named Kelly, with a strong brogue, presented himself, whom, after some hesitation, I engaged, or in his own language "shipped." All domestic servants come to be "shipped." Families are applied to know whether they want to "ship" a housemaid or a cook. Some idea of the rate of wages may be formed by the fact of my having to pay this fellow, a common fisherman, £28 currency, and his board for the summer, that is, from the 1st of May to the 31st of October. I found afterwards I paid him £6 too much, but in strange places one must always submit to a little imposition by way of paying one's admission fees.
It will perhaps be the best way to afford the reader some idea of the country, and of the customs of the people, to give at some detail a notice of the first two excursions I made from St. John's, the one north to Cape St. Francis, the other south to Petty Harbour and Shoal Bay.
At this point the broad path ended, and a little narrow winding crevice, as it were, cut through the woods, barely sufficient in some places to allow a broad-shouldered man to squeeze between the crowded stems of the pole-like trees conducted us to Pouch Cove. It was just dusk when we arrived, and we put up at the first house or cabin we came to. The people received us most hospitably, and gave us tea and bread and butter, but, owing to the recent death of a daughter, could not accommodate us for the night. We then were taken to the house of the schoolmaster, where we were kindly received; but his house being equally unfurnished with room for more than his own family, he took us to a Mrs. Sullivan's, where, it appeared, strangers usually put up. We found here several people assembled round the wood-fire, and shortly joined the circle. After some interchange of talk, in which Kelly bore his part by retailing all the news of St. John's, Dr. S. and I were shown through a door into a small narrow room, in which there were two beds. I, in my ignorance, concluded this was a bed a piece; but Dr. Stabb, more accustomed to the country, immediately asked who slept in the other bed, "Myself and the girl, sir," said the venerable Mrs. Sullivan, to my great astonishment. Accordingly we tumbled into one bed, and after the fatigues of the day were soon fast asleep, and in the morning found the other bed had certainly been slept in, and so concluded the old lady and the girl had effected their entrance and exit quietly in the night without disturbing our slumbers.
May 23rd.-About three in the afternoon I set out for Petty Harbour, intending to visit a place about five miles beyond it where there was reported to be a copper-mine that had been worked in the last century. On the road, Kelly's tongue running as usual asked me about my family and my mother, whether I had written to her. On my telling him I had, "I'll warrant the ould woman would be mighty glad to here you were safe landed, sir; she'd think no harum could happen to ye afther that." For the first three or four miles there was a good road, but we then turned off by a narrow path over the ridge of the South Side Hill. The summit of this is a broad bare moorland, consisting partly of morass or small skirts of wood, partly of naked sheets of level rock or of round hummocks and knobs, and small abrupt ridges of rock rising up here and there along "the strike" of the beds. There are several ponds or small lakes scattered about it: one or two of these are connected by narrow passages, and form most picturesque sheets of water; and when the eye stretches across them over the well-defined boundary of the hill just beyond, and sees far away in the distance the blue horizon of the sea, few scenes that I have beheld are more wild and striking. After traversing this moorland, we came suddenly on the verge of its seaward slope; and there in a narrow ravine between dark precipices lay the cluster of white houses called Petty Harbour. The houses surround a small creek, which receives a howling torrent that hurries over the rocks of a desolate valley just behind, and they seem so secluded and shut out from the world, and the people too seemed so well off and contented, that I was much interested with the place altogether. There was a small inn also, where I got very decent quarters. -
May 24th.-At six AM I started in a four-oared punt for Shoal Bay, about five miles down the coast. The morning was cool, but beautiful, with a light air offshore; and the bare lofty precipices of hard red sandstone, which here form the coast, produced magnificent cliff scenery. There was of course a swell, as we were on the margin of the wide Atlantic, and the manner in which we effected a landing was by rowing on the crest of a wave into a crevice just wide enough to admit the boat, and which shortly turned round at right angles behind a broad mass of rock, forming thus a snug shelter for our little craft. After some search we found the place where the mine had formerly been, and where some iron staples and bolts still remained in the rocks. There was, however, no appearance of a shaft, nor could I find anything which could lead me to guess as to the size or importance of the vein. Some pieces of vein stuff, apparently old refuse, lay about, containing small patches and strings of ore, which proved to be grey sulphuret of copper. After a delay of an hour or two the wind gradually rose, and, seeming inclined to shift towards the east, warned us to be off, which warning it was lucky we obeyed, as the sea was rising, and by the time we returned to Petty Harbour it was blowing pretty strong. On our return we saw many fishing boats, and passed one that was anchored under a headland, jigging codfish. A jigger is a plummet of lead, with two or three hooks stuck at the bottom, projecting on every side, and quite bare. This is let down by the line to the proper depth, and then a man, taking a hitch of the line in his hand, jerks it smartly in, the full length of his arm, then lets it down slowly and jerks it in again. The fish are attracted by seeing something moving in the water, and every now and then one is caught by one of the hooks. As soon as the man feels he has struck one, he hauls in upon the line, taking care to keep it tight till he heaves the fish into the boat. In this way several were caught while we were in sight by the two men in the fishing-boat, and they tossed us three or four fine fish as we went by, at the request of the owner of our punt. Returning to Petty Harbour, I walked back to St. John's by the way I had come yesterday and in the evening attended Mrs. Prescott's 'At home' on the Queen's birthday.
May 29th. I was at Portugal Cove, and at eight AM started in a punt with four men to visit Bell Island. It was rather a cloudy morning, but clear when we set off. After a row of about three miles we landed on the beach, which juts out under the cliff for about a quarter of a mile in length and a hundred yards in breadth. Found the island to consist of black shale, with interstratified beds of grey gritstone, very different from the hard slates of the mainland opposite. Except at the beach, the whole island is bounded by perpendicular cliffs, at one point nearly 300 ft high. As I stood on the verge of this highest point, small streaks of thick fog began to steal along the surface of the water beneath, and eventually covered it from sight, except here and there, where a transient opening showed a patch of grey water dotted with flakes of foam. Returning to the boat, we went south-about and made the circuit of the island, which is about five miles long and nearly three broad. Near the southeast extremity is a very pretty little place called Lance Cove, in a small indentation of the cliff, this and the beach being nearly, if not quite, the only points at which it is possible to land. Both these points contain several houses and inhabitants. On the southwest side of the island we passed between it and the Bell, as it is called, a perpendicular rock about an acre in extent, whose flat top is level with the adjacent land, being more than 100 feet above the water: a narrow strait of about twenty yards across admits of the passage of a boat in calm weather. Having passed through this, we had to row up the west side of the island against a headwind and swell and thick driving fog. There was still, however, a fine scene, to one unaccustomed to the sight, in the dim looming through the fog of each precipitous headland as they successively appeared, frowning nakedly above us as we passed beneath their feet, and then seeming to wrap themselves in cloud again as we laboured slowly onwards. The chill, however, of the fog, and the rolling of our little boat in the swell, gradually produced a state of body very unfavourable to the appreciation of the picturesque, that of incipient seasickness, and I was heartily glad when we again landed at Portugal Cove. Here the sun was shining brilliantly, and I thought the day had changed remarkably, but on looking back was surprised to find Bell Island invisible, and that the whole of the bay was enveloped in dense white fog rolling in before a northeast wind, while the hills and the land around us were basking in the sunshine without a cloud or a mist.
I heard this evening that they had found coal at Harbour Grace, and that the little packet-boat which plies across the bay had brought specimens of it, which had been taken to St. John's. Accordingly, the next day I hurried across in the packet to Harbour Grace, expecting to find twenty or thirty men digging away at the outcrop of some bed of coal. On inquiry, however, no one seemed to know anything about it, till I was taken to a blacksmith's shop, who said he had got coal from the Bankss of a lake called Lady Pond, which he had used in his forge and found it answer admirably. A lad accordingly undertook to show me the place, and, the affair getting wind, I proceeded, under a strong escort of twenty or thirty people, in search of the coal. At the back of the town I came upon a ridge of hard clay, slate, thick bedded, with imperfect cleavage, which rather shook my belief in the neighbourhood of a coal-field; but as in a new country there might be new facts, I did not despair, and thought that at least a bed or a nest of anthracite must exist. After pushing through the woods for some distance, we came to the margin of a lake a mile long, with a perfectly flat shore, and without an inch of rock exposed, and my conductors began dabbling in the water till they picked up some little brown pieces of stuff like a light cinder, about half the size of an alderman's thumb, and which they strenuously persisted was coal. One young fellow, however, said that sleighing parties often made fires on the ice near this spot in the winter, which confirmed me in the belief of their being cinders. However, I took some pieces away with me, and afterwards, on drying and testing them, found them to be pieces of a light spongy variety of bog-iron ore. So ended all my hopes of a Harbour Grace coal-field, but still so strong and so general was the belief of coal existing in the neighbourhood, that I thought there must be some ground at least for it, and therefore determined to explore with sufficient diligence to decide the question. But how was I to explore? To go hunting through the woods and traversing the marshes was an idle waste of time, and I found that in the approaching fishing season it would be impossible to hire boats: I therefore came to the determination, at my return to St. John's, to report to the governor, with a request to be furnished with a small coasting vessel, in order to examine the cliffs in detail. To return, however, to Harbour Grace. It is a pretty-looking little town, consisting of one long straggling street along the north side of the inlet or harbour, the houses being mostly painted white, and standing on a narrow flat with a rocky ridge just behind them. Its population is about 3000. It has altogether a more English and neat appearance than most places in Newfoundland. It contains, moreover, a very decent inn, which at this time even St. John's was destitute of.
May 31st. Walked across to Spaniard's Bay. The first three miles there was a good road, but for the remainder of the distance, or about three more, it was merely marked out. From the summit of the ridge, between Harbour Grace and Spaniard's Bay, the view was highly picturesque. The foreground consisted of rocky eminences covered with wood, with lakes of water in their hollows, beyond which the eye looked over a succession of land and water formed by the inlets of Spaniard's Bay, Bay Roberts, and Port de Grave, and the narrow craggy necks of land between them, with me Cats Cove Hills, and the other highlands about the head of Conception Bay, in the distance. Spaniard's Bay contains but a few houses, but, as a gentleman resided there who was a fellow voyager with me on my passage out, I stayed and spent the day with him. I found everywhere the same hard useless sort of slate rock as about Harbour Grace.
June 1st. Returned early in the morning to Harbour Grace, and got on board the little sailing-packet to return to Portugal Cove. As there was a fine northwest wind blowing, I thought it needless to lay in stock for a voyage of only sixteen miles, but I soon found my mistake. We had hardly got well out into the bay before we were becalmed, and gradually drifted alongshore by the current; and, after a tedious passage of nineteen hours, only landed in Portugal Cove at half-past four the next morning. Had it not been for the kindness of two gentlemen going to St. John's, who were better provided than myself, I should have had but a very indifferent time of it.
Page contributed by: Bill Crant, February 22nd, 2000
Page revised: Sept 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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