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Perils in Cod Fishing on Labrador's Coast

As Published in The New York Times
September 2, 1906


Each season has its record of death and disaster 20,000 brave its dangers
Whole villages deserted by their inhabitants during summer
for the fishing grounds.

Special to The New York Times.
St. John’s, NF. Sept 1

Of the several branches into which the cod fishery of Newfoundland is divided, that pursued along the rugged coast of Labrador each summer is the most perilous and toilsome, and its annual record of disaster and death, hardship and tragedy, is depressing in the extreme. Cod fishery is the chief industry of the settlers along the east and north shores of the island, and its success or failure means destitution or comfort for them. Its importance can be best judged by the fact that the entire families proceed to the desolate seaboard, the men and boys to catch and handle the fish, and the women, girls, and young children to engage in the different processes incidental to the drying and curing. A visit to the little hamlets of the Newfoundland coast in the summer shows nearly every house unoccupied, the owners having gone to Labrador for the cod fishing, in which annual migration some 20,000 persons, with their goats and poultry, household goods, and portable possessions, engage every season. The rest of their belongings remain safe from disturbances, as the island laws visit with exemplary severity the thefts of any property from such houses, the stealing of fish off the drying platforms, and the desertion by any men of the fishery service by which they are engaged.

A Tragic Record

The Magnitude of the perils which beset the fishing folk as they sail there in the spring or return in the autumn can best be realized by the occurrences of the present season. On June 15 a furious gale swept the coast of Newfoundland and spread ruin amid the scores of smacks [ Note: added by Floyd Letto (as far as I can gather these are medium sized schooners used in the fishery )] then bound to the northern trawling grounds. Some were lost with all hands, others were driven ashore with more or less loss of life; more were dismasted and their endangered crews rescued from the sinking hulls at great peril to the rescuers while the great majority, though they got into harbors, had temporarily to abandon their crafts and take refuge on the shore until the storm had abated. In numerous cases these vessels carry passengers, fish folk who own no craft themselves, and from 50 to 100 persons are often aboard one smack. Two years ago diphtheria ravaged the 147 persons on a single schooner in the Griquet Harbor. Last season smallpox infected several vessels, and they had to be sunk at sea, the 650 persons they had to be carried being quarantined on one of the numerous islands which dot the coast. This season a smack with forty persons aboard struck an ice floe and speedily sank, those aboard barely having time to scramble on to the floe before the vessel went down. Their distress was increased by the floe parting beneath them soon after with a loud report, the two fragments drifting apart, each with its terrified human freight. Luckily another vessel soon rescued them. Last year two ice floes nipped a smack and crushed in her sides, the vessel sinking as soon as they parted again. Her crew was adrift two days and two nights, half frozen and starving, before rescue came to them.

Wrecked in the fog

The blinding fogs and gales cause many losses, and last year the schooner Puritan ran on Cabot Island at midnight with fifty-three persons on board, ten of whom perished while the others were marooned there for two weeks sheltered under a tent contrived from a sail washed ashore, and subsisting on sea birds’ eggs and shell fish until sighted by a trawler, which took them off. The schooner Czar met a similar faith on Groars’ Island and lost thirteen persons, her survivors suffering terribly from exposure and hunger for five days until their distress signals were sighted and relief came. During the present summer the Ocean Queen went to pieces on Cann Island. Her twenty-five people were rescued by the lighthouse keeper from the nearest station, alone in his boat, just before the seas submerged the rock to which they clung. Some years ago another Queen was lost on Gull Island and every soul perished of starvation there, the bodies not being found until months later, when a diary, written by one of the survivors, was found and revealed all the details of their tragic fate. Three years ago the Vigilant, a large schooner, with 130 persons on her, collapsed on a reef near Makovick and twenty-three perished, the remainder being rescued by other crews, which lowered ropes from the cliffs and drew them up one by one, the castaways then having to row sixteen miles in open boats to reach the mail boat that would convey them to their homes. Five years previously the Water Witch stranded near Holton and her thirty-four people were rescued by one gallant mariner, the last he brought ashore, a woman previously forgotten by her friends, dying in his arms on the way.

A Desolate Coast

The Labrador coast stretches fully five hundred miles north of Belle Isle Strait to Hudson Bay, and contains only 3500 white residents, who inhabit its southern shores, as many more Christianized Eskimos on its northern coast and a similar number of Indians in the interior. Save for the annual migration of Newfoundland fisher folk there the region would attract little or no attention, but this peculiar movement to and fro of thousands of people every year makes it of considerable interest, which Dr. Grenfell’s self sacrificing labors in behalf of the betterment of the people who frequent that desolate seaboard tend to increase. The coast is broken up into countless harbors and inlets, every one of which is the objective of daring Newfoundlanders, who establish themselves and their families there in huts built from the wreckage of fishing crafts and banked high with turf, and here these people remain from June until November engaged in a most exhaustive occupation and subjected to discomforts and miseries which none could hope to contend against except those whose sole existence is an unceasing battle with the elements.



Originally Published by The New York Times (1906)
Transcribed by Floyd Letto (2008 02)

Page Last Modified: Wednesday March 06, 2013 (Craig Peterman)

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