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The Newfoundland Herald's
Salute to Newfoundland Communities

BELL ISLAND
by Leslie Doyle

 

 

Bell Island situated in the heart of Conception Bay is a little world unto itself.

The Island is 11 kilometres long by 4 kilometres wide and boast spectacular vertical cliffs to a peak of 90 metres.  It was identified as early as the 1600s but wasn't incorporated until 1950.  It is the home of just under 4,000 residents.

The Bell Island ferry is located in Portugal Cove, 15 minutes from St. John's.  The 20-minute ferry ride will allow you to view some of the province's rugged coastline and possibly see some of the Atlantic's whales or icebergs.

Bell Island was once a bustling mining community, the iron ore mines made the island a prosperous centre throughout much of this century.  The first shipment of ore left the island in 1895 and became the oldest continuously operating iron ore mine in the world when it ceased production on June 30, 1966.  One of the world's largest submarine ore shafts that stretches some five kilometres underneath Conception Bay is being reopened as a world class tourist attraction.

Another large attraction on Bell Island is their murals.  The Islands unique art gallery is dedicated to the iron ore mines.  Seventy years of culture are captured forever in gigantic murals that depict events and people from Bell Island's past.

A beautiful artwork that has become a tribute is the monument of the memory of politician Steve Neary.

Much of Bell Island historic background can be seen in the communities museum which includes: Samples of the iron ore, mining equipment, pictures of the war, mines and the miners.  Also on exhibit at the museum is a set of antlers that belonged to a very special animal that once roamed the island.  Bell the moose supposedly swam to Bell Island in 1982 and lived there as the only moose until she died in 1995.  She was loved by residents and tourists alike.

Much to offer

Besides its numerous tourist attractions Bell Island has everything that a small city could offer:  there are two high schools, two elementary schools, four churches, a 40-bed hospital, a medical clinic with dispensary services and a senior citizens complex.  A five-member RCMP detachment and a well-equipped and trained fire department with 27 volunteer fire-fighters protect the island.  Bell Island also has many active, vital community service organizations including the Royal Canadian Legion, Kiwanis Club, Knights of Columbus, Loyal Orange Lodge, the Masonic Lodge, the Wabana boys and girls club, the Church Lads Brigade and the Cadet League.

Residents needs are met with the Island's supermarkets, convenience stores, clothing and variety stores, hardware and building supplies, drugstores, beauty salons, service stations, restaurants, lounges and takeouts.  There is also a Banks, bakery, barbershop and video stores.

SIGHTS TO SEE!!

While visiting Bell Island Make sure you get a glimpse of these attractions.

  • The Mines

  • The Murals

  • Seamen's Memorial

  • Ferry Disaster Memorial

  • The Lighthouse

  • U-Boat Sinkings

  • Gunsite

  • Walking Trail

  • Roman Catholic Grotto

  • Stephen Neary Memorial

  • Museum

BELL ISLAND

Bell Island casualties of War

In a more recent history, Bell Island in Conception Bay, gained a place in the history books by becoming the only community in Canada to be subject to direct attack by German forces in World War II.  In a 10-month period in 1942, German submarines attacked and sank four carriers shipping iron ore from the island's mines to feed the allied war effort.

The first raid occurred on September 5, when the ore carriers Saganaga and the Lord Strathcone*1 were sunk while anchored off Lance Cove, Bell Island.  Both were loaded with iron ore waiting for a convoy to Sydney, Nova Scotia.  It was reported the first torpedo hit the Saganaga about midship on the port side at 11:07 a.m.  Within moments, a second torpedo finished the task.  The Saganaga sank within 15 seconds from the time the first torpedo hit.

The 45 crew members of the Lord Strathcone*1 took to the lifeboats to get away from their own ship in case a torpedo was launched at her, as well as to attempt to rescue some of the 48 Saganaga crew who were struggling in the water.  They were joined in this effort by small boats from Lance Cove.

In less than half an hour, the first torpedo hit the crewless Lord Strathcone*1 between the engine room and bow.  A second torpedo followed and the ship sank in less than two minutes.

The final tally from the attack was 29 Saganaga crewmen dead and 14 survivors.  None of the crew of the Lord Strathcone*1 died due to their taking to the lifeboats before the first torpedo struck.

This was the first enemy action in Newfoundland but, unfortunately, was not to be the last.  Less than two months after the first attack, on November 2, Bell Island ore carriers were struck again.  The loss of life in the second attack was much higher, largely the result of the attack taking place in the early morning hours when the ships' crews were sleeping.

The victims this time were to be the crew of the S. S. Rosecastle, a Sydney freighter, and the P. L. M. 27, owned by the Ministry of War Transport in London and manned by the Free French.  Both ships were sunk while lying at anchor between the Scotia pier and Lance Cove, closer into the island than the other two.

The exact details of the second attack are not clear as there were very few witnesses to the devastation.  The attack began at 3:30 a.m. when most people were sleeping.  However, one of the most dramatic incidents of the attack occurred after the sinkings when the submarine fired a torpedo at a coal boat lying off the Scotia pier.  The missile shook the whole island and woke everybody from their sleep.

Dawn revealed 53 survivors from both ships.  The Rosecastle carried a crew of 43, of whom 28 were missing and the P. L. M. 27 had a crew of 50 of whom 12 were casualties.  The total number of lives lost in the two sinkings was 69.  It would be the last attack by German U-boats of any Canadian or Newfoundland community during the war.

Today the wrecks are a recreational scuba diver's dream come true.  Due to the ships being fully laden with iron ore, they went straight down and all four are now sitting upright on the bottom.  Commercial diver Dean Simms has had the opportunity to dive on the wrecks and he encouraged other divers to do the same.

"The wrecks lay in depths of between 50 to 120 feet of water." Simms explains  "The ships are all settled in sand so there is no danger of tipping.  The P. L. M. 27 is the shallowest and could be dived on by fairly amateur divers.  Other than some superficial damage on her upper deck when a demolition crew had to destroy the mast to safeguard shipping, the ship is in immaculate diving condition."

The Saganaga and the Lord Strathcone*1 are resting in 90 feet of water and the skill levels for divers increase with the depth.

The Rosecastle is the deepest in 120 feet of water.  Simms states he entered the ship's Marconi Room and found tables and chairs, beds, cups and saucers resting exactly as they were over 50 years ago.  "However, I would discourage penetration of the vessels unless the divers were very experienced and trained for that type of dive."

The multitude of plant and fish life on the wrecks is phenomenal, as well as the historical significance of the ships.  Wreck diving is the fastest growing sector of the diving industry, worth billions of dollars.  We just haven't begun to realize the potential of what we have in Conception Bay.

Centre for Newfoundland Studies
Maneco

Bell Island

One of the first ferries on the Tickle was the S. S. Progress.  She came on the Bell Island service July 30, 1903.  At that time, she was owned by Mr. Chambers, the manager of the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company, Mr. Grammar, Manager of the Dominion Iron and Steel Co., and the Honourable John Angel of St. John's.  In 1904, the Bell Island Steamship Company was formed with George Neal of St. John's and J. B. Martin of Bell Island as Managing Directors.  They acquired the Progress shortly afterwards and ran her in the local service until April 18, 1917, when she was sold to a lumber dealer in Bonavista Bay and apparently ended her days carrying pitprops.  The Progress ran almost entirely between Bell Island and Kelligrews by way of Portugal Cove.  The steamer connected with the train running into and out of St. John's.  All mail, and practically all passengers, travelled by that route during the years that this ship was on the local service.  It was not until later years that Portugal Cove became the mainland terminus and the Cove Road came into general use.  A weekly freight service from St. John's by sea was also maintained by the Steamship Company at that time and for years afterwards.

William Clements, Bell Island postmaster, ran the first ferry between Bell Island and the mainland as far back as 1880.

The Maneco, which served Bell Island for 25 years, made her first run, carrying, for the first time, automobiles, in 1931.  The Maneco was the only ship of Newfoundland Registry to fly the Royal Standard - two occasions, June 1939, carrying HM King George VI and Queen Elizabeth; and November 1951 carrying Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Wabana, usually known as Bell Island, is an old Indian name meaning, "The Place Where The Light First Shines." It is the largest of many islands in Conception Bay being about 9 miles long and 3 miles wide.

Bell Island is named for an offshore rock formation near Freshwater, on the western end of the Island.

The waters surrounding this huge chunk of reddish rock in Conception Bay saw the first enemy action in Newfoundland waters during World War II.  On September 4, 1942, U-513 sank the PLM-27  S. S. Saganaga, and the Lord Strathcona*1 at their pier berths while loading iron ore.

Bell Island was originally settled in Lance Cove, a small fertile valley on the southwestern end of the Island.  For centuries, fishermen and farmers were visited only by passing ships which stopped for water and ballast.  In 1892 the "ballast" was identified as a source of iron ore and within a few years mining operations began.

Wabana was a bustling mining community until its operation was closed down in 1966 due to its low grade ore and technological changes in the international steel industry.  The main ore shafts (now inaccessible to the public) still lie well beneath the sea bed of Conception Bay, comprising a miniature tunnelled community which was a beehive of activity for so many years.

Despite the dramatic dislocation caused by the mine closure the community continues to survive, mainly due to the courage and perseverance of many of its residents.

Although unemployment and indeed the community's survival are still major problems yet to be resolved, the Island home for many former and present residents offers many attractions to prospective would-be-new-comers and tourist alike.

Besides its historic past, Bell Island has most of the basic infrastructure for a town of 4,500 people.  It is within a "stones throw" of the city of St. John's and it has a modern two ferry shuttle service 6 months of the year.  The community's ferry service is supplemented by an air service to and from the Island during the winter months whenever the "tickle" is blocked by ice.  The town itself has its share of recreation and sports facilities, nightclubs, and other social attractions.

From the steep cliffs of the "Iron Isle" you have a panoramic view of the entire Conception Bay area, particularly a commanding view of Little Bell Island, and Kelly's Island.

This ends the story.

 

 

 

Contributed by Barbara McGrath (January 2001)
Transcribed by Ivy F. Benoit (January 2001)

* See the following errata

ERRATA
NAMEDESCRIPTION OF ERRORREPORTED BY
Lord Strathcone*1 The ship is not the Lord Strathcone, it the S.S. Lord Strathcona. Antonio Noftall

Page Revised by Craig Peterman (Wednesday March 06, 2013)

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