Posted by: alexhickey | October 4, 2016

Volunteering at the South Coast Arts Festival 2016 ©

A volunteer is a person who actively takes on a task or responsibility on his or her own accord without pay. (Webster’s Dictionary)

South Coast Arts Festival 2016

South Coast Arts Festival 2016

Once a year the population of my hometown swells to ten times its normal size and more.  St. Jacques is one of six communities which comprise the town of St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove whose total population in the 2006 census was 669 people.  St. Jacques itself has approximately 100 year-round residents. During the second week of August the place is buzzing with visitors as final preparations get underway for the annual South Coast Arts Festival.

You can feel the excitement, the anticipation.  There are elements of celebration and rejoicing as former residents return and are welcomed by those awaiting their arrival. They bring with them family members and friends, first-time visitors and seasoned festival goers.  Traffic along the main street through the community increases as each day passes.  There are many more people walking through town, stopping in at the local stores, visiting cemeteries, hiking the hillsides and shoreline.  There are even lineups at the corner gas pump.

These things aren’t limited to St. Jacques.  You can feel and see them in English Harbour West, Mose Ambrose, Boxey, Coomb’s Cove and Wreck Cove.  It’s there in Belleoram and Pool’s Cove, and to some extent in Harbour Breton, Hermitage and Baie D’Espoir.  In fact the entire Connaigre Peninsula feels it.

Plans are made in all of these communities to be in St. Jacques for the Festival weekend.  B & B’s have been booked since last year.  Motor homes and travel trailers begin arriving around mid-week.  The Festival site goes through its final round of readiness followed by a flurry of activity as final measures are carried out.  The grass is cut and trimmed, minor repairs carried out on the stage, washrooms, fences, buildings, water supply and parking lots. Flags are raised, pennants strung, paint touched up, washroom facilities cleaned meticulously and all tested to be flushing as they should.  Food concession groups gather to check out the facilities they’ll be using throughout the weekend and get their stores in order.

The sound crew arrives in a massive transport truck and like a well-oiled machine hundreds of components are assembled, checked and re-checked until the sound man feels all is ready for someone to walk on stage and strike the first chord.

Facebook and other social media have been sharing up to date information several times daily prompting followers to post comments, stories, photographs and videos of previous festivals.

Behind the scenes planning has been underway for months.  Organizers have been going over details, making adjustments, reviewing the previous festival for lessons learned and assigning responsibilities for 2016.  Performers have to be contacted to confirm participation then contacted again as the dates approach.  Performance schedules have to be developed in consultation with performers in order to accommodate personal commitments throughout the weekend.  It’s a process of consultation and give and take.  Plaques for any deceased performers have to be designed and ordered, tributes written, publicity planned, bar services organized with bar tenders hired and scheduled along with all supplies ordered.

The entrance gate workers are scheduled, security arranged and scheduled, programs copied and distributed, perimeter lighting checked and repaired if necessary, consumable supplies ordered and inventoried, along with a hundred other details.  Then, on Friday evening at 8:00 when the first performer steps up to the microphone the party begins on the Festival Field!

This year over a thousand people came through our gates, filled our seats, crowded together in pockets on the field and in the beer garden to make this year’s Festival one of the best ever!  Behind that success is a group of dedicated volunteers who give freely of their time and talent to bring the event to the field each year.  These volunteers are on our stage tirelessly performing from Friday evening to Sunday night. They are providing security, monitoring the crowds, greeting visitors, managing the stage, overseeing hired staff who are serving the bar, cleaning the washrooms and selling refreshment tickets.

You will see them at the partnership events as well.  On the night before the music weekend gets underway the Nickel Independent Film Festival Roadshow takes place in the St. Jacques Community Centre.  On the second day of the Festival a 5K and 10K walk/run is hosted with the St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove Recreation Committee – all run by volunteers.

Over 13.3 million people volunteer in this country.  They volunteer their time because they want to support their community. In 2010, almost all (93%) volunteers said that making a contribution to the community was a key motivating factor in their decision. Slightly more than three-quarters (78%) said they wanted to make good use of their skills and experiences; over one-half (59%) said that they had been personally affected by the cause the organization represented or supported. (StatsCan)

These statistics are true for those who make the South Coast Arts Festival a success.  I have been volunteering at this event for its entire life as have some others. It is sometimes risky to identify a few names when so many contribute; however, there was a core group this year who deserve particular attention.  These are Conrad Williams, Cyril Brown, Mark Courtney, and Dwight Williams. Their contributions were critical. They were there every day for every session. Leadership at its best is transparent and we see superb leadership in the quiet and unassuming ways these gentlemen deployed their skills and capacities throughout the entire weekend.

Hats off to all of the volunteers! If you haven’t been a volunteer at the event or would like to re-engage with it, this is your year to do so. As the Festival enters its 32nd year perhaps it’s time to put your name forward to become a part of this rewarding event.

South Coast Arts Festival Site

South Coast Arts Festival Site

Posted by: alexhickey | July 24, 2016

Summer Ritual in St. Jacques ©

Summer in St. Jacques has its rituals like most communities. Children seek out shallow pools of warm water in the Barachoix within which to swim, socialize, and cavort in ways childhood naivety and freedom allows.  Lawnmowers break out of their winter shelters and drag their owners through fields of grass that a few generations ago never reached such heights. Grazing sheep and an occasional cow or goat worked together to maintain manicured lawns, albeit a little more fragrant than most noses are now accustomed to.  Hopscotch patterns appear on the streets in many of the same locations they appeared prior to their paving; then scratched in the gravel with a sturdy stick.  Boat owners spend more leisure time on the expansive harbour though the familiar yellow flat-bottomed dories have all disappeared.  The sound of a one stroke Acadia engine echoing off the hillsides in early morning is experienced now only in dreams of the oldest citizens.

In recent years another ritual has emerged. Since the moratorium on the cod fishery non-fishing residents have little access to fresh fish until July when the recreational fishery comes around.  At one point the limited privilege to venture out onto Fortune Bay in pursuit of cod was called the ‘food fishery’ and for some inexplicable reason that moniker has stuck.  Put simply, if a family were to rely on the meagre catches of cod given the severe restrictions enforced by the Canadian government that family would soon die from starvation.  That being said, when the opportunity to legally set out upon the Bay arrives, its significance cannot be underestimated.  When the southerly winds permit there is little in summer life in St. Jacques more precious or more grounding than to slip away from the wharf and set a course for the fishing grounds.

Historically the best locations for catching cod on a handline lie east of St. Jacques Island.  And not just anywhere east of the island.  The water is devil-deep out there so knowing the marks is critical to success.  ‘Knowing the marks’ is knowing where the shoals are located for it is on these shoals the cod congregate. Marks are triangulated by locations on the shoreline.  For example, if you keep Boxey Point open between the two sections of the Island, Eastern Point aligned with ‘the scrape’ on the western side of St. Jacques Harbour and Sandy Point on the Island touching a particular promontory at the entrance to the Harbour you will locate yourself on St. Jacques Shoal where the most shallow area is approximately two hundred feet deep.

Cut your motor, lower the handline with its single hook over the side and then saw away until the line suddenly becomes taut and the excitement begins. It’s not that cod are fierce fighting fish when on the hook.  Unlike a salmon if you attempt to play the fish in all likelihood you will lose it.   A codfish is more content to swim in the direction it is being pulled. Therefore hauling the line in hand-over-hand, permitting it to gather on the bottom of the boat around ones feet, must be carried out with a consistent pattern else it come off the hook.  And when it does come off the hook during its ill-fated journey to the surface it is quite evident for all resistance disappears and a feeling of disappointment travels from the line to one’s heart.  Like every form of fishing it is always the biggest ones which get away.

The exhilaration of hauling back two hundred feet of line, salty water splashing against pant legs culminates when the blackish water is broken by the sudden appearance of a whitish flicker about twenty feet down.  Within a few seconds the prize is hoisted out of the water, held momentarily to admire, then taken off the hook and stored away out of the sunlight. Each person in the boat may catch five each up to a limit of fifteen per boat per day that the season is open.  It isn’t the quantity or even the quality of the catch that resonates with this newly-acquired summer ritual. That has more to do with a line that runs through time rather than the one which runs to the bottom.

As a child I frequently accompanied my grandfather to this shoal and another commonly called the ‘Terfer’ Shoal or in some articulation, the ‘Derfer’ Shoal.  Either way you say it, the name derives from “Thoroughfare” Shoal which is located between the Island and the land, a body of water approximately a kilometer wide.  Most of the time my task was to ‘keep up’ which meant putting oars in the water, keeping the dory headed into the wind and rowing to maintain your position over the shoal.  If one didn’t ‘keep up’ good enough the dory would drift off the shoal into deeper water where fewer cod would be found. There were also those occasions when he handed me the jigger while he broke out his thermos and lunch box for a mid-morning snack usually consisting of home-made bread lathered with butter and molasses accompanied by raisin tea buns. My first taste of strong tea was on St. Jacques Shoal served across the engine house with the smell of fish all around.  It was a special day when in the middle of the ‘mug-up’ my jigger line nearly jumped out of my hand as a determined codfish bit firmly on the feathered bait.

To this day the act of lowering a line over the side brings to mind those experiences and also provokes thoughts of those generations of men and women who toiled from before dawn to dusk repeatedly hauling one-fish-at-a-time over the gunnels in a subsistence way of life.

Days before John Cabot purportedly lowered baskets over the side of his vessel to haul up cod in abundance Indigenous peoples knew of their value as did the Basque fishermen who hailed from across the Atlantic.  In the wake of Cabot, Northern Europeans set their sights on this valuable commodity which led to sporadic settlement patterns, particularly along the south coast and Fortune Bay.  We know that when Captain James Cook charted Fortune Bay in 1765 there were families living in St. Jacques. After that the population ebbed and flowed until the early 1800’s when the community took on fervent growth.  This was when codfish became a bigger commercial commodity led by merchants and buyers from other countries.  Still, fishermen toiled to haul these fish into their small boats and process their catch onshore.

For my grandfather and generations before him their sole method of catching fish was a line with a single weighted hook at the end threaded through a piece of herring, a capelin or whatever ‘bait fish’ was in season to attract  the cod as the line was pulled up and let down within a few feet of the ocean bottom.  He also used a ­­­lead jigger with opposing hooks embedded in it known to us as a ‘stunner’.  These were the staple tools for many open-boat fishermen.  Every fishing stage held a two-sided mould shaped like a small fish into which molten lead was poured to set the hooks.  Once cooled the mould was opened, the rough edged filed and readied for use.  As a child it was magical to observe the process.  Once poured the anticipation in waiting for cooling before seeing the final form was an exciting event in  days of a child; perhaps my first exposure to the manufacturing process.

Some of these fishermen also used nets, trawls and seines at various times of the year.  Prior to mechanical assisted hauling these too were hauled over the ‘gunnels’ to harvest their catch. Whatever means they used required attendance upon the sea in open boats which for generations were propelled by either rowing or sailing.

Standing, feet braced, and sawing back and forth on the line brings on muscle memories, cultural memories and familial memories of men in early mornings their faces, weathered by sun and salt, gazing at the horizon  or friends in another dory not far away. The act demands resonance with these people who populated our town and cemetery.  It calls forth their stalwart determination to succeed, their stubbornness against the odds of unforgiving seas and the physical challenges they must have faced as they plied their chosen trade through all seasons.  One can imagine wary and weary eyes monitoring the accumulation of fish in their dories, assessing the winds, the tides and the time required to reach shore for all factors came to bear with nothing more than human strength to propel them homeward.

Though not something to be dwelling on when out in the middle of Fortune Bay in an open boat, those who slipped below the waves never to be heard from again also come to mind. Dories loaded too low in the water were constantly in danger of being swamped when a single mistake or a rogue wave came over the side.  Moving about in a dory in heavy seas wearing cumbersome oilskins walking on wet slick surfaces often proffered the same outcome.  Then there is the fog, the wall of greyness which silently creeps in over the bay and eliminates visual referents.  Prior to the late nineteen twenties there was no foghorn on St. Jacques Island to guide them safely back to harbour. A compass and experience then became the tools for survival and sometimes they weren’t enough.

It would be foolhardy to suggest the experience now of hand lining for cod has significant resemblance to that of forbearers.   Vessel construction has changed, seaworthiness has improved, navigation equipment such a GPS is the norm, cell phones keep us in touch, opportunities to catch cod are limited by governments, and catch limits are imposed per person, per boat, per day.  Those of us not full-time fishermen of St. Jacques engage in the practice recreationally thereby availing of reasonable hours to fish. Our experiences are not driven by economic necessity thus there is no necessity to brave adverse conditions to fish.

Yet, the experience holds a transfixing power, an echo across time.  There are feelings beyond words which enter one’s mind and body on such occasions. Are they spiritual; are they sentiment; are they poetic?  Are they all of these? I just know they are;  and for a few weeks each summer I can feel the ocean rolling beneath my feet, smell the pungency of my ocean, lick salt spray from my lips, reflect and feel as one with my surroundings as I saw the line back and forth across the gunwale.

Cod Fishing St. Jacques Shoal July 2016

Cod Fishing St. Jacques Shoal July 2016

Posted by: alexhickey | July 1, 2016

Choosing a Lens on Newfoundland in the Great War ©

National War Memorial of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's

National War Memorial of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John’s (Wikipedia)

On this one hundredth anniversary of an event which transformed the world and Newfoundland along with it, it is important to keep in perspective the things we say and do.  There is a tendency among some to define the Great War of 1914-18 exclusively through the lens of the Newfoundland Regiment, particularly the first five hundred men who volunteered and their blue puttees. On top of that there is also a tendency to reduce the total Great War effort of Newfoundland and Labradorians to a single day, a single battle on July 1st, 1916.

Beaumont-Hamel, as part of the first day of the Somme Offensive, which lasted for almost five months, was a tragedy in every respect for British forces, of which the Newfoundland Regiment was a part.  It was a tragedy of communications, leadership, vision, of misguided organization and a thorough lack of respect for human life by the upper military ranks. It was particularly tragic for the Newfoundland Regiment which was nearly wiped out; the single biggest loss of human life in one day in our history.  This event was a defining moment in our history and we should remember those who bravely stepped into the line of fire and were slaughtered that day.

Yet, there is more to the role of the Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War which we must also never forget. In many books there is a glorification of those who died; but what of those who didn’t die? What of those Regiment members who weren’t on that battlefield that day? What of the survivors of that battle?  Was their effort any less on that day? Was their heroism somewhat reduced because they survived the massacre? We must be cautious that we don’t allow our greatest loss on the battlefield to define our collective war effort and our collective memory.

There were many more battles, many where the Newfoundland Regiment led or contributed greatly to victory.  Battles like Monchy-le-Proux, Cambrai, Gueudecourt, etc.; battles where soldiers from our many Newfoundland and Labrador outports gave their lives, earned medals and commendations for their bravery.

And, there was more to the war effort than the Regiment. There were the Royal Naval Reserves and the Forestry Corp; there were those who served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, and those who served with United States Forces and those of other countries.  All of these men and women served Newfoundland and the “Mother Country”.  Many of them died in far-off places like Egypt and Gallipoli; torpedoed on the ocean, lying in hospitals, during training and elsewhere. Their sacrifices were no less.

Those who survived the Great War, however and wherever they served, suffered injuries physical and mental, grieved for fallen comrades, lost limbs, memories and some even lost their minds. They too must be remembered; they who came home, the ‘lucky ones’ who were condemned to recall and remember the horrors of what they’d seen and experienced until death gave them reprieve. Many of them suffered in silence without help, without support.  Many were forced to fight again for assistance from a government which had begged, cajoled and shamed them into volunteering in the first place.  We must remember them as well.

In our haste to remember, to commemorate, we must also not forget that soldiers came from all over the Dominion of Newfoundland.  Much is spoken and written of the men and women who enlisted from the families of politicians, merchants and fraternities or well-known city schools in the capital city.  Yes, their efforts were important and should be held up to our eyes today. But in doing so let’s remember that their service was no greater than those who came from communities all around our fair Dominion.  There is a tendency to glorify family names as though the young men and women born into those names held more value than others of other parentage. In the end, on the battlefield, in the forests, the hospitals, they are all soldiers with one life to live, one life to give; all with families, lovers, friends at home.

Let’s not forget the impact of losing a half dozen young men from a small community had on the future of that community. As we embark on the 100th commemoration let’s remember all who came forth and laid their lives on the line; let’s remember the fallen; let’s remember the survivors; let’s remember the injured; let’s remember the families whose children were taken away from home, and let’s remember those parents who died while their children were away fighting in a foreign land.

Let’s remember that for Newfoundland this war was bigger than one place, bigger than those who died or served; bigger than any single day or any single battle.  For if we don’t, we perpetuate the myths and misinformation to another generation thereby making the whole story of Newfoundland’s role in the Great War even more challenging to tell.

In my hometown of St. Jacques we must remember those people who came forward when their country called. We need to remember:

Lieutenant Frank Burke,

Lance Corporal Edgar Skinner,

Lance Corporal Leonard Burke,

Naval Reservist William Skinner,

Sargent Sam Farrell,

Private Anthony Burke,

Private Albert Burke,

Infantryman James Whalen,

Infantryman Jack Pauls,

Private Charles Lee,

Infantryman Reg Fitz-Gerald, and

Sailor John Evans.

These are but the people I have been able to identify who served from St. Jacques.  It is highly likely there were others.  Let’s remember their families and the sacrifices they made during the war; the women who knitted socks, hats and mittens; raised funds to purchase equipment and who wrote letters to soldiers.  Let’s remember the mothers and fathers who waited weeks and months for news from the war, who spent endless nights not knowing.

The twelve men I have been able to identify from St. Jacques all returned.  Some, like Leonard Burke came home injured.  How many of them suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) we will never know. Most would not talk of their experiences in their lifetime.  For some the war didn’t end when they returned home; they re-lived it every night in their dreams for the rest of their lives. Others like Edgar Skinner, Anthony Burke and Sam Farrell volunteered for service again at the outbreak of WW 2.

Finally let us never forget those people who tried their best to comfort the troubled minds of soldiers who so willingly or reluctantly left the warmth and security of their homes to travel around the world to fight in places many of them had never heard of before, and would never forget.  It is quite appropriate to have the ‘forget-me-not’ as the official flower of remembrance of those who served in the Great War.  Some suggest the common field flower which so delicately presents itself throughout the island of Newfoundland came here from Europe following the war, perhaps in the garments of returning soldiers.  That may have happened, yet it is likely the flower bloomed in the backyards of families long before the Great War arrived and the phrase ‘forget-me-not’ fell from the lips of teenage lovers and wives throughout the coves and crannies of Newfoundland and Labrador as their loved ones set off to fight for ‘king and country.

Today, as we contemplate the sacrifices made by all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in the Great War, let’s not only remember those who died but all of those who survived to help build this great place of ours and as many poets have lamented let’s also remember those who were never born. Let us not forget all of the human sacrifices that occurred during those four years between 1914 and 1918, a war that was not expected to last beyond Christmas in the year it broke out.

Wear a ‘Forget-Forget-Me-Not Pin Crafted by Florence Morgan-Thornme-Not’ proudly and during all of the events and discussion around this 100th commemoration.  Remember ALL who sacrificed between 1914 and 1918 and the years which followed all the way down through time to today.

The links below provide more information about Newfoundland and Labrador’s contribution to the Great War.  Take time to explore this momentous event in the cultural, emotional, social and spiritual heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Royal Newfoundland Regiment Web Site where you can find information about the various battles fought by the Regiment in WW1

Royal Newfoundland Regiment War Diary – a document which recorded the day-to-day activities of the Regiment from the first to the last day of the war. This isn’t a story about the war but a document that tells quite a story.

Newfoundland in the First World War – a thorough and detailed site which provided information and documentation of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Forestry Corp, the Naval Reserves and the Regiment.

O’Brien, Patricia Ruth (1981) The Newfoundland Patriotic Association: the administration of the war effort, 1914-1918. Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland. This thesis research provides a look at the role of the Newfoundland Patriotic Association in recruitment during the war.


Posted by: alexhickey | May 1, 2016

Looking at a Photograph ©

Group Portrait by John Staples c.1900

Group Portrait by John Staples c.1900

Conducting research is occasionally like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  You feel confident there is a needle in there but to find it means examining every piece of hay surrounding it until finally your eyes see what you’ve been looking for.  And, sometimes, even though you know it’s there you never come across it. Then, there are times you find something that you know is significant but there is absolutely no contextual information to make sense of it.

Like all communities there is a rich and complex social, cultural and historical heritage to St. Jacques.  No one person has a complete record of that heritage and like most communities there has never been any concerted effort to create an archive of materials or to record the heritage.  That leaves any of us interested in our past to search through whatever we can that has a connection to the community.  It means talking to people, asking questions in an attempt to put diverse bits of information together to create a reasonable picture of an event or person.

A while ago a friend was generous to pass on to me a collection of photographs taken by John Staples, a photographer who worked in St. Jacques around the 1900’s and later. Among them was a group photo taken outdoors beside a body of water.  Neither he nor I know who is in the picture.  This is where you come in.

Photographs are full of information and we can learn a lot from them.  This photograph represents something real that took place in a particular moment. At the same time, it is something created by the photographer.  A photographic image is never completely neutral and devoid of information.  It contains decisions about how the people were posed, where they were posed and how they are positioned within the image, as well as information about the time in which the photograph was created. However, it isn’t a one way street. When we look at the photograph we take an active role in interpreting it.  We are influenced by our culture, values and beliefs which affect how we view and interpret the image.  Whenever we take time to look at a photograph, we engage in a process of decoding it, that is looking for information contained within it.

How would you decode this photograph?  Take a few minutes to read through the process outlined below then go back to the photograph and apply what you have learned.  If you are able to draw any conclusions or offer any insight into who is in this photo and any information surrounding it please post at the end of the page.

There are questions to ask and conclusions to draw.  A standard method is to first describe the image, then attempt to analyze it before placing interpretation on it and forming conclusions.

Describe the Image

  • What are the essential things you see in the photograph?
  • Does the photograph have a title?
  • Who is the photographer who took the picture?
  • When and where was the photograph taken?
  • Describe the subject matter. Are there people in the photograph? Adults or children? Indoors or outdoors? Does it show the country or the community?
  • How has the photographer arranged the subject(s) in the image?

Analyze the Image
A photographer makes decisions when composing a photograph; decisions about when, where, time of day, sometimes day of week, background, foreground, how much of the environment is included and the arrangement of people or objects in the image. Look at some of these decisions to see if there are any clues in the photo?   Look at the clothes they are wearing? What can you tell from what they are wearing? How old do these people appear to be? What might the relationships be between the people? Are there clues in their facial expressions and body language which might suggest something about them?  What is in the background? Is there anything recognizable that may provide a clue? Can you tell anything about overall mood or feeling of the image and the people in it?

Interpreting the Photograph
This is the point where you draw conclusions about the photograph.  Is it possible to say what is happening in the photograph? What was the intent of the subjects and the photographer in creating this picture? Why was it taken? Why was it taken at this location? Why did the photographer arrange the people in this way?  What is left out of the photo? Is there anything that can tell us the time period when the photo was taken? Does the photo have different meaning to you as a viewer now compared with what it might have meant to those in the photograph when it was taken?  Why would this group of people want to be photographed together?  What are their relationships?

Evaluating the Photograph
You are now at the final stage of decoding the photo. What does this image make you think?  What is the significance of the image? Has its significance changed over time?  Is it a useful piece of information for research purposes?  Does it tell us anything about St. Jacques? Is it really set in St. Jacques? What does it add to our knowledge of the history of the community?

Share your discoveries and conclusions.  Help me make sense of this photograph.

Posted by: alexhickey | March 3, 2016

The S.S. Portia ©

Coastal Boats or “Steamers” hold a fond place in the hearts of St. Jacques residents whose memories reach back to the early eighties and beyond. Fond recollections of the ships whistle as it rounded the point, trips taken or the rush wharf-ward to welcome each visit, are widely recalled. Through the eyes of a child these ships were of mammoth proportions and stories of their heroics intrigued young minds. So much so that the mere mention of a ships name evokes stirring memories. There was one such vessel which travelled with me into adulthood and only recently was I able to piece together the details of its St. Jacques connection.

Beginning in 1851 when Newfoundland assumed control over its postal service, a marine shipping service took root along the coasts of the island and Labrador which not only shaped the course of history along those coasts but also the lives of generations.

Initially the vessels were wooden schooners hired by government to carry mail within regions such as Placentia and Fortune Bays. Their itineraries saw them travelling to and from designated ports dropping off and picking up mail. Not all communities had harbours accessible to schooners nor did all communities have wharves where they could dock in those days. Consequently there were key delivery points from which mail was further delivered overland to other communities. Some of these mail routes later became roads between communities while others retained their status as trails and are still known today.

A decade later the government, in response to a combination of need and demand, decided to implement a regular steamer service which would also carry passengers. The first of these was the Victoria, followed by the Ariel, the Leopard and the Tiger, all of which provided service in various parts of the country. Throughout the next century ships with names that include the Conscript, Volunteer, Alert, Hump, Home, Bruce, Sagona, Fogota, Clyde, Argyle, Ethie, Fife, Lintrose, Meigle, Dundee, Prospero and the Virginia Lake served along the extensive Newfoundland coastline.

Along the south coast more familiar names include the Northern Ranger, Glencoe, Kyle, Burgeo, Nonia, Springdale, Bonavista, Bar Haven, Baccalieu, Malakoff, Hopedale, Petite Forte and Taverner. In later years the smaller and faster Marine Runner, Marine Courier and Marine Sprinter offered the service as road networks reduced the need for larger vessels to provide coastal transportation and shipping.

One steamer, now almost forgotten in terms of its service along the south coast is the S.S. Portia named after Portia the heroine of William Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, whose beauty was matched only by her intelligence. The Portia has a particular connection with St. Jacques, one which occurred on the night of March 18th, 1921 during a severe and blinding snow storm.

steamship portia

S.S. Portia

Prior to the outbreak of World War 1 The S. S. Portia was assigned to what was known as the “Western Route” and called on the following places as it made its way along the southern coast of Newfoundland: Cape Broyle, Ferryland, Fermeuse, Trepassey, St. Mary’s, Salmonier, Placentia, Marystown, Burin, St. Lawrence, Lamaline, Fortune, Grand Bank, Belleoram, St. Jacques, Harbour Breton, Pass Island, Hermitage, Gaultois, Pushthrough, Richard’s Harbour, Rencontre West, Francois, Cape La Hune, Ramea, Burgeo, Rose Blanche, Channel, Bay of Islands and Bonne Bay. The S. S. Portia was a sister ship to the S.S. Prospero which serviced the “Northern Route.”

This Portia wasn’t the first ship by that name to ply Newfoundland waters. The first Portia provided service between St. John’s, Halifax and New York City for fifteen years between 1884 and 1889, the year it was wrecked on the shore outside of Halifax. Following the wreck the Portia was replaced by a new vessel, the Sylvia, on that run.

The second steam ship, the S. S. Portia under discussion here, was built by the firm of Murdoch and Murry in Glasgow, Scotland and launched on July 02, 1904. The ship was owned by C.T. Bowring & Co Ltd, of Liverpool until 1912 when its ownership was transferred to Bowring Bros Ltd. Of St. John’s. Bowring & Co were hired by the Newfoundland government to deploy the S. S. Portia as part of its coastal service.

When Bowring’s’ subsidized coastal steamer contract expired in 1923, ownership of the Portia was assumed by the Newfoundland government as part of the Newfoundland Railway. It continued to serve coastal residents until it was retired in 1940. The Portia and Sagona were both retired that year and replaced by the Burgeo and Baccalieu. In 1941 the Portia was sold to Bowater’s Newfoundland Pulp & Paper Mills, whose head office was in St. John’s. In 1942 the Portia was again sold, this tie to N.D. Allen of Panama where it remained until 1945 when its ownership moved to Manuel Velliantis, also of Panama. In 1946 Kapotis & Baits of Alexandria, Egypt became the Portia’s new owners. This didn’t last long for she was destroyed in a fire on October 27th, 1946.

The luxurious Portia could accommodate 150 passengers. The vessel became quite well known in coastal Newfoundland. Captain Abram Kean brought the vessel from Scotland on its maiden voyage and was the ship’s master for most of the next 15 years during which it served on both the “Northern Route” and the “Southern Route”. Wesley Kean, J.W. Kean, Thomas Connors and Thomas Pierre Fitzpatrick all commanded the steamer.
The Newfoundland Quarterly, America, History and Life, Vol. 4-6, June 1904 carried a short article which described the Portia:

“ Her lines are beautiful and graceful, and she has proved herself an excellent sea boat … The ship accommodates sixty first class passengers and ninety second class passengers. Her staterooms are most comfortable, even luxuriously furnished throughout, and she is fitted with all of the modern improvements of a first class British passenger ship. She steams at an average of ten knots, but she made twelve and a half knots on her trial trip. She has triple expansion engines and her dimensions are: – length, 200 feet; breadth, 30 feet; depth, 15 feet 3 inches; gross tonnage, 978, net 599; speed 12 ½ knots. Besides being luxurious in all her appointments, her salon, music rooms, smoking rooms, etc., being furnished with mahogany, upholstered with plush, she is also comfortably heated throughout by steam. She is lit by electricity and has a powerful search light as well as electric masthead and port and starboard lights, and when all her lights are going as she enters a harbour after nightfall, she presents a most brilliant spectacle. All the berths on the ship are fitted with life vests of the very best kind and everything that science can suggest or money can purchase is supplied for passenger safety and comfort. Added to this the table is bountifully supplied with good wholesome food, carefully prepared and daintily served. Is it any wonder then that the Portia and her sister ship the Prospero have bounded into public favour, and are likely, for years to come, to be patronized by the travelling public?” (Newfoundland Quarterly, 1904)

captain tom connors on deck of the ss portia

Capt. Tom Connors on the S.S. Portia

This was the elegantly described vessel which, on its regular trip along the south coast in March 1921, encountered what was reported to be a severe blizzard upon entering Fortune Bay. This was likely a Nor’easter which had developed along the eastern seaboard of continental North America and steered northeast to Newfoundland by the jet stream. Typically this type of storm is preceded by a slow-moving high pressure area which parks itself over Newfoundland. This condition captures cool moist air which the nor’easter bring onshore in the form of high winds and blowing snow resulting in a winter storm which can lash away at the south coast of the island for several days without break.

Under the circumstances the Portia was forced to make a run for St. Jacques where greater shelter and safety beckoned. Grand Bank, because of its inadequate harbour, could not offer shelter from the heavy southeast winds and driving snow. Captain Tom Connors, a veteran sailor who was no stranger to sea and wind conditions on the south coast, charted a course in a north-north-easterly direction for the entrance to St. Jacques Harbour.
It was reported that the snow fell with such intensity that the light on St. Jacques Island, normally visible out the bay as far as Garnish was not visible first or last. Not a glimmer could be seen from the beacon mariners had come to rely on in the thirteen years since its installation. As the ship approached her sheltered destination those on the Bridge peered fruitlessly through the blinding wall of snow and darkness for any familiar feature. Though they knew their charts and trusted their compass, fiercely buffeting winds left the crew with an uneasiness that would only dissipate once they lay at anchor or tied to a wharf in St. Jacques.

It is highly likely that someone on the bridge had been keeping an eye clock-ward thinking they would soon be nearing shelter when a shudder passed from stem to stern, the howling winds out-classed by an even more sinister sound of metal scraping the ocean bottom. Searchlights were hastily pointed downward as the ship came to a stop, loose objects chaotically tumbling and flying with the impact. Crashing waves sent spumes of spray through the intense beams of light now scanning the near invisible shoreline.

The Portia had run aground at 5:30 am on Friday morning, March 18th. The first report received by the Minister of Shipping’s Department said that the S. S Portia had gone ashore about one and a half miles west of St. Jacques during a snow and wind storm early that morning. The report stated that the steamer was undamaged and not leaking. It further stated that it was expected she would float off at high tide. The S. S Senef, which was tied up at Belleoram, was then ordered to proceed to the location of the Portia to provide assistance. The Evening Telegram of St John’s reported in their afternoon paper that a severe blizzard had thrown Newfoundland shipping and railroad traffic in to confusion because of its severity. It noted that the “coastal steamer Portia was driven ashore at St. Jacques, Fortune Bay, and is in a dangerous position. She is jettisoning her cargo tonight and the steamer Senef has gone to her assistance.” (Evening Telegram, March 18th 1921)

It was this jettisoning of cargo that led me to the event. As a child my grandmother told me a story of how my great-grandfather had secured a full barrel of flour from the ocean when a steamer ran aground outside the harbour in a winter storm. I remember asking why the flour didn’t get wet while it was in the water and she explained how it only got wet on the outside and that prevented the water from going any farther. She added that other people from the community were also successful in securing a variety of merchandise and food supplies. Grandmother went on to tell me that the steamer’s name was Portia.

Many times during the ensuing decades I wondered about the story and I wondered about the Portia. As an adult I asked my parents, uncles and aunts as well as other elderly people about the story but none remembered any details of it. With no evidence of a wrecked vessel on the coastline west of St. Jacques harbour and no witness to corroborate the story I had just about concluded it was nothing more than a story to intrigue a small child’s curious imagination.

A couple of years ago I began thinking about the story again. This time I took a research approach. I reasoned that grandmother must have either heard the story from my great grandparents or had witnessed it during her earliest days in St. Jacques after marrying my grandfather in 1924. Since none of her children knew the story I concluded it happened before they were born. Thus, my search began. I found out that the Portia was introduced to coastal service in 1904. That gave me a twenty year window through which to narrow my focus. Research into coastal boat schedules placed the Portia on the north and east coast during her first years of service which further narrowed the window. From there it simply became a day-by-day review of newspapers from that time focusing on the winter months. It was through this I found out my grandmother had been sharing with me oral history in the best way that such histories are told – in story form.

The Portia was specially fitted in the bow to contend with ice. She was frequently called upon to break ice in harbours and channels as she made her way along the coast. This was particularly true in the Bay of Islands, especially in Corner Brook, one of her furthermost port of call on the west coast. This reinforcement worked to her advantage on that day in Fortune Bay.

Newspaper reports on March 21st spoke of the storm and efforts to re-float the Portia. This was successfully done Monday morning with assistance from the S.S. Senef and the S.S. Daisy who secured cables to the Portia and with the buoyancy of a rising tide coupled with the offloading of cargo, tugged her back to a floating position. The Portia then proceeded to the wharf in St. Jacques under her own steam. Initial assessments showed there were no punctures or serious damage to the hull. However, in the interest of safety it was decided the trip westward would be cancelled and the Portia would return to St. John’s to go on dry dock to carry out whatever repairs were necessary. The New York Times, March 21, reported that “The mail steamer Portia was re-floated this morning at high tide and is coming on to St. John’s under her own steam, after being on the rocks at the entrance to the harbour of St. Jacques on the coast of Newfoundland for the better part of two days.” Captain Connors took the ship to St. John’s arriving there at 1:30 on Thursday of that week.

In St John’s a diver by the name of Squires was sent down to examine the hull of the Portia to determine whether or not she needed to go on dry dock. He carried out a detailed inspection and concluded the ship was sound and would not need any repairs.

The reports of the accident place the Portia aground either a mile and a half west of the entrance to St. Jacques Harbour or immediately outside of the Harbour. It seems unlikely to me that the experienced Captain Connors would miscalculate a course he had completed many times before by a mile and a half despite the weather. The shoreline at that distance from St. Jacques Harbour is fairly rugged in areas with underwater crags which could readily damage a hull. On the other hand, there is a gravel beach just west of the harbour entrance where, had the Portia struck there, it is likely she wouldn’t have suffered much damage. Since the Portia didn’t suffer any serious damage from the grounding this seems most likely. An error of a hundred feet during a blinding snow storm is understandable.

The Portia held a special place in the hearts of people along the south coast and even though they were inconvenienced by the accident they remained appreciative of the service the ship provided as their only transportation highway. Though the names of vessels changed with the years that mode of transportation helped foster social identity, commerce, communication and economic development. Perhaps most of all it contributed to storytelling and the sharing of culture among a people who measured their lives by the visits of coastal boats.

Posted by: alexhickey | January 27, 2016

The ‘Queen Mary’ of St. Jacques ©

The 1935 Census of St. Jacques shows 380 people living in the community, many of Irish and English descent. If you listened carefully you would still hear a few distinct, still unchanged accents of English and Irish emigrants among those residents who were born in those countries. Dr. Conrad Fitz-Gerald and Matthew Hunt were from England while Father John Curran, Mother Alphonsus, Sister Patrick, and Patrick McEvoy were from Ireland. Others like Albion Dinham, his brother Isaac Dinham, William Dawe and Henrietta Burke were born of a parent who came from England. Barry Lynch’s father was born in Ireland. All in all there was still a strong connection between St. Jacques and Europe consequently a fairly high level of interest in events happening across the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite the economic Depression which blanketed the western world in 1935 there was still an air of expectancy and excitement in the lives of people in St. Jacques. Trading vessels came and went from the Harbour, delivering goods and services to other communities throughout Fortune Bay and along the rest of the south coast of Newfoundland. Fishing schooners changed crews and unloaded their catches from the Grand Banks, and schools taught children a great deal more than to simply read and write. As the 1930’s gave way to the 1940’s life began to improve for many.

The mail boats delivered the Daily News newspaper from St. John’s to its local subscribers and the Twillingate Sun to others. In some households one could read a variety of newspapers from the Boston States and now and then The London Times or The Irish Times. Radios were no longer a novelty. Rising from the sides of many houses were radio antennae which reached to the roof where the bare copper wire was secured to a solitary stick attached to the eaves of the house and sometimes strung like a clothesline to another building or to a pole erected forty feet from the house in an effort to find the broadcast signal. Inside the dial was set to the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland (BCN) where news of the world was re-broadcast to listeners throughout Newfoundland who could pick up its signal.

Against this background the people of St. Jacques were quite aware of world events so it was of little wonder that the maiden voyage of the RMS Queen Mary was noted and discussed among the population. On March 24, 1936 the Daily News reported that the Liner Queen Mary successfully completed the first stage of her journey down the Clyde River in Scotland.

The Queen Mary on her Maiden Voyage.

The Queen Mary on her Maiden Voyage.

Later that year on June 1, it reported that the Cunard White Star liner Queen Mary entered New York on her maiden voyage, failing to make a speed record. She had been less than an hour slower than the SS Normandie. Sometime after that the name Queen Mary was given to a local landmark which endured for almost forty years.

Imagine a summer evening and teenagers strolling around the harbour; the game of life and courtship in full swing. The clothes will look different and the slang or jargon spoken by youth will vary, depending upon whether it is the decade of the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s or early 60’s – yet, the behaviours will be much the same. You’ll see clusters of them walking around the harbour, an ebb and flow to their numbers and formations as they stroll, much the same as a flock of birds in flight. Occasionally a couple will break away from the group and wander along their own path at their own pace, sometimes re-joining the group or spending the rest of the evening as a couple.

There will be favourite locations for the group to pause and ‘hang out’. One of these was the ‘Queen Mary’, a large naturally occurring rectangular rock about ten feet in length along the side of the road adjacent to what was then known as Red Rail Hill. The rock has an inordinately smooth surface on the top, square at one end and tapered like the bow of a ship at the other. Exposed by workers when the first rudimentary roads were constructed around the harbour over a century earlier, the rock rested up on the hillside until several enterprising young men during the early 1940’s decided to lever it from its resting place and move it down the incline to the side of the road. It was this group of young people who dubbed the rock, the ‘Queen Mary’. If it had been christened with another name prior to this, then the name had been lost to history as is almost the name ‘Queen Mary’.

The photo below doesn’t show the ‘Queen Mary’, however, it does locate it. The rock was positioned to the lower right of this image, just outside the fame.

Red Rail Hill 1960

Red Rail Hill 1960

How the RMS Queen Mary received its name is equally as interesting. It is told that the builders of the ship intended to name her after Queen Victoria; however, when a representative of the Cunard Company told King George V that they wished to name the new ocean liner after Britain’s greatest queen, he replied that he was quite pleased they would be naming the ship after his wife, Queen Mary. With that answer, there was no going back to the first choice. We don’t know exactly the date the St. Jacques ‘Queen Mary’ received its name or who gave it that distinction; however, we do know it reflected the British Liner Queen Mary which had been launched a few years earlier in 1936.

In its more vernacular description it was also known as ‘the courting rock’, for it frequently supported a single couple as they explored their relationship and got to know each others nuances. When sitting on the ‘Queen Mary’, you were positioned to look straight out through the mouth of St. Jacques Harbour and beyond to the wider Atlantic Ocean. The number of young people sitting there varied and waned as the evening wore on, leaving those in more serious relationships alone as darkness crept over the harbour.

The Royal Steamship Queen Mary’s reign of the seas came to an end when she was officially retired from service in 1967. Her last voyage took place from Southampton, England on October 31, 1967 bound for Long Beach, California, United States. Today the Queen Mary is a floating restaurant, museum and motel. It was around that time that the ‘Queen Mary’ of St. Jacques met its end. The main road passing through the community was widened and upgraded; small hills were leveled and depressions filled in. The ‘Queen Mary’, had it been left as it was, would be near the middle of the north lane of the road as it is today. Sadly, with the herculean efforts of a bulldozer, the rock was dislodged and sent crashing down the embankment to the shoreline where it was buried with successive loads of fill as the roadbed was widened.

Today, the St. Jacques ‘Queen Mary’ isn’t a restaurant, museum or hotel. Nor is it a courting rock! Its pieces have blended into the landscape along with the voices and bodies of many of those who sat there on its deck staring out to sea, on a voyage of life that took them to many corners of the earth and back.

Evening View From the 'Queen Mary' Rock in St. Jacques

Evening View From the ‘Queen Mary’ Rock in St. Jacques

Posted by: alexhickey | December 24, 2015

Christmas is About Home

St. Jacques Harbour, Christmas 2015

St. Jacques Harbour, Christmas 2015

In these waning days of the year we are buoyed by the anticipation of seeing or hearing from family and friends. In some parts of our country there’s anticipation of new friends among those from other countries and cultures who need a place like ours to live in peace. It’s a special time for many, a time to reflect, recall and share old memories, a time to make new memories. Sometimes it is a visit to ’home’, wherever that may be and however one gets there.

Traditionally, in the Newfoundland fishery, vessels returned to home port for Christmas, their crews dispersing on voyages to their home communities. For some crewmen it was a short walk from the dock in places like Lunenburg, Nova Scotia while others from the same ship could look forward to days travelling on trains, ferries and coastal boats, all with one goal in mind, ‘to get home for Christmas.’ Today, the business of fishing offshore doesn’t pause and crews who work the Christmas shift make the best of their situation through humour, the savouring of keepsakes and storytelling in their home away from home. Each person on those crews bring to mind different yet similar memories and no matter what their circumstance, all define it as home.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station weightlessly flying around the world several times each day look down on home in a way most of us will never experience. Coming from different countries, religious practices and political beliefs, their home is a fragile blue planet called earth.

For many of us home is that place where we were born or spent our childhood days. For some it’s where we have chosen to live and for others it’s where life’s journey has taken us, willing or not. Through the centuries there have been thousands who’ve called St. Jacques home. Though they may have travelled afar there are those who were born here, lived here and died here, spending decade after decade gazing at the harbour and its surrounding hills, witnesses to change and the passage of time.

Those who ventured to St. Jacques from other shores and claimed a part of it as theirs also called it home. Dr. Conrad Fitz-Gerald left his birthplace of Marlborough, England to serve as a medical doctor to Newman and Company at their business in Harbour Breton in the 1870’s. After retirement in 1902 he and his wife Keturah, who was born in Nova Scotia, moved to St. Jacques where they built an impressive three story house they named Mt. Pleasant. St. Jacques became their home, a place they loved and from which he would never leave.

Maurice Burke, his parents and siblings, move to St. Jacques during the early 1940’s reconnecting with a family heritage which reached back to the earliest days of the community. Though, as an adult employment took him to St. John’s, he cherished every opportunity to meet someone from home, to catch up on the latest events, to show off the recent photograph he’d found of the place or to reminisce. His passion for the place he called home led him to publish a book, Memories of Outport Life, stories of life, people and events he witnessed growing up in St. Jacques. Anyone who met him would offer the same observation, ‘though he moved, he never left St. Jacques.’ At Christmas time he had his many traditions and events in and around St. John’s, yet his heart and soul felt most at peace when he reflected on Christmases he spent ‘home’.

Just as Conrad’s, Maurice’s and other families have done for generations we take out of boxes those trinkets and objects we ritually display on our Christmas tree. These artifacts and treasures we’ve kept over the years help define home. Through them we tell and retell the stories of our Christmases lived and in some instances reach back to Christmases before our time in handling a decoration or souvenir of a grandparent or family member of an earlier generation. Sacred secular touchstones is what they are. And, even when the realization occurs that too much Christmas decorations have inadvertently been accumulated and the purge takes place, those things which remind us of people and place are the ones we carefully stow away for retrieval again next year.

Whether we live in an ancestral home mere feet away from where earlier generations toiled and celebrated or in an apartment so physically removed from that place ancestors walked that we shall never touch that soil again, we share the same feeling during this season. It doesn’t really matter if we say the words Merry Christmas or Season’s Greetings to each other; what matters is that we greet each other and acknowledge each others presence in whatever place we live whether we call it home or not. In that acknowledgement we help build home and place. We bring to it all of what Christmas means to us emotionally and historically and welcome others into that feeling. That’s where it feels like home!

During the twelve days of Christmas in St. Jacques there is time to explore again what it all means and why being thankful brings its own reward. There will be family to visit in the warmth of their homes or in the coolness of their final resting places. So too will there be friends to hug and share a laugh with in the corner store; people whose faces are part of the mosaic of our lives. Traditions climb out of their storage spaces as well and set in motion events we will relish each time they occur. Cutting an evergreen tree in behind St. Jacques Pond to become the centerpiece of our home is one of those traditions. It is never perfectly shaped like artificial trees, nor does it win any awards. It does, however, spread the incredible scent of the forest throughout the living room to remind us of nature and the beauty which surrounds all who live here. It connects us to every other Christmas tree that’s stood in its place and it gives us another opportunity to handle each of those treasured objects we hang on its branches.

Then there are the visits, the shared meals and the storytelling as evenings wear thin. Of course, in a town where there exists two denominations of roughly equal proportions, there are Christmas Eve services to attend. Usually its late afternoon or early evening in Sacred Heart Church followed within an hour or so in St Michael and All Angel’s Church. There won’t be any difficulty finding a place to sit again this year for each time the event rolls around there seems to be fewer and fewer folks attending. In that respect St. Jacques is not unique.

In many other ways it is not unique either. It’s a small town on a coastline in the north Atlantic where change is gradual, where the seasons rotate on schedule and people go about their daily lives with ordinary regularity. Yet, to everyone who does or has ever called it home it is one of the most unique places on earth. Just as folks trek to Bethlehem or Mecca or any place they hold special in their hearts, so too do many of us trek to St. Jacques for the Christmas season. Those of us who get to stand on its shore and breathe the salt-laden crisp winter air feel we have arrived and there is nowhere else to go. Those of us who travel in our hearts and minds relish vivid memories and recollections of Christmas events that shaped our lives in that little town and recall how special those fleeting moments were.

It is intriguing how we so easily agree with that line in Bud Davidge’s Mummer’s Song, “Christmas is not like it was.” At the same time that we echo the sentiment we also prepare ourselves for what it is, for it can never be as it was. The passage of time as a constant and circumstance as a variable see to that. As is often said, the world can change in the blink of an eye and too frequently that seems to happen. It happens within our families, within our communities and within our country. Thus, the Christmas we celebrate each year is dynamic, ever-changing, and at the same time familiar. Wherever we are it’s a time for open arms, open hearts and open homes.

Merry Christmas!

come into my house so humble and small,
Let’s drink a toast to us here;
To the twelve days of Christmas, we’ll drink to them all,
With a wish for a Happy New Year.
Bud Davidge, The Mummers Song

Posted by: alexhickey | December 6, 2015

Cellar Hill and Red Rail Hill ©

Change is inevitable; it reaches every small place on this planet. St. Jacques has witnessed a great deal of change since the first fishermen sailed into its harbour and cast envious eyes on its beaches and evergreen clad hills. Residents of the harbour accept the fact that as services are improved some of the old landmarks and features will inevitably undergo transformation. The harbour front has seen wharves, fishing stages and piers come and go, their demise affected by time and the ocean which washes the shoreline around the clock. Houses and public buildings such as churches have been built and dismantled; shorelines have eroded and the forest surrounding the harbour has been razed and replenished endless times to keep families warm.

The roadways which provided public accessibility to various parts of the community have also changed over time. Roads which were maintained rigorously and diligently by local roads boards have in many cases blended into the fields and backyards of today’s residents. A few, such as the Lower Road which provided access to the fishing premises of the Young Brothers for almost two centuries still provides access for today’s fishermen to their sheds and slipways.

At the point where Big Hill immerses its tapered edge into the salt sea of the Harbour, sits the roadway which connects the eastern side of the community to the western side. This short stretch of roadway that skirts along the base of Big Hill underwent significant change during the mid-sixties as the Department of Highways undertook road improvements through the harbour. As part of the main road through the community it also serves as the direct route to Belleoram which lies four kilometres beyond St. Jacques.

Cellar Hill and Red Rail Hill Winter 1970's

Cellar Hill and Red Rail Hill Winter 1970’s

This part of the harbour was recognized by local residents for the magnificent snow drifts which would accumulate every winter. Snow would build up on the hill and taper out over the road and down to the landwash. One’s eyes could travel from the salt water along an unbroken surface of wind-swept snow to the crest of Big Hill and the intense blue sky which usually accompanied the aftermath of a snow storm. There would be no visual reference points of a roadway; no indication that horses, people and vehicles made their way along the edge of the hillside just a day or hours before the storm.

Though there were few residents who experienced skiing, the slope, were it not for the icy water at the end of the exhilarating trip down, would be the envy of many avid skiers. Children rapidly gathered on the slopes, daredevils, who felt no danger and denied the admonitions of parents, took full advantage of the endless carpet to travel at breakneck speeds downhill and at the last possible moment veer off course onto the safety of that portion of the roadway not completely covered by snow.

The deep snow along that section of roadway presented many challenges in the days before roads were plowed during the winter months. In those years a horse and cart was the best and most efficient means of carrying a load of goods or materials from one part of the community to another. On many occasions the goods to be carted around the harbour during winter included the body of a deceased resident heading to the Anglican Church or one on the way to the Roman Catholic Cemetery located on the extreme Western end of the community, for burial. A horse would sink to its belly, each step laboriously taken as it hauled the wooden box on a sled; all hands accompanying it desperately working to keep the sled balanced lest its cargo be toppled off and lost down the snowy slope into the near-frozen harbour. Though often feared, it never happened!

The improvements to this section of roadway meant considerable alteration to the physical landscape. In order to widen the road to contemporary standards portions of the hillside had to be blasted away. Sections of the roadway had to be filled in while other sections had to be leveled. It was in that process that two distinct landmarks on that road disappeared to improved services. Cellar Hill and Red Rail Hill met their end as a result.

Red Rail Hill 1960

Red Rail Hill 1960

Cellar Hill derived its name from a substantial root cellar located on the harbour side below the road. The only house anyone can recall to have ever been built in that precarious location was owned by Mr. Noseworthy who had moved to St. Jacques from Harbour Grace as a younger man. The house was located so close to the edge of the embankment which separated the hill from the ocean below that he had a large post set into the ground and positioned at an angle against the side of the house to assist with maintaining it on the ledge. The cellar was dug into the hillside with a well-structured rock-walled entrance which outlasted the house – hence the name Cellar Hill.

If you were walking east along the road towards Pittman’s’ Brook you would gradually climb the gentle slope up Cellar Hill to be greeted by an incline into a valley and then another hill. This valley gave way to a steeper hill which abruptly dropped off on the other side before leveling off. This was Red Rail Hill, appropriately named because of the fact that the rails installed along the harbour side of the road to protect people and animals from falling into the ocean were painted red. Perhaps an obvious reference to the danger which lurked below, should one inadvertently lose balance and topple into the beach.

Cellar Hill proved to be quite solid granite and had to be blasted with dynamite to reduce it to a level roadway. The valley between the hills was filled with an endless supply of crushed rock quarried near St. Jacques Pond. Red Rail Hill was bull-dozed and finally blasted as well to bring it onto a plane consistent with the rest of the roadway. The distinct red wooden rails gave way to steel guide rails and the undulation of a trip along the base of Big Hill became a smooth, level road. Today one can look along this stretch of Highway 363 and see an almost imperceptible rise and fall in the road bed where Cellar Hill and Red Rail Hill once were. Click on the link below for a Street View of this location.,-55.42527,-259.29h,-10.31p,0.33z

These two hills were the no man’s land of St. Jacques; a place where there were no residents to maintain a watchful eye on youth hanging out in the shadows; no illumination from kitchen windows or viewing planes which would permit the close scrutiny of those who wished to know every detail of life under their noses. As such, teenagers of successive generations found the wooden rails a convenient place to lean against during the waning hours of evening and flirt unabashedly with members of the opposite sex. As darkness crept in over the harbour and set loose evening shadows to blanket the town, couples might be seen holding hands as they wandered off into the night.

There was one steadfast feature just east of Red Rail Hill opposite the rails on the upper side of the road that younger teens could only sit on during daylight and even then to the cajoling and teasing of their peers. That was a large flat, square edged rock variously known as the Queen Mary or Courtin’ Rock depending on your generation. Courtin’ Rock seemed to have some means by which it was reserved by older, more serious couples, further along in their relationships.

Today the names Cellar Hill and Red Rail Hill are rarely mentioned in conversation as they once were. Now and then you might see a few people sitting on the guard rails, pausing in a walk around the harbour or conversing with someone they met where the road dipped between the hills. On an occasional lazy summer afternoon the metallic ring of stones hitting steel will resonate around the harbour as a child bounces a stone off the guard rail into the water. Even winter seems to have forgotten how to blanket the hillside with mounds of snow and block the road for days. In fact, there hasn’t been enough snow to warrant taking out the sleds in years.

The ever-so-gentle rise and fall of the roadway where Big Hill meets the ocean is a subtle reminder of two features which helped define the physical identity of the harbour in previous generations. Soon Cellar Hill and Red Rail Hill be as remote in memory as the location of John Noseworthy’s house between Cellar Hill and the harbour. Today it is hard to imagine a house in that limited space, yet it was definitely there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

John Noseworthy House Below Cellar Hill, 1930's

White Dot  locates John Noseworthy House Below Cellar Hill, 1930’s

Posted by: alexhickey | November 11, 2015

A Salute to My Friend George Paul

Click on the link below for a re-post from 2014.  I learned this morning that my friend George Paul passed away yesterday. In absorbing that news I could think of no better thing to do than to offer this as a celebration of that incredible man.

George grew up in the house shown below. As I walked by there tonight the gentle winds still moved the trees as they did all those years ago.

Family Home of George Paul near Dyett's Shop in St. Jacques

Family Home of George Paul near Dyett’s Shop in St. Jacques

Read George’s obituary here.

Posted by: alexhickey | October 25, 2015

Back Cove ©

Is there a coastal community in Newfoundland which doesn’t have a “back cove?”

St. Jacques Back Cove Beach

St. Jacques Back Cove Beach

The eastern side of St. Jacques feature a protective arm of land which extends southward into Fortune Bay providing the community with an exquisite harbour. It was on the harbour side of this arm that the Burke and Young families established their fishing rooms in the early to mid-1800s; where the Roman Catholics built their first church and where the Presentation Order established their convent in the 1890’s. The Fortune Bay side of the arm faces the spectacular beauty St. Jacques Island. It is along here that we find St. Jacques Back Cove.

By definition, a cove is a sheltered nook or recess along a shoreline. But for a single headland situated approximately one third of the way along the beach there is hardly any shelter that would define this stretch of coastline as a cove. Its pebble beach runs parallel with the treeline and is washed directly by the currents of Fortune Bay. Eastern Point, at the entrance to St. Jacques harbour, breaks most of the southerly and westerly winds while St. Jacques Island breaks some of the impact of winds from the southeast. Easterly winds, however, pound the shore with successive waves sending sprays of white foam all the way to the beach head. Stand there for a few minutes under such circumstances and you will feel the essence of the ocean build up on your face; your lips will pick up the delicate saltiness of the moistened air. Sheltered also from northerly winds, the Back Cove can be a delightful place to visit, to sit on its sun-warmed rocks and watch seagulls, osprey, sea ducks and eagles patrol the passage between the cove and the island.

Just a few years ago one could watch buff coloured, green trimmed dories bobbing at anchor on the Thoroughfare Shoal, or the “Therfer” as it is most commonly known; its occupant’s arms sawing languidly back and forth as weighted jiggers enticed curious cod. Others could be seen drifting casually over the shoal then repeatedly being rowed back to their starting point to drift again. Today, a visitor to the cove would most likely gaze and remember or imagine, while watching modern vessels engaged in the aquaculture industry make their way in and out the bay.

Rarely does the Back Cove attract visitors in the numbers it once did. A well-trodden path once led people up one side of the hill past what in recent years used to be the house lived in by Fred and Alice Hickey. Prior to that, the house was owned by Joseph and Veronica Earle. Many years earlier, long before the Earle house was built, according to local history, the path skirted by the house of Dan Farrell. Today, only remnants of a foundation can be seen of the Farrell house, hidden deep within the trees, known to but a few. The path climbs upward from there and levels at the crest of the hill.

After the climb this is a welcome respite, a place to pause and regain some level of control over one’s breathing and to look in wonder at the expanse of Fortune Bay; to allow ones gaze to follow the contours of the Burin Peninsula just twelve miles away as it disappears into the southern horizon somewhere near Grand Bank. From this vantage point, Chapel Island at the mouth of Belleoram’s harbour is quire visible as is Sugar Loaf Hill near Bay L’Argent. Dominating the ocean are the rugged cliffs of St. Jacques Island which emerge from the ocean’s surface as straight and tall as any skyscraper anywhere. Sandy Point, a spit of pebbles shaped like a tail on the island, points in the direction of the Back Cove.

Between this momentary resting place at the crest of the hill and the salt water is a forest of spruce and fir trees which today have enclosed the pathway leaving it barely discernible. However, when it was passable you climbed down into its shade to emerge from the dense pungent evergreen forest to a point on the beach just west of Jimmy’s Rock. The last stretch of that path skirted a small marshy wetland fed by an underground trickle of cold water which surfaced from its hidden journey just before reaching the shoreline.

For decades there was never a need to tend to the path, to trim branches or cut back unwanted growth for the steady march of determined feet kept such things at bay. Men, women and children carried baskets and refreshments along the route throughout the seemingly endless days of summer.  Wafting smoke would drift seaward as makeshift fire pits brought soot-blackened tea kettles to boil while children daringly dodge waves, hopping and jumping with vocal glee as the cool water moved in and out, occasionally gaining the upper hand and the loser, wet feet!

The sharp crack of honed axes meeting the stems of green trees destined to fuel kitchen stoves during the cold frozen months of winter are rarely heard anymore. Nor is the echo of voices behind a screen of trees as families tilled the fertile forest floor to plant root vegetables. Instead, one can focus on the repetitive sound of gravel rolling with the waves, the rustling of tree branches responding to the refreshing breezes and the stirring refrains of songbirds flitting about the treetops.

Where once, battered wooden lobster pot buoys could be found along the high tide mark, one can still gather driftwood and fallen branches for fires and find treasures tossed ashore on the tide; such things as bleached lobster tails, the spiny, empty exoskeletons of sea urchins, an occasional scallop shell now turned a chalky white through abrasion or the remnants of iridescent blue mussels.

An astute eye might notice where an ill-fated attempt to position an undersea cable to deliver electricity to St. Jacques Island was once located or places where erosion has caused the collapse of cliff face rocks onto the rounded stones below. Still embedded in a crevice on Jimmy’s rock is a rusted metal shaft to which fishermen once secured their nets. Further down the beach towards Belleoram, sticking out of the impacted layers of rock are several weathered boards which once formed the sides of a valued fishing boat. Along the edge of the forest a discerning observer will notice nuances in the exposed peat which upon investigation turn out to be fox holes.

A walk along the beach stimulates leisure memories, brings on admiration for the persistent and incessant forces of nature as once jagged rocks are rounded smooth and reinforces the beauty of this treasured piece of shoreline. It also reminds one of how pristine the coast remains in spite of extensive ocean pollution world-wide and how appealing such a beach must have been to the earliest settlers from Europe. When viewed from either end, its expanse speaks loudly of how great a location it must have been to dry salted fish in the open air.

Tales of unmarked graves, buried treasure, fairies, ghosts and secret places in the Back Cove that have travelled through generations, have been waning with time; waning in the absence of young boys and girls exploring the hillside, waning in the absence of families organizing Sunday outings on the beach, and waning in the face of a world awash with entertainment and distractions. Yet, the special place that is St. Jacques Back Cove persists, travelling largely unchanged through time quietly awaiting the next visitor.

Who will it be, I wonder?

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