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Aunt Martha

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Community History


A Brief History


   The Town of Carmanville is situated along both sides of North West Arm in Rocky Bay, Hamilton Sound on the Northeastern Coast of Newfoundland. The first known English inhabitant was John Day originally of Dorset, England, a policeman from Twillingate who settled in the little cove with his wife and two children around 1825 to trap otter and fox. At that time there was an Indian family living there and it is said that they became friends with Day's family. Descendants of Day still live in the area today; in fact his grandson still has a Family Bible and Book of Common Prayer which he brought from England. The Bible is an old book, perhaps the oldest family Bible along the coast or in the country. In order to preserve the book, John Day covered it with sealskin, the sealskin covers are fastened inside by pieces of cloth, supposed to be from the first piece of material ever woven in Newfoundland.


  Carmanville first appeared on the census returns in 1845 with eleven people documented to be living there; it seemed they were all from one family as there was only one house. The inhabitants did some farming and fishing and kept cattle. It remained sparsely populated for the next thirty to forty years but by 1884 there had been dramatic increases in population (in 1874 it had risen to 171).


  The residents of the community, by now known as Rocky Bay, Western Arm, were mostly Methodists. The people fished, raised animals and did gardening. By the turn of the century the population had risen to 402. There was a clergyman and a teacher and work had begun on a school and church.


   Sometime between 1850 and 1900 a Hicks family of six brothers moved to Rocky Bay from nearby, they settled and divided the land, spending their winters in the new tree-clad settlement and moving out to the coast in the spring to fish for cod. Others followed, soon more clearings were made, new trees cut, and the settlement grew and expanded. It seemed they preferred this sheltered wooded inlet to the stormy openness of Musgrave Harbour and so they stayed.


   On June 18th, 1906 the name of the settlement was officially changed to Carmanville after the Rev. Albert Carman (1833-1917). Carman, born in Iroquois, Upper Canada, was a commanding figure in Canadian Methodism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


   Between 1911 and 1921 there was another large population increase from 415 to 686. The people were mainly engaged in the fishery, with several working at farming or lumbering. Over the next fifty-five years there was a steady growth. Gradually some of the men started lumbering and an important ship building business developed. Many of these ships were used for fishing expeditions to the Penguin, Funk and Wadam Islands. One of the Hicks brothers, Jesse Hicks, was one of Carmanville's pioneer residents and a master boat builder. Jesse, who died at the age of 69, was said to have built a craft for every year of his life.


   Logging remained a major industry in Carmanville during the first half of the 20th century, but after 1950 there was a steady decline culminating in a virtual shutdown in the industry in 1961, when a major forest fire (known as the Bonavista North Fire) destroyed much of the timber stands as well as a part of the town. Many homes were destroyed and the people had to be evacuated. There was regrowth however, and several sawmills operated through the 1970's.


   Carmanville was incorporated as a community in 1955 with Willis Tulk as the first chairman. In 1974 it received the status of a town and Gordon Wagg became the first Mayor.


   Perhaps one of Carmanville' most famous pieces of history comes from the song "Aunt Martha's Sheep" written by a native of Carmanville Mr. Ellis Coles. The song is based on a true story of the theft of a sheep by some local boys caused quite a commotion in the community.


   Carmanville also offers itself as a deepwater seaport, the port can accommodate large freighters and refrigerator cargo ships. The docking facility is 600 feet long and 300 feet across. Carmanville's coastal waters, too, make it ideal for swimming. Tourists can also find sport in catching cod during the food fishery, or enjoy a boat ride while watching for whales.


   Carmanville is indeed a town of rich history, and many attractions, its coastal scenery offers tourists a fresh and inviting view of a true Newfoundland community.



The First People Here


The community known today as Carmanville is nearing a big anniversary:


200 years of settlement. Humans have probably lived in this area for much longer.


The first European settlers arrived in this arm of Hamilton Sound in 1825. According to local accounts, the spot they chose for their home already had "an Indian family" camped in it. The family may have been Mi'Kmaq, but its members were probably not the first people to live here, either.


The same land and sea resources that appealed to the two groups who met in the clearing in the early 19th century could have attracted Native People to this locale long before the Europeans knew it existed.


We know that the Beothuk lived along this coast in the preceding centuries. Evidence has been found at Cape Freels (about 80 km east of here) and other locations. The Beothuk may well have been drawn here because:


- Seals arrive with the pack ice each spring


- There are nearby nesting grounds for seabirds, including the Great Auk on the Funk, Wadham and Penguin Islands


- Salmon spawn in the rivers


- Game and trout can be found in inland forests and ponds




The Coming of the Days


John Day, his wife Mary Burton, and their two children were the first European settlers to put down roots on the shores of Carmanville Arm.


Born in Dorset, England, Day was a policeman--or "King' Man"--in Twillingate before he settled here. The family built a house on the south side of the harbour, which they may have called "Rocky Bay" to discourage others. Day made a living inland, hunting and trapping fox, bear and otter.




The Community Grows


The population around Rocky Bay grew slowly at first. Twenty years after the Days arrived, a census recorded only 11 people living here. It wasn't until the 1880s that things began to change. In that decade, the population grew from 30 to more than 170. Fast-paced growth continued until the middle of the 1900s.


Why did the population start expanding so quickly? Mainly because new developments in technology and an evolving economy drew more people to the area. For example:


- In the 1880s, fishermen built or bought bigger and faster boats to catch cod, and they began to sail to fishing grounds as far away as Labrador


- Just before and after 1900, there was a thriving local lobster fishery and several canning factories were built in the community


- From the early to mid-1900s logging and milling became major economic actually



Snapshot: 1871

Rocky Bay:


"A small fishing settlement in the district of Twillingate and Fogo on the Straight Shore. Distant from Seldom-Come-By by boat 16 miles. Mail fortnightly, population 27. Among the people living in Rocky Bay in 1871 were John Day Jr., John Day Sr., and William Day, all listed as fishermen."

Source: Lowell's Directory for 1871




Church Connections


In 1884, two Canadian branches of the Methodist Church joined to form one church – called the Methodist Church of Canada. Amalgamation made it the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with activities that extended beyond the nation’s borders to Newfoundland and Japan.


Two General Superintendents were chosen to lead the new church. One was the influential Reverend Albert Carman (1833 – 1917), from Upper Canada.


Many of the people who lived around Rocky Bay were Methodist. To honour Carman’s long tenure as leader of the church, the community’s name was changed to Carmanville in 1906. There were also Salvation Army and Pentecostal congregations in the community.




Living by the Sea


As was true all along Newfoundland’s coasts, the cod fishery was a mainstay of life in this area from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Men fished locally at first, and in 1891, the first two schooners from Carmanville went to Labrador. The Penguin, Funk and Wadham Islands became common fishing grounds, as well.


By the late 1800s salmon was also being caught, and in 1901 there were four lobster canning factories in the area.


Cod caught by inshore fishermen was landed, gutted and split, then salted for several days, and later dried outdoors on fish flakes – wooden frames covered in tree boughs. Older women and girls tended the fish – turning it all over twice a day. Dry windy weather was best for curing, a process that took four or five days.




Before there were Roads…   the Sea was the Highway


Carmanville was not connected to the rest of Newfoundland by road until the late 1950s.


For decades before that, the only roads in the community were short local tracks. They ran along the shores of the harbour and later, as far as Noggin Cove and Frederickton.


When people went overland, they walked or went by horse. For longer trips, they took a boat.


By the early 1950s, a Canadian National steamer called in from May through January – twice every two weeks on its route back and forth along the coast. Other small boats ran more often, taking passengers and goods to Lewisporte (where there were rail connections) and other ports.




Community life: a sampler


Eli Ellsworth had a store called ‘Constants’. I can see the big sign now. I asked him once why was it called Constants, and he said, ‘Because people are constantly going out and constantly going in’.”

   ~Roland Abbott, age 93



“The biggest thing was having a scoff. Your mother would give you a chicken out of the chicken yard and you’d get vegetables from the garden. There’d be a crowd of us-eight or nine. I remember Holly Russell, she’d catch the chicken by the legs and swing him around to make him dizzy. Then she’d put his head down on the chopping block and one of the other girls would chop the head off.”

~James Blackwood, age 82



That summer we never had any rain for weeks, that’s why the fire spread so far. The old birch wood that was in the country contributed to the long distance that the fire spread. The birch rind from the tree would catch on fire, the wind would take it, drop it down in another spot in the woods and start another fire. That’s how the fire spread, it didn’t spread by taking every single tree”.

~Clarence West, age 73



“Of the 402 settlers [in Rocky Bay], there were 102 fishermen fishing for cod, and 77 women were involved in curing the fish. There were now six schooners being used, which ranged in size from 20-40 tons; four of these vessels went to fish off the coast of Labrador, and two fished in the surrounding bay. The four vessels that went to Labrador were manned by 28-men crew, which took with them 20 nets and two cod traps….A total of 53 boats ranging in size from 4 – 30 quintals and upward were engaged in the inshore fishery, with 20 nets being used.”

~David K. Goodyear

The Historical Geography of the Fishery in Carmanville,



“My grandfather moved from Greens Pond to Deadman’s Bay and then to Carmanville. That was 102 years ago. The reason they came here is because it was a good harbour for fishing. And they were fishermen. They had a wharf and big store. They lived in the top of the big fish store for awhile. Schooners would come into the big wharf with their fish, even from Labrador, too….I think there were 38 or 40 sail schooners owned and registered here, big ones and small ones.”

~James Blackwood, age 82



“Fishing schooners were also used for general cargo-they’d bring them back and forth to St.John’s. Everything else- all the supplies- had to come on the passenger boats or steamers. Mail was brought here by boat or by steamer. In the wintertime, mail had to be brought by horse, and later it was brought by plane… there was no doctor here and you had to take a boat, the Bonnie Nell, to go see the doctor up in Twillingate. She came around about once or twice a month.”

~Dorman Pennell, age 91



During those fishing years, Carmanville had some master boat builders. One of its pioneer residents, Jesse Hicks, up to within three years of his death-he being sixty-nine when he died-built a craft for every year of his life. He built as many as nine schooners and in one winter completed as many as four, four-oared boats.”

~Don Ryan

Atlantic Guardian, August 1953


“As a young boy, I went to school and fished with my father and brothers. I did that until I was 16. Then, after high school, I did navigation. I was going to get my “sea time” in order to get my ticket. I went with my uncle, John Blackwood. I made several trips on my uncle’s schooner, the Erema H.”

~Roland Abbott, age 93






The Four Seasons




“ We use to have lots of fun on the hand slides in the wintertime and our favorite game was always Rounders.”

”In the winter time everyone would skate, and we’d also ski on the pork barrel staves. And they’d have the Christmas concerts-old fashioned concerts at the school every year as well.”

~James Blackwood, age 82



When we were young boys, every day we’d have to walk to school with junk of wood to keep the school room warm.”

~Clarence West, age 73



“People would go mummering during Christmas. We’d all dress up, leave our home up here and walk right down harbour.”

~Juanita West, age 70





“We played different games. One of them was the ‘Hoist Yer Sails and Run.’ You’d have two teams, say three or four on a team-one team would go away and hide somewhere and the other fellows would be blindfolded, and they’d have to go find us.”

~James Blackwood, age 82



“In the spring, when the snow was gone, the men would move back out [of the woods] again. Some of them would be lucky enough then to get a job on the mill in the summer, and others would go away to the fishery or to the lumber woods.”

~Clarence West, age 73



“When there was a wedding, what people would do is walk from their house to the church. You’d see them all marching down the road, all dressed up to get married.”

~Juanita West, age 70





“In the summer the loggers would go out with their boats and pull all these logs in this boom, and you could hear the boat coming towing this boom of logs. It’d take her hours to get in the harbour and carry them up to the mill to saw. They used to bring logs down from Gander Bay, too, in later years when they got scarcer around Carmanville Pond. They’d bring logs down from everywhere-down to the shoreline, and transport them in booms on the ocean.”

~James Blackwood, age 82



“One event that happened every year was the Orange Lodge Tea. They’d have a big parade, followed by a big supper. I don’t remember what it would cost, probably 30 cents. That was an event that everybody expected every year.”

~James Blackwood, age 82



“I’ll never forget the ice houses there all summer long, full of sawdust. They had them there for if they had any meats they wanted to keep. We’d go up to the pond and saw out big blocks of ice with those big saws, and put it in the ice houses and throw the sawdust on top of it. That ice would last all summer long, too.”

~Ralph West, age 84





When we were young boys, we always went in the woods, setting rabbit slips. As soon as we got home from school, that’s where we’d go.”

~Ralph West, age 84



“On bonfire night we’d have this big fire. We’d all go around and get barrels, we didn’t care what they were like… if we seen on we’d take it. And if we seen a boat or an old punt that we thought wasn’t very good, once we got the fire going we’d take that one and put him on the fire… if we could get away with it.”

~Clarence West, age 73



“Woolfrey’s mill would shut down for a couple of days in October month, so the people could go home and get their vegetables out of the ground.”

~Dorman Pennell,age 91






Carmanville Music


In the cold Canadian waters, north from the coast of Maine,

There's an island called Newfoundland, swept by snow, wind and rain;

On the Island there’s a village with its customs and its ways,

The little town of Carmanville, my home of childhood days.

Where the people make a living on the land and on the sea,

There are people on the Island that mean the world to me;

I wish I had the power to change the path of time,

And live again in Newfoundland, my home of childhood time.

~1st and last verses of “Isle of Newfoundland” by Bert Cuff


Come gather all around me and I’ll sing you a tale,

about the boys in Carmanville who almost went to jail.

It happened on a November’s night when all hands was asleep,

we crept up over Joe Tulk’s hill and stole Aunt Martha’s sheep…

~1st verse of “Aunt Martha’s Sheep” by Ellis Coles






Logging History


Putting the Pond to Work


During the first half of the 20th century, Carmanville Pond was a seasonal staging area for logs cut during the winter for Woolfreys’ Mill. The mill bought the wood, then used horses in harness to drag it to the pond where it was piled on the ice.


The Pond’s water level was managed by damming the river to the sea. In the spring after the ice melted, the dam was opened for the “log drive.” The logs would shoot downstream with the flow of the water. Where they jammed, men with poles and pikes would pry and push to free them up.


Once they reached Carmanville Arm, a log boom stretching across the harbor kept them from continuing out to sea.



Evolution of Working Tools


In the early days, loggers used bucksaws to cut their wood. In time, they made the switch to gasoline-powered chain saws.


Working with the noisy machines was more efficient, and more trouble. A chain saw weighed about 30 pounds – much heavier than a bucksaw. It needed spare parts, which also had to be carried. It needed regular maintenance and sharpening, and the chain had to be replaced often.


Woodsmen who worked for some big companies were also required to carry fire extinguishers, so they could quickly deal with fires started by sparks from the chain saw.


Working in the Woods


During the 1950s, the men from Carmanville who “worked in the lumber woods” cut wood for local sawmills, and some cut pulpwood for the larger Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company (AND). The work was mostly done in the winter.


This activity was part of a significant provincial industry – one 1959 study showed forestry to be the highest-earning industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. Its annual value was greater than $64-million, more than fishing and mining combined.


What were the loggers paid? In 1960, the average price for a cord of wood (4’ x 4’ x 8’) was somewhere in the range of $7.



Prime Cuts


Loggers were careful about where they chose to cut their wood. The best locations were flat and easy to get to, with few fallen trees (“windfalls”) and little undergrowth. Rocky, boggy or hilly ground made the work harder.


And, of course, loggers looked for healthy trees that had few, or weak, branches. These trees could more easily be “limbed” – have their branches sawn or chopped off.


Sawdust & Wood Chips


During the first half of the 20th century, many men in the Carmanville area worked at lumbering and sawmilling.


One of 6he most productive sawmills was A.T. Woolfrey’s & Bros., on the western shore of Carmanville Arm (few traces of the mill remain on the site today). Woolfrey’s (and the other mills) bought wood locally. They then turned it into shingles, moldings, barrels, lumber and even caskets.


The mills added to the community in many ways – including its sound. Four times every day the whistle on Woolfrey’s steam stack would pierce the air – at 7:00 a.m. to start the day, at 12:00 p.m. to break for lunch, at 1:00 p.m. to start up again, and at 6:00 p.m. for quitting time.



Delivering more than logs…


The pond was a good source of trout, a favorite place for boys to go with their trouting poles when school was over.


“Salmon use to go back and forth there too, but I never caught one. I remember hearing that my mother used to go up there and pick up salmon from between the logs when all the logs would be there. When my father and the other men were at the drive, the white fish* would go under the dam because the dam was sloped-I remember seeing them there in thousands.”

*White fish are also known as smelt.

~Ralph West, age 84



I remember when my father used to go in the woods, oh the trees were so big around that out of one big stick you could make a boat and get in it, which they actually did years ago.”

~James Blackwood, age 82



The Woolfrey’s came here in 1919. Elias Chaulk was up there near Lewisporte somewhere, in his schooner, and they went to Browns Arm. That’s where they’d picked up this mill-everything except the boiler. They loaded the schooner and brought the mill- they had their lumber there and everything to build a shop.”\

~Dorman Pennell, age 90


“Life as a logger was hard work- you were up early in the light. There were no power saws then, there were just bucksaws and two men to a tree. First they started with the old cross-cut one on each side of the tree. They were at that for years before the bucksaws came up. The trees were much bigger than what they are now!”

~Dorman Pennell, age 90



I remember Woolfrey’s store quite well. We used to buy shoulder pads for carrying lumber there. In Woolfrey’s you could get anything you wanted then-as they used to say, ‘from a needle to an anchor! ”

~Roland Abbott, age 93



“Most people in Carmanville, in my day, built their own homes. Perhaps you’d cut your own logs, give the logs to the mill to make lumber, and they’d give you half of the lumber and sell the other half.”

~James Blackwood, age 82



“My friend could cut six cords a day with a bucksaw. Once the trees were cut down, we’d have to limb them, cut them up smaller, and then pack them up.”

~Selby Pennell, age 87



Some of the men would build camps in the woods and they’d build a barn for their horses. Then they’d stay in there for the winter…some of them had their families in there all winter.”

~Clarence West, age 73



“Woolfrey’s used to ship the lumber and shingles off in schooners to St.John’s.”

~Dorman Pennell, age 91



“our first TV arrived by plane when my son was only 13. A plane from Gander delivered mail back then. During the winter months, the plane would land on the ice in Carmanville Pond.”

~Selby Pennell, age 87



“There were wooden shingles on all the houses. They were about 15 or 16 inches long, and some were four inches wide, some six, and others eight-whatever the lumber would make.”

~Dorman Pennell, age 91



“The mill was important because it was a source of income, even though the wages were low. What a lot of loggers did was cut their logs and get them scaled. Woolfrey’s or whatever company it was then, knew how much money they owed the loggers for their logs. Then the loggers would go into Woolfrey’s store and get a sack of flour or whatever they needed until their money was all gone. They would trade their logs for a certain amount of goods from the store, depending on whatever their logs were worth.”

~Clarence West, age 73



Alfred Woolfrey employed about 20 men during the summer or more. That’s where almost everyone would get their wood from. He employed men both in the summer and in the winter, too, because in the winter-time they’d cut logs for him. I’d say he employed about a hundred men in the winter.”

~Clarence West, age 73



“My first job was in the lumber woods in Milltown when I was 17 years old. I worked in the woods for about eight years. We would cut pulpwood and it was sold for $3.10 a cord.”

~Selby Pennell, age 87



“I was really young when I worked on Eli Ellsworth’s mill. I’d say I was about 10 years old. I used to get about 10 cents a day for taking away barrel staves. We used to make barrels for putting things like fish in. That’s what I was at first, taking away barrel staves and sorting them out. You’d work 10 hours a day. Some men sawed lumber, some dressed it or put it through the planer, others carried it and put it in piles, and when they had a boat load to send away, some men had to load it aboard boats.”

~Clarence West, age 73



“The pond now is not like it used to be-then, they’d have a big dam around the pond to keep the water level high.”

~Clarence West, age 73,



“Many people would come and watch that, [opening the dam] it was a big thing.”

~Juanita West, age 70,



“There were more people in other communities like Aspen Cove, Ladle Cove, and Frederickton [also cutting wood]. They’d cut logs in places like Middle Arm and Southern Arm, pull them out to the beach and Woolfrey’s would have 4 or 5 men go out and get these logs. They’d put them in the water in booms and tow them to the mill. They’d leave early in the morning and it would take them all day to tow the logs to the mill –they’d come in the harbour right slow….A boom was made of great big logs with holes drilled in each end. The logs were then joined together, they used chains, too. The boom was used to keep all the other logs together.”

~Clarence West, age 73






Bonavista North Fire of 1961


It is a trite saying that all big fires grow from little ones, and the whole objective of this Division is: when they start, get them out while they are still little. However, in the event of a major conflagration, which could very quickly be classed as a national emergency, and against which it is devotedly to be hoped we shall never have to contend, but if such misfortune strikes, the full weight of the organization, which is already alerted, moves into action.”

~By: D. Lockwood. Forester, Eastern Region



Near the end of the unusually hot, dry summer of 1961 a massive forest fire raged around Carmanville, with dramatic consequences.


The “Bonavista North Fire” had been burning for many weeks by the time it reached this community. It began June 12 near Traverse Brook-though no one is completely sure how. The cause may have been a campfire left smoldering by men fishing the stream, or a casually tossed cigarette.


Whatever its accidental source, the blaze soon built to a conflagration that leaped and sourced its ways across the peninsula all summer. In September, when the last of the flames and hot spots were finally put out, 2,082 km2 (804 square miles) had burned, and 16 communities all along the coast had been evacuated.


No human lives were lost, but many were completely disrupted-some for the summer, some forever. Some people lost their homes and belongings, and all who had traditionally made their livings from the forest began putting their lives back together in new ways.


The toll on wildlife was not measured, but it was known to be heavy.







It wasn’t the only fire…


The hot and dry conditions contributed to several other fires in the province during the summer of 1961. More than one million acres of forest were destroyed that year.


Six major fires (including the Bonavista North fire) accounted for 97% of the area burned. All of them took place in regions that were experiencing droughts.



Snapshot: 1968


“Productive forest lands cover about 24% of the land areas of Newfoundland and Labrador. On the island itself there are 8.4 million productive acres supporting an important pulp and paper industry and a number of sawmills. It has been estimated that 30% to 50% of the Island’s economy depends directly or indirectly on forest product’s and thus, forest fire damage is a matter of great concern to industry and government alike”

Department of Transport, Meteorological Branch

By: I.M.Stewart, 1968



Fire by numbers…


In Carmanville alone, the forest service equipment distribution included 27 pumps, 42,000 feet of hose, and 81 back tanks. Estimates say 800 people were evacuated from the community , as well as 200 from Ladle Cove and 170 from Aspen Cove.


“The biggest disaster activity recorded in the [Red Cross] Annual Report for 1961 was the establishment of food and first-aid stations in Newfoundland during the 107 days of forest fire, which involved 13,000 residents in 37 communities. In addition, immediate emergency relief was made available from coast to coast to smaller groups and individual families who had encountered disaster, usually in the form of fire”.

~The Royal Bank of Canada Monthly Letter


“At times there were men in the woods fighting the fire, and the fire would catch up on them, so to save their lives they’d had to get in the river. There was one crowd that got down in a pool in Ragged Harbour River, down near Musgrave Harbour. When the fire got to the edge of the river they’d get in under the water until the fire passed over them or until the fire jumped the river”

~Clarence West, age 73



There was so much smoke, you couldn’t even see the gate in front of the house. I remember we were all in the front room because it was hot enough upstairs to take the life out of you”

~Melcie West, age 80



Some men were designated to go in the woods to fight the fire, and others stayed spraying down their homes. One family (the Cuffs) had no other choice but to leave. They lived right back in wooded area. Their house was right in the path of the fire. I remember them bringing all their belongings out to the bank, near the shore, leaving them there to pick up after the fire was over.”

~Fred Green, age 57



“ The fire ended sometime around the 26th or 27th of August, but it was still simmering in areas. That’s when they brought in the Canadian Army and their water bombers. The soldiers were battling the hot spots for a long, long time, continuing in September”

~Roland Abbott, age 93



“My personal family, my father and mother, who were considered elderly, went to Lewisporte with my brother….

The women, children, and elders went wherever they could.

Some were evacuated to Lewisporte, some to Seldom [Fogo Island], wherever they could go to escape the fire. Some families went out on the islands.”

~Roland Abbott, age 93



“I remember being all alone in the night time and all you could see was fire on the hills over on south side. I remember laying on the floor in the living room and through the window you’d see the whole harbour light up, when the fire would flare up…and then she’d die down again-I’ll never forget that!”

~Clarence West, age 73






Equipment Used to Battle the Fire







More on The Fire of 1961

By Marina Starkes


On June 12th, 1961, a fire started somewhere between Hare Bay and Gambo in an area called Traverse Brook. It swept through most of Bonavista North, leaving behind destruction and despair. Three months later it was brought under control in Carmanville, Bonavista Bay. The cause of the fire was listed as 'careless smokers'.


The estimated volume of wood burnt was in the area of three million cords valued at approximately $12 million, many homes and businesses were destroyed and there was no way of estimating the numbers of wildlife that died. The actual cost of fighting the fire was listed as $86,914 but if a value was put on free services such as military aircraft and personnel and local volunteers the cost could easily have doubled.


There were 18 settlements affected by the fire. The communities that suffered the most were Hare Bay (12 homes, one garage and one workshop burned), Brookfield (three homes, one general store and one furniture store burned), and Carmanville (12 homes burned).


Residents were evacuated as the fire reached each community along the coast. Some went by car to the neighboring community, others went by boat, while others gathered in the Northern Ranger (a large ship that followed the fire and stationed itself in each harbor according). Many lives were disrupted and changed forever. The memory of that summer will never leave the minds of those touched by the fire.


Gary Collins of Hare Bay is a saw mill operator working in the Traverse Brook area. He remembers the day the fire started. It was a beautiful, hot summer day and he was in school doing grade eight exams. The students noticed the teacher's concerned glances toward the window.


Soon all the teachers gathered in the hallway and began to talk under their breath. Finally one of the students got up from his seat and looked out the window. Then everyone looked out and saw smoke towering up just over the ridge.


If the wind breezed up, the fire would spread quickly and the school would be in its line of fire. The school board decided not to take any chances. School was closed without finishing exams and stayed closed for the rest of the school year. Later that day the wind did breeze and the rest is history.


Gary said there was a lot of activity in the town before very long. Fire trucks, Mounties and all the residents were out and about. They gathered on what is called Wells' Hill.


The fire was brought under control in Hare Bay (as they thought). It swept on down towards Indian Bay; all the firefighters and equipment went with it. Meanwhile, a few hot spots had broken out in the upper end of town and another, more serious fire was started.


Because most of the men and equipment were gone, the second fire couldn't be controlled as easily, 12 homes, one garage and one workshop were burnt to the ground. It's Gary's opinion that the second fire caused most of the environmental damage.


With Davis's Garage destroyed, Gary's parents, Theophilus and Sarah Collins owned the only gas pumps in town. By 12:00 p.m. almost all the people had been evacuated, but with his father fighting the fire Gary had to stay and help his mother pump gas. He said although at times things became very hectic, he never saw his mother lose her cool.


Sarah said, "I never felt scared because we could see the fire from the house, plus, the job had to be done." At times the smoke was thick and choking but she also knew there was a large bog between her and the fire.


One lady was so distraught that she asked Sarah to pump all the gas from the underground tanks and dump it in the bay so the gas pumps wouldn't explode.


Gary said the flames' on the horizon were a spectacular sight. Smoke and heat had a magnifying effect on the bright orange and yellow colors. The whole sky was a haze of smoke, heat and ash. It looked strange and unreal but very beautiful.


He remembers one night going with a crowd of people to Hare Bay Island and watching everything from a distance; it’s a sight that will be printed in his memory forever. He said some of the older people were scared, but as a teenager he and his friends saw it as an adventure.


Eighty-nine year old Mildred Vivian remembers the fire well. There were times when it was only five or six hundred yards from her home. Davis' Garage had caught fire and the acetylene tanks had exploded. There were flankers and burning debris flying everywhere. By now, other houses in the area were burning. She and her husband Charlie wouldn't leave their home. Charlie stayed up on the roof of their house with the water hose and kept the house from burning. She stayed inside and cooked meals for the firefighters. After the immediate danger was over she could look across the road and see the blazing fire as it made its way down over the country. She said it was a pretty scary thing to go through.


Mildred's daughter-in-law, Eliza said since many people worked in the lumber woods the only thing to do after the fire was to leave the area to look for work. A lot of people moved to the mainland. Some people came back home after a couple years but others stayed much longer. She and husband only recently came back home to retire.


Theophilus Collins said while there were thousands of jobs lost, out of the fire came the blueberry industry. Within three years there were enough blueberries for every man, woman and child to pick for years to come.


He started a blueberry business and employed agents from Glovertown and on down the shore to Carmanville. A twenty-five acre blueberry farm was built as well as hundreds of blueberry trails. It created employment for many people. In the years between 1964 and 1979 he paid out almost two million dollars to people of the area for blueberries.


Louis Collins was working in Square Pond when the fire started; everybody left work to fight the fire. He said during the night Mounties went door to door to make sure everyone was evacuated.


Some people went to neighboring communities by car and told stories of driving through roads that were surrounded by fire and smoke. One lady was due to have her baby and had to be air-lifted to the hospital.


Another woman remembers the panic of rushing to the government wharf where the Northern Ranger was standing by to take people to safety; she was the last one to get in a crowded car, the car door wasn't properly closed and she fell out, losing a shoe and scraping her hand.


A water pump was set up in Wiseman's Cove but it wasn't strong enough to carry the water to the fire. A speed boat was placed at a half-way point to be used as a holding tank. Water was then relayed to the fire by water hoses.


Louis remembers one incident when he was hosing down Pearce Saunders' house. There was fire everywhere, it was so hot that his eyebrows had burned to the skin, he looked around and realized he was by himself. All of a sudden the water hose went dry; he couldn't figure out what had happened.


He went back to the command post and found the hose had been cut. Someone had been trying to save his own house from the flames and had cut the hose to use himself. This man hadn't realized the consequences of doing such a thing.


The fire spread towards Indian Bay, leaving destruction in its wake. As each community in between became exposed to danger they were evacuated.


Seventy-eight year old Leah Ackerman of Wareham remembers the panic everyone was in. One night a group of people went up to Centerville to see what was happening. Fire flankers blew in under one particular house and they watched as it started to burn. The Army was there and put the fire out.


The Army was stationed at Camp 12 in Number One Pond. She said the Orange Lodge was set up to give the men meals. Some of the fire-fighters were paid, but others were volunteers.


Many people had re-located from Fair Island and Silver Fox Island in 1961. Leah said there were a couple of houses being floated up the bay at the time of the fire and the owners kept them moored off rather than bring them ashore. They even stayed in them when the fire was at its worst.


Leah's daughter was only four years old but she remembers her uncle Fred using a tractor to pile gravel up around their house to prevent the fire from coming further.


Leah said a lot of people were evacuated to Valleyfield. She was scrubbing clothes on a board in the porch when they were down to Valleyfield and flankers from the fire came in through the doorway. When the fire was in full swing down there, they went back to Wareham.


Florence and Jack Wicks of Wareham were about to be married when the fire reached their town. As they were going into the church, they could see the smoke and flames about 10 miles away. All the women and children were taken on board the Northern Ranger which was stationed by the wharf. All the arrangements were made with Reverend Cluett who had to come from Greenspond so they decided to go ahead with the ceremony. Florence said the only woman at her wedding was Caroline Culter.


As soon as they were married Jack left to fight the fire. They kept the reception going for two nights because the men came back to rest and eat their meals.


A.G. Pickett said the fire was so close to his general store - only fifty feet away - that the outside toilet burned to the ground. The Mounties asked him if he had insurance on his store. When he said yes, they took the hose from his place and used it to work on Skipper Percy Pickett's house because it was in danger. Neither his store nor Skipper Pickett's house burned.


A.G. said he and his family wouldn't leave the store until the smoke drove them out. When they finally decided to leave they were only able to drive the car a few hundred feet up the road before the smoke blocked off their view completely. They had to stay in the car for hours.


He said time seemed to drag forever. They could see flankers all around and the fear of a gas leak was always in his and his wife's mind. The children had fallen asleep and didn't realize the danger. When the wind breezed up and the smoke lifted they felt they were out of danger so they went back home.


Eventually things got back to normal. Throughout his lifetime A.G. has operated many businesses but the one he remembers well is the blueberry processing business. In 1972 he went to a Nova Scotia Agricultural College and successfully completed two blueberry processing courses. From there his business boomed.


The fire continued on down the shore leaving many people devastated in the small towns. If time and space allowed there could be hundreds of harrowing experiences told. When it was finally over everybody picked up the pieces and life returned to normal.




The Ellsworth's Batch

Written by a Family Member


   112 years ago today my great-grandfather Joseph Ellsworth and his brother Henry Ellsworth perished in a April 7th and 8th snowstorm on White Cliff Island known to my family as the Ellsworth Batch.... The year was 1907, and for the two days of April 7th and 8th, Newfoundland, and the east coast in particular, experienced a severe blizzard. At that time, two men Joseph and Henry Ellsworth, residents of Carmanville, found it necessary to travel Aspen Cove. They set out on Thursday, the 4th of April, and stopped over at Ladle Cove until the following Saturday morning, April 6th. They then travelled to Aspen Cove, visited George Angel and his wife, and had dinner with them. Having finished the business that caused them to go on this particular trip, they then set out for home, Carmanville, at 3 P: M. It was significant to note Angel’s wife gave them some matches, telling them that they just might need them. It is also significant to note, which might give an idea of the prevalent deprivations at the time, the only food they had with them was dried capelin. As well, they were returning with a small hand-sled, which might have been necessary for transporting something that was the reason for the purpose of their trip. The distance of the return trip was about eight miles, and five of these were across an open bay, and, although there was an obviously indication of impending foul weather, in the judgment of themselves, and some of their friends in Aspen Cove, it was thought that they would have had ample time reaching Carmanville before the worst of the storm broke.

   From Saturday till the following Wednesday, April 10th, no news was heard of them; people at Carmanville were thinking they were detained at Ladle Cove, and those at Ladle Cove, thinking they had made its safely back at home. But a man from Carmanville, having occasion to go to Ladle Cove on that particular Wednesday, was surprised to find that they had left there for Carmanville on Saturday, and then the search for the two men began. Late that Wednesday afternoon, this news reached Carmanville, and immediately search parties were organized from there as well, and carried on until very late in the day and into the late night. The only trace of the two men that was found by the searchers was the small hand-sled they had taken with them when they left Aspen Cove. For whatever reason, it seemed that the two men had abandoned it near White Cliff Island, which was around three miles distant from Carmanville, their home.

   On hearing this report, Mr. Stephen Chalk from Carmanville surmised that the men would not be far from where the sled was found, and at once instituted another search party. Mr. Samuel Brinson and Mr. Joseph Tulk immediately started for the place where the sled had been left. Proceeding to the NW side of White Cliff Island, they discovered a make-shift walking stick in the snow, a sign most likely that it had been left by one of the men. Striking towards the nearby woods, Brinston, with his senses seemingly heightened, detected a faint odor of smoke. Following the scent, he came to a small circular-shaped hole in the snow, near a large fir tree. Looking down the hole which was about three feet in diameter, and about six feet deep, he saw Henry Elsworth, kneeling, facing the opening, and his brother lying at the bottom. Brinston then immediately got into the hole and examined the men, and found that both of them had perished. Then, as quickly as possible, when this sad news reached Carmanville, men hurried off from there with sleds to retrieve the bodies, and soon, it was reported, ‘a mournful procession was wending its way towards the sorrowful homes of their widows and orphans’.

   When I began this piece, I mentioned that I had just recently written a piece on the Loyal Orange Lodge of Fogo Island, and that one of the main mandates of the organization was compassion and assistance to those in need, regardless of whether they were members of their organization or not . In a little cross referencing of this particular idea, and as already mentioned, I found a very good example of their altruistic benevolence just across Hamilton Sound in Carmanville. The very Thursday night, April 11th, 1907, that the bodies of Henry and Joseph Elsworth were brought into Carmanville to their desperately destitute families, was the regular night of the meeting of the Orange Lodge there, and instead of cancelling the meeting, as could easily be understood, they met and decided, unhesitatingly, to take matters in their hands entirely, with respect to burial costs and the like for Henry and Joseph Elsworth, notwithstanding the fact that neither of the men was a member of the Orange Order. They realized that neither of the widows with their large families was financially unable to perform the basic last duties for the deceased men. A statement by Gandhi comes to mind and sums up their compassion for their fellow man: “The simplest acts of kindness are far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.”

   On Saturday afternoon, April 13, the funerals took place, and an over-flow congregation assembled in the Methodist Church in Carmanville, and followed the corpses to their last resting place, showing their sympathy with the families of the departed. It was, and still is, considered one of the most tragic events that happened in Carmanville.

   Henry Ellsworth left behind a widow and five children, the oldest being fifteen, and one of his little girls was almost blind. Joseph Elsworth also left behind a widow and five children. It was noted in the “Daily News” which carried this story in their April 17th, 1907, issue, that both families were absolutely destitute. These were the days before any government social assistance, and any help would have had to come from the extended families, the community, churches, and fraternal organizations such as the Loyal Orange Association.

   As an after thought, I am wondering what happened to the sled. You can be sure that for a long time it remained as a stark reminder of the harsh realities and the price more than one Newfoundlander paid for living in an isolated spot in Newfoundland almost two centuries ago now.


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