Abandoned Outports

Stepping Back In Time: A Cruise To Trinity Bay’s Abandoned Outports

If the circumstances are right, you can almost feel what it was like when these tiny, isolated coastal fishing communities were thriving. When houses stood on the now-crumbling stone foundations, and people walked the ancient paths over the meadows. When the churches thrust their spires above the trees and their old graveyards were carefully tended. When there were still plenty of codfish to catch, which was the reason these outports existed.

We were steaming out The Thoroughfare, a narrow passage among the islands at the outer end of Random Island on Trinity Bay’s north shore. Like a vision from the past, off to starboard a graceful old trap skiff with a tiny wheelhouse and towing a smaller boat appeared from between two islands and picked her way on a parallel course to ours. Once clear of the islands she put her bow into the southwest lop and punched her way purposefully off in that direction. It was a scene from a couple of generations past when those boats were common along most of Newfoundland’s coasts. It was a fitting prelude to our exploration of the abandoned harbours in this part of the bay.

Our course veered to the northeast along the shore of Ireland’s Eye island which has one of Newfoundland’s best known and most picturesque collections of abandoned settlements. We had already passed Ivanhoe on The Thoroughfare and were making our way to Traytown. This beautiful protected inlet cuts far into the island then coils around past steep grassy fields to end in a tranquil harbour. Nowadays, many of these places are not entirely forgotten. Apparently Traytown still has a family living there from spring through fall. Next was the community of Ireland’s Eye itself, at the end of another narrow inlet between high hills. The church and other buildings had been standing until quite recently. Now, weathered planks and mounds of old stones that were once foundations, walls and roadbeds are about all that can be seen of the original settlement. On the other side of the island is Black Duck Cove where undoubtedly other remains are mouldering in the meadows.

Ireland’s Eye island is believed to have been first settled in 1675 by a man named Nicolas Quint. Over the centuries, fishermen and their families came and went from the various communities on the island, with the population exceeding 100 until it began to decline in the last century and was abandoned under the provincial resettlement program in the early 1960s. In 1987 the serenity of the scenic island was shattered when authorities raided a hashish smuggler’s lair in Traytown inlet, making what at the time was the largest drug bust in eastern Canada.

On the mainland across Smith Sound from Ireland’s Eye are several other abandoned outports, although with the number of summer cabins now dotting their shores they really are no longer abandoned either. There were several impressive homes in British Harbour whose remains can still be seen, along with the tell-tale weathered walls and stone foundations of others scattered among the meadows. British Harbour was settled in the early 1800s and its population rose to a peak of 224 by the year 1901. Its economy also was based on the inshore Labrador fisheries and there was a small boatbuilding industry there.

We planned to spend the night at Little Harbour, an inner cove of Pope’s Harbour. Legend has it that long before Pope’s Harbour was settled in the mid-19th century a fishing vessel left one crewmember temporarily ashore in the harbour for some reason, then sailed out into Trinity Bay only to be wrecked with all hands lost. Who knows what hardships the abandoned man endured as he gradually starved to death. The cave he is believed to have lived in can still be seen near the harbour entrance and one can only imagine how he scanned continually the waters of Smith Sound for a passing boat that might save him. Eventually, it is said, his remains were found in that cave and the tragic tale was revealed.

Pope’s Harbour today is alive with cabins, but the old community road still wends it way among them to the remains of a sawmill that spanned the brook which drains Pope’ Harbour Pond. Logging around the pond was a major activity in this community and adjacent Little Harbour. In the latter, a public wharf is maintained and it is a popular overnight stop for cruising pleasure boats. A short walk into the woods takes you to the remains of a small wooden chapel, and a bit further along is a cemetery with some interesting old headstones dating back to Little Harbour’s early days in the 1850s and ’60s. Moose seem to love Little Harbour and can often be seen browsing just a stone’s throw from the cabins and moored yachts.

Many of these forgotten outports around the entrance to Smith Sound were originally fishing stations used by the people of Trinity, the major merchant centre just a few miles down the coast whose roots go back to the 1500s, and which has one of the best harbours in Newfoundland.

Next morning we steamed through The Thoroughfare again, heading southwest to explore two of Newfoundland’s little known gems — the fjord-like inlets of St. Jones Without and Upper Deer Harbour. As we passed East Random Head the fog enveloped us so there was no chance of seeing the massive iceberg grounded a few miles westward in Random Sound. The skipper put us on alert to spot bergy bits to be avoided while he crept up the Trinity Bay coast using the boat’s electronic navigation aids.

Our first stop was Round Harbour, a beautiful anchorage with several cabins and a high waterfall tumbling from the hills that surround the cove. The fog stayed outside the harbour, seeming to prefer the open waters of Trinity Bay, and we hoped it was doing the same at St. Jones and Deer Harbours. And that’s exactly what it did.

As we made the turn into St. Jones we came under blue skies and sunshine. On the south side of the harbour entrance could be seen a neat fenced cemetery. In a small cove behind it the original main settlement of St. Jones Without was situated. Today, just a serene meadow occupies the place. Most of the first settlers were members of the Green family from across Trinity Bay at Winterton. In fact, one Leander Green was the first Newfoundlander to receive the Distinguished Service Medal in World War I. In the mid-1930s, St. Jones’s population rose as high as 140. Since 1870, St. Jones people prosecuted the inshore and Labrador fisheries. They cut timber in the woodlands behind the inlet’s steep hills and turned it into necessary products like barrels and lumber.

No doubt parts of the settlement were located across the fjord where today a virtual village of summer cabins has been built. Cruising slowly up the inlet for the first time is pure joy. Around every bend is a fresh vista, perhaps water tumbling down a steep hillside or a kingfisher or raven looking for a meal along the steep shore. At its inner end, the harbour opens out into several shallow bays. As we entered the last one, at the wharf of a cabin on the south side was a superb miniature replica of a Newfoundland fishing schooner from the early 1900s. About 18 feet long, she was rigged to sail as a schooner although she also had a small outboard on the stern to help navigate the harbour’s tight waters. Her owner told us he designed and built her himself.

Steaming into Deer Harbour we again were blessed with the fog lingering on the open Bay, although the sky inside was clouding up. Still, that didn’t detract from the same fascination we experienced in St. Jones of poking into every arm and cove of this 9 km (5.5 miles) long inlet. Like St. Jones, its shores are steep forested hillsides, almost cliffs, with waterfalls cascading down from the heights. Here too, cabins cling to the shores and several were occupied as we passed. The only summer access to Deer Harbour is by boat, and the only boats to be seen were small outboards of not more than 20 or 22 feet.

Daylight was fast disappearing as we tested the waters outside Deer Harbour to return to a better mooring for the night at St. Jones. Just then through the murk steamed another boat known to our skipper. We followed it back into Deer Harbour to a snug anchorage where we tied up alongside and slept in one of Newfoundland’s treasures — peace and quiet broken only by the sounds of nature.

— by Dick With (in 2003) who acknowledges invaluable historical detail provided by the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland & Labrador.

Photo credit: Dick With