The Ghost Villages of Newfoundland

Remnants of an abandoned fishing village in Newfoundland. LUKE SPENCER


26 July 2017 | Luke Spencer| Atlas Obscura

The small village near Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, was once a charming place to live. A quaint, centuries-old fishing village, that overlooked the sea, with winding lanes, asymmetrical “saltbox” family homes, and quiet streets filled with a post office, church, and a graveyard. It would be an idyllic, country scene, apart from the fact there are no people.

The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador is home to around 300 such ghost villages.

Between 1954 and 1975, around 30,000 people were relocated as part of controversial government “resettlement” programs. Today these abandoned villages are largely forgotten and unknown, except by those who once lived there.

Newfoundland and Labrador is a vast, beautiful, often remote and isolated place. The wild landscape is home to unusually named towns such as Come By Chance, Heart’s Desire, Happy Adventure and Chimney Tickle. Dotted sparingly along its miles of rugged shorelines, and in the shelter of its thousands of tiny islands, are the “outports”; small, tightly knit fishing villages, many dating as far back as the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

By the end of World War II, the population of Newfoundland stood at around 320,000, spread out over a thousand such settlements, three quarters of which held under 300 inhabitants. Some villages, such as Tacks Beach on King Island, had a population of several hundred, while others such as Pinchard’s Island, Bonavista Bay, had just eight families living there.

These communities were largely self-sufficient, and mostly isolated from each other. They lived by fishing the abundant cod and herring fields, and by logging and seal hunting.

Newfoundland fishermen on the dock with fishing schooners in the background, 1944.
Newfoundland fishermen on the dock with fishing schooners in the background, 1944. DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE / LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

But life in the outports was to change forever in 1949. That was the year Newfoundland and Labrador, Great Britain’s first permanent colony, voted to join Canada. Following confederation, the government began to take a keen interest in these hundreds of isolated communities. Pondering what to do with their vast new territory, with its rich fishing fields, it commissioned studies undertaken by the Department of Welfare and the Department of Fisheries.

Anthropologists dispatched from Memorial University in St. John’s—the capital of Newfoundland—found that in Placentia Bay, located in the southwest, only 68 percent of children could read and write. Medical care was sparse. Some small communities, such as Come By Chance, had a cottage hospital, but they were few and far between. Some of the more remote outports were served by occasional medical ships such as the M.V. Lady Anderson, which ferried doctors around on 40-foot boats. One fisherman interviewed on King Island explained that “if the wife got sick … it’s two hours away [by sail] and if it was rough, you mightn’t get there at all.”

Experts landing at Little Brehat, a bay in northern Newfoundland found a fishing village of 14 families, with “no road connection, no agricultural potential” that was “often completely isolated in winter.

The Canadian government concluded that a significant part of the Newfoundland population was living in conditions not far off the 19th century. But many people living in the islands were reluctant to leave the only home they’d ever known. The Government Game, a protest song about resettlement written by poet Al Pittman in 1983, includes this verse:

My home was St Kyran’s, a heavenly place,
It thrived on the fishin’ of a good hearty race;
But now it will never again be the same,
Since they made it a pawn in the government game.

And the costs to modernize the new province, to provide electricity, telephones, medical care, and education at a level that would match the rest of Canada, would be enormous given the distances involved. Over on Sop’s Island, population 222 in 1956, the government inspectors recorded that because “there are no roads and because of the rugged and mountainous country, the cost of building roads … would be tremendous.”

For the Department Of Fisheries, the primary concern was how best to capitalize on the rich fishing industry of its new province. Small fishing villages were to make way for deep-water ports capable of berthing deep sea trawlers, bringing their catches back to modern, mass processing plants. “Formally one case of the resettlement may be based on the economic non-viability of the Newfoundland fishing ports,” concluded a report by the Canadian Council on Rural Development, which was ominously titled “Economically Worthless.”

Resettlement intended to replace self-sufficient fishing with modern mass-processing plants.
Resettlement intended to replace self-sufficient fishing with modern mass-processing plants. LUKE SPENCER

The only solution, it seemed, was to make the distances between these increasingly isolated villages smaller; their inhabitants would have to move to larger “Growth Centres.” Asked one government official: “Could the settlers upon these barren little islands and the rugged creeks and coves which present no basis for growth and prosperity, be induced to remove en masse?”

Michael Skolnik at the Institute of Social Economic Research at Memorial University, St. John’s, put it more bluntly: to end “peasant subsistence … is to facilitate the process of urbanization.”

The government report on Sop’s Island concluded: “In my opinion, the settlement should be completely evacuated.”

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