Bell Island is a little piece of eastern Canada off Newfoundland’s Conception Bay that most citizens haven’t even heard of. Yet it is an historically significant footnote to our involvement in the Second World War.
It’s one of the few parts of our countrythat was attacked during the war, and the only domestic location where Canadians lost their lives during the global conflict.
The year was 1942, and German U-boat submarines were wreaking havoc on the East Coast in both Canada and the U.S. That year alone, the Germans sank 39 ships. Bell Island, on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, became a target for the submarines because the DOSCO iron ore mine at the island’s town of Wabana was a major source of raw material used to produce the war machines the Allies so desperately needed.
In two separate attacks, on Sept. 5th and Nov. 2nd 1942, German U boats sunk four ore carriers anchored off Bell Island, killing 70 merchant mariners. The ships were the SS Saganaga, SS Lord Strathcona, SS P.L.M. 27, and SS Rose Castle. Another torpedo missed the 3,000-ton collier Anna T and exploded when it hit the DOSCO loading pier.
At low tide, relics of the sunken ships can be seen. Scuba divers came from around the world to explore the wrecks.
The ConnecTour team explored the island and its history during a visit in October after completing the cross-Canada cycling journey to St. John’s. We went there to fulfill a promise to a friend (the subject of a future blog), but the visit became an immensely rewarding experience in itself.
A key stop was the Seamen’s Memorial, at Lance Cove at the southern end of the nine-kilometre-long island. Created in 1994 by Branch 18 of the Royal Canadian Legion, it is a modest site that overlooks the scene of the U boat attack.
Though the ferry to Bell Island is just a 20-minute drive from St. John’s, it has not been a big draw for tourists. Teresita McCarthy grew up on the island and remembers its heyday in the 1960s while the mine was operating at full tilt. Back then, she says, 14,000 people lived on Bell Island and enjoyed many of the conveniences of a large city.
“It was absolutely, positively incredible,” said Teresita.
Des McCarthy, Teresita’s husband who also grew up on the island, said the amenities included Sears and Eatons stores, a bowling alley, 13 schools, a race track and many churches. Workers were well paid, he said, and they “wanted for nothing.”
“People would go into a store (on the mainland) with a $50 bill,” said Des. “And the clerk would say, ‘You must be from Bell Island.’”
Des remembers as a kid playing in the mine shafts. Like his wife, his dad and many relatives were miners. He chose instead to pursue a career as a teacher.
Teresita runs the Bell Island Community Museum, which sits at the entrance of the long-idled Wabana mine shaft #2. Though tours are suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, we were invited in for a look. Amongst the collection of memorabilia is a map that shows a massive labyrinth of shafts and rooms that extend about five kilometres out under the ocean.
Though the shafts are now flooded with ocean water, Teresita says there is plenty of ore that could still be mined.
As it happens, the mine was rendered uneconomic by cheaper producers elsewhere in the world. After years of decline, it closed its doors in 1966 – driving a stake into the economic heart of the island. At one point after the mine closed, Premier Joey Smallwood was seeking to remove abandoned buildings, and offered to pay $1,500 to each owner of a home on the island, on the condition they tear it down. Today, 2,500 people – about one-sixth of the peak population – live there, and many commute to work on the mainland.
With Smallwood’s initiative, many of the landmark buildings no longer exist.
Teresita has dreams of one day reviving the island’s economy through tourism. Though it is not as spectacular as such well-known sites as Signal Hill or Cape Spear, there is much charm to be found on Bell Island. During our one-day tour, we got to most of them: the historic lighthouse; the murals that recall the island’s history; the Grebe’s Nest birding area, where flocks of starlings fly from nearby fields to nests located in the cliffs; the war memorials; the tunnel to a hidden beach created for the once-active fishing industry, and the memorial to the miners who died in accidents over the years.
As we munch on local fish and chips and a brew at Dick’s (pronounced Dick-ses) Lounge we mused on an island shaped by its past, searching for a future.
“We have a beautiful history,” says Teresita. “It’s colourful and it’s sad.”