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  Conception Bay Newfoundland 

Conception Bay North

 Conception Bay South

Harbour Grace

Bell Island

Situated in Conception Bay, the island is approximately 9.5 km (6 mi) long by 3 km (2 mi) wide and 34 km2 (13 mi2) in area. It is the largest of a number of islands in the Bay. On its eastern side the island is separated from the mainland of Newfoundland by a stretch of water known as the Tickle which is approximately 5 km (3 mi) wide. It is across this tickle that the ferry makes its daily trips to Portugal Cove, which is 14.5 km (9 mi) by road from St. John's. The road joining the capital with Portugal Cove was one of the first built in Newfoundland. Constructed in 1831 under the auspices of the Governor of the Colony, Sir Thomas Cochrane qv, it was also one of the first to be paved.

The island is composed of Ordovician sandstone and shale over Cambrian formations. Dispersed throughout the island are deposits of rich iron ore, red hematite. Bell Rock, which gave the island its name, is located off the northwestern end of the island and is separated from it by a gap of several metres. The island is unprotected from the prevailing winds, which are west and southwesterly in the winter and southwesterly in the summer. The precipitation is approximately 125 cm (50 in) annually, higher than in most of Canada. The Bay is open to navigation for the greater part of the year, but occasionally it is blocked by slob ice from the north during the winter months. Air service is then the only means of transportation to and from the island.

The original Great Bell Isle was later shortened to Bell Isle and at the opening of the House of Assembly on June 11, 1896, the name Bell Island was used officially for the first time. It is generally believed that Bell Island was frequented by European fishermen and pirates as early as the Sixteenth Century. About 1628 John Guy qv sent samples of the rock from the island to England for analysis. A member of the Guy colony, Henry Crout, and Sir Percival Willoughby tried unsuccessfully to have Bell Island added to land already granted to the London and Bristol Company, as they were confident that there was ``Irone stone'' on the island. It took three hundred years for that stone to be finally mined. In May 1839 the English geologist Joseph Jukes qv surveyed Bell Island but failed to identify the red rock as red hematite. Before settlement, ships called at the island to replenish their fresh water supplies. For this reason there are two places on the island with the name Freshwater, one on the west side and one on the east. The first recorded permanent settler on Bell Island was Gregory Normore (1717-1783), a native of Jersey in the Channel Islands. He married a Miss White of Carbonear and they settled on Bell Island c. 1740. Many of the first settlers there were of English or Irish extraction. These early settlers farmed and fished, raised cattle, pigs and poultry, and harvested vegetables and berries. They then sold their produce in St. John's, Harbour Grace and Brigus. People from Bell Island also went to the seal hunt during the 1800s; the schooner Bell Isle, commanded by George Pynn, was going to the fishery as early as 1833. There was a shipbuilding operation in Lance Cove owned by the Rees family (one of the first families to settle Lance Cove), and a brickyard run by the Pitts family in 1848. Freshwater was settled by a man named Parsons from Bryant's Cove qv in 1856, and the western part of Freshwater was renamed Parsonville. He and his family farmed in the area.

In 1843 a Church of England church was consecrated by the first Church of England Bishop of Newfoundland, Aubrey Spencer. The first Roman Catholic parish was established in 1875 but it was 1884 before a church was built. A Methodist church was built in 1901 and a Salvation Army Citadel was consecrated in 1910. In 1975 Rev. John Hammond supervised the building of the first Pentecostal Church on Bell Island. The first school was built in Lance Cove by the Protestant board of education in 1841.

MINING. The history of the mines on Bell Island spans the years between 1894 and 1966. John and Jabez Butler had held a legal lease on iron-rich land and in 1893 after the valuable red hematite was finally identified they sold their land to the Nova Scotia Steel Company. Col. Thomas Cantley, president of the company, named the mining site Wabana, an Indian name meaning ``place where the light first shines.'' The Dominion Coal Company bought land from the Nova Scotia company in February 1899. In 1906 the operations on Bell Island precipitated the first mining Act in Newfoundland, the Regulation of Mines Act (6 Ed. VII, c. 15). Used as a basis for all subsequent acts, the Regulation of Mines Act provided for the appointment of inspection personnel, investigation of accidents, remedies for dangerous conditions and practices, and annual reports of tonnages mined, the number of persons employed and the amount of wages paid.

By 1923 Bell Island had supplanted Harbour Grace as the second largest centre in Newfoundland. The great leaps in population from 1901 to 1956 attest to the growth of the mining operations: 1901, 1,320; 1935, 6,157; 1956, 11,724.

From the beginning of mining until 1914, Bell Island prospered. With the start of World War I, however, a great setback occurred in the industry because one of the main customers for Bell Island had been Germany. During the war there was a brief recovery, only to have another collapse occur in 1918 with the end of war production. Again the mines recovered but when French troops occupied the industrial heartland of Germany, the Ruhr, in an attempt to prevent rearmament there in 1923, another decrease in shipments occurred. Yet a further setback came with the depression of the 1930s; from 1936 to 1959 the mines prospered again. Then competition from new producers who could mine iron ore less expensively gradually led to a decline in markets for Bell Island ore and to the eventual close of the mines in June 1966. Over the years the mining operations had progressed from surface mining to underground mining as far as the shoreline, and eventually to submarine mining. When the mines closed in 1966 the miners were working more than 4.8 km (3 mi) under the floor of Conception Bay.

The history of the companies which operated the Bell Island mines is one of changes. The mines were started in 1894 by the Nova Scotia Steel Company. In 1899 the Whitney Company bought a number of land holdings on Bell Island rrom the Nova Scotia Steel Company (which became the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company in 1900). In 1901 the Whitney company became known as the Dominion Iron and Steel Company until the Dominion Steel Corporation replaced it. In 1922 the British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) absorbed the other companies. BESCO ran into financial difficulties in 1924 which led it into receivership in 1926 under the auspices of the National Trust Company. The Dominion Steel Corporation (DOSCO) bought the assets of BESCO from National Trust in June 1930. A subsidiary of DOSCO, Dominion Wabana Ore Limited, controlled the Bell Island mines from 1949 to 1957 when both companies were amalgamated under A.V. Roe Canada Limited. This company changed its name in 1962 to Hawker Siddley Canada Limited. However, right up to the mines' closing in 1966, the ``company'' was popularly referred to as DOSCO.

UNIONS. The first miners' strike began on August 24, 1896 when 180 workers struck for 12 an hour instead of the 10 an hour they were being paid. The manager promised that if they went back to work, he would bring their grievances to the attention of the company. The men returned to work at the old rate of pay, but were not given the requested raise. This was the beginning of a continuing struggle between labour and management over the next seventy years. In 1900 the unrest of the workers led to a second strike, this one much more serious than the first, lasting from July 11 to July 24. The miners wanted 15 an hour, a 50% raise over their wage at the time. The men also organized into a union known as the Wabana Workmen and Labourers' Union. A settlement of the strike was finally made at a meeting in Kelligrews which became known as the ``Treaty of Kelligrews.'' Shortly after the men returned to work the union disintegrated.

In 1922 a union was organized which was affiliated with the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. This union did not negotiate directly with the company, but through the government. With a resurgence of trouble in 1925, the union began to disintegrate rapidly until, by July 1926, it had been replaced by a workmen's committee. The next attempt at forming a union was in 1941. David Ignatius (Nish) Jackman qv, a native Bell Islander, organized a union when it was announced that work in the mines would be put on half-time. In October 1941 Jackman became president of the Wabana Mine Workers' Union and this body negotiated directly with the company. The union became an affiliate of the Newfoundland Federation of Labour in 1944 and a local of the United Steel Workers in 1948. Stephen Neary qv organized a local of the Office Employees International Union in 1951.

COMMUNICATIONS. Bell Island s first periodical, Wabana Druggist qv was published in 1910. Its editor was L.J. Lawton, proprietor of the Wabana Drug Store. The Bell Island Miner qv was first published in the spring of 1914, with W.J. English as editor. Newfoundland's first agricultural journal appeared in October 1921 with Bell Islander F.F. Jardine the editor. During the war years, 1939-1945, another publication, The Bell Islander was published.

The first airplane was sighted over Bell Island on June 10, 1919 when Admiral Kerr's Handley Page flew over the island on a trial run from Harbour Grace to St. John's. On February 1, 1922 air mail was dropped to the ice-blockaded residents by Major Sydney Cotton qv. On June 22, 1931 an airplane of Newfoundland Airways Limited was landed on Neary's farm by pilots Fraser and Sullivan. In the early 19s the Wabana Iron Ore Company built an airstrip on Bell Island. It was turned over to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in the mid 1900s.

The first telephone cable was laid, underwater across the tickle,in November 1922 and a new cable was laid in November 1929. The firstelectric power was delivered to Bell Island,by submarine cables,in January 1931.The Bell Island Radio Station VO GT (Voice of Gaiety Theatre),founded by Rev.E.J. Rawlins, went on the air for the first time on May 3, 1931.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT. The first local council was elected in January 1913 butin 1917the area known as ``the Mines'' broke away from the first council and formed its own. By 1920 one of the two local councils served the Front, Lance Cove and Freshwater, and the other served the Mines. It was not until August 29, 1950 that the Town of Wabana was incorporated.

The first law enforcement officer was Constable J. Fitzgerald, a member of the Newfoundland Constabulary, who was appointed in the autumn of 1900. Since Confederation the RCMP have policed the island.

FERRIES. In 1907 two steamers were making the crossing from Kelligrews (where the railway terminus was) to Bell Island: the Progress and the Nereus, the latter a mail carrier. In June 1922 the S.S. Pawnee, a steam yacht, was put into service. The first car ferry was the Maneco, which was brought into service in 1931 and served the island for twenty-five years. On November 10, 1940 a tragic accident took place when the Garland collided with the Golden Dawn close to the Beach in a heavy snowstorm. Both boats sank in minutes taking twenty-two people with them. The captain and engineer of the Golden Dawn were rescued as were the captain and three other people on the Garland. Also in 1940 four ore boats, docked at the pier on the south side of the island waiting for a convoy to escort them to Britain, were torpedoed by German submarines. Sixty-nine lives were lost. The ships were the Saganaga, Lord Strathcona, and the Rose Castle (all of which were Canadian owned) and the P.L.M. 27, a French ship being used by the British at that time. Two of the ships were sunk in broad daylight on the morning of September 2, while the remaining two were torpedoed at night on November 2. It was suggested that the Germans found negotiating the waters of Conception Bay relatively easy because of their familiarity with them while calling for ore at Bell Island. In 1956 the Elmer Jones replaced the Maneco and in 1960 the John Guy went into service. A companion ferry, the Kipawa, took the John Guy's place whenever the Guy went on drydock. In 1981 the John Guy was still in service with its partner ferry, the Katherine. Both ferries operated during the summer, providing service for tourists, visitors and islanders.

CONCLUSION. Since the mines closed there has been little industry on Bell Island. In the early 1970s a successful experiment to grow mushrooms was instigated by Stephen Neary, M.H.A. for the island at the time. Unfortunately no large companies would come to the island to make it a business. Many parks have been built around the island to attract visitors and guided tours of the mines have been suggested as an added attraction. After the closing of the mines it was proposed that crude oil be stored in the mines, but up to 1981 nothing had been done. In 1981 the inhabitants of Bell Island made their living in a number of ways: some commuted to jobs in and around the St. John's area, and some were employed in health, education and service jobs. Still others farmed or fished.

The Bell Island hospital, the Doctor Walter Templeman Memorial Hospital, was opened in 1965. The vocational school was opened in 1963 with Louis A. Bown as principal. In 1981 the island had a post office, a bank, a fire hall (operated by volunteers), a Boys' and Girls' Club, the Monsignor George F. Bartlett Memorial Arena, and a curling rink. There is also a lighthouse, which was built on the east end of the island in 1940

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Page Created  06 June 2001