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Bonavista Bay Region ~ Historical Information

Bonavista Bay North District - Safe Harbour

The information was transcribed by LINDA ELKINS-SCHMITT, 1999. While I have endeavored to be as correct as humanly possible, there may be typographical errors.

The information contained in the following stories was related to me in November 1998 by Wilfred OSBORNE (now OSMOND) when he was a mere 99 years and 2 months old. Wilfred was born on the Gooseberry Islands in Bonavista Bay on September 14, 1899, the child of George OSBORNE and Sophie Ellen DYKE. He had known my grandfather, Abram Walter ELKINS (1890-1977) as well as my great grandfather, Robert William ELKINS (1856-1941), so it was a wonderful experience just listening as he shared stories about life in Safe Harbour just after the turn of the last century. These stories were assembled in celebration of his 100th birthday September 14, 1999. (c) Linda ELKINS-SCHMITT


My grandfather was an Englishman. There were three brothers who came over. One fellow settled on the Gooseberry Islands, and one went to the west coast and that is where all the OSBORNEs from Port aux Basque came from. The third fellow went to Notre Dame Bay somewhere.

I was born on Gooseberry Islands in 1899. No one called you by your right name in those years. Sure there was a family in Bonavista North that we called WICHERs (Billy, John and Jim) but their name was really WILTSHIRE. And there were the OSBORNEs and the OSMONDs. When I was growing up I was called OSBORNE. Later when I moved to Corner Brook and needed my records from St. John's (birth certificate) they finally came back saying my name was recorded as Wilfred OSMOND so I went by that name after that. My father's name was George OSBORNE and my mother was Sophie Ellen DYKE. I was married as OSBORNE and all my children were christened OSBORNE.

Gooseberry Islands were two islands with a tickle in between. When I was growing up all the people who lived there were fishermen. Since there were no motor boats then, a lot of people moved off the islands to be nearer the fishing ground. There was a Methodist graveyard there and the last time I was there was 1930 when I went to visit my father's grave. At that time there were only a few families left living there.


I moved to Safe Harbour when I was five. Where I lived was right on the coastline, and when there was a storm of wind, and the wind was blowing off the water, you'd get a spray of salt on the windows. We lived on the end of the island. There was water separating us from where your grandfather (Abram ELKINS) lived on the mainland. It was connected by a causeway.

The church in Safe Harbour was located in the middle of the harbour on the mainland side. It was about half a mile from where I lived. The people on the island would walk over to the mainland to go to church.

Aunt Ruth STURGE, Aunt Sarah Mose JANES, Sophie Ellen KNEE and Daisy? DYKE were midwives in my time. There had to be midwives in them days, the only doctor was on Greenspond and he had about a sixty mile area to cover. He was not always available for women giving birth.

There were about sixty families in Safe Harbour when I grew up. When I left there in the 1940s there was only about thirty to forty families left then. A lot of people moved to Valleyfield, Bagers Quay and Pools Island, and a lot of people moved in the bay to Hare Bay and Gambo and those places. Port Nelson, Schamblers Cove and Safe Harbour were all along the same line and the people all moved out eventually. The more common Safe Harbour names were DYKE, JANES, HOUNSEL, DAVIS, BURTON, ELKINS, KNEE and ATTWOODS. Your grand- father Abe ELKINS, and Steve STRATTON and Bob HOUNSEL were all about the same age and they were all born in Safe Harbour. They always hung around together and there was nothing they wouldn't do!


When I was growing up everyone was called uncle and aunt. Your great-grandfather, Robert ELKINS, was known by us in Safe Harbour as Uncle Bob, and his wife, Rebecca, as Aunt Becky. She was a PARSONS and I think her family lived mostly in Newtown. John ELKINS, Uncle Bob's brother, also lived in Safe Harbour. I believe John was older than your great-grandfather. Uncle John had two daughters, Clara who married Art BLACKWOOD, a widow man, when she was in her 40's, and Lilly who married Edgar HUNT from Valleyfield. Uncle John's wife must have died early, as I cannot remember her at all. Clare was younger than me.

Uncle Bob knocked around all his life time and made a good living. He died in Corner Brook. The ELKINS girls Annie, Lilly, Edith and Rosie all grew up with me but I don't know where the ELKINS families lived before they came to Safe Harbour. We moved there from Gooseberry Islands when I was about five, when my mother remarried to a KNEE.

Ben WHITE was raised in Port Nelson and moved to Safe Harbour after he married Annie ELKINS. They built a home there a year or two after they married. Ben lived next door to my father-in-law, Enoch HOUNSEL, till he moved to Corner Brook.

Fred ELKINS, Abe's brother, went to Sydney and then moved to Toronto after he retired. I remember a funny story about Fred. One time in Bonavista Bay a man was around looking for men to go to work for him. Fred inquired about the pay and the man said it would be so much a month, and he would "find " Fred in food (meaning provide food) for the winter. Fred said .. yes? and I will be "found" dead in the spring!

Rosie ELKINS was the youngest of Robert's children. She was married to Herb STURGE of Brookfield, which was about three miles from Safe Harbour. Irene ELKINS married Bill VINCENT of Newtown and lived there for years. Nora married Alan CARTER. Edith never married. She lived in Safe Harbour until she died I think.

Abe ELKINS, Steve STRATTON, Elias ATTWOODS, Tom GILLINGHAM and Fred and Hubert STARKES from Valleyfield, used to go in the woods cooking during the winters. Abe would come home from Labrador and go to the Millertown area. I can taste his gingersnaps now, says Mr. OSBORNE with a smile. To get to Millertown he first had to get to Gambo which was about one and a half days walk. People usually stayed overnight in Hare Bay with someone they knew. On the return trip, if you got off the train and thought you could make Hare Bay before dark, that is what you did. Sometimes you could get help from the mailman who would carry your luggage down on dog-team.

Millertown to Gambo was about a 4 to 5 hour train depending.. and you could get stuck for days on the Gaff Topsails in winter. In the early 1900's the train cost $4 from Gambo to Millertown and $6 from Gambo to Corner Brook.

I can remember when your grandfather, Abe ELKINS, brought your grandmother, Jane ROBERTS, from Hare Bay to Safe Harbour on the Schooner Mohawk. Abe had been fishing on the Labrador with Skipper Bill ATTWOODS that summer (1913). When they came home in the fall of the year, Abe went up to Hare Bay on the Mohawk to pick up Jane. When I saw Skipper Bill's schooner come in the harbour all lined off with flags, I asked someone what was going on. I was told that Abe ELKINS was bringing his bride down from Hare Bay. I don't know if they were already married then or if Jane was just coming to Safe Harbour to get married. (Abe and Jane married in Safe Harbour 30 December 1913).


There were BARBOURs living in Safe Harbour: Geraric?, Ken, Ephrium, and Stuart BARBOUR. They did not live exactly in the harbour but they lived in a place called South West Arm. Since everything was done in Safe Harbour, they had to come there for the church, school, and the post office and things like that. They were fishermen and all had fishing schooners. Skipper Lee(?) BARBOUR had a fishing schooner for years, and Skipper Ken and Skipper Stuart. I don't know if they owned the schooners but at least they all looked after them. The merchants from St. John's and the north shore often owned the schooners. Merchants like CROSBIES, HICKMANS, STEERS, and BAINE JOHNSON.


Uncle Ben WHITE had a schooner of his own for many years, but one year he worked on the schooner Maggie Blackwood with Skipper Joe BLACKWOOD. It was the fall of 1925 and Skipper Joe had made a trip to St. John's to ship his own cargo of fish, when he received a charge to pick up freight in St. Anthony (a load of dry fish) which someone needed shipped to St. Johns. Skipper Joe got off the schooner himself and gave her over to Skipper Ben WHITE. Skipper Ben wired me from St. John's asking me if I would go along on the trip and I accepted the chance.

On the 29th day of November at 4 o'clock in the evening, I can remember it just like it was yesterday, we passed along Pool's Island Point, where we used to come out of the arm, and headed under canvas to St. Anthony. The winds were southwest and by 2 pm the next day we anchored in St Anthony, a distance of 250 miles away. That trip usually took about a day and a half or two days as we had to trust to the weather since we sailed under canvas then..there were no motors.

Skipper BLACKWOOD and all his crew except one, were lost that fall on the way back from St. John's. The crewmen were mostly from Shamblers Cove and Port Nelson. My brother in law, Walter ATTWOODS, was one of the men who drowned. The youngest crew member, a 15 year old boy, jumped and got to shore and told the nearby residents about the tragedy. Some of bodies were recovered.


Many schooners were kept in the Safe Harbour area in winter where they iced in till spring. In May, about two weeks before we left for the summer's fishing, all the crews and ships would sail to St.John's where we would get supplies before we left for Labrador. On one account we would pick up any supplies needed to do ship repairs, as well as the salt and food for the trip. The food supplies taken to Labrador would usually include salt beef and pork, beans, peas, prunes, potatoes, and flour. After the supplies were loaded on board, the boats would come home from St.John's and then do any necessary work or repairs for a few days, and then we would be off to the Labrador.

While in St.John's the crew would also get supplies for their families for the summer, and any needed clothes such as a sweater or oil skins, which would be charged to their own account and reckoned out when they brought back their fish in fall. If there was money left over after that, we could use it to get the family through the winter; and if not, the men had to find something to do during that time to support the family.

I fished in Labrador for about 23 years, and I know all about the places up there. I have been from here (island of Newfoundland) to Cape Chidley. Battle Harbour, Strides? Harbour, Indian Harbour, Chimney Tickle... indeed I do know about all those places. I went to the Labrador when I was 12 and stayed at that till I was 35. I didn't like the land in summertime! I mostly went to Labrador with BLACKWOOD's. We lived aboard the boat (8,10,12 men). If we were lucky we got enough fish to get home in August, if not, then it was September. We carried salt to salt the fish, and of course, when that was used up we had to come home or any more fish would spoil anyway.

We used to go to the Canadian Labrador in early spring. One spring we could not get any fish there, so we kept going north and ended up at Cape Chidley, and still there was no fish. So we had to turn back and ended up in a place called Ramah. We tried our luck there and found some fish, so we hung her down there for the summer. We left home on the 10th of June and never got home until the 2nd of October that year.

We used to go into Indian Bay in fall to get wood. Bowaters was logging in that area too and their boats would come to Valleyfield to get wood as well. Mr McLAHR ? used to be out there as wood manager, as well as Dick LUDLOW and Oscar JOHNSON.

We would get home perhaps around the first part of December and our wives would fix up a bit of clothes for us and soon we would be gone again. The women in Safe Harbour were left at home to raise the family. They sewed most of the family's clothes, planted the gardens, and usually had a pig or a few chickens to take care of. Sometimes mill blanket was sent out from Corner Brook and sewn into clothes for working in the woods (windbreakers and brigs), afterwards it was cut up and reused for clothes for the younger children.


A lot of people used to make fish casks at that time. Since there was no factory, a lot of the older people made these products on a small scale. When they got up to about fifty-five or sixty years of age, they did not go away fishing as much anymore. They would stay closer to home. Sure at that time if someone was seventy-five we thought they were really old, but that is only a youngster now-a-days! (says Mr OSBORNE with a laugh). Your great-grandfather Robert ELKINS was a fisherman, I think he was a splitter, and he was also one of these coopers.


During the fishing season you had to have a man who really knew how to split the codfish. You couldn't just go aboard a schooner and say you wanted to be a splitter. Your great uncle, Ben WHITE, was a splitter. I would say he was the smartest splitter on the coast. I salted for Ben one year. We were on a boat with Skipper John LAWLOR. Once Ben split ninety-three three-quarter tubs of codfish in one day...and I salted it. A tub was a quantle of fish (a sixty gallon molasses tierce sawed off to the bung). We had one of these tubs of water underneath the splitting table and that was used to measure the amount of fish we split.


I never went sealing in my life. My father went to the seal fishery and got pneumonia and died, so I don't think I ever felt up to going. Some people from Safe Harbour used to go sealing, but none were lost in the 1914 sealing disaster. Uncle Ben WHITE used to go and so did Art BLACKWOOD, and Alf and Ab STURGE. I had a brother who went that year (1914). He was out with old Captain Abram KEAN that spring on the Stephano. My step-father was out too. He was cook. He helped pick up some of the men who had perished and put them aboard the Bellaventure. There was one man from Shamblers Cove named Bob MAIDMENT who died. I believe he was in his 50s then.


This incident took place before I was born, but I often heard people talking about it. One year, around 1888, I think it was, schooners from Bonavista North contacted smallpox somewhere along the Canadian Labrador. On the return home, these schooners had to be quarantined. There was a special quarantine and customs ground where the ships had to anchor until they were checked out. Those people with smallpox were taken to Candle Cove where a hospital, of sorts, had been built to look after the smallpox patients. A lot of people had contacted small pox and a lot died. The dead were taken to an island called Partridge Island and buried there. I knew people in Safe Harbour who survived and still had the marks in their the BURRYs and GILLINGHAMs.


We used to call Greenspond the capital of Bonavista North. The doctor, magistrate, court house, and policeman were all located there. If we needed a policeman we had to call and they would come over to Safe Harbour. These men had to cover an area of forty to fifty miles. Even our clergyman was located on Greenspond and the Anglican minister was on the Bager's Quay side. When I got married, 79 years ago, I had to go to Greenspond in boat to get the clergyman. He was an old Englishman, Reverend HARRISON, and I had to pay him $5 to come over to Safe Harbour for the wedding ceremony, and then I had to take him back again.


The mail came by train to Gambo, which was the nearest train stop to us. We used to get very good mail service. We had a mailman then who would deliver the mail by dog team. He collected the mail in Gambo and then delivered it all along the coast to Shamblers Cove, Port Nelson, Newport, Safe Harbour, Badger's Quay, Valleyfield, Wesleyville and all the way down to Cape Freels.


Ben WHITE, Jim ATTWOODS and I all came to Corner Brook together during the times of the mill construction. Ben and I were carpenters. We worked there all winter and then went back home to go fishing in the spring. Ben, my brother George, Jim ATTWOODS, Gid BLACKMORE and myself, all stayed in one shack. Your grandfather had it better because he was in the Staff house. Times weren't easy. We had an account at the company store (behind where the Corner Brook post office is now) where we bought supplies ...we did it as a group for better buying power. We built our bunks out of lungers, then cut branches, stripped them down, and wove them between the lungers. This was our mattress and sometimes the bed had knots in the wrong places! We had a blanket from home and used empty cement sacks as additional blankets to help keep us warm. We used a birch junk as a pillow.

Linda Elkins-Schmitt and NLGenWeb
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