History Bell Island

Bell Island has a rich heritage. The following will give you a taste of what you can experience on a visit to the Iron Isle.
"History of Bell Island (1)" We came across this unsigned article. If you know who wrote it, tell us so we can give them credit!
"History of Bell Island (2)" A longer article from the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador
"How I Became a Miner" by Charlie Bown.
"Bell The Moose" by Charlie Bown.
"Farming on Bell Island" by Charlie Bown.
"The Power Plant" by Charlie Bown.
"The Tramway" by Charlie Bown.
"The Lighthouse" by Charlie Bown.
"The Collision of the W Garland and the Little Golden Dawn" From The Miners of Wabana by Gail Weir
"Bell Island in Stamps" by Lorne Kent.
"List of Men Who Died in the Bell Island Mines"
Bell Island Ferries of Former Years by Addison Bown
Bell Island Population figures 1941 - 1986
Early History of Bell Island by Addison Bown
Smugglers By Charlie Bown
My Uncle By Charlie Bown
Lance Cove and Freshwater By Charlie Bown
A Video Interview With Charlie Bown
Full Circle: History of the Kipawo Researched by Robert R. Bennett, written by Patrick Prosper, The Downhomer, August 1995

"The Brighter Side" by Alison O'Brien.
Bell Island Ice Blockade written by a local miner written during a long ice blockade in the 1950's
Collision of Golden Dawn and Garland Poem by Joseph Pynn 1961
My Bell Island Home Rosalind (Reardon) Pinsent (Added February 2001)
Ode to Bell Island (PDF File) Rosalind (Reardon) Pinsent (Added February 2001)


Just a short ferry ride from Portugal Cove across a stretch of water known as the "Tickle" lies historic Bell Island. Originally known as the Great Belle Isle, it must have seemed very appealing to early adventuresome settlers. Approaching the island from the sea they were confronted with a heavily treed expanse of land abruptly rising almost 220 ft. out of the sea. Its physical resemblance to areas of England was very comforting to the people homesick for their ancestral home.

The island was visited by people long before permanent settlement occurred. For years traveling ships stopped at the island to replenish their freshwater stocks and in fact there is a place on the island named Freshwater because of this occurrence. The island was used for several years by fishermen who fished off its coast in an area known as the Ledge. The men would come ashore to dry their fish on the beach. This latter usage was responsible for bringing the Island's first permanent settler to the area.

Gregory Normore, a young man from the Channel Island of Jersey, came to Newfoundland to fish after listening to a group of sailors in the English port of Poole speak of the excitement and adventure to be had in the "New Founde Lande". He fished off the shores of Bell Island for a few seasons. Like other fishermen he would go ashore to dry his fish.

The year was 1740 and what Mr. Normore found was an area that received plenty of warm sun and was sheltered from the elements by high cliffs. The densely populated spruce, fir and birch were perfect for the building of shelter. The island was in close proximity to abundant fishing grounds and the fertile soil provided a means for procuring a livelihood. Mr. Normore built his home at the East End of Bell Island that year. He met and eventually married a girl White, daughter of an English planter, from Carbonear. He died in 1785 and his tombstone can still be seen on Beach Hill.

It was the rich agricultural soil which first attracted settlers to the island. It was from the land that the people were able to earn a living by farming. There was, however, another industry for which the Island was to become famous. In 1578, John Guy had spoken of an "Island of Iron" near St. John's and had proposed that the London and Bristol Co. be granted the rights to it .

In the 1890's a Butler family from Port de Grave staked three claims on the North side of the Island. These claims were sold to the Nova Scotia Steel Company who later sold them to the DOSCO mining company. The red stones, for years used by the fishermen as ballast in their boats, were identified as red hematite or iron ore. Actual mining operations didn't begin until 1896, the same year the Island's name was officially changed from the Great Belle Isle to Bell Island in a House of Assembly Speech from the Throne by then Governor Sir Herbert Murray.

The site of the mining operations was named Wabana by colonel Thomas Cantly of the mining company. The word is Indian in origin and means "Place where the light first shines". Mining production went into full swing. Huge numbers of people began flocking to the area. The population soon swelled from a few thousand to 14,000. Bell Island became the largest producer of iron ore in the British Commonwealth and one of the most prosperous places in Newfoundland's history.

This prosperity did not come without a price. Working in the mines was hard and not without its dangers. The lives of 101 men were lost in the Wabana mines. A Miners' Park in honour of these men was opened in 1991.

The second mining related tragedy occurred during the Second World War. Before the War, Bell Island was the primary supplier of iron ore for Germany. This distinction led to several tragic losses. German captains' experience in piloting iron ore boats into Conception Bay made it possible for them to return with U-boats and attack several vessels. On Sept. 5, 1942 three ore boats, the S.S. Lord Strathcona, S.S. Saganaga and the PLM 27, were waiting in anchorage near Bell Island. Unbeknownst to the vessels, a German U-boat under the cover of night had slipped into the area and was getting ready to attack. Without warning the U-boat fired on the ships. The Strathcona and the Saganaga were torpedoed and sunk. The PLM 27 was lucky enough to remain unharmed.

Gun emplacements on Beach Hill were fired by the Newfoundland militia. The men didn't see or hit the submarine but did manage in the confusion to kill a cow in St. Philips. Bell Island has the distinction of being the site of the only artillery fired in defense of North America in the Second World War. Two months after the first attack, five boats, the Rosecastle, PLM 27, Pendeen, Penoliver and Flyindale, were in anchorage off Bell Island. A second German submarine attack occurred this time in broad daylight. Both the Rosecastle and the PLM 27 were lost. A torpedo meant for the Flyindale missed and hit and damaged the pier.

Despite these tragedies the mining years were a time of great success for Bell Island. The mines provided employment for thousands of people from the old to the young. Children of 10-12 years who had left school would work in the mines boiling the kettles for the men on their breaks. Later, these "Nippers" would move into other aspects of the mining operation.

Bell Island wasn't just an industrial centre, it was a cultural centre as well. The Island's Town Square was highly developed and boasted the latest in shops and restaurants. There were at one time four theaters in the town of Wabana showing the latest in films and shows. People from all over Newfoundland and from outside came to work in the mines. Everyone was exposed to a wide range of backgrounds and experiences which made Bell Island and its people all the richer for it. There were down times when production in the mines was low but generally the mining years were time the like of which has never been seen again.

On April 19, 1966, an announcement was made that the mines would close. While it came as a shock to many it was not entirely unexpected. New methods of production had developed in the iron industry requiring a different grade of ore. Bell Island's huge deposits of ore were no longer viable to mine. Three generations of Islanders had enjoyed steady income from the mines. People had heard rumblings that the mines were to close but no one truly believed it would come to pass. After the closure of the mines, Bell Island's population declined. Many people who had left their own communities to seek work on the Island returned to their homes. Bell Islanders moved to other areas including the mainland of Canada. For many of them, the connection to Bell Island has always remained strong. Numerous former residents return home regularly to see their beloved Island.