Travel

Across the tickle: A return to Battle Harbour

For generations, Battle Harbour was considered the unofficial capital of Labrador, a centre of fishing through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, it has reinvented itself as a remote island getaway known for its rugged beauty

Last summer, the Battle Harbour Historic Trust invested the season’s marketing budget in renovations and upkeep. (Photo: Michael Winsor)
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Located nine miles off Labrador’s southeast coast, Battle Harbour is a bit of a challenge to get to. You can make most of that journey via the Trans-Labrador Highway these days, or by some combination of flights, ferries and vehicle as far as Mary’s Harbour on the Labrador mainland. But the last leg is a 45-minute small-boat ride into open sea, skirting a handful of treeless, unoccupied islands.

Even Battle Island, the lesser of two islands nestled cheek by jowl, looks uninhabited when you first catch sight of it. But as you motor closer, the south-facing hillside opens up, as if someone was swinging it wide like a door, revealing a green slope dotted with white buildings, their roofs painted a bright ochre red.

Beyond this tidy little village, the north Atlantic stretches empty to the horizon. Peter Bull, manager of the Battle Harbour National Historic District, leans in to shout over the outboard.  “If you were to sail past here,” he says, “the next stop is Greenland.”

I’m travelling in the summer of 2020. This is usually the busiest time of year in Battle Harbour, with a dozen guests or more occupying the suites at the inn or one of the island’s refurbished residences each night. Like everywhere else in the world, though, this is not a normal year. There is still plenty of activity when we land at the waterfront, but this summer all of it involves a hammer or a paint brush. Once it became clear COVID-19 restrictions would mean no travellers from outside the province, the Battle Harbour Historic Trust decided to invest the season’s marketing budget in renovations and upkeep. “We’ve gone through three or four hundred gallons of paint this summer,” Peter tells me.

It takes a leisurely morning to walk the island’s length and breadth. (Photo: Michael Winsor)
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It gives a pristine feel to the outport that makes it seem a place out of time. The mercantile buildings and the general store, the church and many of the houses are historical, of course, some dating back two centuries. But standing among them in the afternoon sunshine, they look untouched, immaculate, fresh out of the box.

The general store sells locally knitted mitts and hats, along with other regional crafts and artwork. (Photo: Michael Winsor)
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MAP: CHRIS BRACKLEY/CAN GEO; DATA: 2019 LANDSAT8 IMAGE, NASA
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Gordon Slade first laid eyes on Battle Harbour in 1980, when he visited as Newfoundland’s deputy minister of Fisheries. There is a note of wonder in his voice when he talks about that trip. “The place was almost exactly as it was 100 years before,” he says.

Slade immediately recognized the physical manifestation of history in Battle Harbour as an opportunity. It was, he says, “a microcosm of every community before Confederation with Canada, before the arrival of the fresh fish industry,” and a living museum of the centuries-old Labrador fishery. But most of that history was on the verge of falling in. “Except for two or three mercantile buildings still in use on the waterfront,” he says, “all those places were in terrible shape.” Without some kind of intervention, their days were clearly numbered.

For generations, Battle Harbour was considered the unofficial capital of Labrador, a centre of fishing and trade for the region’s cod industry through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The development of refrigeration technology had long-since replaced the salt fish trade on the island of Newfoundland with a fresh fish industry by 1980. But in southern Labrador, fishermen were still curing cod as they had for hundreds of years.

Earle Freighting Services, which sold local salt fish into specialty markets in Portugal and Spain, was operating out of the same mercantile premises established by John Slade & Company in the 1770s. The oldest non-Moravian church in Labrador, commissioned by Anglican Bishop Edward Feild in 1852 and consecrated in 1857, was still standing. The first Grenfell Mission hospital on the coast, raised here in the 1890s, was lost in a fire that swept through the community in 1930. But the English-style cottage built to house doctors, nurses and hospital staff had survived. The wooden broadcast towers of the only year-round Marconi station north of the Strait of Belle Isle when it was established in 1904 were lost in the same fire, but the metal towers that replaced them loomed on the highest ridge. (The radiotelegraph station relayed essential weather, shipping and fishing information, as well as local news and events.)

It would be almost a decade before Gordon Slade made his second visit to Battle Harbour. But that opportunity to revitalize the forgotten village never left his thoughts. And he came back on a mission.

On the face of it, Battle Harbour is an unlikely spot to be proclaimed a capital, unofficially or otherwise. Eliot Curwen, a medical missionary with the nascent Grenfell Mission when he arrived in 1893, described it as “an odd looking little place,” although he granted it was “picturesquely situated on the rock.”  It takes only a leisurely morning to walk the length and breadth of this “rock.” 

It’s something I put to Nelson Smith as he tours me through the mercantile warehouses originally used to store pickling salt and cured fish, puncheons of molasses and pork and other supplies.  Born and raised here, Nelson now works as a guide with the Battle Harbour Historic Trust. Part of what made Battle Harbour special, he tells me, were the plentiful shoals and reefs around the island that made for ideal fishing grounds. And the harbour itself, a tickle (a Newfoundland term meaning a narrow strait or channel) running east to west between Battle and Greater Caribou Island and protected at both ends by underwater shoals, offers shelter “most any direction the wind is blowing.”

By 1840, Newfoundland schooners were bringing as many as 4,000 people north to fish. And Battle Harbour became the primary port of call for procuring supplies en route to the fishing grounds of the Labrador Sea. There were so many schooners at anchor in the harbour at times, it was said you could walk across the tickle on their decks. A century later, when my father passed through on his way down the Labrador coast to the family’s fishing station, he told me that the harbour was still crowded with “floaters” taking on salt and provisions. 

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Fireweed blooms across the island. (Photo: Michael Winsor)
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Those glory days are long past. Nelson tells me that most families, including his own, started wintering in Mary’s Harbour in the 1960s, using Battle Harbour only as a summer fishing station. No one has lived here year-round, he says, since the provincial government closed the school and resettled the last of the “livyers” — the full-time residents — in 1968. The Labrador fishery ended altogether with the cod moratorium imposed by the federal government in 1992. And that was very nearly the end of Battle Harbour itself.

At 81, Georgina Lunnen has lived more of Battle Harbour’s history than most anyone. Her grandfather arrived here as a bookkeeper for Baine Johnston and Company, the merchant firm that preceded Earle Freighting Service. Her father worked as a fisherman until a hunting accident left him permanently disabled. There were nine children in the family, and Lunnen worked as a clerk in a small store and helped raise her younger siblings when her mother took sick with cancer.

It sounds like a difficult time, I suggest. “Oh, it was,” she says. “It was.”

Surprisingly, though, most of her early memories of Battle Harbour are happy. Every Saturday there was a dance attended by young and old alike on the wharf, if the weather allowed, or in the “big hall” owned by the church, the music provided by a lone accordion player. On Sunday evenings there was an informal gathering on the wharf, 25 or so “young fellows” and every teenage girl on the island talking and horsing around.

In its rhythms and challenges and many of its details, Lunnen’s young life sounds like something out of the mid-19th century. “It was just lamps for light back when I was a girl,” she says, before Earle’s brought generators to the island in the early 1950s.

She and her husband, Lloyd, had the first TV in Battle Harbour before their two daughters reached school-age, in the 1970s. “There’d be 10 or more youngsters on the floor there every morning,” she says, “to watch Mr. Dressup.”

Lunnen felt a bit at loose ends when her youngsters were old enough to look out for themselves. So she and a friend went at the fish themselves each summer, taking the boat out to the trap, bringing the catch in to clean and salt it. “You’d be at the stage till one, two o’clock in the morning, putting away the fish,” Lunnen says, and then waves a hand. “I hated it,” she admits with a laugh. “I’d put the turtleneck on, put perfume on it, haul it up over me nose.” Despite that visceral distaste, she fished for a decade until the cod moratorium forced an end to it.

Author Michael Crummey reminisces with Georgina Lunnen. (Photo: Michael Winsor)
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Her husband took sick shortly afterwards, and for years they lived in Mary’s Harbour year-round to be close to the hospital. It was an involuntary exile and not one Lunnen ever adjusted to. She has spent every summer since he passed in Battle Harbour, coming out at the beginning of June and staying until September. When she was growing up here, she says, she knew every soul on the island and “most everybody you were belonged to.” And that sense of belonging clearly still defines and sustains her.

Listening to Lunnen talk about her life, it strikes me that the historic trust is aiming for something similar, on a wider scale. A celebration of a lasting attachment to place. A window onto Battle Harbour in all its incarnations.

St. James Anglican Church, the oldest non-Moravian church in Labrador, was commissioned in 1852 and consecrated in 1853. (Photo: Michael Winsor)
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Yvonne Jones was born in Indian Cove, across the tickle on Greater Caribou Island. She remembers the thrill of taking the boat to Battle Harbour when her father was trading his fish in the fall. It felt, she says, like a visit to the “big city.” But she had no sense of the role Battle Harbour played in shaping the people and life of the region until she was hired to write a history of the island as a high school student in the 19xxs. That summer project sparked a lifelong passion.

While in university, she interviewed residents to record an oral history of Battle Harbour. And she joined the St. James Church restoration committee, a local group determined to keep the ailing wooden church from collapse. But they had no plans beyond that particular building, Jones admits, before Gordon Slade, by then vice-president of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, made his second visit to Battle Harbour in 1988. It was Slade, she says, who was most instrumental in articulating and selling the vision of what Battle Harbour had been and what it could be.

Slade approached provincial government officials about investing to save the most historic buildings, without arousing much interest. He realized any intervention would depend on himself and the efforts of local communities. He conscripted Leslie Harris, then-president of Memorial University in St. John’s, to sign on as chair and launched the Battle Harbour Historic Trust. They immediately focused their political connections and fundraising capabilities on saving St. James.

Funding was secured for a restoration carpentry course in Mary’s Harbour, with practical training done in Battle Harbour. Nelson Smith was one of the carpenters who worked on the church. “She wouldn’t have lasted another winter,” he says. “It was almost too dangerous to go inside. We had to put cables through the building to stabilize it before we could do anything else.”

What’s in a name?

When Captain James Cook was engaged to survey the Newfoundland coast in 1763, following the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France, the famous cartographer included the southern portion of Labrador in his work. Published in 1775, Cook’s map anglicized some names on that shoreline (Cap St. Louis became Cape St. Lewis) and swapped English appellations in for French (York Harbour replaces Chateau Baie). It also added monikers to locations unnamed on earlier maps. One of these additions was Battle Isle, off Labrador’s southeast coast. This nondescript bit of rock, dwarfed by neighbouring Great Caribou Island, is the only island in the 80 kilometres between Cape St. Lewis and Cape Charles that is identified with a name.

Older French maps sometimes include the Isles de Caribou in this location, denoting the cluster of islands in the immediate vicinity as a group. But Cook dropped any reference to those larger neighbours, deciding Battle Isle warranted special note on its own. Some have suggested the name could come from batel, the Portuguese word for small boat, though historian Michael Barkham says the name origin remains a mystery, as does the question of why Cook chose to single the island out as he did. But Battle Harbour, as the outport subsequently became known, played an outsized role in the history and lore of Newfoundland and Labrador over the next two centuries.

consecrated in 1853. this page: A coastal view with fireweed in the foreground. The flowers can be harvested to make jelly. (Photo: Michael Winsor)
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Alongside the work of restoration, the trust actively lobbied for recognition of Battle Harbour as a national historic site. The mercantile buildings were granted that designation in 1996 as a commemoration of the Labrador fishery. Earle Freighting Services had ceased local operations after the 1992 cod moratorium, and Slade eventually convinced them to turn their properties over to the trust. It was a question of doing a kind of “triage” then, he says, deciding which buildings were in the worst shape and saving those first. In the end, the largest restoration project in the province’s history refurbished 20 buildings, including Grenfell Cottage, Isaac Smith House, the Baine Johnston cook house and the general store. It was a painstaking and expensive process, one that government grants and endless fundraising didn’t always cover. On occasion, Slade paid wages out of his own pocket. “If you want to do something,” he says, “you find a way to do it.”

In 1998, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the entire community and its heritage buildings a national historic district.

Yvonne Jones was a member of the Battle Harbour Historic Trust until she began a career in politics in 1996. And she was the first manager of the site after Earle’s signed over its properties, leasing the general store and the inn where the restoration work crew stayed. She gave up the lease in 2000, and the trust took over management of the site. But she still has a cabin in Indian Cove and spends part of every summer here. “This place is filled with magic,” she says. “There’s a spirit here that awakens something in people.” 

For visitors, much of that magic comes from experiencing first-hand the deep connection between locals and the place that made them who they are. As we walk through the church he helped salvage, Nelson Smith tells the story of getting married here in 1997. St. James was full on his wedding day, the pews packed with relatives and friends from Mary’s Harbour and St. Lewis and other communities on the coast. And there were also a handful of strangers who happened to sail into the tickle that morning to see Battle Harbour and were invited to be part of the congregation.  

As small as it is, Battle Harbour is too much to properly take in over two days. The visit is done, it seems, almost before it begins. I didn’t even make it across the tickle to Caribou Island.

Annette Holley, who has been managing reservations for the trust for years, tells me she gets two main complaints when people leave. “The first,” she says, “is, ‘I should have lost 10 pounds before I come out here.’ And the second is, ‘I wish I had stayed longer.’”

Like most lucky enough to have set foot on the island, I’m already looking forward to a return.

See more of Michael Winsor’s photography from his trip to Battle Harbour last summer here.

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