Feature


(April 24, 1997, Gazette)

Where once they stood

By Pam Frampton

The cement foundation blocks scattered haphazardly around Sandy Point are the only tangible reminders of what once was.

For centuries people lived here, fell in love, raised children, prospered or grew poorer, were educated, argued about politics, prayed, and toiled. Now even the foundation blocks are becoming buried beneath the creeping grass that covers the flat land.

Sandy Point can be found about half-way between Port aux Basques and Corner Brook. If you don't know where it is, you'll probably never stumble upon it. It began its life as a peninsula town, but the ocean eventually cut the peninsula off and turned it into Flat Island. If you look at photos circa 1950, you can see where the island got its name. The land is as level as a rice paddy, except for a fringe of conifers.

Don Downer, an education professor at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, is quite familiar with the route to Sandy Point. For the past two-and-a-half years he has been conducting research on the now-defunct town, and he hopes his work will help preserve people's memories of the place.

Historical documents tell us that native peoples visited Sandy Point as early as 1594, but it was the late 1700s before Micmac and then English and Jersey Island fishermen set up permanent residence. At its peak -- around 1850 -- the town was home to 850 people, and was the focus of the French Shore north. Sandy Point was a bustling, colorful, multicultural mercantile centre when the city of Corner Brook was still in its infancy. It was the largest community on the west coast of Newfoundland in the 1840s. The western headquarters of both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic churches were located there, and the town had customs officers, doctors, magistrates, a convent, a Catholic archbishop, teachers, and tradesmen, as well as other livyers. The English and Jersey fishermen and their families tended to live apart from the French population, which included Acadians, settlers from France, St-Pierre and Miquelon, and Quebec.

Resettlement assistance was provided to the 70 or so remaining residents of Sandy Point in the 1960s, and the last two people left the town in 1973. How could such a vibrant community disappear? The question plagued Dr. Downer.

"I started hearing about Sandy Point, and then became interested generally in the history, geography, culture and society of defunct communities. What made them live? What made them die?"

Dr. Downer's own home town, Indian Islands, was also resettled, and in 1991 he wrote a book on the subject titled Uprooted People: The Indian Islands. Maybe that exercise was cathartic, because unlike many Newfoundlanders who in the 1960s were urged by the provincial government to leave their small communities for larger centres, he is not bitter.

"I don't fault the government as much as they do. But I see a problem with fishing in small-town Newfoundland. We can't live with the fishery and we can't do without it, it seems. This has always intrigued me. What I refer to as the negative culture which has evolved around fishing and inshore cod fishing communities in the province is, I think, the real crime in this. We must do everything we can to dispel that attitude."

Sandy Point, however, was not primarily a fishing town, although like many communities in this province it was settled for that reason. Although its residents fished commercially for herring and salmon, it was predominantly a service centre. Goods were shipped to Sandy Point and distributed to the neighboring towns. However, when trains arrived in nearby St. George's in 1898, Sandy Point started its slow decline.

"That was kind of the death knell for Sandy Point," Dr. Downer explained. "The herring fishery and the salmon fishery were failing; the cod fishery was not a big thing there anyway, and there were other economic factors. There was also flooding to contend with. I remember a former resident, Mrs. Tuff, telling me about having to go to church in a dory! After the railway came Sandy Point was no longer a centre for shipping. Rail was then used to send things to other points, so the focus moved to St. George's, to Port aux Basques, and -- after the pulp and paper mill got going in the 1920s -- to Corner Brook."

With the help of a grant from Memorial's Office of the Vice-President (Research), Dr. Downer began interviewing former residents of Sandy Point, from January 1995 to February 1997. He spoke to people like 93-year-old Jean (Butler) Messervey. She and her 95-year-old sister, Molly MacPherson, were the daughters of Rev. E. A. Butler, who was the last Anglican clergyman at Sandy Point. And he listened to the reminiscences of Bob Colson of St. George's, a former resident of Sandy Point whose family (their original name was Olson) came from Norway. Dr. Downer worked closely with Prof. David Morrish of Grenfell's Visual Arts department, who took scores of photos of former residents, and of Sandy Point as it is today.

Dr. Downer said the most valuable research he has collected stems from the recollections of former residents.

"I'm sure it was quite hard on the people, especially those who saw the town die slowly," he said. "Even Jean Messervey, who came to Sandy Point with her father in 1911 at the age of six, and stayed until 1930, said she remembers years when they couldn't get a teacher. Slowly all of the services started to go. Another resident remembers when Sandy Point was 'the most culturally diverse place in the province,' for its time."

Dr. Downer said he has asked colleagues like Dr. Olaf Janzen, History, to critique his research, and he hopes to publish a book on Sandy Point this year.

"My main hope is to heighten people's awareness of a major community in western Newfoundland, and to make people aware of their heritage," he said. "We can all learn from the experience how transient we are as a people, and that nothing lasts forever."