Myth of the 'unspoiled' island: how Campobello got trashed

Abandoned buildings and trash are a massive problem for postcard-perfect Campobello Island — but mainlanders 'don't know the whole aspect of an island life.'

Empty buildings crumble and trash piles up to threaten the popular Bay of Fundy tourist spot

The ruins of an old fish plant and gas bar at Wilsons Beach are just the beginning of Campobello Island's problem with derelict buildings and illegal dumping, according to people who live on the island. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"Unspoiled" is a word you hear a lot in the tourism ads for Campobello.

The tiny island off the southwestern shore of New Brunswick offers "unspoiled nature" at its best, says a website for Bay of Fundy visitors.

The New Brunswick government calls it an "island paradise" with "wild, unspoiled beauty, an abundance of wildlife and sealife."

Campobello even gets its own chapter in the 2002 book Searching for Paradise: A Grand Tour of the World's Unspoiled Islands.

The postcard-perfect Head Harbour Light Station is just a few kilometres from one of Campobello Island's worst illegal dump sites. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Some 125,000 people visit Roosevelt Campobello International Park each summer, and thousands more "summer people," as islanders call them, rent cottages and attend the Fog Fest in August.

'Boggles my mind'

But away from the big tourist spots — well, unspoiled it ain't.

Not far from picturesque Head Harbour Lighthouse, one of the oldest lighthouses still standing in Canada, the rural road is lined with an immense pile of garbage, furniture, broken toys and mattresses.

What looks like a whole kitchen is tangled up with Styrofoam coolers, old lobster traps, ropes and scallop drags.

Rusted metal, furniture, and household waste occupy a small part of the illegal dump on Head Harbour Road. (Julia Wright / CBC)

It's a weird contrast with the postcard-perfect view of lobster and scallop boats just beyond the trees, moored on the cobalt-blue water of Head Harbour.

Dumping trash so close to the harbour "boggles my mind," said Evelyn Bowden, 79, who volunteers at the lighthouse. "The water is right there, where these men earn their living."

Rusted-out appliances and fishing boats at Wilsons Beach, on the western side of Campobello. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Nowhere to put it

This dump on the side of a ravine is just a small part of Campobello's problem with illegal dumping and dangerous, unsightly vacant buildings.

With an aging population, no landfill on the island, and a prevailing old-school mindset, trash is becoming a major problem on an island just 14 kilometres long and five kilometres wide.

Illegal dumping grounds are getting hard to ignore on the island, which is just 15 kilometres long and about five kilometres wide. (Julia Wright / CBC)

And while the tourists and "summer people" come and go,  it's Campobello's year-round community of just over 800 that has to deal with the long-term consequences.

Sad tale of Jackson Bros.

Sissy Newman has lived on the western side of Campobello all of her 88 years.

She remembers Wilsons Beach the way it used to be.

Jackson Bros. as it was in 1975, back when the company had a bustling fish plant, gas bar and store. The business closed in 1988. (Submitted)

For decades, Newman worked at Jackson Bros. with her two brothers, Donald and Keith Jackson, and her husband, Vaughan Newman. A family business for more than 100 years, the Jacksons ran a bustling fish plant, store and gas bar.

Like most of her generation, Newman worked hard.

The site of the old Jackson Bros. family business is 'a mess,' said Sissy Newman. 'It’s an eyesore, for anyone to come and see it, and know what it looked like years ago.' (Brian Chisholm / CBC)

"I went out and waited on customers, I went out and pumped gas, I went out the fish plant and brought fish into the store to sell," she said.

"I told them the only thing I couldn't do was hoist the fish out of the water or drive the forklift. Because I knew if I could do it, I'd have to do it."

Sissy Newman looks through photos of her late husband, Vaughan, and her brothers, Donald and Keith Jackson. Since they died, the fish plant has been destroyed by storms and has become a hazard to the waterway. (Julia Wright / CBC)

But times changed for the fishery and the business. Jackson Bros. closed in 1988. Another company bought it, but when that didn't work out, the property went back to the Jackson family in 1997.

The remains of the old store. (Julia Wright / CBC)

It's been abandoned ever since. A nor'easter took off half the old buildings years ago, and the rotting remains are suspended above the beach on splintered pilings. Appliances, a boat, and rusted metal sit in the wreckage. Under there somewhere are the old gas lines.

"I was hoping and praying that a good nor'easter would take her down, but it hasn't done yet," she said.

'I was hoping and praying that a good nor’easter would take her down, but it hasn’t yet,' said Sissy Newman. (Julia Wright / CBC)

In the past six years, Newman has lost her husband and both her brothers, one of whom is still listed as the owner of the property. Her sister-in-law is also widowed and getting on. Newman is still sharp, but living alone at her stage of life, there's not much she can do to clean up the property.

"It's a mess," Newman said. "It's an eyesore, for anyone to come and see it, and know what it looked like years ago."

A boat lies in the wreckage of the old store. (Julia Wright / CBC)

A few years back, she made a deal with a contractor to clean it up in exchange for whatever he could salvage from the buildings. But the contractor moved off the island and the cleanup never happened. The contractor declined to be interviewed.

Not just an eyesore

The municipal council of Campobello, formed in 2010 when the island was incorporated as a rural community, knows all about the situation.

In a typical small-town twist, it was the parents of Candance Phinney, a councillor for the island, who once bought and tried to make a go of Jackson Bros.

Phinney said there's no way to pay to demolish the dangerous premises without raising taxes.

A shelf with cans of paint and tools still sitting on it hangs 15 feet above Wilson's Beach, where storm took out part of the ruined buildings. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"We found it would be too much of a hardship to sue people that we know don't have the money," said Phinney, a lifelong resident of the island.

"There's 800 people on Campobello. You know who can afford it and who can't. Right now, the Jacksons can't afford to take it down if they wanted to. They're all widows. 

"I personally think the province should step in. I don't think that suing an 88-year-old woman, or raising John, Dick, or Harry's taxes is going to do it."

Evelyn Bowden, 79, a volunteer at the Head Harbour Lighthouse, said the problem of garbage and illegal dumping is threatening the island. (Brian Chisholm / CBC)

"It's not just an eyesore — you've heard of the brining shed. That mess is going to happen to us, eventually. When that falls down, it's going to leave a lot of debris and it'll be dangerous for our waterways."

In an emailed statement, the Department of Environment and Local Government said it "has been aware of the unsightly state" of the buildings, and of illegal dumping on Head Harbour Road, "but hasn't received any recent complaints."

"In light of this information, a site inspection will be arranged to verify those reports."

'Summer people' problems

It's easy to see why some islanders get sore about "summer people," who are often the loudest voices complaining about illegal dumping or derelict buildings, then pack up and leave as soon as the weather turns cold.

"I've been a waitress and I work with the public so I know a lot of these tourists, and I really like them," Phinney said. "But there is a few that complain about certain things, and certain things have been the way it was. Years ago, they would throw the trash off the wharf. Some people are in their old mindset, and it's still there.

Discarded fishing gear lies on an abandoned wharf at Curry Cove. (Submitted)

"What is norms somewhere else might not be norm here."

For year-round residents struggling to make ends meet, the old ways are sometimes easier, even if they're bad for the planet.

"Most of our population is elderly," said Phinney. "We had a dump, but now we don't have a dump. They closed it in the late nineties. They only pick up our big stuff once in a while, but it sits on the side of the road forever. And to be honest, people don't want to pay for a dumpster."

"People don't know the whole aspect of an island life, and that's part of it."

Old lobster traps are tossed away on the side of the road. 'Some people are in their old mindset, and it’s still there,' said Coun. Candance Phinney. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Old-fashioned solutions

Back in Head Harbour, Evelyn Bowden said she once approached a group of fishermen to ask them to use the garbage bins. 

The response, she said, was: "We don't like tourists. We want to make it as trashy as possible to keep the tourists away."

If Campobello people don't want to see the island "overflowing" with garbage, Phinney said, they'll have to start teaching their kids not to litter, report people they see illegally dumping, and block off the dump sites, Phinney said.

'People don’t know the whole aspect of an island life, and that’s part of it,' said Phinney. Campobello has no road access to the rest of Canada — just a bridge to Lubec, Maine. People who want to reach Canada from Campobello Island must take two ferries, but they only run in the summer. (Julia Wright / CBC)

If the province won't help, Phinney wishes people would pitch in, as they would in the old days, to clean up.

"What's wrong with 20 islanders getting together and maybe trying to have an old-fashioned cleanup? People would rather bitch and complain instead of saying, 'You know what, let's all meet up down there on a Saturday, or a good weekend, and cut it up [the old buildings] for people who need firewood.'"

But that might be harder to organize than it looks. The last island cleanup, Phinney said, was four or five years ago. 

"People think you can move the stars — but you can't. It all costs money."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.