Nfld. & Labrador·History

Grand Bank: How this south coast town became a major player in the offshore fishery

in June 1763, 150 British settlers were moved from St-Pierre to Newfoundland's south coast. Contributor Allan Stoodley tells the story of how the town of Grand Bank became a leader in the offshore fishery.
Grand Bank's Samuel Harris with his wife, Mary. He is credited with pioneering Newfoundland's offshore bank fishery, while Mary is said to have proposed the idea of the town's first hospital. (Buffett family collection/Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

Samuel Harris of Grand Bank is credited with pioneering Newfoundland's offshore bank fishery — and some 140 years later, the Burin Peninsula town continues to be a major player in it.

Those of us who live in Fortune Bay and on the western side of the Burin Peninsula can trace our history back to 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris — ending seven years of war between France and England, and allowing Britain to establish control over North America.

The settlement permitted France to continue fishing on what was known as the "French Shore" and also in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and was granted the strategically located islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon — owned and settled by the British for the previous half-century as a fishing base.

According to historian Garfield Fizzard, the British had established a sizeable settlement there. In 1759 the number of year-round residents was 408, with another 300 "summer servants."

St-Pierre was indeed a busy place. At the time the island was the centre of the English fishery in the region. That all changed in June 1763 when a French warship arrived with a new French governor aboard, along with 150 settlers and 50 soldiers. It was time for the British settlers to leave.

Aaron F. Buffett, in his writings in the 1940s, stated "the British inhabitants were moved by the British soldiers to Newfoundland."

George A. Buffett was a pioneer of the bank fishery and initially went into a business partnership with Samuel Harris. (Buffett family collection/Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

"The Hickmans were taken to Grand Bank; the Snooks to Fortune, where a special area was allotted to them, (the boundaries being trenched by the soldiers); the Grandys to Garnish; and the Cluetts to Belleoram." The Hickman, Snook and Grandy names are still very prominent in these communities today.

For the ensuing 120 years or so, local people fished the inshore fishing grounds in their shallops, skiffs and small schooners.

By the 1860s, the New England fishing fleet based in Gloucester, Mass., now numbered more than 450 vessels, and was venturing further afield from their traditional grounds looking for newer and richer fishing areas.

The harbour at Grand Bank has always been the focal point of the town and no doubt it will continue to be so in the future.

In his book Alone at Sea, Gloucester author and historian John N. Morris wrote, "In 1865, with the practical demise of the George's Bank halibut fishery, Gloucester skippers had moved north to the Grand Bank. In June, after a four-week trip, the schooner Hattie M. Lyons returned with 75,000 pounds of halibut. This was a superb catch, and in 1866 a handful of vessels made the trip. By the end of the decade, this had become an established fishery."

Morris continued, "It was on the more distant fishing grounds, the Western and the Grand Banks, that ground-trawl dory fishing first gained its foothold, and once started it overspread the fleet by the end of the decade."

According to the historian, "The emergence of a Newfoundland herring fishery, from December into March, had made possible Gloucester's move into a winter salt-cod fishery. By 1869, the Gloucester fleet made more than 100 trips north to the Grand Banks and the Scotian Banks. Over the next years many vessels were added to the fleet."

Aaron F. Buffett was the son of George A. Buffett, and a graduate of Mount Allison University. He returned to Grand Bank after graduating, joined the family business and eventually took over its management. He was also a noted historian of his day. (Buffett family collection/Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

Successful lobster fishery

At this juncture in Grand Bank's history huge changes were about to occur in its economy, which would propel it into becoming one of the major fishing centres on the Eastern seaboard. In 1860, Grand Bank had a population of 475 people. Twenty years later the population had more than doubled, easily becoming the largest community in the area.

During the 1870s, business-minded men from Canada and the U.S. zoomed in on the opportunities that the huge stock of Fortune Bay lobsters presented.

According to Aaron Buffett, "A man named Stainer was the first manager of a large lobster factory established at Grand Bank. Then Charles and William Mitchell from Portland, Maine, moved in and set up shop. Others from Nova Scotia, with the necessary skills, also arrived here to find employment in the fast growing lobster canning-export business."

The early lobster business proved to be very profitable and as soon as enough locals developed the expertise to be "can-makers and sealers," entrepreneurs including the Evans, Forseys and Footes got involved in the canning and selling of lobster. By 1901 there were 12 lobster factories in Grand Bank.

The Lillian M. Richards is a typical banking schooner, shown heading for the Grand Banks under full sail. (Robert W. Stoodley/Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

The 'Great Bank'

The inshore cod and herring fisheries at the time were also employing many people — but the real game-changer happened in 1891 when Samuel Harris, one of the local small schooner owners, following the lead of the larger schooners from Gloucester, decided to venture further offshore to the Grand Bank — or as it was sometimes referred to back then, the "Great Bank."

Harris, who was 31 at the time, owned a small 70-ton schooner, the George C. Harris, named after his son. His first season fishing on the offshore grounds proved to be such a success that he was quickly followed by his brother-in-law, George A. Buffett, and at least 16 other schooner owners from Grand Bank.

In the words of Aaron Buffett, "the bank fishery during the 1880s grew to be the dominating industry of Grand Bank and for many years after was the sole industry; such occupations as the inshore fishery, lobstering, and the curing and marketing of fish being subsidiary to it."

The tern schooner General Allenby, a three-masted vessel built by Samuel Harris, is launched at Grand Bank in 1918. It was one of the 15 that were used to transport dried salted fish overseas to European and Caribbean markets. (Robert W. Stoodley/Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

'Palmy days'

Buffett described the 1880s as "the palmy days of schooner building."

"During the winter of 1885 and the spring of 1886, seven vessels were being built in Grand Bank at the same time, and they all prosecuted the Bank fishery that same season; with all the available carpenters as well as 'handy men' and unskilled labour being used in the local shipyards."

To encourage the development of the offshore bank fishery the government of the day established a program of bounties to be paid on vessels over a certain tonnage that were being fitted for fishing on the banks. From 1884 to 1890, 15 schooners were built in Grand Bank, taking advantage of this shipbuilding incentive.

The government's bank fishing bounty program also resulted in more ships being built in other communities on the south coast, as well as in Placentia Bay and on the Avalon Peninsula.

Split and salted cod being readied to take to the beaches in Grand Bank to dry, circa 1940s. (Robert W. Stoodley/Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

Direct export to Europe, Caribbean

The bank fishery reached its peak in Newfoundland around 1889 when it recorded 330 vessels going to the banks. However, both catches and prices sagged and many owners were forced out of business. Ten years later only 74 schooners were still prosecuting the fishery with most of them now being from the south coast and the Burin Peninsula.

This trend continued right up to the end of schooner bank fishery with Grand Bank consistently a major player.

In 1915, 66 schooners went to the offshore grounds with 30 of them from Grand Bank; in 1921, 41 schooners sailed to the banks, with 12 of them hailing from Grand Bank; and in 1925, 17 of the 30 schooners that went were from Grand Bank.

During the last decade of the 19th century the Grand Bank merchants exported their fish to foreign markets through a St. John's agent. This all changed in 1910 — when the Bank of Nova Scotia opened a branch in the town making it possible for local people to export directly to the European and Caribbean countries.

The Bonavista Cold Storage fish plant at Grand Bank in the early 1970s. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

Grand Bank Fisheries Ltd.

Samuel Harris and George A. Buffett, after enjoying several successful seasons fishing on the Grand Banks, decided to form a commercial partnership in 1885. Five years later they parted ways, with the Buffett firm evolving to become G&A Buffett Ltd. in 1932.

The Samuel Harris business changed its name to the Samuel Harris Export Co. and then finally, to Grand Bank Fisheries Ltd. Harris expanded his business rapidly until it became the largest and most prosperous fish business on the south coast. He established branches at Garnish, Lamaline, Marystown and Hermitage.

His business flourished as he kept adding more schooners to his fleet. Records show that between 1881 and 1926 Harris's firm owned more than 60 vessels including 15 large tern (three-masted) schooners.

Then in 1915, Samuel Harris passed management of the firm to his oldest son, George C. At the time the net worth of the Harris holdings were estimated to be about $2 million (that's the equivalent of about $50 million in today's dollars). Within five years, because of the increased demand for salted cod in the European and Caribbean markets during the First World War, the value of the assets of the company doubled.

The Bonavista Cold Storage Co.'s cutting line in the 1970s. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

Post-war years

The end of the war saw a downturn in European markets for salt cod.

The lower demand, coupled with over-expansion during the war years on top of government's restrictive fishery marketing regulations introduced in 1920, resulted in the Harris business declaring bankruptcy in 1923. At the time it was considered to be the largest bankruptcy ever in the Dominion of Newfoundland.

As a result, the business was taken over by a consortium of creditors headed by the Bank of Nova Scotia with Percy Carr, a former bank manager and also Samuel Harris's son-in-law, as managing director. The company continued to operate as Grand Bank Fisheries Ltd. until 1954 when it was acquired by G&A Buffett Ltd.

With George A. Buffett's grandson, Wilfred, at the helm it became part of Buffett Fisheries Ltd. It was somewhat of a strange twist of fate to remember that back in 1885, Samuel Harris and George A. Buffett were partners.

The Bonavista Cold Storage Co. fresh fish plant was built in Grand Bank in the early 1950s, at the same time that the days of the schooner salt fishery were coming to an end.

The men, who before had manned the schooners and fished from dories, were now in big demand to crew the steel trawlers. Hundreds of workers were also needed in the onshore plants, which spurred resettlement from many of the smaller communities into Grand Bank, Fortune, Burin and other plant towns.

A 2014 photo shows Arctic surf clams being inspected for defects at Grand Bank Seafoods. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

The moratorium

Then came the cod moratorium in 1992.

The Grand Bank fish plant, by this time owned by Fishery Products, closed its doors in 1991. Within months the town council, led by Mayor Rex Matthews and supported by the local union and others, persuaded John Risley and Clearwater Foods of Nova Scotia to move into Grand Bank and establish a scallop and surf clam operation in the abandoned fish plant building.

The rest is history.

Clearwater is still in town and thanks in no small part to the dedicated workforce. The plant — which operates year-round — has proven to be profitable to the company's bottom line. Some 100 workers are employed there, as well as more than 200 on Clearwater's three clam boats.

Of late, the inshore fishery at Grand Bank has been employing more people than it has for decades. The lobster fishery has upwards of 25 licences being fished out of the town using smaller boats. Additionally, another eight or 10 larger longliner-type vessels will be fishing whatever quotas are available in groundfish, sea cucumber and other species.

The harbour at Grand Bank has always been the focal point of the town and no doubt it will continue to be so in the future.

Arctic surf clams at Grand Bank Seafoods in 2014. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Allan Stoodley has travelled around Newfoundland and Labrador during the last six decades, camera in hand, recording and writing about the province's local history and its people. He lives in Grand Bank.