Nfld. & Labrador

Decades of tragedy on N.L.'s southwest coast, as seen through a reporter's camera

Allan Stoodley spent decades covering the Burin Peninsula and Newfoundland's southwest coast, and has seen it all, from shipwrecks to silicosis.

Allan Stoodley has seen it all, from shipwrecks to silicosis, with a camera and a notebook at the ready

Mae Myles remembers the Mabel Dorothy, sunk in 1955, at the Parade of Lost Ships in Grand Bank in 1997, during a Come Home Year. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

The Burin Peninsula has a history rife with tragedies, suffering and fatherless children — and through my writing and photography I have been immersed in recording it for more than six decades.

Shipwrecks and loss of hundreds of lives at sea. The untold suffering and deaths from silicosis at the St. Lawrence fluorspar mines and the almost endless fight to get compensation for the families of the victims. The end of the schooner deep-sea salt fish industry and the transition to the fresh-frozen product caught by steelside and stern trawlers and employing hundreds of people in onshore processing plants. 

Then there were the provincial government's resettlement programs in the 1950s and '60s, paying people to move from small coastal communities into so-called "growth centres," and finally, in July 1992, the announcement of the cod moratorium by federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie, which sounded the death knell for this province's inshore and offshore fisheries.

These are just some of major events that I witnessed over the years, not only on the Burin Peninsula but along the southwest coast as well, that I have reported on for newspapers, radio and magazines.

It was back in November 1957 that this young fellow, age 17, from Grand Bank walked into the Evening Telegram building on Duckworth Street in St. John's to begin working in the newsroom there.

Trap skiffs loaded with cod in Lawn, N.L., on the tip of the Burin Peninsula, in 1977. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

My father had died suddenly in February, the year before, when I was in Grade 11. He was a customs officer in my hometown and had also become well known as a photographer. Our living room, for many years, doubled as his portrait studio.

From 1928 until his death in 1956, my father, Robert W. Stoodley, documented outport life on black and white film. Photos of banking schooners under full sail, drying salt fish on the beaches of Grand Bank, decks of schooners awash with fresh cod, football teams from St. Lawrence, Grand Bank, Fortune and St-Pierre-Miquelon, as well as horse-drawn funeral processions with the mourners walking behind are just some of the scenes he captured.

After working at St. John's with the Telegram for a couple of years, I returned to Grand Bank, where I've lived ever since. I still have all of my father's negatives, and ever since my father died I have also pursued photography. First, it was black and white film with his Ricohflex camera. Then on to colour negatives and 35-millimetre slides. Finally, 10 years ago, I switched to digital.

From the late 1950s up through the 1980s, I wrote extensively for the Evening Telegram, CBC Radio and the Atlantic Advocate. When I retired from my day job seven years ago, I began writing a Down Memory Lane column for our local paper, the Southern Gazette.

In addition to the photos and articles I have written, I also have the writings and diaries of my wife's grandfather, Aaron F. Buffett, covering local events in great detail from 1902 to 1946. Buffett, a well-known Grand Bank businessman in his day, had many articles published in St. John's newspapers in the 1940s dealing with our local history.

The women of St. Lawrence picket to prevent the ore carrier Hamildoc from loading fluorspar in May 1975. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

So here I am, staring 80 in the face and asking myself, what is going to happen to all of the hundreds of these, in most cases vintage, photos spanning the decades from the late 1920s right up to the present?

Some years ago I met with the late archivist Larry Dohey with the idea of possibly donating them to The Rooms. After some thought I put that idea on hold. The negatives, no doubt, would be preserved — but how often would the public have the opportunity to view them?

Instead, I'm sharing some of them on Facebook, and Newfoundland Canvas is promoting some of them on its website. Others are being used in my writings as I continue to tell the stories of our people and the challenges they have had to face.

Tragedy out of Grand Bank

There have been more than 300 men lost on ships that have sailed out of Grand Bank. I remember well that February in 1966 when I could look out from my doorway and see half a dozen homes with the blinds drawn, all of them directly touched by the loss of the 13 men on the MT Blue Mist. Widows and children with their lives suddenly turned upside down. That pain and loss carries on into future generations.

Around the same time, just a few short miles away in St. Lawrence, another tragedy was unfolding. By 1969 there were more than 200 former fluorspar miners who were either dead or dying as a result of silicosis caused by years working underground in the poorly ventilated mines there. Again, these men were leaving behind their widows and hundreds of fatherless children to fend for themselves.

In 1971, 200 miners of the Newfoundland Fluorspar Mine at St. Lawrence marched through the town with a coffin and a cancer symbol and placed it on display outside strike headquarters to emphasize the number of miners who were dying as a result of silicosis and the need for a special fund for sick miners as well as the widows left behind and their dependent children. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

It is still heart-wrenching to listen to so many of those children, who are today's adults, recount in their own words what it was like to grow up without a father as they continue to ask themselves "what if? What if I hadn't lost my father when I was so young" What different road would my life had taken?"

It was on Feb. 9, 1959, that Grand Bank suffered one of its worst loss of life ever when the trawler Blue Wave sank, carrying its 16-man crew to a watery grave. Twelve of the men were from Grand Bank and four were from the nearby town of Fortune, leaving behind 15 widows and 39 dependent children.

I knew many of these men, including skipper Charlie Walters, 34, who left behind the largest family: his wife, Clara, and seven young children ranging in age from nine months to 11 years.

One of his daughters, Grace, was only two when she lost her father. Sadly, she told me, she doesn't have any memories of him.

"Growing up without him was really all I knew. My dad figure was my grandfather Stoodley. We called him Dad Stoodley," she said.

Vickie Walters, the youngest of the seven children of Capt. Charles Walters of the Blue Wave, was asked to carry the plaque of that ill-fated trawler during the Parade of Lost Ships in Grand Bank in 1997. 'I was crying for a father I never knew,' she says. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

"Having said that, I always felt a void in my life. I was the only one born when Dad was home. He was working at the plant at the time I was born. He took me everywhere he went and when he died Mom said I got very sick and was always going to the door looking for him. I only wish I could remember. It's strange how you can love someone you never knew."

The youngest of the Walters children, Vickie was only eight months old when the Blue Wave went down.

"A family friend, Blanche Banfield, would tell me a story about Dad every time I saw her and I loved hearing it," she wrote me in an email a couple of years ago.

"She said that the last time she saw Dad, he was outside our house and had me in the pram. She said she stopped to talk to him and have a peek at me. She said Dad was looking proudly at me and said, 'That's why I do it, Blanche. That's why I go out there. For them.' I love that story."

That story sums up why all of our mariners braved the North Atlantic — and still do — and why all of the miners of St. Lawrence went underground.

And that's why it's important their stories are never forgotten.

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