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archaic maritime archaic grave site labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour canada october octobre 2010

At 145.2 kilometres I turn off the Labrador Coastal Drive and head for L'Anse Amour. But first I have to stop off at a site on the right-hand side of the road.

That pile of stones was excavated in the 1970s and underneath it was found the body of a Maritime Archaic - or was it an Archaic Maritime or whatever the inhabitants were called 8000 years ago - First Nation Canadian 12 year old child.

And the ages were specified so precisely that I was imagining the child clutching not only a death certificate but a birth certificate too. But levity apart, it's quite an astonishing discovery all the same and is now an official Canadian National Historic Site.

And this discovery - and a few others around here - are actually due to the road upon which we are driving. This is actually a fairly recent road - before 1975 L'Anse Amour was not connected to Forteau

During the construction of the Churchill Falls power plant, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador was trying to work out a way of distributing the power from the plant. One idea given consideration was the laying of an underwater cable between Labrador and Newfoundland.

This involved a whole series of test borings and even the start of construction of a service tunnel in 1975, but work was abandoned the following year as an agreement was reached with Quebec Hydro.

However, the need to bring heavy equipment to the site necessitated the building of a service road. And it's upon this road that we are driving right now.

And during the construction of the road, the grave and several other important artefacts were discovered.

l'anse amour l'anse au morts labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour canada october octobre 2010

Just a short way further on is the small village of L'Anse Amour, the Cove of Love. I'm reliably informed that this is not the correct name but is a mis-spelling of the more correct but more sinister L'Anse aux Morts - the Cove of the Dead. And the number of shipwrecks along here would seem to bear that out.

In the census that took place in 1996 the population was given as 83. In that of 2001, the population had fallen to just 64. And it is one of those places where every single one of the 64 inhabitants came out of their houses to watch me as I drove past.

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour lighthouse atlantic ocean strait of belle isle canada october octobre 2010

But the reason why I had turned down onto this road was not to do with the village or with the First Nation grave but with the loghthouse at Point Amour, which is said to be the largest lighthouse on Canada's eastern coast, and the second largest in Canada.

From this statement then you would exect there to be a taller lighthouse on Canada's western coast, but you would be wrong. The tallest lighthouse in Canada is at Cap des Rosiers in the Gaspé coast in Québec province, at the mouth of the St Lawrence.

The route through the Strait of Belle Isle from the St Lawrence to the open sea is shorter than going via the Cabot Strait but was little used in the days of sail due to the narrowness of the Strait and the difficulty of avoiding the icebergs that came this way.

It was only as steam began to take over as the motive power of marine transportation that this passage became important, and so four lighthouses were constructed along this stretch of coast in the mid 1850s. This particular lighthouse took three years to build, was completed in 1857 and began operations in 1858, burning whale oil as you might expect around here.

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour lighthouse canada october octobre 2010

The lighthouse is 33 metres tall which in real money is 109 feet. and as you would expect, it guards a dangerous part of the shore across one of the narrowest parts of the Strait of Belle Isle where there is a prominent and protruding headland.

An added advantage for local mariners, fed up of becoming wrecked upon the shore here, is that they didn't have to go far to find the rock to built it. There are limestone outcrops at both Forteau and L'Anse au Loup and the rock was quarried from there. There is no wood around here suitable for construction and so that had to be brought in from Québec.

Its distinguishing characteristics (because you know if you have read enough of my pages that each lighthouse has its own distinguishing characteristics so that passing mariners can tell which one that it is) are that it is white with one black band "do you mean the George Mitchell Minstrels?" ...ed and its light is illuminated for 16 seconds followed by a 4-second pause.

It had Fresnel lenses, which were small pieces of glass cut into complicated shapes and assembled in such a way that they formed giant concave reflectors. These were immenssely impressive and it is astonishing to think that early Victorian mathematicians and glasscutters could design and buid something that could magnify a small whale-oil flame so that it could be visible for 18 miles, as this one was.

Another curious fact about this lighthouse, and several other ones in Canada too, is that the whole light mechanism was floated in a mercury bath so as to enable it to float despite its heavy weight, and enable it to turn with no friction. They say that hatters are mad because of the mercury fumes that they inhaled. There are many tales of lighthouse keepers who went slowly insane over a period of time while on duty - maybe it was the mercury that did that too.

There was a keeper here until as recently 1996 but in that year the light was automated. Now the keeper's house is some kind of museum.

Dotted all along the coast of Eastern Canada are the Marconi radio stations. I'll be talking much more about these in greater length but in brief, the Marconi transatlantic transmitters at the turn of the 20th Century had just a limited range and so messages were bounced across the Atlantic via ships (there was a Marconi radio operator on each ship that carried a radio) and then via a series of radio stations along the coast of North America.

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour marconi radio station site canada october octobre 2010

The most famous Marconi radio station without any doubt at all was the one at Cape Race on Newfoundland but here at Point Amour there was another one, opened in 1904.

Marconi's system did not last very long as the range of radio quickly increased - the public enquiry into the "Titanic" sinking of 1912 was told of ranges of 500 miles being easily obtained by that date - and they were all eventually demolished. This photo shows the remains of the radio station here.

Talking of the public enquiry into the "Titanic" sinking, much was made at the enquiry of the noise on board the ship and how this could be distracting to the radio operator at crucial moments. Here at Point Amour was a compressed air diaphone - a horn with a two-tone signal that worked on compressed air - which gave a seven-second blast every so often in the fog in order to guide ships along the coast during heavy fog which apparently infests this area

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour compressed air diaphone foghorn canada october octobre 2010

These ruins here are all that remains of the compressed air horn. Installed in 1907 it was, and it is situated hardly a stone's throw from the Marconi radio room.

Think of the noise that that must have made by the foghorn and the distraction that would have caused to the operators as they were trying to transcribe Morse code messages. Now if they were complaining about the noise on some of the ships, whatever would they have said about being right next door to this? I did note, rather facetiously, that while Marconi was giving his evidence to the enquiry, he kept a discrete silence about this sort of thing.

And that, of course, reminds me -
How did Vikings communicate with each other from ship to ship?
They had a heavy drum and a drummer on board and these drummers knew coded signals for each likely manoeuvre. This was called "Norse Code"
"Are you sure about this?" ...ed

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour strait of belle isle forteau bay canada october octobre 2010

Walking along here on the top of the cliff like this you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in early October in the UK or Western Europe, certainly not in mid-October on the coast of Labrador. It's an absolutely beautiful day, the sun is out and and it is gorgeous, and just for a change the weather is warm, even though there is a little bit of a chill that is pinging in my ears.

And across the bay over there is what looks like a fair-sized town. I wonder what town it might be.

Now somebody mentioned shipwrecks a while ago "it was you" ...ed and how the coast along here and this headland particularly is quite dangerous to shipping - hence the lighthouse and then later the foghorn.

But the lighthouse was not sufficient to save "the British warship Lily".

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour british warship hms ily wreckage canada october octobre 2010

The New York Times of September 21st 1889 reported that the above, which was a warship of 720 tons, powered by an 830-horsepower engine and armed with three guns, "struck a rock off Point Armor sic and sank" the previous day. Seven crew members went down with her, as did "a large amount of money and valuable property".

The newspaper report went on to say that "nothing whatever was saved", but if you were to take a stroll down to the water line just here you can save for yourself some pieces of steel plate that are occasionally washed ashore from the wreck, like these pieces here in this photograph and the one below.

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour british warship hms lily wreckage canada october octobre 2010

Other reports however put the disaster as having occurred on 16th September 1889, and the story of the wreck is that the ship had left Newfoundland in order to meet up with a mail ship that was sailing from Montreal over to the UK. The Lily misjudged the entrance of Forteau Bay, hampered by the thick rolling fog that occurs here so often, and foundered on the rocks.

The lighthouse keeper, one Thomas Wyatt, managed to pass a line over to the ship and by his efforts several of the sailors were rescued. A grateful British Admiralty gave him a clock for his efforts. It makes me wonder that they would have given him had he managed to save the ship.

And neither the lighthouse nor the foghorn were enough to save the HMS Raleigh from disaster. And the Raleigh was no little coastal gunboat either but an almost-new 12,000 ton heavy cruiser with a crew of about 700.

She was laid down in December 1915 as a replacement for the heavy losses to date in World War I, launched in August 1919, commissioned some time in 1921 and sent out to station in April 1922 where she became the flagship of the West Atlantic fleet.

At 15:39 on 8th August 1922 she encountered an iceberg, the only one in the entire Strait at the time, so it is said, in the thick fog whilst going full steam ahead. She swerved to miss it, and went full-tilt onto the rocks where she stuck fast, and that was that. It was probably the shortest career of any modern warship of respectable size in peace-time.

The gash down the side was 360 feet long. Seeing as she was just about 600 feet long in total, that must have been some gash.

It was impossible to refloat her and so she was stripped of anything worthwhile and then abandoned on the rocks.

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour british warship hms raleigh wreckage canada october octobre 2010

Four years later, in 1926, despite the fact that she had become something of a tourist attraction with passing ocean liners making a detour to pass close to her for the benefit of their passengers, the Authorities declared her a hazard to shipping and ordered her to be moved. Towing her off the rocks was impossible and so it was decided to dynamite her into fragments to that they could be more easily transported.

But we have already on our travels seen first-hand a perfect example of Canadian dynamite calculations, and the one by HMS Durban to move the Raleigh must have been equally spectacular. I wish that I had been here to see it.

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour british warship hms raleigh wreckage canada october octobre 2010

This huge lump of rusting metal is part of the superstructure of the Raleigh. It's enormous and it is right up on top of the cliff here a good 250 yards away from where the ship went down. You can see how high up we are by looking across the bay. It must have been some charge of dynamite to have moved that piece of metal up here.

And so while you peruse the bits and pieces of the wreckage, I'll tell you some more about the aftermath of the grounding.

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour british warship hms raleigh wreckage canada october octobre 2010

11 lives were lost in the wreck, about 6 of whom were lost from a lifeboat which collided with the side of the ship as it was being lowered into the sea.

Many of the personal possessions of the crew were salvaged by their owners the next day, and on the following morning most of the survivors trudged off to Forteau in order to board a rescue ship that had come to their aid. This was the Empress of France, but when that ship discovered the number of survivors, it refused to take them due to inadequate provisions on board and they had to wait a few more days for the SS Montrose.

A small party of men stayed behind. One group was charged with salvaging whatever could be salvaged and guarding the ship from a gang of Newfoundlanders who had crossed the Strait in order to "inspect" the wreck. In fact one Newfoundlander claimed that he had been shot at by a member of the crew as he tried to salvage an armchair that had been washed ashore.

Other sailors who remained were those who were on the bridge of the ship at the time or who had any other information to offer about the shipwreck, as an informal enquiry into the grounding was held on the spot a short while later.

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour british warship hms raleigh wreckage canada october octobre 2010

A court-martial took place in the autumn of 1922 under the chairmanship of Captain H.O. Reinold. The captain of the Raleigh, Arthur Bromley, was reprimanded and dismissed his ship. The navigating officer, whose name I have not been able to discover, was likewise dismissed. Both officers retired soon afterwards.

It is said that at one time at Point Amour, there were seven people living who were descendants of the crew of the Raleigh. I suppose that in the long summer evenings in the days before television there was nothing much else for the sailors to be doing while they were salvaging the wreck.

As a finale I have to say that I was told that that every year on 8th August there is the re-enactment of the tragedy. That must be a spectacle well-worth seeing and I would love to be here for that, but how on earth can they afford to do this, and where do they find all the ships these days? A warship is an expensive piece of machinery.

labrador coastal drive highway 510 point amour warning signs explosive canada october octobre 2010

The story of the Raleigh doesn't look like it is over even now, unless there have been other activities on here that no-one ese is prepared to admit. This warning sign looks pretty grim if you ask me.

Of course the reason for the violent explosion while dynamiting the Raleigh could well have been that there were still explosive munitions on board that had not been taken into account during the calculation of the charge required, but this sign could also relate to something quite different.

But in any case, if you have been enticed out here, having read my notes, and during your perambulations you encounter any rusty piece of metal lying around, for heaven's sake don't pick it up - give it a wide berth.

It reminds me of my friend and neighbour Blaster Bates who was talking about the time they lost a stick of dynamite in a salt heap, and the foreman sent someone to dig for it.
"What'll happen if he hits it with his shovel?" asked the site manager.
"Well, he'll need a new shovel" replied Mr Bates, helpfully.
"Don't let him dig in there" said the manager to the foreman. "Those shovels are expensive".

And before leaving, I have to say that the Raleigh and the Lily were not the only ships to be stranded on the rocks here. Other ships have grounded here in the past and sad as it is to say it, I suppose that no-one has counted the number of small fishing vessels lost along here and the number of fishermen who have been lost along with them.

The most famous incident was on 26th September 1941 when an Atlantic convoy (although what was an Atlantic convoy doing in the Strait? Might it have been one of the Greenland convoys sailing from Sydney which were known to pass by here?) panicked and scattered on hearing a report that a U-boat had been sighted in the vicinity. No fewer than four ships from that convoy came to grief just here, two of them almost on top of the remains of the Raleigh.

Whatever U-boat it might have been, there is no trace of one having been in the vicinity at the time and so it may well have been a false alarm. But there is no doubt that almost a year later, at the end of August or beginning of September of 1942, U-517 (Paul Hartwig commanding) sailed into Forteau Bay for a look around and then on 3rd September, just off the coast here, Hartwig torpedoed and sank the Canadian laker Donald Stewart.

At the lighthouse I met a woman called Colleen. She had been here for a few weeks doing something in the way of education. We had quite a chat about this and that, and it was a very pleasant way to pass a quarter of an hour. She was thoroughly amazed that I had travelled the Trans-Labrador Highway in Casey, which, as you know, is a Chrysler PT Cruiser.

But as I explained to her, quite often it isn't the vehicle but the person driving it tnat is quite often the deciding factor in this sort of thing. My next major voyage will be to cross the Atlantic on a motorbike.

From listening to her talk, it's evident that's there is some kind of tension between the Newfoundlanders and the Labradorians. I've heard or read suggestions of this from other places where I've been and articles that I had read, but that was the first time I've actually experienced it.

Much of the pressure comes from First Nation communites, who would like to have Labrador declared an independent territory governed by Canada, in the same sense of other First Nation communities, such as Nunavit. Many of the European settlers have a good deal of sympathy with this argument. A Royal Commission of 2002 established that there is some kind of case to answer and ever since that date, the Newfoundland Government and the Central Government have been involved in the traditional game played by Civil Servants and Government Officials the whole world over - that of "Passing the File"

Colleen also told me some really bad news. The ferry from Newfoundland to Cape Breton Island has broken down and there is a queue for the facilities that is about a week long. I'll be lucky to get back to the mainland. There is another possibility, which is to take the ferry from Blanc Sablon down the St Lawrence to the start of Highway 138. That means freighting Casey, which can cost as much as $800. And then there's my own food and accommodation ...

That was news that I didn't want to hear. I suppose I'd better put my skates on and look into this.

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