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Swept away and scraped clean

27 Jul 2012 by Guest Blogger in History
Region: Eastern

By Ed Kirby

It was a clear, cold early May day on a familiarization trip to tourism sites on the southern Burin Peninsula, with John and myself the only men among the 30 or so aboard the bus. We were trying to find shelter from the wind, but it found us wherever we strayed. It was John’s first visit, but I’d visited cousins here in the 1960s, had toured the area in the 1990s to update the Newfoundland and Labrador travel guide, and had been here for tournaments when my kids played soccer. I have roots here going back at least to a fellow named Richard Kirby who held letters of marque from the British admiralty during the American Revolution that granted him the right to take French and American ships, at gunpoint if necessary. It’s the kind of assignment that probably required some previous experience.

From a little knoll just off Heritage Square we admired the traditional colours, materials and shapes that blend into one harmonious whole unspoiled by the presence of plastic-clad modernity. It’s how built heritage is supposed to look. The square includes two museums - one a merchant’s house formerly owned by the Reddys and the other the old Bank of Nova Scotia - a craft shop, a B & B and the By D’Rock Café, all from the first part of the 20th century.  Just down the hill on the harbour is the Oldest Colony Trust Building where, in summer, locals and visitors come together on Wednesday nights to dance, have a few swallies and talk. The Trust Building was used to store frozen fish back in the days before a modern fish plant was built a few coves over. A sturdy wooden walkway from the Trust along the harbour’s edge recalls the wharves, flakes and sheds of earlier times.

Despite a history of more than 350 years and having its coastline charted by Capt. Cook in the 1760s, Burin is dominated by one incident: the 1929 tsunami, which everyone here calls the tidal wave. It killed 29 people, wrecked scores of houses and businesses, and occurred just as the world’s economy was going into the tank for an extended period. The underwater telegraph line to the rest of Newfoundland had been damaged by a storm the previous week, and three days passed before a schooner made a scheduled stop to pick up a load of fish and spread the news of the disaster. The captain and crew were amazed to see houses and sheds floating in the harbour and the survivors still in shock, looking for bodies and coping as best they could. Recovery was slow for most and impossible for some.

The tsunami was caused by an earthquake which set off an underwater landslide on the edge of the Grand Banks, driving a 50-foot wall of water towards the coast. There was no warning system to tell people to flee to higher ground. After it happened, some people thought the submarine iron ore mines at Bell Island had caved in and caused the wave. The mines were extensive, for sure, but no mine is big enough to cause a tsunami, and Bell Island is a long way from Burin. The tsunami hit just a few weeks after my father’s sixth birthday, and took out the wharf where his father, Arch, had a budding coal business just down the hill from the family home.

My father grew up in Collins Cove, one of half a dozen tiny dimples in the coast around Burin that bear the names of early settlers who landed and cured their fish on the semi-sheltered pebble beaches. Kirby’s Cove, which is probably the smallest in the bay, is just a few hundred yards from Collins Cove. When my grandfather’s father died around 1900, his mother married the widower Collins just up the lane. But grandfather kept his surname. Otherwise, I’d be a Collins.

My father told a number of stories about the tsunami, but the one I remember best was that of the old patriarch standing by the window in a house that was about to be swept into the bay. He wasn’t going to leave, by God, was frightened half to death and probably didn’t understand what was happening. One of his sons or nephews grabbed him by the beard and tugged him out the window just as the house slipped its piles and slid into the sea.

Stories like that are common here. Burin itself was spared any loss of life, but in the narrower coves like Port au Bras and further south along the open coast nearer to the earthquake in places like Lord’s Cove and Lawn, the water first receded and then came back with a vengeance, smashing everything and sweeping some bodies out to the deeps, never to be found. The Tidal Wave Memorial to the people lost in the tsunami, fittingly located in Port au Bras, is topped by four waves, the first representing the receding water, and the others by the three waves that caused the destruction.

After losing his coal business, my grandfather tried his hand at whatever was available, which wasn’t much. In the years following the tsunami the Newfoundland economy went into a prolonged funk. A people who were poor to begin with slid quickly into rank poverty, which brought on all the diseases that come with that status. Eventually, my grandfather started growing vegetables on a plot in Winterland, one of the few farming areas on the Burin Peninsula. At first he walked a couple of hours there and back daily from Collins Cove, but eventually moved into what is now the Heritage Farmhouse used for fall suppers. The house is next to the Winterland Eco Museum Walking Trail, an irony my grandfather would appreciate.