Moved by Resettlement
By Scott Wilson
Newfoundland is an extraordinary place, and Newfoundlanders are extraordinary people. Clearly one is related to the other, though I couldnt possibly venture to say which is cause and which is effect. I knew that I would be profoundly affected by the island long before I ever touched its soil or breathed its air. I knew this because I had already been profoundly affected by the Newfoundlanders I knew. So, in a way, I was ready, and very willing, to be touched by this wonderful part of the Earth. And indeed I was.
On the first trip my wife Peg and I took to the province, I quickly realized that Newfoundlanders relate to the land upon which they live in a way that is completely foreign to me, and perhaps to most people who live on the West Coast. Newfoundlanders, especially in the early days in the outports, were thoroughly connected to the land, the soil, and ground upon which they lived. There was, in a very real sense, an organic connection, almost as if their hands were thrust through the few inches of topsoil, and firmly attached to the rock beneath. Their lives were inextricably bound up with the earth under their homes and feet. Their food came from the sea that pounded the shore at the very doors of their homes; it came from the soil in their gardens, and from the woods and fields nearby. In the cycle of life, their sustenance came from and returned to the bit of land and sea that surrounded and guarded their homes. Very often their ancestors rested nearby in graveyards that they themselves had built. This is a bond that I can only imagine.
When we returned to Newfoundland for our second visit, we took a leisurely tour around the Irish Loop and spent a night in Trepassey. On the way down, we stopped at La Manche Provincial Park, between Tors Cove and Cape Broyle, and hiked into the abandoned village of La Manche. The natural scenery of this very small cove is absolutely stunning. But it was the remains of the homes and buildings that moved me in the most profound way. I walked around and around the remnants of that small village for a good hour, mesmerized and speechless.
La Manche was first settled in 1840 by the Melvin family. The confines of the cove, which is really but a deep gash in the rock, placed limits upon the growth of the village. The population was never more than 54 souls. In 1961, that had dwindled to 25. But the residents resisted the governments attempt to resettle them. They would not leave. They struggled on until January 1966, when a violent Atlantic storm accomplished what the Smallwood resettlement program could not. The bridge, all the stores and stages, and most of the homes were destroyed in one night, though miraculously no one was killed.
With the formation of La Manche Provincial Park and the East Coast Trail, the suspension bridge was rebuilt. However, all that is left of the community is but a few foundations and a footpath. And this is what had such an effect upon me. I stared at those foundations and I could see such determination, such resolve, as if they were saying to me, I will not be moved! They are rooted deep into the soil and are firmly set upon the rock of Newfoundland. I imagined the walls of the homes that stood on those foundations, and the families and the lives that were kept inside them, lives full of dreams and hopes, fears and sorrows. Now there was nothing left but those obstinate and immovable foundations.
Staring at those blocks of carefully formed concrete, I realized that there was a big difference between communities that were willingly abandoned and those that were evacuated, either by edict of government resettlement or by natures indifferent power. And thats what felt so different about the whole place. It wasnt the sad melancholy of a forgotten and abandoned settlement, but rather the feeling of an uneasy and reluctant tolerance of a deep wrong. Even after half a century, there was a definite feeling of defiance in those stubborn foundations.
I am in not in a position to argue for or against the policy of resettlement. I understand the huge problems that faced the government at that time and the financial reasons for centralization. However, having stood amid the remains of La Manche, I have come to realize, perhaps in a very small way, the heartbreak and pain in both mind and soul that must have assailed and assaulted all those people who were forced to abandon their homes and communities. Im sure it was the same for each community, and I fully believe that were I to visit other sites of resettlement I would have the same profound and eerie experience that I had in La Manche. And all I can do is stand there among those skeletal remains and run my fingers along the foundations and say, I understand. Perhaps that is enough.
Tell us your resettlement story. Send us photos and stories of the abandoned villages youve visited, or share your personal account of being forced out of your hometown by economics or government edict. Enter your submission on line at DownhomeLife.com under Travel Diaries, or mail your story and photos to Downhome, 43 James Lane, St. Johns, NL, A1E 3H3.