A new series of plays performed by talented local actors in an abandoned mine shaft captures some of the folklore, the legends and the ghosts of Bell Island.
The February 2019 biting southwesterly wind sends ephemeral ivory peaks of foam dancing across Conception Bay. William (Billy) Parsons, a miner for 51 years, is unfazed by it all and gazes at me with an enigmatic smile beneath a substantial moustache. Below his hardhat with miner’s lamp, the pleasant glint in his eyes suggests that he has seen a lot harder than this and survived. Billy is a giant of a man. Literally he is huge, about 21 feet across.
Billy’s image is one of several murals painted on properties around Bell Island - supersized reminders of the history of this place. “This was Mural #1 and it is called, appropriately enough, ‘The Miner.’ It was originally done by artists John Littlejohn and Rick Murphy and unveiled back in November 1991… It depicts Billy Parsons and is based on a great photograph from about 1954 by famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, who visited Bell Island a number of times,” explains Henry Crane of Tourism Bell Island, as we stand beneath this mural on the east wall of the Wabana Complex.
“You know, it is funny how things come full circle. I grew up on Bell Island and went to school in this building training as a machinist, eventually went to university and [after a career away] came back and taught here in the same building. I love Bell Island and really enjoyed growing up here. It was a great place to live, raise a family, and was very prosperous, especially when the mines were working in full swing.”
Henry, now 67, spent years collecting the living history of his hometown. As a boy, his grandmother would tell him all about the local ghosts and fairies, and as an adult he continued to visit his elders to hear their stories about Bell Island. “I have been really fortunate that over maybe 30 years, whenever I had some time I would go and interview folks who were much older than myself and record them… People would tell me stories for hours on end and it was really something.”
Some of these stories have made their way into a new summer theatrical series called “The Ghosts of Bell Island.” The play once known as “The Haunted Tour” has been rebranded as “Theatre of the Mine” and is performed in an old abandoned mine shaft that was originally the #4 Mine Collar. Other performances in this series include “The Life of a Miner,” “WWII Comes to Bell Island” and “Party at Nan’s.”
These new plays draw upon some material (with permission) taken from a 1990s production called “Place of First Light: The Bell Island Experience,” written by Robert Chafe, Sean Panting and Selina Asgar. It featured up-and-coming talent who have since found incredible success on stage on screen, including Bell Island-born Allan Hawco and St. John’s-native Petrina Bromley (on Broadway now in “Come From Away”). In a recent email chat with award-winning theatre director Danielle Irvine, she recalled fondly her work on that project. “I was the co-founder and it ran from 1997-1999 for three summers. I directed and produced. Wow, there were lots of special moments… That show was actually listed as a Landmark Theatrical Event by the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres.”
Henry also has fond memories of that 1990s production. “Funny story: my son played in a few of those early shows and it would not be unusual for Allan Hawco or Robert Chafe or many others who went on to great things, inside and outside the world of theatre, to show up at the house with him for a BBQ or whatnot.”
As it was then, the actors in today’s plays are local youth just cutting their acting chops, “and since they are from here and grew up with the stories all around them, they do a great job on the new material and really bring the stories to life for the audience. The feedback every season is very positive and encouraging,” Henry says. “‘The Ghosts of Bell Island’ has been performed for about four years now and each performance lasts about one hour and 30 minutes. Taking place in the mine really adds to the atmosphere.”
Without giving away too many secrets and surprises of the live shows, Henry drops a few hints about the stories audiences will be regaled with: bodies found in bogs, star-crossed lovers, departed miners condemned to never set foot beyond the sanctuary of the shaft for all eternity, the “woman in white,” the devil of Quigley’s Line, and even a shape-shifting fairy queen who might either help or harm travellers depending on her capricious mood. One of the most striking stories is the Ghost of Dobbin’s Garden, which has been reinterpreted as the “The Bell Island Hag” featured on television’s “Creepy Canada” and immortalized by Can-ada Post as a postage stamp and the Royal Canadian Mint as a commemorative coin. Henry says members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Paranormal Society have even visited the Island to investigate the various ghost stories.
Henry’s passion is unmistakable when he talks of Bell Island, the stories, the plays and the people. When I ask him what drives him to promote the island this way, he gets a wistful look. Then he tells me of a very impressionable day from his youth.
“My father worked in the mines for 29 years and never got a pension or so much as a thank you when the mines closed down. Many men on the island were in that camp as the company largely walked away from it all,” he begins. “I was 14 when the mine where he worked closed for good. It was on a Saturday when he finished his last shift. I remember walking in, and my father was a big strong man at 6 foot 1 and almost 300 pounds. My mother was only
4 foot 11 and maybe 100 pounds, and she was sitting on his lap and he was crying, something he never, ever did. He had Grade 3, a family of eight to look after, and wondered what he was going to do now. Like maybe 95 per cent of the men on the island at the time, this was hard, dangerous but well-paying work - and it was all they knew how to do.
“Many folks left to chase the work on the mainland after the mines closed in 1966, and it was like a bomb went off and took half the population of the island within a year. Fortunately, Bell Island has wonderful soil and a microclimate that produced so many crops at one point it used to be known as the Breadbasket of the Avalon. So my father put the stiff upper lip on it and was a good hand at farming and raising animals, and we always managed to get by. We more or less stayed on and did whatever bit of work was needed. We never had much money, but we were never hungry,” he says.
“We also had to make a lot of our own entertainment, which is probably why things like music, and stories about who we are and where we are from are very important to people here. Bell Islanders are always resilient and these stories need to be saved and told. This ‘Theatre of the Mine’ is one more way of doing that, and we invite people to come experience it firsthand for themselves. I wrote these new plays based on the stories local people told me and held dear, so it seemed a sin for them to be lost.”
- by Dennis Flynn