Jewels of Port de Grave

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Oct 11, 2016 12:00 AM
An informal trail along the coast in Port de Grave will take you by Lover's Leap.

The western-style saddle creaks in subtle protest as weight is shifted in the stirrups and a young hand browned by the August sun loops a well-worn set of leather reins over the sturdy horn in preparation for dismounting the ebony Newfoundland pony. Surrounding the boy and horse is a sweeping view of the coast, from the iron tower of the 1883 Green Point lighthouse to the sleeping Newfoundland dog formation of Fergus Island and, much farther out Conception Bay, the low rocks of the Harbour Grace Islands archipelago. The view, while impressive, is not what drew me here to Port de Grave many moons ago. It was rumours of pirate treasure.

According to legend, pirate Peter Easton may have hidden a treasure somewhere near here while attempting to escape from enemy ships around 1614. Easton supposedly got away clean and encountered the Spanish fleet carrying riches from the New World somewhere off the Azores. He captured so much riches that he was able to buy a pardon for his crimes and retire in France as the Marquis of Savoy. He never returned to Newfoundland and had no need of whatever he may have left behind - and the possibility of it fascinates and fuels the imagination of folks of all ages even to this day.

We never did go digging for treasure all those many, many years ago as young folks riding my grandfather’s ponies from nearby Bay Roberts to explore the beautiful region of Port de Grave. Still, the idea that an errant hoof kick might turn up a gold coin or a diamond made the daylong ride the stuff dreams are made of. 

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The sunset seen from the Green Point lighthouse

This past July I again find myself by the lighthouse, gazing out over the water, watching the sunset and the fishing vessels cutting through the swells. There are a few more houses on the gravel road to the point, but time appears to have stood still out here. It is as hauntingly beautiful as I remember.

Hikers, photographers and painters come from everywhere to enjoy the informal trail from nearby Lear’s Cove and the stunning sea vistas they are rewarded with on clear days. Berry pickers troll the hills in season. At one point along the coast is Lover’s Leap, where, as the story goes, a couple of courters survived an unexpected tumble over the cliff.

Mildred Brown, who spends part of the summers in Port de Grave, says with a smile, “Well, there is lots of wind so there is no problem with flies on hot days, but the quality of the light is what I like the best. It seems like you can see forever, and the sunsets and sunrises are amazing. Our home’s windows look out to take advantage of that long light and it feels like we have a box around a view. It is an amazing place to kayak and enjoy from the water as well. I love it here.”

Of course, there is much more to this historic area of about 975 residents than beautiful scenery. The logo for the Port de Grave Peninsula Heritage Society prominently features an anchor and rope overlaying a map of the area, a symbol of the interconnectedness of the sea and the people dating back to the beginnings of settlement here in the 1600s.

An archival article by B.V. Andrews in the July 1949 Atlantic Guardian notes that “Port de Grave fishermen are the finest in Newfoundland, and, like other Newfoundland fishermen, are renowned for their skill as small boatmen. They distinguished themselves in the Royal Navy in both World Wars.”

More on that legacy can be explored in the Fishermen’s Museum in the Hibb’s Cove section of Port de Grave, where all manner of paraphernalia related to fishing and enterprise upon the ocean can be found. My favourite attraction there is a wall near the entrance where old-fashioned sou’westers are hung. They are actual hats worn in many cases by former fishermen of the area and displayed with permission of the families as reminders of old skippers and friends bound together in a tip of the hat to a way of life gone by.

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In yet another surprise, next door there is a beautiful one-room school maintained as a museum, replete with vintage desks, a pot-bellied stove, teacher’s desk and bell, and (for those of a certain generation who will appreciate them) the vintage large “Run Spot, run, run, run” illustrated readers. There are even teachers’ ledgers of former students’ marks on display.

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A restored two-storey, traditional outport home, known as Porter House, also welcomes visitors - both real and spiritual it seems. One artifact inside, a record player, is reputed to be haunted. A guide I met on my visit said she’s never noticed anything out of this world happening during her shifts. But she did share that it was featured on an episode of a TV show about paranormal activity, and that some visitors have sworn they heard static, like white noise, coming from the machine although no one was nearby to start it up. 

Outside Porter House lays an anchor from the PLM 27, the iron ore carrier that was torpedoed off Bell Island by a German U-Boat on November 2, 1942. She sank almost immediately after being hit, taking 12 men to their deaths. I’m told some industrious locals retrieved it quite a number of years back and placed it as a public monument and informal war memorial. (Another anchor from the same vessel is in the memorial park at Lance Cove on Bell Island.)

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On the topic of public monuments, there is perhaps no more distinctive manmade landmark in Port de Grave than the unusual collection of items related to a mariner’s way of life known affectionately as “The Crown” (pictured above). Located across from the main marina where fleets of fishing boats find safe berth against winter storms, it appears at first glance to be a random amalgamation of objects. But closer inspection reveals a carefully curated collection. It is the volunteer work of one man, Matt Petten, a retired fisherman. He tells me it started as a hobby to mark the concrete footprint of what was once a fishing building his family owned. Local people enjoyed it and spontaneously donated items to it from their own collections, everything from a boat’s propeller to anchor chain to buoys and more. At Christmastime it’s decked out in holiday lights, as are pretty well all the boats in the marina. The harbour lights are an annual tradition that’s attracted thousands of visitors into the town over the past 16 years.

Just as the spirit of Christmas shines bright in this community, so does residents’ faith. Religion runs deep here, not surprising when most of its residents risk meeting their Maker every time they go to work. I have a photo home that I took of the Nautical Legacy many years ago here in Port de Grave. This 65-foot longliner caught fire and sank on May 30, 2007, while fishing for crab some 130 nautical miles northeast of St. John’s. The sailors’ emergency training and quick response by Coast Guard and Search and Rescue ensured that all six crewmen made it home to the harbour safe and sound. Though in Port de Grave, many residents credit the strength of faith and the prayer chains that were answered for a miracle of survival at sea. 

No matter what you believe, it can’t be denied that Port de Grave is a landscape rich in stories, filled with historical gems to be treasured. - By Dennis Flynn