One man’s encounter with the Spirit of the Broad of the Brook
By Dennis Flynn
The October 2019 sunset bleeds flaming orange droplets down the clifftop landmarks of the Scrapes, the Roost and the Carrick before disappearing into the shaded crevasse of Crow’s Gulch and the still darker abyss of a clock-calm Colliers Harbour in eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. It is an ethereal evening on the Atlantic Ocean as my father, Tony Flynn, and I take a stroll past a particular tree known to locals as “Paddy Burke’s Tree.”
“Paddy would have enjoyed a day like this,” says my father. “He had a great encounter with a spirit up by the Broad of the Brook that happened coming on what the old people used to call ‘duckish,’ meaning just around this time, near dusk but not quite pitch black yet.”
A statement like that can’t just be left to hang, so after some gentle prompting to tell the whole story, my dad relents with a smile. “Well, if you are not going to let me away from it, I suppose I don’t have much choice. I can’t tell it like Paddy, but then again he lived through it and I didn’t have to, thanks be to God, so he’d naturally be a better hand at his own story then I would.”
Paddy Burke was a famous storyteller in the Colliers area. As my father recalls, “He was so good with this very deep voice, like he was talking from the bottom of a barrel. Folks would have him do recitations at house parties or even a concert and you could hear a pin drop. Aside from that, though, Paddy was always a big man and wasn’t the type of fellow to scare easy or ever make stuff up. He had this calm way about him, and when he was being serious Paddy would just tell you the truth of whatever he saw firsthand. It was up to you to believe it or not, but he certainly did.”
Tony starts in with a laugh, “This particular incident involving Paddy Burke happened sometime during the Great Depression (1929-1941), when all folks were picking berries just to make a few cents to help stay alive. Of course, there wasn’t much money at it and I remember my own mother telling me that blueberries used to be 10 cents a gallon and they would walk miles back in the country to get them, pick all day, and carry them out. The only other thing for the poorest people was the government relief, or the dole that used to call it, which was 6 cents per head, per day.”
Continuing, he says, “Paddy was a young man at the time, and his family would go into Mahers Siding - where the train used to stop on the old Newfoundland Railway - and they had a temporary camp up there so his mother and father could stay up pick berries all week without having to walk home each day.”
Most Saturdays, Paddy would trek back to Colliers to check on the house and get more supplies for the coming week. He might take in a Saturday night dance, and then head back out to the country on Sunday morning. So on this particular Sunday, he left around 10 a.m. from Burkes Cove, near the very bottom of Colliers, carrying the supplies.
“He decided on taking a shortcut through Conception Harbour, passing in by the Pinch and up to Witch Hazel Ridge near a spot of water people called the Broad of the Brook. There was a big windfall tree, maybe a foot or so in diameter, across the dirt road on an angle. The main part of the path was blocked, but there was still enough room for a horse and cart to squeak by if they went out on the shoulder near where the river flowed fast between two large ponds,” my father tells.
At this point, Paddy was getting pretty tired and it was getting on duckish, so he decided to take a little rest. He sat on a rock by the windfall, lit a cigarette and closed his eyes. He must have dozed off for a just few seconds - the burning cigarette was still between his fingers and very little ash had fallen off - when he got a rude awakening.
Tony continues, “All of a sudden this fellow popped up and had incredibly strong hands on Paddy’s throat and was choking the life out of him. What it was or where it came from, Paddy didn’t see and had no idea. Paddy said he was asleep, but when he came to not being able to breathe, this man was on top of him strangling him. That was a fine how do you do, now wasn’t it?”
When Paddy came completely to his senses, they mysterious man disappeared in a flash. Paddy could vividly remember what the man looked like and the mean scowl on his face, but where he went or how he got away so quickly, Paddy couldn’t say. He wasn’t too interested in lingering around to find out if he was coming back, either, so he gathered up his stuff pretty fast and went on right away.”
Paddy eventually got to the berry camp in the woods and relayed what happened to his family. They told him he wasn’t the first to encounter this spirit. That spot was known to be haunted by the ghost of a man named Cole who had fallen in the river there and drowned many years before.
Tony adds, “Maybe because he died in such a shocking and violent way the ghost was trying to take someone else with him. Of course, whatever the creature was could just as easily have been giving a hard and fast warning with the strangling for travellers to watch themselves in a deceptively peaceful, but dangerous area. Paddy was a practical man about these things so, after a spell taking other longer routes perhaps, he did go back to travelling that way, and as far as I know he never ever ran into anything strange there again. Of course, for Paddy - and for anybody at all - once was enough to run into the Spirit at the Broad of the Brook.”