Bell Island and Port de Grave
Though it may not be commonly known, there is a historical connection between Port de Grave and the “discovery” of the Bell Island iron ore deposits. That clear connection extends back to the late 1880s.
One day, Jabez Butler of Port de Grave set out to sail to St. John’s. The onset of a storm forced him to seek anchorage on Bell Island.
Needing ballast to keep his vessel steady, he made a fateful decision: he used loose rock, found on the shore, to ballast his vessel. He then continued his journey to the capital city.
In St. John’s, he dumped his ballast. The rock, which had a decidedly unusual colour, immediately attracted the attention of an English sea captain.
The Englishman pocketed a piece of the rock to take with him back to his homeland to be assayed. The analysis would determine whether or not the rock was valu- able.
In order to complete the examination, the captain needed a bigger sample of the colourful rock. So he wrote Jabez with his request: “Please send 50 more pounds of rock.”
The Port de Grave native misunderstood the Englishman’s request, concluding he was simply asking for currency. The request was ignored.
Years later, Esau Butler, Jabez’s son, was living in Montreal. Curious about the rocks on Bell Island, he asked his father for a sample, again to be assayed.
The result of the analysis turned out to be rather positive, indicating a concentration of iron ore.
Esau, seeing dollar signs and, perhaps, potential for a commercial mining operation, telegraphed his father, requesting him to stake a claim on the island.
In his history of Bell Island, N.W. Sheppard writes: “ How much of this ‘discovery’ tale is fact and how much folklore is now difficult to ascertain.”
But we do know that on Aug. 4, 1892, Jabez Butler; his brother, John; his three sons, Esau, John and Jabez; along with James Miller, submitted an application to stake three claims on the north side of Bell Island.
The relative distance between merely staking a claim and starting a viable commercial mining operation is not always easily bridged. Because the Butlers lacked the necessary funds to move forward with their claims, they approached two merchants in St. John’s.
Joseph Pippy and Alexander Shirran offered to act as brokers for the Butlers. They would market the iron ore deposits on Bell Island for a principal on a commission basis without having title to the property. They would also act as intermedi- aries between the two parties in negotiating agreements, bargains or the like, selling or leasing the claims for 20 per cent of any resulting profits. It would be a win-win situation for all parties concerned.
The Butlers, having no alternative, agreed to the plan.
Within a month, Pippy and Shirran had named a client, the Nova Scotia firm of New Glasgow Iron, Coal and Rail Company.
In June 1893, the company’s chief engineer, Robert Chambers, visited Bell Island to view the operation. He urged the Butlers to obtain a mining lease at their earliest convenience.
By September, New Glasgow Iron, Coal and Rail Company had ironed out — no pun intended — a deal with the Butlers. The family would receive a flat sum of $1,000, plus five cents per ton, on all iron ore shipped to Nova Scotia. The company would have the right to make an outright purchase of the claims for $120,000.
The historical connection between Port de Grave and the “discovery” of the Bell Island iron ore deposits is only one story of many told by N.W. Sheppard in his recent book, “Historic Bell Island: Dawn of First Light,” published by Flanker Press in St. John’s.