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.

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