Stories from Long Island
My late mother was born in Ward’s Harbour, which is located on Long Island. Her birth name was Burton; I am her namesake. One of my regrets is that I never asked her to tell me her life story. I once spent an afternoon on the island, too brief a time to collect much genealogical information. In the absence of her memoirs, I’m forced to piece together her life from odds and ends collected here and there.
Which is why I enjoyed reading “Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland,” written by Eric Colbourne, who was also born on Long Island. Mind you, my mother isn’t mentioned in the book, but there is a tantalizing connection to her.
Colbourne wrote the book, he explains, “to record some of the stories that together form part of the history and experience of one community in rural Newfoundland.”
One such story, “The Death of William Henry,” piqued my interest.
On April 17, 1888, 48-year-old William Henry Morgan and his 16year-old son James left Lushes Bight on a seal-hunting expedition over the harbour ice.
“Now, William Henry,” his wife Elizabeth said, “don’t you take no chances, and James, you take care of your father.”
Within the hour, snow flurries made it difficult for them to see land. They rested for a while on Flint Island. By midmorning, the snow had cleared, so they resumed their journey. Soon, rafted slabs of heavy arctic floes slowed their progress. Early in the afternoon, they stopped for a meagre lunch before striking east. Another hour of trudging brought them to a veritable treasure trove of seal meat.
“After a long hard day,” Colbourne writes, “there was success at last and they quickly tied a rope into three seals each and headed back towards Gull Rock.”
Meanwhile, a sea was making, the ice pack was starting to break up, and a biting northeast wind had sprung up. The senior man decided to seek shelter in a cabin on Stag Island, two miles distant.
Fifteen yards from Stag Island Point, the unthinkable happened: the ice under William Henry’s feet gave way. James hooked him by the collar, but the whirling mass sucked him under.
“With great effort,” Colbourne continues, “James pulled him back on a solid pan and got him standing. This time he grabbed his father’s arm, but had no sooner done so when the ice gave way again. The shock of the cold ocean water had now sapped William Henry’s strength. He could no longer stand but, summoning some inner strength, he crawled to the icy rocks on the shoreline.”
Unable to get a firm footing, James pulled his father over a ridge. Losing his grip, the teenager watched in mute horror as the man rolled back into the water. Rescuing him with his gaff, he heard his father say, “James, we shall all sleep together.”
There’s more, much more, to this story. Suffice it to say, to quote the author, “William Henry sighed softly, breathed his last, and slid back into the icy blackness.”
Earlier I mentioned a tantalizing connection to my mother in Colbourne’s book. Here it is: the survivor of this tragedy at sea, James Morgan, married Amelia Ann Burton, who was born in 1883. She and my mother’s father, Titus Burton, were siblings. In other words, Amelia Ann Morgan, who died in 1987, was my mother’s aunt and, therefore, my great-aunt.
This is but one of 10 stories in Colbourne’s his book. “They are stories,” he says, “of tragedy, childhood fantasy, struggle, and the reality of everyday life during a period that is largely forgotten.”
Set in the period between the 1880s and early 1960s, the stories include “The Great Purge,” “The Black Arts Book,” “Still Waters,” “Banner- man of the Dandenong,” and “The Strangling Angel.” All of them are told, not with nostalgia, but with a sense of realism that comes from having been raised in rural Newfoundland before the advent of such things as television, the Internet and modern transportation.
“What unites these pages,” observes fellow writer Paul Butler, “is a love of place and people and the truly impressive craft of the writing.”
“I hope,” Colbourne says, “readers will take away an understanding that the seeds of change in rural Newfoundland were planted a long time ago. More importantly, I hope people come away with an understanding that stories have an important human element. They bind us together as families and communities; the stories of the past are records of who we are today.”
“Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland” is published by Michael Grass House, Kingston, Ontario. Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at