Des­ti­na­tions

New­found­land com­mu­nity cel­e­brates the su­per­nat­u­ral.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Chris Lack­ner

Bell Is­land: Canada’s X-Files isle.

New­found­land and Labrador’s Bell Is­land is rich in three com­modi­ties: iron ore, sto­ry­tellers, and things that go bump in the night.

The thirty-four-square-kilo­me­tre windswept rock is home to just over three thou­sand in­hab­i­tants. Si­t­u­ated near St. John’s, the sup­pos­edly haunted isle is ac­ces­si­ble only by ferry. Some lo­cals claim it’s a place where the dead — and worse — min­gle openly with the liv­ing.

“This is the most haunted is­land in North Amer­ica,” said Henry Crane, chair of Tourism Bell Is­land, which of­fers a guided “Ghosts of Bell Is­land” sun­set walk­ing tour.

The gre­gar­i­ous sixty-three-year-old was born to tell tall tales. Yet even he seemed un­easy as we jour­neyed down Fire Road, near a com­mu­nity called Sco­tia No. 1. Folk­lore and su­per­sti­tion have marked this hair-rais­ing stretch as home to ev­ery­thing from hideous fairies, to a venge­ful fe­male spirit, to ghostly min­ers. The isle’s un­earthly denizens are a prod­uct of its his­tory. The town of Wa­bana was once a bustling iron­min­ing com­mu­nity, its pop­u­la­tion peak­ing at nearly six­teen thou­sand be­fore the Sec­ond World War.

The blend of eth­nic­i­ties, from Ir­ish, English, and Scot­tish to Ger­man, Es­to­nian, and Roma, cre­ated an oth­er­worldly cock­tail of leg­ends and tra­di­tions.

Crane de­scribed it as a “mod­ern Dodge City” filled with sailors, mis­fits, and stow­aways, where Celtic fairy tra­di­tion mixed with the macabre.

“They brought their sto­ries, and folk­lore, and who knows what else,” Crane said.

Over the years, myths and su­per­sti­tions have be­come in­ter­twined with real-life tragedies, such as two deadly Ger­man U-boat at­tacks in 1942 that sunk four cargo ships and killed sixty-five sailors.

Other events, such as the mys­te­ri­ous “Bell Is­land Boom” of 1978, sparked talk of ex­trater­res­trial vis­i­ta­tions. The per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion has dwin­dled, es­pe­cially since the 1966 clos­ing of the lo­cal mine. How­ever, at­trac­tions such as the Bell Is­land Com­mu­nity Mu­seum and un­der­ground mine tour, and the haunted sun­set walk­ing tour lure more than twelve thou­sand tourists here an­nu­ally.

One of the high­lights of the haunted tour in­volves But­ler’s Marsh in West Mines. The boggy ter­rain is pep­pered with wild­flow­ers — yel­low, pur­ple, and pink — and gnarled clus­ters of pine and cedar trees.

Leg­end has it that the marsh is home to fairies, but Bell Is­land’s malev­o­lent breed bears no re­sem­blance to Dis­ney’s Tinker Bell. Typ­i­cally de­scribed as two feet tall, male, and hideously de­formed, these fairies are said to have at­tempted to lure hu­mans into the marsh — some­times never to re­turn.

The no­to­ri­ous area in­spired New­found­land play­wright Robert Chafe to write the play. “Bell Is­land is a wild place. It is to

New­found­land what New­found­land is to Canada,” Chafe says. “Talk­ing to [is­landers] about their fairies is a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. They’re mean … twisted, sin­is­ter crea­tures.”

Leg­ends abound of fairies ter­ror­iz­ing homes and even ab­duct­ing chil­dren, Crane said, and early set­tlers blamed them for mys­te­ri­ous deaths and ail­ments.

Those fears have been passed down to mod­ern times: Crane said that, when he was a child, his grand­mother would of­ten make him carry bread, or a torn Bi­ble page, in his pocket as pro­tec­tion against the crea­tures.

Other spec­tral in­hab­i­tants in­clude phan­tom min­ers who pur­port­edly haunt the tun­nels of the No. 4 mine. The white crosses chalked onto the rocky tun­nel walls are a grim re­minder of un­der­ground dan­gers such as ex­plo­sions or run­away carts.

Bon­nie Sprack­lin, a tour guide for the min­ers mu­seum, says min­ers etched the crosses as a way of honour­ing the fallen; at least 106 min­ers have died in the mines over the decades, and many min­ing fam­i­lies were touched by tragedy; Sprack­lin’s great-un­cle was lost to a dy­na­mite mishap.

An­other eerie lo­ca­tion on the is­land is a patch of farm­land known as Dob­bin’s Gar­den — home, sup­pos­edly, to the “Bell Is­land hag.” This leg­end dates back to the Sec­ond World War, when Ger­man U-boats at­tacked the is­land.

The story is that a group of Ger­man sailors had se­cretly landed on the is­land to re­sup­ply their U-boat with the help of lo­cal sym­pa­thiz­ers.

An un­for­tu­nate wo­man came upon the scene and was dragged into the marsh and killed. Lo­cals, fear­ing a fairy trick, ig­nored her cries for help, and her rest­less spirit is said to still plague the site. Wit­nesses have de­scribed what ini­tially looks like a wo­man in white walk­ing up from the marsh af­ter sun­set.

“As the thing gets closer, the colour starts to go gray, and then the thing falls to its knees and starts to crawl on all fours like a dog,” Crane says.

The crea­ture’s “wormed-out face” and foul, sul­phuric smell then knock out the un­for­tu­nate spec­ta­tor. (The fact that no such wo­man has ever been re­ported as miss­ing hasn’t damp­ened the en­thu­si­asm for the story.)

The most re­cent mys­tery to be­set the is­land oc­curred on April 2, 1978. On that oth­er­wise calm day, a loud ex­plo­sion caused dam­age to homes and elec­tri­cal wiring, and cre­ated two small “per­fectly square” craters in the ground, Crane said.

The un­ex­plained phe­nom­ena fu­elled a doc­u­men­tary and wild the­o­ries of a se­cret mil­i­tary test or cover-up. How­ever, some have at­trib­uted it to a light­ning su­per­bolt.

Bell Is­land’s haunted walk could eas­ily be a marathon. Crane has de­voted years to gath­er­ing tales from ag­ing res­i­dents be­cause, he said, “this was a place of leg­ends, and it’s a shame to let them die.”

But maybe some be­liefs will linger on: Lo­cal teens re­cently told Crane about a mis­shapen fig­ure they saw in the brush. And even skep­tics keep a healthy dis­tance from fa­bled ar­eas such as But­ler’s Marsh.

Vis­i­tors are wel­come, but they may want to carry some bread in their pocket. Bet­ter safe than sorry.

Clock­wise from top: A de­pic­tion of miner Billy Par­sons adorns a build­ing’s wall in Wa­bana, New­found­land and Labrador — one of sev­eral mu­rals found on Bell Is­land; a sun­set as viewed from Bell Is­land; wild­flow­ers gath­ered from a field near But­ler’s...

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