Lewisporte – “Gateway to the North”
Lewisporte, with a population of 3,312 in 2001, is located in Notre Dame Bay on Newfoundland’s Northeast Coast. It was incorporated in 1946 with Albert Anstey as its first Mayor. In the days when most Newfoundland communities were linked only by sea Lewisporte was home to the “bay boat” S.S. Clyde. Found near the head of Burnt Bay in the Bay of Exploits (part of Notre Dame Bay), Lewisporte fills the role of distribution centre for the Northeast Coast, central Newfoundland, and Labrador north to Nain. Its modern role as a shipping entrepôt has earned Lewisporte the moniker “The Gateway to the North.” Its harbour is home to a boating marina complex where visitors can avail of boat tours and sailing charters.
First known as Big Burnt Bay, Lewisporte was used by European settlers before the arrival of permanent residents. People often travelled there seasonally from Notre Dame Bay’s older communities in search of wood for building and fuel. The first record of settlement was in 1857, when a census noted twenty-eight residents; eleven were fishers, and six were involved with lumbering. Robert Woolfrey from Moreton’s Harbour was probably the first permanent settler, arriving in 1876. Woolfrey was accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, a former school superintendent at Moreton’s Harbour, along with their six sons and two daughters. The family constructed a home on today’s Main Street which also served as a Methodist church, with son John acting as lay-reader. Robert’s grandson Willis was the first baby born at Lewisporte.
In 1877 the Hann, Russell and Pelley families settled, while in 1881 the Martins became the first settlers on the harbour’s South Side, where most people lived in the community’s early days. One prominent South Side settler was Solomon Northcott, who was operating two schooners in the Labrador fishery. By the late 1920s Stephen Jeans was considered the South Side’s most important citizen, operating a school and post office. He also acted as a lay-reader and Sunday school superintendent. In the 1880s twenty-one vessels were fishing out of the area. The 1884 census showed 150 permanent residents at Big Burnt Bay, with twenty-two acres of cultivated land; by 1911 a local farming industry was well-established.
Another attraction for the community’s early settlers was its thick stands of white pine trees. In a colony of fishers the white pine was especially prized for its use in boat building, but was just as adaptable to woodworking and general construction. In the nineteenth century the pines were so thick at Lewisporte that one of Robert Woolfrey’s sons got lost in them. Besides the pines, which eventually fell victim to over harvesting and disease, Lewisporte’s timber resources included both birch and spruce.
The area’s early settlers descended from Notre Dame Bay’s earliest European immigrants, who mainly hailed from England’s West Country. The early population was almost entirely Protestant. The 1884 census reveals that 143 of 150 residents that year were Methodists. The first resident Minister, Reverend C. Abner Whitemarsh, arrived in 1901. The community’s first Methodist church was built sometime between 1901 and 1903. A second Methodist church opened in 1916 under Reverend W. J. Wilson, while the current church held its first services in 1964. The Methodist Church – United since the 1920s – remains Lewisporte’s predominant religion, but there are Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and Salvation Army adherents as well.
The early settlers were concerned with education as well as spiritual matters. The first local schooling was done at the Woolfrey dwelling, with Robert and Elizabeth’s daughter as teacher. A second school is said to have opened in 1891, while another member of the Woolfrey clan is credited with starting a school at her home in 1895. The South Side had a own school building of its own.
Big Burnt Bay was renamed Marshallville in 1891 to honour missionary William Marshall, and by 1901 logging and sawmilling were the community’s main economic activities (The industry was dealt a major, though temporary, setback in 1905 when a forest fire burned its way through the region). Around the year 1900 the Reid Newfoundland Company chose Marshallville as the site for a railway terminal. The line later took coal to Gander and Bishop’s Falls, with thousands of tons of the fuel shipped into the community by collier. In 1937-8 Shell and Imperial Oil began operations at Lewisporte (as it by then named), constructing large fuel storage tanks. This allowed for the rail shipment of millions of gallons of gasoline and aircraft fuel to a new airport at Gander. Passenger traffic was also important to the railway, with two runs out daily.
The coming of the railway led Robert William Manuel to open the Manuel Hotel in 1900. As the rail line ended at Lewisporte, travellers often waited for coastal boats to Notre Dame Bay and St. Anthony at the Manuel establishment. Well-known guests of the hotel included Dr. Wilfred Grenfell and Twillingate soprano Georgina Stirling. Manuel opened a second hotel in 1915, which operated – under the Pelley family after World War II – until it burnt down in the 1960s.
In the early 1900s a Scottish lumberman named Lewis Miller began using Marshallville’s port as a shipping yard for his sawmills at Millertown and Glenwood; the community was later renamed “Lewisporte” in Miller’s honour. He also operated a sawmill in the town under the name Timber Estates Limited. By 1911 forty-five Lewisporte residents were involved in lumbering, compared with twenty-four fishers. The Woolfrey family began a new sawmilling enterprise in the 1920s, and had three competitors by 1941. By this date World War II had spurred further development in Lewisporte.
An airport at nearby Gander was used as a base by the Canadian forces. Aviation fuel for Gander was transshipped via Lewisporte. With its deep, well-protected harbour open year-round, Lewisporte was considered an ideal place to establish a military base. By 1941 Three installations were located at Lewisporte; one in the east end by Hann’s Point, a second at Bowater’s Point, and a third in the town centre. An American station was located on the site of today’s Shell Oil building. As of 1942 the Royal Canadian Artillery’s 107th Coastal Battery was stationed at Lewisporte. The armed observation post at Hann’s Point allowed observers to watch the harbour for enemy activity. Until 25 June 1942 this was a tranquil posting, but on that day the accidental discharge of a rifle into dynamite boxes created an explosion that killed five men. Today, few remember the incident, and little trace of the once-extensive military presence remains at Lewisporte.
The end of the war saw new economic progress in the town. Lewisporte Wholesalers started operations at Lewisporte in 1947. The company had a fleet of vessels transporting foodstuffs to the communities of northern Newfoundland, but as the road network expanded the vessels were all replaced by trucks. By the 1980s Lewisporte Wholesalers, along with competitors Steers and Blue Bouy Foods, were the town’s major employers. Many secondary businesses were launched at Lewisporte from the 1940s on. The Bank of Nova Scotia opened a Lewisporte branch in 1942, while a shipyard was established in 1964.
Along with such businesses came institutions for the benefit of residents. By 1944 the town had its own theatre, with a library founded in 1946. A regional newspaper called The Lewisporte Pilot was founded in 1961, with a local vocational school opening its doors the following year. In 1973 a new arena was officially opened by hockey personality Howie Meeker.
Lewisporte is home to a number of community organizations. A Loyal Orange Lodge was started in 1904. Masonic Lodge #6670 was founded in 1948, with a Lewisporte branch of the Shrine Club (Shriners) started in 1970. These men’s organizations were accompanied by a number for women and children. Between 1951 and 1955 Lewisporte became home to Cubs, Boy Scouts, Brownies and Air Cadets. The 617 Squadron, Air Cadets are one of Lewisporte’s most accomplished youth organizations, being named the most proficient of Newfoundland’s sixteen squadrons for 1967-8. They have also received the Naval Award and the Gordon Morris Shield. Lewisporte also has a Women’s Institute branch, formed in 1976.
By the mid-1980s the growth that encouraged such organizations was slowing down, the worst setback being Canadian National’s (CN) curtailing of operations at the port, which began with the cessation of CN’s coastal boat service, apart from certain Labrador routes. This was followed by a government decision to eliminate the railway service across Newfoundland, and the fishery crisis shortly afterwards.
Still, the community remains the base for a variety of commercial activities. The Labrador ferry service was given a boost in 1997 when Marine Atlantic’s coastal shipping infrastructure in Lewisporte (and Goose Bay) was transferred to the provincial government. Part of the assets included the 10,433-ton car and passenger ferry Robert Bond, acquired for the Lewisporte-Labrador run after its predecessor, the William Carson, sank after striking ice off Labrador in 1977. Another important element of the Lewisporte service to Labrador was the 2,561-ton passenger freighter, MV Northern Ranger. In 2003 the coastal service was moved entirely to Labrador bases by the provincial government, although the move was later rescinded by a new administration. Despite such uncertainties, however, Lewisporte remains a hub of Notre Dame Bay.
“Community of the Month. Lewisporte,” The Downhomer, Vol. XI, No. 7 (December 1998), 75-78.
McDonald, Louise. “Few Remember Explosion of 1942.” Lewisporte Pilot (28 July 1993), 1 and 8.
Osmond, Sherman, Hart, Jennifer, Rowe, Stephen and Shannon Freake, Lewisporte: the War Years. Lewisporte, 1999.
Smallwood, Joseph R. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. Vol. III. St. John’s, NL: 1991.
Town of Lewisporte. 50th Anniversary, 1946-1996. Full publishing information not given, 1996.
Lewisporte. Official Town Website, www.lewisportecanada.com