Dead Man’s Bay

Back in 2010, I started another blog called Dead Man’s Bay. It was meant to be a blog about the historical significance of certain hiking trails and destinations in Newfoundland. I only got three real posts up before life went in another direction (mainly north) but it’s still out there and, I think, still interesting. I completed posts on Colinet Island, Cape Spear, and the Burgoyne’s Cove B-36 crash site.

Dead Man’s Bay

Here’s the original introduction to that blog:

I have been an avid hiker for most of my life, although for the first 18 years, I didn’t know hiking11it. I just thought everybody played in the woods. When I moved to St. John’s to attend Memorial University, I learned differently. I found out that hiking and camping was something not everyone did. Some would look at you funny when you told them you were spending three days in the woods. I could almost see questions like “But where do you plug in your Xbox?” going through their heads.

People travel for a lot of reasons: to relax, to explore the world, to learn about other people and places, or just from a feeling of restlessness that they can’t seem to escape. Outdoor pursuits are the same: people walk, hike, camp, bike, canoe and kayak for all kinds of reasons: to stay in shape, for the adventure, for love of the outdoors. But I wonder: how often do people stop to think about the history of the places that their hiking or kayaking trips are taking them?

I’ve always been fascinated by the past, by the chance to learn something about the people who came before us, and whenever a hiking trail takes me past an old rock wall or a crumbling house foundation I can’t help but wonder who built it. What did they grow in their gardens? What meals were prepared on the stove, whose chimney now stands in the field, home to a family of birds? Who walked these trails before us, with our Gore-Tex boots and expensive backpacks?

I think learning about the past is the only way to truly appreciate the present, to understand how places and people have come to be what they are. I also think you more fully appreciate the meaning of the places and landscapes you’re traveling through if you understand their history.Most travelers would agree when talking about the great cities of the world or ancient monuments. But the forests and oceans are no different.

Think about the importance of walking trails to the inhabitants of the Southern Shore before there were roads, and the East Coast Trail becomes more meaningful. The D’Iberville Trail only makes sense if you know who D’Iberville was, and what he used the trail for. If you consider that not so long ago the sea was the highway and not a barrier, then kayaking in Trinity can be a very different experience.

Welcome to Dead Man’s Bay, a blog about hiking and history in Newfoundland and Labrador.

hiking13

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Remembering the Ocean Ranger

The Ocean Ranger on Wikipedia

On February 15th, 1982, the exploratory, semi-submersible drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank off the coast of Newfoundland. All 84 people were killed in Canada’s worst maritime tragedy since the Second World War. 56 of them were from Newfoundland.

I grew up hearing about the Ocean Ranger disaster, but I didn’t learn many details about it until I went to university. I had always had the impression that the rig just disappeared one night in a storm, but the full story of the disaster, the doomed attempts by the crew to save the rig, the helplessness of the onlookers, and the failed rescue attempts is far more heartbreaking.

Unsurprisingly, the disaster is important in Newfoundland’s recent cultural, and economic, history. The oil industry has transformed Newfoundland over the last 30 years, and the Ocean Ranger was part of the original wave of exploration that created today’s era of relative prosperity.

One of the most well-known cultural responses to the disaster is Ron Hynes’ song “Atlantic Blue.” Hynes considers it one of the most difficult and important songs he’s ever written.

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Beaumont-Hamel, 2008

In the spring of 2008, I visited France and Belgium with my sister. Among our many stops were the D-Day beaches at Normandy and several World War I battlefields and memorials, including Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel, although in truth most of northern France seems like one never ending memorial. The place is heavy with history.

I published this article in The Newfoundland Quarterly later that year. In honour of Remembrance Day, I’m posting it here.

Beaumont-Hamel, 2008

“It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”

– Major-General Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, Commander British 29th Division

The Danger Tree

The Danger Tree at Beaumont-Hamel, 2008

The case arrived by courier one day in April, all the way from Ottawa. The General Manager called me into his office to open it.

Inside were the medals of Tommy Rickett’s, on loan from the Canadian War Museum. They were nestled inside on the foam padding: The Victory Medal and the British War Medal, the “Mutt and Jeff” of First World War military medals. The French Croix de Guerre with star, and one other.

The Victoria Cross looked small in the case. If you didn’t know that it had a story to tell, it could almost be insignificant, just a piece of bronze and crimson ribbon.

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Two weeks later I was driving from Normandy to Belgium, roughly following the route of the Canadian Third Infantry Division in as they moved across Europe towards Germany in 1944-45. One look out the window and you know this is tank country, rolling fields divided by roads and hedgerows.

Suddenly in the distance were the pylons of the Pont de Normandie, big inverted Y’s reaching up from the ground to carry the A29 Autoroute over the great River Seine. It looked mystical in the mist, the biggest bridge I had ever seen.

I was traveling with my sister, and she had the same reaction. ‘Do we get to cross that?’ she asked. After the next turn, the next crest of the hill, the river came into better view.

Yes, we do.

The speed limit on the autoroutes is 130 kilometres an hour, and we were across the two kilometre bridge in less than a minute. The big Y pylons soared above us, while below us the Seine moved lazily towards the English Channel and sea.

This trip was a succession of bodies of water to be crossed: the Atlantic, the English Channel, the Seine River.  We had taken the ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham and the Normandy landing beaches, Juno Beach and Pointe du Hoc and later Mont St. Michel where the Couesnon River empties on the salt flats.

But those were all behind us now. Ahead of us lay Belgium, french fries and good beer. But we weren’t leaving the battlegrounds of France just yet.

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History Podcasts & Interviews

Back when I was working at a museum, and later completing my master’s degree in history, I was occasionally asked to do some media interviews on historical topics. In addition to validating my choice of study and proving that at least one other person found history interesting, these were fun to do and the chance to share these stories did influence how I thought about the past’s influence on the present.

I came across one of these again recently so I thought I’d share a few of them here.

The first was an interview I did for Calgary’s CJSW “Today in Canadian History” series about the 1948 Newfoundland Referendum.

CJSW Today in Canadian History – June 3, 2011 – The Newfoundland Referendum of 1948

Anti-Confederate Propaganda, from the Heritage NL Website: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/law/referendums.html

The next two I did with Jeff Gilhooly of the CBC’s St. John’s Morning Show. One was about early attempts to create a tourism industry in Newfoundland in the early 1900s, while the other looked at a long-forgotten plan to cut shipping canals through the island to reduce trans-Atlantic crossing times and dangers.

St. John’s Morning Show – September 22, 2008 – The Norway of the New World

St. John’s Morning Show – February 10, 2009 – The Trans-Newfoundland Canal

Enjoy! As always, comments and questions are welcome. Twitter is the best way to reach me: @KeithCollier

 

The Rest is History

One of the things I learned early on in university (probably not as early as I should have, but anyway) was that I liked writing nonfiction – finding an interesting topic, asking a question, researching the story, and putting it together into an article. A lot of my writing over the years has therefore been of the historical variety. In fact, my first published pieces were for the original print version of The Independent.

A lot of pieces are obscure, or hard to find, or forgotten (even by me), and I’ve had fun searching some of them out and revisiting those articles I wrote years ago. I’ve started to post some of them in the “History” section of this website. I’m going to try to find some of those old Indy pieces too.

For those who are especially interested (hi, Dad!) I’ve also posted the major paper I completed for my MA in history: “Clearing the Slums“.

Unless you’re super interested in early-to-mid twentieth century public housing policy or the urban history of St. John’s, it’s not exactly a page turner. But feel free to get in touch with any questions or comments! I always enjoy chatting about the past. Especially Newfoundland’s.