Celebrating Caplin

Late spring of each year, residents see caplin (or capelin, to non-Newfoundlanders) rolling onto the shores. Large, dense schools move close to the beaches for spawning (first males, then females), while avoiding the pods of whales migrating down the coast, but are quickly met with people and their nets.

During this season, certain beaches are known to turn silver with the fish as they roll themselves in the waves, right up onto the rocks. They are considered a reliable and important local food source that can be eaten fresh (fried or baked), frozen, or salted and dried for use throughout the year. Freshly pickled fish can be dried lying on a flake, hanging on pins in a board, or hung up like laundry (as seen above). Though less common among younger generations and tourists, the females’ bright orange roe (eggs) can be harvested easily, and is exceptionally delicious directly from the fish, or lightly salted and kept. Further, for some communities the caplin (along with kelp) are traditionally collected and used to enrich soil - as a fertilizer - for homestead gardens.

Similar to smelt, the traditional way to eat the fish is whole as the innards and head become delicious when cooked or dried, and the bones are soft and edible.

The photos in this set were taken in late June, 2014 at Middle Cove beach - a popular location to fill your boots.

Contributed by Lisa Wilson and Justin Oakey

The Streetcars of Old St. John’s

From 1900 to 1948, the citizens of St. John’s enjoyed an efficient, well-loved streetcar system. It was powered entirely by hydroelectricity generated in Petty Harbour, located just 13 kilometres away.1 The line began at the Railway Crossroads on the west end of Water Street, ran eastward to Holloway Street, continued along Duckworth Street, looped past the Newfoundland Hotel and turned onto Military Road, where it eventually descended along Queen’s Road and made its way back to the Railway Crossroads.

Numerous residents were apprehensive about the startling new system. Dire prophecies were made, and many worried about how their horses would take to the machinery. On the first day of operations, hundreds of people rode their horses alongside the trams. Though dozens of horses “reared and bucked and finally bolted like wild things,” it was eventually determined that horses and streetcars could peaceably co-exist. Everyone enjoyed free rides on the first day of operations, and as became customary, the conductors insisted on filling their cars to the brim, “even if it meant getting up from their seats and pushing the customers down the aisles themselves. … By cajoling and good-natured threats, the conductors got them all in. The car would then creak along the street with its springs sagging against its axles.”

Though the streetcars did emit a rather piercing sound, it became a very popular system. On the St. John’s streetcar, you could mingle (in sardine-like quarters) with people you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. Some people ran out to the conductors to ask for favours along the line. They asked the conductors to deliver packages, mail letters, and even pick up a scattered item from the hardware store. By all accounts, the good-natured conductors did exactly this.

Initially, the street car system depended on a snow shovelling crew to keep the line running, but by the 1930s, a snow sweeper car was brought in to clear the line of snow. Reportedly, this marvelous machine “did an excellent job of keeping the lines open during the worst winter storms.”

The streetcar system was dismantled in 1948. Geoff Stirling bought the streetcars themselves, and sold them off as summer cabins and work sheds.


The Street Cars of Old St. John’s: A Photo History (1989) by William Connors

Remarkable Stories of Newfoundland (2009) by Jack Fitzgerald


1. In fact, most of St. John’s was powered by this highly localized source, and shortages of rain could cause power outages. In the summer of 1908, The Evening Herald remarked particularly on the effects this had on downtown operations. Silent film showings were disrupted, the streetcars came to a rest, and shopkeepers contended with the power outage by “locating customer’s desires by candlelight.” When the rains came (it can’t have been long), light was restored once again.

Photos are of a streetcar at Rawlins Cross and a streetcar shelter, both from the Geography Collection on MUN’s DAI.

Contributed by Andrea McGuire

Cemetery Segregation

These two cemeteries are very small—one with just a single gravestone, enclosed by a white picket fence, the other with two graves, also enclosed by a fence. Both sites exemplify the widespread practice of burial segregation based on a community member’s religious affiliation.  The decision to forbid Salvation Army [S. A.] burials was made in 1892 by leaders of the St. Mary’s congregation, who controlled the Anglican Cemetery. Ultimately, this only impacted one person, Charlie Ollerhead, an S. A. pioneer in the region, who died young from tuberculosis in 1896. He was given a personal plot in local barrens, far from the other cemeteries. By the 1930s, the S. A. had permanently left Heart’s Content.

It seems less is known about this Jehovah’s Witness burial site in Dunville. It is thought that the J.W. Church first arrived in Newfoundland in 1917, and despite some spreading, membership remained small. These two women were buried in the forest about 200 meters away from the Anglican cemetery. The inscription is difficult to read on the older, wooden marker, but indicates a 1940s burial. The headstone for Elizabeth Newman, born 1893, states that she died and was buried in 1986.

Reference: Connecting the Continents (2009) by Ted Rowe.

Contributed by Lisa Wilson

Wooden boats on the Gander River

This is Basil Gillingham. And beside him is his Gander Bay Boat - also known as a Gander River Boat - designed and modified by generations of Gander Bay builders to suit the specific conditions of the Gander River.
Born and raised in Gander Bay, Newfoundland, Basil Gillingham has spent a lifetime on the Gander River. He learned how build at a young age from his father Leslie Gilllingham. In Leslie’s day, these boats were double-ended - modelled on canoes - and with no outboard motors they were propelled primarily by a black spruce pole.
“To get Gander you’d have to pole up the river and then get the train from Glenwood,” Basil told me, “and it would take you three days.” Now you can drive from Gander Bay to Gander in less than 45 minutes.

Basil built his first Gander Bay Boat when he was 16 years old and has built over 100 since. He one of few still building with wood, as fiberglass, which requires less maintenance, is increasingly becoming the norm on the Gander River. “There were a lot of boats built here in Gander Bay, and a lot of people built them. Older people now, a lot of them are gone, and there don’t be many built anymore.”

Contributed by Crystal Braye

Whale Tagging: Handstyles on a fresh canvas in Trout River, NL

Before the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) scientists came to cut the beached blue whale into pieces, somebody tried their hand and knife at personal expression. (May 1, 2014)

Contributed by Annie McEwen

Top: An iceberg settles near Quidi Vidi Village during iceberg season (taken on 35mm by A. Barnes)

Bottom: Iceberg and helicopter stunt, mid-1990s near Heart’s Content (taken on 35mm by L. Smith)

Contributed by L. Wilson

Flipper Pie on Good Friday

During the period of Lent many Catholic Newfoundlanders will fast or abstain from meat - Ash Wednesday and Good Friday being the key days for fasting or abstinence, though some will practice for the duration of Lent, and others even practice this tradition every Friday. For many Catholics the alternative to meat is fish (ideally cod), with the popular dishes of the island being fish and brewis, pan-fried fish, or fish and chips.

It always comes as a shock to folks when I share that while abstaining from meat during Lent, seal is a popular alternative in Newfoundland - namely in the form of seal flipper pie. Seal may very well be a darker and gamier meat, but it is traditionally regarded as “fish” for consumption on Fridays or fasting days. This works out well considering the seal hunt typically begins during the period of Lent and lead to greater usage of the meat. Many people also considered turrs (water fowl) to be “fish” if seal was not an option. Funny enough, turrs have a very dark and gamey ocean taste not too unlike seal!

In the mid-1500s, Olaus Magnus was the Archbishop of Uppsala in Sweden (as well as an accomplished Catholic scholar and Nordic patriot). He wrote that the meat from seal was to be considered as fish and consumed on Good Friday. Though this may not have directly affected Catholics in other countries at the time, the tradition certainly spread, as Newfoundlanders have traditionally consumed the rich and delicious meat on this holiday.

Happy Easter weekend!

Fishermen’s Protective Union Row Houses (Port Union, Newfoundland)

Seal Furs and Skins: Then and Now

These fresh furs were spotted on the Bonavista Peninsula in the early spring of 2013. They were being temporarily preserved in saltwater while waiting to be further processed. The furs will likely be transformed into fur boots or mittens and sold in a local craft shop to both tourists and residents.

Seal furs and skins have had many traditional uses in Newfoundland, particularly the farther you go north where they were once vital for winter protection. People wore sealskin boots and mittens for travel by foot, or while hunting and hauling wood, often on dogsled. The making of sealskin boots, a style where the skin is seasoned after the fur is removed, and then processed into a durable, ornate footwear, are considered an endangered traditional practice on the Great Northern Peninsula (GNP). The origins of this handicraft is thought to be an adaptation by early settlers of skills learned from aboriginal groups along the Straits of Belle Isle in Labrador. From there, sewing and pleating techniques were handed down from mother to daughter for many generations. Some (but relatively few) GNP women still continue the practice but the boots are rarely worn—nowadays it is more common to see sealskin boots on display in a museum, preserved as heirlooms in a box, or hanging as decorations in a home.

Nonetheless, seal-craft traditions continue in Newfoundland, having conformed to modern tastes and needs. In St. John’s, for example, we have begun to see seal fur boots as urban winter wear. They still make use of local resources, but employ contemporary designs, styles, uses, and even outsource some of the manufacturing (Nunavut, Northern Quebec, and Greenland assist with production).

Contributed by L. Wilson

Fishing Language in Newfoundland

Though winter is still in full force around most of the island, fishing season is coming up and it felt like a good time to come back to some Newfoundland English, with a special focus on fishing. While I grew up hearing these expressions on a regular basis, it was only after confusing a fair share of mainlanders that I looked into their early usage on the island.

Barachois (pronounced locally as bar-a-sway, rather than the French bara-shwah) refers to a sand bar, or, a protective little pond for boats that connects to the ocean. With first documented usage in the mid-1700s, there are obvious links to early French settlers, namely in the areas of St. Pierre, Fortune Bay, and the St. George’s Bay area.

Flake (or fish flake) is a stage built of wood, typically held up by wooden poles, meant for drying fish. Documented usage in the early 1500s.

Gansey is a knit sweater with a popularity amongst fishermen and sailors.

Lop (or loppy) is a popular word used to describe rough, choppy water due typically to high winds. As in, “there’s some lop on the water today!” or “It’ll be loppier once the winds pick up.” Documents suggest usage around the 1890s or early 1900s. Apparently a similar expression, when talking about an icy surface, is knobbly.

Mug up (also known as boil up) is used to describe a snack consisting of tea and bread, though sometimes meant as something more substantial like beans or freshly caught fish. Generally cooked on an open fire, though any casual cup of tea can be referred to as a mug up, as well. See photo #1: a boil up on the shore (or, shore lunch) during a fishing trip in Whitbourne.

Throat (to throat, throating) is the act of slitting a fish up the belly to its gills. A throater was responsible solely for throating the fish, typically on shore and alongside a header and gutter. Calling this action throating has been documented as early as the 1300s.

Contributed by Justin Oakey (with photos by Amanda Row)