Battle Harbour, Labrador by Dennis Minty & Antje Springmann

Listen. Can you hear the voices of youngsters catching tomcods and conners down on the wharf? Or the shouts of men as a new schooner, laden with fish, enters the harbour, furling its sails? Perhaps a woman gently humming a favourite tune as she hangs the clothes out to dry in the salty breeze? Or the insistent cries of gulls and terns overhead as they scout for tender morsels in the channel? The tang of salt cod hangs in the air. Here lies the heart of the once great seasonal fishery on the Labrador that fed the appetites of Europe, the US, and the Caribbean.

Generations of men and boys from Twillingate, Carbonear, Little Bay Islands and a score more coastal towns in Newfoundland flocked to Battle Harbour and the surrounding area each summer as soon as the ice was clear enough to permit it. It was the unofficial saltfish capital of Labrador. They were either floaters, who lived all season on the schooners moving around from fishing ground to fishing ground, or they were stationers housed on land and fishing more or less in one area from small boats. In the early 1920s, my grandfather William Jabez Minty worked for Baine, Johnston and Company as manager of the fishing premises. In August 2017, I revisited the quiet hamlet, now a National Historic District, with a small group of keen photographers who had never set foot in Labrador before.

That's all of it right there. You can see almost every dwelling, store, fish handling room and service building.

To step ashore on this little island is to slip back in time. Knit together with footpaths, the place echoes of a life long gone since the tragic decline of the cod fishery. John Slade & Company of Poole, England began operations here around 1750. Fishing vessels that worked the grounds all along the south coast of Labrador would use Battle Harbour as the main port for off-loading their catches and restocking with supplies. It was also a convenient stopping-point for vessels heading further north along the coast.

By the mid 1800s there were about 350 residents, a church and a new school. Within another 40 years or so, it even had a small hospital, part of the good works of the Grenfell Mission. It was here in 1909 that the northern explorer Robert E. Peary came with the famous Newfoundland navigator Captain Bob Bartlett to use the only telegraph station in Labrador to stake his claim on reaching the North Pole. It was global news shortly thereafter.

Slades sold to Baine-Johnston in 1871, who then sold the premises to Earle's Freighting Service Limited in 1955. Earles continued to operate until 1990. During the latter few decades, the fishery declined, and with it, the number of residents, many moving to nearby Mary's Harbour on the mainland. Smallwood's resettlement program also figured prominently in thinning down the population through the 60s and 70s. Eventually, the 1992 cod moratorium sealed the fate of the town and closed the door on Battle Harbour as a fishery hub. Now managed and operated by the Battle Harbour Historic Trust, the fine buildings have been lovingly restored and provide lodgings and fine dining for up to fifty visitors. The Historic Trust along with a few hardy souls, former residents, keep life pulsing along the footpaths.

You step ashore on geological artwork - three billion year old gneiss run through with dark bands of basalt.

Main Fishing Premises

The island isn't large, which adds to the sense of intimacy that pervades here. A couple of lazy hours of wandering will take you through most of the town as well as up over the gentle hill that offers breathtaking views of the harbour and all the buildings. The soil may be poor but the place is visually rich. Every few paces offers a new inspiration for the photographer - some new detail or change of light. In the three days we spent here, every hour was fulfilling as we made our shots, absorbed the history through those who had lived it, enjoyed great conversation and belly-laughter and feasted on hearty, fine meals that celebrated the best of local ingredients. There is even a superior spa to look after the body once you have fed the soul with the beauty of the place. Even here the experience is tied to the land. It isn't unusual to find Nicole, the esthetician, wandering the hills, gathering Labrador Tea to grind into pastes with which to pamper your hands and feet while you sit by the wood fire in the 'Wash House' and watch the sunlight reflected off the water playing on the rafters of this old store.

View of the protected harbour from Caribou Island

Because of the wonderful restoration work of the Historic Trust, the town was declared as one of Canada’s National Historic Districts in 1996. In 2002, it was awarded a prestigious Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.

While roaming the hills on a previous visit, I came across this arctic fox so absorbed in its hunt that it was completely oblivious to my presence.

Arctic Fox, Battle Harbour
Arctic Fox, Battle Harbour
Arctic Fox, Battle Harbour
Detail Underfoot

Battle Harbour has always served as a stop-over for folks travelling the Labrador coast. Our group of photographers represented the current flock of transients following in that tradition, only now we gather images and memories in lieu of fish. Battle Harbour embodies the best of experiential tourism. Accessible only by boat, without roads, and only limited wifi, it is a true escape from the rush that marks modern-day living. Battle Harbour is catching its second wind as a prime tourist destination, a beacon in the still largely undiscovered southern Labrador.

Our intrepid team

If you are visiting this fair province and want a very special treat, one that is truly different from anything you have ever experienced, one that will fulfill, enlighten and provide everlasting memories, spend a couple of days - or more - at Battle Harbour, Labrador, the place where time stands still.

Visit Battle Harbour, Labrador

Pictures by Dennis Minty.

Words by Dennis Minty and Antje Springmann

Minty Nature Photography

Created By
Dennis Minty


© Dennis Minty 2017