Diggin' Up Your Roots ... Greenspond

Nicholas Mercer nmercer@cbncompass.ca
Published on September 27, 2011

It has been called the capital of the north. At one point in the town’s history, Greenspond, was the centre of activity on this side of Bonavista Bay. The small island can only be reached by crossing a causeway from Shamblers Cove. Houses, built seemingly on top of each other, face the cold winds coming off of the Atlantic Ocean. The people make their living from the sea and it has been the same since the towns settlement. For an area immersed in history, Greenspond boasts some of the more interesting stories you will find. From a rich history of sealing captains, to a courthouse that pre-dates the arrival the 20th century, Greenspond is a community like few others.

An island town

Greenspond’s history begins in a few years earlier than its recorded settlement date.

“As far as I know, in 1695 there were three dwellings here,” said Frank Blackwood of the Cape Freels Heritage Trust.

Those three dwellings were the only source of shelter on Greenspond for the next two years.

It was not until 1696 that there was a greater human presence on the small island in Bonavista Bay.

“There was 13 folk stayed over the winter,” said Mr. Blackwood. “Usually 1697 is the date they have been going with as the date that it was settled.”

The original settlers of Greenspond, like many other towns settled at the same time, were of English descent.

People made the journey from the new world to the old world from the west country in England – Dorset, Devon, Somerset, and Hamphsire.

Names like Bishop, Blandford, Harding, Hutchins, and Chaytor all settled in Greenspond.

The names can still be found in families on the island today.

When these settlers landed in Greenspond, they were met by a network of small islands that would make up the town.

Islands with names like Batterton, Ship, Newell’s, Pig, Maiden, Horse, Puffin, and Copper, with Greenspond being the largest of them all.

Up until 1951, Greenspond was only accessible by boat.

In that year, the town was incorporated and construction began on the causeway, which connects Greenspond to the Newfoundland mainland.

At the height of it’s growth, Greenspond boasted a population that reached into the 1,800s, remarkable for a rural community in Newfoundland at the time.

Today, less than 400 people call it home.

Live by the sea

The fishery has been the main source of industry in Greenspond since 1697.

It will probably remain that way until the sea no longer continues to produce plentiful bounty.

“Fishing was abundant here in the 1600s,” said Mr. Blackwood.

A lot of this had to do with location.

“It was not until 50 years ago that there was really good transportation,” he said. “The sea was your highway.”

This made Greenspond a hub for fishing activity in the area.

It is not only the inshore fishery that the people of Greenspond became known for.

Each year they would make the journey to the shores of Labrador to find codfish.

As time went on, this turned out to be successful venture, and by mid- 19th century, Greenspond had become a prime supply centre and clearing for the Labrador fishery.

In 1838, a customs collector was placed in the area by the colonial government.

Greenspond has a rich history in the seal hunt.

“There are many famous sealing captains from Greenspond,” said Mr. Blackwood.

Historian Judge D.W. Prowse said in a study he did on the area that in 1807 six ships left from Bonavista and Greenspond with 64 men.

In 1860, Greenspond saw 18 ships leave its harbour for the seal hunt, each with a crew of 20 men.

It was such a prominent industry that most of the sealing captains and crews were drawn from Greenspond itself.

Ships would leave St. John’s and Conception Bay in the fall of the year and anchor in Greenspond until the hunt began in the spring.

Captains like Darius Blandford, who made the quickest trip on record, and Peter Carter, who holds the record for the heaviest load of seals in history, all hail from Greenspond.

It was not only the shipping aspect of the sealing that Greenspond was famous for.

It held an advantageous position because it was in the path of the northern ice flow.

This allowed residents to simple walk out onto the ice flows.

Mr. Prowse recorded that in 1860, 80 men took 17,000 seals in nets.

Capital of the North

Greenspond has often been called the Capital of the North.

It has a lot to do with the islands proximity to the main sea-lanes, as well as the personnel who were stationed in Greenspond.

“The doctor was stationed here, the magistrate was here, a customs office was here,” said Mr. Blackwood. “The clergyman from the various denominations were stationed in Greenspond.

“All of the fish merchants were here.”

This made Greenspond a hub for the region.

Companies like P. H. Hutchens and Sons, Fisherman Union Trading Company, Ridley and Sons, and William Cox and Co.

“Those folks came from England around the mid-1800s arrived,” said Mr. Blackwood.

There were an abundance of tradesmen on the island because of its reputation as a major trading and supply centre.

Blacksmiths, cobblers, and carpenters flocked to Greenspond to be a part of the growing community.

How did it get its name?

Many communities that dot the Newfoundland coastline have a name that has befuddled historians for ages.

Greenspond is no different.

No one is quite sure how Greenspond came to be known as Greenspond.

There are a couple of different stories are floating around out there.

“One rumour says the first two settlers in the area were the Greens and the Ponds,” said Mr. Blackwood. “They just combined both of the names.”

The other rumour centres the origins of its name on the image of the harbour basin.

“Some say it is because the water in the harbour looks like a pond,” he said.

The green aspect of the name takes its origins from the green foliage that is abundant on the island.

On sunny days, the green is reflected in the water of the harbour basin, creating a green hue in the water.

Previous to Greenspond, the island had another name.

According to the French Colonial office records, the island was referred to as Grin d’Espagne.

Translated it means the Grin of Spain.

“The sea was your highway.” Frank Blackwood

Religion and education

Like any other rural Newfoundland community in the early 19th century the aspects of community religion and education in Greenspond are closely tied together.

Greenspond housed rectories for the Church of England, Wesleyan Methodism, and later the Salvation Army.

“There wasn’t much of a Roman Catholic presence,” said Mr. Blackwood.

In an 1826 census, it was recorded that in Greenspond there were 500 Protestants, in comparison to the only 100 Roman Catholics.

In 1901, there are only 18 Roman Catholics listed in the census.

At one point, the Anglican church in Greenspond was the largest in the diocese of Newfoundland.

St. Stephen’s Church was built in the community in 1812.

Methodism first appears on the island in 1796, when a clergyman by the name Rev. George Smith organized a small Methodist class in the community.

The Anglican school thrived in the community.

“At one point, it had the largest number of students outside of St. John’s,” said Mr. Blackwood.

The first teachers in Greenspond were Mr. and Mrs. William King of the Newfoundland School Society in 1828.

By 1831, there were 111 children in day school, 142 in Sunday school, and almost 50 adults in night school.

These numbers far outnumbered the usual expectations for numbers in a small community in Newfoundland.

The courthouse

Greenspond boats an historical landmark.

“This present courthouse was built in 1899,” said Mr. Blackwood. “There was built before this one, but I don’t have much information on it.”

There was a magistrate here

The design of the courthouse was done by the superintendent of public buildings, William Henry Churchill, and built by J.J. Mifflin.

It is one of a number of courthouses that were built on a standardized plan.

“There is a dome on the tower, and it seems like all the courthouses built at the turn of the century had this particular feature of a dome on the tower,” he said. “Most of the domes on the courthouses were removed in the 1920s.”

The courthouse still has the dome attached to its tower.

Other features of the courthouse were a jailhouse, and upstairs living quarters.