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Foghorn to Fossils, Page 1

Fortune Head's past could play a key role in its future

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Where once Fortune Head and its lighthouse played an important role in the lives of people living near the tip of the Burin Peninsula, now the area's ancient past is a beacon in its future.

The Burin Peninsula, on Newfoundland's southeast coast, is shaped like a boot. Part of the boot's sole comprises high, rocky escarpments indented by small, shallow coves and beaches. It is washed by the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes gently, sometimes roughly.

It is an area often shrouded by dense fog, lashed by heavy rain, or buffeted by an occasional snowstorm, depending on the season.

Fortune Head, on the tip of the boot, has a rich and varied geological history, dating back more than 500 million years. Its significance and future potential are just beginning to be examined and understood.

Located approximately 1.6 kilometers southwest of Fortune, this minor headland is attracting worldwide attention for the composition of its cliffs. It has always been important to the people in the area, but for different reasons.

The adverse weather conditions so famous in Newfoundland can be quite hazardous to sea-going vessels, so it was deemed necessary to protect these crafts and their crews from the harsh natural elements along the south coast. On June 15, 1954 a lighthouse and foghorn station was established on Fortune Head to assist mariners in the area. It was owned by, and under the direction of, the Department of Transport.

Maxwell G. Thornhill Sr. was the first lightkeeper, later joined by Benjamin (Uncle Ben) Monster. The Whistle House contained the diesel engines that powered the light and horn and a small room where the lightkeeper slept. Drums of fuel were brought by Department of Transport ships and brought ashore in dories to the bottom of the cliff, just below the station. The drums were then pulled up a long slipway by means of a winch - a slow, dangerous task.

In 1956, two large houses with many modern conveniences were built under the direction of Harry Bonnell of Lamaline. Indoor plumbing, connected to a septic tank, was installed by John Hickman and Albert Boomer of Fortune. Rainwater was collected from the roof by a special drainage system and stored in a huge tank located in the basement of each house. Water was pumped from this basement facility to a holding tank in the attic to obtain the necessary water pressure for daily use.

Wood and coal-burning stoves were used for cooking, and kerosene lamps provided light. Wood and coal-burning furnaces, later converted to oil, supplied heat. By 1971, power lines were strung, bringing electric lights, appliances, and motors. Telephones were also installed by 1971.

Finally, in 1990, the station was automated - another victim of technical progress and government cutbacks. The homes, Whistle House, light and slipway were all demolished. Today there is a prefabricated steel shed, a new light, and a helicopter pad enclosed by a locked wire fence. It is serviced periodically by the Canadian Coast Guard. The light still flashes, the horn still sounds its warning, but the cheerful glow in the windows of the lightkeeper's house is gone.

Initially, Fortune Head was only accessible by boat - unless one was prepared to walk up over the hill on the other side of the barasway. Families with school-aged children could only spend summer months there, leaving the lightkeeper there alone most of the time. This changed with the Department of Transport undertook the construction of a three-mile dirt road linking the station with the town of Fortune.

The road was first proposed in March 1996, as recorded in the minutes of the Town Council, but it appears that construction did not begin until later. The December 1967 issue of The Newfoundland Journal of Commerce reported that the road from Fortune to the fog horn was "about half completed."

Fortune Head was a delightful place to live in the summer with its panoramic view of Fortune Bay, the French Islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon and Brunette Island.

In 1969, the Fortune Town Council established a garbage disposal site just west of the lighthouse. At that time, no one was aware of the geological find that would soon be made in the vicinity. Use of the site was discontinued in 1992 when a new incinerator was put into use, a joint effort of the Fortune and Grand Bank Councils. Both towns subsequently received provincial government funding to clean up their old landfill sites. In Fortune's case, this was particularly important, as it increased the chances of establishing an ecological reserve at Fortune Head.

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(As printed in The Telegram, September 6, 1998. Copyright by Fay Herridge)

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