1903 – On the Island of Miquelon, Hon. William Dudley Foulk

The Indianapolis journal.
October 25, 1903.

Hon. William Dudley Foulk Pleasantly Describes His Wanderings in an Out-of-the-Way Part of the Country and Among Interesting People.

On the Island of Miquelon

IT IS A POOR little steamer, dirty and uncomfortable enough which sails twice every month from Novia Scotia, and furnishes the only regular communication between the outside world and the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. the last remaining possession of France in the waters of North America, But the Pro Patria (for such is its patriotic name) Is stanch beyond Itself and many are the stories of how, in years past, she has crushed into the wharves of Cape Breton Island, or scraped the rocks under the waters of St Pierre, with great damage to the wharves, and possibly, if. the truth were known, to the rocks as well, but without the slightest Injury to herself. She was built to plow through the ice which is prevalent here abouts during much of the year, and an ice floe or a rock or wharf are all one to her; she will do her duty equally well in any emergency.

It is no easy task she has before her every two weeks to enter the narrow harbor of Saint Pierre, not only, beset with rocks, but often so crowded with fishing schooners that the water in many places becomes in visible. It is especially hard to enter this port when the fog has settled down so thick that you cannot see one end of the vessel from the other, and there are interesting accounts given of the discussions between the captain and the man at the wheel as to the best way of getting in. It Is not the mere monosyllabic command of the English captain and the silent obedience of his subordinate, « but rather the proceedings of an’ informal debating society. “Baberd » (port) cries the captain. « Mais II y a des rochers la. » « Cut there are rocks there, » answers the man at the wheel. Well, If you know so much better you ought to be captain, » is the reply, and so the argument goes on until the right reason at last prevails and the vessel Is safely guided to the quay. We were warned against committing our lives to French seamanship, and indeed the loss of some five and twenty schooners of the fishing fleet during the present summer, mostly In good weather, would seem to Justify the base doubts which arise in the Anglo-Saxon mind; but it must be remembered that in all these cases tut one of the crews escaped cafe and sound with their belongings; that the season was bad and that the vessels were fully insured. As the chief Justice of Ban Pierre expressed it, « Since they couldn’t find the cod they had to find the bottom. » Undismayed, therefore, by sinister predictions of disaster, we boldly ventured forth on the Pro Patna, and have suffered nothing more serious than the evil smells, which so Infected the ship that even the stiff winds of the Gulf of St. Lawrence could not drive them away. For it must be said that the love of that virtue which comes next to godliness is not predominant In the makeup of the Gallic character, and that a ship devoted mainly to the carrying of coals and codfish is not the most at tractive abode for human beings.

In the long » dark winters of the north the two islands of Miquelon and St. Pierre must be melancholy places for habitation. Miquelon, the larger of the two. Is some twenty-seven miles in length and is com posed of what seems to be two precipitous rocky islands, Grande Miquelon on the north and Longlade on the south, connected by a narrow sand dune several miles long and so low that the sea lashes across It during the heavy storms. There used to be a channel between these two sections of the island, which is shown In the old charts, and the sand beach is invisible until you com quite near. Misled, either by the chart or by appearances, a great number of ships have tried to pass between Grande Miquelon and Longlade and have gone to pieces in the sand, so that the beach is strewn with carcasses of the several hundred vessels which at one time or another have been wrecked In this unhappy spot. There are not more than five hundred in habitants on the Island and these are mostly congregated in the little hamlet of Miquelon, near the north end.

The Island of St. Pierre, lying southeast of Miquelon. although It is much smaller, being only six miles long and perhaps half as broad. Is the more important of the two, as it contains the harbor and the town, a place of some six thousand inhabitants, exclusive of the dogs, which seem to me not only a very numerous but a very important part of the population. I saw an ox cart yesterday filled with barrels of flour surrounded and followed by a cortege of ten dogs who seemed much more interested In the successful transportation of the flour than was the man who drove the oxen. These dogs are of every variety, mostly mongrel. with the Newfoundland stock predominating, for Newfoundland itself is in full sight on a clear day. These dogs are harnessed to little carts, and if you walk along the highway to Savoyard, a fishing village about a league distant, you will meet more dog teams than carriages, the dogs running downhill at full Jump and sometimes tumbling all together with the cart and the driver at the bottom.

We reached San Pierre on a bright afternoon when even the naked rocks and the town at their feet seemed beautiful. The place is wholly devoted to the cod fishing Industry and its accessories. The town is so remote from the rest of mankind that the advent of the steamer is a matter of public interest and there is always a large throng on the wharf when it arrives. The small boys not over ten years old offer to take our trunks to the boarding house where we are to stay. They lift it, with’ the help of the custom house officer, Into a wheelbarrow and then take turns with the wheelbarrow, a square at a time, until they reach their destination, puffing hard but pleased . with their prowess and the quarter which rewards their efforts.

There is a tug which goes twice a week to Miquelon and I boarded It on the following morning in order to have a look at the large island. One old gentleman on board who went, to spend the day trout fishing at Longlade, was very communicative, and showed me the points of interest, lie was engaged in the cheerful business of buying up the wreckage of vessels lest In this neighborhood, a business which is at times extremely active, and, I have no doubt, profitable. The Monterey, a large English steamer, went ashore a month or two since on the shore of Longlade; we saw the wreck as we carte in on the Pro Patria. There were some twelve hundred cattle on board and about two hundred of them are now running wild on the desolate island and cannot be caught until the snow shall come and drive them in search of food into the settlements. There are some forests In Longlade and the shores are very rugged, precipitous and picturesque, with many colored rocks and caverns, and at one place a large natural bridge close to the end of a sharp promontory. It looks like an immense tunnel and is so large that a small sail boat can go entirely through it.

A party of hunters and fishermen stopped at Longlade and lowered their dogs into the dory that came out for them from the shore by holding on to the tails of the poor creatures. The animals submitted to the Cjexatloa with stole firmness without a ILL Hon. William Dudley FoulK Pleasantly- De scribes tils Wanderings in an Oit-of-t he-Way Part of the Country and Among Interesting People whimper, conscious, no doubt, of the good times .ahead, while another more unhappy animal who had to be left behind was wild with envy and disappointment and nearly leaped Into the sea in his efforts to Join his more fortunate companions. The tails of domestic animals seem to te more useful here than elsewhere. J saw a boy the other daj leading a file of steers who were attached together, the horns of one to the tall of the steer Just In front of him. The procession moved along very well until some of the rear animals became fractious, whereupon the poor beasts in front had a hard time of it, being urged forward by their driver and pulled back with even greater energy by the steers behind. The Governor of tho colony is now spend ing his time at Longlade, where he has a shabby-looking country house. There is hunting and fishing here and very little to do at St. Pierre, so he amuses himself as best he can on the moor and in the forests. I asked him how many years the governors usually remained, and my informant told me I ought to ask how many months, that they always get away as soon as they could, and this, too, in spite of the fact that the salary is thirty thousand francs. At the end of four hours we arrive at Miquelon, the fishing village near the north end of the Island. It is situated In a low, barren isthmus scarcely higher than the beach and with the ocean on both sides. I am directed to the house of Mr. Gaspard, a low one-storied fisherman’s cottage, where the good man in his shirt sleeves and with a face radiant with smiles, walks back and forth In the little room and tells me of the dreadful season they have had, losing everything and now close to the verge of starvation, while his wife pre pares the dinner, au excellent meal of four courses besides the coffee and liquors of two kinds a better meal than I could gel in my hotel in Chicago and for which the good woman knows how to charge quite as high a price. There is a small child in the house who is Just learning to talk, a bright, pretty little creature who, when you ask her name, answers, « Antionette Gaspard, and I weigh twenty-five pounds;’ or if you ask her age, « Two years, and I weigh twenty-five pounds; » or where she lives, « At Miquelon, and I weigh twenty five pounds. » She Is very little like Cato and Miquelon does not at all resemble Home, but I cannot help thinking of the great censor who closed all his speeches, no matter what the subject, with the observation, « It is my opinion, senators, that Carthage should be destroyed. » I am also presented to a rubicund septuagenarian who seems to be the patriarch of this little’ community. He, too, has had his losses, two thousand francs this year, he says, and yet Dr. Panggloss himself could not be more secure in the belief that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. « I was born gay and I mean to die gay. » « II faut rire avant de mourir » What a wonderfully good doctor they had at Miquelon! The doctor had advised him to take a glas3 of absinthe before each meal, a prescription which suited his taste exactly- And what a wonderful priest! Na such priest could be found anywhere else in the world. And then for himself and his own family he had ten children, five sons and five daughters just the right number and divided just as they ought to be! Then he showed me his house, a long, low, rambling structure far better, he said, than that two-storied house nearby, for when the winter and the) big storms came the man in the two-story house had to flee from it and take shelter with him; that big house was likely to fall any time and kill everybody. Then he invited me inside and a large installment of his sons and daughters looked at me as if I were a menagerie. He gave some directions to one of the girls and she proceeded to roll up the oilcloth on the parlor floor, pull up a trapdoor and descend Into the darkness, returning with a bottle of quinquinia, of which I had to take a glass a curious mixture which the old man insisted was the best bitters that had ever been com pounded by human ingenuity! Then he took a walk with me and showed me the lobster pots, such lobsters as never were, and the clams and the mussels until I became almost as enthusiastic as he; not so much, perhaps, over the house and the sons and the daughters and the quinquinia and the clams and the lobsters as over the old man himself. Such a heart at such an age and amid such surroundings is worth more than the gold of Midas or the luck of Aladdin.

On my way back to St. Pierre the tug was crowded with fishermen who were returning at the close of the season to that port from which many of them expect to go back with the fishing schooners to France. They have all had hard luck. One of them said to me: « I left St. Malo last spring without a sou, and now I am just as rich on my return. » But these poor fellows, if they had no money, had each a bottle of wine Inside his pocket, and apparently one or two more inside of himself, and they were all gay and boisterous. One of them was particularly friendly, even affectionate toward myself. Putting his arms around my shoulders he asked me in a low whisper and a confidential tone if I had come to Miquelon ( to fish for whales. I told him that my ambitions were not so lofty as that. « Then why did you come? » he persisted. « Only for a promenade, » I answered. It must be explained that promenade is not to be taken quite in its English significance. I did not mean that I was taking a walk across the sea over to these islands, but a Frenchman takes a promenade whenever he wanders about on sea or land with nothing particular to do. But this answer did not satisfy my questioner; it seemed unnatural- and he frankly told me that it could not be, that no one ever came to Miquelon just for the fun of the thing.

Then he asked:
« Where did you come from? »
« From the United States. »
« Ah! that is Impossible. »
« Why is it impossible? »
« Because people, who come from the United States do not talk like you. »

He did not say whether they talked better or worse, but on the whole I concluded to accept his imputation on my veracity as a compliment to my French, which I could only account . for on the ground that the man was certainly pretty drunk. His inebriate logic evidently proceeded something like this: « Here is a stranger who conceals not only the object of his visit but even his nationality. This is significant, » and at this point he began to put his cogitations into words.

« Monsieur, you are a millionaire; you have come to these islands for a purpose. » I protested, but in vain. He continued: « Monsieur, what you need Is a companion. I will be your companion. Give me a thousand francs. »

When I protested that while his companionship would be delightful, it was quite un necessary, and that I had not a thousand francs to spare, he continued:

« What is a thousand francs to a millionaire? Nothing! Nothing! But I will show you where to fish and where to hunt and how to Invest your money. I . will be worth to you a great deal more than a thousand francs. I will be your faithful servitor forever, » and he waxed eloquent over the services he was to render. Others over heard the conversation, and soon I perceived that it began to be whispered round that a millionaire was on board. This was the first and only occasion In my life when I was ever taken for so fortunate a character and I was surprised to see the Immense amount of awe and admiration I inspired. I was equally rejoiced to reach my boarding house at St. Pierre with my pocket book and its contents quite intact.

St. Pierre. Oct. 10.

Grand Colombier

Le GrandColombier.com est un site recensant tout document historique ayant un lien avec les îles Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon : traités, cartographie, toponymie, archives, sources primaires, études, recherches, éphémérides. Le site est dirigé par Marc A. Cormier.

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