Fortune is located on the extreme northwestern tip of the Burin Peninsula, on the south coast of Nfld. It is situated near the mouth of Fortune Bay, in a shallow valley, on a small coastal plain. The town is built along the shore of Fortune Barasway, a narrow inlet from the sea which forms a sheltered harbour, and meets the mouth of Fortune Brook. Fortune enjoys a moderate climate of cool winters and warm summers as a result of prevailing onshore winds.
The name "Fortune" is believed to have come from the Portuguese word "fortuna", which apparently means "a place of good fortune." The name also appears on a 1505 map by Pedro Reinal as 'Y. Da Fortuna.'
An exact date of settlement is difficult to pinpoint as most early records are sketchy, but French Captain Parat reported 73 men living here in 1687. However, Fortune has actually been in existence as far back as 1527, when it was recorded on both Spanish and Italian maps. Records show that Basque fishermen were coming to Fortune at least as early as 1650.
A 1693 French census lists inhabitants of Fortune as Millou, LeManquet and Chartier. The latter two names were recorded again in 1694, suggesting at the very least some permanent seasonal habitation. In 1765 Captain James Cook reported the existence of a small fishing village near the bottom of the barasway, which, in essence, constitutes a settlement.
Sources indicate that George and Ann Lake moved to Fortune from Paradise Sound, Placentia Bay, sometime around 1763. They brought with them at least two sons, George and John. It is to John's large family that many present-day residents can trace their ancestry.
There is also strong evidence to suggest that a number of other people settled at Fortune in 1863 when the Treaty of Paris forced them to leave St. Pierre. Morgan Snook Sr., his son Morgan Jr., and a family named Anderson are reported to have moved to Fortune. This is supported in part by the fact that Captain Cook hired "Morgan Snook of Fortune" as his pilot when charting the south coast in 1765.
John E. Lake (1845-1920), great-great-grandson of the first George Lake, became instrumental to the early development of the town's business community. In 1880 he operated a can manufacturing factory which supplied cans for the fishery, especially the lobster fishery. Economic reasons forced its closure two years later.
Brothers John E. and George Lake started a large general mercantile business in 1868. In 1908 this woodframe building was destroyed by fire which also claimed two nearby homes. John E. Lake's furniture factory, 1907, was reported to be the first of its kind in Newfoundland. This factory made 1000 chairs for the first motion picture theatre in the province, the old Nickel Theatre in St. John's. It also supplied many items throughout the island before closing its doors in 1917, for economic reasons. Some of the furniture still exists today, in many parts of the island.
Several other general merchandising firms had early starts in Fortune as well. C.B. Spencer & Sons got its start in 1879 as vessel owners, outfitters, and general merchants. The firm operated until descendants retired and sold out in the late 1960's or early 1970's.
George T. Dixon Ltd. started in 1897 as a shoe repair business and expanded into the bank fishery. The firm was incorporated in 1942 and became one of the largest wholesale concerns on the coast, as well as a thriving retail outlet. The large, dark green, two-story building was destroyed by fire in 1953, after which the firm went into a gradual decline.
Another old firm, Lake & Lake Ltd., is still in operation. Established in 1913 and incorporated in 1938, this general store continued to grow, though its days of involvement with the bank fishery are long since gone. Today it contains a modern "Collins' Clover Farm" supermarket and a "Pro Hardware" outlet in its two-story building.
Many smaller businesses operated in Fortune over the years, but most of them were short lived. Records show such occupations as blacksmith, tinsmith, draper, shoe maker, and sawmill foreman. Each of these operations contributed to the growth of the town.
Fishing, however, has always been the mainstay of the town's economy. Its close proximity to the best fishing grounds was why the Portuguese and others first came here and it was the reason people settled here. The normally ice-free harbour provides easy access to the fishing grounds. Dredging several times over the years has improved the harbour conditions and enhanced its capabilities. The first such work was done in 1906. The most recent efforts were in the summer of 1990 and included the removal of PCB-contaminated materials from the harbour bottom.
A concrete wharf surrounds the discharging area for the fresh fish-processing plant. There is a Fisherman's Wharf for the fishermen, and breakwaters have been built for protection from storms. Sadly, the fishery is no longer the profitable occupation it once was and one wonders what the future holds for this time-honoured industry. The Fisherman's Wharf area is a very unique attraction, nevertheless, for its quaint fishing stages. Most of them are built in the same manner as they were more than 100 years ago, using 'lungers.'
In the 1880's Fortune became involved in the Bank Fishery and remained involved until the decline of that industry. Banking schooners were owned and operated by such firms as C.B. Spencer & Sons, George T. Dixon Ltd. And Lake & Lake Ltd. in the early part of the twentieth century.
The firm of George T. Dixon Ltd. built an artificial fish dryer in 1947, replacing the old flakes previously in use. It was the first operation of its kind in the country and remained in use until Fortune Bay Products built a fresh fish-processing plant in 1953. Both of these ventures were a great boost to the economic stability of the town. The fish plant suffered severe fire damage in 1954 but re-opened a few months later. It has changed ownership several times since its inception, undergone shutdowns, but it is still in operation today - when there is raw material to be processed. Materials are supplied by deep-sea trawlers and inshore fishermen.
Records show that shipbuilding was carried out at Fortune as early as the 1870's and again in the 1960's and 1970's. In 1889 a 66-ton ship was built here, while in 1964 the 250-ton Frederick L. Blair was built and launched at R & L Grandy Shipyard Ltd. At that time it was the largest ship ever built on the south coast. Grandy's Shipyard closed when the demand for boats ceased. A new Marine Service Centre was built on the old Grandy's site at the bottom of the barasway, which opened in 1990.
In 1946, with a population of 900, Fortune was incorporated. The first town council was elected on 20 March 1946 from 23 possible candidates, with John R. Dixon becoming the town's first mayor. An old Customs Building, situated at Lorries (now Point May) was purchased for $100.0 and transported to become the first Town Hall. The current Municipal Building was constructed in 1967 by a local firm, Lake's Building Supplies Ltd. A Municipal Garage was built in 1980 to store the town's vehicles and other equipment. It has been enlarged since then.
Each elected council over the years has worked hard to improve living conditions in the town, as well as the economic structure. A one-industry town (the fishery) is not easy to develop. The council provides weekly garbage collection, snow clearing in winter, road maintenance, water and sewer services, as well as other things. Old water and sewer lines are gradually replaced and streets are slowly upgraded as well.
Early lifestyle in Fortune, as elsewhere, was simple, with open fireplaces for cooking and heating, and kerosene lamps or candles for lighting. Most families kept a cow or goat for milk, a few hens for eggs, and a small vegetable garden. Fishing and hunting supplied the bulk of the family's food. Long hard work days were the rule. By the early 1900's, wood-burning stoves had replaced the fireplaces, which have since changed to electric ranges and microwave ovens. The first electric lights were put into use on 04 January 1930. Telephone services were also available by then, providing a vital link with the outside world. Street lighting did not come until 21 December 1946 - just in time for Christmas!
Water for the town was supplied by two public wells and a natural spring on the western side of Bunker's Hill, known as "the chute." The installation of sewer lines began in 1947, with both water and sewer lines being laid through most of the town four years later. By 1962, 99 percent of the people had both water and sewer services.
From 1954 to 1970 a 57,000-gallon water reservoir was in use. By then it proved to be inadequate for the town's water consumption and was in need of major repairs, so it was torn down. A dam was built in the early 1970's across Horse Brook, a tributary of Fortune Brook. Later, a supplementary dam was constructed on a tributary of Grand Bank Brook. Drinking water is of excellent quality.
Joseph G. Haddock , M.D., was likely Fortune's first, and only, resident physician. He had an office in the home of Henry J. Haddon in 1864 and was present during the diphtheria outbreak in 1876, at which time he lost five of his own children. Legends, supported by church records, indicate that Dr. Haddock drowned when his boat struck the rocks while entering Brunette Harbour in December of 1882.
Residents of Fortune have any better medical care today than they did in the 1800's. Beginning in 1930, a doctor from the Grand Bank Cottage Hospital held clinic at Fortune twice weekly. By the 1950's a full-time Public Health Nurse was employed, and a member of the Victorian Order of Nurses was engaged in the late 1960's. With these services phased out a number of years ago, Fortune residents had to travel to Grand Bank for medical attention. The old Cottage Hospital, which at one time provided maternity services, and performed such surgeries as appendectomies and tonsillectomies, has since been replaced with the Dr. S. Beckley Health Centre. A new Peninsula Health Care Centre was built at Burin to serve the entire Burin Peninsula that now provides emergent care along with obstetrics, dialysis, surgeries, etc..
Fire-fighting services began with the formation of the first "Bucket Brigade" by Mr. Russell Lake in 1947. Today the Fortune Volunteer Fire Department is one of the most efficient in the province. These dedicated individuals are constantly seeking to improve their skills and their fire-fighting equipment.
Mr. Woundy started Fortune's first school around 1817, using an empty house as a schoolhouse. The first school was built around 1825. Student enrollment was inconsistent. Older boys often left school in the spring to go fishing with their fathers, while the older girls were sometimes engaged in spreading fish on the flakes.
In 1867 education in Fortune took a turn for the better with the arrival of James Norris Haddon. During his 46-year term, the legendary Mr. Haddon greatly enhanced the quality and importance of education in Fortune. Students were taught the basics in reading, writing and arithmetic, with geography and grammar. He taught his pupils with the aid of music through an old cabinet organ. "Uncle Jimmy", as he was fondly known, also played the organ in church and Fortune Methodist congregation was known across the island for its singing.
Between the years of 1892 and 1963 the Salvation Army operated its own school, brought about by the result of religious prejudice. Yes, it existed even in such a small community. In 1963, however, amalgamation brought all students together in an effort to provide better education and improved facilities for all.
Over the years, several other schools were built in the town, including a two-story building in 1893 which later became the "Murley Hall" and was used by the United Church for social events and also for Sunday School. A fourth school, built in 1938, was renamed "Haddon Academy" in 1963, in recognition of "Uncle Jimmy's" contribution to the town. Fortune Collegiate, built in 1969, was closed in 1995 due to declining enrollment and students are bussed to John Burke High in Grand Bank. Lake Academy, built in 1977, is still thriving and now holds elementary students from Fortune, Grand Bank and Grand Beach.
A Public Library has served the town since 1944, making it one of the oldest Public Libraries in the Province. The first humble beginnings consisted of a few hundred books distributed from the old Masonic Lodge. The current library is located on the second floor of the Municipal Building, with thousands of books and several computers with Internet access.
Fortune, in the early days, was predominantly a Methodist community. From 1801-11 services were held in the home of John Lake. The first church was built in 1824. The fourth Methodist church, built in 1911, became the town's first United Church in 1925. It served the congregation until the present church was constructed in 1967. The first Methodist clergy to serve the town was Rev. Richard Knight, while stationed at Grand Bank. He performed the first marriage in Fortune, between Mary A. Buffett and William Bennett, on 18 February 1817. In 1877, Rev. Jabez Hill became the first Methodist clergy to be stationed at Fortune.
The Salvation Army first came to Fortune in 1888, with Captain James Bowring becoming the first Corps Officer the following year. The first barracks was built in 1889 and barely managed to hold the number of people attending the services. In 1967, the present Salvation Army Citadel was constructed.
Anglicans were the last denomination to construct a church in Fortune, in 1962, which is still in use. Major renovations and additions have been carried out to accommodate the growing congregation and its NL-made stained glass window is a beautiful sight. Roman Catholic adherents, though increasing in numbers, have not yet built a church but their services are held in the Anglican Church.
Social life in Fortune was not neglected either. A local chapter of The Masonic Society was formed in 1871. The Masonic Lodge, built in 1883, is still standing though no longer in use. By 1919 a Temperance Society and a Loyal Orange Lodge had also erected buildings in the town. The former Orange Lodge has since been torn down and the second one, built at the top of Springhill Road, has since been renovated for residential use. With membership falling in numbers, these organizations don't appear to be thriving as they once did.
In recent years, the Fortune Lions Club has been formed and their Lions Den, on the outskirts of town, is fully utilized. Part of this building is also used by the Senior Citizens Club. The local branch of the St. John Ambulance has operated in Fortune since November 1979 and has a current membership of 14 adults and 13 cadets. This cadet training was started in the spring of 1995 and is proving very successful. They provide valuable First Aid emergency services at all major functions in the town.
Although the church was the center of most social activities in the early days, with Sunday School picnics and garden parties, that trend has changed. There are church-related groups, such as: Canadian Girls In Training (C.G.I.T.), Explorers, Girl Guides, Brownies and Sparks for girls; Boy Scouts and Cubs for boys. In 1983 Harold Thornhill, C.D., started a branch of the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets, No. 290 Sir Humphrey Gilbert, which is still going strong.
With the opening of the Arena in 1979, hockey became more prominent with an annual tournament being held during each Easter Week. A figure-skating club was also formed. Soccer, softball and other sports are also popular.
Communication with the outside world was limited at first, depending on ships for mail, supplies and also travel. A road existed between Fortune and Grand Bank in 1840. All roads were initially of gravel construction, until the highway was paved in 1958. The Post Office, Customs and Canadian National Telegraph were housed in the same building in 1952. The C.N.T. was phased out gradually. The present Canada Post office building was build in 1977. A new Customs and Immigration facility was constructed in 1990 to accommodate the growing tourist trade to the French Islands.
Henry James Haddon first came to Fortune as a teacher, but resigned in 1863 to become the town's first Justice of the Peace. He was also a Land Surveyor. Married to Jane Forsey of Fortune, their large home was built directly over the brook and was the site of many important meetings in the town such as the first meeting of the Fishermen's Protective Union and the Masonic. Henry and Jane Haddon were also the parents of the first recorded multiple birth in the province, triplet girls born on 11 July 1878. Sadly, little Ida, Lucy and Laura died the next year, victims of "la grippe."
The Haddons' grandson, Henry Bert (H. B.) Mayo, was Fortune's only Rhodes Scholar (1935) and sent books from England to form the town's first library. While Mayo has written a number of educational texts, Fortune's only author of fiction was Erle Spencer (1897-1937).
Natural disasters are not common in Fortune but there have been several incidents over the years. In the summer of 1896 the town was surrounded by fire that raged out of control for days and burnt out the entire countryside. With no way to fight the inferno, it is said that people went to church and prayed for rain. Fortune Harbour, which is usually ice free, was blocked solid from December 1922 to February 1923, effectively isolating the town. No ships could get in or out with mail or supplies. Stories are handed down that people actually played soccer on the ice. One of the most recent incidents was the severe flooding experienced in the spring of 1986. This was a direct result of record snowfalls during the winter and heavy rains in the spring. The existing culverts and drains could not handle the overflow but have since been upgraded to prevent future problems of this nature.
Fortune Head, meanwhile, which is located about 1.6 km west of the town, has become world famous for its fossils. From 1954 to 1990 the area was occupied by lighthouse keepers and their families. In 1994 the site was officially designated as Fortune Head Ecological Reserve, where a lonely, automated foghorn and light stand guard.
Fossils were first discovered in the Burin Peninsula region in 1977. It took many years of study and field trips by scientists but, eventually, the scientific world chose Fortune Head as the "Global Stratotype." As such, it is an international geological reference point for the boundary between the Precambrian and Cambrian time periods. These "bench mark" sites are what scientists use to determine the earth's age. Reports claim the area contains more trace fossils than anywhere else in the world. Trace fossils are the hardened remains of animal tracks, such as worm burrows, and indicate the presence of such prehistoric life forms. It is the first such boundary to be located in North America.
In the autumn of 2018, actor and comedian Jonny Harris visited Fortune with a television crew to interview the residents for his CBC show "Still Standing", which documents small towns across Canada that fell on hard times but kept moving forward. He capped off his visit in the Lions Club to perform his traditional stand-up comedy routine about what he saw and who he met. The episode aired in October of 2019.
We are deeply indebted to two special ladies for their help in compiling this account of the history of Fortune: Ruby Mayo-Knill for the stories she was willing to share, especially with regard to the Haddon family; and Margaret Mullins for her wealth of knowledge about the family histories of the town. To both these ladies, I extend my deepest appreciation and heartfelt thanks.
Special thanks are also extended to the following: Stanley Burt, Basil Collier, Sandra Durnford, Maisie Forsey, Margaret Hickman, Carol Hillier, Carrie Lake, Dorothy Lake, Hedley Lake, Mary McLean, Charlotte Piercey, Mack Piercey, Margaret Smith, Norma Stacey, Jacob P. Thornhill and Maxwell G. Thornhill, Sr. There are many others whom I talked to briefly, too many to list or even remember but I am grateful to them all.
Revisions and edits by Jeffrey Elford