From Foghorn To Fossils

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

By Fay Herridge
Special to the Telegram

Located approximately
1.6 kilometres
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.

     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.
     The rock formations at Fortune Head and surrounding area have generated interest for years. Back in 1949, the strata (layers of sedimentary rock) was thought to be a little peculiar. Douglas Brothers, an artesian-well drilling firm, attempted to sink wells in several locations at Fortune with no success. Mr. Douglas was of the opinion that the strata on the Burin Peninsula did not run in layers, as is the common rule, but was broken up as if an earthquake or similar eruption had smashed the rock formation.
     His findings were interesting. At Fortune, he found the soil to be exceedingly sandy and mucky.
     Geological time is determined partly by the successive layers of sand which accumulate over time, and the contents of these layers. Douglas’s earthquake theory is not so far-fetched.
     Scientists believe that 600 million years ago, in the Precambrian time, the land masses of earth looked very different from today. Then came the Cambrian explosion, which geologists now believe to be almost exactly 543 million years ago.
     Explosive forces of unknown origin caused powerful earthquakes. Existing continents were ripped apart, then slammed back together. New continents, oceans, and mountains were formed. The chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere underwent drastic changes as ice ages came and went. Land masses continued to shift until finally the world looked much as it does today.
     What makes the Cambrian explosion so important is more than just worldwide upheaval and rearrangement of global features. While the surface got a facelift, other changes were taking place. It literally gave birth to more new and varied species than any other single geological period. Soft-bodied organisms and life forms began to develop hard, protective shells, jaws and claws. It is also when they evolved from asexual to sexual reproduction.
     From a scientific viewpoint, the definition of the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary provides opportunities for research and study which will extend decades into the future. From a more practical outlook, choosing Fortune Head as the global stratotype (an international geological reference point) has the potential to provide both academic and economic development for the area.
     A geological survey done for the provincial Department of Mines and Energy in 1977 recorded “hyolithid fragments and worm burrows” in the Chapel Island Formation. The base of this formation is at the southern end of the Burin Peninsula, which includes Fortune Head.
     In 1978, geologists from around the world visited the discovery site of the first fossil tracings at Dantzic Cove, on the Fortune-to-Point May highway.
     In 1979, scientists returned to the Burin Peninsula to study the area more thoroughly. The Fortune area was then considered to be of special interest.
     In 1981, the upper part of the Chapel Island Formation was established as containing the oldest Cambrian sediments in southeastern Newfoundland.
     Further field trips determined that the Fortune Head site dated from the Late Precambrian to the Early Cambrian period. Evidence of this is found in a section of exposed coastal cliffs which was proposed as the global stratotype for the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary. This boundary marks a fundamental change in earth history — the first appearance of skeletal bioturbating organisms. It was enough to get the scientists excited.
     Sources list the dominant life forms of the Cambrian period as brachiopods, corals, worms and algae. There is less evidence of animal life in the Precambrian period, but filled worm burrows indicate the existence of worms. At Fortune Head, fossils are in good supply and include trace fossils (the hardened remains of animal tracks), small shelly fossils, vendotaenid algae, soft-bodied megafossils, and microfossils.
     But the most exciting thing about Fortune Head is not the fossils themselves, it is what the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary represents. It is what scientists generally refer to as evolution’s “Big Bang.”
     In 1992, the International Union of Geological Scientists (IUGS) declared a portion of the rock section exposed at Fortune Head as a global stratotype.
     There were several reasons for this decision: the site reportedly contains more trace fossils than anywhere else in the world; the area is easily accessible to geologists and scientists from all parts of the world; and the type of rock found in the cliffs (sandstones and siltstones) does not change much with time. The Fortune Head Ecological Reserve Order was filed on December 21, 1992, under the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act.
     The reserve was officially opened on September 14, 1994, and a bronze plaque unveiled commemorating the event. This is the first unique boundary point marking the base of any system, approved by the IUGS, in North America.

© F. Herridge
Published in The Telegram, September 6 1998

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