Old Man Ryan of Long Harbour

“Old Man Ryan”, as he was known locally, appears to have been a very interesting person. Very little is known about him personally but he was described as a “remarkable character” and Dr. Conrad Fitzgerald described him as a “thick-set” man.

Ryan worked at the Long Harbour Repeater Station, built in 1856 by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company. He apparently operated the station until his death in 1916. Ryan’s place was located at what locals called Groundwire Cove, on the north side of Long Harbour. Dr. Hugh MacDermott, the Congregational clergy who was stationed at nearby Pool’s Cove, said that “He lived alone there, 12 miles from the nearest house.” Another source indicated that the line repairer and his wife also lived in Ryan’s house. This is an indication that he may have shared his home at some point.

Local hunters landed at Groundwire Cove and went up over the hill to take the trail when going in the country for the winter hunt. After going through several wooded areas, there is a spot known as New Tilt Woods. This was the location of Ryan’s Pond, which some called Sharing Pond because it was the spot where the hunters shared up the meat on their return trip. Several wigwams were located there as well.

Ryan was a hardy hunter, knew every inch of the country, and was a splendid marksman. In 1877 or 1878 Dr. Conrad Fitzgerald obtained the services of Ryan to show him some of the beauty spots of Long Harbour. They went fishing on the Main Brook, the largest river in Long Harbour; they visited the hundred-foot falls at South-West Brook; and then went to Billy’s Brook where they enjoyed a swim in Billy’s Pool.

“Old Man Ryan” was also a Game Warden (Wildlife Officer). Hunters were required to check in with Ryan on their way in the country and again on the way out. There used to be an open season that permitted one caribou per family. If someone with a large family said they wanted two, Ryan would remind the hunter, “No! You can’t have two.” However, many times he would turn his back as the hunter passed by, saying: “I didn’t see you kill two caribou.” Obviously, Ryan had compassion for a man with many mouths to feed. Sometimes Ryan would go in with the hunters. Legend has it that on one trip, a band of hunters “ringed the caribou”, which meant surrounding the animals and shooting until they had killed enough for everyone. On this trip Ryan supposedly fired and accidentally shot a man on the opposite side of the ring, instead of a caribou.

His job was not demanding and left plenty of time for other activities such as fishing and hunting. He also did some trading with the Indians. Ryan was fair and honest when dealing with the Indians and he was one of very few whom they trusted. His house was a favourite haunt for the Indians of the east country. When Ryan was away, the key of his house was always left under the door. Indians were known to have unlocked the door, entered the house and helped themselves to flour, sugar, bacon and tobacco but fox and otter skins would be left in payment. They could light a fire and stay as long as they wished. The Indians respected Ryan because of his fairness and the telegraph operator never lost anything.

Ryan’s house was commonly referred to as “the Station” by sportsmen. In January 1879, Ryan played host to Vicomte de la Panouse, the commander of a French ship which had been used for patrolling Newfoundland’s French shore. A well-dressed man of about 30 years, the Vicomte spoke perfect English and had been very interested in making an excursion to Long Harbour. After a week, the Vicomte left the area very satisfied, having shot 40 partridges and seven hares. Years after the station closed, people still spoke of “Old Man Ryan’s Place.” Hunters from Anderson’s Cove often used the place as a hunting cabin.

On 30 July 1916, Ryan was returning from a trip around the bay in his 12-ton boat, the “Caribou”. With him was Harry Clinton, the Relieving (Welfare) Officer from St. Jacques. The boat was headed for Belleoram, fighting a strong westerly wind. Isaac Burke, the lighthouse keeper on St. Jacques Island, was watching when the “Caribou” was overturned by a sudden white squall. Burke rowed to St. Jacques for help and then went out with Dr. Fitzgerald in his boat, the “Albatross”, to search for the shipwrecked men. Another boat joined the search shortly after and, unable to see in the darkness, rammed the doctor’s boat. Isaac Burke was drowned, the “Albatross” was lost, and no trace of Ryan or Clinton was ever found.

Ryan was known to be a strong swimmer and many believed that he could have swum to shore. The general feeling was that he probably tried to help Clinton, who could not swim, resulting in the loss of both men.

Will of Philip Ryan

Probated 1916

I Philip Ryan of Long Harbour in the District of Fortune Bay Telegraph Operator do make and declare the following as my last will and testament revoking all other wills by me made. I will that my just debts shall be paid by my executor hereinafter named. I will to my niece E.M. Meany the sum of five hundred dollars. I will the residue to be equally divided between my two daughters. I also will my part of land situated on Carbonear Street and known as the Ryan land to my two daughters. My daughters are not to draw their money it is to be left on interest they taking only the interest. I will that the Hon. J.D. Ryan of Saint John’s, N.F. do act as my executor and that my daughters be advised by him – Philip Ryan.

Dated at Long Harbour, Fortune Bay This 23rd day of March 1910


Philip Ryan was something of a mystery. No one seemed to know much about his personal life – where he came from, who his family was – nothing! His will, which was probated on September 11, 1916, answers a few questions, but raises different ones. His estate was sworn at $10,875.00.

Research has revealed that Marcella Ryan, age 40, died on 11 July 1903 at Long Harbour. She died as a result of burns and was apparently attended by Dr. Conrad Fitzgerald. Mrs. Ryan was born at Channel, about 1863, of the Church of England faith, and was buried at Belleoram by Rev. W. Goddard.

The death record for 70-year-old Philip Ryan shows that he was Roman Catholic and was born at Carbonear, indicating he was born around 1846. He was 17 years older than Marcella. So was Marcella the mother of his two daughters or was he married before? Where were his daughters when he was in Long Harbour? The full mystery of “Old Man Ryan” may never be fully unravelled but he was certainly a very interesting character.

© F. Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, September/October 2008

Non Fiction, Page 1
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