November 18, 1929
On November 18, 1929, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale out in the Atlantic Ocean on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland created a tidal wave ( (tsunami). When the ground shook at 5:02 p.m., some thought there had been an explosion in the mines or on a distant vessel. Yet nothing immediately followed the violent tremor so people resumed their previous activities.
Traveling at a speed of 140 kilometers per hour, the tidal wave reached the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland at 7:00 p.m.
Detailed accounts of the devastation were made known on November 23 when a deputation from Burin consisting of Hon. G. A. Bartlett, Rev. Fr. James Miller, and Capt. W.H. Hollett traveled to St. John’s to meet with the Executive Government.
Father Miller (the Parish Priest of St. Patrick’s Parish, Burin from 1925 -1934) spoke to a reporter from the “Evening Telegram” (the St. John’s daily newspaper) and told him of the distress and needs of the people in the stricken area.
Father Miller told the reporter that the fishermen were hit hardest, not by the loss of their own fishing gear, boats and stages, but by the fact that in many cases the whole community depended on one or two firms, now so badly shattered that it was impossible.
Several times during the conversation with The Telegram reporter Father Miller referred to heroic rescues by the local fishermen. In the darkness, with chaos everywhere, they calmly set about their work – climbed floating houses, searched amongst debris, and rescued the women and children.
“They (the fishermen) were most heroic, but they least suspect it” Father Miller told the Telegram.
This giant sea wave claimed a total of 28 lives – 27 drowned on the Burin peninsula and a young girl never recovered from her injuries and died in 1933. This represents Canada’s largest documented loss of life directly related to an earthquake.
At Port aux Bras a fisherman saw his home being swept away. He tried to save his wife and family but was blocked by another floating house. He was helpless as his imprisoned family whirled into darkness. His house was pulled out to sea faster than a boat could steam.
Mr. Ern Cheeseman of Port au Bras on the Burin peninsula in a letter to his brother Jack a few days after the tsunami wrote:
“You could hear the poor humans who were caught, screaming, women and men praying out loud. Oh God, Jack, it was terrible… Excuse this scribble but we are not over the shock yet. Every move one hears one jumps expecting the same to happen again.”
The Newfoundland government sent ships with doctors and supplies. Canada was the largest foreign donor donating $35,000 individual Newfoundlanders raised more than $200,000 to help their countrymen.
Apart from the Burin tsunami, two others have been reported, at Bonavista in 1755 as a result of the Lisbon earthquake, and St. Shott’s in June 1864. These caused damage, but no reported loss of life.
Recommended Archival Collection: At The Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to read MG 636: South Coast Disaster Relief Committee Report consists of a list of losses by settlement, reports, telegrams, correspondence, minutes of meetings; regarding the tidal wave and earthquake disaster on the Burin Peninsula, 1929. The collection also includes a report of the South Coast Disaster Committee, 1931.
Recommended Archival Collection: Search the Rooms online database for descriptions of our archival records and view thousands of digital photographs. https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections Take some time to look at the Tidal Wave photographs in the collection of the Rooms Provincial Archives. A series consists of ten postcards documenting the damage to Burin area during a tidal wave (tsunami) along the South Coast of Newfoundland, Nov. 1929. The photographs were taken by Rev. James Anthony Miller, Roman Catholic priest, Burin. Miller’s film was developed by S.H. Parsons & Sons. The photographs were reproduced as postcards by Parsons. The photographs were also published in the New York Times (8 Dec. 1929).
Recommended Reading: Hanrahan, Maura. Tsunami: The Newfoundland Tidal Wave Disaster.St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2004.