At 5:02 p.m. on Nov. 18, 1929, an underwater earthquake shook the Grand Banks and sent a tsunami racing towards Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula. The quake measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and was recorded as far west as Montreal and as far east as Portugal.
Residents on the Burin Peninsula noticed ground tremors, but almost no one anticipated the approaching danger. Large-scale seismic events are rare in eastern North America and virtually non-existent in Newfoundland. In 1929, the island did not even have a seismograph or tide gauge that could warn of the tsunami.
Giant waves rolled towards the peninsula at speeds of up to 140 km/hr before slowing to about 40 km/hr in shallower water. They reached land shortly after 7:30 p.m. with enough force to crush buildings, lift houses off their foundations and smash the many wharves and flakes lining the coast. Water levels rose by between three and seven metres in most places, but reached heights of between 13 and 27 metres in some of the peninsula’s long narrow bays.
It took only 30 minutes for the tsunami’s three main waves to hit the Burin Peninsula and about two hours for water levels to return to normal. After that, thousands of confused and devastated survivors began to salvage what they could from rubble lining the coast. More than 40 communities were affected.
At Point au Gaul, waves destroyed close to 100 buildings and much of the community’s fishing gear and food supplies. St. Lawrence lost all of its flakes, stages and motor boats. Government assessments later placed property damage on the Burin Peninsula at $1 million. The tsunami also washed away about 127,000 kg of salt cod – a staple of the local economy and diet.
Cut off from outside world
Making matters worse, the Burin Peninsula had no way of contacting the outside world for help because a recent storm had knocked out its main telegraph wire. The tsunami had also destroyed all land lines linking the peninsula’s coastal communities. Cut off, survivors shared all available food, shelter and medical supplies while waiting for rescue. A snowstorm the following morning only compounded the situation.
“Imagine our wonder and surprise on turning the point of the channel to be met by a large store drifting slowly along the shore seaward…” –Captain W. Kean
Despite these hardships, survivors worked tirelessly to help the wounded and less fortunate. Nurse Dorothy Cherry of Lamaline, for example, travelled by horse and then on foot to numerous communities between her home village and Burin to treat the sick and injured. The Newfoundland and Labrador government later presented Cherry with a $250 cheque in recognition of her efforts.
Finally, on Nov. 21, the SS Portia made a scheduled stop at Burin and radioed St. John’s for help. Captain W. Kean later described his shock in The Evening Telegram: “Imagine our wonder and surprise on turning the point of the channel to be met by a large store drifting slowly along the shore seaward; then a short distance another store or a dwelling house, until nine buildings were counted, strewn along the shore before the harbour was reached. On reaching the harbour even a worse spectacle greeted the eyes.”
The Newfoundland and Labrador government immediately dispatched a relief vessel to the Burin Peninsula with a shipment of medical supplies, food, blankets and other provisions. Public donations poured in from across the island and within weeks amounted to $250,000. Canada, the United States and Britain also gave money and aid.
Despite this help, the start of the Great Depression in 1929 and a collapse of the cod fishery in the early 1930s further damaged the Burin Peninsula’s weakened economy. Many communities did not fully recover until the 1940s.
Based on Jenny’s research for the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.
Second photo: Coastal debris after a tsunami hit the Burin Peninsula on Nov. 18, 1929. Both photos courtesy of Archives and Special Collections at Memorial University.