Saturday, February 12, 2022

Ice Cutting and Salmon Fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador

In the twentieth century, the salmon fishing industry was intertwined with many other industries. It was common practice for fishermen to cut blocks of ice from frozen ponds in the winter using various types of saws (Figure 1) and store them in sawdust to later use in transporting their freshly caught salmon to merchants when the fishing season opened. Sawdust was an abundant byproduct from sawmills and acted as an insulating layer for ice which prolonged the use of ice well beyond the cold winter months. This made ice cut from ponds in the winter accessible in May and June when the salmon fishery opened.

Figure 1: Image reads: a "double bit" axe is referred to an axe with two blades, the handle was usually short. My father had one in his household when he was a boy. Often people would have one side sharp for cutting wood, and a dull side for cutting ice in the winter when they would take a load of wood from the woods and carry it home over. Image courtesy of Memorial University Digital Archives Initiative.

Once the ponds froze over, ice would be cut into large 18-20 inch square blocks using a pit saw and hauled by horse and sleigh to ice houses and sawmills to be unloaded into piles of sawdust (Figure 2, Figure 3). In Harbour Breton, ice from Beaver Pond was being cut out at nearly 20 dory loads per ice house. These ice houses were filled with sawdust and protected from sun exposure to ensure the preservation of ice for several months.

Figure 2: Ice cutting in Cape Broyle on Beaver Pond circa 1950s. Image courtesy of Andrea O’Brien taken from Mr. Ronald O’Brien’s collection.

Figure 3: Ice cutting in Gaultois, Newfoundland circa 1887 (Wells 2014).

In Whiteway, a community in Trinity Bay, several families such as the Burgess’, George’s, Legge’s, and Jackson’s, were operating sawmills while also salmon fishing in the summer and ice cutting in the winter.

Albert Legge has many memories of his family’s sawmill and their salmon fishing. Albert recalls an ice house located in New Harbour operated by a fish merchant named Ernest Woodman. Woodman, likely with the help of his sons, would also cut ice in the winter time and store it at his ice house until local fishermen had fish to sell which was then packed in ice and sent to markets. Likewise, Clifford George remembers an ice house in New Harbour that was built of boards into a large square area filled with sawdust where ice blocks were buried.

Legge remembers that in the 1950s there was an ice house owned by his family located on a pile of sawdust from their mill. The Legge’s did not cut ice themselves, instead they filled their ice house with ice from Woodman’s ice house in New Harbour. The ice from Woodman was delivered to their ice house by truck rather than horse. The ice was stored in the house in piles of sawdust (Figure 4) until May when the salmon fishery opened. Albert remembers that salmon were caught on a berth along the shore at a point called Salmon Point, which was the perfect spot to place a salmon trap. After catching their salmon, the fish would be cleaned and packed into wooden boxes filled with broken ice blocks before being shipped to New Harbour where it was then sent off to market.

Figure 4: Image reads: … they cut it and _ in _ in square blocks about two feet by two feet. They had ice-grips and they would stick the grips into the ice and _ and bring it through the ice house an' put sawdust on it. … They would have a rope over their shoulders an' they would haul it over the ice to the ice house which was near the pond.Ice house was made of wood; it was usually....just thick wood, an' sometimes not - just clapboard, not _ not even thick woods. .... Oh it was probably about forty feet long and about thirty feet wide an' as high as _ 'bout thirty feet high. .... It was in the open _ an open place right at the foot of the pond. Image courtesy of Memorial University Digital Archives Initiative.

Members of the Burgess family also have many memories of the family sawmill constructed in 1916, and their involvement with the salmon fishery. Robert Burgess recalls that his family would cut ice from Jimmy Rowe’s pond and then bury it in piles of sawdust at their sawmill. The Burgess’ sawmill is still intact on the property and the saws used to cut ice remain there. Robert recalled that:

Once the ponds froze over, the horse and sled would be driven across the pond in the morning, logs would be hauled out before lunch time, lunch was eaten and our uncles would change out the sweat-filled clothes, then head back across the pond to bring out more wood. This continued until the pond ice broke up in the spring.

When salmon was caught in the bay months later, the ice blocks would be dug up and used to transport salmon to keep it fresh. The family also manufactured the boxes that they were shipping the iced salmon in. There are many memories of the family catching and selling salmon. In 1912, a letter from Great Aunt Nellie to Henry Burgess, Bob’s great-grandfather, sent in advance of her travels back home to Whiteway from the United States: “I hope you will get a salmon after I get home. I suppose you got all the potatoes in the ground by this time. I am so glad that Rich is going to stay at home this summer” (Figure 5). The Burgess family also used the ice they cut and preserved in sawdust to transport freshly caught salmon to merchant families such as the Harnum’s in Hearts Delight, Cramm’s in Green’s Harbour and the Moores in Carbonear, and many others (Figure 6,7).

Figure 5: Part of Great Aunt Nellie’s handwritten letter to Henry Burgess in June 1912. June was the prime month to catch salmon. Image courtesy of Robert Burgess.

Figure 6,7: Receipts of salmon transactions between Richard Burgess, Robert’s grandfather, and Hedley Harnum, a merchant in Hearts Delight have been saved, recording that in June 1933, Harnum had purchased salmon from Burgess. Image courtesy of Robert Burgess.

Ice cutting also had domestic purposes. In Central Newfoundland, Corduroy Ponds was an excellent location to cut ice in the winter. Leonard Young, a Mi’kmaq man who grew up near the ponds, kept a dog team and horses in the late 1930s and 1940s (Figure 8). Young would cut timber in the area and his horse would haul sleighs full of wood to the sawmill Young operated on his property. In the winter, Young cut ice blocks from the pond and his horse hauled them back to the sawmill where they were stored in sawdust. Ice blocks were stored here until the summer where they were dug out of the sawdust and delivered to customers in Grand Falls Windsor. Young supplied ice blocks to households as some families in town were still using ice chests.

Figure 8: Leonard Young with his horse, unknown date. Image courtesy of Corey Sharpe.

Special thanks to Andrea O’Brien, Robert Burgess, Clifford George, Albert Legge, Corey Sharpe, and Doug Wells for providing us with many memories, details, and photographs about ice cutting and salmon fishing in Newfoundland.


Barras, Maryssa., and Dale Gilbert Jarvis
2021 Burgess Property, Whiteway, NL: Site and Building Survey. Heritage NL Fieldnotes Series, 015, February 2021.

The ICH Blog 
2021 What Did You Do with Sawdust in Whiteway?

Wells, Doug
2014 Putting Up Ice: Beaver Pond: A Municipal Heritage SIte in Harbour Breton. Intangible Cultural Heritage Update, Number 053 August-November 2014.

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