The people of Cartwright are learning they shouldn’t underestimate their own appeal.
Life has been changing fast in this coastal community. After centuries of depending on the sea alone for transportation — and then just lately (that is, in the past seven decades) getting some service from the air — this rugged old town at the mouth of Sandwich Bay only had a road built to it a few years ago.
At first, as expected, the new road that was carved through the hills from the south created new opportunities for the people of Cartwright, turning their town into a transshipment port for travellers and cargo heading to and from central Labrador and the north coast.
The passenger ferry, the MV Sir Robert Bond, had always stopped at Cartwright during its regular run between Lewisporte and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but few cars ever got on or off. With the road open, the Bond began onloading and offloading vehicular traffic at the Cartwright dock two or three times a week.
That dramatically increased the number of visitors the town saw in the summer months, boosting business and creating jobs for locals. Things were looking brighter after years of steady decline following the collapse of the cod fishery, but still the people of Cartwright thought they could see darker times ahead.
The new dirt highway running north from Red Bay to Sandwich Bay was not the end of the provincial government’s construction plans. When the Labrador Coastal Highway (Phase 2) was completed, work moved on to Phase 3, which was intended to (and now does, since it was opened to traffic last winter) connect the coastal road with the Trans Labrador Highway near Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
In Cartwright, they were afraid that when that happened, the traffic to their town would dwindle until it couldn’t support local hotels, restaurants and other such enterprises. It didn’t help that the provincial government is always threatening to cut the ferry service between Newfoundland and Labrador that is now served by the Bond.
People worried drivers wouldn’t want to take the 90-kilometre side road to Cartwright, and if ferries stopped dropping cars off at the dock, the only thing that might keep the town’s businesses healthy (aside from its underused fish plant) was the decades-old promise of a nearby national park in the Mealy Mountains. The good citizens of Cartwright were not optimistic.
The new road (Phase 3, that is) has certainly changed a lot of things, and not just in Cartwright.
One of the first and most noticeable changes is a confusing one: the Labrador Coastal Drive no longer starts in Cartwright. Now, it starts at the crossing of the Churchill River about 20 kilometres upstream of where it empties into Lake Melville. The closest the drive gets to any coast after that is more than 300 kilometres later when it crosses the Alexis River outside of Port Hope Simpson.
The Cartwright side road has been renamed the Metis Trail, which is a fair description of Labrador’s general road conditions and may or may not indicate a recognition of Metis rights by the provincial Department of Transportation (but that’s another issue).
More importantly, the newest road has altered traffic patterns — in some ways, just as expected. One of Cartwright’s fears came true. Most travellers heading north or south now avoid the long dead-end detour and speed past the junction with hardly a glance.
However, to make up for that, there are a lot of people heading straight for the Metis Trail and they’ve taken up the slack.
The people of Cartwright forgot about the many who weren’t heading to North West River, or Deer Lake, or St. John’s, or Halifax, but wanted to go to Cartwright and nowhere else. All the old Sandwich Bay families who moved away in hard times are now able and eager to drive the road home for as many visits as they want. And plenty of tourists can think of few better places to go.
So, as it turns out, Cartwright doesn’t need to be a transshipment port or a gateway to a national park to make good. The town just has to be itself. It should do just fine.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.