In the fading light of a cold, damp evening in Grates Cove in the late 1960s, two men approached the vertical cliffs near the public wharf armed with hammers, chisels, adzes, burlap sacks and wooden crates. Once there, shrouded in fog, they methodically pounded, hacked and chiselled off a sizeable chunk of shale. The shale bore an inscription, carved by hand. IO Caboto, it read.
Perhaps the most valuable rock carving in modern Newfoundland anthropology, an original signature crafted by John Cabot himself at the northernmost tip of the Avalon Peninsula after his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1497. And it is gone.
OK, maybe it was a hot summer day, and maybe the thieves used a jackhammer and wheelbarrow. Little is known with certainty about the theft of the Holy Grail of Newfoundland exploration. On a recent trip to this fabulously historical corner of the province, one group purported to know the family name of the thieves. Like the Grinch who conned Cindy Lou Who, the thieves told the locals they were removing the rock here, and taking it there, to validate its authenticity. But apparently their hearts did not grow three times bigger that day, or any day after, and the hunk of rock did not return to its rightful place.
Another couple we met thought the rock had already been moved from its natural location and was stolen from a monument site 50 feet up from the shore. There is indeed a barren concrete monument, but it seems too small to have housed such a noble rock.
One thing is for certain: locals knew enough details to have erected a permanent brass monument that states emphatically that “Two men from the media” removed the stone.
Those are pretty damning words.
I did contact members of the media who were around back in the day and they say they’d know if the rock was over someone’s fireplace. And they say it’s not.
We did go traipsing around the original site where Giovanni or a member of his crew broke out the chisel many moons ago. No clue as to who removed the rock, but you can see where it was removed.
According to the Beyond Baccalieu website, the Cabot Rock was “first mentioned in historical writings in 1822 by William Epps Cormack in his journal which recorded his trek across Newfoundland. …”
Cormack, unfortunately, doesn’t say what the inscription said, but we learn this from Leo E.F. English, curator of the Newfoundland Museum, when he took pictures of the rock in 1927. “IO Caboto — Sancius — Sainmalia … IO is the Italian word for ‘I,’ therefore simply ‘I Cabot’ … and ‘Sancius’ is Latin for his son’s name. … It is unclear what Sainmalia means except some speculate it is a reference to Santa Maria.”
So, did Cabot or a member of his crew carve these words back in 1497 or 1498? Maybe so, but after a sleuthing afternoon in Grates Cove we were no closer to solving the mystery of the missing Cabot Rock.
The day was not a writeoff, however. Did you know Grates Cove is a National Historic Site (named in 1995 www.historicplaces.ca) for the myriad of stone walls that cover this headland on the northern tip of the Bay de Verde Peninsula?
We hiked a well-marked trail (blue paint on the rocks indicates you’re on the right path). We were given excellent directions to the trailhead by a local named Cindy Broderick. “Drive through Grates Cove until you see the post office. Turn left before it and keep driving until you see a boat. Park and that’s the trail.”
We spent an hour or more marvelling over the hundreds of stone walls built centuries ago to mark off property lines or keep animals out of gardens. There are hundreds of these walls scattered over 150 acres. Now I know why Cindy’s husband laughed when I asked him if we’d see any of the stone walls on our walk. They are everywhere. Turn in any direction and you’ll see a hip-high stone wall sticking out of the grass.
The walls are not uniform squares, but seem rather haphazard. Perfect for a game of hide and seek. The path leads you along a headland overlooking Baccalieu Island, which is home to about seven million birds — Leach’s storm petrels, to be exact. Years ago, when my husband worked for this newspaper, he once took a helicopter to visit the lightkeepers. He took a photo of a sign that said: Welcome to Baccalieu. Population 2.
Other trail highlights include massive blueberries and views of nearby headlands and cliffs. The trail is suitable for young children as it does not go close to cliff edges and, a particular bonus, it ends on the main road near the post office and then it’s just a short walk back to your vehicle.
After a good hike in the fresh (read windy) air, you will surely have built up an appetite and Grates Cove just happens to have a lovely café offering home-cooked Newfoundland, Cajun and Asian-inspired meals for eat-in, takeout or backpack picnics. Owners Terrence and Courtney Howell converted the old schoolhouse in 2011 to a café and naturally lit artists’ studios. They also have a guest home if you’d like to stay the night and explore some of the other boardwalk trails in town. “Land and Sea” aired an episode featuring Terrence called “The 21st Century Bayman.” Go to www.gratescovestudios.com or call 709-587-3881 for more info.
To get to Grates Cove, turn off the Trans-Canada Highway at Exit 31. Then take the Veterans Memorial Highway to Carbonear before veering right on Route 70 towards Salmon Cove and Northern Bay, both excellent sandy beaches. It takes just over an hour from this right-hand turn to reach the turn-off to Grates Cove and Bay de Verde. Be careful if you attempt the road to Grates Cove via Old Perlican and Daniel’s Cove, as that road is more suited to four-wheel-drives.
And if you can shed any light on the removal or whereabouts of the Cabot Stone, email me.
Maybe together we can solve the mystery.
Susan Flanagan can be reached at email@example.com.
Susan thanks her husband for making the trip to Grates Cove and helping with this column. She also thanks online reader, NewfieChick, who suggested she write about this wonderful community.