Bell Island is a Canadian island located off Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula in Conception Bay. Measuring 9 km in length and 3 km in width, it has an area of 34 km². The subsurface is composed of Ordovician sandstone and shale with red hematite. It was once the site of large iron ore mines.
It is home to three communities, the largest of which is the incorporated town of Wabana. The provincial government operates a ferry service from Portugal Cove to Bell island daily. It is primarily used by commuters who work in the St. John’s metropolitan area.
Probably settled by Maritime Archaic and/or Dorset people, Bell Island, as with the rest of the island of Newfoundland, was probably inhabited by the Beothuk Nation at the time of European discovery.
The first European inhabitants settled during the 18th century and attempted to farm and fish, with the island having a subsistence economy throughout much of the 19th century. The first
recorded settler was an Englishman, Gregory Normore, in 1740.
The economy expanded tremendously during the 1890s when iron ore mining began near the community of Wabana.
Wabana grew to become the island’s largest community and the mine became one of the largest producers of iron ore in northeastern North America. The mine’s workings extended beneath the seabed of Conception Bay, creating one of the most extensive submarine iron mines in the world.
Most of Bell Island’s ore was shipped from loading facilities to Sydney, Nova Scotia where it was smelted in a steel mill. The steel mill at Sydney and the iron mine at Bell Island were owned by the Dominion Steel and Coal Company (DOSCO), which at one point was one of the largest private employers in Canada.
Two QF 4.7-inch B Mark IV* guns were emplaced on Bell Island early in World War II. They can still be seen on their mountings.
During the Second World War, the anchorage for bulk carriers shipping iron ore was attacked by German U-boats in two attacks on 5 September and 2 November 1942, by U-513 and U-518. Four ships were sunk and 70 merchant mariners lost their lives:
SS Lord Strathcona
SS P.L.M 27
SS Rose Castle
In addition to the four cargo ships, an errant German torpedo also struck the DOSCO iron ore loading dock on shore. A memorial overlooks the waters at Lance Cove where the wrecks lay just a few hundred yards offshore. Bell Island was one of the very few locations in North America to see enemy action during the war, and the only location in North America to be subject to direct attack by German forces during World War II (due to the errant torpedo hitting land).