Thursday 5 April 2018

Out of the depths of the sea - What are the mystery lights of Come-By-Chance? #FolkloreThursday

Come by Chance, Aerial photograph by Lee Wulff, circa 1955-56. The Rooms Fonds GN 186, Item NA 25250

In the early part of the twentieth century, the waters of Placentia Bay between Come-By-Chance and Sound Island, Newfoundland, were said to be the location of an unearthly red glow, which would appear under very specific weather conditions.

Towards the end of 1928, author Charles Jamieson recounted his boyhood experiences with the light for the Newfoundland Quarterly. He wrote:

“Only once were we privileged to see this light. It is now fifteen years or more since, as a boy, we stood and watched a peculiar light that seemed to burn with a dull red glow off Come-By-Chance Point.”

By Jamieson’s reckoning, he had witnessed the light sometime around or before 1913. As he had watched, the light had appeared, seeming to come up from out of the depths of the sea.

An old local gentleman had waited up with the author to see the light. As Jamieson “gazed with awe struck attention” at the strange gleam upon the water, the old man told him the story of the light’s origins.

Many years previously, three men had set out from Sound Island to go to Come-By-Chance. Folklore maintains that they were a happy crew as they set out, unaware as they were of the cruel trick Fate was about to play on them. Jamieson remembered the old man saying that the trio of sailors formed “a merry party, and sang as they sailed out of the Bay in their open boat.”

Just off Come-By-Chance Point, their luck ran out. A storm sprang up, and the three were overtaken in a gust of wind. The open boat overturned, and all three men were drowned. 

“Ever since, when a strong wind blows as it blew that night,” writes Jamieson, “this strange light rises on the spot where the three men were lost, and there are those who say that strange weird cries and groans are heard.”

This belief that the light appears in times of bad weather is tied to the Newfoundland tradition of what are known as “weather lights”, the gleam or flicker of light at sea thought to foretell a storm.

Sometimes these lights are simply small moving lights, as described by E. Coakes, of Head Bay D’Espoir, in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. According to Coakes, “weather lights in the riggings of a schooner is the sign of a storm coming. The lights start at the bottom of the riggings and move gradually up to the top where they disappear.”

In some locations, such as with the Come-By-Chance light, weather lights are closely associated with specific tragedies at sea. This type of visual warning of an advancing storm system can even be associated with quite dramatic visitations, such as the ghost of the SS Bluejacket which appears in Conception Bay to presage storms.

Interestingly, it was also noted in 1928 that just behind Come-By-Chance Point was a swamp which also had a reputation for strange lights. The swamp was said to associated with tales of “Jack-o-lantern” fires, known in other places as the Will o’ the Wisp, a mysterious bobbing bit of fire known at times to lead the unwary to their doom.

If there was a link between the red lights off Come-By-Chance Point and the inland Jack o’ Lantern lights, it has never been explained. The two stories, while involving a similar type of light, are probably part of two separate traditions in the area. If you feel you can shed some illumination on the area’s mysterious lights, please let me know!

Dale Jarvis 


Jamieson, Charles. “The Ghostly Light Off Come-By-Chance Point.” The Newfoundland Quarterly 28.2 (1928): 28

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