Paul Harnish can still remember the 50-foot whale backbone used as the handrail for two flights of steps leading up to “Bonavista Lodge,” a beach-stone cottage tucked into the woods near Exit 6 at Hubbards. It belonged to his grandfather, George Guilford Harnish, or “GG” to those who knew him. GG owned Burns Fisheries, which operated a fish plant in Hubbards Cove starting in the 1920s, processing tuna, swordfish, and mackerel. Paul says the getaway was named for its stunning panoramic view of Fox Point Lake in the distance.
While the building had been hidden from sight for as long as Paul could remember, the stone ruins were recently exposed when the wide swath of trees between it and Hwy 103 was cut down as part of the highway twinning project.
Before the two-lane highway was built, the access to Bonavista was from St. Margaret’s Bay Road. The narrow drive snaked through the woods for nearly 1.5 km before reaching the remote compound, consisting of the main stone building as well as a “maid’s quarters” and wooden bunk houses — enough space to sleep eight to 10 people, says Paul Harnish. But it functioned more as a “man cave” than a family cottage — where GG would invite his crew to stay for hunting and fishing trips led by local guides.
Bruce Harnish, another of GG’s grandsons says that at some point — he wasn’t sure of the year, but thought it could have been in the late 1960s — the property was expropriated by the province to build Hwy 103. “That’s how we ended up losing it.”
“When the land was expropriated the family tried to save it by negotiating with the Department of Highways at the time to keep the access to it from the 103, but they said, no, it was restricted access.”
“It’s been 10 years since I’ve been up there but I remember the main house had a hand-made log bed, which I now have, and there was a large dining room set with 10 captain’s chairs. The furniture was dispersed among my father and his brothers and sisters at the time,” he tells me.
“It was a hidden secret. Trying to get into it — if you didn’t know exactly where the gate was — you’d have a hard time finding it. From the highway you couldn’t really see it,” he says.
Both Paul and Bruce, who are cousins, think the building could be a century old, but they aren’t exactly sure. They say that GG bought the property from people with a German background, but as for any earlier history, they aren’t certain.
But Mary-Ellen Sims has been doing a lot of research and trying to unravel the mystery. She has a personal interest in the history of the stone house. Her husband’s grandfather, Jimmy Sims, was the original owner of the land and sold it in 1926 to American, Charles E. “Chas” Bedford. By deciphering old documents and bookkeeping records left by Jimmy Sims, Mary-Ellen has been able to piece together some of the missing details.
She says Sims sold the land to Bedford, organized the construction of the stone house, and continued to work as a guide for Bedford as well as subsequent owners.
Three years later Bedford sold the property. “Among Papa’s records there is reference to a Mr. and Mrs. Guest,” she says, which might correspond to the Harnish grandsons’ reference to Germans owning it at some point. Jimmy Sims’ bookkeeping records indicate that he remained on as the caretaker of the property for the Guest family until at least 1937, she says.
“This also fits with the story, as I understand it, that for Mr. Bedford, the Stonehouse…was always considered to be a temporary residence until such time as a camp was built on an island on ‘Dauphinee’ Mill Lake.”
According to Mary-Ellen’s research using the land registry system, the property changes hands again in 1940. The new owner, Francis Lawson holds onto the property for roughly 12 years before selling it to GG Harnish in 1952.
In an effort to preserve the site’s historical value and save the stone house from the highway twinning project currently underway, she set up the Save the Simms Settlement Stone House Facebook page where you can find photos past and present, mixed in with some fascinating local history.
The Facebook site hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR), which is in charge of the twinning project. They are aware of the Facebook sites out there “that seem to have some information on its past,” says Peter McLaughlin, the province’s Director of Communications.
But what it all means moving forward is still unclear. McLaughlin tells me that an archaeology consultant on the twinning project will be examining the site and “providing the department with information about the history of the structure” and making a “recommendation on potential next steps.”
When I visited the site a few weeks ago, before talking to anyone familiar with the structure, I looked around for clues of when it could have been built. It was a welcome distraction from the COVID-19 lockdown and the ennui that was starting to take hold. I noticed there was cement holding the stones together, only to discover later that the earliest known occurrence of cement is from 12 million years ago! So, that was of little help in pinpointing the age of the structure. I also noticed remnants of asbestos roof shingles scattered on the ground — a product that exploded in popularity in the 1920s because they were light and less expensive. So, if that was the original roof, I thought it could easily date back a century.
“What I can tell you is that the building appears to be at the outer limit of the construction zone for the twinned highway. TIR’s intent is to avoid any impact to the building as we do our work; however, it is much too early to say what ultimately will happen to the remains of the building,” explains McLaughlin. Then he adds that the building is located on a parcel of land that the province does not currently own, and is now in the “process of acquiring.”
According to Mary-Ellen Sims, “that is the big mystery.” She says her research shows there was a transfer of the land to the province back in 1971 when the Estate of GG Harnish sold the property to the province. This corresponds with the expropriation Bruce and Paul talked about, when the current highway was pushed through. But apparently, at some point, it ended up in private hands again.
The big concern at this point is that while the twinning project might be able to avoid any direct impact to what remains of the stone building, how will it avoid damaging it indirectly? The structure sits on the crest of a hill that may require some blasting to bring it down to the level of the current highway.
Bruce doesn’t think it stands much of a chance. “Where there’s really no support, no roof on it for decades, it’s totally exposed, the windows are all knocked out. I would say if the ground started to shake, rattle, and roll it would probably come down on its own, without any mechanical equipment to assist it.”
But if Mary-Ellen’s Facebook feed is any indication, the overwhelming sentiment to protect and preserve the stone house won’t be letting that happen any time soon.
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