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Paddles on Fortune River

Paddles on Fortune River

 

This article is the first in our upcoming series featuring local areas of interest, historical narratives, and other subjects pertaining to the area. To learn more about the history of the area, or to plan your own Fortune excursion, visit Paddles on Fortune River.

 

Bay Fortune, it seems, has had its fair share of fame and celebrity in its past, stretching all the way back to the infamous case of Pearce and Abel. But Fortune’s connections to such memorable moments in history are not merely a thing of the past, for they live on today in the remaining artifacts and stories which the colorful characters who once called the area home have left behind.

And when it comes to fascinating remnants of the past, nothing stands as such a regal testament to the area’s heritage as the beautiful Inn at Bay Fortune, and its inexorable connection to the Bay Fortune Actor’s Colony.

It may still be remarked upon as a puzzling development as to how this Colony came to be, for despite the beauty of the Bay it was a long and distant journey for these American “colonists” to find their way here. But as Peake writes, Fortune “was a perfect retreat for these actors, actresses and writers of the American stage who required the renewal of peace and tranquility” (2).

Better yet, to quote a contemporary of this colony, a Mr. Charles Flockton, of whom you will soon become familiar, “Abel’s Cape, situated at the mouth of Fortune River, was at that time a charming old world spot… from the high cliff of red sandstone on which it stood, a narrow path wound its way down to a somewhat dilapidated wharf in the immediate foreground. There the local fishermen moored their boats, stowed gear and dried their nets” (1).

​”Whether this more or less romantic background was responsible for the attraction the Cape possessed for thespians, one can only conjecture. The fact remains however, that many veterans of the stage were to be encountered there, or in its immediate vicinity, summer after summer” (1).

Such is no doubt true, and in fact it is this very notion of retreat and solace which continues to draw visitors to the area today.

Establishing a Colony

A picnicking crowd in Fortune, ca. 1928.

In order to uncover the specific genesis of this Colony, we would be remiss to overlook Charles Coughlan, for it is the case that this story too begins (and seemingly ends) with him.

​Charles Coughlan was initially brought to the Island after seeing a leaflet advertising it in New York. He was an avid sports fisher, and this led him eventually to Fortune, where he was immediately smitten by the place. There was, at this time, already extant a small cottage on Abel’s Cape, as is alluded to above, one which he rented immediately and spent the summer in with his wife and daughter. By the conclusion of the summer he was so enamored with Bay Fortune that he purchased the “Cape House” outright (1).

The next summer, with tales of the wonderful Island alight in his mind, Coughlan returned to Fortune, having extended invitations to many of his theatrical friends, thus laying the groundwork for the future actors colony (3). Attracted by Coughlan’s own residence, C.P. Flockton soon followed him to Fortune and purchased three different properties in the Fortune area.

Charles P. Flockton and the Flockton Comedy Company

While Coughlan was the progenitor of the Actor’s Colony, it was surely Flockton who brought it to life, making it the prosperous summer settlement that it became, as without him it would never have been.

C.P. Flockton (NYU Archives).

Flockton, or “Flockie” as he was known by his friends at the time, was an amiable and sociable character, who had risen to prominence first in England, and then in New York City. It is said that Oscar Wilde wanted Flockton to be in his first play, “Vera the Nihilist”, and he was noted as being “among the best stock actors in America” (4).

Under Flockton, the colony was truly something to be remarked upon. It became an intricate collection of cottages and houses rented by some of the most notable actors of the American east coast. Further pamphlets were printed to attract others, highlighting some of the features of the area. This included an illustration of what is now known as Fortune Back Beach, under the name of “Sea Gull Beach”, and advertised trout fishing, deep sea fishing, and sun bathing, as well as row boats for hire and a schooner, the “Stroller”, for rent, permitting his guests to go sailing (5).

Things were not always utopic under Flockton’s lead at the Colony however. For reasons not entirely known (although Carrington offers much conjecture in the way of booze), Flockie and the Actors often found themselves falling upon hard times. Not unlike the modern day trope of the done-hard-by actor, proper planning for meals, sustenance, and amenities often went by the wayside, resulting in sometimes dire situations.

As Carrington recounts, “every sort of domestic essential was lacking, even food. Of that only a small quantity remained – tea, bread, butter, potatoes; of linen, crockery, cutlery, and kitchen utensils there were practically none.” This would have been tolerable for the small crowd which was staying at the Colony, but as luck would have it, the schooner “Stroller” arrived that night, bearing a multitude of weary and hungry guests, all desperate for sustenance. Given that Flockie’s credit had already been exhausted at Prowse Bros. store, they were uncertain where they should turn (1).

Then sprung to their minds the very notion of bountiful trout which had in the first place drawn Coughlan to the area. Warwick and Carrington, both armed with a fishing rod, set out to feed the masses, but upon their return it was found that their “few” fish were hardly enough to feed twelve hungry boarders. The next morning this uppity crowd, fresh from the haute-couture scene of New York and Boston life, found themselves scavenging the rocks of the harbour in search of breakfast. Their effort was rewarded with no fewer than 50 small lobsters, supplemented by several flounders which some of the more talented actors managed to spear. As Carrington recalled at the time, they were no better off than the Swiss Family Robinson (1).

Sustenance and survival came only at the eleventh hour when, through some miracle of fate or fortune, credit was re-established at the local store, permitting those gathered to eat, as Carrington recalls, “at almost regular intervals.”

The success of the colony was much in line with their success as caterers. Carrington explains that there were two successful performances in Souris, “after which began the decline and fall of the Flockton Comedy Company. Four one-night stands, all unprofitable, brought us to Charlottetown, the capital and our Waterloo. Our first night’s performance in that delightful little city realized some 30 dollars. Of the entertainment itself let us be charitable and preserve a discreet silence. It was stigmatized by one native as “chronic.”” This itself was painful, but not fatal. The following night yielded only nine paying patrons. By the last night, the played to an empty theatre (1).

That proved to be the final call for the Flockton Comedy Company, which disbanded a few nights later. Flockie was compelled to mortgage his property (yet again) in order to finance passage back to America for his compatriots. This he did, although it was later discovered that such paltry tickets did not include “such trivial items as meals” (1). Were it not for the kindness of those others onboard, it is certain that the destitute company would have starved.

As for Flockton, he had but little life left within him. He died only a few years later, in 1904, on a train on his way to California, at the age of 76. It had been his final wishes to have his remains cremated and his ashes spread upon Abel’s Cape, where he had enjoyed his halcyon days. This wish was carried out by the husband of Kate Claxton, and over his ashes was erected a sundial, bearing the phrase, “the timely shadow marks another hour in your absence” (1)(6). The sundial remains to this day, and on this subject Millward adds that “the natives [of Bay Fortune] always vowed that the dead actor’s ghost “walked” upon these cliffs. “If it did,” he concludes, “ I’m sure it would never have harmed anybody” (6).


Meet the Warwicks

An early promotional photo of Elsa Warwick, circa 1905.

One of the most notable actors at the colony was Mr. Henry Warwick (often known as Harry), who came to Fortune with his wife Elsa in the late 1800s. Henry was an American actor, while Elsa was originally from Stockholm, Sweden. They were initially guests of C.P. Flockton, but before the turn of the century they had acquired property in the area and built a summer home. At this time Henry belonged to the Vitagraph Company of New York, and Elsa had been a Gibson Girl and a dancer (5).

In the early 1900s Henry found himself acting in numerous silent and sound films, including “The Cheat”, “Red Hot Romance” and “The Witness for the Defense”. From 1917-1931 he acted in 15 different films. Warwick also tried his hand at script writing, drafting the story “Three Knaves and a Heathen Chinee”, which later went on to become a motion picture.

Buoyed by the success of his professional career, and smitten by their summers in paradise, the Warwicks developed a strong attraction to the area, and during Henry’s time as a prominent actor, Elsa found herself more and more drawn to the Island. It proved to be an inevitable affliction, and it didn’t take long before she opted to live in Fortune year round. By 1900, Elsa had moved to Bay Fortune permanently. When Henry retired from acting he joined his wife in Fortune, and the two lived the remainder of their lives there (5).

Elmer Harris and the Inn at Bay Fortune

As was noted in The Guardian in 1918, Elmer Harris was well known at that time as a “celebrated author and playwright from New York” (7). And while this undoubtedly earned him a certain degree of respect in the Fortune area, it is not always this that he is remembered for, but instead as the owner of “the largest and most beautiful summer home on the river, on which he has spent thousands, and continues to improve and add to from year to year” (3)(7).

Mr. Harris was no stranger to the Bay Fortune area around the turn of the century, having been persuaded to visit the area by Flockton. In little time Harris had soon fell in love with it, and in 1908 he bought a piece of property overlooking the Fortune river, and set about the construction of his summer residence, a residence that would one day become the Inn at Bay Fortune.

Movie Poster for Harris’ “Johnny Belinda”.

Just as it is today, Harris’ cottage was a magnificent accomplishment, one which elicited fanfare and admiration from all of those in connection with it. An anonymous letter to the editor of The Guardian, written in September of 1918, and signed only by the pseudonym “Angler”, relates to us that this spectacular home rests upon the most charming of sites, and is, in fact, one of the most extensive modern summer homes in Eastern Canada. To the present reader’s favor, this letter-writer tells us that the home featured a water tower, baths, and hot and cold running water throughout. He also indicates to us that the home was by no means finished, and, as we have read above, received ongoing upgrades and renovations on a yearly basis (7).

Another curious tale developed in regards to Harris’ cottage, and in particular to the tower. It is said that during the war-time era of World War II, from aloft in the tower on the property one was able to spy military vessels and submarines out in the Northumberland Strait, and that on one occasion, through some method of signalling, communication was established between the tower and a vessel at sea (8).

Not long after construction of his cottage, Harris was married in 1913 to Willamino Hennessey. They had two children together, and once these children were grown both he and his wife moved to the Island permanently in the 1950s.

It was also around this time that Harris wrote the script for “Johnny Belinda”, the play that would go on to be one of his most famous. Telling the story of Johnny Belinda, based upon the real life of Lydia Dingwell, of Dingwells Mills, the plot delves into the complexities of rape and innocence in early Canadian life. The title resonates to this day through the naming of Johnny Belinda Creek, on Route 2 in Dingwells Mills (5).

After the illness and death of Harris’ wife, the property changed hands several times, before being sold to Colleen Dewhurst, an actress who performed with John Wayne, and who was famously known for her role as Marilla Cuthbert in the movie versions of Anne of Green Gables. Dewhurst and her family summered at the Harris property for many years, enjoying the beauty of Bay Fortune. In 1989 the property was purchased by David Wilmer, who began the process of converting the property into an Inn.

The Inn At Bay Fortune

A view of the famous outdoor “Fireworks” cook site.

It is through process that the Inn at Bay Fortune came into existence, and its current owners, Michael and Chastity Smith, have upheld its historic tradition and fortitude.

Just as in the years and decades prior, Bay Fortune has always been an attractive draw from people all over the world who seek to find the ‘idylls of a summer night’, and for those who have spent any time in Fortune in a calm summer’s evening, it is easy to argue that there is no place one would rather be. The stately Inn at Bay Fortune still rests on the shore of Fortune River, just as Harris had first envisioned it, and, just as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a resting place for travellers the world over. It is a splendid thing to see the lights and sights of the Inn abuzz, patrons mingling on its exquisite lawns as the teasing aromas of wood smoke and gourmet delights waft through the air as the sun sets and day turns to night.

Voices carry pleasantly over the water as Fireworks, the renowned restaurant and eatery which constitutes the very heart of the Inn at Bay Fortune, bursts to life, and it appears that all is as it should be: another day has drawn to a close, and the bold vision of a colony at Bay Fortune, one which rollicks with the dreams and visions of actors, writers, and visitors of all degree, is brought to life. The world is on our doorstep, and it is a beautiful thing. The Inn at Bay Fortune is a living piece of local history, one which splendidly upholds the spirit and tradition of the Bay Fortune’s Actor’s Colony; a history which continues to be written to this day.

 

References:

1. Hornby, Jim. “The C.P. Flockton Comedy Company” The Island Magazine. ​1982.
2. Peake, Linda M. “Establishing a Theatrical Tradition: Prince Edward Island 1800-1900” Theatre Research in Canada. ​1981.
3. The Guardian. 13 February 1924.
4. Glenchitty, Mary. “People, Friends & Colleagues of EJ Phillips 1830-1904” 20 April 2015.
​5. Townshend, Bonnie. “The Road To Fortune” 2012. Print.
6. Millward, Jessie. “Myself and Others” 1923. Print.
7. Angler. The Guardian. 2 September 1918.
8. Paton, Andy. Oral Interview. 23 April 2017.
9. Whitmore, Ann. “The Coffin Myth” Galveston Ghost. ​Web.
10. “Charles Coghlan’s Body Missing” New York Times. 24 September 1900.
11. “Coghlan’s Body Found” New York Times. 15 January 1907.
12. The Guardian. ​Page 14. 26 July 1950.