Out of the Darkness Came the Light!

No community on the Northeast coast of Newfoundland was more affected by the cod moratorium than the community of Elliston. The community, founded in 1806, had a rich fishing history. Employment was always at its peak, until the demise of the salt cod industry in the 1950’s. Periods of outmigration, from the 1950’s to the present day, decimated the community from a population of 1000 people to a mere 333 today. The recent cod moratorium put the final nail in the coffin for the community of Elliston.

Left with a very small tax base, the community council could no longer afford to pay its utility bill. In 1994, Elliston made national news—LIGHTS OUT! CBC National television anchor, Peter Mansbridge, announced that a small community on the Northeast coast of Newfoundland was now “literally in the dark.” Community pride was at an all-time low in Elliston, but out of this darkness there came a light. The election of a new town council and its call for a tourism committee was the spark to kindle a new sense of pride.

In November of 1997, Tourism Elliston burst onto the scene. A committee of a meagre seven individuals had the mandate to identify the tourism potential of Elliston, using those assets to provide economic benefit to the community and its residents.

Each year more than 10,000 people visit the Puffin site located in Elliston. It represents, perhaps, the closest view of Newfoundland’s national bird from land anywhere in North America, and likely the world; yet, it is the root cellars that give Elliston a unique distinction.

Root cellars were common all over Newfoundland and North America. Visitors coming to Elliston were always amazed at, not only the uniqueness of the cellars, but also the huge number of cellars in such a small geographical area. In 1999, Tourism Elliston documented 135 root cellars in the community and constructed a database on each cellar. Identified were many aspects of the cellars including the construction date, the original and present owner, whether each cellar was active or not, the condition of the cellars, and whether any recent renovations had been made. The research indicated that the oldest root cellar dates back to 1839. Approximately 55 percent of the root cellars in Elliston are over 100 years old.

In the year 2000, after restoring more than 40 root cellars, Elliston declared itself “The Root Cellar Capital of the World.” With this title came the rise to fame. Tourists flock to Elliston from April to November to observe this historical cultural icon. Fifteen Bird Island Puffin Festivals have showcased not only the puffins, but also Elliston’s root cellar cultural heritage. Vegetables grown from Tourism Elliston’s own demonstration garden, which are then stored in the root cellars for a nine-month period, make their way to the pots of the festival kitchen. They become part of the largest Jiggs dinner ever held over a two-day period in North America.

During the tourist season, Tourism Elliston employs 10-15 people, and also employs a full-time staff person. Currently, there are two Bed and Breakfasts and three cabins that cater to tourists. A traditional Newfoundland restaurant operates out of the restored Orange Hall and a craft shop has opened in the restored Ryan’s building. A new convenience store and a beachside take-out all contribute to the new economic renaissance in the community. The third Roots, Rants, and Roars Culinary Festival—a Newfoundland premier culinary event—has united the region’s people and place; the economic spinoffs are unbelievable.

Negative media attention in 1994 has given way to positive attention. Programs such as “On the Road Again” and “Land and Sea” have contributed enormously to Elliston’s profile. Newspapers and magazines have covered aspects of Elliston for the last 15 years. Elliston’s root cellars have been showcased in the Farmer’s Almanac, Hobby Farms, and National Geographic, just to name a few.

In recognition of their outstanding leadership, dedication, and contribution to the tourism industry of Newfoundland and Labrador, Tourism Elliston was presented with the Doug Wheeler Tourism Award by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2003. In 2012, Hospitality of Newfoundland and Labrador presented Tourism Elliston’s Roots, Rants, and Roars Festival the Cal LeGrow Tourism Innovator of the Year Award.

The root cellars of Elliston have generated a new light for this beautiful community.