Teenagers in Saint John, New Brunswick—a small, blue-collar port city with a median age of 41—pretty much only have a skatepark and occasional DIY house shows when it comes to places they can call their own. Maybe that's why the lighthouse on Partridge Island is a beacon for Saint John's hoodlum counterculture. Since Partridge Island was abandoned in mid-'80s, exploring its creepy underground tunnels, wartime ruins, and unmarked mass graves has become a local rite of initiation.
Every kid in West Saint John grows up hearing rumours about Partridge Island. Thousands of immigrants died there of typhus and cholera between 1785-1850—so many that the soil could scarcely contain the bodies—and it also housed a provincial lab to identify pathogens. Harder to verify: that it's haunted by a soldier that committed suicide and people who got trapped in the tunnels. The mythos only further entices trespassers, even though going there is probably stupid as well as illegal. When the Bay of Fundy is choppy, the highest tides in the world are high, and particularly when you, too, are high, the path of jagged boulders that connects the island with the mainland is pretty terrifying. It's located at the farthest tip of Bayshore Beach, a wild expanse of pebbles framed by eroded cliffs and abandoned WWII gun positions. After jumping from granite slab to concrete chunk for about 45 minutes, you can finally scale the rope maintained by generations of trespassers on the cliffside, and set foot on the island.
There's a Spirited Away-style twist in the sense that you're pretty much fucked if you get stuck on the breakwater after dark. Several people have broken limbs making their way across it, and kids regularly have to be rescued by the Coast Guard. First-timers are almost always goaded by more experienced friends, who get to a) act annoyingly smug and b) scare-prank the novitiates and make 'em jump like wittle bunnies.
Saint Johner Joe Hooley, 28, visited over 65 times before a 2008 injury ended his breakwater-scaling days. I asked what drove him to keep making the trek.
"Finding new things each time. I hit the usual spots: the radio tower, the cemetery, the dock. But then I went down in the tunnels with a flashlight. I found a random staircase to nothing in the woods, and the foundations to even older buildings, years after I had already been a 'regular' there. It gave me a sense of accomplishment."
Tackling the tunnels, once used to store ammo for naval guns, requires the illusion of total invincibility that fades after puberty. When you're 15, however, garbage-strewn, dripping hallways 30 feet under an abandoned island seem like great place to have sex and do mushrooms.
The Birdhouse, a rust-stained, crow-covered concrete shell of a WWII-era radio tower, is a fave hangout for spraypaint-happy teens and pyros. Andrew Hodge, now in his 20s, recalls a particularly enjoyable night of wanton vandalism.
"We spent hours tossing plywood, two-by-fours, cable spools, pallets, furniture, insulation, and old boots into the building, then lit up one of the biggest, hottest fires of my life," says Hodge, a hobby welder and glassblower. "Flames licked out the windows. The moss on the top of the concrete roof steamed. We kept praying that the ferry would float by and we'd really freak the folks out."
But the island's days as a post-apocalyptic, punk playground could soon be numbered. The results of a $200K feasibility study on making it a tourist site are expected to be released in the coming months. Politicians and community leaders were recently invited on a tour of the island, suggesting plans to clear trails and install 24/7 surveillance may be moving slowly forward. Or maybe not. Several attempts to revitalize the site have foundered over the past few decades, due in part to the fierceness of the geography. One retired Fundy Baykeeper described revamping the breakwater as a plan "border[ing] almost on lunacy." For now, at least, there's a certain poetry to the fact that it's inaccessible to all but the weird few.
While walking trails and plaques might attract tourist dollars, a squeaky-clean revamp of the neglected National Historic Site would mean the end of its B-horror, Maritime Gothic vibe. In small-town New Brunswick, where life tends to be achingly predictable, Partridge Island offers a rare, true adventure—the sort that bonds people with a place. "Partridge," as Hodge puts it, "gives the youth a place to blow off steam, to take risks, and that gives it a certain gravity."
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