Exploring the Orcan River of Placentia

Exploring the Orcan River of Placentia

During the summer when tourists are visiting Placentia, some may wonder why the channel connecting the two arms—Northeast and Southeast—is named Orcan. From where did that come? My only response would likely be, “good question.” There’s no definitive response. Still, there are historical characteristics that are suggestive of why. Regardless, the Orcan River is an interesting and unique feature. Let’s take a look.

Image: Location of Orcan River (Source: Google).

Physical Qualities of the Orcan in Placentia

When thinking of a river, we’d usually assume it to be a large natural channel of water emptying into a larger body which, in this case, is the Placentia Bay. However, this is not how the Orcan River functions. Rather, it’s a channel connecting the northeast arm and southeast arm. These are two landforms extending from the harbour, appearing to be like two arms reaching inland.

Image: Location of Arms (Source: Google).

Due to the movement of the tides, the ocean water enters the arms with the water in Orcan River flowing inland. Then, as the tide is going back out several hours later, the water reverses, flowing back out towards the ocean. As a result, it does appear to be a “river,” but one that daily reverses its flow.

Origins of the Name

The name itself carries a degree of mystery. We know the name “River Orcan” was used on a map drawn in 1747. However, the origins of the name remain unknown. The name must’ve been of some import at the time. Although, currently, we can only guess and point at possible reasons for the use of the name Orcan.

Image Map by Emanuel Bowen circa 1747

(Orcan River can be seen in the lower right).

Certainly in the fifteenth century in England, there was reference to a Monastery of Orcan. This was located in France, near Noyon. But also located in a different part of France is the Chateau du Bois Orcan (Castle of Orcan Wood). Clearly, the name Orcan carried some meaning at the time. Could it be that someone from that part of the world noted something reminiscent and elected to give it the name Orcan? Perhaps one day, we’ll know.

Historical Function of the Orcan

Over the centuries, the Orcan River has played a central role for the Placentia beach.1 Initially, the Basque arrived in the sixteenth century to fish. This involved fishing as well as processing the fish. The cobblestone beach serviced quite handily for salting and drying the fish.

From 1662 to 1713, the French were stationed in Placentia, to them known as Plaisance. While in Plaisance, they built three major forts. Vieux Fort was on Mount Pleasant. Fort Louis was on the Jerseyside Beach ad Castle Hill was atop Castle Hill.

Naturally, all transport was by water, with the Orcan River functioning as a major highway of the region. The Orcan would’ve featured prominently in order to transport all supplies, from foodstuffs to cannons.

Later, in 1713, the British had won Newfoundland following the War of the Spanish Succession. Having done so, they established their main garrison in Placentia. Much like the French before them, the Orcan was used in a similar manner. Eventually, they built Fort Frederick which was located on the Orcan river, near where the gut opens up into Northeast Arm and the Orcan.

Orcan River in Modern Times

In 1960, a breakwater system was built along the Orcan consisting of a boardwalk. Yet, it could not function to prevent the flooding that had always been a problem. With the arrival of 1993, a steel wall was constructed along the Orcan with the goal to reduce flooding in Placentia.

The new steel wall was a major endeavour and involved altering the flow of the Orcan. The river was essentially narrowed. Much of the road that now follows the Orcan was previously a part of the original course of the river.

In the early twentieth century, the Wakeham Sawmill was built in Petite Fort in Placentia Bay. Although, in 1942, it was moved to Placentia. It was originally situated on the Orcan River along its previous course. This was purposefully done as the logs could be moved on the water and then collected through a trap door in the sawmill.

With the changes made to the Orcan River given the construction of flood wall, the Wakeham Sawmill now sits on dryland, along the road located alongside the Orcan River.

Image of Wakeham Sawmill

The Orcan River: A Part of Life

Still today one can find several boats anchored along the Orcan River. Along its course, one can see an assortment of birds—cormorants, sea ducks, gulls and even the odd seal, pursuing their life’s needs. Periodically, one might even catch the Atlantic herring coming inshore to spawn. The multitude of opportunistic gulls that appear, make it abundantly clear this has taken place.

Throughout the year, the gulls are a mainstay along the shoreline of the Orcan River. They sometimes rest along the rocks situated at the base of Mount Pleasant. Otherwise, they’re joined by the crows on the landwash, gorging on the shellfish stranded there in the sand when the tide is out.

Image: Gulls and crows on the landwash (Source: Lee Everts).

Like the boardwalk that follows the coastline, the Orcan River is part of the identity of the Placentia area. Since the time people settled in Placentia, the Orcan River has provided an important mode of transport. At the same time, whether on a brilliant sunny day or a sombre foggy one, the Orcan river offers a striking backdrop.

While the Orcan River was clearly vital in the past, it remains a distinct feature of the Placentia area.


  1. Until the communities of Dunville, Freshwater, Jerseyside, Placentia and the unincorporated area of Argentia amalgamated in 1994.
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