The Geologist James Patrick Howley , native Newfoundland son, was a geologist, surveyor, anthropologist, naturalist, curator, educator and prodigious writer, who over a 42 year span (1868 – 1909) surveyed much of the then unknown Newfoundland interior, as well as charting the geology of its coastal regions. Along with Alexander Murray, Howley is a founding father of Newfoundland geology.
His careful and insightful pioneer work provided the critical framework for understanding one of the most complex and geologically-fascinating parts of the world.
One of 13 siblings, James Patrick was born into the family of Richard Howley, an Irish immigrant, and Elizabeth Burke, a native of St. John’s, on July 7, 1847. His father had been a prominent merchant and trader in St. John’s, but the great fire of 1846 had destroyed both his business and home and the family was forced to move to their summer place (Mount Cashel) a small distance outside the city, just prior to James being born.
Thus James grew up with middle class sensibilities but in less than prosperous circumstances. Nonetheless he recalled his childhood as an exceptionally happy one.
He attended St. Bonaventure’s College in St. John’s and from his early boyhood displayed a keen interest in the natural world. Unlike most children, this early passion was to become his lifelong vocation.
In his own words At an early age I began to acquire a large collection of stones, shells, and such like, and when my curios became a nuisance and were thrown out of doors, as was often the case, I felt very sore indeed. I knew nothing then of the sciences of geology and mineralogy. In fact, I had never heard of them. They were things unthought of in my young days. They did not figure at all in our school curriculum.
It was not till I left school that I first came across an article on geology in Chambers’s Miscellany which I read with avidity. What a revelation it was, to be sure! I became absorbed at once in the wonderful vista it opened up to my mind. Office work of any kind had no attractions for me.
I longed for the free and glorious outdoor existence.
In 1867 Howley joined the Newfoundland civil service, working as a clerk in the office of the colonial secretary. Here he met the redoubtable Alexander Murray, former provincial assistant geologist under Sir William Logan, who had been appointed head of the newly formed Newfoundland Geological and Topographical Survey.
For the summer of 1868 Murray hired the 21 year old Howley as his assistant, possibly on a trial basis, apparently impressed by the young man’s amateur knowledge of natural history and his enthusiasm for the outdoors. The experiment evidently worked, and a collaborative partnership was born that was to be of great benefit to all Newfoundlanders, helping the colony to understand its mineral, agricultural and forestry potential, as well as opening up its vast untapped interior.
James Howley spent some 42 seasons in the field. When Murray retired in 1883 Howley was put in charge of the Newfoundland Survey although he was not made its official helmsman until 1898. He retired from the Newfoundland Survey in 1909, and passed away on January 1st 1918.