Cartwright is located within Sandwich Bay which has a longstanding Inuit presence and known to them as Natsiktok. Early French explorers to the area record Inuit communities here which has been confirmed by archaeology. Archaeological research primarily by Dr. Lisa Rankin confirms year round Inuit presence.
Captain George Cartwright, an English merchant, established a fish and fur trading business on the eastern side of Sandwich Bay in 1775, one of several established along the Labrador coast from 1770 to 1786. Two cannons on Flagstaff Hill guard the harbour from pirates and privateers. His book Journal of Transactions and Events During a Residence of Nearly Sixteen Years on the Coast of Labrador provides a detailed historical picture of the era. He sold the trading businesses to Hunt and Henley in 1815; they were purchased by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1873.
Bishops Field recorded in the mid 19th century that most people in the Cartwright area were Inuit or mixed Inuit. Today the descendants of these Inuit people still live there and are members of Nunatsiavut or NunatuKavut.
Cartwright was incorporated as a town in 1956, but was accessible only by a coastal ferry (based in Lewisporte) until the Trans-Labrador Highway linked the town to Red Bay/Forteau in 2002 and to Happy Valley-Goose Bay in December 2009. Many points beyond Cartwright still rely on the coastal ferry.
The Cartwright Hotel was destroyed by fire in 2013 and has not been rebuilt. A wooden structure with twenty rooms, a restaurant and bar, the hotel had employed at least a dozen locals. There is a tiny, six-room motel and tent/trailer camping; as space is very limited (and the next village nearly 200 km away), don't go without reserving lodging in advance.
A Gannet Islands Ecological Reserve 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Cartwright is the largest and most diverse sea bird breeding colony in Labrador, but is closed to all visitors except accredited scientific researchers. There are abandoned native or Métis villages and archaeological sites in the area, in some very awkward locations unlikely to be reachable except by boat. There is one local industry in the village, a Labrador Fisherman's Union Shrimp Company factory with 100-150 people packaging crab. The commercial cod fishery is largely gone due to a 1990s moratorium (like most Newfoundland communities) but there is recreational salmon fishing on the nearby Eagle River.
There is a fuel station and an Anglican church in the village, but no bank and no repair garage. The highway in this region is gravel until it joins the Trans-Labrador mainline at Cartwright Junction (no fuel, no services, no populated place). Expect no fuel and no services on the entire lonely 393 km (250 mi) of road northwest to Goose Bay (a sprawling 7700-person metropolis), or on the 187 km (120 mi) southward to tiny Port Hope Simpson (population 500). Cartwright's location is isolated, but represents a last chance for fuel, food and basic essentials before a very long journey to the next village. Labrador is sub-Arctic and winters are brutal. To the north, coastal native communities (mostly Innu) are accessible only by sea or by air.
Cartwright is on Highway 516. From Highway 510 (Trans-Labrador Highway) at Cartwright Junction (no services) and drive north on Highway 516 about 90 km (55 miles).
A seasonal coastal ferry service, based in Lewisporte, calls at Goose Bay to take on supplies for communities further north with no road access. One still can reach Rigolet-Cartwright-Black Tickle from elsewhere within Labrador on this ferry, although service has diminished in communities where a road is now open.
- Nunatsiavut Marine (MV Northern Ranger), 123 Main St, Lewisporte, ☏ , fax: . Cargo is no longer accepted at Lewisporte for Goose Bay and Cartwright, but Black Tickle, Rigolet, Makkovik, Postville, Hopedale, Natuashish and Nain remain accessible only by outport ferry.
- 1 Cartwright Airport (YRF IATA). Air Labrador (+1 709 938-7476) stops three times weekly (M W F) at Cartwright's small airstrip en route to/from Goose Bay. This flight follows the coast through a long list of Labrador villages (Black Tickle, Charlottetown, Port Hope Simpson, Williams Harbour, Fox Harbour and Mary's Harbour) southward to St. Anthony on Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula. Another coastal flight runs from Goose Bay northward to Nain, stopping in various native communities unreachable by road.
There are no taxis, buses, SkyTrain, subway or métro stations in Cartwright. There's also no commuter rail. One may travel on foot or by car within the village, which is a tiny and compact settlement. The coastal ferry docks are centrally located in the village, but the airstrip is a couple of kilometres (about a mile and a half) from the middle of town.
A few small outports in-region with no direct road access use ferry links to Cartwright as their access to "the beaten path" - although evidently the term in this context is relative.
- Flagstaff Hill Monument, on a hill overlooking the town and the bay, still has the cannons which defended the harbour two hundred years ago.
- Experience Labrador Tours, 20 Lethbridge Lane, ☏ . Tour office, boat facilities, souvenir and craft shop (Mealy Mountain Gallery), tent and trailer camping. Various tours and outdoor expeditions range from half-day to nine days. Seasonal. The website has a single splash page that they have suspended operations and to check back in 2020. As of August 2022, it has not been updated.
The Northern Store (Northwest Company) is the general store and main grocer in the village; there's also one convenience store and a fuel station.
The Mealy Mountain Gallery operates seasonally as part of Experience Labrador Tours, carrying native and local crafts, T-shirts, quilts and patches, carvings, pottery, jewellery, painting, photos, postcards, traditional cotton duck cossacks and outerwear.
- Learning's Take-Out, ☏ . Local and pub fare.
- M&K Cartwright, 189-191 Main Rd, ☏ . Self-service fuel station, bakery and convenience store.
- Northern Store, ☏ , fax: . Grocery and retail store, food and cold drinks "to go". General store with hardware, housewares, toys. Snowmobile sale and rental.
Liquor [dead link] is available at the Northern Store.
Options are limited; the village's lone bed-and-breakfast house removed its online listings (two rooms) in 2015 and the Cartwright Hotel was destroyed in 2013. Experience Labrador offers seasonal accommodations (a trailer, tenting experiences and tent rental sites) and reports the Northside Motel to still be operational.
- [dead link] Northside Motel, 8 Low Road, ☏ . Tiny six-room motel with Wi-Fi, TV. As of 2004, Northside Enterprises was also operating a Northside Pub downstairs and Mug Up restaurant next door (M-Sa 11AM-1PM, 4-7PM; F 'til 9PM; Su 4-7PM). While the property's own website has not been updated in over a dozen years, annual provincial inspections indicate food service of some form remains available at this establishment. $95-105.
Well known for salmon and fly fishing, Eagle River is accessible by sea or by float plane. The river ends on the opposite side of Sandwich Bay, approximately 18 miles west from Cartwright. There are multiple fishing camps operated by various outfitters, who typically bundle food, lodging, boat and motor rental and the services of a guide into one big, expensive package. Other activities include kayaking and sightseeing by boat or aircraft. Operations are highly seasonal; operators begin to scale back activity by late August. Speckled trout, northern pike and Atlantic salmon are caught mid-June to mid-August; salmon fishing continues through August and September. Trout season officially ends September 15.
Eagle River is off the grid and has no roads, but is reachable by float plane (from Goose Bay) or boat (typically from Cartwright). Baggage capacity on these small aircraft is limited, so anything beyond 50 pounds (such as food/drinks and supplies) will be brought by sea. The lodges and cabins typically offer most of the comforts of home, but the power comes from a generator and network access from a satellite. Telephone calls to the camps are carried by satellite or Internet telephony (often listing an out-of-province telephone area code), cookstoves use propane and any pumps or filters to deliver running water are installed locally.
- Cloud 9 Salmon Lodge, Lethbridge Island, ☏ , (Globalstar satellite). Can accommodate eight guests in four double occupancy rooms.
- Eagle River Trout Lodge, Port Blandford, ☏ .
- [dead link] Eagle River Outfitters (Spirit Wind Salmon Lodge), ☏ (Globalstar satellite), toll-free: . Atlantic salmon fly fishing. $380-932/person per day, plus sea transport from Cartwright $200-400/person (return).
- [formerly dead link] Park Lake Lodge, Park Lake (100km SE of Goose Bay), ☏ , fax: . At the headwaters of the Eagle River, near Mealy Mountains park, reachable by aircraft from Goose Bay. Accessible by snowmobile in winter to welcome visitors for skiing and ice fishing.
- Pratt Falls Lodge, Eagle River, ☏ , (Lodge Internet telephone). Ninety minutes by boat ($300/two persons, each way) across Sandwich Bay. Lodge with running water, satellite Internet and generator; the four two-room cabins together can hold a total of 12-16 people. Packages with fishing guide, boat and motor, meals and lodging are $1,700/day or $12,900/week (double occupancy). Weekly package rate includes transport and fishing licence, but not fishing equipment.
- Rifflin Hitch Lodge, Eagle River. 7,000-square-foot lodge, en-suite baths, dining room with resident chef, recreation room, outdoor sauna, hot tub, pool table and fireplaces. Fishing equipment, satellite telephone, Internet, television. Canoeing/kayaking.
Cartwright is the end of the road.
If heading south, there is a half-hour time difference between Cartwright (Atlantic time, AST/ADT) and Port Hope Simpson (Newfoundland time, which continues to Forteau). The only way out by road is to rejoin the Trans-Labrador Highway mainline 90km south at Cartwright Junction (there's nothing at this crossroads, no services, no fuel). One may then continue northwest to Goose Bay or south to Port Hope Simpson, Red Bay and Blanc Sablon-Forteau.
A full tank of fuel (or even a spare can) is advised as the 400km of empty wilderness between Cartwright and Goose Bay provides no refuelling stops.
Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve (+1 709 458-2417) is accessible from Cartwright by sea, usually with the aid of an outfitter. It is a 10,700 km2 national park established 2015 to protect boreal forest, caribou, Atlantic salmon and trout, wolves, black bear, marten and fox, mountains, tundra, fjords and expansive native landscapes. A 50 km stretch of sandy beaches at the edge of the park, known since Viking times as the Wunderstrand, is suitable for hiking.