A handful of committed Haligonians fight for the city’s natural treasures
A lost marvelBy Tom Mason | Oct 3, 2012
It’s barely visible now but—linking Halifax to the Bay of Fundy—the Shubenacadie Canal was a remarkable achievement in its day.
History runs rich in Dartmouth’s Shubie Park. Amid the bustle of dog walkers, picnickers and joggers, it’s still possible to stumble upon old arrowheads or stone tools dropped by Mi’kmaq portagers centuries ago. And the barely noticeable piles of quartzite stones that lie beside the park’s well-worn paths were once rude stone huts known as “blackhouses” occupied by Irish labourers and their families. Nearby is the object of their labours: the “deep cut,” a huge trench they dug by hand so that barges could navigate the Shubenacadie Canal. At the other end of park are two partially restored locks that once raised and lowered boats between Lake Charles and Lake Micmac.
“Lock 2 is a strange construction,” says Bernie Hart, volunteer heritage secretariat with the Shubenacadie Canal Commission, as we traipse through the woods past a pile of blackhouse stones. It’s immediately obvious. One wall was built with granite blocks, each one carved to exactly the same dimensions and fit together like a fine stone building. The other wall is a haphazard quartzite. “Charles Fairbanks was a pragmatic man and he used what was available to him,” says Hart. “The canal experts have never seen anything like it.”
What remains of the Shubenacadie Canal is a museum without walls, 114 kilometres long and a few metres wide, that illustrates virtually every kind of 19th century ship-moving technology in its deteriorating ruins. Its two inclined planes were a state-of-the-art innovation in the 1850s, designed to haul canal boats out of the water and drag them up or down a large slope to the next body of water. Its five standard lift locks were built using at least four different construction techniques of the day. The remains of two more lock types lie in the Shubenacadie River: a diversion canal lock that allowed boats to navigate around a shallow point in the river, and an in-river lock that operated essentially as a dam with double doors to allow the passage of boats.
The canal and its history start near the spot in Dartmouth where Ochterloney Street and Alderney Drive converge onto Prince Albert Road. Buried under a field beside the road is a round 13-metre shaft, wide enough for a large man to stand with outstretched arms—the last remnant of the Scotch turbine that once drove the inclined plane here. Powered by the flow of water funneled from the adjacent Sullivan’s Pond, the turbine pulled canal boats suspended in a large cradle out of Halifax Harbour and deposited them into the pond. From there they would pass through a lock located next to what is today the Banook Canoe Club into Lake Banook. Two more locks at Port Wallace would take them into Lake Charles, then on to a second inclined plane, two more locks at opposite ends of Lake Fletcher and into Grand Lake. Two diversion locks and two in-river locks were needed to pass through the upper Shubenacadie River before the river deepened and the sailing became clear from Lantz all the way to Maitland and the Minas Basin.
Today, Hart is the Shubenacadie Canal’s unofficial tour guide, a role he happily takes on for any school group or curious tourist who asks him. He’s been captivated by the canal for more than 40 years, since the days when he worked for the Nova Scotia Museum, and he was once executive director of the Shubenacadie Canal Commission, the non-profit group that oversees the protection, maintenance and restoration of the system. His tour hits all the major stops—the remnants of the two inclined planes, the wealth of canal features that pepper Shubie Park, even a lush wilderness park owned by the Canal Commission that sits beside the first diversion lock in Horne Settlement.
Lock 5, where Lake Fletcher flows into Grand Lake, is one of the highlights. The lock’s V-shaped mitered gates (the same simple design that Leonardo Da Vinci invented in 1497) are newer, cleaner than the others. In the 1990s, the Canal Commission restored Lock 5 to operating condition. All that was left was to rebuild the dam that would divert water into the canal channel. But at about the same time, a controversial dam on Alberta’s Oldman River led to changes in federal environmental regulations and the dam wasn’t approved. Today Lock 5 is a fully operational lock with a dry channel.
The construction of the original canal began in the early 1820s. However, the canal company ran out of money and abandoned it. Most of the Irish labourers pulled up stakes and headed for Ontario to work on the Rideau Canal. When a second construction effort started in the 1850s, the technology that would replace the canal was already in sight—the railroad. Ironically, that same railroad was the canal’s last big customer; the steam-powered canal boat Avery was given the job of hauling the rails and ties that would put her out of business. The contract was too lucrative to turn down.
It was that 30-year delay that doomed the Shubenacadie Canal, Hart believes. If it had been completed around the same time as the Rideau Canal, it would have operated long enough to become established in the hearts and minds of Nova Scotians and, like its Ontario cousin, would probably still be operating today. Ten years of operation wasn’t enough.
But the story is far from over. In a city already rich in history, the Shubenacadie Canal system has huge potential as a historical attraction, and if it could be restored to working condition it would be a boon for pleasure boaters, as well. After all, the Rideau Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage site that manages to maintain 47 19th-century locks in working order and 21 lock stations staffed with personnel, all for the benefit of boaters and canal buffs. Another working canal in New Jersey, called the Morris Canal, is even more similar in design to the Shubenacadie system—inclined planes and all. It’s the Morris system that serves as a model for what the Shubenacadie could be, says Hart.
But unlike the Shubenacadie, the Rideau never shut down. Canals are far cheaper to maintain than they are to restore from scratch after 150 years of idleness. Morris Canal is located in the most densely populated state in the U.S.—a state with huge financial resources. “It would be hugely expensive to restore it completely,” says Hart. “Many millions of dollars.”
But it could be done in bite-sized pieces, with one lock at a time brought back to life over a generation or two. The nearly restored Lock 5 is the best candidate, according to Hart. “It would open up Lake Fletcher to Grand Lake,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense because Fletcher and Grand Lake are both heavily used by boaters.”
For now there are little victories. When the government replaces the bridge in the center of Waverley, scheduled to happen in the next couple of years, they plan to build a higher bridge to allow canoes to go under without the need for a risky portage over Rocky Lake Drive. It will be the first time in decades that Lakes William and Thomas are connected by boat. Meanwhile, the Canal Commission is trying to make the system more accessible by building a hiking trail along its length. They are buying up land along the route to build campsites and parks so that overnight canoeists can make the entire journey uninterrupted. Work has already begun on the park beside Lock 6 in Horne Settlement. Hart says the commission would also like to team up with Mi’kmaq First Nations to develop an interpretive display.
The biggest project currently underway is a restoration of the inclined plane at Sullivan’s Pond. With volunteer help from local engineering firms and students at the Nova Scotia Community College, the Canal Commission is building a life-sized model of the cradle that will go on display at the spot where it once operated. It will be an important reminder for all Haligonians, says Hart. “The technology that operated on this spot was the most advanced technology in the world in the 1850s. And it was built right here in Dartmouth. We need to remember that.”