History of the Shubenacadie Canal

It was Nova Scotia's Governor, Sir John Wentworth, who recognized he could achieve his military and economic goals for this new colony by constructing a canal from Halifax Harbour which would connect to the Shubenacadie River and the Bay of Mines (Minas Basin).

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Wentworth was hardly the first person to recognize the value of the Shubenacadie waterway as a transportation corridor, however.

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The waterway itself is more than a river; more than a canal. It’s a web of rivers and lakes that’s been in use as a transportation route for millennia. From the air, the chain of lakes and rivers stretching across Nova Scotia is obvious. Two hundred years ago, European arrivals to the Mi’kmaq district of Segepenegatig would have seen the network of lakes, rivers, and portages being used for transportation, hunting, and commerce.

The earliest archeological finds along the waterway suggests that the Mi’kmaq used it at least 4,000 years ago, as an attractive route that was accessible with only a few portages for their heavy birch bark canoes. The name Shubenacadie itself is a Mi’kmaq word meaning “where ground nuts grow”.

Watching the seasonal migration use by canoes, Wentworth dreamt of a faster and more reliable way to move goods and military forces across Nova Scotia. He realized that by making parts of the waterway deeper, and installing locks at key locations along the system, the could expand the reach of the English based in Fortress Halifax.

Wentworth wrote that “your territory at Kennetcook will be much improved by my plan of rendering the Shubenacadie navigable, and a communication thence to Dartmouth by a chain of lakes.”

Wentworth’s dream did not move from the drawing board until 1826 as part of an 1820's construction effort throughout British North America to build canals. In Nova Scotia, the canal was further rationalized as a way to avoid a dangerous sail to the Bay of Fundy by way of Cape Sable.

Plans for a system of locks finally took shape with the creation of the Shubenaccadie Canal Company, founded by a group of Halifax merchants including brewer/politician Alexander Keith

and Trans-Atlantic ocean baron Samuel Cunard.

(The company seal, at the top of the page, illustrated the activities and images of their day; hills, trees, water, locks, and two mules along a tow path. "Shubenaccadie" was the interpreted spelling of the native name for the area. Many references are made to the company in the records of the NS Legislature, as it was the most significant undertaking of its time. Unfortunately, no actual images of the Canal in operation exist today. That is why images of the Morris Canal in New Jersey, which was designed at the same time, are often taken as a reference for the Shubenacadie Canal.-ed)

Construction began in 1826 with the arrival of forty-four Irish stone masons from Scotland, all experienced in the construction of British style granite locks. Labourers – many of them also essentially stone masons – were also brought in from Ireland and the remnants of their work camps can still be seen along the canal as it winds its way through Dartmouth’s Shubie Park.

Civil engineer Francis Hall was hired and recommended a system over 17 locks. Work continued for five years. Hall’s design called for a draft of eight feet to accommodate the many steam and sailing vessels being used for military and commerce in Nova Scotia at the time.

By 1831 only 13 of the locks had been either completed or started. The Shubenaccadie Canal Company was out of money with no ability to continue work. Hopes to complete the canal were falling by the wayside. Building a canal with the best possible materials and the most highly skilled stone masons was an ambitious task, one that proved too ambitious for the financial resources of the Halifax merchant class of the day.

It wasn’t until 1853 that new life was again breathed into Governor Wentworth’s original dream of a waterway spanning the province. A new company, the Inland Navigation Company, was created to finish the project. A new engineer, Charles W Fairbanks, was hired to design a new plan – a less expensive plan – to finish the canal.

Fairbanks abandoned the British style of locks in favour of an American style of canal building. He chose to focus the design of the canal on some specific ships that would be able to travel the canal. In essence only two type of ships (both run by the new canal company) – an English style sailing vessel, and an American side wheel steamer – The Avery - would travel the waterway. This move allowed his new effort, the Inland Navigation Company control of the waterway, and also allowed Fairbanks to cut construction costs by reducing the minimum draft in half to four feet. By also reducing the size of vessels that would ply the waterway, Fairbanks was able to abandon plans for locks in some areas in favour of inclined planes, such as in downtown Dartmouth near what would one day become Greenvale School.

The Deep Cut stands out as a defining feature of the Canal to this day and is a testament to the work of the canal builders. Running from Lake Charles to Lake MicMac, it was the most expensive part of the canal to build. It took two full construction seasons and was cut into bedrock for over a kilometer.

By 1856 the Shubenacadie Canal was operating commercially for the first time since it was envisioned by Governor Wentworth in 1794. It would be the longest canal in Maritime Canada.

The Inland Navigation Company enjoyed 14 years of modest commercial success. While the canal was never used or needed for the military purpose originally envisioned, goods made their way back and forth along the canal, sometimes heading into Halifax on their way via larger ships in Halifax Harbour to Europe.

The Canal transported goods for the gold mining era in Waverley and for what is now known as the Montague Gold Mines. It ensured that coal could get inland from Halifax Harbour. Lumber, bricks, and granite came to Halifax from the Grand Lake area fueling the construction and growth of downtown Halifax and Dartmouth.

Ironically, one of the big revenue sources for the canal boats was the transport of iron for the new Nova Scotia Railway. It was this railway that would ultimately force the closure of the canal as a commercial operation. By 1870, the railway had replaced the draw bridges that crossed the canal with fixed bridges that prevented boats from passing underneath. Around the same time, the Town of Dartmouth took control of one of the canal’s reservoirs for drinking water. The commercial operation of the Shubenacadie Canal could not continue and came to a permanent end.

- Andrew Younger MLA