PHASE 1 1826 - 1831

Sir John Wentworth (Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, 1792-1808) was one of the first supporters of the Canal.

Sir John Wentworth (Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, 1792-1808) was one of the first supporters of the Canal.

The Shubenacadie Canal Company, Incorporated 1826
Planning, designing and building a canal was very hard work especially in the early nineteenth century. Before any building could begin, on the Shubenacadie Canal, a company was needed to be in charge of the planning, building and operation. That company also needed wealthy investors to put money into the project to keep it going, as well as a large skilled labour force to do the back-breaking work.

Dreamers and Visionaries
The newly formed Shubenacadie Canal Company was financed mainly by shares sold to the merchant community of Halifax

The Company consisted of Francis Hall, an English Civil Engineer who was hired to build the canal. Charles Rufus Fairbanks served as the company's Secretary. A member of the Nova Scotia Legislature, Michael Wallace, for whom Port Wallace is named, was the Company President.

Noted backers or investors for the Shubenacadie Canal included, famous brewmaster and Mayor of Halifax, Alexander Keith, former privateer and Halifax businessman Enos Collins, and Samuel Cunard, who became the head of the famous shipping empire, the Cunard Line. 

The Work Begins
The Shubenacadie Canal company needed a large labour force and skilled workers to build the canal. Canal engineer Francis Hall brought workers from Ireland and Scotland on the brig Corsair from Scotland. Forty stone masons and their families arrived at Halifax Harbour on September 8, 1827. This was the first wave of Irish and Scottish immigrant workers to Halifax and Dartmouth.

While building the canal, the workers lived at the workers' camp at Port Wallace, in stone shelters along the canal. The ruins of these homes can still be seen in Shubie Park today.    In the summer of 1826 construction of the canal started immediately with the Dartmouth and Port Wallace sections.

Francis Hall’s plan involved working with one river, seven lakes, and a connection with Halifax Harbour, Port Wallace, and Maitland. His plan recommended 18 locks with a draft of 8 feet to accommodate steamships, smaller sailing vessels, and barges. Canal building was divided into sections such as, locks, dams, and cutting and embanking as required. There were specifications for each section of the canal, from Halifax Harbour, to the Minas Basin, which depended on the natural river depth, and landscape.

Names of the Canal workers from Daniel Hourd's Port Wallace crew. July - August 1830

Design and Building Methods Used
The Shubenacadie Canal design was modelled after canals being built in England and Scotland at the time, which were masonry locks faced with cut granite stone laid in cement. Sluice valves were placed into in tunnel culverts to control the amount of water while waste-weir dams were built adjacent to the locks on the interior lakes section of the canal These are slated gates used to remove excess water or drain the canal for repairs and winter shutdown.

The Deep Cut
The section of the canal between Lake Micmac and Lake Charles is known as the “Deep Cut” and needed to be at least eight feet deep. Made by hand, workers used shovels, pick axes, and gun powder to bore their way through this deep channel which was cut through bedrock for more than a kilometre. The steep earth banks on either side of the canal shows how far down the canal workers had to dig. It was the hardest and most expensive portion of project and took three years to excavate. Walking along the cut, between Lake Charles and Lake Micmac, you can still see piles of rocks the workers brought up when they were cutting through the channel.

Since the Shubenacadie Canal was built, this deep channel between the two lakes has taken on the appearance of a natural stream and is home to ducks, beavers, muskrats and dozens of other animal species. It's calm and still waters are also enjoyed by paddlers and paddle boarders.

The Canal Funds Dry Up
By 1831, the money invested to build the canal had run out. Cost overruns with materials, skilled and regular labour, and technical problems with the lock wall structures had brought construction of the canal to a close. Only 13 of the 18 locks originally planned by Francis Hall had been finished or just started.

Did you know?
When canal construction stopped in 1831 some of the stone masons, in need of wages, took jobs in local projects such as the building of the Henry House on Barrington St. in Halifax, as well as a number of other stone buildings during that period. It was not very difficult for the masons to get work as they were skilled and in high demand due to all of the building taking place in Halifax and Dartmouth at that time.

PHASE 2  1854 - 1871

A Second Chance for the Shubenacadie Canal
Between its closure in 1831 and beginning of the Second Project Phase in 1854, there had been many appeals made to finish the canal. Engineer Charles William Fairbanks, son of Charles Rufus Fairbanks, was determined to finish the canal and was a leading force in its completion.

Phase II of the Shubenacadie Canal was carried out by the newly formed Inland Navigation Company, with Charles William Fairbanks as its President and Engineer. To complete the canal, the new company changed the original British stonework lock designs. They used more inexpensive and practical American methods and materials, such as stone and wooden construction.

Phase II was inspired by Charles William Fairbanks’ tour of Morris Canal in New Jersey, USA. This phase of building would also include two inclined planes, or marine railways. The larger Morris Canal had 40 such planes.

Completing the Canal, in the American style with  two marine railways, would be more cost-effective and feasible to build, and more efficient to operate. As a result, by 1856-1861 the Canal was fully operational.
Design and Features of Phase II
From 1861-1870, nine locks and two marine railways allowed the Shubenacadie Canal system to raise and lower boats to a total of 29 m from sea level to Lake Charles. The two marine railways, on inclined planes, replaced seven locks.

The inclined plane located at Portobello was the first of its kind built in British North America. It replaced the three locks of the first canal phase. The second marine railway was located between Dartmouth Cove and Sullivan’s Pond, a distance of 1,250 feet and a vertical lift of 57 feet. It was referred to as the Dartmouth Cove Marine Railway and took 15 minutes to lift vessels up and over its inclined plane.

The largest vessels used on the canal were a English style sailing vessels and small steamships which would tow barges up and down the canal. An American side-wheel steamer, Avery was built specifically for use on the canal. Other vessels used included the Mayflower and the barge Lilly, a workhorse of the canal.

Years of Service
By 1861, small inland steamers, sailing vessels and barges carried goods through a series of nine locks, two marine railways, across seven lakes and one river. 

The two marine railways, were powered by water turbines, and were able to transport vessels through the canal system faster and more efficiently than via locks.

The canal transported goods for the gold mining era in Waverley and for what is now known as the Montague Gold Mines. The canal ensured that coal from Halifax Harbour was brought inland, while lumber, bricks and granite came to Halifax from the Grand Lake area to fuel construction and growth of downtown Halifax and Dartmouth. Other goods from inland were taken to Halifax Harbour for transport to Europe.

The Shubenacadie Marine Railway enjoyed some 14 years of service before it shut down in 1871 due to financial issues, and the building of the railway which could transport goods faster and at less expense, thus making the canal obsolete. 

These two round stone markers in Sullivan's Pond were built by Scottish and Irish stone masons in 1831. They mark the entrance to the first lock in the canal system located at the bottom of Lake Banook.