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.

A False Start

The first step toward making the canal a reality came in 1796, when the provincial legislature ordered a survey to formally cost out construction. The survey was released a year later, estimating the total cost at just over 32,000 pounds (approx. $6.7 million).

In 1798, the legislature debated a bill to incorporate a canal company. However, it was defeated, and the plan was shelved.

Francis Hall’s Report

In 1824, the idea of a canal was revived when the legislature ordered a new feasibility study. This study was led by Francis Hall, an engineer who had previously worked on canals in Scotland.

Hall proposed a canal connecting Halifax Harbour with the lakes of Dartmouth and beyond, extending to Shubenacadie Grand Lake. From Grand Lake, the canal would follow the route of the existing Shubenacadie River, with portions of the river dredged or augmented with canal locks to make it navigable by larger boats. The canal would include 19 locks in total, including seven between Halifax Harbour and Dartmouth’s Lake Banook alone, and could accommodate steamships, sailing boats, and barges with a draft up to eight feet.

Hall envisioned steam-powered tugboats with 12 to 14 horsepower pulling up to four 30-imperial-ton trade boats along the waterway. He imagined these boats would be able to make the trip from Halifax to the Bay of Fundy in about 15 hours. Compare this to modern semitrailer trucks, which can only carry up to 49 imperial tons using engines of over 500 horsepower!

The Shubenac(c)adie Canal Company

With Hall’s detailed plans and costing, the project finally seemed viable. On June 1, 1826, the Shubenaccadie Canal Company (with two c’s) was incorporated. The spelling of the name would fluctuate between “Shubenaccadie” and “Shubenacadie” (with one c) for several years before eventually settling on the latter.

The new company needed several things to be successful. Chief among them were people to be in charge of the planning, building, and operation of the canal, wealthy investors to put money into the project to keep it going, and a large skilled labour force to do the back-breaking work.

Michael Wallace, a prominent Halifax politician and the future namesake of Port Wallace, was appointed as president of the company. Francis Hall was named chief engineer, and the committed canal supporter Charles Rufus Fairbanks became the company’s secretary. Samuel Cunard, the shipping magnate who would later found the renowned Cunard Line, served as one of the company’s vice-presidents and was also a significant investor.

Aside from government funding, the newly formed Shubenacadie Canal Company was financed largely by shares sold to the merchant community of Halifax. Notable backers or investors for the Shubenacadie Canal included famous brewmaster Alexander Keith, former privateer and Halifax businessman Enos Collins, and the aforementioned Samuel Cunard.

Breaking Ground

Work on the Shubenacadie Canal officially began on July 25, 1826, with a ceremonial sod-turning in what is now Shubie Park. The ceremony was attended by some of the most prominent political and business leaders in British North America at the time.

The construction of the canal 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.

The Shubenacadie Canal Company needed a large labour force and skilled workers to build the canal. Many of these workers came from Ireland and Scotland and lived in camps along the canal route. One of these camps grew into the former Irish Town neighbourhood of Dartmouth (now Ochterloney Street); the ruins of the stone dwellings of another camp can still be seen in Shubie Park today.

Click here to read the names of the canal workers from Daniel Hourd’s Port Wallace crew between July and August 1830.

Design and Building Methods Used

The Shubenacadie Canal was modelled after canals being built in England and Scotland at the time, which used masonry locks faced with cut granite stone laid in cement. Sluice valves were placed into tunnel culverts to control the flow of water, while waste-weir dams were built adjacent to the locks on the interior lakes section of the canal. Waste weirs are slatted 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 gunpowder to bore their way through the bedrock for more than a kilometre. The steep earthen 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 that 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. Its calm and still waters are also enjoyed by paddlers and paddleboarders.

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 19 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.