Design and Features

The completed Shubenacadie Canal featured nine locks as well as two marine railways at Dartmouth and Portobello respectively. These features allowed the system to raise and lower boats from sea level to the surface of Lake Charles, a total difference in elevation of 29 metres (95 feet). Three lock keepers oversaw the operation of the waterway, each responsible for about one third of the total distance. Henry Findlay was responsible for the section from Halifax Harbour to Portobello, William Michael King from Fletchers Lake to Grand Lake, and James McKenzie from Enfield northward along the Shubenacadie River.

It is unclear exactly how long a voyage on the full length of the canal would have taken. According to James McDonald, the captain of the canal flagship Avery, an experienced steamer crew would be able to make the trip to from Halifax via Maitland to Londonderry, located on the opposite side of the Bay of Fundy, in as little as 10 to 12 hours. This claim ultimately went untested because only one boat, the Avery itself, is known to have made the complete journey. Even then, it only did so twice. Its first trip from Halifax to Maitland in 1861 took eight days, owing to the ceremonial nature of the voyage as well as several technical delays. The less-eventful return trip took three days.

A barge being transported through one of the marine railways of the Morris Canal in New Jersey. This canal provided direct inspiration to Charles W. Fairbanks when designing the Shubenacadie Canal.

Years of Service

As various sections of the canal became operational, they began to be used even before the completion of the rest. As a result, the canal actually began seeing traffic in 1857, four years before it was totally completed.

The largest vessels used on the canal were American-style steamboats that had been custom-built for the waterway. The side-wheel steamer Avery was the first, followed by the sternwheelers Mayflower and Lockport. Arguably the biggest workhorse of the canal was the barge Lily of the Lake, commonly just called Lily. Equipped with sails that permitted it to travel under its own power when not being towed, the Lily could haul up to 80 imperial tons of cargo (81,284 kg or 179,200 lbs).

The rest of the vessels on the canal were smaller boats operated mostly by independent businesses. These included everything from English-style sailing vessels called scows down to single-user rafts.

The most common types of cargo on the Shubenacadie Canal were raw materials and supplies. Lumber, bricks, and granite were brought from the interior of Nova Scotia (primarily around Grand Lake) to Halifax to fuel the growth of the provincial capital and for export to abroad. A large amount of gold-bearing quartz was also hauled on the canal from the mines in the Waverley area. In return, goods like coal were shipped back up the canal from Halifax.

Nova Scotia Railway Engine No. 6, Pictou. Locomotives like this one proved an insurmountable adversary for canals across the world in the mid-19th century.

An Underestimated Rival

Throughout the second phase of construction, the Shubenacadie Canal was haunted by a powerful rival: the Nova Scotia Railway.

The railway broke ground in 1853, one year before construction began again on the Shubenacadie Canal. On February 1, 1854, just one week after the Inland Navigation Company’s first meeting, Nova Scotia’s first passenger locomotive departed Halifax. It carried a group of dignitaries along the first four miles (6.4 km) of completed track, beginning in Halifax’s North End and arriving near the present location of Mount Saint Vincent University on the Bedford Basin.

Chief engineer Charles W. Fairbanks was aware that the railway would pose a challenge, but he underestimated just how much it would hinder the development of the canal. Two years into construction, the Inland Navigation Company found itself stymied by shortages of both labour and materials, with the railway buying much of the good timber in the province and hiring many masons. Fairbanks’s vision of the future, where the railway and the canal coexisted, started to appear doubtful.

On June 3, 1858, the Nova Scotia Railway opened its Western Branch, connecting Halifax and the town of Windsor. With Windsor boasting a navigable connection to the Bay of Fundy via the Avon River, the railway thus accomplished the Shubenacadie Canal’s longtime goal three years before the canal was able to do the same.

The Shubenacadie Canal found it impossible to compete with the railway, particularly given the latter’s head start. The canal froze for several months each year and could not easily service new destinations. It therefore depended on the notion that the canal itself would fuel the growth of communities along its route. The railway, meanwhile, could run year-round. It also rapidly added new lines and stations throughout the latter half of the 19th century, connecting communities that were already well-populated. For most of the province’s merchants and travellers, there was no contest between the two rival networks.

The same story played out all over the world, as many inland canals fell victim to the allure of rail. Even the massive Morris Canal in New Jersey, which had directly inspired many of the advanced systems on the Shubenacadie Canal, was effectively bought out by a local railway company in 1871.

Showing Cracks

The Shubenacadie Canal’s financial problems started before its first anniversary of completion. Although the Inland Navigation Company had managed to finish the waterway, it did not have sufficient capital left over to service its debts. On June 11, 1862, all property related to the canal was sold off at a sheriff’s sale. Samuel Gray, the Inland Navigation Company’s secretary, and his business partner John Stairs bought all of it for just £12,700 (approximately CA$2.6 million in 2019), forming the new Lake and River Navigation Company.

The first few years of operations showed some promise, but the revenues of the canal soon took a downward turn and never recovered. In 1865, the position of lock keeper for the Shubenacadie River locks became vacant permanently. In 1866, the canal lost two of its biggest users, the Grand Lake Company and Her Majesty’s Naval Yard in Halifax.

After bleeding money for several years, the Lake and River Navigation Company sold off the canal in 1870. Lewis Piers Fairbanks, the younger brother of Charles W. Fairbanks, bought it for CA$50,000 (approximately CA$2.1 million in 2019). Later that year, on June 30, a toll collected on a load of 13 tons of lumber became the last recorded income of the canal.

Other businesses and individuals saw the financial troubles of the canal and readily took advantage of the situation. In 1870, prospectors looking for gold near the canal route damaged a water control dam, making the portion of the canal around Lake Charles partially inoperable. The same year, a drawbridge over the canal near Waverley was replaced with a fixed link without consulting Lewis Fairbanks. This bridge was too low to allow canal traffic to pass underneath it and was located in the middle of the canal’s most lucrative route from Grand Lake to Halifax. Lewis Fairbanks attempted to take legal action against this bridge, he was unsuccessful in having it removed. Although the canal was not formally closed to business, its fate was sealed.

Starr Manufacturing Company visible alongside part of the Dartmouth marine railway. This factory expanded onto the former canal lands and continued to operate until 1996.

Final Sale

Desperate to recoup at least some of his investment, Lewis Fairbanks turned to a combination of land sales and litigation. While he still held out hope the canal could be kick-started back into operation, he was nevertheless quick to sell off any land for which he could find a buyer. One of the most notable buyers was Starr Manufacturing Company, which bought the property of the Dartmouth marine railway in 1871 and used it to expand their factory.

Lewis Fairbanks also quickly gained a reputation as one of the most litigious men in Nova Scotia. He brought legal actions against virtually everyone who got too close to the canal’s remaining property, from gold prospectors entering onto the land to a butcher who collected ice for his shop from the waterway. One of these cases went as far as the Supreme Court of Canada in 1895, which rejected Fairbanks’s claim for compensation.

Lewis Fairbanks died in 1905. Three different members of the Fairbanks family had now seen the dream of the Shubenacadie Canal rise and fall, each in their own way.