Sullivan’s Pond is a prominent body of water located in downtown Dartmouth and one of the most striking examples of how the construction of the Shubenacadie Canal changed the face of the province.
Prior to the 1820s, the geography of Dartmouth was very different. Sullivan’s Pond in particular did not exist at all. In its place, a stream flowed from Lake Banook to Halifax Harbour. This watercourse was known as Punmakati (“tomcod brook”) in Mi’kmaq, or Sawmill River in English. Although it was not deep enough to be navigable by boats, the stream provided water power to a handful of businesses along its route, including the eponymous sawmill.
When construction began on the Shubenacadie Canal in 1826, the plans called for a navigable waterway from Lake Banook to Halifax Harbour. Because of the large vertical distance involved (over 60 feet), there were to be between five and seven locks constructed in this section of the canal alone. Operating this many locks over such a short distance would require a considerable supply of water. To this end, an artificial pond was excavated near the source of Sawmill River, with a circular dam built at the south end. According to local tradition, this pond was named after a canal foreman named Mr. Sullivan. Sawmill River continued to flow to the harbour from the south end of the pond, albeit on an altered course.
During this first construction period, much of the work was done by new immigrants from Ireland and Scotland. These workmen and their families lived just to the south of the pond in an area known as Irishtown. On the weekends, it was common for people from Halifax to journey across the harbour to view the locks and to visit Irishtown, since music and dancing were common there. Although this settlement has disappeared, its legacy lives on in the name of Irishtown Road, located near the intersection of Portland Street and Prince Albert Road.
In 1831, construction on the Shubenacadie Canal came to an abrupt end because the Shubenacadie Canal Company was no longer able to pay its workers. Although Sullivan’s Pond was complete and several of the Dartmouth locks had been partially built, the system was not actually navigable. No further work was done on the canal for 23 years.
In 1854, construction on the Shubenacadie Canal resumed under the supervision of chief engineer Charles William Fairbanks. Fairbanks decided not to use the Dartmouth locks, instead replacing them with a more cost-effective marine railway inspired by the Morris Canal in New Jersey. Constructed between 1860 and 1861, this marine railway featured a wooden boat cradle which ran on rails between Halifax Harbour and Sullivan’s Pond. The cradle was pulled along like a cable car, with water from Sullivan’s Pond used to power the turbine that made the system run. Once boats entered Sullivan’s Pond, they would be able to sail to Lock 1 and enter the rest of the canal system. Although the marine railway closed in 1871, Starr Manufacturing Company bought the turbine chamber and continued to run its own machinery with water from the pond for decades afterward.
Sawmill River continued to run from Sullivan’s Pond to Halifax Harbour long after the canal shut down. After Hurricane Beth caused severe flooding in downtown Dartmouth in August 1971, Sawmill River was diverted to an underground culvert as a preventative measure. In 2018, the underground river was partially daylighted, and it can now be seen flowing alongside the reconstructed Dartmouth marine railway. As of 2019, there are plans to daylight more of the river.
Today, Sullivan’s Pond is one of the best-known scenic and recreational areas of Dartmouth. Its banks are lined with park space perfect for summer picnics. The grounds feature a concert pavilion and a cenotaph, and there is even a fountain in the middle of the pond. Although it may not have been quite how they intended, the builders of Sullivan’s Pond succeeded in transforming Dartmouth forever.