Cape Smokey is a very memorable section of the drive around the Cabot Trail, in no small part because of the spectacular route it takes as it traverses Smokey Mountain, but also because of the superb views one has on a clear day from Cape Smokey Provincial Park, which lies below its summit.
But Cape Smokey was notable centuries before the Cabot Trail was a gleam in anyone’s eye, though from the sea rather than from the land. This Wikipedia article about Cape Breton Island tells us that the Portuguese established a fishing colony near Ingonish about 1521 that survived to as late as 1570. One learns from Dr. William B. Hamilton’s Place Names of Atlantic Canada, p. 307, citing one William Francis Ganong, that maps from that time show Cape Smokey marked with “the words fumdos, fumides, and fumos”, all of which are descendants of the Latin fūmus, meaning smoke, steam, vapours. Later French maps referred to it as Cap Enfumé, with the same sense. Hamilton says that the name was given because of the “high greyish banks in the elevated land south of Ingonish … that present from a distance a striking resemblance to clouds of smoke.” While bare cliff faces certainly remain visible in today’s distant views of Cape Smokey, to my mind at least, they don’t suggest smoke, especially since the vegetation is as or more prominent than the rock faces. An alternate explanation for the place name is the fog and haze that frequent the waters near and below Cape Smokey and the clouds that can descend well below its summit, either of which, from a distance, could readily also be taken as smoke. Whatever the actual explanation, its English name is the direct translation of the names used by the earlier European visitors.
Cape Smokey is actually a protuberance of the Cape Breton Highlands Plateau. Both south and north of Cape Smokey, the edges of the plateau are some distance inland from the ocean—often not by a lot, but still enough to provide a low-lying area over which man and beast can travel with relative ease—while at Cape Smokey they fall directly into the sea, seriously impeding such travel. So long as transportation was primarily by water, as it was for centuries after the initial sixteenth century settlements for the part of Cape Breton Island known as “north of Smokey”, the barrier Cape Smokey presented was bypassable, but to the settler who had to move by land, Cape Smokey was a serious obstacle, leaving no choice but to go up and over.
From pp. 159–160 of The Maritime Provinces: A Handbook for Travellers, edited by M. F. Sweetser and published in 1875 by James R. Osgood and Company of Boston, viewable from Google Books here, we learn that a road existed between St Anns and Ingonish passing over Cape Smokey in the nineteenth century:
[…] From St Anne’s to Ingonish the distance is about 40 M., by a remarkably picturesque road between the mountains and the Atlantic, on a narrow plain, which recalls Byron’s lines: —
“The mountains look on Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the sea.”
“Grand and very beautiful are the rocky gorges and ravines which furrow the hills and precipices between St Anne’s and Ingonish. . . . . Equally grand and picturesque is the red syenitic escarpment of Smoky Cape, capped with the cloud from which it derives its name, with many a lofty headland in the background, and the peak of the Sugar-loaf Mountain just peeping above the far-distant horizon.” (Brown)
The proud headland of Cape Smoky (the Cap Enfumé of the French) is 950 ft. high, and runs sheer down into the sea. To the W., there are peaks 1,200–1,800 ft. high; and as the road bends around the deep bights to the N., it passes under summits more than 1,400 ft. high. Among these massive hills, and facing Cape Smoky, is the village of Ingonish […].
The highway ends at Ingonish, and a trail crosses the mountains to the N. N. W. to Aspy Bay […].¹
Apparently, at this time this was written, a usable road, rather more than just a simple trail, ran across Cape Smokey, though it is important to remember that the meaning of the word highway today is not the meaning it had in 1875. This Trans-Canada Highway web site ungrammatically states:
It wasn’t until the early 1930’s one could travel by automobile over the Cape Breton Highlands. Cheticamp on the western side, while the foot of Cape Smokey on the eastern side would be the end of your travel. The sea would then become your way of travel. The communities in the highlands were extremely isolated, supplies could only be brought in by boat or winter dog team.
so I think it reasonable to infer that little use of the “highway” over Cape Smokey was made for transporting supplies by wheeled conveyances until the advent of the Cabot Trail in the past century. If anyone reading this has further information about the carriage of goods north of Smokey or the state of the road over Cape Smokey prior to the completion of the Cabot Trail, please contact me at the feedback address in the footer below as I would be very interested to learn of it.
The engineers who built the Cabot Trail in the 1930’s did a fine job of road-building, transforming the road over Cape Smokey into a route negotiable by automobiles. From the south, it now rises precipitously from about 40 m (130 ft) at a hairpin turn over Pathend Brook, making first a spectacular 270° counterclockwise turn as it clings to the sides of a ridge of Smokey Mountain with, at one point, the ocean directly below and then another 90° clockwise turn once well up the mountain, to level off at 275 m (902 ft) below the summit, which rises above the road to a height of 367 m (1,204 ft). From there, the road winds north over the plateau well inland of the ocean, and soon descends, more gently than it rose, generally following Red Head Brook, which runs in places along its shoulders, but still sharply and with occasional tight turns, until it reaches Ingonish Ferry, where it makes another 90° turn and continues descending until it is again next to the water, this time that of Ingonish Harbour. Anyone who has driven from Wreck Cove to Ingonish Ferry (or vice versa) will have no problem whatsoever remembering this exciting road! Hopefully, that drive was less harrowing than the one described on pages 41-42 of Confessions of a Boatbuilder by James Douglas Rosborough (ISBN 1574091271) and viewable here:
One day I received an urgent call from Holder from Ingonish in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The engine [on a boat] had seized up and thrown a piston right out through the block! Mary J. and her tow were alongside the government wharf as we discussed a rescue operation. I contacted Capt. Jack Cruikshank, and he still had the mate to the defunct engine. So I decided to buy it, as it should fit in place of its mate. I loaded the monstrous engine on a borrowed boat trailer and attached it behind my old 1958 Pontiac car for the trip to Ingonish, up over the famous mountainous Cabot Trail. My trepidation grew as I approached the 900-foot high Cape Smokey. My old car struggled up one side of the mountain, teetered at the top as I paused to let her cool off, then began the dangerous plunge down the other side. I knew there was a hairpin turn at the bottom, but I was preoccupied with trying to hold the whole thing on the road as we sped down faster. My brakes had been sending out great rolling clouds of blue smoke all the way down, but somehow I got to the bottom and around the turn safely.
I stop at the Cape Smokey Provincial Park each time I drive the Cabot Trail, which I do at least once each year. My first visit there in 2006 was on June 28, when the skies were blue and the sun was bright, but, sadly, there was also enough haze to make the distant views somewhat fuzzy; I stopped again on October 12 after a Celtic Colours concert in Dingwall the previous night and found the skies overcast and the weather threatening worse, so I took no photos. In 2007, I had better luck: August 10, a nearly hazeless beautiful clear day, was about as close to perfect for photography as one can get on Cape Breton Island, especially at Cape Smokey. I had known of the hiking trail from the park to Stanley Point since 2003, when I had hiked down it to the first look-off, about ten minutes from the parking lot, but neither then nor on any subsequent stop had I had both fine weather and enough time to explore the trail–the hike out and back takes an absolute minimum of three hours and more likely a good half day. I therefore set off that day down the trail to see what views it offered and I was well rewarded for my efforts (for information on this trail and my experiences hiking it, including additional photos, see this trail description).
Four of the photos in this essay were taken on the 2006 June 28 stop and the remainder on the 2007 August 10 visit; they are presented from south to north. I hope you will enjoy these photos and that they will either encourage you to visit this beautiful place if you are new to it or to have another look if you already know of it. Most especially, I hope they will inspire you to hike out to Stanley Point, for the panoramic vistas from this trail, to which no mere photos can begin to do justice, are among the very best that Cape Breton Island, the Beautiful Isle East of Ordinary, offers.
Victor Maurice Faubert
2008 January 28
¹ The heights given in this citation are a bit off: the highest point on Cape Breton Island (and in Nova Scotia) is White Hill (in the Cape Breton Highlands west of Ingonish), which reaches 535 m (1755 ft).↩