East Coast–From Isle Madame to Fourchu

[Original] Introduction

I planned my recent 2008 trip to Cape Breton to occur before the traditional Scottish music summer scene along the Cèilidh Trail had gotten into full swing, being in early June mostly confined to week-ends. This left me the week days, during which I could visit other parts of Cape Breton without having to return to the Cèilidh Trail (Highway 19) each evening to enjoy the cornucopia of dances, cèilidhs, concerts, and festivals that fill each summer evening and week-end there with the music I have grown to love.

During the first week, I decided to visit the east coast of Cape Breton, i.e., the coastal areas of Cape Breton Island from Isle Madame in the south to Point Aconi in the north. I chose to concentrate on the coastal areas because I love the sea and had seen comparatively little of the east coast. Moreover, I already had in my collection some photos of the inland areas, in particular Loch Lomond, the Bras d’Or Lake, the Barra Strait, and a few of St Andrews Channel. So it made more sense to concentrate on the coastal areas for this trip. Several years ago, I had driven the Fleur-de-Lis Trail, but that was before I had a camera, I did it in a single day, and my memories of that drive are blurred with time. Subsequent day trips to Isle Madame added a few photos to my collection, but hardly enough to give the flavour of the area nor of sufficient quality to use in a photo essay. I did get some good photos of Loch Lomond and Grand River Falls last year, but that was about it for Richmond County. Except for the Louisbourg area, my photos of the Cape Breton County coast were similarly scanty and many of the few I had were marred by cloudy weather or worse. It was well past time to try to better this situation.

What I couldn’t plan for was the weather, which in Cape Breton is regularly capricious and unforeseeable, often even a half-day in advance. I had the incredible luck to tour Cape Breton’s east coast during four days of generally superb weather: while not every hour was perfect, bright sun and blue skies usually prevailed when it mattered for photography and I took full advantage of them. I got so many good photos of so many different places, many of which were new to me, that my original concept of one essay covering Cape Breton’s east coast proved to be totally futile: it’s going to take at least three essays to even begin to scratch the surface. Because I just couldn’t find five photos that didn’t belong in this current essay, I’ve also had to expand this essay from twenty-five to thirty photos. So, herewith is the first instalment, which deals with the east coast in Richmond County from Isle Madame to Fourchu.

Named for Sir Charles Lennox, fourth Duke of Richmond and Lennox and Governor General of British North America in 1818 and 1819,¹ Richmond County occupies the southeastern corner of Cape Breton Island, bordered on the north and west by the Bras d’Or Lake; on the west by Inverness County and the Town of Port Hawkesbury; on the south by the Strait of Canso and its outlet, Chedabucto Bay; on the east by the Atlantic Ocean; and on the north by Cape Breton County.² It is therefore a county of many coasts, the more so in that a long chain of islands, the largest of which are Isle Madame, Janvrin Island, and Petit-de-Grat Island, forms its southernmost portion, spread from the mouth of River Inhabitants in the west to the Atlantic Ocean in the east and separated from Cape Breton Island by the Lennox Passage and from each other by a picturesque filigree of inlets and marshes. Richmond is the smallest of Cape Breton’s counties, with an area of 1,244.28 km² (480.4 sq. mi), but its population (in 2006) of 9,740 is larger than that of Victoria County, Cape Breton’s least populous county.³

Basque, Portuguese, French, and English fishermen came to this area not long after Columbus discovered North America. The Portuguese established a fishing station they called San Pedro in 1521 on the site of the narrow isthmus that, until the canal was built, separated the Bras d’Or Lake from the Lennox Passage. In time, Basque fishermen began to permanently settle in the area. The long-lived Nicolas Denys (1598-1688), a French entrepreneur who initially made a good living from several trading posts he set up on mainland Nova Scotia and in Cape Breton, established the first French settlement in the area, a trading post at San Pedro, which Denys, of course, renamed St-Pierre, later called Port-Toulouse, and now known as St Peter’s; an ideal location for trading with the native Mi’kmaq in the interior, he abandoned it after a fire destroyed his establishment during the winter of 1668-1669. Permanent French settlements were made on Isle Madame in the early 18th century, probably after the founding of Louisbourg. Since the land was unsuited for more than subsistence farming, the economy was based on cod, wood, and human labour. Petit-de-Grat on Isle Madame, known as a major cod fishing centre and notorious for smuggling, rivalled Louisbourg in the volume of trade during this period. Expelled by the English in 1758 after the fall of Louisbourg, the Acadians were allowed to return after the peace treaty of 1763. Acadians gradually spread out from Isle Madame to settle in River Bourgeois and L’Ardoise, to the north and east of Isle Madame across the Lennox Passage.

As in Chéticamp, the Robin family from the Isle of Jersey established an exploitative fishing and trading operation in Arichat; unlike in Chéticamp, however, the Robins did not achieve a monopoly (in part, because their Arichat headquarters were burned in 1775 by John Paul Jones), but instead faced competition from other families from the Isle of Jersey and from Ireland, whose operations were no less exploitative of the population. Again unlike in Chéticamp, where the Jersey merchants owned the entire fishing fleet, the Acadians of Isle Madame built and owned many of their own boats and manned and operated them; this therefore placed them in a better bargaining position, although the merchants did achieve a monopoly in both commodities and equipment, including the salt that was essential for curing fish.

In the early 19th century, the economic growth of Arichat, then Richmond County’s commercial centre (and still its county seat) attracted many Irish, English, and Scottish settlers to Richmond County, substantially altering its culture. Shipbuilding became a major industry, with nearly 60 ocean-going vessels a year being constructed in Arichat alone in the 1830’s; this led to the development of ancillary operations, such as forges and metal working, to supply the needs of the ship builders. The prosperity arising from these new activities combined with the lucrative fishing trade revenues led to the construction of churches and schools. Arichat was chosen as the seat of a new Catholic diocese for eastern Nova Scotia and L’Assomption, the parish church built in 1837, became its cathedral with the ordination of the first Bishop of Arichat in 1844. In 1853, a seminary/college for men was opened in Arichat, intended to provide an education both to lay students and future clerics; this institution was transferred to Antigonish in 1855, where, in 1866, it became coëducational under the name St Francis Xavier University; the seat of the diocese itself was transferred to Antigonish as well in 1880.

With the advent of steam and boats made of iron, whose construction involved investments and expertise out the reach of Isle Madame’s merchants and entrepreneurs, the heyday of Isle Madame and the surrounding area entered a long slow decline, leading to a significant out-migration that continues to this day, the causes and consequences of which are described in considerable detail in this most interesting article (courtesy of the Wayback Machine, as the original is no longer on line). With the collapse of the fishing stocks in the late 20th century, the economy today is mainly based on those who work in the industries of nearby Port Hawkesbury; tourism and some residual fishing provide additional seasonal income.

With this very brief introduction to the county, let us now be off to its coasts!

Victor Maurice Faubert
2008 July 13

¹ Place Names of Atlantic Canada, p. 392, in the article for Richmond. That article continues, “Described as a ‘broken down nobleman,’ [the Duke] is best remembered for the numerous locations named for him in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. The Duke died of hydrophobia, contracted from the bite of a pet fox, on 28 August 1819, near Richmond in eastern Ontario.”

² Cape Breton County is coterminous with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM), but the latter does not incorporate either Eskasoni or Membertou, the First Nations which are located within the county.

³ The statistics come from the Wikipedia articles for the respective counties: Cape Breton County, Inverness County, Richmond County, and Victoria County.

⁴ Place Names of Atlantic Canada, p. 397, in the article for St Peter’s.

⁵ Ibid.

⁶ According to the article for Arichat in Place Names of Atlantic Canada, pp. 286-287, Arichat is the French form of a Mi’kmaq name whose original meaning is unknown. It may well have begun with the letter N, as the earlier variants Narischaque, Neireichak, Narichat, and Narachaque suggest.

⁷ This Wikipedia article says that “[p]arts of the Canadian Maritimes also use the term ‘shire town’ [instead of ‘county seat’] and that term does appear in the Wikipedia articles cited above in note 3 and in other articles as well, e.g., the one on Port Hood. However, I have been told that the term ‘shire town’ is not in use in Cape Breton, where ‘county seat’ is used, so that is what I have used here.

⁸ Unless otherwise attributed, the material in the preceding four paragraphs is a very condensed version of the extremely useful Brief History of Isle Madame; see it for further information.

Revision of 2012

I remain enchanted by the various beauties of Cape Breton’s east coast: I go back as often as I can arrange to be there. By now, I have driven most of the roads in the area at least once, though, as everywhere on Cape Breton, many nooks and crannies still remain for me to explore, both in the beautiful back country around Loch Lomond and along the Atlantic coast. The eastern coast of Richmond County is nearly devoid of people from Grand River north to Framboise, and neither of those communities is very large these days, but the area’s scenery, wild yet often tranquil, speaks to me and constantly lures me back.

While revising this essay, I have been especially struck by my incredible luck with the weather during the days I took these photos. Most of my return trips have been under skies that may have started out blue but quickly turned grey: two consecutive days of fabulous weather in early June have, in my experience, sadly proven extremely rare in this corner of Cape Breton, which is especially subject to all the storms and winds that the Atlantic can deliver. But the memories of these two days, brought back by these photos, will remain with me forever. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I do!

Victor Maurice Faubert
2012 April 12

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Note 1: If you are unfamiliar with the place names mentioned in this essay, a list of map resources is given here. Of these, the best computer-readable map of Cape Breton Island that I currently know about is the Cape Breton Travel Map, produced by Destination Cape Breton and, thanks to their express written permission, available as a PDF file here; I strongly urge you to download it. This map scales nicely, allowing you to zoom in on an area of interest, has a very helpful place name index, and provides a level of detail, both of back roads and streams, that is quite good.

Note 2: See the description here for the notation I use for GPS (Global Positioning System) coördinates. I did not have a GPS device when I took the photos in this essay; the coördinates found here are those written down on later trips or computed from Google Maps; when no coördinate is given, I have been unable to reconstruct where I was exactly when the photo was taken.

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