East Coast–Gabarus and the Mira River Area

[Original] Introduction

This essay, the second of a three-part series, continues the presentation of Cape Breton Island’s east coast which I began in the first part. This instalment deals with the southern part of Cape Breton County bordering on the Atlantic Ocean, though, of the areas discussed in this essay, only Gabarus and Mira Gut are actually on the coast—the remainder of the area described is a short distance inland. Other than from Gabarus, I still lack photos of Cape Breton County’s Atlantic coast south of the Louisbourg Fortress:

While I am therefore without views of much of the Atlantic coast in this area, I do have many photos of the adjacent, picturesque, and generally very accessible Mira River, Cape Breton’s longest at about 55 km (34 mi), at more points along its length than I have room for in this essay. It rises in the Figure of Eight Lake north of the Cape Breton County line, widens out just south of Victoria Bridge, and flows slowly and majestically through a valley in the form of a large arc from south to northeast, emptying into Mira Bay, an arm of the Atlantic north of Louisbourg, just after passing through the Mira Gut¹ where the coastal terrain constricts its heretofore great width to a very narrow passage, in places only 50 m (164 ft) wide with banks 20 m (66 ft) high. Much of the lower part of the river is a tidal estuary.²

Cape Breton County occupies the northeastern portion of Cape Breton Island. It is bounded on the south by Richmond County; on the west by the Bras d’Or Lakes system (the Bras d’Or Lake, East Bay, the Barra Strait, the Great Bras d’Or Lake, and St Andrews Channel) and includes the northeastern portion of Boularderie Island; and on the north and east by the Atlantic Ocean. Like Richmond County, it too is a county of many coasts and, since it contains the Mira River as well, adds its banks to its already extensive coast line. It is by far and away Cape Breton Island’s most populous county (109,330 in 2006) with 74% of the Island’s population, most of which is concentrated in the urban areas around Sydney Harbour (Sydney Mines, North Sydney, Sydney) and along the northern Atlantic coast (New Waterford, Dominion, Glace Bay). In area, however, it comes in third at 2,470.62 km² (953.9 sq mi), behind both Inverness County (the largest) and Victoria County (the second largest) and accounting for only 24% of the Island’s area.³ It was not always thus, however: until 1835, Cape Breton County was coëxtensive with Cape Breton Island, in which year it was subdivided into three counties, of which Cape Breton County remained the largest, still accounting for 51% of the Island’s area. In 1851, Victoria County was carved out of Cape Breton County, demoting it to its current rank.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish a fishing village on Cape Breton Island in 1521-1522, where as many as 200 people lived in what is today Ingonish (now in Victoria County), though sometime after 1570 this settlement disappeared for reasons unknown. Although John Cabot is said to have claimed this area for the English in 1497, the French were the first Europeans to lay real claim to Cape Breton Island, who made it a part of Acadie, their colony which they viewed as including parts of eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and modern-day New England, stretching as far south as Philadelphia. It was the French who first garrisoned Cape Breton Island, known to them as Isle Royale (Royal Island) in the contemporary spelling (Île Royale in today’s spelling), in the early 17th century: they built fortifications at St Anns (now also in Victoria County) in 1629 but, due to the problems caused by winter ice, abandoned them in 1641. At this time, the French were also present elsewhere on Cape Breton Island: in 1629, they forced a group of Scots who attempted to settle at Baleine to return home, though this did not prevent the English king Charles I from granting Cape Breton Island in 1631 to one of his nobles. The Peace of St-Germain in 1632 formally ceded Cape Breton Island to the French. Beginning in that year, Nicolas Denys explored the area on behalf of the French king and established fur trading posts at St Peter’s and St Anns, later becoming governor of the tiny French colony in Cape Breton. Motivated by a need to defend their colony, their lucrative fur trade, and their fishing vessels on the Grand Banks, in 1719, the French began building a large fortress on the banks of the well-protected and ice-free (though often fog-bound) harbour at Louisbourg. Unlike Fort-Sainte-Anne, Louisbourg prospered and grew, becoming a major fishery and commercial port as well as a naval centre where French vessels in the Atlantic wintered. The fortress at Louisbourg was attacked and captured in 1745 by New England forces backed by the British Royal Navy, but was returned to France by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) was fought by all the major powers of the period in both Europe and the colonies, where it was known as the French and Indian War. During this war, in 1758, the fortress at Louisbourg was again taken by the British who, in 1760, razed it to the ground, when Cape Breton Island was formally ceded to Britain and merged with the British province of Nova Scotia (which at that time also included New Brunswick and Île Saint-Jean (St John’s Island, since 1798 known as Prince Edward Island)). The Acadians in Cape Breton, formally expelled at the fall of Louisbourg (which alone then counted 4,500 civilians), either suffered deportation or fled to the interior or other safer havens (Île Saint-Jean, Îles-de-la-Madeleine (Magdalen Islands), and Saint-Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland); they were allowed to return in 1763 when the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War, but were greatly reduced in numbers. British settlers, mostly Scots and Irish, began arriving soon after; Judique (now in Inverness County) was the first Scottish settlement, established in 1775. Loyalist refugees from the Revolutionary War in the United States also began appearing in Cape Breton, though their numbers were considerably smaller than elsewhere in the Maritimes. In 1784, the British split what had been Nova Scotia into four colonies: New Brunswick; Cape Breton Island; St John’s Island; and Nova Scotia, consisting of the remaining territory of the old colony. The capital of the new Cape Breton colony was fixed at Sydney, which grew apace. In 1820, the British remerged Cape Breton with Nova Scotia, of which it has since been a part. During this period, Scottish immigrants, dispossessed of their living by the Highland Clearances, arrived in large numbers, with as many as fifty thousand settling in Cape Breton Island by the mid-19th century.

After the British took control of Cape Breton Island, its population was less than two thousand people. A survey conducted by Samuel Holland determined that Cape Breton Island contained rich coal deposits. Since the British did not want competition with their own resources and industries, Cape Breton languished for many years. The local economy was based primarily on fishing, subsistence agriculture, and forestry. However, from the 1830’s onward, the coal mines along the northern Atlantic coast, which had supplied coal to Fortress Louisbourg under the French, were repaired and expanded by both colonial (later Canadian) and American companies. Coal mining began on a grand scale in 1893 and steel mills soon followed, resulting in the rapid industrialization and urbanization of northern Cape Breton County and attracting settlers from as far away as Italy and a number of Eastern European countries, with a concomitant large increase in population. In the latter part of the 20th century, the several collieries ceased being profitable and closed down one by one; due to a loss of competitive advantage in the international steel markets, the steel mills also shut down. The county has been in economic decline for the past decades, experiencing out-migration and population decline. While some coal mining continues to this day, it is on a very modest scale. Service industries have employed some of those laid off by the closing of the mines and steel mills, but unemployment remains high. Tourism has become important to the county’s economy, with cruise ships visiting the harbours at Sydney and Louisbourg. Retail “box” stores have made Sydney the premier shopping area on Cape Breton Island and it remains its primary centre of commercial and administrative activity. The ferry to Newfoundland has its Cape Breton terminus in North Sydney and is also important to the county’s economy.

The southern part of Cape Breton County, the focal point of this essay, is, by contrast with the more urban north, decidedly rural: agriculture, forestry, and fishing remain the primary economic bases here as they have been since European settlement. With the reconstruction of Fortress Louisbourg in 1961, tourism also began to become important in this area. The Mira River is lined with numerous cottages and summer homes, many built by residents of the northern part of the county during its economic golden era; they give it a considerably different flavour from the almost entirely vacant areas of Richmond County’s Atlantic coast. There is a permanent year-round population here as well, many of whom commute to the urban areas to the north, living in houses that dot the area’s country roads or aggregated in a number of small communities of which the largest and most important are Gabarus, Marion Bridge, Albert Bridge, Catalone, and Louisbourg.

With this very brief introduction to Cape Breton County, let us now pick up where the first instalment left off.

Victor Maurice Faubert
2008 October 5

¹ The word gut appears in more than one Cape Breton place name: it has the sense of a strait or a narrow channel.

² Much of this paragraph’s information comes from this Nationmaster encyclopædia article on the Mira River; additional information was taken from this Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History web page describing the glacial till plain, which characterizes this area. The Nationmaster article is in turn very similar to this Wikipedia article, but the latter lacks the claim that the Mira is Nova Scotia’s longest river. According to this Nova Scotia government web page, that honour instead goes to the Shubenacadie River on mainland Nova Scotia, also confirmed by this Wikipedia article for the Shubenacadie River, which now gives the Shubenacadie’s length as 72 km (45 mi) [when this article was originally written, it gave it as 52 km (32 mi), so the Nationmaster article’s claim then seemed valid]. In any case, the Mira is Cape Breton’s longest river, even though it is not Nova Scotia’s longest.

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

⁴ The information in this and the previous paragraph was assembled from several sources, primarily Robert Morgan’s Early Cape Breton from Founding to Famine [Breton Books, 2000 (ISBN 1-895415-60-8)] and a paper entitled “South-Western Cape Breton: the Cross-Roads of Eastern Nova Scotia” (now, courtesy of the Wayback Machine as the original is no longer on-line) as well as from the Wikipedia articles for Cape Breton Island, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, and the Fortress of Louisbourg.

Revision of 2012

I have since revisited, often more than once, most of the places that were new to me at the time of the trip described in this essay. As well, I finally got to the Atlantic coast west of Louisbourg as far as Kennington Cove and explored the Fourchu coast at Belfry Gut. I also saw some more of Gabarus Lake. Very little of what I wrote then has needed revising; this is an almost timeless area, little affected by the passage of years, other than the constant coastal erosion. It is as beautiful today as it was when I first saw it.

Victor Maurice Faubert
2012 April 27

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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.

Feedback on the photos and the accompanying commentary, including corrections, is always welcome; send it to the address in the footer below. All of the essays in this series are archived here.


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