Canadian Maritimes #04 – SE Nova Scotia & Cape Breton Part 2

August 12, 2020  •  2 Comments


Canadian Maritimes #04 –Cape Breton Part 2

This is part 4 of a trip we took in October of 2019 to the southeastern portion of the Maritime Provinces in Canada.  On this trip we visited Halifax, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.  We flew into and out of Halifax Nova Scotia but the rest of the trip was by rented car. 

Three major destinations on this trip
01 Map 00 - Overview01 Map 00 - Overview

This installment is the second part for Cape Breton Island (or just Cape Breton as most call it).

Where we went on Cape Breton
02 Map 07 - Cape Breton Route Map02 Map 07 - Cape Breton Route Map

Cape Breton Historical sites (Continued)


Nova Scotia’s colonial history was largely shaped by decisions made in Europe. When the War of Spanish Succession was settled with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain was given control of mainland Nova Scotia and France was given Ile Royale, what is today known as Cape Breton Island.  On the eastern side of Cape Breton, the French found an ice-free, sheltered harbor to act as a base for France’s interests in the cod fishery and to serve as an important trading outpost because of its proximity to Europe and colonies in both New England and the West Indies. They named it Louisbourg, in honor of King Louis XIV.

Over the three decades, they surrounded the town and garrison with massive stone walls that would make it one of the most extensive fortifications in North America.  This 2.5 mile long wall measuring 30 feet high and 36 feet thick in places cost so much to build that the French king joked how he expected to be able to see it from his palace in France.

During its peak Louisbourg was the third busiest port in North America and was considered the jewel of France’s holdings in the new world.  To the lower class in France Louisbourg represented hope and prosperity and many of France’s poor and impoverished took the bait, leaving their homes behind and set off for a chance at a better life.

Despite the towering walls, the Fortress of Louisbourg had some weaknesses that its engineers struggled with.  While the fortress was well defended against attacks from the sea, it was vulnerable to land-based assaults, and when France and Britain went to war again in 1745, this weakness was exploited.  The attackers this time were New England militia who saw Louisbourg as a direct threat to their colonies and the nearby fishing grounds.  Remember, in 1745 New England was still a British colony.  They erected siege batteries on the hills overlooking the fortress and through a series of bombardments and assaults, forced the defenders to surrender.

A few years later in 1748 a treaty returned Louisbourg to the French.  It also prompted the British to establish a new fortress at Halifax to counter the French presence in Cape Breton.  Over the next decade, French and English forces battled for control of Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War and the Seven Years War.  During this time, in 1758, the Fortress of Louisbourg once again fell to the British. 

But the Brits already had plenty of forts in Nova Scotia so even though they waged a major battle to conquer Louisbourg they had no intention of occupying it or using it for their own benefit.  They also didn’t want to take any chances of a future battle once it was returned again to France so they literally destroyed the town and dismantled the fort, and even shipped some of it off to Boston to construct Louisbourg Square and other buildings in that city.  They completely flattened the place leaving absolutely nothing standing and promptly left.

You following this?  French -> New England Brits -> French -> British (who destroyed the place then left) -> French (at least on paper).  I guess the residents just kept a stock of both British and French flags and changed them out whenever the town switched hands.

The site was designated a National Historic Site and partially reconstructed in the 1960s.  When the town and fort was originally constructed, they brought French architects and engineers over form France to do the planning and construction.  As it turned out the French at that time were great record keepers and all the plans and drawings (what we’d now call blueprints) were dutifully shipped back to France for approval and all these documents were filed away (and for the most part forgotten about).  But when, in the 1960’s, it was decided to reconstruct Louisbourg they found this archive of documents which allowed them to do a 100% accurate reconstruction.  I mean, these plans were really detailed.  They showed pretty much every beam and board and even included specs on what types of wood to use for each part of the building, how those pieces would be fastened together, and how many nails were to be used in each.  This reconstruction has become the largest reconstructed 18th-century French fortified town in North America, with archaeologists, and engineers and historians working together to recreate the town as it was in the 1740s era.

Current Louisbourg site map
14 Map 09 - Louisbourg14 Map 09 - Louisbourg

Inner courtyard of the fortress
fort Louisburg #3 (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)fort Louisburg #3 (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Reconstructed street in the town area
Fort Louisburg #4 (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Fort Louisburg #4 (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Docent in a Louisbourg (upper class) home showing off the automatic “spit” rotation device used to keep the meat turning in the fireplace for even roasting
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The inner courtyard of the fortress
Sentry, Fort Louisburg (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Sentry, Fort Louisburg (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)


The history of coal mining on Cape Breton began in the early 1700’s when coal was needed in Louisbourg for the French to construct the Fortress.  At that time coal was extracted from exposed seams along the cliffs and then in 1720 the first below ground mine was officially opened at Cow Bay.  From 1784 to 1820, coal was mined on a small scale by either the colonial government or through lease by private individuals.

In 1826 the Duke of York was granted sole right by the Crown to all coal resources of Nova Scotia (wasn’t that nice of them as I’m sure the Duke could use the income).  The Duke subleased these rights to a syndicate of British investors called the General Mining Association who then sank shafts mainly around the town of Sydney. The Association built workshops, company houses, a foundry and a railroad to North Sydney. In 1856, the General Mining Association surrendered its mining rights and the province invited independent operators to apply for leases and subleases. From 1858 to 1893, more than 30 coal mines were opened, producing 700,000 tons in the last year.

In 1873, there were eight coal companies still operating in Cape Breton. The miners were paid from 80 cents to a $1.50 per day and boys were paid 65 cents.  At Glace Bay there were 12 mines.  In 1894, the government gave exclusive mining rights to an American syndicate, the Dominion Coal Company.  By 1903, the Dominion Coal Company was producing 3,250,000 tons per year. By 1912, the company had 16 collieries in full operation and its production accounted for 40% of Canada’s total output.  This was a big economic deal for Cape Breton and Nova Scotia.

However, over the last 30-50 years, worldwide demand for coal has been on a steep decline and mines closed one after another.  One major causes of the collapse of the coal mining industry was a strict federal restriction on emissions which was implemented recently.  While great for the environment, this has been quite traumatic for the blue collar workers both in the mines and in the support industries.  When these new restrictions were put in place, resulting in most of the Cape Breton mines shutting down, the government put in a retraining program for the displaced miners.  Quite a few of them were retrained as stone masons, and carpenters and formed a large portion of the workforce used to re-build the fortress at Louisbourg.

In order to preserve their legacy and tell their story, in Glace bay a group of miners got together and established this museum.  It’s quite well done.  There are some modest exhibits in the museum building but the main attraction is the underground mine tour.  In this area the massive coal seam tilts downward as it goes out under the sea.  So, rather than spend time, energy and money on acquiring land and mineral rights from farmers and residents most of the mines acquired a modest amount of land by the edge of the sea and ran their mines out under the ocean.

In order to build this museum, due to environmental restrictions they weren’t allowed to acquire an existing mine so they dug a new one for the express purpose of making it part of the museum.  In other words they dug a museum that just happened to look and act just like a mine.  But there were no restrictions on building museums.  In fact, during construction they sold the construction debris (i.e. the coal) at a good price which actually paid for the whole project.  But, make no mistake, this is a real mine, not just a facsimile or “for show” mine.  It contains several spurs of tunnels and is quite authentic. 

This mine is modeled to represent mining in the 1930’s.  When you take the tour they give you a hard hat and cape as mines under the ocean tend to drip.  The tour shows how coal was mined by pick and shovel with steam drills for drilling holes for the dynamite.  The coal was hauled out with “pit ponies” who pulled carts on rails (rails were later taken out due to guest safety issues).  The tours are led by retired miners many of which are the last of several generations of miners. 

In the tour they describe conditions and methods.  One interesting fact is that in the 1930’s they had “pit boys” working underground along with the men.  These kids, some as young as 8 or 9 years old had special jobs that didn’t require physical strength.  First of all they tended the pony’s who stayed in the mine for 9 months to a year at a time.  There was an area in the mine that was used as a corral for these small horses and the kids made sure they had food and water and – you guessed it – cleaned up after them. 

Another job for these kids was “door guard”.  In a 1930’s mine, well before forced air ventilation, managing air flow in the tunnels was a significant challenge unless you wanted a lot of dead miners.  Mines had at least two entrances at significantly different elevations.  As we know warm air rises compared to cold air.  So the idea was that cool air would enter the mine through the lower entrance and then had to be channeled through the matrix of tunnels eventually exiting at the higher entrance.  When this was done properly, the natural convection kept fresh air flowing through all parts of the mine. 

But, a mine is not just a single tunnel like a circular drive.  Rather it is a labyrinth of interconnecting and crossing tunnels.  So, to keep the air flowing through all the tunnels they installed solid wooden walls at strategic locations with doors that could be closed to force the air the way they needed it to go.  One of the jobs of these kids was to assure that whenever a door was opened to allow passage of a load of coal or group of miners to pass through, that the door was quickly re-closed as soon as the cart passed by.  Even though this was not a physically taxing job, it was considered one of the most important jobs in the mine as if a door wasn’t reclosed in pretty short order you’d find a dozen dead miners someplace further down the mine due to an accumulation of various poisonous gasses that escaped from the rocks as they were dug out.

When you enter the mine, you go through one of those airflow blocking doors and are in a concrete lined tunnel about 6 to 7 feet tall.  The only portions of such a mine that used concrete liners are at the entrances where the tunnel is near the surface.  As you descend the concrete disappears, the water starts dripping and the floor becomes mud.  But not only that, due to the height of the coal seam the ceilings get lower.  After a short bit, only the shortest people on the tour could stand upright.  The rest of us had to bend over to keep from banging our helmeted head on the cross beams that hold up the roof.  Eventually the tunnels got down to well under 5 feet high.  Now, as a 5’ 9” person, a ceiling of around 4 ½ feet doesn’t sound too bad but after 10 to 15 minutes of staying leaned over it was becoming quite uncomfortable.  I can’t imagine doing it through an 8 hour shift. 

Only the entrance, where the tunnel is near the surface is concrete lined.  One of the rail cars used to transport coal and workers
Entrance Tunnel, Glace Bay Miner's Museum (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Entrance Tunnel, Glace Bay Miner's Museum (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Typical tunnel with sea water leaching in, mud floor and low ceiling.
Mine Tunnel Glace Bay Miner's Museum(Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Mine Tunnel Glace Bay Miner's Museum(Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

About the only “power” tools they had was a hydraulic drill used to drill the holes for the dynamite
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Our Guide demonstrating use of the hydraulic drill
Hydraulic Drill demonstration Glace Bay Miner's Museum (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Hydraulic Drill demonstration Glace Bay Miner's Museum (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Cape Breton Highlands and Cabot Trail

In many countries whose roots stem back to colonization by Great Britain, with the notable exception of the US, not only do they drive on the wrong side of the road but they designate roads as “trails” or “tracks”.  Cape Breton has 6 named scenic “trails”.  We drove a few parts of several of them but did the entire “Cabot Trail” which is the only noteworthy one of those we drove or partially drove.

Cabot Trail
01 Map 10 - Cabot Trail01 Map 10 - Cabot Trail

The world famous “Cabot Trail” (actually a road) is a 186 mile long loop that runs from near Baddeck in a north west direction, across the peninsula to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  It then follows the coast line north and into Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

As mentioned earlier, the land on Cape Breton gets higher as you go from the south to the north, with the northern end of the western most peninsula rising into actual mountains and including the 366 square mile Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  When the Cabot Trail hits the northern edge of the park it turns east roughly following the park boundary till it hits the other side of the peninsula at which point it turns south terminating at the Trans Canadian Highway near the town of St. Anns about 22 miles north of where it started. 

This is the “clockwise” direction and the one suggested by most travel guides.  However, it is the suggested direction as it puts you on the inside lane along the winding road cut into sheer cliffs on the coast which is a bit less stressful for tourists not used to mountain road driving.  As such there is usually more traffic going this direction.  However, the counter clockwise direction is said to have better coastal vistas  - especially on the west side – as you your coming down from the mountains and can see long distances of coast line as you descend.  Either way lives up to its reputations as one of the world's most scenic drives, with stunning ocean vistas, old-growth forests, prehistoric rock scarred by glaciers, and the mysterious Cape Breton Highlands.

On one day we drove about 1/3 of it in the counter clockwise direction before turning back in order to have time for dinner and to make our evening concert.  On another day we did the whole thing in the clockwise direction as we were already nearer the south end of the loop.  This is one of those drives that you can do in a day but can also spend 2 or 3 days at it if you like to take strolls on the many beaches and take advantage of the many hiking trails.

Here is a potpourri of sites along the way. 

By the time we drove the Cabot Trail, the fall yellows were raging.  And to be honest if I ever had the opportunity to drive the Cabot Trail again in another season it would pale in comparison to seeing it in full fall Technicolor color.  Those of you who live in fall color country will probably react with a “that’s not so great, you should have seen (fill in location) in (fill in a year)…….” sort of remark, and you may be right.  But here in the west we have real mountains – so there.  We heard that on the day we arrived, the reds along the Cabot Trail were at their peak but by the time we got up there, 3 days later, the reds had started to fade but the yellows were going full tilt.

As we drove along, we often encountered signs that we found interesting.  Of course I can’t remember any of them now, but one was so good that after we passed it, and thought about it a bit we turned around to go back and take its picture.

North Gut Cemetery
North Gut Cemetery (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)North Gut Cemetery (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Okay, when we got home I had to look it up as I was pretty sure this wasn’t a cemetery for parts of people’s insides.  As it turns out a “Gut” is “A narrow coastal body of water, a channel or strait, usually one that is subject to strong tidal currents flowing back and forth. A gut may also be a small creek”. 

We never saw anything resembling a town of North Gut.  No outpost, building or any sort of manmade architecture other than the road and the cemetery.  I imagine there must be some sort of settlement but maybe it was off in the woods someplace.  But, where the road dipped around the end of North Gut bay, and crossed over a small creek, it was quite lovely.

Creek in a meadow in North Gut near St. Anns
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South end of North Gut Bay near St. Anns, where a creek flows in
North Gut Bay #6 at St. Anns, (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)North Gut Bay #6 at St. Anns, (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

South end of North Gut Bay
North Gut Bay #5 at St. Anns, (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)North Gut Bay #5 at St. Anns, (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

North Gut Bay
North Gut Bay at St. Anns (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)North Gut Bay at St. Anns (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

It seemed that around every curve in the road was some sort of stream, river, creek, lake or  pond.  Sometimes the water was rushing down a steep slope but in most cases the water was quite placid.  There didn’t happen to be much wind this day so many of these bodies of water proved quite photogenic with the fall colors reflected in the smooth as glass water surface.

Unknown pond near Hunters Mountain
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Barrachois River
Barrachois River (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Barrachois River (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Lake O’Law
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Another Pond near Hunters Mountain
Fall Reflections Cape Breton IslandFall Reflections Cape Breton Island

As the Cabot trail is a loop that goes up one side of a peninsula and down the other, you are by the Gulf of St. Lawrence much of the way.  However, on the east side of the peninsula the road tends to be a bit inland only offering glimpses of the gulf where it has to skirt around a bay or inlet.  On the west side though, especially the northern section, it is in many places right along the coast where the highland mountains dive down to meet the gulf.

Cabot Trail along west cost of the peninsula in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
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Pillar Rock Beach, on west side of the peninsula above Petit Etang
Pillar Rock Beach (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Pillar Rock Beach (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

East side of peninsula near Ingonish
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The Cabot Trail road goes across the peninsula along the northern border of the national park, climbing up and over the spine of the mountain ridge and the “highlands plateau”.  In some places you have grand vistas overlooking a patchwork of yellow trees interspersed with sections of green evergreen trees like a carpet extending to the horizon. 

Highlands Plateau, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Fall color carpet over MacKenzie Mountain area hills (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Fall color carpet over MacKenzie Mountain area hills (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Creek carved valley, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Yellow and Green Valley (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Yellow and Green Valley (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

But then in other places the road just meanders through the forest crowding in on the right of way from both sides with a palette of green, yellow, orange and red.  But then you go around a corner and what had been a “tree canyon” opens up onto a view of a hillside carpeted with a pattern of colors as it ascends to the sky.  A little bit further you find yourself in an intimate glen with a burbling creek gliding through the woods on its way to the sea, or just an interesting structure nestled in the trees forgotten and ignored except by the passing photographer.

Lone Shieling Area, Cape Breton Highlands National park
Cabot Trail, Lone Shieling Area #1 (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Cabot Trail, Lone Shieling Area #1 (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Old, abandoned garage being swallowed by the woods near Rear Little River
Garage (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Garage (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Hillside ablaze with fall color near Cape Smokey
Fall Color Hillside, Cape Smokey (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Fall Color Hillside, Cape Smokey (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Colorful hillside ascending from Ingonish Harbour
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Green and Yellow blend together along highway in warmer valley where color change was just getting started
Cabot Trail, Lone Shieling Area #2 (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Cabot Trail, Lone Shieling Area #2 (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Tranquil Glen near Lone Sheiling
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A turn in the road and another hillside ablaze in color (Near Indian Brook)
Indian Brook Hillside (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Indian Brook Hillside (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

I hope you enjoyed our visit to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.  If you enjoyed reading this series, take a look on my website (links below) for travel blogs for other trips we’ve taken.  I’ll leave you with this one last shot, taken from the deck of our rental cabin early one morning

View from the cabin in the early morning
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Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)




Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Thanks for the great history of Louisburg and the mining museum! Amazing the built it back, but the tourist industry is a pretty good income source. The fall colors were certainly spectacular! Yes, the lack of wind during your days there sure did spark up the water shots!
Aavo Koort(non-registered)
Beautiful place and great photography. Such difference in colors. In West we get
only aspens.
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