SOUTHERN CAPE BRETON ISLAND
Cape Breton Island really is an island, separated by the Strait of Canso from mainland Canada. It's allegedly the deepest causeway in the world and was formerly traversed by ferries that handled the road and rail traffic ferries going to and from the island.
With the increase in rail traffic following the exploitation of the coal and iron mines and the subsequent expansion of the steel industry on the island at the end of the nineteenth century,the ferries were unable to cope. At one stage the ferries were having to haul barges behind them heavily loaded with goods. Heavy marine traffic in the Strait only exacerbated the problem and thus proposals were made for a bridge in 1902 and again in 1911, the latter being cancelled due to the First World War.
The entry of Newfoundland into the Confederation of Canada in 1948 and the subsequent volume of goods exchanged between the mainland and that new province, most of which passed over the Strait of Canso, meant that something had to be done.
At first, a low level bridge was proposed but there were doubts as to whether the pillars would be able to withstand the pressures of the ice in the Straits. Consequently a causeway was decided, with a smaller bridge and sea-lock to permit the passage of small ships through the Strait. Work commenced in 1952 and the causeway was opened in August 1955 to both road and rail traffic.
The economic impetus it gave to the island was immediate and substantial, with many large industries establishing themselves on the island. Storms in 2001 damaged the causeway and substantial repairs were necessary. Some people have noticed that the causeway appears to be "slowly sinking" or "moving" but others do not share their alarm.
As for the miserable photos, I'm not quite sure what you might be expecting for early december in Maritime Canada. The weather was absolutely dreadful and I wasn't going to get out of the car for anyone. However, seven years later - "October 2010 actually" ...ed - I was back, and in some of the best weather I have ever had in Canada too, so I took full advantage in order to go to go for a really good wander around .
Now that the Strait of Canso is effectively cut off from the Strait of Northumberland it makes a fine deep-water anchorage for large ships visiting the industrial complexes around the Point Tupper / Port Hawkesbury / Port Hastings area on Cape Breton Island, as you can see from the photograph here on the left.
So, once on the Island, the first thing I noticed at Port Hastings was a collection of half a dozen or so motels. At least finding somewhere to stay tonight wasn't going to be too much a problem. However, the night was still young, only 16:00 (although you would never think so, looking at the photographs) so I reckoned I could push on for a bit and see what was waiting for me further down the road. I chose the coastal route via Point Tupper and Port Malcolm, which, with hindsight, was not a very good decision to make.
Yes, not long before I start moaning yet again about the lack of signposts in North America. I drove for a good few miles down this beautiful wide two-lane highway, only to suddenly find myself up against a barrier across the road and a sign "no trespassing". This necessitated a "U" turn and driving back for half the distance back again, and then to disappear up a dirt track as being the only alternative to going all the way back to Port Hawkesbury. This dirt road became more and more uncomfortable and rough as the journey continued, prompting me to begin to question the wisdom of my decision. After 20 minutes of driving, however, I suddenly came to a junction where a major road crossed my path. I turned right and a road sign a few hundred metres further on confirmed that I was in fact in the correct place.
At Louisdale, I crossed the bridge over the Lennox Passage onto Isle Madame, and a friendly young guy in a petrol station confirmed that there was indeed a motel on the island, and gave me the directions.
Still, after 20 minutes driving, another petrol station where a friendly young girl confirmed the directions I'd been given, and I eventually arrived at the Vina Motel, and general store, and video rental, and launderette, where for a very reasonable fifty dollars plus taxes, I found a room to stay for the night.
A hundred yards away was a restaurant / cafe / bar / dancing where I was able to get myself a meal without having to go too far. It meant that I had to eat at 6:30 though (and that's way early for me) as it closed at 7:00. I was starting to get used to the ways of rural Canada.
Isle Madame was one of the earlies places discovered in North America, and was a regular port of call for the early whaling fleets of England, France and Spain. The original settlers are believed to be Basques, but they intermarried with the Acadians who began to arrive in the 1640s.
The island was famous in the past for its shipbuilding and deep-sea fishing, but the emergence of the iron ship saw the end of the shipbuilding trade, and the collapse of the Atlantic Groundfish fisheries in the late 1990s and the end of fishing on the Grand Banks saw the loss of over 500 jobs, out of a total population of 4,500.
When I awoke next morning, the first thing I noticed was that the weather had changed. Not only had it stopped raining, it was a beautiful sunny morning. The only thing that spoilt it was the freezing cold, biting wind.
PETIT DE GRAT ISLAND
I went down to the end of the road to get a good look at Petit de Grat Island which lies just off the coast of Isle Madame.
Petit de Grat Island is yet another island originally settled by the Basques and the Acadians, but more-or-less abandoned when "Isle Royale" fell to the British.
It was resettled in the 1760s but abandoned again in 1775 when the American War of Independence broke out. At the end of the war it was resettled and the population grew steadily.
This was another place that was badly hit in the 1990s when the Richmond Fisheries closed down, and 300 jobs were lost. This delivered to the island a blushing crow, and even today it hasn't really recovered.
There's a bridge that goes across the water here over to the island but I didn't think I had that much time to spare to make a visit. You could see how pressed I was becoming for time - missing out on the opportunity to go over a bridge.
So leaving Petit-de-Grat Island behind I set off and did the rest of the "circuit" around Isle Madame before crossing back over the Lennox Passage to Louisdale. The drive that Sunday morning was extremely pleasant. There was almost no traffic on the road and it was extremely peaceful in the bright sunlight.
Keeping clear of the Trans-Canada Highway, I followed the old Highway 4 for a while until I reached St. Peters. In the time of the French possession of Cape Breton Island, this town was called "Port Toulouse". One of its earliest settlers was Nicholas Denys, whose writings about the mi'kmaq Indians gives one of the very rare contemporary accounts of their culture and traditions.
After crossing St. Peters Canal (which links the "Bras d'Or Lake - the giant lake that forms the "centre" of Cape Breton Island - to the sea) I turned right to follow the coast road for a while via L'Ardoise, Point Michaud and St.Esprit. This was a winding road through forests with occasional glimpses of the seashore, as you can see in the photograph on the left.
There was, however, one thing that really intrigued me about this part of Canada. There were, as I expected, plenty of "for sale" signs for property all over the southern shore of the island. They were bilingual, which was also what I expected, but instead of being bilingual in English and French (or even English and Gaelic), they were bilingual in English and German.
I'm not sure firstly why the French language would be excluded (in the Maritimes the French speakers guard jealously their language rights) and secondly, why they should be in German. I couldn't help repeating the famous words of Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit - "The goddam Germans ain't got nothing to do with it".
A bit of research when I arrived home revealed that the company concerned has a web site - all in German with an English version "coming soon".
and six months later, it was still coming
The drive around the southern coast of Cape Breton Island was probably one of the nicest coastal drives I'd ever undertaken. Mind you, I reckon this was due to the fact that I hadn't encountered more than maybe half a dozen cars all morning, and that the sun was shining brilliantly and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Another factor which probably helped was that there were very few houses or other signs of human habitation around here.
All around here on the coastline were small lakes and inlets which at one time had been bays in the seashore but the drifting coastline had cut them off from the sea. Here on the left is a small single-track bridge over one of them, at Fourchu.
One other thing that caught my eye was that wherever there was any sign at all of human existence over here, there was a pile of lobster pots to accompany it. It has to be said that without doubt, lobster fishing played an important part in the livelihood of everyone around here.
Here on the right is a typical example, which can be seen on the quayside of one of the small harbours (I think it was Gabarus - I forget now) down here.
But Gabarus (or more appropriately Gabarus Bay) has an important part to play in local history.
This is that it was the site of the landing of the British force of 150 ships and 14,000 men who had come with the purpose of launching an assault on the major French fortress of Louisbourg in the summer of 1758, with the intention of capturing it. But more of that anon.
When France lost "Acadia" to the British in 1713 at the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, it still retained Cape Breton Island (Isle Royale). Fearful that the British would one day come to capture the island they started to build the huge fortress of Louisbourg in 1719 to defend their harbour and port here. With about 150 ships per year using the facilities, it became the third-busiest port in the whole of North America and the largest French naval base in the New World as an important transhipment point for trade from the West Indies, the Saint Lawrence and France. Canada's first lighthouse was built here.
Despite all this however, with a declaration of war between England and France in 1745, it fell to a force of New Englanders after a seige of only 46 days.
Restored to the French three years later at the Treaty of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), it was beseiged again by the English in 1758. By this time, the writing was on the wall for French North America, and the fortress fell again after only seven weeks. This time the English maintained their possession and destroyed it, having built their own naval facilities in the better port of Halifax.
During the 1930s excavations of the site were commenced, and a museum was opened. In the 1960s it was decided to rebuild the site and this was undertaken over a period that spanned 20 years. Only a quarter of the site has actually been rebuilt.
It goes without saying that it was closed for the season when I arrived. I was quite disappointed by this.
I also went to visit the Sydney and Louisbourg railway museum, but I wasn't impressed by that at all. The museum consisting of just 3 external exhibits, a caboose, an oil tanker and a goods wagon - no railway engine. It was also closed when I drove past. No surprise there, then. The railway was built to handle the coal and steel of the area during the late 19th and early 20th Century.
There's an interesting web site that discusses the railway and its history.
From Louisbourg I carried on along the coast as far as Cape Breton, from which the Island gets its name. Here is a photograph of the "Cape" of Cape Breton Island
From here I continued my drive along the coast, going via Main-à-Dieu, Mira, Port Morien Glace Bay and New Waterford, in the general direction of Sydney.
The first part of this drive that afternoon was a continuation of deserted and isolated beaches and coves so typical of the southern Cape Breton coast but the closer I got to Glace Bay, the more built-up the area became.
INDUSTRIAL CAPE BRETON ISLAND
Glace Bay itself is part of a large industrial area well-known for its coal mines and heavy industry. It had the typical history of any other coal-mining area with mining monopolies, miserable working conditions, "tommy" shops, mining disasters (the last one being in 1984), until the last mine ceased operations in 2001. Glace Bay was also one of the sites chosen by Marconi for the transatlantic radio communication network.
It was round about here that I started to become ill again. I can't have been doing too much as I'd been taking it easy. I reckon I just wasn't up to the journey.
On the road around the bay from New Waterford to Sydney I noticed the ferry that sails between North Sydney to Newfoundland. Subsequent enquiry revealed that it sails once per day and takes only, so they say, four and a half hours to complete the crossing. If I'd have known that I would have come here a couple of days earlier and taken the trip over, but by now I was, as usual, getting short of time.
Seven years later, however, fulfilling my childhood dream of driving around the Trans-Labrador Highway , I made a point of coming back this way and I did indeed get a sail on the ferry only coming from the Newfoundland direction. That put the icing onto the cake of that voyage as far as I was concerned
Then (a rare event) I got myself lost. Yes, in Sydney. But I blame it on the lack of road signs. I probably would have been okay if I'd have been feeling better. Consequently I abandoned my exploration of Sydney and headed out to the highway that goes around the town, and took the road that headed west for the Cabot Trail.
I wasn't sorry to be leaving this area. It was very industrial, and the cheap houses, poor neighbourhoods, all that sort of thing, gave it a very depressing air. You could feel the sad atmosphere in the air all around here. From Sydney I took Highway 105 westwards towards the next port of call - the Cabot trail around the northern Cape Breton peninsula.
But just before we leave the area, just let me say that contemporary ongoing health issues were clouding my judgement just a little and I was well-aware of the fact. I made a vow to come back to Sydney under better conditions to have a further look, and if you followed the link when I was discussing my little ferry crossing you'll see that I did fulfill my promise.