The people and their industry.
The area is known for its beauty, with steep hills stretching into the Cape Breton Highlands and fast flowing rivers emptying into St. Ann’s Bay and Harbour. The North River falls is the highest waterfall in the Maritimes, protected by the North River Wilderness area, and the river is known for trout fishing and a unique salmon population of large, two-sea-winter fish. Further north up the coast is the Barachois River, Indian Brook, Little River, and French River.
This community stretches along the Cabot Trail and its side roads from the South Haven turnoff to the foot of Cape Smokey, a distance of 72 kilometres. The area is home to 450 residents in, what were at one time, numerous smaller, autonomous, Scottish Highland Gaelic speaking communities. There are three community halls and two postal zones as well as two churches, Presbyterian and United, down from the five that existed not so long ago.
St. Ann’s Bay is acknowledged by historians to be the most historical area of Nova Scotia, if not Canada. Because of it’s geographic setting, it was of major importance militarily and for the fishing industry. The harbour is considered the finest archorage on the eastern Seaboard and figured prominently in the events of at least three cultures.
Mi’kmaw people camped along the shores of St. Ann’s Bay and the local rivers to hunt and fish for millenium. It is believed that they had fishing and hunting camps all along the shores and particularly at North River, Goose Cove and Jersey Cove or Eel Cove. They had a major encampment at Englishtown near the site of the Presbyterian Church at Indian Well which they continuously occupied, harvesting fish and shellfish throughout the French and Scottish settlement periods into the 1880’s.
St. Ann’s Bay, or Ciboux, was sacred to the Mi’kmaq in many ways. Kelly’s Mountain was the dwelling place of the prophet Kluskap. Here is a description of Kluskap:
“The legends of the Micmacs brings us back to the freshness of Creation when Glooscap lay on his back, his head to the rising sun, his feet to the setting sun, his arms outstretched to the North and the South. Although not the Creator and Father of all, yet he was coequal with Creation and was called in Indian parlance, ”The Mas-ter”
Kluscap moved about transforming the landscape, about which there are many stories. He finally left from St. Ann’s with his grandmother. The cave at the end of Kluscap Mountain, called the Fairy hole by non natives, are where he will one day return.
There are a variety of stories told about Kluscap’s cave. One is that whjen he was inside, two maidens came to taunt him, in his anger he turned them to stone and broke his canoe in half thus creating the stones at the entrance and the two “Bird Islands”.
The equivalent Gaelic to English word they put on the cave is Fairy hole. Fairies were dwellers in other worlds and some people are able to see both worlds. The same is true of the rock formations at the Fairy hole or Kluscap’s Cave. Some can see the Kluskap Cave transformed.
In 1629 a French fortress was established at the entrance to the harbor at Englishtown where the Ferry is today. It was established to protect the St. Lawrence seaway as a supply way to Quebec and as a safe haven for French fishing vessels. They also established the first Jesuit Mission to the indigenous peoples of the New World. They dedicated a chapel after Queen Ann of Austria and named the place St. Ann’s. After 30 years the Fort fell into disuse and a small group of fishermen and farmers remained through the years until 1713 when it began to be rebuilt as the main fortress of New France. It’s moment of glory lasted for 6 years until Louisbourg was chosen to be the capital instead. During this time, the Bay was mined for gypsum, and timber for firewood for the Fortress. With the fall of Louisboug in 1759 onward, the fortress was destroyed and the people evicted.
A small group of English speaking Germans, Northern Irish, and Jersey fishbuyers set up shop and did business at the entrance to the harbour in this in between time in Cape Breton. The Mi’kmaq continued to trade with the English as they had with the French and as they would continue to do with the Scots.
The Highland Gaelic Scottish immigration, like in the rest of the Island, escalated with the Highland Clearances in Scotland and by the 1850’s the island had filled up with about 80 percent of the islands 50,000 people Gaelic speaking. The first group to settle in the Harbour was a group of Mariners from Assynt and the Western Highlands, in 1820, settling with Norman McLeod, a controversial and powerful renegade Presbyterian Minister. They were followed by people from the islands of Lewis and Harris, also who settled in Tarbot and the North Shore creating homesteads and small farms on the shores and in the hills around St. Ann’s. After great early hardships and being helped by the Mi’kmaq to survive, Ship building and the Fishing and Timber industries boomed in the 1840’s. In 1847 a period of cold weather brought the Potato Famine from Ireland and Scotland, and people were near starvation for 3 years. Changes in the world economic environment caused Trade and the fishery to fail. There was no land left for young families and many were leaving.
This prompted a migration of 900 people in three interrelated family groups from St. Ann’s and the surrounding areas of Boularderie, Big Baddeck and Middle River, under the leadership of Norman McLeod to Waipu, New Zealand. A community of shipbuilders, they went in 6 ships they built themselves, splitting families apart. It was a huge loss to the community of so many prominent leaders, ship owners and tradesmen.
If you go to Waipu today you will see a large Museum dedicated to the story, and streets such as Nova Scotia Drive and Cape Breton Park. The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s was built in memory of these pioneers of St. Ann’s.
The Lewis and Harris people, being unrelated to most who went remained, taking up the farms of the ones who left and they were known for their Gaelic Singing. The North Shore Gaelic Singers toured the world, were documented by folklorists at Harvard, the Smithsonian and performed at the Newport Folk Festival and for the Queen.
By the early 20th Century, industry was thriving. Camp One up the North River housed one hundred men cutting pulpwood for the North River Lumber Company. Soon there were thirty more camps with tote roads and telephone lines connecting them to the head office down river on the Murray Road. Ultimately there were as many as nine hundred men employed in the woods and a hundred or more working at the Murray debarking and loading plant. As well, the Plaster Quarry at St. Ann’s began in 1904, hiring up to fifty men and loading up to 20 railway cars to run to the shore for shipping. The lobster fishery started and there were canning factories from 1905-1920 on the North Shore in Wreck Cove and Breton Cove. Trapping led to commercial fur farming which remained a successful business from 1936 to 2006. Highland Blueberry, a community corporation, produced organic blueberries for a number of years.
The Wreck Cove Generating station was constructed from 1975-1978. It is the largest hydroelectric plant in Nova Scotia. South of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Wreck Cove collects drainage water from 216 square kilometers of the Cape Breton Highlands plateau to generate electricity. The station’s powerhouse is located 275 meters underground, down a 620 meter access tunnel.
Currently, although the quarry has been closed since the last century and the Murray Road debarking mill is now a picturesque ruin enjoyed by eagles and by the North River kayakers, the community is still home to a thriving lobster fishery with twenty-seven license holders and a hundred people actively involved. Twenty-three boats leave the harbour at Little River every day. And although the community’s population has diminished, small businesses, studio craft and gift shops from Wreck Cove to Goose Cove testify to the creative initiatives of those who have come to this area determined to stay.