GENERAL ARTICLES

FARTHEST EAST

Nobody in Canada is closer to the scene of war than the workers of Sydney and Glace Bay

FREDERICK EDWARDS November 1 1941
GENERAL ARTICLES

FARTHEST EAST

Nobody in Canada is closer to the scene of war than the workers of Sydney and Glace Bay

FREDERICK EDWARDS November 1 1941

FARTHEST EAST

Nobody in Canada is closer to the scene of war than the workers of Sydney and Glace Bay

FREDERICK EDWARDS

FOR MANY years past the City of Sydney, in Cape Breton County, N.S., has advertised itself to the world as “the most easterly city on the North American continent.” This claim of singular geographical distinction is entirely justified in fact. The maps substantiate it. But these days Sydney very often wishes it were not so. The grim truth is that, because Sydney is the most easterly city on the North American continent, it is also the Canadian city nearest to the war.

In your hotel room you find staring at you from your writing table a stern admonition printed in black from heavy type, and surrounded by a broad black border, like the announcement of a death:

Instructions for BLACKOUT

Hotel lights will be extinguished. When warning signals are given, please remain where you are until the end of the Blackout period.

When leaving your room in the evening, please see that all lights are out.

The elevator will not be in operation during the Blackout.

Then, under the glass of your telephone stand you will see another caution, this time in red, the color of danger:

WARNING

IT IS FORBIDDEN to mention SHIPS, or SHIP MOVEMENTS, AIRCRAFT, TROOPS, WAR INDUSTRIES, or the WEATHER during Long Distance Telephone Conversations.

This exhortation, signed by the Maritime Telegraph and Telephone Company, means what it says. If you disregard its advice, even only to the extent of telling your wife in Amherst it is raining in Sydney, the operator will interrupt your chat, reminding you that talk about the weather is taboo. Should you forget twice you are likely to receive a visit from a constable of the R.C.M.P., whose Sydney headquarters are just around the corner. Things like that have happened.

The total blackout is not a nightly feature of life in Sydney; but practice blackouts are held at frequent intervals—about once every four weeks— and repeated experimentation has brought them now to almost one hundred per cent efficiency. For months air-raid wardens have been checking up on

the laggards. They follow-through every instance of neglect with a sharp reprimand and the curt order: “See to it that this doesn’t happen again.” Persistent offenders are liable to prosecution. It is commonplace on Sydney streets after nightfall to see citizens carrying flashlights ready for a surprise blast from the warning sirens.

There is a partial blackout every night, applied rather as a measure of power conservation than as a defense against anticipated air raids. The city has a curfew law, an ancient and now practically obsolete statute, that says all children under sixteen years of age must be off the streets by nine o’clock. Three wailing moans from a siren pitched on an especially mournful note—jocular townsfolk call it “the dying duck”—announce the curfew hour. Then all lighted advertising signs are extinguished. Store windows that normally would remain illuminated for an hour or more longer, are darkened. Street lighting has been reduced, so that progress on the crowded sidewalks is like walking along a dimly lit village street that has suddenly become densely populated. People stumble over curbs. They tread on one another’s heels. The boys nudge the girls, and the girls giggle by way of acknowledgment of the attention received.

These things all contribute to Sydney’s feeling of nearness to the war. Then there are the ships in the harbor, coming and going stealthily about their secret errands. There are the naval and military police patrols making regular rounds, marching in twos and threes with a staccato beat of steel-tipped heels on concrete pavements. There are the daily and nightly first-aid classes, one group of prospective rescue workers moving in for instruction as fast as another moves out. Sydney and Glace Bay are especially proud of their first-aid squads. Trained by experts long familiar with rescue work in the mines, the volunteer workers have achieved an unusually high degree of proficiency. There are the teeming service-men’s clubs and hostels, where soldiers and sailors stand in line for cigarettes, soft drinks and sandwiches, wait hours for a chance at the pool and Ping-pong tables.

In Sydney they know there’s a war on; and they know they’re in it. Take the Bismarck episode. Newspaper and radio experts may advance all their fancy theories to account for the sudden appearance in the North Atlantic of the German superdreadnaught and her scurrying brood of supply ships. They can talk till they’re black in the face about a carefully drawn plan to attack British shipping on a

grand scale, to invade Iceland, or to establish a Nazi base in Greenland. Sydney knows better. Sydney is full of people who are absolutely convinced that the Bismarck's real objective was the Cape Breton coast, her errand, the blasting of Sydney and Glace Bay with long-range gunfire. The war comes as close home to them as that.

Dosco Runs Things

CAPE BRETON county, of which Sydney is the chief city, and Glace Bay the principal town, is today one of the most important industrial areas in the Dominion. Perhaps, for its size, the most important. Coal and steel are produced there in quantities unequalled anywhere else in Canada. Dosco, combining title of the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation, is the biggest in the land. As of midsummer, twelve thousand miners were working fourteen Dosco collieries in the Cape Breton county area, and five thousand sinewy toilers were employed at the Sydney steel plant. Even with an intra-union dispute slowing down production, ten working mines dug 10,791 tons of bituminous coal on July fourteen. The normal daily output is much greater. In Sydney, Dosco assembles iron ore and limestone from nearby Newfoundland with its own coal, and makes a list of iron and steel products ranging from tacks to rails. The corporation sells coal for ship’s bunkers and to keep the home fires burning. It manufactures coke. Through the Dominion Tar and Chemical Company, a Dosco subsidiary,^ tar, btenzol, ammonium sulphate and sulphuric àcid are produced and sold all over Canada. The Seaboard Power Corporation, supplying electric power and light to the Eastern Light and Power Company, .^which in turn distributes those utilities throughout Cape Breton County, is affiliated with Dosco.

In normal years, total Dosco wages paid in an area within fifteen miles of Sydney amount to $18,000,000. The miners get about $12,000,000. The Steel Company and other Dosco enterprises account for the balance. Under pressure of war conditions the amount is, of course, much larger.

In addition to Sydney, with its population of 28,000 and Glace Bay, with 22,000, Cape Breton county contains the industrial centres of North Sydney and Sydney Mines, where live 13,000 people, New Waterford, a community of 11,000, and Dominion and Louisburg (or Louisbourg. Both spellings are used in common practice) with 4,000

residents between them. The county’s total population is figured as around 100,000.

Industrially, Dosco dominates Cape Breton county, just as the towering smokestacks of Dosco’s steel mills dominate the Sydney skyline, grey and grim in daytime, glowing red after dark. There is no major industry in the area outside the big tent. On the other hand, the widely held impression that this part of Canada is devoted exclusively to the production of coal and steel is an error. There is a moderately important fisheries business, and a more extensive agriculture than most Canadians outside Cape Breton appreciate.

Within the county boundaries are 4,200 farm properties covering approximately 420,000 acres, ranging in size from twenty-five to three hundred acres each. There is considerable dairy farming, a large production of root crops, especially carrots and turnips, and an important annual yield of cabbages and sweet corn, strawberries, raspberries, plums and apples.

Sydney is the gateway to the famed Cabot Trail, leading to Cape Breton’s loveliest beauty spots among the Bras d’Or lakes. The number of sightseeing visitors has shown a steady increase over the past several years. Also, the natural phenomenon that brings large numbers of the huge broadbill swordfish to this coast every summer is a source of substantial revenue. Two hundred pounds is a medium size for a broadbill. They have been landed weighing as much as six hundred. Deep-sea angling enthusiasts, the ocean-going equivalent of big game hunters, journey to Cape Breton each year about the middle of July, when the swordfish follow the herring schools inshore.

Glace Bay, the coal town, and Louisburg, whose sole other claim to fame rests upon its historic past as a French military stronghold—captured by the British under Major General Jeffrey Amherst in 1758, and destroyed two years later—are rival headquarters for the swordfish fleet in Cape Breton county. A complete outfit for this sport costs around $200 to purchase outright, rents for from five to ten dollars a day. Guides get twenty-five dollars a day, and the standard price for boats— auxiliary schooners or seagoing motor boats—is twenty-five and thirty-five dollars a day. Since the swordfish season lasts from the middle of July to the middle of September, this runs into big money, is the most lucrative single attraction Cape Breton county has to sell to visitors. Other sections of the island—the Bras d’Or lakes, the Margaree valley, Highlands National Park—have fresh-water fishing, notable scenic delights, golf courses, bathing beaches and resort hotels, but Sydney is no more than a way station for travellers seeking these relaxations.

Sydney is essentially a commercial community, its activities revolving around Dosco. The city has grown up on the s3uthwest arm of its harbor, a sheltered basin twelve miles inland from the Atlantic. The earliest settlers were United Empire

ine eariiest sewers were u in Continued on page 37

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Loyalists who began to trickle into Cape Breton from the United States in 1784. From that year until 1820 Cape Breton was a separate province and Sydney was the capital.

About 1790 Highland Scottish immigrants started a mass immigration to Cape Breton, lured from their native moors by the promise of free farms in the new country. Their influence remains indelibly impressed upon the community. Of the thirtytwo pages of names in the Sydney telephone directory, six and a half pages are Macs or Mes. Glace Bay telephones take up fourteen pages of space. Four and a half of these are filled with the familiar Scottish prefix. Many of the newcomers adhered to the Roman Catholic faith, and today the population is evenly divided between Protestant and Catholic.

In its beginnings Sydney was the seat of government of an obscure British colony, and a market townnothing more. Coal changed that. First discoveries were made in the early part of the nineteenth century, and a move toward large-scale development was inaugurated about 1870, when an Englishman named F. N. Gisbourne organized a company to work leases at Reserve Mines. Gisbourne’s organization built the first railroad on-Cape Breton Island, between Sydney and Louisburg, but soon abandoned the enterprise because of the difficulty of winter operations. Later F. N. Gisbourne achieved fame in connection with the laying of the first Atlantic cable, which came ashore on Cape Breton.

An enterprising American financier, H. M. Whitney, arrived on the scene in 1893 filled with new ideas about business operation. Under Whitney’s aggressive direction all the mining properties on the south

side of Sydney harbor were combined into a single organization, and incorporated as the Dominion Coal Company, Limited. Because the most important mines were in that area, Glace Bay, fourteen miles northeast of Sydney, became the natural centre of the new coal development, and a town was established there in 1901. Although Glace Bay has for years possessed a far larger population than is required for incorporation as a city, it* has clung tenaciously to its town status, pointing with pride to the fact that it is “the biggest town in Canafla.” Recently Glace Bay has undergone a change of heart. A movement toward a city charter is now under way.

With an ample supply of coal at hand, and iron ore and limestone easily available in Newfoundland, it was inevitable that a steel industry should follow intensive development of the Glace Bay collieries. This came about in 1899, when construction began on the Dominion Steel Company’s plant at Sydney. The new mills produced their first j steel in 1901. Originally established | with the modest objective of pro| viding a customer for the winter j output of coal from the Glace Bay j mines, the Dominion Steel Company j has expanded steadily, and is now ; an internationally-known enterprise, j Both Canadian railroads build and j replace their trackage with Sydney j rails, and rail shipments to such j distant points as China, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies ; are, in peace times, routine entries on Dosco’s books. Naturally Dosco’s steel plant is the biggest consumer of Dosco’s coal. In an average year the Steel Company burns between 840,j 000 and 960,000 tons of Glace Bay coal. Most of the balance of the ; coal production is sent to Montreal

for distribution throughout Eastern and Central Canada, but a considerable tonnage also is poured into ship’s bunkers in Sydney harbors. The memory of H. M. Whitney, the organizing genius who gave Dosco its start in life, is honored by Whitney Pier, largest of the three extensive quays operated by the corporation at Sydney.

Sydney and Glace Bay, both strongly individualistic communities, are different from other Canadian boroughs. Different too, from one another, and intense in their rivalry. Their remote geographical location— twelve hours by train from Halifax, two nights and a day from Montreal —the arduous, sometimes hazardous nature of the work occupying so many of their wage earners, the ancestral heritage of the majority of their citizens, their almost complete dependence for existence upon two closely related industries, both controlled by the same corporation, all these influences have served to shape the Cape Breton county towns into special and particular designs.

Except for its harbor, there is little that is beautiful about Sydney. It is a severely utilitarian city, displaying only rare, occasional flashes of modernity in its outward appearance—a glass-fronted restaurant here a neon-lighted advertising sign over there. The best looking structure is the new Y.M.C.A. building completed last year at a cost of $73,000. Many of its commercial establishments are of wood, and some could do with a fresh coat of paint. The City Hall, the Cape Breton County courthouse, the post-office and custom-house are of dingy timeworn red brick, designed in the bleak contours of the late Victorian period. Federal administrations have done little for Sydney in the way of new buildings since the turn of the century.

The city now has only three small municipal parks. Victoria Park, formerly Sydney’s chief open-air rendezvous belonging to th e Dominion Government, was taken over by the military authorities for an Army camp early in the war. Nelgah Beach is being slowly developed into an attractive shore resort, but civic officials confess that a great deal remains to be done there. The possibilities of the Esplanade along the harbor front as a pleasant and eyefilling promenade seem to have been overlooked entirely. Visitors and citizens alike get their best view of the harbor’s expanse and the rolling countryside on the far shore, from a cinder path fronted by a fence of wire netting stretched between wooden posts.

Take Their Time

PERHAPS the brightest spot in Sydney is the Isle Royale hotel, a modern seventy-six room hostelry fronting the harbor, built of light red brick with white stone facings, at a cost of $300,000. This is a community enterprise and the story of how it came about may help toward an understanding of Sydney’s civic temperament. Before the Isle Royale, the Sydney Hotel was the city’s only first-class inn. In April, 1919, the Sydney, a wooden structure, was burned to the ground, leaving the town entirely without public accommodation except that offered by two

or three minor hostels and the rooming houses. All Sydney was agreed that a new hotel was an immediate necessity; but it was not until nine years later that public opinion crystallized into sufficiently energetic action to produce its successor. When they did get around to it, the Sydney people built well. Almost all of the $300,000 was subscribed locally— about $25,000 came from outside— but the fact remains that for nine years this important Canadian industrial city was without a good hotel, while plans for building one were talked about endlessly.

“We are an odd people, perhaps,” a leading citizen confessed, explaining this strange lethargy. “We say to ourselves that it would be very nice to have this or that improvement. Then we think again, and we figure that we have managed to get along very well so far with what we have, so perhaps it isn’t absolutely necessary, and we go on getting along with what we have.”

It seems probable that much of this hesitancy to push forward new enterprises has its roots in Sydney’s perpetual uncertainty about its future. When times are good Sydney is as prosperous as any city in the Dominion. It was prosperous during the last war and through the boom years; but the industrial slump which followed the peace, and the still worse collapse of the depression, hit Cape Breton county much harder than they did other Canadian communities. A coal strike, a layoff or a partial shutdown at the steel plant are not less than disastrous to this part of Canada, mean literal ruin to small tradesmen. Twelve thousand men in coal; five thousand in steel. In the event of lengthy unemployment, for whatever reason,

they can do nothing except move out of the district, because there is no other work save in steel and in coal anywhere available in the district.

Between Sydney and Glace Bay there is a long-standing, sometimes a bitter rivalry, especially in competitive sport. On occasion this feeling flames into a real feud. There was the time last winter when a Sydney protest against the eligibility of a Glace Bay hockey player, upheld by the league officials, led to almost open warfare between the the two. Glace Bay town council passed resolutions attacking Sydney’s sense of sportsmanship. Glace Bay folks were urged to boycott Sydney merchants. The fire died down as the hockey season ended, but it still smolders under the surface, may break out again this winter.

Sydney and Glace Bay, the whole county, are prosperous now. The Steel Company gave its employees two weeks’ pay for a bonus last Christmas. Building permits are up ; steel workers, miners, coal shippers, trimmers, are working time and overtime. A four per cent Sydney bond issue floated last year sold readily at $99.50 for a hundred dollar bond. But, in the back of their minds citizens carry always the distressful thought: “How long will it last and what will happen afterward?”

The city of Sydney and the town of Glace Bay follow identical patterns in municipal administration. Each has a Mayor and a council of twelve aldermen representing six wards, six elected each year. The Mayor’s term also runs for two years. Sydney’s 1941 Mayor is George B. Slaven, proprietor of a chain of local drug stores, also serving now as a

Major in the Royal Canadian Artillery. A very busy man. Sydney city-council members are for the most part workers. Some are retired C.N.R. employees, others are in the steel mills. Tradesmen and professional men are in the minority. Sydney’s city clerk, James MacDonald is a veteran of seventeenyears experience in the office. D. J. O’Connell is city treasurer, and Murray F. Cossitt city engineer. There is a Board of Trade in Sydney, but it does not maintain permanent offices. John R. MacDonald is this year’s president, and Roland McIntyre the secretary. Mr. McIntyre runs the Board of Trade affairs from his own law office.

Glace Bay’s aldermen are, as you would expect, nearly all miners, or at least Coal Company employees. The famed D. W. (Dan Willie) Morrison is Mayor. Dan Willie was first elected mayor in 1922. He was out of office for one term after 1931, then chosen again in 1934, and has held the office continuously since. He is more widely known as head of the Amalgamated Mine Workers Union, in the Cape Breton district.

The Cape Breton County Municipal Council is an important factor in local administration. Twenty-four districts in the county each send one representative to the council, elected for three years. Roderick A. MacKinnon, first elected as a Councillor in 1922, has been County Warden since 1934.

There may be some significance, by way of interpretation of recent Cape Breton county political trends, in the fact that the present member of the Dominion House of Commons from the district is Claire Gillis, recognized as an up and coming man in the C.C.F. Although Claire Gillis was elected by only a narrow margin in a three-cornered fight in 1940, many Sydney citizens and almost everybody in Glace Bay believe that he will be returned again with a substantial majority at the next general election, when one is called.

Co-operative Housing

CONSIDERING physical aspects, the best that can be said about Glace Bay is that it is prosperous and bustling. The town’s main business intersection, called locally Senator’s Corners, after the late Senator William MacDonald, who once owned all the property thereabout, is crowded nightly with shoppers and pedestrians. But the town’s appearance, its streets lined with companyowned wooden houses all of the same design, painted a drab grey as protection against an atmosphere heavily laden with coal dust, is unlovely, sombre. You could never take Glace Bay to he anything but what it is—a soft-coal mining town.

But there are signs that the years ahead may be brighter. Notable, is the increasing evidence of an energetic co-operative spirit, especially in home building. The sons of the Scottish and Welsh miners, born and raised in those sad grey houses are not satisfied with their gracelessness. They want modern homes, and they are getting them.

It has not been easy. Average income in the Sydney and Glace Bay districts is about twenty-five dollars

weekly. Lowest requirements for i homes erected under the Dominion ] Housing Act were beyond the finang cial resources of most of Cape Breton ( county’s young men. The Nova i Scotia Government stepped into the f situation, and the parish priest at 1 Reserve Alines, Father James J. 1 Tompkins, evolved a plan. £

Now in several small new settle£ ments, within easy reach of the mines and the steel mills, homes are being ; constructed; trim little bungalows Í and cottages, conveniently equipped, i They are being built with the dime-atJ a-time savings of the young men who £ will own them, assisted by three per j cent loans from the Provincial i Government, which are granted through the Nova Scotia Housing i Commission. i

Father Tompkins’ plan is a 1941

model of the old neighborhood barn ' raising. If Donald AlacDonald ; wishes to build one of these new neat small homes for his bride, he first arranges to borrow from the Government the extra cash he may need to add to his own stake. With that money he finances the necessary purchases of land and materials. He gets his friends together—Father ; Tompkins will help him rally them— and forms his own construction gang. ; In their spare time the boys dig the foundations, pour concrete, do the rough carpentry. They have been brought up to handle tools, so they

make few mistakes. If Donald AlacDonald so desires, he can get a special course in house planning and construction from the Housing Commission. He repays his debt to the friends who have helped him build his house by helping them build theirs. A score or more homes in new suburban districts were erected last summer through this plan.

So Cape Breton county, Sydney and Glace Bay, North Sydney, Sydney Alines, Louisburg and Dominion carry on; in spite of the menace of nearness to the war, in spite of perpetual uncertainty as to the future. What this part of Canada needs more than anything is a dozen or more diversified and independent industries less delicately balanced upon national prosperity than are coal and steel. It’s difficult to get them. Cape Breton remains an island, a far, long way from any considerable market. Rail or motor haulage is costly. Increased air transport facilities may help in the future. A bridge across the Strait of Canso to replace the slow and cumbersome train ferry would help right now, cutting handling time and expense.

These are the things they dream about in Cape Breton county. When they stop thinking that they have got along very well without them so far, they may see their dreams come true.