Best known for a canal that hasn’t been dug, this storied neck of land thrives on shad, stoves and scholars and cherishes some of the wackiest legends in the land

IAN SCLANDERS October 15 1953


Best known for a canal that hasn’t been dug, this storied neck of land thrives on shad, stoves and scholars and cherishes some of the wackiest legends in the land

IAN SCLANDERS October 15 1953


Best known for a canal that hasn’t been dug, this storied neck of land thrives on shad, stoves and scholars and cherishes some of the wackiest legends in the land


THE WIND always blows on Chignecto Isthmus, that stubby neck which keeps Nova Scotia from being an island by fastening it to New Brunswick. It blows south off blue Northumberland Strait, an arm of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or north off the silt-reddened head of the Bay of Fundy, and from either direction it bends the lush grass of great salt marshes, brushes the backs of grazing beef cattle, hums around the corners of a thousand silver-grey hay barns and leaps the rooftrees of ancient villages.

It chuckles past a wharf left high and dry by a river that changed its course, and past the moss-grown skeleton of a railroad designed to carry ships across land a fantastic project, abandoned after an expenditure of four million dollars. It scuds over the remains of North America’s first dyke and first dry dock, buffets t he ramparts of early French and English forts, sings through the towers of the CBC shortwave station that; tells the world about. Canada, and plucks smoke from the foundry chimneys of t wo busy towns—Sackville, in New Brunswick, and Amherst, in Nova Scotia.

Chignecto Isthmus lies lengthwise between these towns, nine miles apart, and widthwise between Northumberland Strait; and the Bay of Fundy, which are twenty miles apart. It’s the geographical centre of the Maritimes. The New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border, where a bagpiper draws a salary from the Nova Scotia Government for giving tourists a musical welcome, is six miles east of Sackville on the way to Amherst. Just west of this border a road branches off to the Prince Edward Island ferry at. Cape Tormentine, N.B.

The isthmus was originally settled by the French nearly three centuries ago. After the expulsion of the Acadian» by the British in 1755 the district was resettled by New Englanders. For generations it produced most of the beef eaten in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and exported hay by the boatload to the eastern United States.

Its history, its legends about ghosts and buried treasure, its eerie bogs and low rolling hills, its red tidal rivers like bloody gashes in the green landscape, have inspired poems by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, novels by Thomas Raddall, Will R. Bird and Theodore Roberts, and paintings by dozens of artists.

“If Only It Had a Hole!”

Yet Chignecto is probably known best for a thing that has never existed a canal that wasn’t built. First suggested in 1709 by Jacques de Meulles, Intendant of New France, this waterway would make it possible for ships to get from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Bay of Fundy by a twenty-mile trip across the isthmus. Without it, they have to travel around the coast of Nova Scotia, more than four hundred miles of rough Atlantic sailing.

The proposed canal was a big issue in the pre-Confederation legislatures of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Since Confederation it has been a minor but extraordinarily durable issue in Canadian politics and no session of parliament passes without some mention of it. Maritimers claim the navigation shortcut would reduce their staggering freight bills and revive many an ailing industry.

Mayor Herbert Beale of Sackville, a stocky amiable haberdasher, sighs with sorrow and frustration when he looks toward the isthmus. “That, barrier,” he says. “If only it had a hole in the middle of it our economy would improve so much that our young people would stop drifting off to Ontario and Sackville would soon be a city.”

N. S. Sanford, former mayor of Amherst and editor of the Amherst News, has spent half his life championing the canal and trying to persuade the federal government to construct it. Each time victory has seemed in sight his hopes have been dashed by adverse reports by royal commissions.

Old Intendant de Meulles thought the canal would practically dig itself. In a memorandum to Louis the Fourteenth he pointed out that the tide on the Fundy side of Chignecto rises forty-seven feet, compared with nine or ten feet on the Northumberland Strait side. If a narrow ditch were dug to let Fundy sweep through de Meulles was sure that “it would make in a very short time a very fine river by which ships from Quebec could easily pass.” Modern engineers laugh at this idea and the gist of various royal commission reports is that the benefits of the scheme would not justify the cost, which was estimated at fourteen million dollars in 1870 and is now estimated at upwards of one hundred millions. Because of the difference in the height of the tides the canal would have to be equipped with an elaborate system of locks.

Ironically, Canada’s first

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government, that of Sir John A. Macdonald, advertised for tenders for the Chignecto canal but was defeated before it awarded a contract. Canada’s second government, that of Alexander Mackenzie, twice included money for the project in its estimates before it appointed a royal commission which recommended that the plan be dropped.

Henry George Clopper Ketchum, a portly engineer with a king-sized mustache, a beaver hat and an impressive manner, then entered the picture. He said that for a third of the cost of a canal he could build a railroad that would transport ships of up to five thousand tons over Chignecto Isthmus. It sounded crazy but Ketchum’s tongue was persuasive and his record was good. He had built railways in British North America, South America and Europe. In 1882 he secured from parliament a charter for the Chignecto Marine Railway Transport Company. Sir John A. Macdonald, again in power, guaranteed the company an annual subsidy of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for twenty-five years, provided the railroad was in operation within seven years.

A New Town Is Born

With this guarantee Ketchum embarked for England, where he persuaded a London bank, Baring Brothers, to finance him and where he engaged several engineering assistants. One of these was Maurice Fitzmaurice, who was later to tunnel under the ’Thames, erect an irrigation dam on the Nile, and win a knighthood. By 1888 the job was in full swing. Four thousand laborers were at work, rails weighing one hundred and ten pounds to the yard were being anchored to a broad heavily-ballasted roadbed, and masons were completing the stone docks from which ships were to be lifted hydraulically onto carriages with sixty wheels on each side.

The quiet villages of Sackville and Amherst, on the Fundy side, became roaring boom towns jammed with boisterous strangers. A third community, Port Elgin, sprang up on the Northumberland Strait side. Ketchum and his fellow engineers had an elaborate residence at Amherst, Ballyhooly House, where they entertained lavishly.

Then, without warning, the London bank found itself in difficulties and had to suspend loans to Ketchum. Before it was able to resume advances the agreement under which he was to receive a subsidy from Ottawa was nullified by the seven-year clause. He was sitting in the gallery of the House of Commons when a motion to grant him an extension of time was defeated by a single vote.

A beaten man, he returned to Amherst and died before he could see his rails rust and his docks crumble.

Although advocates of a Chignecto canal go marching on valiantly, sup-

port for the marine railroad died with Ketchum. His four-million-dollar failure is a landmark now in a district crowded with landmarks.

A mere ridge in the marshes, it’s within sight of another ridge—North America’s first dyke, the dyke of de la Vallière. When Michel Le Neuf de la Vallière, governor and commander of Acadia, reached Chignecto in 1676, Fundy’s tremendous tide swept in twice daily over much of the vast seigniory he had been granted and myriads of seafowl set up such a din in the reeds and eelgrass that he called the marshes Tintamarre, which meant racket or hubbub, and has now been corrupted to Tantramar. De la Vallière, who had seen the amazing fertility of Holland’s dykelands, figured that what the Dutch could do the French could do too. He had his followers erect a wall with a series of crude valves, each a flap of cowhide over a small opening, which would let the land drain at low tide but hold the sea out at high tide. De la Vallière was soon growing huge crops.

Besides farming, he fished in both the Bay of Fundy and Northumberland Strait. His dining table was the wonder of the New World, heaped with lobsters, oysters, shad, salmon, mackerel, venison, ducks and geese.

Of all fish he preferred plump succulent shad, and the Bay of Fundy was full of them, but they were hard to catch in set nets because of Fundy’s high tide. De la Vallière overcame the problem by fastening nets to sixty-foot stakes. The shad, which swim near the surface, blundered into the nets at high tide and at low tide de la Vallière’s men climbed up ladders to empty the nets. This is still the method by which shad are taken at Fundy’s head at villages like Minudie, N.S.

With his farming and fishing enterprises prospering, de la Vallière should have been a happy man, but he wasn’t. The reason was his daughter Marguerite. After he’d arranged a fine marriage for her with a noble in Quebec and had scrimped to accumulate a suitable dowry for her, she ran off with Louis le Gannes, a twice-widowed peasant with six children. De la Vallière had changed the name of the Missaguash River to the Marguerite. Now he restored its old name to the Missaguash and took an oath he would never speak to his daughter again. Like le Gannes’ other wives, she died young, anti there are those who say that the fair face of Marguerite shines wanly from a pool in the Missaguash when the moon is bright.

It is easier to believe this on Chignecto than it is elsewhere. The isthmus, with its fogs, its mists, its sometimes whispering and sometimes howling wind, its eternal smell of sea and adventure, has an atmosphere that makes ghosts credible.

It has ghosts like those of the young British lieutenant and his sweetheart who were captured by Indians and tied in such a way on the tide flats that as the tide rose the girl would see her lover drown, then be drowned herself. Her piercing screams as her lieutenant died attracted French rescuers who drove off the Indians, but, no longer wanting to live, she held her

head under water and joined her lover in death.

That happened at Aulac, N.B. At the nearby Chignecto village of Bloody Bridge, N.B., the more superstitious residents claim they have seen the ghosts of five scalped and naked British soldiers who were murdered and stripped of their clothing by Micmac Indians employed by Abbé le Loutre, an evil fanatic who collected English scalps.

Locming over Aulac and Bloody Bridge is Fort Beauséjour. Built by the French on the summit of a hill, it was taken by the British in 1755. The chaplain of the British force which moved in was Parson Eagleson, and his cheerful ghost is said to stagger around the ramparts laughing. Eagleson could preach a good hellfire sermon on Sunday but on other days was said to drink more than his share of rum. He would ride home from the officers’ mess at night sitting backward in his saddle and doffing his hat ceremoniously to everybody he met.

One evening he encountered a raiding party from Jonathan Eddy’s ragged army which was trying to win the Maritimes for George Washington. The raiders, instead of bowing back, packed Eagleson off to Boston and tossed him behind bars. It was months before he escaped and returned to Beauséjour—just in time to christen the infant son of a couple he had been supposed to marry. To him this, and everything else, was an uproarious joke.

Serious historians, who ignore Eagleson’s antics, deal at length with the effort of Jonathan Eddy to gain the Maritimes for the United States, and with his defeat by the Beauséjour garrison in 1776. A scholarly book by Professor Bartlet Brebner, of Columbia University, notes that if Eddy hadn’t been routed at Chignecto the Maritimes, fairly sympathetic to the rebel cause anyway, would now belong to the U. S. and Canada would lack ports on the Atlantic.

Fort Beauséjour has been partly rebuilt in late years by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board and there’s a museum where Eagleson used to bend his elbow. On the Chignecto Isthmus it’s known as Dr. Webster’s Museum, in tribute to Dr. J. Clarence Webster, a New Brunswicker who was a p7-otege of the g7-eat Sir William Osier. Webster, who looked like a benevolent eagle, had a spectacular career in medicine in Britain, Canada and the U. S. Rich and internationally famous in his fifties, he retired to his native province and devoted the last thirty years of his life and hund7-eds of thousands of dollars to resurrecting and 7'ecording the colorful past of the Maritimes.

Chignecto was his special preserve. When he was too old to tramp its bogs and hills he pored over aerial photographs of the area. On one of these he noticed a mysterious contour beside La Coupe River. Excited, he sprang from his chair and rushed off to investigate.

The spot that had aroused his interest was covered with earth and so overgrown with brush th$t a pe7\son could walk by without seeing it. But digging revealed that it had once been a dry dock—North America’s fh*st—dating from the beginning of the 1700s. In it French warships of the Atla7itic Squadron were repaired. Webster bought it and deeded it to Canada.

So now it’s a tourist attraction among Chigneeto’s other tourist attractions, vying for attention with Fort Beauséjour, the lesser Chignecto forts of Caspereau and Lawrence, the mai'ine railroad, the Acadian dykes, the strange tidal rivers which empty into Fundy. These rivers, the Tantramar, the Aulac, Missaguash and La Planche, are within

sight of one another. They twist through the fields like snakes, and occasionally jump their banks and carve new courses. The Missaguash, the river nearest Sackville, did that just after an expensive new wharf had been built to serve -the town, and this wharf since 1920 has been a ludicrous object, far from water.

Besides its dry wharf, Chignecto has dry lakes which now pi'oduce big crops of hay. Tolar Thompson, a century and a half ago, used to watch the incoming tide rush up the rivers, heavy with silt. It struck him that if the tide

could reach the lakes and deposit the silt in them, they would fill up and turn into fertile farmland. He cut passages from the rivers to half a dozen lakes and thus reclaimed thousands of acres on which grass grew lushly. Chignecto has ever since been the best grazing area in the Maritimes for beef cattle. Maritime gourmets prefer Chignecto sirloins to prime western steaks, and they fry them with Chignecto mushrooms—huge wild muslirooms that grow in the salt marshes and have an exquisite flavor.

People who wander through the

marshes obviously searching for something may be looking for these mushrooms, or they may be looking for treasure. The Canadian author, Will R. Bird, who knows the marshes as few others do, is convinced that they hold buried treasure, for the Acadians were prosperous but couldn’t take their gold with them when they were d7\iven out by the British. Many concealed it, hoping to be able to return.

Some treasure has actually been located. A chest of French gold was unearthed near Beauséjour when the roadbed of the Intercolonial Railway

was being graded in 1872. Within a mile of this, around the same time, a farmer excavating a cellar struck so much gold that he didn’t bother finishing the house but packed off to the U. S. to live a life of ease. In 1884 a man named Bent who occupied a house built by the French awoke one morning to discover that his stone doorstep had been lifted during the night. In the spot it had covered was the imprint of a three-legged iron pot which presumably had held a fortune.

Looking strangely out of place in the marshes is a big white modernisticbuilding surrounded by a forest of steel masts. This is the CBC’s Voice of Canada, a shortwave transmitter of five million watts power. Programs broadcast to foreign countries by the CBC are relayed through this station which reaches Central and South America, the British Isles and Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Asia and Africa. Built in 1943, it was put in the marshes because the damp salt soil proved to be a natural reflector for radio signals.

Although Chignecto Isthmus is a huge patchwork of fine farms, the towns on its edges are not just shopping centres for the agricultural population. Charles MofTatt, youthful editor of the bi-weekly Sackville TribunePost, says Sackville’s two chief products are “scholars and stoves,” for Sackville is both a college town and a foundry town—a community where professors and iron molders belong to the same clubs.

Its university, Mount Allison, founded in 1853, caused a nationwide controversy in 1875 by granting a B.Sc. to Grace A. Lockhart. It was the first degree ever given to a woman in Canada and reactionary males raised a howl of protest, accusing Mount Allison of trying to undermine the whole social structure. Feminists rallied to the support of Mount Allison and in the ensuing debate husbands lined up against wives, brothers against sisters. Mount Allison, which survived to laugh at its critics and see other universities follow its example, now has seven hundred students. Its president is Rev. Dr. Ross Flemington, who was Canada’s principal Protestant chaplain overseas in the last war.

Sackville has two stove foundries which sell their stoves, heaters and furnaces throughout the country and as far away as Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand. One was established in 1852 by a tinsmith, John Fawcett, the other in 1872 by a farmer, R. M. Dixon, who figured that while he had no manufacturing experience nobody could know more about a stove than a farmer who for years had been lighting one in the morning and warming himself by it in the evening. Together these industries have about six hundred employees.

Amherst, at the other end of the isthmus, is famed for the Great Amherst Mystery and the Maritime Winter Fair. The Great Amherst Mystery, which rated front-page coverage by North American newspapers toward the close of the 1800s, had as its leading character a servant girl, Esther Cox, who frequently slipped into a sort of coma. When Esther slipped, hell popped. Flour flew from barrels, lids flew from stoves, stones broke windows, fires caught where there was nothing to cause them. Investigators flocked to Amherst and while they agreed that Esther was in some way connected with the curious events that happened around her when she was having one of her spells, they went away as baffled as the public. Finally, Esther’s health improved, and all was again quiet.

The Maritime Winter Fair, which has been held in Amherst in November

for more than half a century, is Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair on a somewhat smaller scale and with a Maritime flavor. It draws the leading farmers of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and they trade livestock and gossip, hold reunions, make merry.

But Amherst is, like Sackville, primarily industrial in character. Its hundred - and - four - year - old Robb Engineering Works fabricates structural steel. Other plants roll steel, make pants, coffins, trunks, bags and building materials, and assemble washing machines and refrigerators.

Amherst’s mayor, soft-spoken F. C. Wightman, a consulting engineer, was formerly town manager of Kentville. When he moved to Amherst to practice engineering, he felt lost without a town under his wing and ran for the mayoralty. Like his Sackville counterpart, Herb Beale, he worries about the loss of young people who hoard westbound

trains for central Canada, and wis' es the isthmus could be sliced by a canal to reduce freight costs and stimulate industry.

Apart from Sackville and Amherst, the one other Chignecto community of any size is Port Elgin, which sits at the mouth of the Gaspereau Rivetlooking over Northumberland Strait. It has a factory that makes cans for fish packers and a mill that weaves blankets. But most of its residents are farmers and lobster fishermen. If the Chignecto canal were ever built Port Elgin would boom like Sackville and Amherst, for it would be at the northern approach to the waterway. But two fishermen, repairing their gear on the wharf a while ago, hoped vocally that Ottawa wouldn’t act too quickly.

“My grandfather,” said one of them, “spent his life grumbling about how those rascals at Ottawa wouldn’t dig the canal for us. So did my father, and I’ve been yacking all my life too. If those fellers at Ottawa built it now they’d be depriving me of my chief topic of conversation.” He’d have a lot of company equally bereft of conversation, for Chignecto folks have been brought up on talk of this elusive project.

Meanwhile, even without it, and even if some of their sons and daughters shove off for the big cities, Chignecto’s residents do pretty well with their lush salt marshes, their small factories, their quiet but pleasant towns and villages. They have time to enjoy the wind and the ghosts and the old forts outlined against the moonlight— time to hunt mushrooms and treasure and fish the trout lakes and shoot the ducks which wing over the bogs, it