The Cursed Stones of Louisbourg

Across the desolate ruins of what was North America’s gayest and most important city blow the healing breezes of Cape Breton — but they cannot blow away the memories of death and lost causes that still lurk among the rusted cannon

David MacDonald May 15 1953

The Cursed Stones of Louisbourg

Across the desolate ruins of what was North America’s gayest and most important city blow the healing breezes of Cape Breton — but they cannot blow away the memories of death and lost causes that still lurk among the rusted cannon

David MacDonald May 15 1953

The Cursed Stones of Louisbourg

David MacDonald

Across the desolate ruins of what was North America’s gayest and most important city blow the healing breezes of Cape Breton — but they cannot blow away the memories of death and lost causes that still lurk among the rusted cannon

IN THE bitter days of the struggle between France and Britain for the New World two centuries ago the most valuable piece of real estate in America was a misty mile-long point of land poking out into the Atlantic off the southeast coast of Cape Breton Island. On it stood the gay glittering French city of Louisbourg, surrounded by mighty walls and an aura of invincibility. More important than New York, Boston or Quebec City, more populous than any place in Canada, it was the key to conquest of North America.

It was a proud fortress, a lusty city of intrigue

where the elegance of the old world combined with the rough vigorous life of the new. Its people were noblemen and rogues, veiled nuns and pompadoured camp followers, rum-loving soldiers and Parisian courtesans in powdered wigs. Young officers and their ladies danced minuets in its magnificent citadel, the Chateau St. Louis, while in the darkened streets below painted Indians rubbed shoulders with swashbuckling pirates.

The world has known nothing quite like Louisbourg. The suffering taxpayers of France poured so much money into its massive fortifications that their king, Louis XV, once said he expected to

look out his bedroom window one morning to see its far-off walls and spires rising over the horizon.

Its oval harbor, cutting into the jagged coastline against a backdrop of rolling highlands, sheltered the square-rigged trading ships and privateers that brought the wealth of two continents to its wharves.

Louisbourg’s role in the changing history of America was brief, momentous and uncommonly tragic. In the space of a single generation it shuddered and fell under two sieges, several mutinies and a devastating plague. It was also responsible for one of the world’s worst naval disasters. The price of this mean and vital spit of land that two world powers wanted—but hated—was an incredible sum of suffering and bloodshed. It was paid many times over.

The twenty thousand tourists who visit Louisbourg every year find it hard to picture it as it was. For today the site of the old fort is probably the lonesomest spot in Canada. White-topped waves drum a mournful tattoo against its stark shore and a thick fog hangs over the land like a shroud. It has the approximate charm of a graveyard, which, in part, it is.

For years the ancient city was left to decay. Herds of sheep grazed quietly in its forgotten ruins and restless ghosts were reported moaning at night. The author of a travel book took one look at it, cringed and wrote: “The gloomiest spectacle the

sight of man can dwell upon is this desolate but once populous abode of humanity. Egypt itself is cheerful compared with Louisbourg.”

Today a single building, a museum housing the relics of Louisbourg’s past, stands out on the bleak point, like something left behind. All around it are the vague outlines of what Louisbourg used to be, the excavated foundations of great buildings, shapeless piles of rubble where once stood towering ramparts, and the shallow graves of its dead.

The present-day Louisbourg, a mile across the harbor from the old site, stretches along the waterfront on both sides of a rutty Main Street, once advertised in the Sydney Post-Record as “the worst road in the Dominion of Canada.” Set back from the road at the western end of town is the rectory of a small Roman Catholic church. Behind it, a stone’s throw from the site of a great French

gun battery, the laundry of the Rev. Michael MacSween snaps in the breeze.

In the harbor billowing sailing ships have given way to squat trawlers trudging in from the teeming Newfoundland banks and to grimy coal-carriers heading out.

The eleven hundred inhabitants of Louisbourg (its population hasn’t changed in fifty years) maintain a casual indifference to the history that is all around them. The story is told of an American tourist who asked a citizen of today’s Louisbourg for directions to the fort. He got the reply, “What fort?”

In fact Louisbourg’s only authority on itself is Melvin Sanford Huntington, a seventy-seven-yearold storekeeper. Huntington was mayor of the town for twenty years.

“Now you take James Townsend,” he will say, as if Townsend had just come in the door. “He was one of the original settlers here, he was. Got a grant of land after the second capture and stayed on. One time you could walk down the street here and call everyone Townsend and be right most of the time. Good man, Townsend.”

The chief reason why Louisbourg hasn’t had time for the past is that it has been too busy trying to find a future. It tried its hand at shipping, fishing and naval refitting, with only brief success. At one ¡joint even the board of trade went out of

business. A newspaperman remarked, “The last time anything happened here was when Wolfe left for Quebec. And who could blame him?”

Lately things have been changing. Soon after World War II a group of citizens, men like Tom Wong, who runs a café, Gordon Cameron, a trainman, Allister McDonald, the druggist, and fisherman Bert Wilcox, got together and formed the Louisbourg Development Company. They collected four thousand dollars, bought a piece of waterfront and turned it over to the Nova Scotia government. The government went fishing for an industry for Louisbourg and landed a five-milliondollar whopper. Last summer, on the site provided for them, National Sea Products, of Halifax, and Gorton-Pew, of Gloucester, Mass., opened the biggest and most modern fish-processing plant on the Atlantic seaboard. The town’s only sizeable full-time industry, it employs more than two hundred men and women and pays them four hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year.

Slowly the town is coming to life. The people have gone in hock for close to half a million dollars for water and sewage systems and paving,. Houses are being painted for the first time in years. Louisbourg will get its first theatre this year and is talking of a forty-thousand-dollar hospital.

The man behind it all is George Lewis, the town’s mayor and leading merchant. He is a jaunty

fifty-eight, wears bow ties, glasses and a boyish crew cut. It was Lewis who suggested that Louisbourg, the closest port on the Canadian mainland to the Newfoundland banks, should get into the fresh-fish business in a big way. He organized the Development Company and became its president.

“Almost everyone was in on it,” he says. “We just pulled Louisbourg up by its own bootstraps.”

Two years ago during a minor controversy over the spelling of Louisbourg (urg or ourg) someone suggested, “Call it Lewisburg—they run it anyway.” He wasn’t far off. The first mayor of the town was William Lewis, George’s sea-captain father who once made national headlines by deliberately snubbing the Governor-General, the Earl of Minto, on a fish wharf. Because Minto went to the Louisbourg ruins as guest of a local clergyman rather than of the town, William Lewis called off the official welcome. When the two came face-to-face later on a pier Lewis turned his back on the vice-regal caller.

Today’s Mayor, George Lewis, and his brother Bill, also a Development Company member, run the biggest store in town. Another brother, Earl, is assistant manager of the Gorton-Pew plant and a former town councilor. Chief of the volunteer fire department is Harvey Lewis, the mayor’s son.

Most of the remaining positions in the town used to be held by Dan Continued on page 33

The Cursed Stones of Louisbourg


Johnston, who was police chief, carpenter, painter, paper hanger, farmer, street superintendent, sanitary inspector, jailer, coroner, tax collector and undertaker. Until he retired they used to say of Dan, “If he don’t get you one way he gets you another.” The current police chief, etc., is burly Charlie Peck, a prize fighter of local note. Arrests have been few in Louisbourg since the busy shipping days of World War I when there were twenty-one blind pigs along the waterfront. Today Louisbourg, officially, is dry.

The people highly resent being told the place is also dull. For Louisbourg has seen some events which, though less than historic, are memorable. Around Burke’s barbershop they may tell of the day in 1936 when Beryl Markham, the British aviatrix, plopped down in a bog at nearby Baleine after flying the Atlantic nonstop. Or the time during the first war that the rum ship went aground on the rocks. Much of the cargo, rescued by the patriots of Louisbourg, was later unaccountably lost.

They had a pretty fair celebration last year when the fish plant opened. George Lewis predicted the town’s population would double in five years and some of the government officials who came up from Halifax for the ceremonies spoke eloquently of Louisbourg’s historic past and its great hopes for the future.

A few days later someone stopped elderly Clarence Connington, who lives near the ruins, and asked him what he thought of the prospects. “Well, I dunno,” he said gravely. “Seems to me there’s always been a curse on this place.”

Connington was not merely fulfilling his duty as town cynic. There is a legend that when the French were driven from Louisbourg for the last time they wished a hex on it. It seems more likely that the curse is much older. For the Louisbourg story, almost from its beginning, is a succession of disasters.

It began in 1713 when the Treaty of Utrecht,. one of the breathers in the fight for North America, gave Britain the entire Atlantic coast, leaving France with only Prince Edward Island, a few islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Cape Breton.

With large fleets fishing the Newfoundland banks the French needed a nearby port where they could refit their vessels and dry fish. They also required a stronghold to keep lie Royale (Cape Breton) and to guard the entrance to the St. Lawrence and Quebec, the capital of New France. English Harbor was a natural site. With a narrow and easily defended entrance it offered a haven to fishermen and privateers. The townsite itself was flanked by impassable swamps.

The French have always put great stock in stout walls and huge guns. They began building their fortress in 1717 and kept at it for twenty-five years. Renamed for the reigning French king, Louisbourg took shape as the only walled city in North America. Two and a half miles of walls, thirty feet high and twelve thick, girdled the town. An eighty-foot moat yawned in front of it. Inside, it was complete in every way, with a large hospital, theatre, churches, gardens, taverns and the great stone citadel, where Louisbourg’s governors lived in splendor.

Around the walls were places for one hundred and forty-eight cannons and

sixteen mortars. A rocky island at the entrance to the harbor bristled with thirty heavy guns. Another twentyeight, the Grand Battery, were trained on the harbor mouth.

Louisbourg’s first settlers, fifty fishermen and their families, came from Placentia, in Newfoundland. The French tried vainly to entice the Acadians to leave their farms in the lush Annapolis Valley, then under British rule, and move to Louisbourg. Catholic priests even warned them that their souls would be endangered by contact with the English but most of the Acadians stayed where they were.

Louisbourg flourished as the centre of the largest fishing industry in North America. Grand larceny was also big business. To its French officers, Louisbourg was a Siberia. They wanted to get rich quick, then go home. Grafting officials pocketed millions of livres. The cut stone sent from France for the walls was either put into the governor’s quarters or resold to eager New England traders. Many of the timbers and bricks that went into the building of Louisbourg were delivered by the same British colonials who were later to attack it. Louisbourg became such a haunt for privateers that England and her colonies protested. The governor, a hard-drinking unpopular man named DuQuesnel, blandly pleaded ignorance of what was going on.

In 1744 war broke out again between France and Britain. The news reached Louisbourg before the British in America heard of it. DuQuesnel immediately sent out an expedition to sack the homemade English fort at Canso, fifty miles southeast, a principal port of call for the New England fishermen.

The colonials, their vital fishing industry threatened hy Louisbourg’s might, decided that something had to be done.

What followed rates as one of the weirdest campaigns ever waged in the name of warfare. Military historians have been writing books ever since trying to explain why it was also incredibly successful.

Soon after the attack on Canso three men who had been held as prisoners at Louisbourg arrived in Boston. They told stories of mutiny among the French soldiers and Swiss mercenaries over short pay and poor rations. The fort’s guard, they said, was down.

The idea of storming Louisbourg was pushed forward in Jan. 1745 by the governor of Massachusetts, beetlebrowed William Shirley, a lawyer from England. Sworn to secrecy, the lawmakers went home to think it over.

One of them, a deacon, knelt down that night to ask for guidance. He prayed so fervently that men in the street below overheard Shirley’s plan. Practically overnight it flashed through the colonies. At first the plan was turned down, then reconsidered. On a second vote in the legislature the scheme was approved by a majority of one. It would have heen a tie except that one of the opponents, hurrying to the meeting, slipped and broke a leg.

Within eight weeks a makeshift army of four thousand had been recruited in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. The rustic recruits brought along their own guns. A request for naval support was sent to England.

Few of the volunteers had ever fired at more than a partridge. Later it was discovered that only six of them knew how to load a cannon. Their leader, William Pepperrell, a wealthy fish and shingle merchant and militia colonel, was chosen mainly for his popularity.

Governor Shirley drafted a madcap plan of action for Pepperrell and his ragged army of fishermen, farmers and

bushmen. Arriving at night, unseen, they were to march on the fortress with four detachments. Two were to move to within striking distance, “halt and keep a profound silence.” A third was to attack the Grand Battery at the foot of the harbor, a mile from the fort. At that time the profoundly silent group was to rush one of the gates. The fourth detachment was to race along the shore, scale a certain spot in the wall and “secure the windows of the governor’s apartment.”

New England had just undergone “The Great Awakening,” a Puritan revival sparked by a famous preacher, George Whitefield. Accordingly, the campaign against Louisbourg became partly a religious crusade against, the papist French. The chaplain of the army was Sam Moody, a truculent seventy-year-old parson who frequently caned sinners. He climbed aboard a troop transport waving a hatchet, determined to chop down the “Catholic idols.”

After a day of fast ing and prayer the provincials sailed for Canso. They were escorted by a few colonial warships, the largest carrying twenty guns. They took along some forty-two-pound balls —too large for their own guns—which they intended to use in the French cannons they would capture. Historians later compared this to skinning the bear before it was caught.

French Went On Dancing

At Canso they were joined by Commodore Peter Warren, with four British ships. A freak storm blocked the entrance to Louisbourg with ice. The troops were able to train for another three weeks, during which parson Moody preached constantly and the colonial officers plied their men with rum to get them to obey orders.

Warren’s ships blockaded Louisbourg harbor, but the French didn’t seem to be alarmed. A ball was being beíd in the citadel as the New Englanders approached Louisbourg. Their arrival was announced at dawn by a captain who rushed into the governor’s bedchamber in his nightshirt. Bells rang, cannon roared and French troops were ordered out to meet the invader. But the colonials landed a small force and drove the French back into the fort. The siege was on.

Pepperrell ignored Shirley’s absurd plan and undertook one of his own that was successful largely on sheer luck. He sent Col. William Vaughan and four hundred men to scout the swamps and hills at the rear of the fortress. They crept out of the woods near one of the town’s gates. In full view of the enemy they gave “three rousing cheers” and then disappeared into the woods again. A short time later they set fire to some storehouses.

Smoke from the fires blew into the powerful Grand Battery at the foot of the harbor. Thinking the entire colonial army was bearing down on them the garrison of four hundred fled. They made only a half-hearted attempt at spiking their guns, apparently heeding an engineer who pleaded that they shouldn’t be ruined. The attack on Louisbourg began next day with its own guns. Fourteen persons inside the walls were killed hy the first shot. Parson Moody preached that Sunday on the text, “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise.”

Pepperrell decided to set up a battery on the slope of one of the hills behind the fort. The guns had to be moved through a swamp. The first gun vanished in the muck. Then the colonials came up with one of the most remarkable feats of the siege, dragging the guns on wooden sledges through

the bogs, two hi

The French

—DuQuesnel’s s French and Swisi

be allowed to rr...............

colonial batteries. He suspected the mutinous men would keep on going.

As long as the Island Battery, at the entrance to the harbor was in French hands, Warren couldn’t get his ships close enough for a shot at the fortress. Luck came through again. Years before, the French had dropped a reserve supply of forty-two-pound cannon into the water at the east side

Boston at the island stronghold.

The enemy weren’t the colonials’ only threat. Because most of them couldn’t load cannon properly, guns exploded, wounding scores. Balls were so scarce during the siege that the New Englanders were paid a shilling apiece for retrieving them.

Inside the fortress supplies were running low, but the sixty-four-gun

French warship Vigilant, loaded down with provisions, was on the way. Just off Louisbourg she sighted a colonial frigate and chased the smaller vessel through the fog. When the mist cleared the French captain found himself surrounded by British ships. Commodore Warren added her to his fleet. The supplies fed the colonials and F'rench morale hit rock bottom.

On a moonless night four hundred colonial volunteers muffled their oars and rowed out to the Island Battery. One chronicler says many of them were drunk. As the first boats reached the

island someone called for three cheers. The French opened fire. By morning sixty New P glanders were dead and one hundreu and sixteen had been captured. It was their first and only setback. A short time later the island was reduced to rubble. Louisbourg surrendered. The impossible had taken forty-nine days. The colonials lost one hundred men, sixty of them in the island raid and twenty-two to Indians. Of the remaining eighteen, half were the victims of their own bursting guns. Three hundred were injured. The F'rench casualties totaled three hundred. The F'rench were allowed to surrender with honor, keeping all their personal property, which deprived the New Flngland soldiers of the plunder they had expected. One man wrote in his diary, “Ye F'rench keep possession yet, and we are forsed to stand at their Dores to gard them.” The navy made a fortune. The French flag was left flying over Louisbourg and twenty vessels sailed into the trap. Warren’s take alone amounted to sixty thousand pounds. Flach sailor got at least two hundred and fifty guineas. Pepperrell, on the other hand, paid ten thousand pounds out of his own pocket to outfit his men. By midsummer the colonials, hungry, homesick and angry, were on the verge of mutiny. There were several clashes between officers and men. They were calmed only by the arrival of Governor Shirley, who raised their pay from twenty-five to forty shillings a month and gave each man half a pint of rum. But the worst was still to come. Remorse Killed the Captain That winter a plague of fever and dysentery broke out among the tattered unhappy colonials. As many as twentyseven were buried in a single day in the cemetery behind the town. Within three months more than nine hundred had died, eleven hundred were ill and only a thousand fit for duty. In the spring British regiments arrived from Gibraltar to take over the fort. The New Englanders at last went home, cursing the day they had ever seen Louisbourg. In the summer of 1746 word came that the French were preparing a great armada to retake Louisbourg and Acadia and to burn Boston. New England hurried to rearm and the British at Louisbourg dug in. Nearly half the F'rench navy, about sixty-five ships, sailed from Brest under the command of the Due d’Anville. He was a nobleman who rose to high rank in the navy without going to sea. Off Nova Scotia the fleet was scattered and wrecked by violent storms. Scorbutic fever broke out among the survivors. After months at sea D’Anville limped into Chebucto Bay (Halifax Harbor) with the remnants of his armada. Overcome by remorse he died of apoplexy. His place was taken by D’Flstournel. Many of his sailors were starving and disease claimed scores every day. Grieving and ill, D’Estournel suggested to his officers that they abandon any thought of Louisbourg and go back to France. They met and voted against him. He went to his cabin, bolted the door and ran himself through with his own sword. F'inally, the fleet did set sail for France. Meagre rations were supplemented with rats, caught in the holds. The men aboard one frigate were on the point of killing five English prisoners and eating them when a Portuguese ship appeared and supplied five sheep. They were pulled apart and eaten raw. The final toll from sickness was twelve hundred. As many more were lost in the storms at sea.

British troops, , meanwhile, were guarding Louisbourg and enjoying it no more than had the Frene, or colonial soldiers. The English governor, Commodore Knowles, proclaimed it the dreariest spot on the face of the earth and confided to his superiors that it wasn’t worth holding. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 handed back to France all her former holdings, Louisbourg included.

The siege of Louisbourg had given the New England colonists their first test of arms. The subsequent treaty, which revived Louisbourg’s old threat, left them with a bitter grudge. Both contributed to the American Revolution.

Back in French hands, the battered fortress was rebuilt and strengthened. Again it became the base of privateers and roving Indians. Louisbourg grew and prospered. It was the home of many romantic characters, among them Chevalier Johnstone, an aide to Bonnie Prince Charlie who fled with the young Stuart after the bloody Jacobite defeat at Culloden. He came to Louisbourg as an officer in the French army.

Louisbourg was stronger than ever before when the Seven Years’ War, the last round in a fight that offered North America as the prize, began in 1756. Two years later a British fleet of twenty-three ships and fourteen thousand men sailed from Halifax to attack the French stronghold again. Quebec was to be next. Early in June it anchored in Gabarus Bay, seven miles west of the fortress. The first landing party, led by a lanky redhead named James Wolfe, waded through treacherous surf and fierce shore fire. And again the French and their Indian allies fled behind Louisbourg’s stout walls.

Outnumbered three to one, cut off from all help by a harbor blockade, the French governor, Drucour, knew Louisbourg was doomed. But if he could hold the British off long enough they would have to wait until the next spring to attack Quebec. The French fought back stubbornly. They drew inspiration from the governor’s wife, a plucky woman who fired three cannon shots every day during the forty-eight days of the battle. Meanwhile, two French fleets destined to aid Louisbourg had been bottled up by the British Navy on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fighting for time, Drucour held out until the entire town was in ruins and only four of his cannon could still fire. Then he surrendered, having won a winter’s reprieve for Quebec and Montcalm. Chevalier Johnstone slipped out just before the British inarched in and escaped to Quebec where he became Montcalm’s aide.

In the spring of 1760 Britain decided to get rid of Louisbourg forever. A shipload of sappers and miners tunneled under the fortifications and set off dynamite charges. The man who directed the demolition was Commodore John Byron, whose reputation for bad luck at sea earned him the sobriquet “Foul-Weather Jack.” Lord Byron, the poet, was his grandson.

When Commodore Byron sailed away he left behind a mound of blackened wood and broken stone, a monument to misfortune. In 1928 the old ruins were made a national historic' site. They were partly excavated and i 1986 the museum was opened. Four ars later the battleground became a lational historic park.

Forty-eight years ago, long before the federal government got interested in them, Albert Alrnon, a plumber from nearby Glace Bay, began picking among the ruins and leafing through old books to reconstruct the story of Louisbourg. Now a sprightly eightyone, he has written several books and

countless pamphlets and essays on Louisbourg’s past. In 1947 St. Francis Xavier University called him to Antigonish, N.S., to receive an honorary master of arts degree. “I sat between two archbishops and in front of the editor of something of the New York Times,” Almon observed. “Me, I only went to grade nine!”

From time to time, fired with a healthy love of money, others have searched for the pot of gold that legend left in Louisbourg. The story is that just before the fortress fell for the last time a bridge spanning a pond in

the city collapsed while soldiers were carrying kegs of gold across. One soldier was murdered, his body weighted and tossed in to protect the treasure. Thirty years ago two Louisbourg men tried to pump the pond dry. They gave up when they found it was being fed by the Atlantic.

Louisbourg’s celebrated ghosts seem to have long since departed. Years ago eerie sounds of moaning and groaning were solemnly recorded as coming from Gallow’s Hill, an ancient execution ground. One day a man found human bones lying there. He dug a hole and

buried them. The noises were neve; reported again.

Last summer D. W. MacKinnon.who guides visitors around the Louisbourg ruins, was hard at work. He had two schoolteachers from the Deep South in tow and was spieling off the details of the New Englanders’ attack.

As they approached the museum, one of the women stopped abruptly. “I’m not going to listen to another word of this.”

“Why not?” said the other.

“It’s all about those damn Yankees. They were even up here!” if