From Yarmouth To Shelburne

My quick one-night stopover in Yarmouth had provided me with great insight into local history and architecture. In an interview with two local hospitality entrepreneurs I also learned about the heritage tourism opportunities in southwestern Nova Scotia. Barely an hour into the drive I unintentionally orchestrated my own travel adventure by actually driving into the ditch and a few local residents immediately rescued me from my predicament.

After all this excitement I was back on the road and enjoying my drive eastwards. The weather improved from a cool drizzle to overcast skies, and it was looking like I might even get some blue skies later today. The Lighthouse Trail hugs the southern Nova Scotia shoreline while Highway 103 pursues a straighter trajectory inland. In order to make it on time to my stop in Shelburne and to today’s final destination of Lunenburg, I followed the inland route with the occasional side-trip to the waterfront.

Straight south from Yarmouth is a peninsula with a town called Wedeport at the end. This is the location of la Butte-de-la-Croix, a site that commemorates the first mass after the return of the Acadians, held in 1769. Acadians were expelled in several waves by the English between 1755 and 1763 and deported to numerous destinations across eastern North America, the Caribbean and even back to France during an extended period of ethnic cleansing. Some of the French Acadian settlers returned to Nova Scotia, and the Wedgeport location in particular is a symbol of Acadian courage and perseverance.

East of Wedgeport are the Tusket Islands, about 365 islands, peninsulas, inlets and bays that make up an intended coastline. The Bay of Fundy’s tides have a big impact on this area, and salt water travels 24 km kilometers (15 miles) upriver on tides that are about 4 metres (13 feet high). The islands vary in size from a few meters to half a kilometer in length. This area was first settled by Acadian French settlers and to this day French dialects and customs survive in this area. Today there are thousands of “shanties”, small tiny cottages, while in the past this area also featured large fish factories and lobster canneries. Sea kayakers looking for bird-watching and island hopping opportunities love this area.

The Pubnico region comprises three different sections: West Pubnico, with an almost exclusively French-speaking population, Pubnico proper with primarily Anglophone residents, and East Pubnico, again occupied mostly by French speakers. French Acadian settlements go back to about 1614. Today, the local population mostly makes a living from the fishing industry, which includes first and foremost lobster, scallops, herring, haddock and cod. Not only is Pubnico considered to be the oldest village which, in Acadia, is still occupied by the Acadians, but it is also the oldest village in Canada still occupied by the descendants of its founder. Since February of 2005 renewable energy is being produced at Pubnico Point. 17 interconnected wind turbines generate about 100 GWh a year.

Further east along the shoreline is Cape Sable Island, the most southerly point in Atlantic Canada. This small, low sandy island is the location of about 1800 recorded shipwrecks since 1676. It took until 1861 for the first light house to be constructed on Sable Island, and in 1876 a steam-whistle fog alarm was added. Even since then ships continue to run aground in this foggy, harsh marine environment, but the loss of life has been low.

The next major town along Highway 103 is Barrington which also claims to be the Lobster Capital of Canada. The area around Barrington features a variety of fishing villages, museums and heritage buildings. Not far outside Barrington a major mystery awaits: just southwest of the town is the Shag Harbour UFO sighting area, location of a purported UFO crash on October 4, 1967. At least eleven people reported seeing a low-flying lit object heading towards the harbour, accompanied by a whistling and then a crashing sound when the object hit the water. A search and rescue operation did not turn up any evidence of a crash, and no aircraft were reported missing. A secretive military expedition discovered some foam-like debris, and one military witness stated that there were actually two objects, one possibly trying to assist the other. To this day the Shah Harbour UFO Crash is an unsolved mystery.

The town of Barrington itself features a recently constructed walking trail along the bay. The Barrington Woolen Mill, dating back to 1882, was an active mill until 1962 when it ceased production and became a museum in 1968. Wool sheared from sheep who were grazed on the various surrounding islands were processed in this turbine-driven mill that saved Nova Scotian women endless time in terms of washing, spinning and weaving wool at home.

My drive continued inland towards Shelburne, my next destination. Shelburne was first settled in the spring of 1783 when 5000 settlers, United Empire Loyalists, arrived here from the middle colonies in America. By 1784, the town was the fourth largest in all of North America, larger than Halifax, Montreal or Quebec City. Fishing, shipbuilding and the lumber industry formed the economic mainstays of the area. Many descendants of these Loyalists still live in the area today.

Black Loyalists also settled in this area when the Royal Governor of Virginia awarded freedom to any slave who would escape from a rebel slave master and fight alongside the British Loyalists. More than 300 Blacks joined the Loyalist forces and formed the Ethiopian Regiment. In total about 100,000 slaves took refuge behind British lines.

In 1782 when Americans were winning the war, the British prepared to depart. During this time some Blacks were recaptured while others resettled in Florida, the West Indies and Canada (or rather British North America, as it was called at the time). The largest group of Black settlers, about 3500 people, were transported to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Birchtown, just a few kilometers west of Shelburne, became the largest settlement of free Blacks outside of Africa. However, of 649 families only 184 received the promised crown land grants.

The Black Loyalist Heritage Society Museum in Birchtown commemorates the Black Loyalist settlers who founded the largest free Black settlement in all of North America. Unfortunately the museum was closed when I travelled through the area. However, I did have a chance to explore some of the Shelburne area’s other museums. This small town has a large museum complex on the waterfront which forms one of the best natural harbours in the world. I drove down on Main Street which features Victorian architecture as well as a large Romanesque Revival building constructed in 1908 from local granite which used to be the Post Office and Customs House. Coming down Ann Street I noticed a well that was located right in the middle of the road, an example of the community wells that were typical in this area.

Then I headed down to Dock Street on the Waterfront, formerly the centre of Shelburne’s commercial activity. I was immediately struck by a large wooden structure, dating back to 1902 which used to be the store and warehouse of George A. Cox, a prominent merchant who built his own vessels. Tucked in behind it is Guild Hall, a set from the move “A Scarlett Letter”. This building was constructed to reflect 17th century architecture.

Along the waterfront is the John C. Williams Dory Shop, a working museum that demonstrates the craft of dory building. Dories were small wooden fishing boats that were very popular in the around the turn of the 20th century and were purchased by Nova Scotian and American fishing captains. This shop dates back to 1880, and in its heyday five to seven men produced 350 dories a year.

On the other side of the street is the restored Ross-Thomson House and Store. George and Robert Ross were merchants, trading pine boards, codfish and pickled herrings for salt, tobacco, molasses and dry goods. The store actually closed in the 1880s, was restored to its 1820s condition and today operates as a museum. I took a quick tour through the Ross-Thomson House which provides a good idea of the living conditions of the early Loyalist settlers.

Right in this complex is the Shelburne County Museum which houses one of the oldest fire pumpers in all of North America. It also features exhibits on shipbuilding and local Loyalist history. History buffs can access newspapers and court records from the 18th to the 20th century, all saved on microfilm, and genealogy records of Shelburne County families are also available.

Shelburne is a very scenic town with numerous unusual heritage buildings located on the waterfront and on various other streets leading up from the water. I wish I had had a bit more time to explore this town, but my schedule was getting tight. I wanted to continue on eastwards along the Lighthouse Trail to make sure I arrived before sunset so I would be able to see the town of Lunenburg before dark, one of Nova Scotia’s favourite destinations.