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Hello From Nova Scotia: 400 Years Of History At Port-Royal

Following my introduction to the quaint and historic town of Annapolis Royal I drove about 10 kilometers out of town across the causeway on the north shore of the Annapolis River and arrived in one of the most historic locations in north-eastern North America. Port-Royal is a reconstruction of a settlement – a “Habitation” of French settlers founded in 1605 by Sieur de Mons and Samuel de Champlain and one of the earliest successful European settlement attempts in North Americ...

Nova Scotia, Canada, History, French, Garrison House, Annapolis

Following my introduction to the quaint and historic town of Annapolis Royal I drove about 10 kilometers out of town across the causeway on the north shore of the Annapolis River and arrived in one of the most historic locations in north-eastern North America. Port-Royal is a reconstruction of a settlement – a “Habitation” of French settlers founded in 1605 by Sieur de Mons and Samuel de Champlain and one of the earliest successful European settlement attempts in North America. The settlement existed until 1613 when it was burned to the ground by Captain Samuel Argall of Virginia.

My expert guide for this introduction to early French life in Canada was Wayne Melanson, a ninth generation Acadian and twin brother of Alan Melanson who I had already met at Fort Anne during my initial discoveries of Annapolis Royal. Interestingly, on my drive to Port Royal I noticed a sign saying “Melanson Settlement”, a National Historic Site of Canada which indeed refers to the forefathers of today’s Melanson family. When I connected with Alan and Wayne Melanson, I realized that I had tapped into a piece of living history and was excited to learn more about their story.

Charles Melanson, the forefather of today’s Melanson family, had come to today’s Annapolis River area with his wife Marie Dugas in about 1664 and settled along the north shore of the river. The Melanson Settlement was an agricultural community employing the Acadian dykeland farming techniques that were unique in the colonies. In 1755 Charles' son Ambroise and his family were deported from the Annapolis area by the English as part of the Great Expulsion (“le grand derangement”) once this area changed from French to British ownership. Wayne explained that six men, including Ambroise's son-in-law Pierre Bellieveau initiated a mutiny on the boat and overpowered the crew. Pierre's son Amand returned to settle in the Clare region in southwestern Nova Scotia.

To this day, some descendants of Charles Melanson are still living right near the original homestead that he founded in the 17th century. Wayne commented that despite this tragic past, people have survived and preserved their cultural identity, a testament to human fortitude and tenacity in the face of adversity. It was amazing to me that after this great diaspora of Acadian settlers in the 18th century two ninth-generation Acadian twin brothers would live and work right next to their ancestors’ original settlement, both bringing history to life for the area's visitors.

Wayne is a presentation supervisor with Parks Canada, the federal agency in charge of many of Canada’s most significant heritage sites, and his appearance reflects the style of dress of early French settlers in the area. He explained to me that today he was dressed in the style of working class people with a simple shirt and pants, covered by a heavy woolen cape against the cold. On his feet he was wearing wooden clogs, a popular piece of footwear at the time.

We entered the habitation through the wooden gate that features the coat of arms of Henri IV, King of France in 1605 when the original habitation would have been built. The coats of arms of the two governors, Sieur de Mons and Sieur de Poutrincourt, are also represented above the doorway.

The entire Port-Royal complex consists of six attached wooden buildings located around a central courtyard. The buildings were reconstructed from 1939 to 1940 and are a historically accurate replica of the original habitation. This project was a result of the efforts of Harriet Taber Richardson of Cambridge, Massachusetts who raised funds to bring in a Harvard-educated archeologist for the authentic reconstruction of this early French settlement.

The Port-Royal Habitation is an excellent example illustrating the lifestyle and hardships of the early French settlers and fur traders that settled in the eastern part of Canada. Wayne explained that the original settlement held about 30 craftsmen and 15 gentlemen, including a surgeon, a lawyer and a ship’s pilot. No women were residing in Port-Royal.

We started our walk at the forge where metal goods were produced on site. The blacksmith was an important member of the community because he produced the hardware needed for the upkeep of the habitation. He also fabricated goods for trade with the Mi’kmaq First Nations People which contributed directly to the settlements financial well-being.

The kitchen next door was a place where geese, rabbits and other interesting dishes would be prepared and fresh bread would be baked. The adjacent Common Room was decked out in 17th century style with pewter tableware and was the location of frequent dinners of the French settlers and Mi’kmaq natives. The “Order of Good Cheer” was the first European social club, founded to while away the long dark winter nights. Prominent members of the colony took turns preparing a feast, arranging entertainment and preparing delicacies such as fricasseed beaver tail and boiled moose nose.

Despite the harsh conditions at the early settlement, culture was present at Port-Royal. A Parisian lawyer by the name of Marc Lescarbot, spent the winter of 1606-1607 at the Habitation and wrote a play called “The Theatre of Neptune” which was first performed in November of 1606. He also chronicled life in the habitation and his records provide great insight into the daily challenges of early French settlers.

Wayne then introduced me to the second-story dormitory that at the time would have held about 30 craftsmen, including joiners, carpenters, masons, stonecutters, locksmiths and iron workers. These men were required to work three hours a day at their trade and could use the rest of their time to go fishing, hunting or tend their gardens. A foot-powered spring pole lathe was made to turn wood and create objects such as spindles, goblets and candlesticks. Wayne gave me a demonstration of this contraption and the functionality of this human-powered piece of equipment was astounding.

The apothecary next door was in charge of ensuring the health of the early settlers. Various herbs would be crushed with a pestle and mortar to provide remedies for common health problems. This was a harsh environment and many of the original inhabitants did not survive the harsh winters.

Several gentlemen’s quarters follow, each equipped with bunk beds and draw curtains for privacy. Generally each room was inhabited by two to four gentlemen and equipped with a table, chair, wardrobe, a large bench and a fireplace. The largest sleeping quarters are those of the Governor which are decorated with a smoked moose hide, artwork originally produced by the Mi’kmaq natives which was much admired by the French settlers. Wayne explained that moose hide would often be worn to protect against the cold. The most effective way was to wear the hairy side on the inside with the smooth part facing outside.

The next building holds the fur storage area where furs from various animals are displayed, including beaver, silver fox, bobcat, raccoon, timber wolf, otter and lynx furs. Wayne informed me that beaver fur was the most valuable fur since there was a big craze for beaver fur hats at the European royal courts. Essentially the entire early settlement of Canada was a result of Europe’s fashion hunger for beaver fur. Rabbit fur was also used to make hats, but in order to remove the keratin from the hair, mercury had to be used which had severe effects on the mental health of the craftsmen producing the hats. Wayne explained that this is where the expression “mad as a hatter” comes from.

When we entered the wine cellar, my expert guide pointed out that every man who resided here received 1.5 pints (about 1 litre) of wine a day. Wine was considered much healthier since much of the water in the early communities was polluted due to poor sanitary conditions. People would toss their slob buckets into the rivers, effectively contaminating their own drinking water supply.

Next door we entered the trading room which was a room were barter transactions for basic goods would take place. In a loft upstairs a Mi’kmaq canoe as well as an original coffin is on display. The steep roof would help the snow slide off during the long harsh winters. Wayne then took me outside to the Cannon Platform from where there is a great view over the Annapolis River. Any intruder approaching the area could easily be seen from this platform.

Outside the Habitation is a monument honouring Membertou, one of the great Mi’kmaq chiefs who helped the French adapt and survive in Acadia who together with his family was baptized in 1610. I thanked Wayne Melanson for his great introduction to Port-Royal, this early place of French history. On an increasingly cloudy day I made my way back to Annapolis Royal, stopping to take some pictures of a few beautiful house in Granville Ferry, the town located directly across from Annapolis Royal. Prior to an earlier bridge and today’s causeway, Granville Ferry was indeed the location of a ferry service that would connect both towns by ship.

Shortly after I arrived back in Annapolis Royal and was more than ready for a tasty dinner. And I would have a chance to see history brought to life in my much anticipated Garrison Graveyard Tour, to be presented by Alan Melanson, the other member of this duo of historic experts.


Hello From Nova Scotia: A Drive Along The Lighthouse Trail 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 b...

Lighthouse trail, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Canada

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.


Hello From Nova Scotia: A Ferry Trip To Dartmouth And Saying Goodbye To Halifax

My visit to Pier 21 and especially my encounter with Robert Vandekieft, an 89-year old immigrant who first arrived in Canada at Pier 21 more than 52 years ago, were a real highlight of my time in Halifax. Stefani Angelopoulos, Communications Manager for Pier 21, had kindly taken me on a tour of Canada’s Immigration Museum and when we were finished, we both embarked on a walk along Halifax’ Harbourwalk since we were both headed to Dartmouth, a formerly independent city, and no...

Dartmouth, Halifax, Canada, kayaks, Annapolis Valley

My visit to Pier 21 and especially my encounter with Robert Vandekieft, an 89-year old immigrant who first arrived in Canada at Pier 21 more than 52 years ago, were a real highlight of my time in Halifax. Stefani Angelopoulos, Communications Manager for Pier 21, had kindly taken me on a tour of Canada’s Immigration Museum and when we were finished, we both embarked on a walk along Halifax’ Harbourwalk since we were both headed to Dartmouth, a formerly independent city, and now part of the Halifax Regional Municipality, located across the harbour from downtown Halifax.

Stefani and I had a very interesting conversation and I found out that Stefani’s father had come through Pier 21 himself as an immigrant from Greece. Stefani has extensive experience with international student exchanges and volunteer assignments, so naturally I requested her to participate in an interview with me. As a local Dartmouth resident, she also gave me a bit of information about the area. She explained that Dartmouth’ nickname is “City of Lakes” because there are 23 lakes within Dartmouth proper. Stefani also mentioned a number of beaches that are located in the area that I would like to visit next time I travel to Halifax.

Dartmouth’ history dates back more than 250 years: in 1750 the sailing ship Alderney brought 151 immigrants to the Halifax area and it was decided that they would settle the area east of the Halifax harbour. Dartmouth was incorporated as a town in 1873 and the town hall was built four years later. In 1955 a permanent link to Halifax was built in the form of the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge, named after a former premier of Nova Scotia. This fixed link resulted in a huge residential and commercial construction boom. Dartmouth expanded even more after the Murray MacKay Bridge opened in 1970.

Today, Dartmouth is home to several Canadian Armed Forces Installations including CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Shearwater. It is also the backdrop to Canada’s popular “Trailer Park Boys” television show which is set in a fictional Dartmouth trailer park and filmed locally in the surrounding areas.

For a $2 investment, the ferry ride between the two cities is a great investment because it gives you a great view of downtown Halifax’ skyline. The Halifax ferry service is actually the oldest salt water ferry service in North America – the first crossings took place in 1752. Having arrived at the Ferry Terminal Building on the other side of the harbour, Stefani and I said goodbye, and I embarked on my self-guided Dartmouth Walking Tour. The Ferry Terminal Building also holds the Visitor Information Centre, so convenient access to brochures and travel information is ensured.

Right outside the ferry building is Ferry Terminal Park, a public green space with a perfect view of downtown Halifax. I strolled towards the World Peace Pavilion, a structure built for the 1995 G-7 Economic summit that contains stones and bricks that were donated by more than 70 countries, resting on a bed of Nova Scotian sand.

With interest I noticed that the United States had donated rubble from a dismantled nuclear missile silo, while Canada had donated a 150 kg block of Nepean granite, a paving stone used in Canada and throughout the world, also used for paving the Grande Esplanade of Confederation Boulevard. Even more interestingly, Austria, my birth country, had donated a brick from the infamous Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The collection of stones indeed offers a very fascinating selective glimpse at world history.

From there I walked southwards to Canal Street which features the entrance of the Shubenacadie Canal, a waterway whose construction started in 1826 to link the Halifax Harbour area with the agricultural, timber and coal producing areas of the Bay of Fundy and the Annapolis Valley.

The project was fraught with problems and stopped due to the developers’ bankruptcy in 1831. It was picked up again in 1854 and finally completed in 1861. Unfortunately competition with the emerging railway network ruined the canal system; in addition many railway bridges across the canal were built too low for steamers, so shortly after its construction the Shubenacadie Canal system was abandoned for the most part. Efforts have been made recently to restore portions of the original canal route for pleasure boaters, although highway overpasses have resulted in blocking the canal to larger vessel. Kayaks and rowboats are still able to navigate a portion of the Shubenacadie Canal.

I continued my walk through pleasant well-kept neighbourhoods, past the First Baptist Church. An original church was built here in 1843, but it was destroyed during the 1917 Halifax Explosion, and the new church dates from 1922. From there I reached Sullivan’s Pond, a small artificial lake that was part of the Shubenacadie Canal system. This pond was the first water body in the canal system linking Halifax to the Bay of Fundy, and it was constructed as a holding pond for southbound vessels heading towards the Halifax Harbour.

A few minutes further south I reached Lake Banook, a small freshwater lake that holds a 1 km long flat-water paddling course. It is the site of many rowing and paddling competition and has hosted the World Junior Canoe Championships in 1989, the Senior World Championship in 1997 and the World Marathon Championships. Coming up in 2009, Lake Banook will host the World Senior Canoe Championships. It is a very popular recreation area for local residents.

From Lake Banook I turned around and walked northwards again through some of the residential streets in Dartmouth. I passed by two historic cemeteries: St. Peter’s Cemetery and Christ Church Cemetery before I arrived again in the areas surrounding the Ferry Terminal Building. With the sun low on the horizon, I started to make my way back to the other side of the bay and a few minutes later I arrived in downtown Halifax.

To get back to my hotel I walked through Historic Properties, a collection of 19th century warehouses that have been converted into a broad range of shops and restaurants. Historic Properties is also a popular spot for wedding photography, and as I was walking through the complex, I saw a wedding party posing for various shots against this historic backdrop.

Just up on Duke Street I passed by a pedestrian mall: Granville Mall features a large variety of pubs and is located right next to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. One of the pub’s patios was packed with people, and loud music announced that everyone was having a great time.

I took a brief rest at my hotel and used the convenient in-room Internet connection. There was so much to still see and do here in Halifax, but my time was short and I was rather exhausted from a very long day of discoveries that included a three-hour city tour and a visit to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, followed by a brief lunch and a walk along Harbourwalk to Pier 21, Canada’s immigration museum. And after my almost two hour long walking tour of Dartmouth I was in dire need of rest, so I decided to simply head downstairs and eat in the Stone Street Café, one of the restaurants located in the Delta Barrington Hotel.

My initial hunger was quenched by an absolutely delicious broccoli cheese soup, accompanied by freshly baked specialty breads such as apricot and multigrain bread with regular butter and red pepper butter, a tasty start to a nice meal. I continued with a very filling and tasty plate of Pescara Pasta which was composed of sautéed wild mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes and grana padano cheese.

After this delicious meal I retreated upstairs to the comfort of my hotel room, packed my bags and watched a bit of TV, resting up for my early morning departure tomorrow. I reflected back on the past five action packed days in Nova Scotia and how much I had seen.

And I realized how much I had not seen, that I had literally just scratched the surface of a beautiful province, Nova Scotia, and a fascinating city, Halifax.

A good reason to return again and hopefully soon….


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