Based upon an ancient Mi’kmaq route, the Shubenacadie Canal links a series of naturally formed lakes and rivers between Halifax Harbour and the Bay of Fundy. Originally intended as an alternative route for the military in the event of an American invasion, the Shubenacadie Canal became a vital link in the network of commerce and everyday life in nineteenth century Nova Scotia. Work began on the Canal in 1826 and continued in two phases, the first from 1826 to 1831 and the second from 1854 to 1861. During the initial phase, the Shubenacadie Canal Company constructed or at least started thirteen locks but by 1831 the project was abandoned. The locks fell into disrepair until 1853 when the Inland Navigation Company was formed and construction once again continued under the engineering guidance of Charles William Fairbanks. Since the operating Canal was intended to handle both sailing vessels and steam vessels of four feet in draft, the old locks had to be rebuilt. Eight of the older locks were replaced with less expensive inclined planes, or marine railways, that carried the Canal boats and barges over long portages. During the first building phase (1826-1831), many labourers working on the Canal site came from Ireland and several hundred lived with their families at Port Wallace. Unlike most early immigrants to Nova Scotia who built log cabins, the Irish navvies* constructed stone cabins with earthen floors such as they had built in Ireland. The remnants of these cabins represent excellent examples of the cultural transfer of a building technology by a group of immigrants from their homeland to Canada. In June 1995, archaeology students from Saint Mary’s University excavated one of these buildings near the Fairbanks Center in Port Wallace to learn more about the social history of the Canal.
The locks and planes of the Canal facilitated the shipping of all manner of goods along the waterway. Although the waterway reached between the Bay of Fundy and Halifax Harbour, there was a limited call for the round trip and most of the traffic passed between Dartmouth, Grand Lake and Enfield. Vessels carried sailcloth, railway rails, bricks, coal, pottery, vegetables, manure, machinery and a great deal of lumber.
The Canal operated until 1870 when a variety of factors combined to make it no longer feasible. These factors included a loss of water supply from a reservoir, dwindling traffic and new railway bridges built so low that boats could not pass beneath. Over the next century, the locks deteriorated and the dams were destroyed.
Today, the Canal is a designated National Historic Civil Engineering site. The Shubenacadie Canal Commission was established in 1986 and is a not-for-profit organization working to promote and preserve the old waterway. This is done through the operation of visitor centres in Dartmouth, by creating and maintaining parks which encompass the historic engineering of the Canal and through educational programmes which interpret the human and environmental heritage of the Canal. Also of importance to the Canal Commission is the establishment of public waterway access points and the encouragement of the safe and environmentally responsible use of the waterway. Presently the Canal Commission manages 23 hectares of waterside property between Halifax Harbour and Enfield. Coupled with these goals is the work to restore to navigation as much as possible of the old Canal route. This means actively working to open up those areas of the Canal which have become blocked to canoe and small boat traffic, and in the long term, restoring the locks. Over half of the Canal’s 115 km runs through urbanized areas and provides enjoyment to thousands of people each year. It is, however, a sensitive and vulnerable resource. The Canal Commission invites suggestions and volunteers to assist in the further development of the Shubenacadie Canal. * An unskilled labourer