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Nova Scotia: The Province that has been Passed By
Chapter XIII. Cape Breton


There are few pseudo-historical anecdotes which stand out more vividly in the pages of history than that which Smollett tells of the eccentric Duke of Newcastle crying out to a courtier, “Cape Breton an island! Wonderful! Shew it me on the map. So it is! Sure enough. My dear sir, you always bring us good news. I must go and tell the King that Cape Breton is an island!”

An island indeed is Cape Breton, and such an island-—a mingling of hill, and dale, and lake, mountain, moor, and tarn—rock, and crag, and fell—once called L’Isle Royale, and under the flag of the lilies—now the most eastern and most northern division of Nova Scotia, and the most Scottish portion of New Scotland. This island is equal to about one-fifth part of the whole Province.

Sailing out into the unknown territories of a world which if as old as the old was new to them, the early adventurers sought to make their surroundings congenial by a nominal association with the countries, provinces, towns, and villages they had quitted, perhaps for ever. This, the despair of the geographer, is the very poetry of geography. It began with Columbus—nay, it began with Leif with his Markland and Vinland, and it continues down to the days of Peary, and Shackleton, and Scott. Is there not something pathetic in the fact of a great bleak headland, locked n an eternal Arctic frost, being named after some fair Devon hamlet or Essex village, where the daring sailor first saw the light or loved a lass? The Arctic and Antarctic seas are full of such names.

On the south-west coast of France, near Bayonne, is a Cape Breton, from whence hailed the sixteenth century sailor who first descried the headland here to which he gave that name, probably the oldest in North American geography. When the name of this cape became extended to the whole island is unknown, and as may be guessed from the Duke of Newcastle’s remark, many were ignorant of its wider application even in the eighteenth century.

“The English ministry,” wrote Haliburton, “in the time of Mr. Pitt was said to have considered the island worse than useless, and would have rejoiced that Cape Breton had sunk to the depths of the ocean, being continually apprehensive that other Powers might obtain possession and thus establish a post of annoyance, which motive caused the destruction of the fortifications.” Utterly neglected, therefore, for a long period after it had passed into our possession, it remained a useless appanage to Nova Scotia until a separate government was established at Sydney, and by the enterprise of Lieutenant-Governor Des Barres, Cape Breton began to increase and multiply, and only received a temporary set-back when it was re-annexed to Nova Scotia in 1820. That event, of course, lost the island the coal-mining and excise revenues, and its fees on Crown lands, as well as the salaries of officials spent on the island; and it naturally took some considerable time to recover from these effects, especially as for thirty years the income had been outlaid upon much needed roads and bridges.

Cape Breton was long considered strategically the key to Canada. Now, however, that ships of large burden can and do pass by preference through the Straits of Belle Isle, it can no longer be said to command even the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The island is separated from the mainland by the Strait of Canso. At Port Mulgrave a beautiful marine view opened up before me, as the Intercolonial railway train began to transfer its whole huge bulk on board the waiting ferryboat. The distant cliffs and fishing hamlets were bathed in sunlight, the blue waters were alive with multi-coloured anemones; sails of smacks and schooners darted hither and thither along the surface; there was a hurrying to and fro of tourists and fishermen on the green-clad shores; the whole scene was one of picturesque animation. One noted on the mainland the lofty Cape Porcupine, from whose summit, before submarine cables were sunk, the telegraph wires were crossed high in mid-air over the Strait to Plaister Cove. This stretch of wire was then part of the link connecting Europe and North America, and when it broke, as, of course, it frequently did, communication was suspended between the Old World and the New. I am told that a pleasing juvenile pastime of the fishermen’s children in former times was aiming stones at the wire, probably occasioning from time to time a rude interruption of the speech between two hemispheres.

Mulgrave has a population of about 1500 souls, and is a centre for bathing and fishing, but its chief institution is, of course, the ferry. I have never seen such a perfectly equipped or managed piece of ponderous mechanism.

The train is divided into two parts and shunted on to the gigantic and specially designed steamer Scotia, which bears the burden without a whimper. Across the Strait we steam, the passengers either descending and walking about the deck, standing clustered on the car platforms, or craning their necks out of the windows in order not to miss the succession of views. In a quarter of an hour or so we are safely landed; the metal rails on shore join up to the metal rails of the Scotia as true as steel itself, and staring about us we are confronted by Point Tupper. From here a railway runs to Inverness, a district which no visitor to Cape Breton should miss, and which I will advert to later.

Meanwhile, let us note that for the first thirty miles or so there is nothing in the scenery, and certainly nothing in the very few specimens of the population that meet his eye to attract the traveller’s attention. Then come glimpses of interest at Seal and Orange Cove, Mackinnon’s Harbour, and certain inlets of the Denys River. Near M‘Donald’s Gulch, which is crossed by a steel trestle 90 feet high and 940 feet long, an occasional birch lodge of the dwindling Micmacs met my eye.

And Denys River! How that brings back historical memories of the early French adventurer, the right worthy old Nicholas Denys, Sieur de Fronsac, victim of Charnisay!

We open and shut our eyes—we are on the verge of dozing, when in a flash the lake of the Golden Arm is upon us. There is no inland sea in the world quite like the famous Bras d’Or, that unique salt flood imprisoned in the land, 50 miles long, and taking all shapes—bays, inlets, and havens, studded with islands, half-broken by peninsulars never the same, always disclosing fresh beauties and picturesque variations.

One is hound to observe that, as regards the Bras d’Or scenery, the body of waters is so vast, and conveys so much the illusion of the ocean itself, that to produce a proportionate effect the surrounding land ought to be on a similar scale of grandeur. The alternate low hills and shore consequently rob the lake at large of its due effectiveness, although in the vicinity of the arms and it lets, and towards the northward at St. Anne’s, there is some compensation in a bolder and more rugged order of scenery. Viewed from the heights of the shore, however, this criticism does not apply, and the tourist’s eye is rewarded by scenes which for sheer beauty it would be hard to match throughout the length and breadth of the Continent.

On one hand are daintily wooded islets, on another a long lagoon, cut off from the lake in rushes. Enclosing it all are the mountains decked in the primeval wood, sloping gradually from the marge or rising sheer and naked until their summit springs into verdure.

This first portion is the Great Bras d’Or Lake; later on, at Grand Narrows, it becomes still further enclosed, and is called the Little Bras d’Or. Altogether these waters have an area of 450 square miles. Its extremest width is here as much as 70 feet, there 50 or 60 feet.

The Bras d’Or waters have a surface area of 450 square miles, and while the width from shore to shore is as much as eighteen miles in one place, there are times when less than a mile separates shore from shore. So, too, the depth varies in somewhat the same ratio as rise the surrounding hills. In one. part of Little Bras d’Or there is a depth of nearly 700 feet, the depression equalling the height of the surrounding land. Every variety of landscape meets the eye of the delighted stranger, and it is because of this variety that the eye never wearies and the senses are never palled.

In following the. railway the tourist will occasionally see what looks like a shallow pond, a hundred feet or so in diameter. It may surprise him to learn that the bottom is sixty or a hundred feet from the surface. This is a country of heights and depths. At times the train runs through long cuttings where the white plaster rock appears marvellously like snowdrifts on each side, to travel for hundreds of yards on high embankments in which the excavated material has been made to bridge a valley.

After all, the inland sea is but a part of the Atlantic, and an outside sea may sweep its waters into fury. 1 was told that to cross the Bras d’Or in a gale is not an enviable experience. The direction of the wind makes all the difference.

Whycocomagh is reached by a drive of seven miles from Orangedale (a name singularly infelicitous), where teams are in waiting on the arrival of express trains. Orangedale is at the head of one of the numerous little arms of the Bras d’Or which are found in this part of the journey, and near at hand are Denys River Basin, and Great and Little Malagawaatchkt (pronounced “Malagawanch”). The latter are two inlets of the great lake at the head of West Bay, on the northern shore.

Whycocomagh os situated on the basin forming the termination of St. Patrick’s Channel, which has its mouth more than twenty miles to the eastward, beyond Baddeck.

I do not know a more refreshing place for a summer sojourn than Baddeck. This village, long since popular with Americans, and lately of considerable celebrity as an experimental ground for flying machines, occupies the place of an old Indian encampment named Ebedek, called by the French Bedeque. To reach it one leaves the train at Iona, and takes the small steamer which connects with the through expresses from Sydney or Halifax, and steams a dozen miles upon the waters of the Bras d’Or. Once out of the Narrows, one emerges into a vast and gleaming expanse of water, dotted with sails, which seem almost shocking in their whiteness, so intense is the sunlight. The place-names hereabout are ultra-Micmac, and as difficult to pronounce at sight as any in Swift. Yonder is Moolasaalahkt Harbour.

“What does that mean?” I heard a Yankee ask an Indian.

“Oh, that means Big Harbour,” answered the Indian with a grin.

“Big Harbour? Then why don’t ye say Big Harbour and have done with it?” was the indignant surrejoinder; which seems reasonable. Then three miles later we came to an upstanding and outstanding headland.

“What’s that?" we asked.

“That?” said the captain glibly, “Oh, that’s Watchabuketckt.”

“I don’t believe it!” retorted the Yankee.

Some visitors entertain the firm opinion that the late Mr. Dudley Warner, an American humorist, who used to stay in this locality, invented a good deal of the. terminology. But it is not so; it is all in Haliburton.

Apropos of inventors, there is a spacious, well-built mansion on our right, which was long ago built by, and is still the residence of, that Scottish-Canadian genius to whom the world is indebted for that perennially-amazing instrument the telephone. Strange how many thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people in London, who daily see the emblem of a bell on the telephone call-offices connect that emblem with Alexander Graham Bell, the white-haired old gentleman who combines work and play at his summer home here at Ben Bhreagh. Glimpses of outbuildings can be had as the steamer moves along— laboratory and workshops; and on the lake in front of Ben Bhreagh rose the first working aeroplane in Canada, in which Dr. Bell has taken a keen interest. It must have been from some aerial craft that the name of Spectacle Island was given to the insula minor which flanks the harbour of Baddeck. Myself, gazing at it from terra firma or the deck of a small steamer, should never have detected any resemblance to a pair of spectacles.

But here we are at Baddeck, a village of 1500 souls, built on land sloping upwards from the land-locked harbour. There is here yet no large summer caravanserai—such as I had expected to find—adorned with spacious Verandas, pretty girls, and a Blue Caledonian orchestra; but there is plenty of accommodation in smaller hotels and boarding houses, and I am bound to say one meets some very nice people in Baddeck. Amongst them was a Harvard professor and his two daughters, and a Brooklyn yachtsman with his two yachts, and it would be hard to say which was the fairer, yacht or damsel; although as regards the young lady who discussed with me Dr. Wallis Budge’s quartos on The Gods of Egypt, none might allege that she was in any sense fast.

O young lady by the shores of Baddeck, take thy Budge with thee into the wilderness and hook the romping trout, or paddle the gay canoes with Budge under thy shapely arm and the gods of Egypt in thy brain, for in such wise only may any fair Bostonian unbend and frolic with Chloe while offering at the shrine of Minerva! If it is true that I chaffed thee, why

“ . . . Nunc ego mitibus Multare quaero tristia, dum mihi Fias rccar.tatis arnica Opprobriis, animumque reddas.’'

From Baddeck many in the season set out for the salmon pools of the Margary River, thirty miles distant, over a good road, and to numerous trout lakes much nearer at hand. Sea trout fishing, of course, may be had at Baddeck. All this is Victoria County, a great slab of territory which runs straight northward to Cape North and St. Lawrence Bay.

One returns to Iona and Grand Narrows, and entrains for Sydney and the east. I shall not quickly forget the railway station at Grand Narrows on account of a curious custom which prevails at this place. The refreshment room is managed by a gentleman with a large family. All trains stop here twenty minutes for dinner and supper. A sonorous bell is rung. The doors are opened, and a flock of hungry travellers troop in at fifty cents a head to discover, not without chagrin, the restaurateur’s family at dinner occupying the best places and already hard at work.

“It gives ’em an unfair start,” complained a commercial traveller to me as he filled his pipe. “By the time I’d located the dining-room, although I sprinted down the platform as hard as I could go, I was sixty seconds too late, and—there was only dough-nuts left!”

Which reminds one of the swift gastronomic feats which greeted the eyes of Chuzzlewit on his arrival in New York seventy years ago.

I must not forget to mention that there is held here annually under the broad and open sky, Nature’s own great cathedral, a famous Gaelic Communion service.

Amongst this Gaelic population are counted many bards, inspired men who compose epic ballads as they did centuries ago and do still in the land of Ossian. And the songs of the Highlands, the “Fhir a Ohata,” the “Tamhuil mor, mac sheann Tamhuil,” still float out upon the air; while the traditions of old Highland feuds or the Jacobite risings of ’15 or ’45 still linger, eked out by such visible memorials as one may see, beside the rude chimney-piece—an ancient dirk or a rusty claymore that some long-vanished ancestor had flourished at Culloden or Falkirk.

But few of the aboriginal red men, the Micmacs, crossed my path in Cape Breton, and those that did were very much civilised. One stalwart specimen who travelled with me to Mira River wore a starched high collar, and was ready to discuss such questions as Home Rule fur Ireland with me. To find the Micmacs in any number one must seek out their settlements, chiefly about the Bras d’Or, or attend one of their annual reunions. Years ago the Micmacs professed subjection to the Mohawks, and used to send a deputation in a canoe up the St. Lawrence to pay homage to the chiefs of that tribe in Canada. A century or two ago they were savage warriors in the pay of the French, and gave the English a great deal of trouble in the eastern and south-eastern parts of Cape Breton, and were especially active in scalping any survivors of wrecked vessels which came them way. Nor did they go unrewarded by titles and dignities. There is still, I believe, in existence a parchment commission, signed by Louis XV., conferring on a certain savage the kingship of the tribe, which is preserved by his collateral descendants; and there is more than one medal of honour yet worn emanating from the same exalted source. Today, however, the Cape Breton Micmacs are no longer distinguished for ferocity; such pleasing mementoes as English scalps have been solemnly burned before the camp-fire; they have proved amenable to religion, they have taken kindly to farming on reserved lands, and the few hundreds who survive seem on the whole very honest, sober, and good-natured.

It happened at Christmas Island station. There was an island opposite, long and low, with firs at either end, and there were newly-made green-clad furrows upon it. Between it and the mainland was a lagoon formed by a low reef, upon which a number of thrifty cattle grazed peacefully. In the water adjoining was the skeleton of a vessel—perhaps some ship which had been driven ashore in a winter storm. In the distance the clouds hung so low as to shut out the base of a range of dark green hills.

“Why is it called Christmas Island?” I enquired of the girl, who seemed about eighteen, with a comely face and a profusion of dark chestnut hair. She was dressed in some light muslin or poplin stuff, and upon her feet she. wore a pair of something which puzzled me at first, until I recognised in them the saffron-coloured football boots of Northampton. They were several sizes too large for her; and I have no doubt the damsel marvelled much at their shape and colour, but was reconciled by the thought that they were the latest fashion iq the Old World “across yonder.”

To my question she replied:

“Oh, I think it’s because they discovered it on Christmas Day. The Indians go thee to hold their feast every year.

We strolled together to a small cottage marked “Post Office.”

“I am waiting for the mail to be sorted,” volunteered my companion.

“You expect a letter?” I asked.

She blushed and nodded.

“Is he far away?”

She answered: “Mother and me are always ‘expecting letters.’ You see, I have two brothers in the steel works at Sydney, another out in Manitoba, and father’s mostly away fishing ”

“And he?” I persisted.

“Oh, he?" She laughed. “Well, I don’t get any letters from him. He’s a brakeman on the Intercolonial, and I can see him every day if I like. I’ve written a piece for a prize poetry competition in a Boston paper, and I’m wonderin’ if I’ll get my five dollars or if it's only a snide.”

One other scene of a different kind I should like to give, because it will always live in my memory. It was of an aged, yet stalwart Highlander, who in early youth had migrated to the new Inverness across the ocean. I watched him as he sat by the roadside with his little granddaughter on his knee; and she told me afterwards he was singing to her (as he often did) a little Gaelic song he had sung sixty odd years ago over the grave of his mother and his first sweetheart, which he had dug with his own hands. It was a year of famine in Cape Breton, but he had not lost courage. At first he had hardly missed the heather, “but now grandfather’s hopin to see the heather again—across yonder.”


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