Coastal Firefighters

(Work Horses of the Sea) by Mary Anne Ducharme

It is only a two hour drive to Sydney from most points in Inverness County--to the airport, and to the world. The first roads of Nova Scotia were begun in the 1760's, but good paved roads in much of Cape Breton were very long in coming. Before 1935 and the beginning of regular truck transportation between Inverness County and Sydney, the geography of this island was an effective deterrent to commerce by land, and communities remained isolated. The appalling road across Hunter's Mountain, for example, with its dreaded "devil's elbow" was impassable because of snow, ice, or mud for much of the year. The road was so narrow that a driver meeting another vehicle could not avoid the harrowing experience of backing up or down a steep incline at the mountain's edge.

The sea remained the most viable highway of Nova Scotia until well into this century, with the halcyon era of wooden sailing ships persisting here longer than in many other parts of the world. In the 1930's there still were schooners who profited from a rich coal, lumber, and firewood trade with the Magdalene Islands -- with an enterprising and lucrative rum-running component. The racy notions we have of "the age of sail" are still so pervasive as a theme of research and publication, that there is little danger of this part of our Maritime history disappearing.

The brief golden era of the trans-Atlantic steamers has its niche in our imaginations too. There seems to be a blind spot when it comes to the less lovely steel-hulled steamers and the diesel freighters who daily plied our coastal waters -- the work horses of the sea. Steam replaced sail on the short routes typical of coastal trade vessels before it did on trans-oceanic travel. The advantage of steam was that it a cheap source of fuel, and it made vessels less dependent on the vagaries of wind and weather -- with the result of more predictable and dependable schedules. The disadvantage of steam was that the reciprocating engines were large, reducing payload capacity, and at high speeds the steam engine produced considerable vibration.

Nevertheless, these vessels made a vast difference to the survival of communities in Inverness County, providing a life line of needed goods and communication. In the 19th century, the politics of Nova Scotia were railway politics and most of the province's 1900 km of rail was built before 1914. However, many communities and regions were not serviced by freight and passenger lines and the government paid a subsidy to steamship companies who would fill in the gaps of service. One such company formed in 1910, the North Bay Steamship Company. Its members included H.A. Smith and Sons of Port Hood Island, John Rory MacDougal of Port Hood, shipbuilder Abraham Ernest of Mahone Bay, and Captain Freeman Salauenwhite, also of Mahone Bay.

The new company placed Ernest's newly built vessel on the Cheticamp to Mulgrave run: the boat was christened the Kinburn because it was the old name for Mahone Bay prior to 1854. The boat was registered in Lunenburg and was 104.2 feet long The rise and fall of this steamship company, and others like it were linked to economics and political thinking -- the result of government interventions through subsidies and the fixing of freight rates. The services of the coastal boats dwindled, then gradually disappeared in the 1950's and 60's as roads improved and trucks and buses played a more important role. Cheticamp, which hugs the west coast of Cape Breton, is one of the communities with a particularly interesting linkage with coastal steamers.

The first steam boat with a regular service arrived in this community in 1886. It was the Powerful, propelled by paddlewheel, and it surely produced considerable excitement when it first made its appearance in the isolated community of Cheticamp. Later, the St.Olaf linked Cheticamp and the Magdalene Islands. Many older residents of the County will remember the names and perhaps have travelled aboard one of these vessels: the Malcolm Cann, the Magdalene (1909-1913), the Kinburn (1914-1936), the Kinburn II (1936-1943), the Playmaid, and the Roo. Cheticamp was a home port or a port of call for all of these steamers. Their routes varied but typically included regular runs to Mulgrave, Pictou, Halifax, Prince Edward Island, the Magdalene Islands, and to Sydney. The cargos aboard these vessels varied greatly and included livestock, lumber, firewood, coal, fresh and salt fish, canned and live lobster, farm produce, tools and machinery, dry goods for merchants, mail, liquor for the Liquor Commissions -- and every other imaginable commodity.

The Kinburn I was the last steamship specifically equipped for passengers, though later vessels found space for the occasional traveller. Pere Anselme Chiasson remembers going off at 4 am on the Kinburn, one his way to college in Ottawa. When he arrived at Mulgrave, he boarded the Dominion Atlantic Railway (later the CNR) to Truro and then on to Windsor Junction. Travelers to Boston took a freighter from Grand Etang and at the railway dock at Mulgrave they could catch the 11:30 am west-bound train. The boat would be in Mulgrave long enough to pick up any passengers from the eastbound train at 2 pm.

Phillip Doucet of Cheticamp tells a story of the difficulties of transporting sheep on the Kinburn: when the seas were rough, the sheep kept falling and sliding about, in great danger of being crushed or otherwise injured. It was a full time job for deck hands to keep the sheep on their feet. Pere Anselme Chiasson provides us with a delightful insight into the importance of the coastal boats to the people of Cheticamp. He remembers the Kinburn when he was a small boy and the big impression made upon him by a trip to Grand Anse (the old name for Pleasant Bay).

The arrival or departure of the Kinburn was part of the predictable rhythm of the week. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 2 pm, the blackish smoke of the Kinburn could be seen rising above Cheticamp Island at Point Enragoe. On Tuesdays, the cargo was destined for Grand Anse, and on nice summer days, the deck of the Kinburn was "black with little people." All the folks of the Harbour district thought that a trip to Grand Anse was an essential life experience for their children, and despite the scarcity of cash, 10c for each child was found. Captain Cyrille Bourgeois himself acted as purser and collected the fare from the children with a beautiful smile for each of them; but he knew their families very well, and realized the some had great difficulty in sparing the 10c.

He was known as a man with a great heart, a "bon papa" for these little people and so he put the 10c back into the hands of some children, telling them to return it to mother, si vous plait. The very polite reply was, "Oui, bien des remerciements, monsieur." In later years, Captain Cyrille remarked often that those were the best years of his life. When the Kinburn arrived at Grand Anse, there was no harbour or wharf for docking and it was necessary to cast anchor about 1/2 mile off shore. Men rowed out in small boats to pick up the freight, and the children were in awe of these strange Scottish men who were so different from themselves. They spoke a foreign language (Gaelic) which none of them understood, and they were men of imposing stature, red-haired, with reddish faces and freckles.

It took only a few minutes to unload, long enough for the children to note the twenty houses or so that comprised the village of Grand Anse. Beyond were the five or six houses of Red River. Towering over all of this in the background were the mountains. Soon Captain Cyrille sounded his "gling-gling" and the steam engines started running, making the deck tremble. He made a half-turn and headed back to Cheticamp. The children were satisfied. They had seen the foreign country of Grand Anse. The Labrador Current meeting the warmer Gulf Stream produces frequent foggy conditions along the coast, and before sophisticated signal lights, sonar, ship to shore radio, and other equipment, navigating around Cheticamp Island in fog or snow conditions was dangerous. If he was not sure of his bearings and whether he was a safe distance from the Island to make the turn, Captain Cyrille would shut off the engine.

There were bell buoys to mark the channel and he'd listen for them. He also listened for the sound of the waves slapping against the shore--the time between the waves helped him to determine how far he was from shore. If he couldn't hear because of a roaring wind, he knew he was in difficulty. In a fierce snowstorm on December 26, 1935, the Kinburn was wrecked behind Cheticamp Island's south end, fortunately with no deaths or injuries to the captain and crew. In 1936, The North Bay Steamship Company purchased another ship called Isle Madame from R.W. Hendry Company of Halifax, and renamed it Kinburn II. Cyrille Bourgeois also served aboard this vessel until it was sold to a Newfoundland shipping company in 1943. The Playmaid and the Roo were successors to the Kinburn II, but in 1951, the government subsidy for the Cheticamp service was discontinued, and that ended an era for Cheticamp. But not quite.

Time have changed, true, with whale watching and pleasure excursions now more relevant than shipping coal or the mail, but Cheticamp's intimate relationship with the sea is not likely to end. For instance, about 40% of the population of the Magdalene Island have family roots in western Cape Breton and relatives frequently travel back and forth by boat, carrying on a kind of ad hoc trade in things like firewood. Last year, there was an initiative by the Cheticamp Development Commission to provide a passenger ferry service for locals and tourists who would enjoy an excursion to the Magdalenes. The boat, Macassa Bay, which was rented from Ontario, was slow, taking six hours for the crossing, and it was better suited for lake conditions than the frequently rough waters of the open North Atlantic.

The service was discontinued for this summer. However, the Development Commission is currently negotiating for another vessel far better suited, a Swat 2000 catamaran with a passenger capacity for 65 which would be able to make the crossing in half the time of the Macassa Bay. The vessel, now in California, is the only one available in North America, and the hope is that the ferry service will be resumed for next year. The decline and final disappearance of coastal freighters seems to go largely unnoticed as part of our marine heritage in this century.

There needs to be a concerted effort to record the anecdotal history: the stories and tales, the men and their boats, the life style, the technical evolution, the business -- while all of this is still available in living memory. It seems that we are always yearning towards the distant past and blinding ourselves to the history which has unfolded in such fascinating ways in our own lives.There is no better time than now to gather this history before it irretrievably sinks into oblivion.