How We Became a County

by Mary Anne Ducharme

From the Causeway to Meat Cove is an area of 1,513 square miles called Inverness County. It was described by historian J.L. MacDougall as "long and loose-jointed," and that description applies to more than geography. However, in Inverness County, we know everybody's great grandfather's name, and whether we stay or go to make a livelihood, we love each cove and mountain and turn in the road. This is home and we have a touchy pride about it.

While change is inevitable, we like to think we have some degree of control over it so that progress is served. But some feel we are losing ground, we are less in control and rarely is the result good news for a rural municipality like Inverness.

Our biggest hope for the future is regional pride, the potential of solidarity. We are a small part of a complex country, also " long and loose jointed," and national and international forces beyond us will have a part in charting our future. But -- this is home, and it is worth whatever it takes to make it the kind of home we want to live in. One of our native sons, Father Jimmy Tompkins said it best: "The seed of future things is in ourselves."

The whole Island was once Cape Breton County, but Juste-au-Corps was our first name as a separate municipal entity. That is why the history of the County and the history of the village we now call Port Hood are intertwined and must be spoken of together.

The earliest name associated with the area of Port Hood, was Keg-weom-kek, a Micmac word meaning 'sandy shoal.' This natural beach, seen on original grant sheets as drawn by provincial surveyors, extended from the north of the island to what is now called Murphy's Point. The south side of this shoal, forming a peninsula connecting the mainland to an island, provided a protected and safe harbour for "ships of any burden to ride in," as reported in 1767 by an English Engineer, Capt. Samuel Holland. By the early 1700's, the area was already known as an excellent fishing station, but as yet it had no permanent white settlers. Probably about 1715, the French government employed some fifty men who operated a stone quarry on the island and built ships for Fortress Louisbourg and French forts in the West Indies.

Among the French, the area became known as Juste-au-Corps, loosely translated as "up to the waist." The name seems to have been a French term for a waistcoat and may have referred to the water depth near the shoal --when sailors jumped from their boats to wade ashore, water came up to their waistcoats. Later settlers mispronounced Juste-au-Corps as Chestico, with the Scots referring to it in Gaelic as Seastico. The echo of the old French name remained in the name of a mine in the 1940's, the folk character "Chestico Charlie," the Chestico Museum, and Chestico Days. In the 1760's, Captain Samuel Holland reported "the remains of a French settlement and where ships were built. There are several veins of coal and alabaster along the coastline; and a kind of free-stone quarry." At the time, he was busy eradicating old French and Micmac names and replacing them with British names. Juste-au-Corps became Port Barrington, or Barrington Peninsula. However, Juste-au-Corps remained the common name for the Port Hood area, as well as the entire western district of Cape Breton Island.

In 1786, the first Europeans established permanent settlements here, among them Loyalists who fled after the end of the Revolutionary War. Among them were Smiths, Watts and Hawleys. By this time, the name of the area had been changed again, this time officially to Port Hood, in honour of Samuel Viscount Hood (1724-1816), the British commander in Chief in North America in 1767.

Cape Breton annexed to Nova Scotia in 1820, constituting one "county." The records of Cape Breton (Island) County were kept in Sydney-- where the officials lived. Officials in Port Hood appeared to be more like deputies. This proved a great inconvenience, for it required walking to Sydney over wilderness roads, at great risk to health and expense of time, and causing innumerable delays and difficulties. Before the later division of counties, cases for the civil and criminal courts on this side of Cape Breton were tried by a Chief Justice who came only occasionally to Port Hood. Delays of justice were the rule, rather than exception, with many resulting hardships.

Cape Breton Island was divided into three districts in 1824, and the western district was designated at the "Third District." In the Registry of Deeds at Port Hood, a deed recorded by Parker Smith described land situated in the "Third Western District of the County of Cape Breton." By a proclamation in the same year, Port Hood as appointed to be a place where "the said Courts of Common Pleas and Session of the Peace shall hereinafter be held. All Sheriff, Constables, Masters of the Law, and all His Majesty's other subjects throughout the Province were commanded to pay all due obedience to such Proclamation." This was dated April 2nd, 1824 and signed by "His Excellency's Command, Rupert D. George."

The site of all three court houses in Port Hood was called "Court House Square." The first recorded deed, for "the building of a jail and Court House," was conveyed in 1825 by Dennis Murphy to William McKeen, Nathaniel Clough, and Isaac Smith who were Commissioners appointed by the Court in the "Western District of the County of Cape Breton." It became the first deed recorded on behalf of the County of Inverness. Previous to this all documents were recorded at Sydney, in the County of Cape Breton.
The first Court House was a small stone structure built by John McDonald and unfortunately the early records of this court were later destroyed by fire. The earliest legal authority for any court in and for Juste-au-Corps was in 1831. The first Judge of Probate and Deputy Registrar of Deeds was John Lewis Tremain.

By the Provincial Act of 1834-35, the original county of Cape Breton Island was divided into Cape Breton, Richmond and Juste-au-Corps. William Young (1799-1887), the first elected to the Legislature for Cape Breton in 1832, was elected for Juste-au-Corps in 1837.

By an act of 1837, under pressure from Scots settlers who were then in the majority, Juste-au-Corps was renamed Inverness County, a separate and independent political division. J.L. MacDougall gives us that the name suggestion was by Young who was from Invernesshire, Scotland. However, he was not from Invernesshire, but must have had some other reason for choosing the name.

The second court house, built in 1872, was destroyed by a fire on December 15, 1935. For many years, there was only one office in this building, the Registry of Deeds. All other Municipal offices were at other sites. Unfortunately for historians, County Clerk records and some records of the Court of Probate were housed at the Court House at the time of the fire, and destroyed. However, all the records of the Registry of Deeds were saved because they were in a vault. In this structure, the Court Chamber was on the ground floor and was open to the roof, with a gallery for spectators around three sides.

In 1879, an Act was passed incorporating all the counties in Nova Scotia. Since then our county affairs have been conducted by a Municipal Council presided over by a Warden. Each county is divided into districts and each district elects its own councillor. The idea was to was place the administration of county affairs directly in the hands of the people, without regard to parties or to politics.

The present court house was completed in 1936 under the supervision of M.A. Condon of Kentville. and was renovated in the 1940's. In 1967, a large extension, constructed by Maritime Builders was added to the north end of the building.

Port Hood was a natural Shiretown because of the ideal harbour created by the sandy shoal. Into the early part of this century the harbour was highly frequented from vessels from all over the Maritime Provinces and Quebec. From William MacDonell, in his unpublished history of Port Hood, this story explains the demise of this peculiar advantage . . . "through the action of the Sea in the course of time, a small stream was made through this beach at a certain point thereon, and an alert Fisherman of the day conceived the idea of widening this stream sufficiently to allow the fishing boats to go through to the Northern Fishing Grounds, thus saving much time in going out the Southern entrance of the Harbor, then North on the Western side of the Island, to the Northern Fishing Grounds. When once opened this stream gradually increased through the action of the tides, until in the course of years the entire beach disappeared."

Once Port Hood had everything going for it, but over time a series of economic disasters eroded more than its safe harbour. Despite intermittent breakwater projects, starting in 1896, and ending in 1960, all attempts to regain the land link to the Island failed. The pattern of fisheries trade was changing; there was a series of mine disasters; the lobster cannery failed, and a terrible fire razed Port Hood in 1942, destroying numerous businesses. In August of 1946, Port Hood became the first town in the province to give up its town charter and it reverted back to the Municipality of the County of Inverness. Today Port Hood is District No. 23 of the Municipality of the County of Inverness. Behind the Court House is a portion of the latest of the failed breakwater projects, and beyond is the Island, now dotted with summer vacation homes, and not the populous fishing community of past years.

However, Port Hood has remained an important community in municipal affairs. Our County owes much to those who, whether as officials or as private citizens, struggled not only to bring Inverness County into being, but to keep it a place where we want to live.