A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
Chapter 23, Transportation: Roads

New arrivals at Nova Scotia during the mid to late 1700s, beyond the confines of the few communities that existed, including Halifax, found very few passable roads. In that age, not having good roads was hardly a big disappointment. As it was, good roads were not to be had anywhere, including England. People in the early days of Nova Scotia got around by boat. There was a passable road to Windsor which branched off to Truro, but that was it. Of course one can only imagine the few roads that did exist (usually leading into the populated area of Halifax) were like: rutted muck tracks. These were for animals, not for people unless mounted. Droves of animals going to market must have kept these roads "in a perpetual churn of filth." It was generally much better, if going overland, to go in the winter when the ground was solid and sleighs hauled by a horse or horses might be used.1

In Kay Grant's work on Cunard, we read this:

"In those days when there were few highways, and bridlepaths were dignified with the name of roads; when the fishermen and farmers along the coast did their business with Halifax by semi-annual visits in their boats or smacks; when the postmen carried Her Majesty's mail to Annapolis in a queer little gig that could accommodate one passenger; when the mail to Pictou and the Gulf of St. Lawrence was stowed away in one of the great-coat pockets of a sturdy pedestrian, who kept the other pocket free for the partridges he shot on the way ..."2
The first "paved" road3 in Halifax was a portion of Water Street at Halifax. In wet weather it had been almost impassible between the mud and the holes. Its paving with small round stones was completed in 1817. The expense of "flagging the sidewalks" was charged to the owners of the properties which fronted the work.4 Only in 1823 was there anybody appointed (Street Commissioners) whose duty it was to watch the streets and take steps in cooperation with the citizens to make them generally passable.

Captain Moorsom in his letters wrote:

"The original communications between distant settlements were footpaths: those whose steps effected their formation were invariably led to take the straightest course, and to prefer the higher ground and ridges in that course; not only on account of the difficulty of penetrating through the close wood and swamps in the low grounds, but from that feeling of advantage in a more elevated situation ..."5
The plan to connect the military establishments between Halifax and Annapolis by building a road on a more or less straight line through the middle of the province, was a long time in the making. Not only would such a road be valuable when it was necessary to get troops and supplies back and forth but it would open up the interior of the province. It was calculated that grants of land might be given to new arrivals such as disbanded soldiers, lands on which they and their families might settle. However, "Life in Nova Scotia was rigorous enough without settling along a road that had yet to be built. ... When the loyalists arrived [c.1785], only two roads in the province, those connecting Windsor and Truro with the capital, were passable for wagons and carts."6

It was thought that with such a "military road," a main highway going down the length of the province at its center, would draw "traffic from a system of local roads spreading out to either shore." As the years passed it became important for such a road to transmit mails and passengers. By 1840, steamers were waiting at Annapolis; and, too, at Pictou. So, getting a good road to Pictou (St Lawrence River traffic) became just as important as getting to Annapolis (Eastern American seaboard). By 1816, the legislature was passing bills to finance the highway to Annapolis.7 It was to be built so that the cross roads that were by then in existence would be connected: Liverpool-Nictaux, Lunenburg-Nictaux and Chester-Windsor. The Governor, Lord Dalhousie was enthusiastic and urged the legislature to get behind the movement. And it did. In 1816, it voted £600; in 1817, £500; and again in the years 1819 and 1820, £1,000 and £800. The road, it appeared to some, was being paved with gold but in fact it was but a bridle path good for "horseback in summer and in a sleigh in winter."8 James Kempt took over from Lord Dalhousie and he was not nearly as enthusiastic in his support for this road to Annapolis. Nevertheless, in 1821, a further funding bill for the project was passed, £100; and another for the same amount in 1823. A greater sum, £400, was given for the project in each of the years, 1824 and 1825. A lot of money and ten years had passed and the great project in the forest depths of Nova Scotia "was still in a state of incompletion." The government funds continued to flow through the years to 1829, each year £400 was given over for the project, this dream of a through highway to connect up the province was getting expensive and it remained a dream. In the meantime other grants were made to satisfy the demands of the settlements for branch roads such as those to Aylesford, Kentville and Chester Basin.9

For a contemporary view of things we turn to Captain Moorsom, once again:

"The great Northern road, which passes through Truro, winds along the shore of the Basin of Mines, through the fertile meadow-lands of Onslow and Londonderry, and then turning directly from the basin, pursues an extremely hilly and ill-conducted course for eighteen miles over the Cobequid Mountains: on these mountains grows the finest timber I have seen in Nova Scotia: the black birch and maple are old and of large size. Cultivation will find ample scope throughout this mountainous tract for many years to come. The difficulty of carriage, and consequently of procuring necessary supplies, rather than any inferiority in the soil, has confined the settlements to the banks of the inlets and rivers."10
After having made his rounds, a Nova Scotian judge, John Marshall, reported in 1827 to the then governor, Sir James Kempt, on the state of the roads in Cape Breton and of those responsible for their upkeep:
"From the description of the route I pursued ... I had an opportunity of ascertaining the state of the Greater part of the main roads of the County [Cape Breton] and I must say that the most of them are still little better than not quite impassable with a horse, and with a very few exceptions I fully agree with what your Excellency has expressed in your letter that the public money for the repair of the roads in this county, has been little better than thrown away. Whether this has been owing to the unfaithfulness, or want of skill of the commissioners, I cannot say, but I think in most instances it must be imputed to the latter cause. ...
There are two or three, who may be considered as barely qualified, as to education, but from intemperate habits, pecuniary embarrassments, or other circumstances, are quite unfit, and some are suitable persons as to integrity, and sobriety, but are very deficient as to literary qualifications."11
To pick up on these comments: Brian Cuthbertson wrote of how patronage was needed to get roads built and maintained. This sort of patronage was a keystone in the politics of Nova Scotia, and while started during the time under review, lasted right into the 20th century. "For your assemblyman nothing was more important to his re-election than the amount of the provincial road appropriations expended in his constituency and his control over the patronage for appointments of commissioners to supervise the work."12

More particularly Cuthbertson outlined the patronage process in respect to the highways as existed in Nova Scotia in the 1820s:

"The assembly initially decided on the total amount to be expended on roads, then divided this into allocations for the great or main roads and the cross roads. These funds were further sub-divided for counties and then again for townships and districts within each county. The result was hundreds of separate road resolutions. Each assemblyman appointed his relations, friends and supporters as road commissioners who in turn decided who obtained road work."13
Captain Moorsom wrote, contemporaneously, of the system that existed, c. 1830, meant to keep the roads in Nova Scotia passable:
"The system of turnpikes is here unknown; the means adopted to answer the same purpose are statute-labour and aid from the provincial treasury. Personal labour, for a certain number of days annually, is obligatory on the inhabitants of every road-district, for each of which a surveyor is appointed, who superintends the execution, and receives compensation from the more wealthy. Aid from the public funds is appropriated annually by the House of Assembly, whose proceedings on this head enter very much into detail. Commissioners for carrying into effect the proper expenditure of the sums appropriated, are appointed by the Governor in council, and receive a certain per-centage. Some late amendments have been adopted to render the appointment of those on the great roads more permanent, and have been attended with advantage. These Commissioners engage sub-overseers and labourers by daily hire ..."14
See High def. .tif map

NEXT: [Chapter 24, Transportation: Stage Coaches]


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Peter Landry