Long before the white man fastened his names to such places, the native people were not unaccustomed to making the journey from Halifax to Minas Basin via the Dartmouth Lakes and the Shubenacadie River. This waterway had been long used by the Mi'kmaq to get themselves to the ocean side for the summer months. An exploratory tour of this waterway system was carried out in 1767. Captain Wm. Owen journeying up this ancient water route. Thirty-one years later, the idea of the Shubenacadie canal, was grasped with great zeal, by Governor Wentworth. In a letter to a Colonel Small, dated May 27, 1794, Wentworth wrote: "Your territory at Kennetcook will be much improved by my plan of rendering the Shubenacadie navigable, and a communication thence to Dartmouth by a chain of lakes. This great work I hope to get completed, if we are not interrupted by hostilities."1
In its natural state, only 5 kilometers of this 90 kilometer (56 miles) waterway required overland portage. A scheme of cutting or digging channels to connect the waterways up was inevitable. In 1797, the Nova Scotia Legislature allotted funds and commissioned a survey. "Francis Hall, a leading British engineer, recommended that the system of seven lakes and the Shubenacadie River be linked by channels and locks to raise or lower vessels to the appropriate water levels."2 Not much came of this study -- until 1826.
In 1826, this obsessive idea of the Shubenacadie Canal began to take physical shape through the hinterlands between Halifax and the Bay of Fundy, covering a distance of 90 kilometers. I say obsessive because this idea of a canal had made large claims on the time, money, energy of great numbers of people since 1767.3 The leading people in Halifax, both in the military and merchant classes, were very much for it.4 Also, it was a time when great advances were being made in transportation, canals were being built throughout Great Britain5 and Europe; the elite of Halifax were not to be outdone. On July 25th, 1826, Lord Dalhousie turned the sod6 on what was, in North America to that time, the biggest engineering project ever undertaken. This first effort was abandoned in 1831 -- bankrupt and unusable. While it was revived in 1854 under the Inland Navigation Company, and, indeed, commercially operated for a period of time; it was again abandoned in 1870. So why did these long thought out plans come to such an end; well, it was defeated by frost and steam. Huge unrecoverable costs were run up, simply because the British engineers, as successful as they might have been in Britain, did not figure on the harsh winters7 and the disruptive springs of Nova Scotia. It was, for the time a huge project for the colony of Nova Scotia; much earth-moving, rock-blasting, rock-cutting and embankment-making had to take place, too much of which had to be redone after the following spring. Eventually the engineers figured a way around these problems, but by the time they did, - it was too late: steam locomotion and the railway age arrived.
When Captain Moorsom described the works, in 1829, the work had been going on, still, with expectations of success.
"The general line presents a total distance of fifty-five miles, with a summit level of about ninety feet to be surmounted by nineteen locks; of this, the first half mile from Halifax harbour is a rise of sixty-five feet, which is gained by eight locks. Twenty and a half miles are then effected through six lakes connected by small runs or streams, which vary in length from three- quarters of a mile to a few yards. Nine locks are required for this distance. The summit level is attained on reaching the second lake at the third mile from Dartmouth. From the sixth lake, the bed of the Shubenacadie River conducts the canal for sixteen miles; two locks are required to render the stream navigable thus far. From ten to fifteen feet depth of water is then found at high tide, and no farther artificial aid is requisite to carry the navigation through the remaining eighteen miles to the mouth of the river. ... It is proposed to employ small steamboats of twelve to fifteen-horse power, each of which will tow a schooner, and effect the total passage of fifty-five miles in fifteen hours, including the time occupied in lockage : the expense of this towage is calculated at about a shilling per ton."8As we know the project came to an end in 1831 with a loss to all the investors. Moorsom, it seems anticipated this when he wrote in 1829: "It has been said, and with truth, that the country is too young to avail itself of the advantages this canal will offer; the capital laid out will therefore probably produce a very tardy return ..."9
The investors who laid out money in the setup of the Shubenacadie Canal Company10, such as Cunard and Collins, included the people of Nova Scotia through generous government grants for various surveys through the years beginning in 1767 and continued with specific sums being advanced in 1797 and in 1815. A number of years, as we have seen, were to pass before any ground work was to be done and no sooner was the canal completed when it was realized by its disappointed investors that it was obsolete -- the age of steam and iron rails had arrived. As a commercial project, the planning and the building of the Shubenacadie Canal had to be one of the biggest financial busts of the day.
Though the building efforts of 1826-1831 came to nothing, efforts, as mentioned before, were started once again in 1854 under the Inland Navigation Company. This second try worked and the canal became passable over a long stretch; indeed, it was commercially operated for a period of time. However, the combination of freezing winters and the development of steam-powered ships brought the Shubenacadie Canal for commercial purposes to an end in 1870. As an epilogue, we note that the "canal remained passable until about 1874, when the Dartmouth and Portobello inclined canal works were dismantled, thus ending the commercial water route from Lake William to Halifax Harbour."11