Shubenacadie Canal Commission

Enhancing one of Nova Scotia’s most ambitious engineering feats for over 25 years

Published in the Winter 2015 edition of Local Connections Halifax.

Shubenacadie Canal looking north from the Harbourfront Trail bridge, Dartmouth. (photo by bricoleurbanism/Flickr Creative Commons)

Shubenacadie Canal looking north from the Harbourfront Trail bridge, Dartmouth. (photo by bricoleurbanism/Flickr Creative Commons)

If you’ve ever flown into Halifax Stanfield and looked out the window at that chain of lakes and rivers extending all the way from Halifax Harbour to the Minas Basin, you know the Shubenacadie waterway. It’s been there for over 10,000 years, and for at least 4,000 of those it’s acted as a lifeline and a gathering point for people living near its banks. Today, it’s the Shubenacadie Canal Commission leading the charge to keep it as a public treasure, and with projects like the Dartmouth Canal Greenway finally underway, that treasure appears to be safe for the keeping.

Based in the Fairbanks Centre in Dartmouth’s Shubie Park, the eighteen-member strong canal commission is responsible for overseeing and promoting the canal system, the job it’s had since the mid-1980s. Funded by a combination of provincial, municipal and private sources, the commission tries to fulfill its mandate by maintaining the greenbelt that surrounds the waterway and enhancing access to it for hikers, paddlers, campers and anyone just wanting to get outside for a water adventure that’s not of the standard ocean variety.

“And one of the most important parts of our mandate is maintaining the historical aspects along the canal,” adds Megan Blumenthal, the commission’s chair of promotion. “So we have several walks along the way, inclined planes and projects that align with that history and the parks spaces there as well.”

That history is a fascinating story of man versus land. Originally conceived of in the late 1700s, the canal, through a system locks, would be a way to move goods and military forces across the province similar to how the Mi’kmaq had used it as a transportation corridor for millennia. Construction began in 1826 and continued for another five years, but in 1831, with 13 of at least 17 locks complete, they had to give up; the Shubenacadie Canal Company had run out of money.

In 1853, however, the idea for a functioning canal was revived with a less expensive plan that favoured inclined planes, which use cradles to move boats between different water levels, over locks. Three years later, the canal—the longest in the Maritimes—was in operation, transporting everything from goods for the gold mining era in Waverly to iron used for the new Nova Scotia Railway.

Ironically, it was that railway that led to the closure of the canal as a commercial operation in the early 1870s, but the canal’s historical roots live on through some of the projects the Shubenacadie Canal Commission takes on today.

One of their biggest has been the Dartmouth Canal Greenway, an open space spine that will connect to the Trans-Canada Trail and run from Lake Banook to the Halifax Harbour. “That area has been a dead space in the community, but it’s an important part of our heritage,” says Blumenthal. “It’s called Irishtown because Irish stone masons building the canal stayed here and shaped our community. So you’re looking back at that but you’re also looking ahead to the future and a beautiful green space where people are going to be able to meet and gather. I think it’s going to really pick up this particular part of the neighborhood.”

Although the project is slated to be finished by the fall of 2015, it hasn’t been easy getting to this point. For one, it’s an ambitious project that’s been in the works for ten-plus years and includes the construction of an eleven-ton replica cradle, archaeological digs, and the reconstruction and restoration of various features of the original site. For another, funding from the municipality was delayed for a year.

You won’t hear Blumenthal or her team complaining, though. They’re just happy the project is off the ground and will soon be another way for people to enjoy the engineering and natural treasure that is the Shubenacadie Canal. “When you visit, not only are you seeing these amazing manmade structures, some of which show the carvings and signatures of the stone masons, but you’re seeing that mixed with nature. It’s an incredible mixture of the manmade with the environment working together, and I hope people really enjoy that.”

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