Fortress Louisbourg

January 1, 2004 by L.D. Cross

Sunlight washes over the historic King’s Bastion Barracks at Fortress Louisbourg. Inset: One of the fort’s restored gates.

The entire Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, an 18th-century time capsule on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, sprawls over some 16,000 acres. Sixty acres within the town walls, including 80 structures, 25 of which are open to the public, have been restored. The buildings and stone battlements now look as they did when the French completed the original structure. Today, as you approach the Dauphin Gate–the principal land entrance–you are greeted by an armed sentry in period dress: “Halt! Welcome to the Fortress of Louisbourg and the Colony of Isle Royale. As foreign visitors we ask you not to make any maps or drawings of the harbour front or fortifications. Firearms are to be left here with the sentry. Gentlemen of quality are permitted to wear their swords.”

From the French who established it in 1713 after the Treaty of Utrecht, to the New Englanders who captured it in 1745, to the French who got it back by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, then lost it in an assault by the British in 1758 (one of whose officers, James Wolfe, would make another contribution to Canadian history a year later on the Plains of Abraham), Fortress Louisbourg was destroyed by 1760. Now it is again under siege. Today, some 130,000 tourists a year march through reconstructed buildings and over battlements so detailed they are indistinguishable from the real thing.

A five-minute bus ride from the visitors centre sets the scene for the summer of 1744. Fortress Louisbourg protects France’s interests in the New World and its fishing industry on Isle Royale (Cape Breton Island). Amid the windswept grassy mounds, a fisherman’s sod-roofed cottage, the Des Roches property, appears. Beyond, a gravel road leads to the fortress.

In the beginning, Louisbourg was known as Havre à l’Anglois. Mixing European traditions with North American entrepreneurship, it grew as a seaport, a military installation and a community. By 1744, it rivalled New York and Philadelphia in trade and commerce. Over 4,000 French citizens lived in Louisbourg, their numbers doubling during the fishing season, making France’s income from the fishing industry far greater than its income from the Canadian fur trade.

In 1906, D.J. Kennelly, manager of the local railway, petitioned the Nova Scotia legislature to declare Louisbourg an historical monument. Thanks to J.S. McLennan, newspaper owner and senator, and his daughter Katherine, a museum was built and a major reference work–Louisbourg from its Foundation to its Fall–was published. In 1928 the Canadian government declared Louisbourg a National Historic Site. In 1940 the Fortress of Louisbourg became a National Historic Park. And, in 1961, the government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker undertook to fund reconstruction of historic Louisbourg as a 1967 Centennial project that would provide work for unemployed coal miners and interpret the fortress as a living history museum. From 1963 to 1983, a multimillion dollar project rebuilt one-fifth of the original town and its fortifications.

With the collapse of the coal industry in Cape Breton, unemployed miners became restoration experts. On the recommendation of the one-man commission of Supreme Court Justice Ivan C. Rand to undertake a “symbolic reconstruction of the Fortress of Louisbourg,” the local economy was reoriented from its mining backbone to tourism. It was a reconstruction with a price tag of $26 million and a time span of two decades.

And the initial cost of the 20th-century Louisbourg reconstruction attracted the same kind of negative publicity as the original 18th-century construction. Although the actual price of the fortress was less than maintaining a strong naval force in the area, Louis XV was purported to have commented that he expected one fine morning to see the towers of Louisbourg piercing the western horizon at Versailles, such was the cost. Today, the annual Parks Canada budget for Louisbourg exceeds $7 million.

Just as French soldiers had done in the 18th century, unemployed Cape Breton miners in the 20th century went to work excavating and re-building Fortress Louisbourg. They provided the muscle and were trained by Parks Canada specialists in 18th-century wood and stone working techniques plus modern electrical, heating and plumbing trades. Their descendants are still recreating Louisbourg. It is the people of the surrounding communities who bring the rocks alive. Dressed in period costume, they go about their daily leisure and labour activities on site.

Yvon LeBlanc, first resident architect at Fortress Louisbourg from 1972-1983, has commented that the reconstruction project was a fascinating exercise in research and implementation. The present day Louisbourg is now the real one and “thus Louisbourg relives, arisen like the phoenix from its remains, rebuilt with such care for authenticity that many of the same maintenance problems are recurrent. That is why the hope is that the ghosts, who seem to have made their presence felt, come because they feel at home. But it is hoped that they will not discover too soon our feats of camouflage to hide the indispensable modern services.”

The Louisbourg reconstruction was never intended to be a 100 per cent precise reflection of a moment in time, but to present a sense of our 18th-century past. Reconstruction reflects concessions to modern construction techniques within a working principle to rebuild a model of the past as accurately as possible. Louisbourg, according to Eric Krause, historical records supervisor in 1993, is not the Jurassic Park of the reconstruction world.

Ken Donovan, an historian at the fortress for 28 years, points out that most work is rescue and salvage archaeology ameliorating the influences of time and weather. The overall challenge is to integrate repair and rebuilding within the cultural context of place and space. Carpentry, masonry and iron trades, for example, can work on items like walls, gun carriages and muskets. “When we do use modern techniques,” he says, “we take pains to cover up our tracks. We may start a post on a wood turner but finish it by hand. And a nondescript warehouse is where we hide the fire truck.”

French engineer Jean François de Verville laid out the original grid of streets dominated by the military citadel, the King’s Bastion Barracks, at the town’s highest point. Then, as now, most buildings faced the front edge of their lot with gardens at the back and, since there were no chemical pesticides in the 18th century, fortress gardens today are organic, too. Many of today’s standard animal breeds were not available back then so Louisbourg livestock are selected according to size and colour descriptions from old documents.

Architecture at Louisbourg was described by LeBlanc, in a backhanded compliment, as “without being of exceptional quality it did not lack originality nor a certain elegance.” It was, and is, composed of brick and stone and slate and wood–houses mostly of wood and more important residences of stone. One ongoing threat is the salt in the sea sand. It causes mortar to crack during the annual freeze-and-thaw cycle.

Interior layouts often had rooms in a row without a corridor. The King’s Bastion Barracks was, at 364 feet in length, the largest edifice of its time in America. The mansard-roofed Frédéric Gate, opening from the quay at the bottom of rue Toulouse onto the harbour, both interested and puzzled the reconstruction specialists. It had no drawbridge nor any defence and was therefore, purely for show. Furthermore, original documents confirmed that it had been constructed entirely of wood so one of North America’s most fortified towns had no fortified front door.

Louisbourg is the only major colonial town in North America not to have had a modern city built on top of its foundations. There are an estimated five-and-a-half million documented artifacts in the Louisbourg collection. And, they are accessible for research groups worldwide. The most common artifacts are glass, ceramics, cloth, leather, wood, pewter, lead (often in the form of shot) and silver (usually buckles or coinage). There are approximately 1,000 identified surface archaeological sites in Louisbourg that have not been excavated.

The partial reconstruction of Fortress Louisbourg would not have been possible without the information from the excavated artifacts and the records held in France. Exhaustive research resulted in the accumulation of some 750,000 pages of period documents and drawings on architecture, fortifications, building and other trades, social life, customs, manners, foods and connected subjects. Implementation of this research by engineers and miners retrained as artisans resulted in the rebirth of half of the fortification perimeter, one-quarter of the built-up area, two of four gates, three of seven bastions and all the king’s buildings in the northwest section.

LeBlanc sums up Louisbourg recreated as “a living museum peopled with costumed animators thanks to seamstresses and artisans trained in French 18th-century arts and crafts.” As with the original construction, the reconstruction has been constrained by onerous maintenance and repairs caused by climatic conditions and a short building season, limited manpower, isolation and local materials of assorted quality.

However, almost all buildings are in their original location and many of them rest on all or part of their historical foundations. Almost every piece of visible hardware is an exact replica of one found elsewhere on the site. Floors in houses were made of planking and so they are today in Louisbourg. Paint, and the lack of it, was a problem often mentioned in Louisbourg documents. Red and yellow ochre pigments were frequently unavailable so residents had to make do with lime whitewash. Many fortress animators are only too familiar with the application, and reapplication, of whitewash to buildings. Oil was used to protect exposed wood but it blackened during weathering contributing to a dull effect recreated in the town today.

By using registers, accounts of lawsuits and business transactions from the period 1713 to 1745, the recreators learned a lot about many of the original inhabitants. Few personal letters were found but official documents provided insights into family, origin, trade, social standing and even little community adventures. Visitors can experience the life of a military officer in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine and visit the home of Captain and Madame DeGannes. In addition to school tours, Louisbourg has an active children’s program that includes groups and tutors staying three to five days inside the fortress learning the trades and lives of former inhabitants.

People are an integral part of the interpretation and travellers through history can now walk along the recreated waterfront quay, rue Toulouse and rue Royale to the King’s Bastion Barracks, chapel and the Intendant’s house. They can listen to harpsichord music or the noon gun, discover the tricks of herb gardening, lace making, nail making and open-hearth cooking or, buy a soldier’s daily ration of bread. Talk to the soldiers and they will tell you about guard duty, living conditions, armaments, security and food. However, observant visitors will note that, unlike in 1744, some of today’s Louisbourg soldiers are female. Cobblestone paths are uneven and ramparts are unprotected by guard rails but, year after year from June 1 to Sept. 30, full- and part-time employees are costumed animators who recreate the engineers, merchants, soldiers and servants who milked the goats, drafted military plans, repaired buildings and mended tablecloths. Seven fortress guides hold 25-year service pins. Overall, the fortress has 170 seasonal and 75 year-round employees.

Hungry visitors can dine in the fortress where costumed staff in three period restaurants prepare and serve hearty 18th-century style food and beverages. The restaurants observe the church calendar of the time so don’t plan on eating meat dishes on days of abstinence–Fridays and Saturdays. At the Hôtel de Marine and the Grandchamps Inn, where townsfolk and off-duty soldiers would have congregated, you get only a large spoon as your eating utensil. Or, experience New World fine dining at L’Épée Royale where you can show off your fine breeding and eat with a full set of cutlery.

In addition to local cultural and educational impacts, the fortress has had an economic impact on the modern fishing town of Louisbourg, a half-hour drive south of Sydney on Route 22. According to Carol Whitfield, Field Unit Superintendent, preservation supports progress. Shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, RV parks, campgrounds, a harbour side boardwalk, a ship’s chandlery and even the Sydney & Louisbourg Railway Museum have grown along with the number of fortress visitors. The Louisbourg Playhouse, a live theatre-in-the-round, was part of the set for the Disney movie Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale.

There are ocean beaches at Kennington Cove and Anson’s Cove and deep-sea ‘wreck’ diving charters in summer. At Lighthouse Point the ruins of Canada’s first lighthouse in 1734 co-exist with the current one. Up and down the rugged coastline are streams, brooks and lakes where fishers can hook speckled trout. But bring your permit with you because none are sold locally. The Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a one-hour drive away. Challenging golf courses are fitted in between the mountains and the windy Atlantic.

It has been called the Dunkirk of America and the Williamsburg of the North but Fortress Louisbourg is an intermingling of English, French and American influences. There is even a China connection. Nearly 300 years after the first blue and white Chinese pottery reached Louisbourg, potters in the city of Jingdezhen, China, have been commissioned to handcraft recreations of these artifacts for the fortress gift shop.

And now, over 290 years after it was established, the reconstructed Fortress Louisbourg reaches back to its glory. Millions of dollars and thousands of labourers, animators, historians and archaeologists have turned the ruins of one of North America’s most fortified towns into a major employer and a living heritage site.

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