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The Cape And The Causeway



Clockwise from top: The causeway during construction in the 1950s; an early train ferry, circa 1935 and how it appears today.

The last great continental glacier several thousand years ago carved out a deep and fast-flowing strait, a forbidding natural barrier separating Cape Breton Island from mainland Nova Scotia. For many “Capers” that was just fine. Two centuries ago, a Cape Breton clergyman intoned a prayer of thanks for “the Gut of Canso, which separates us from the mainland and wickedness thereof.” While the 30-kilometre-long Strait of Canso—connecting the Gulf of St Lawrence to the Atlantic Ocean—may have kept the rest of the province’s sins from visiting Cape Breton, the lack of a year-round fixed link also tended to impede progress on the island.

The Mi’kmaq used birch bark canoes to cross the gap. The name “Canso” even comes from the Mi’kmaq word “Kamsok,” meaning “opposite cliffs.” With the European discovery of the area, fishermen flooded into the rich fishing grounds nearby. Permanent settlement along the strait began in the 1780s.

A regular ferry service grew up, much of it private. By 1847, three ferries operated, capable of carrying horses and wagons. In winter, crossings were made over the frozen surface of the waterway, a hazardous journey during the spring breakup. The first steam ferry crossed the strait in 1860 and Canadian National Railways service began in 1892. The first railway ferry, SS Mulgrave, ran between Mulgrave and Point Tupper, towing a barge with nine railway cars. As the volume of railway traffic grew, she soon proved inadequate.

In 1901, the introduction of a larger ferry, Scotia I, coincided with the industrial expansion of Cape Breton Island. The development of steel plants and increased coal production led to more railways being built. However, the Strait of Canso proved to be a bottleneck, and pressure grew for the building of a permanent link.

Such a crossing would have to overcome what many considered insurmountable obstacles. Although only 1,310 metres wide, the strait was deep, up to 65 metres in places. Its narrowness forced water to flow through at high speed and winter saw it jammed with ice. When the ice broke up in the spring, it exerted tremendous pressure on anything in its way, as currents forced it out the southern end of the strait.

Early proposals for a fixed link called for a $4.5 million cantilever bridge, which would have been the longest in the world, or an even longer suspension bridge. Finally, a design was approved for a high bridge running from the top of Cape Porcupine, a granite mountain at Auld’s Cove on the mainland side, to Port Hastings, a small town opposite.

In 1902, the federal government incorporated a company to build the bridge and gave it six years to complete the crossing. Due to various delays, the deadline was missed. Ottawa passed a second bill in 1911, but World War I intervened and focused the government’s attention elsewhere. The war also increased demands on Scotia I and, in 1915, Scotia II was added, capable of transporting 18 railway cars. Although larger than her predecessor, Scotia II suffered from similar shortcomings. High winds, common in the strait, often forced the ferries off course, while spring ice frequently trapped them for days, delaying the essential movement of passengers and goods.

A flat-bottomed scow ferried the first automobiles across in 1913, carried one at a time. Steam ferries followed, capable of transporting several cars, and travelled between Mulgrave and Port Hawkesbury. In 1926, all car ferries came under provincial government control.

During the 1920s and 1930s, several studies for a permanent crossing were undertaken, including a tunnel—rejected as too expensive—but nothing ever came of them. Then, the outbreak of WW II placed even greater pressures on the ferries than the previous war had. Although the government had other priorities at the time, it did make a commitment to build a permanent crossing once the war ended.

Nova Scotia’s Premier Angus L. Macdonald, a Cape Breton native, became a driving force behind the construction of the crossing. In 1949, a three-man engineering committee presented its report to the federal Minister of Transport, Lionel Chevrier. It recommended a low-level bridge at a cost of $13,500,000. The minister accepted this, and suggested both federal and provincial governments would assist in building the bridge.

But other engineers questioned the feasibility of a low-level bridge, arguing its 4.25-metre-high pillars would be

incapable of withstanding the extreme pressures caused by moving ice. Eventually, the original committee agreed the pillars might not be strong enough. The suggestion for a causeway followed, at over $9 million more than the bridge.

Contracts were awarded in the spring of 1952 and work began immediately on both sides of the strait. A rock quarry was prepared, access roads constructed, heavy equipment assembled and workers’ camps built. To obtain the extraordinary amounts of rock needed to fill in the roadbed, its builders had to move mountains—literally. The government chose Cape Porcupine, a rocky outcropping looming over the crossing site on the mainland side. It was a perfect source of fill; 44.5 hectares estimated to contain 113 million tonnes of hard, durable granite. Its proximity to the crossing meant moving the rock would save both time and money. In 1952, the federal government expropriated Cape Porcupine and gave its owner $5,505—about $125 per hectare for the undeveloped property. Ottawa got quite a bargain; it paid a mere dollar for every 20,526 tonnes of granite in the mountain.

Cape Porcupine’s owner, the province’s Lieutenant-Governor, Alistair Fraser, wasn’t too happy with the government’s action. In 1955, in an unprecedented action for a vice-regal representative, he sued the Crown, maintaining the granite had substantially increased the value of his property. It took eight years for the lawsuit to work its way through the courts, almost four times as long as it did for the granite to fill in the causeway’s roadbed. In the end, he received $560,000, 100 times the government’s original payment.

In a method known as “coyote hole” blasting, workers drilled tunnels deep into Cape Porcupine, packed dynamite inside them and set off huge blasts, sending granite tumbling down the mountainside, more than 100,000 tonnes at a time. The rocks were loaded into 14 giant 31-tonne Euclid trucks and dumped at the water’s edge, where a bulldozer pushed them into the deep waters of the strait. Some were swept away as fast as they could be replaced. The work went on for three eight-hour shifts a day, seven days a week. When the last rock fell into place 27 months later, in December 1954, an amazing 9.1 million tonnes of granite had been blasted from Cape Porcupine. The rock fill, eight times thicker at its base than at its 24-metre-wide apex, snaked in a giant S-curve across the strait.

With the road and rail bed complete, builders constructed a 1,200-metre-long canal and lock system on the Cape Breton side, as wide as the causeway’s surface. To complete the crossing, they erected a 94-metre-long steel girder bridge over the canal, which swings open to allow ships to pass through. The remarkable crossing, termed “the eighth wonder of the world,” had taken almost three years and $22 million to build. Two men were killed during its construction. Today, bold, white letters painted across the top of the bridge proclaim “Welcome to Cape Breton,” striking an emotional chord in every returning native.

Officials allowed vehicle and rail traffic to use the causeway—unintentionally—before the opening ceremonies took place in August 1955. One night in May 1955, the car ferry John Cabot burned at its dock in mysterious circumstances. Many locals speculated a disgruntled passenger, enduring another interminable wait in a long lineup of cars with a perfectly good—yet unused—causeway beside him, decided to take matters into his own hands and force the issue.

Finally, on a hot and sticky Aug. 13, some 40,000 spectators gathered to witness the official opening of the causeway. As the vast crowd stood sweating, provincial, federal and corporate dignitaries spoke. Perhaps mindful of the heat, they kept their speeches thankfully short. One of those not present was Angus L. MacDonald; he had died over a year earlier. However, his widow reminded the spectators “his dreams and his determination” had brought “The Road to the Isles” to fruition. His brother, Father Stanley MacDonald, speaking in Gaelic, remarked, “It’s a great day for the rest of Canada.”

Then C.D. Howe, Canada’s powerful “Minister of Everything,” swung a claymore used at the Battle of Culloden and cut a tartan ribbon precisely at 2:25 p.m. The cruiser His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Quebec boomed out a salute, an Royal Canadian Air Force jet roared overhead, dipping its wings in tribute, and the crowd surged forward, jostling to be among the first to cross behind 100 pipers leading the procession. The Canso Causeway was open.

Thousands walked across the causeway that day. Besides the official 100 pipers, another 500 had showed up. With no time for rehearsals, they marched across the causeway playing The Road to the Isles. But some played another tune, The Hundred Pipers. The pipers didn’t play together until they almost reached the Cape Breton side. Once there, the official party headed for an outdoor reception organized by the Port Hawkesbury Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, whose ladies’ auxiliary had laid out home-baked goods under marquees. A giant, causeway-shaped cake formed the centrepiece.

On the causeway, a colossal tangle ensued, as vendors hawked hotdogs and pop, crowds milled about and cars jammed bumper to bumper. One of those who saw the financial prospects in the opening ceremonies was the present mayor of Port Hawkesbury, Billy Joe MacLean, then a 19-year-old budding entrepreneur, “always trying to figure out a way to make a few bucks.” In the basement of his uncle’s confectionary store, he found the means—some plastic licence plate attachments that read “Welcome to Cape Breton Highlands.” He bought them for 22 cents each, then paid someone to sell them for $1. While the other fellow sold the bits of plastic, MacLean spent the day selling hotdogs. “I sold every damn hotdog and plastic thing I had,” he chuckles, “and came away with $2,600 for a day’s work—that was my first taste of business.”

MacLean says he is one of those who never doubted the wisdom of the project. Not everyone shared his opinion. Many doubted the causeway could stand up to the strait’s swift currents or the pressure of winter’s ice. Others wondered what it would mean to the cultural integrity of Cape Breton. Some businesses feared having to close, and those connected with ferry and railway services did shut down, putting nearly 800 people out of work, devastating many families and forcing some to move away. Fortunately, in the end, most of the naysayers were proved wrong and new industries came to the strait area.

While the crossing represented a tremendous engineering feat for the time and remains the deepest causeway in the world, some fishermen and environmentalists questioned its benefits. The migration patterns of several fish, such as herring, mackerel and the blue-fin tuna that followed them, were disrupted, confused by a sudden barrier to their traditional underwater routes. Additionally, many lobster fishermen were convinced the causeway would disrupt the flow of lobster larvae through the strait. Although various studies have shown the causeway has had minimal effect on the marine environment, the debate still rages and many fishermen are convinced the causeway has led to a decline in fish stocks.

One environmental impact had an unintended bonus; it created one of the largest ice-free ports in the world. The crossing causes a one-degree temperature differential between its north and south sides, resulting in the entire strait south of it remaining ice-free year-round. A bridge or tunnel would not have had this effect. A port capable of servicing the world’s largest supertankers brought other industries to the strait area, including a pulp mill, paper mill, oil refinery, heavy water plant, gypsum-processing plant and electricity generating station. Although some of these have since left, the Port of Canso remains the fourth busiest in Canada, based on tonnes of product shipped. While there have been ups and downs in the area’s industries, progress has been steady and most locals remain confident in the future.

Originally, there were toll booths at both ends of the causeway, but those on the island side were removed after a few years. This led a Port Hastings girl, Catherine Kennedy, to write in an essay, “It was no accident, I thought, that you had to pay to get onto the island, but could leave for free whenever you desired, as if Cape Breton were a form of entertainment.”

Building the causeway had not incurred any debt and the tolls, eventually peaking at $1.50 per crossing and generating about $800,000 per year, simply went into the province’s general revenues. Premier Donald Cameron, in one of his first official acts after being elected in 1991, unilaterally decided to remove the toll booths. On Friday, Dec. 13, a Department of Highways official journeyed to the causeway and informed the toll booth workers they were out of a job. The booths were closed immediately and dismantled within two weeks. The loss of 13 jobs caused an immediate uproar and Premier Cameron, who thought his decision would be praised, was roundly criticized. For the Department of Highways official charged with the unenviable task, “It was the worse thing I ever had to do, laying off all those people just before Christmas. They called it ‘Black Friday.’”

In 2002, a Canso Causeway Anniversary Society was established to celebrate the golden anniversary of the causeway’s opening. Among the scheduled events from Aug. 7-14, 2005—besides ceilidhs, concerts, exhibits and fireworks—are a reunion of ferry, construction and toll booth workers, a square dance on a tugboat and a re-enactment of the opening ceremonies, including a 300-piper parade and an antique car procession across the causeway. For its part, Canada Post issued a 50-cent commemorative stamp in early April honouring the causeway’s swing bridge, one of a set of four picturing historic bridges.

After 50 years, the Canso Causeway remains a powerful emotional symbol for many Cape Bretoners. It was the road they took when they either left for work, or returned to their roots for vacation or retirement. Bob MacEachern, chairman of the Anniversary Society, notes, “As any Cape Bretoner will tell you, the causeway symbolizes that connection with family and place and while some use it willingly to reach out beyond their own borders, others regret using it to leave.” Based on its solid construction, it will remain so for years to come.


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