Times Change – Big Harbour Style
For those of us who remember rushing down the Big Harbour Road in an attempt to get on the next ferry to Boularderie and Sydney, Big Harbour ferry dock was our goal. It was in its day, prior to the construction of the Seal Island Bridge, a busy place with even, at times, a snack bar!
For today’s residents, with its sheltered coves, vistas and walks, and opportunities for enjoying the waters of the Bras d’or, Big Harbour is a delight. Although new structures exist, it is a home for many retired people and for those who wish a quiet spot after a day’s work elsewhere. Change has been present but gradual.
The Census of 1838
For many of the 109 residents of 19 households counted in 1838 by Donald Mckenzie Jr., change had also been a major part of their lives. Mckenzie presented his findings as a semi-legal document to Donald Macleod, Justice of the Peace, of St. Ann’s, the official authorized by the government of the Colony of Nova Scotia to receive such items.
At least two dozen of the older residents would have remembered their old homes in Scotland and recalled what it was like to arrive as settlers in Cape Breton. Amongst the people of the resident families, many connections existed. Mcrae was listed as the surname for six of the households and Mckenzie for six as well. Three families of Stewarts/stuarts are living in Big Harbour near the one family of Mcmillans. As well, one family of Mcleods, one of Nusbaums(!) and one of Rosses (that of the widow of John Ross with her two children) are listed.
The community had one store operated by Duncan Stewart, a middle-aged merchant. His brother, Choan Stewart, had an unusual first name and was the only person in the community who identified himself as a carpenter. Gilbert Mcrae was the only house joiner. With the exception of Duncan Mcrae whose occupation seems to be that of a teacher, the rest of the heads of households are listed as farmers.
All of these people had seen change in their lives as they saw farms develop and caught sight of vessels in waters of the Great Bras d’or growing larger and larger. As well, the nearby community of Baddeck had grown rapidly with new merchants such as Charles James Campbell and the Kidstons not only building large stores on the water front but also involved in the construction of ocean-going sailing vessels. Although Victoria County would not be formally established as a separate municipal unit for another 13 years, much activity was taking place in Baddeck as centre for court procedures and for registration of land grants.
Changes of procedures and of government services were in the air as the people of Big Harbour came to be aware of the ways in which life in Cape Breton was coming to be more regulated. More government officials and more doctors were available. Change was active.
While no records exist which identify which church the residents of Big Harbour attended, with the possible exception of the Nusbaums, they were all Presbyterian. Without doubt, many of them were under the spell of Norman Macleod, the domineering and powerful Gaelic preacher of St. Ann’s. Others might have been attracted by the new arrival, in 1836, of Rev. James Fraser. Established on Boularderie Island, just across the Bras d’or, Fraser was much less domineering. His church was just a short trip by the ferry service established by the Ross family.
Departure from Big Harbour
Beginning in 1851 with the departure of Rev. Norman Macleod and a ship full of adherents bound for Australia and eventually New Zealand, letters from relatives and friends who had made the journey encouraged many long-time residents of Big Harbour to arrange for passage on a later vessel.
The departure in 1859 on the “Ellen Lewis” of William K. Mackenzie and family marked the 13th family which had left their farms and houses and relatives at Big Harbour. Six families of Mackenzies had settled in New Zealand over the years. Three Stewart families, including Choan and household, had sailed to the other side of the world. As well, other families were attracted by the opportunities of factories in New England and Ontario and the opening up of the prairies. Big Harbour experienced many changes.
For those who had left and for those who remained behind, life was very different. Expectations of better land and of a less severe environment and the challenges of new opportunities were much involved in the decisions to leave. For those who remained behind, the arrival of new people brought changes in relationships and activities.
Ross Ferry leaving from Big Harbour to the terminus at Ross Ferry on opposite side of Bras D'OR Lakes, Cape Breton in 1948. In those days and for years before, it was the only way to get to Sydney from the Baddeck side of Kelly's Mountain.