Times Change – Big Har­bour Style

The Victoria Standard - - Culture / Heritage - JIM ST. CLAIR

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.

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