Wally’s Cape Breton
Ellison’s documentation of geology, geography, industry now at Beaton Institute
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working for a regional archive like the Beaton Institute is developing new relationships with people, organizations and communities all over Cape Breton Island.
When someone expresses interest in donating their collections or items to the archive at Cape Breton University, we welcome them to visit on-site, or we also offer “house calls” and can visit the donor at home or at work.
Most recently, I was fortunate to get lost in the beautiful West Bay area of Cape Breton en route to meet with Phyllis Côté.
After a helpful stop at the charming West Bay Post Office, I finally arrived to meet Côté and her two pups, Missy and Molly.
We spent most of the visit in the study reviewing an extraordinary collection belonging to her late husband, Wally Ellison, who died in July and is missed by so many.
He has become well known for his books and articles about Cape Breton’s natural history, geology, geography and industry.
As well, he was an accomplished piper, Gaelic speaker and photographer.
Ellison worked as an educator for more than 30 years, and after a brief scan of the shelves in his study, it is clear he fits the lifelong learner profile.
Archivists have the privilege of meeting people during significant milestones and periods of transition.
Major life events such as retirement, moving, illness or death can often prompt an evaluation of collections and possessions with questions arising around what to do with these materials.
Since I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Ellison in person, I’m learning about his life and work through stories from his wife and friends.
However, I’m always pleasantly surprised by how much can be revealed through what a person has created, collected and saved.
One of the joys of archival work is reconstructing the evidence of a life well-lived — and this is one of those lives.
The collection is significant in extent and scope with thousands of photographs in negative and print format, maps and research files, dozens of audio recordings and hundreds of publications connected to Ellison’s diverse interests.
In Ellison’s publications, he lamented about the focus on “social histories and genealogies” at the expense of Cape Breton’s “hills, coastlines, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and industries of its people.”
He was dedicated to raising the profile of the natural world and how science, industry and environment intersect with, and are integral to, our cultural values and identity.
Ellison’s photography speaks to his love and passion for every nook and cranny of Cape Breton Island. He spent time travelling up, down, over and through all four counties of Cape Breton Island, often bringing attention to hidden streams, waterfalls or other amazing geological features.
This collection is a wonderful addition to the holdings at the Beaton Institute, providing a needed emphasis on the natural sciences and how they connect with our communities.
We are hopeful that Ellison’s collection will inspire a new group of CBU students, faculty and researchers to visit the Beaton Institute.
We are grateful to all of our donors who fill the archive with layers of shared and unique experiences, valuable memories and cultural teachings, as well as those who document our everchanging environment. I’m also very thankful to Côté — who has been incredibly generous with her time, and also makes a mean apple pie.
Phyllis Côté and Wally Ellison on one of their many trips around Cape Breton Island, 2001.
Aerial shot of Grand River, Richmond County.
Wally Ellison’s collection also includes historic images like this one — lumbering on the Margaree River, ca. 1910.
Much of Wally Ellison’s writing and research focuses on the Margarees as can be seen with this aerial photo of Margaree Forks, Inverness County.