Wally’s Cape Bre­ton

El­li­son’s doc­u­men­ta­tion of ge­ol­ogy, ge­og­ra­phy, in­dus­try now at Beaton In­sti­tute

Cape Breton Post - - COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS - Jane Arnold

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.

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