At almost 1000 acres, McNab’s Island is by far the largest of the four major island’s in and about Halifax Harbor. For this reason I was dragging my bicycle aboard Mike Tilly’s McNab’s Island Ferry boat. In order to cover an amount of the island I’d need a little more than pedestrian power to propel myself around.
It was early morning a fine mist rose off the water as we landed on a beach on the eastern side of the island. I wheeled my bicycle through a dew-dappled woodland path, surprising two deer that bounded off into the brush. Reaching the main road I had the option of turning right to head north or left to head south. I chose north and pedalled past a marshy area where several blue herons strode the waters in search of breakfast. A myriad of sandpipers dotted the terrain also looking for their morning meal. It was hard to believe I was only a stone’s throw from the largest city in Atlantic Canada.
Past the marsh on my left (west) was a spit of land terminating in a picturesque lighthouse. This is often called Hangman’s Beach (though more politely Maugher’s Beach) ostensibly due to the Napoleonic War era habit of hanging the decomposing remains of executed mutineers at its end to discourage others from similar enterprises.
In 1851, the light at Hangman’s Beach was used to test a new lighting source, invented by Nova Scotia physician Abraham Gesner, called kerosene. The founder of the modern petro-chemical industry, Gesner was hired by what was to become Imperial Oil to set up the first petrochemical refinery in the world in Long Island, New York.
McNab’s Island is now 65% owned by the Nova Scotia government, 32% by the Federal and is still 3% in private hands. Interestingly the almost deserted island was once a bustling place in the Victorian era when almost everyone had a boat and water was the most efficient way to travel. There were fairs, picnic grounds, formal Victorian gardens and even a soda pop factory.
The island’s first occupants were the indigenous native people, the Mi’kmaw and their shell middens (the result of centuries of clambakes) can still be seen on the island. Later there was a French presence on the island and rumors are still extant of French gold somewhere on the island.
The island was originally named Cornwallis Island, after Edward Cornwallis, the founder of Halifax. It was eventually purchased in the 1780′s by Peter McNab and fittingly became known as McNab’s Island around this time. Some of his descendants still resided here until the 1930′s.
I proceeded north taking a brief walk inland to the shattered remains of the Victorian gardens. Unfortunately in 2003, Hurricane Juan had devastated much of Halifax and vicinity and the remnants of the gardens were a ghost of what had been there in pre-2003 visits. There were still a few exemplars of non-native decorative trees and plants.
Heading further north I passed a few cottages still in private hands, the remnants of Fort Hugonin and made my way to the grassy ruins of a Victorian era fortification. The fort’s grassy ruins and dozens of RML’s (rifled muzzle loading cannons) provide an interesting diversion for kids and adults alike. From here you can wander down to a rocky point for great (and somewhat incongruous) views of the port and city of Halifax.
Now here’s where the bicycle came in handy. I retraced my path most of the way to the south end of the island to explore Fort McNab, now an almost surreal agglomeration of disused World War II towers, tunnels and gun emplacements. The signage suggests avoiding the tunnels but if you do decide to explore bring a strong flashlight and watch your step!
My final stop before using my cell phone to call Mike to pick me up were the lonely graves of the McNab Family cemetery, the rather pathetic sentinels of the family which called the island their private domain for a century-and-a-half.
After a few moments of quiet contemplation I slowly made my way back to the beach for a flip to Eastern Passage and “civilization”.
Some Links Of Interest
All Photos By George Burden – All Rights Reserved
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