Nov 21, 2017

Pirate Harbour SignNova Scotia’s coastline is dotted with hidden gems and jewels in areas that are often overlooked by Tourism companies and locals alike. One of those places is the Strait of Canso which separates Cape Breton Island from mainland Nova Scotia. The Strait of Canso is strategically located as a gateway to the Northumberland Strait, the Bras d’or Lakes or Atlantic Ocean.

Approximately three miles south of the Canso Causeway, which links Cape Breton to mainland Canada, are two inlets that bookend the Town of Mulgrave, Nova Scotia’s smallest town.

Canso CausewayThe northern inlet is home to the Mulgrave Marina in Venus Cove which offers shelter from the brisk north winds that often funnel down the mile wide strait. Venus Cove was originally called McNair’s Cove, named for Mulgrave’s first permanent settler who fought with Wolfe in Quebec. McNair’s Cove was the site of the A&R Loggie fish plant in 1895. The building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1915 and then again shortly after a strike in 1970. Currently the site is home to the Mulgrave Marina and a museum dedicated to Mulgrave’s rich history.

Museum BuildingThe museum really does resemble a ferry

 


The museum is cleverly designed in the shape of the SCOTIA II which was a train ferry that traversed the strait with both train cars and passengers to Cape Breton prior to the construction of the Canso Causeway in 1955. Despite its size it would take a few days for one to fully immerse oneself in the numerous artifacts donated by past and current members of the local population.

The marina itself is a hub of activity throughout the year, especially during summer. The current club house was originally located in nearby Aulds Cove and was later moved to its current location. Due to a myriad of logistical challenges a special road of approximately 7 km was built to move the building from Aulds Cove. It was a massive undertaking over rough terrain. With a season kick-off meal, hosted by the Mulgrave Marina Association, a relatively inexpensive lobster dinner is enjoyed by many as the festive summer begins. The lobster is supplied by local fishermen who are also members of the Club. At about the same time the docks go in, boats are launched, and the fun begins at what is later the location for the Scotia Days festival and its spectacular fireworks finale.

At the south end of Mulgrave, passed the town dock is picturesque Pirate Harbour. Although the road sign reads “Established 1785” its history goes back beyond that date.

In 1775, John Paul Jones, the noted American privateer is said to have sought safety from a British man-of-war in Pirate Harbour which was a rendezvous for pirate ships. There are legends of murder, rape, and buried treasure on Pirate Island, now called Susie’s Island. Many have tried to find the treasure, but none have succeeded. Are you reading this Rick and Marty Lagina?

Canso MarinaLegend has it that pirate ships used to hide in the harbour behind the island, now connected to the mainland by a small causeway. As passing ships sailed through the strait within striking distance of the island the trap was sprung. Suddenly out from the lee of the island a pirate ship would overtake the hapless vessel for pillage and plunder.

Long after the pirates disappeared and prior to the end of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1866 the shores of Mulgrave became home to many fishing wharves to service the American fishing fleet. It was said that during this time there were so many ships in the strait you could walk to Cape Breton without getting your feet wet. The ruins of the wharves can still be seen along the beach on the south side of the wharf. I use this beach as the home base for my Hobie Wave catamaran, Thunderstruck. The strategic location means that in either a north or south wind a fast reach is always possible. Earlier this summer I launched from the beach in a moderate north wind and sailed toward a freighter passing through the strait. Within 5 minutes I was nearing the oncoming bow of the passing ship reminiscent of the pirates in the 1700’s. If this happened off the coast of Somalia I could have easily been mistaken for a pirate.

ThunderstruckAfter the Americans were gone, the Fenian raids of 1866-1871 became a threat to Canada but not to Mulgrave, as it was home to a volunteer naval company of 120 men.

Modern day Pirate Harbour is home to a small pilotage firm responsible for taking pilots out the many supertankers that call in to the Statia Oil Terminal, or smaller ships that call on the pulp mill or gypsum plant on the Cape Breton side. Still there are many others that traverse the Strait of Canso via the Canso Canal. Though the main wharf at Pirate Harbour has fallen to a state of disrepair from Hurricane Harper, many local boaters moor in the well protected harbour. Construction of the Canso Causeway has resulted in most of the harbour being silted in thus putting an extra layer of protection over the pirate booty.

As we all know 2017 was a very active hurricane season and fortunately none of them graced our shores. But when there is an immediate threat of a hurricane Pirate Harbour becomes very busy as boats from other harbours congregate to outride any southerly tempests.

Rob Dunbar

Special thanks to Emma Einarson who handed in a school project “A History of Mulgrave” in 1979 from which I have used sections for this article.

5 photos: Credit: Rob Dunbar

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