May 11, 2015 5:06 pm
Updated: May 11, 2015 6:07 pm

Dartmouth history unearthed in archaeological dig for canal project

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Above watch: A former canal that was built in the 1800s is undergoing an archaeological excavation and revealing a rich part of the Dartmouth’s engineering and industrial past. Rebecca Lau reports.

DARTMOUTH – Archaeologists are unearthing an important part of Dartmouth history that has remained hidden for years.

A former canal that was built in the 1800s is undergoing an archaeological excavation and revealing a rich part of the region’s engineering and industrial past.

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The site, located near the corner of Prince Albert Road and Pleasant Street, is part of the municipality’s Dartmouth Canal Greenway Project. The project will create an open space through downtown Dartmouth from Lake Banook to Halifax Harbour.

“This was a very significant engineering project in the 1850s and 1860s,” said Terry Gallagher, the manager of facility design and construction with the city.

“It was part of the canal system of bringing goods from Halifax Harbour to the Bay of Fundy. So you could imagine how lively this site was as they transported sheep, people, linen, cottons, rope, fish, and products across the province.”

The canal was originally constructed in the 1820s and based on a Scottish lock system. A second canal built in the 1860s was based on an American design.

But advances in rail transport meant the canal system became redundant. Starr Manufacturing eventually took over the site and built a plant that famously made ice skates.

The buildings were damaged by fire in 1998 and were demolished two years later, so this excavation is a treat for the team of archaeologists.

“This is the first time any of us have really gone in it without a lot of rubble and material in there,” said Bruce Stewart, an archaeological consultant and president of CRM Group.

Archaeological consultant Bruce Stewart surveys the archways of the historic canal in Dartmouth.

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He called the mason work “amazing” and said he has marvelled at the history contained in the archways.

“The riverway here that was in existence before the canal system would have been used by the Mi’kmaq for thousands of years. The historical use of it — logs were floated down here to a mill just in Dartmouth Cove and used to develop the very first buildings in Dartmouth and in Halifax across the harbour,” he said.

“So you’ve got First Nations, you’ve got early logging, you’ve got canal use, you’ve got industrial use — all important elements in the history of Dartmouth.”

Stewart said his team has found some artifacts that relate to the Starr Manufacturing plant and its ice skate production. A large turbine is also featured prominently underground.

The excavation work will continue for about two weeks. The city will then put out a tender for the restoration and reconstruction of the historic site so that visitors can learn more about the area’s history.

Gallagher said they are still trying to work out the details on how they can accurately show the mechanical engineering features, which are located about 12 feet underground, safely to the public.

“We have ideas of either projecting it or special lighting or being able to look through the floors,” he said.

The city has been working closely with the Shubenacadie Canal Commission on the project. Bernie Hart, who has volunteered with the commission for decades, said he is delighted to see the project finally come to fruition.

“Having been involved since the 1980s — to see it come to this point is very exciting and I think all Dartmouthians and Nova Scotians in general will be excited to see what they will be able to see,” he said.

Sawmill River proposal complements Greenway project: advocates

Meanwhile, advocates calling for the return of the historic Sawmill River say the daylighting of the waterway would complement the current Canal Greenway project.

Jocelyne Rankin of the Ecology Action Centre said a staff report released last week into the feasibility of the idea was one-sided and did not offer innovative ideas on how to restore the river.

“We need to find a innovative solution and I believe that exists,” she said. “Providing fish passage at the surface while also having a buried culvert sort of a hybrid system with both present would be one option.”

The report will be presented at a committee meeting Thursday night.

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