Fortress of Louisbourg

George A. Smyth

© Copyright 2008 by George A. Smyth

 “Halt – are you French or English?” was the challenge at the gates to the restored fortified city of Louisbourg by serious looking guards garbed in period costumes and carrying pointy spears.

 My wife answered, “English,” - the wrong answer. The guards admonished that this was a French city and they were required to carefully check those who entered. Trying to save the situation, I cheerfully enjoined, “Somewhere I have some French blood in me and the lady is my chattel. She will behave herself.”

 With a snicker and a bow we were invited to enter. All visitors are challenged, as they would have been in a walled fortified city, however here all are admitted.

 These are the gates to the Fortress of Louisbourg located on the southeastern edge of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, which have been rebuilt to represent their existence in the year 1744. Credited with being the largest restoration project on the continent, it is far from just another fort. It is indeed, a walled city with the restoration phase less than 50% completed. Even so, the city presently consists of about 55 restored buildings. One building, the King’s Bastion Barracks, majestically dominates the city from every position. A two story restoration triumph, it stretches 365 feet long and was the largest building in New France at the time.

 Louisbourg at its peak was the third largest seaport in North America following Philadelphia and Boston. Founded in 1713, it was France’s attempt to gain a foothold in North America. Fishing, mostly cod, was its reason for existence as it provided a far more important economical base than the Canadian fur trade. The winters are not as cold as might be imagined and can be compared to that of Boston with cool summers similar to Newfoundland.

 Garrisoned by 600 soldiers in the 1740’s, it was increased to 3,500 ten years later. Its permanent population numbered 2,000 consisting mostly of administrators, innkeepers, fishermen and artisans. Devoted entirely to fishing, there was an absence of farming or agrarian activities and much had to be imported.

 But it was not to last. Its location was not a good one being surrounded by hills it was difficult to defend. Construction in the unforgiving climate was a formidable task resulting in the requirement of endless repairs. With construction just completed, the Fort was attacked and captured in 1745 by an expedition of New England volunteers. That winter was a difficult one and 900 of their number died. In 1758, the British, with 15,000 soldiers along with 150 ships again captured the Fortress while on their way to Quebec.

 By 1760, with the emergence and growth of Halifax, the British had no further use for the Fort. On February 9th, 1760, William Pitt wrote to Lord Amherst, “Sir, I am commanded by His Majesty to acquaint you, that after the most serious and mature deliberation being had, whether it be expedient to maintain, at so great an expense, the fortress of Louisbourg, together with a numerous garrison there, the King is come to a resolution that the said Fortress together with the works and defences of the harbour, be most effectually, and most entirely demolished ….. and all the materials so thoroughly destroyed as that no use may, be ever made of the same.”

 Using British miners to tunnel under the ramparts, they were blown up completely and the town entirely destroyed leaving it to a handful of fishermen and discharged soldiers. The area was known as Acadia and the French inhabitants Arcadians. It was later renamed Nova Scotia and all the inhabitants forced to pledge allegiance to England. Those that refused, numbering about 6,000, were deported to English colonies along the coast, from Massachusetts to South Carolina. Some found their way to French Louisiana to become known as “Cajuns.”

 In a sense, the destruction of the town had some benefits that were not anticipated. Even though stones were removed for building construction as far away as Halifax, the remainders were left virtually untouched. It is the only major city in North America that did not experience another city built on top of it and for this reason archaeological investigations ran smoothly.

 The dream to restore the Fortress was stimulated by the publication in 1917 of “Louisbourg: From Its Foundation to its Fall,” written by Senator J. S. McLennan. Then in 1928, the federal government threw its protective arm over the area and built a museum to preserve its artifacts and promote its heritage.

In 1960, hard times fell on Cape Breton as coal miners began to close idling more than 300 miners. A royal commission took charge and with a 25 million dollar grant, a reconstruction program began by employing 225 miners, each of whom had to be retrained to learn new skills in historic carpentry and masonry. Extensive research was conducted for each building using garden plot information obtained from archaeological excavations. Also available to the researchers were extensive and detailed record documents and plans that have been preserved providing a rich background. All buildings were completely reconstructed since no walls had been left standing, however, existing footings and foundations were utilized where possible and in some buildings the original floors can be seen.

 Stepping off the bus we took from the Visitor’s Center , the tour started with the Des Roches Fishing Property, the home of a successful cod fisherman located outside of the city’s walls. Operating three vessels, his home was ample enough to be able to serve as a tavern and perhaps lodging for the householder’s employees. The tour then led us across open ground to an earthen glacis, a drawbridge, and the main gate.

 Once inside the fort, we found every attempt had been made to recreate the atmosphere of the town in the year 1744. Unlike other restoration projects, the intention here is not a museum but to actually create a living city of the times where you are a visitor. Streets remain unpaved and there is a notable absence of signs. Only those that were historically significant had been erected. For the identification of buildings, locations or rest rooms, and lounges, one must refer to the guidebooks. Everywhere members of the park’s historical staff were dressed in period clothes often assuming the names of the original inhabitants. Children, dressed in contemporary clothes, were busy running around and playing games common to the times. To simulate the desired atmosphere, a seasonal corps of guides and service staff numbering about 300 are employed.

 Informal street walking tours are conducted several times a day in French or English to help organize your visit. These are very helpful enabling you to learn more of the city and to pass along nuances that might easily be missed.

 The bakery was in operation, for it supplied bread for the entire garrison. Deep masonry ovens are fired to heat the stone enclosures. When the stones are hot enough and tested by experienced bakers who judged the temperature by extending their arms into the oven, the fuel is then raked out. After the cavity is swabbed down and cleaned, loaves as long as eight feet are placed inside. During the baking cycle, the loaves must be shuffled around to ensure even cooking. Today visitors may purchase small loaves made at the bakery using the same recipe of the times although they will be without the small organisms that were often found in flour transported from Europe. Authenticity is not carried that far. We were cautioned to be careful of the masonry floor we were standing on and its drainage system because it is one of the few original floors and therefore very precious.

 On the street, a soldier demonstrates the loading and firing of his musket and reviews the costume he is wearing. He tells us that soldiers were furnished uniforms when they arrived but coats were only issued on alternate years. If you should happen to arrive at the wrong time, you might have to endure an entire winter without a coat. One visitor noted that his brass needed cleaning. The soldier advised “Cleanliness was not required not even desired. You know that if you wash, you would open pores in the skin from which you can catch a cold, and a cold could lead to pneumonia ending it all. Soldiers didn’t bathe and were somewhat odorous, but gentlemen didn’t bathe either which kind of canceled each other out.”

 At the Etienne Verrier’s house, the King’s chief engineer, servants were preparing a meal for the owners. A seven-course meal would be served but we were warned that if invited, it might be wise to have a bite to eat before we arrived or to eat quickly. The mistress’ habit was to eat sparingly and as soon as she laid her fork down, the entire table was cleared for the next course.

 For lunch we visited the Hotel de la Marine, a working class tavern where we were seated at a table shared with two other couples. The menu was scant but the soup was thick and delicious and the sandwich, made with bread from the bakery, was hearty. The only utensil was a thick, clumsy, pewter spoon since most people would habitually have carried their own pocketknives. If a knife should appear, all at the table would share it. One of the group asked for a glass of water. The waitress advised him that “the well is in the back, but be careful because the water is polluted.” His water was delivered but not without some good-natured repartee. In addition, pastry, tea, coffee, cider and milk were available at the Destouches house and a finer meal could be had at the L’Eppe Royale serving well-to-do merchants and visiting captains. We missed this opportunity for it had closed for the season only the day before we arrived.

 Not all interiors had been restored to their original plans. Many contained services for the visitor including rest rooms. Others contained small, one-room theaters showing short movies on restoration activities and life as it was in 1744. They are alternated between French and English depending on the visitor’s preference. Adjoining were rooms with upholstered seating and coffee tables scattered with reference books for casual perusing as you rested your weary feet and tired body.

 Dominating the Fort is the King’s Bastion Barracks. Two stories high and longer than a football field housing approximately 500 soldiers. Today, half of the reconstructed building is devoted to a vast display of artifacts unearthed during the archaeological digging along with exhibits of the trades applied during the reconstruction. The people were Catholic but the church at the time had no wealth. Even though a site had been planned for a parish church it was never built. Instead, the community worshipped in a military chapel within the Bastion. This has been restored and under the floorboards are buried several senior officers including two governors and Michel de gannes de Ealaise, whose home has been restored. Beyond the Chapel are the apartments of the Governors who lived lavishly and dispensed a form of ceremonial authority. Downstairs is the Superior Council Chambers where a court of appeals was conducted.

Architectural styles indicated a medley of individual’s tastes. The fisherman’s house and several others are built en picquet or with upright logs, chinked and painted and covered with a sod roof. Others are charpente or framed timber filled with masonry or brick in various patterns or covered with siding. But field stone masonry and slate roofs dominated. Windows, doors, frames and paneling are all of French origin, unfamiliar to this United States bound visitor. The Ordonnatuer’s offices have projecting stones at the corner to enable the adjoining property owner to bond the walls together with his. They are still in this condition waiting for the widow next door to build on to her empty lot.

 As we caught the last bus back to the Visitor’s Center, we realized that one full day was not enough and vowed to return. Louisbourg, in a compelling manner, portrays the little-known story of life that briefly prospered; whose light was then obscured by military intervention and conquest. Inescapable is the evidence of the conflict and struggle between the French and English on this continent. For one brief moment, Fort Louisbourg transported us back more than two centuries to taste a life as it had been.

 Never in his wildest dreams could William Pitt have ever imagined that Louisbourg, like the Phoenix, would once again rise from the rubble of the unfortunate demolition operation. But after more than two hundred years it now is able to welcome you.

Completing a career as an architect, I assumed the cap and gown and started teaching architecture that lasted six years. Now retired, my wife and I are enjoying traveling to many of the parts of our country that we had only talked about.

Contact George Smyth

(Please type author's name
in the subject line of the message.)

For another work by George Click Here

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher