As early as the late 19th century, there was pressure to provide some type of permanent crossing to connect Cape Breton to the mainland.
After World War II, with the increase in steel and coal production, as well as vehicular traffic, the pressure intensified particularly from industrial Cape Breton. The original concepts for a fixed link took the form of a bridge, but by the late 1940s, it became clear that a bridge would not withstand the force of wind and tides at the crossing and the only feasible option was a causeway.
When the Canso Causeway project was announced in 1951 there was much optimism and enthusiasm; there was also a considerable amount of pessimism and fear for the future in the towns and villages neighbouring the causeway.
For the first half of the 20th century, ferry and rail service connected the mainland to Cape Breton. The ferry Mulgrave was succeeded by the Scotia in 1902. Then due to increased traffic during World War I, the Scotia II was added to the service.
The communities of Point Tupper, Port Hawkesbury, and especially Mulgrave, depended heavily on the industry created by the rail and ferry service.
For 50 years, these communities had experienced stable growth. Mulgrave, for example, boasted 11 stores, two doctors, a drug store, a hydro plant, and a dentist making it something of a commercial hub. But with the completion of the causeway, the 450 jobs provided by the rail and ferry service would become obsolete.
August 13 marked the 64th anniversary of the official opening of the Canso Causeway. At the time the construction of the causeway was the biggest engineering project of its kind ever undertaken matched only by two others in the world, one in Scape Flow, Scotland and the other in India.
Cape Breton’s 50-year dream of a permanent link to the mainland across the Strait was fulfilled on October 10, 1951 when a joint announcement of federal and provincial officials proclaimed the construction of the $23 million project.
By June 1 of 1952, men and equipment were assembling at the base of Cape Porcupine. The official start of construction was September 16 when Lionel Chevrier, federal minister of transport, pulled the switch to blast the first few of the ten million tonnes of rock required to build the causeway.
Almost 1,600 tonnes of dynamite were used to blast away the face of Cape Porcupine. One charge involved 3,200 cases of dynamite; the explosion was recorded at Dalhousie University in Halifax more than 200 miles away.
The story of the Canso Causeway is replete with staggering statistics in an attempt to capture the scale and magnitude of the project. For example, the deepest part of the channel was estimated at 180 feet. However, as the opening grew smaller and smaller as the two sides made their way toward one another, the water flow increased in force and ripped up the bottom to a depth of 218 feet necessitating the placement of 20 ton boulders to fill the gap.
Amazingly one of these boulders took hold for a moment before plunging into the depths. This moment, it seems, was time enough for three Port Hastings workers, Tom Winkow, Joe Larter, and Lanny MacDonald, to scamper across making them the very first to cross the causeway. That night a Port Hastings grandmother gave thanks to God “now that Canada is at last a part of Cape Breton.”