MULGRAVE: At 11:59 p.m. on May 14, 1955, the Scotia II train ferry was shut down forever.
The ferry between Mulgrave and Point Tupper fittingly made its last run the same day the ribbon was cut commemorating the first official train crossing on the Canso Causeway, and six days before the first vehicles made the trek between the shores of Auld’s Cove and Port Hastings.
Mulgrave resident and historian Kevin O’Neil noted that his father worked on the ferry and he received his pink slip on May 14. He said his father and others ferry workers were fortunate to find work on the M.V. Bluenose.
O’Neil recalled there were about 15 businesses along Main Street in Mulgrave, and after the loss of the ferry, they all closed.
“The result was out-migration, business closures, unemployment,” he noted.
Although the impact of the ferry’s closure was economically and socially devastating, O’Neil said many residents were resigned to that fate.
“They knew it had to happen because of the increase in the number of vehicles on Nova Scotia highways,” O’Neil said. “But people were very upset.”
Since the turn of the 20th century, the Scotia I and the Scotia II were the links in the local railway system, carrying boxcars and passenger cars across the Strait of Canso.
The first ferry arrived in 1902, and before her was a smaller boat called the Mulgrave. The Scotia I and the Scotia II both looked like passenger boats and towed a scow. The train cars would go on tracks on the scow. The vessel carried three passenger cars and up to four freight cars.
On board each ferry were a second and third engineer, as well as four firemen to keep up the steam for the coal-powered engine.
The ferries had four big boilers on board and each boiler had three fireboxes in them.
There was also a lunchroom in the boat. Each crossing took about 15 minutes, and the price was 10 cents.
O’Neil noted that the ferry was a vital link between Newfoundland, industrial Cape Breton and mainland Nova Scotia.
“Tonnes, and tonnes, and tonnes of Cape Breton coal were carried across there,” O’Neil stated. “That coal was destined for the industrial heartland of Canada in Quebec and Ontario.”
In the absence of the Canso Causeway, O’Neil said there was too much ice in the Strait of Canso in the days before 1955.
“There was tremendous ice conditions in the Strait in the wintertime,” O’Neil pointed out. “I remember Dad saying to me there was an ice pan that ran from Mulgrave right to the marine dock in Point Tupper.”
Although the legacy of the ferry was loss for Mulgrave, O’Neil noted that the construction of the Canso Causeway represented many new opportunities for the Strait area, led by the Four Counties Development Association (Inverness, Richmond, Guysborough, and Antigonish counties) which brought the pulp mill to Point Tupper.
“We had to prove that there was sufficient wood and a water supply that would meet the needs of the pulp mill,” O’Neil recalled. “A boat load of hardwood and softwood was sent to Sweden… The officials indicated that yes, it was top-notch wood.
“The water supply for the pulp mill came from the Mulgrave side.”
O’Neil said the mill provided good-paying jobs for many people around the four counties for decades.
“Further industry came and also we saw rapid housing taking place in Port Hawkesbury, schools, and eventually a hospital, Strait-Richmond,” O’Neil said. “This was all a result of the mill.”
To mark this anniversary, the Strait Area Museum (formerly the Port Hastings Museum and Archives) at the Port Hastings Rotary is updating displays on the impact of the Canso Causeway over the past six-and-a-half decades.