The ravages of twice-daily tides over generations finally took its toll and in 1943 the aboiteau on the Canning (Habitant) River was swept away upstream above Canning, the now unfettered waters of the Minas Basin flooded hundreds of acres of farmland. No longer held at bay, the sea eventually destroyed a vital link to Canning, the highway bridge west of the village. Surging upstream several miles to Sheffield Mills, the sea inundated dykeland that hadn’t seen tidewaters since Acadian times. Along with the bridge, sections of the main highway into Canning were washed out. Another vital link remained intact when the railroad trestle near the highway refused to yield to the tides.
It would be two years before another aboiteau shackled the Canning River tides and the highway bridge was replaced. Farmers with land immediately bordering the river couldn’t farm it during those years. Residents in communities north of the river lost direct access to Port Williams, Wolfville, Kentville and points south.
With the bridge out, commercial and social life suffered. “We didn’t realise the importance of the aboiteau or how much we depended on it until it went out,” a Canning resident observed. “It was always there and we took it for granted.”
The failure of the Canning River aboiteau to contain the tides was a catastrophe, but not a major one. “A minor disaster and a major nuisance,” was how someone put it.
The collapse of the aboiteau made people realise its importance to the community. Never again would it be taken for granted. And while I’m speculating, the aboiteau’s collapse probably made people conscious of their centuries-old link with our first settlers, the Acadians.
The Acadians built the first aboiteau on the Canning River. The bible of history buffs, Eaton’s History of Kings County, notes that the Acadians first built a dam across the river at Sheffield Mills and later placed an aboiteau at the site of the railroad bridge – the bridge that refused to budge during the 1943 collapse.
Eaton writes that this was the first aboiteau on the river and, without giving details, mentions that other seagates were later put in place. The Acadians may have attempted other aboiteaus, but history is hazy about it. We know that the Planters and other settlers who followed the Acadians realised the importance of the seagates; maintaining and replacing them as best they could. Eaton refers to several attempts after the expulsion of the Acadians to build aboiteaus.
Eaton refers to the “chief aboiteau on the river” as long being at the “present crossing of the highway from Canard to Canning.” According to Leon Barron, whose hobby is local marine history, this aboiteau was located behind the site of the current Canning Legion Hall. This was the aboiteau that went out in 1943 and while records indicate an 1854 construction date, it may have been placed originally by the Acadians.
Barron told me about a controversy over the building (or rebuilding) of this aboiteau in 1854. One faction, the farmers, wanted a new aboiteau constructed below Canning, while village merchants wanted the aboiteau left at its current site. The controversy indicates the aboiteau must have been in place for some time and probably was of Acadian origin.