The dykes and aboiteaus of the Annapolis Valley are an historical inheritance and a link with the Acadians, our first settlers.
Masters of the old craft of dyke-making, the Acadians laid the foundations of most of the sea-walls and aboiteaus exist today. We can see their handiwork everywhere on the Minas Basin and along tidal streams.
The breaching of one of the earliest aboiteaus of the Acadians was the topic of this column last week. Since preparing the column on the collapse of the Canning River aboiteau, I’ve obtained several newspaper clippings describing the event. I said in the previous column that the aboiteau collapsed in 1943. I based this date on an interview with Leon Barron, who has done considerable research on local history. A calendar published by the Canning Library and Heritage Centre gives the year of the aboiteau’s collapse as 1944.The clippings I referred to, while hand-dated 1944, left open the possibility that the aboiteau first broke late the year before.
It really doesn’t matter exactly when the Canning River aboiteau collapsed, but I mention this confusion in dates because some readers will claim an error has been made. Perhaps it has, but of more interest is the story told by the clippings (which, by the way, are from the scrapbooks of Arnold Burbidge of Centreville).
Long before the deadly high tides of autumn wiped out the aboiteau, there were warnings it wouldn’t hold. At least six months before a major break in the aboiteau occurred, it was obvious there would be problems. Two months before the total collapse, reads a newspaper story, “commissioners, dyke owners and farmers worked almost continuously to reinforce the gradually crumbling aboiteau in an attempt to have the much-needed crops of hay and grain, which, if a bigger break occurs, may be completely covered by water,”
This story, dated Aug. 7 and hand-dated 1944, says there were earlier breaks in the aboiteau. During the reinforcement work mentioned in the story, 1,500 tons of rock were used to stove up the aboiteau and adjacent sea walls. The rocks were emptied “into a space of 30 feet long, 14 feet wide and 20 feet deep where a break has occurred.” Later, according to the news story, an additional 100 tons of rock were required to fill a hole gouged out by an exceptionally high tide.
But even the extra 2,500 tons of rock weren’t enough to hold back the sea. The ancient aboiteau, built on an Acadian foundation, had seen too many tides. When the final collapse came, the Minas Basin waters rushed in to flood at least 350 acres of dykeland. It would be several years before this dykeland could be farmed again. A conservative estimate of losses was set at $200,000, but this was before later tides and exposure to ice cakes that winter destroyed roads and bridges
Using hand tools, primitive materials and a few beasts of burden, the Acadians built a sturdy and complex system of dykes and aboiteaus. The land the Acadians reclaimed from the sea is still being farmed today.
When you consider that with modern earth-moving equipment and tons of rock we were unable to save the Canning River aboiteau in the ’40s, the dyke-building feats of the Acadians have to be looked upon as almost miraculous.