THE CORNWALLIS -A BOOK OF ITS OWN (August 8/97)

In last week’s column I suggested that a history of the Cornwallis River should be written, arguing this point with excerpts about the river from historical and contemporary sources. Esther Clark Wright said it best when she wrote that the river should have a book of its own. Where in Nova Scotia, for example, is there a river more diverse, historically and biologically, than the Cornwallis? But for the fact that four other adjacent rivers similar to the Cornwallis flow into the Minas Basin, it would be unique.

Anyway, to continue my argument on the historical importance of the river – and perhaps to prove its physical “uniqueness” – here are more quotes from written sources and some personal reflections.

“Visitors to this region are amazed to watch the Cornwallis River at Port Williams, not much more than a trickle at low tide, rise to become capable of floating cargo ships on the high tide,” – A Natural History of Kings County. Tides at the mouth of the Cornwallis at Port Williams and the Minas Basin into which it empties are believed to be the highest in the world.

“Settlement of ‘Minas’ (by the Acadians) began about 1680. J.F. Herbin says that ‘Minas’ included all lands bordering on Gaspereau, Grand Habitant (the Cornwallis River), Canard, Petit Habitant and Pereau River west to Kentville.” – The Port Remembers.

“Kentville owes its location, says a recent writer, to the enormous sandbank which here narrowed the (Cornwallis) River and made a convenient place for a ford at low tide, and later for a bridge. Thus, naturally, a village sprang up here.” – Eaton’s History of Kings County.

The “recent writer” referred to by Eaton was E.J. Cogswell, who compiled a history of Kentville in 1895. In his unpublished manuscript, Cogswell stressed the importance of the Cornwallis River in the formation of the Shiretown: “It had no Indian name (the site occupied by Kentville) but it was important even to them, being situated on the principal ford of the Cornwallis River and Indian roads and trails seemed to converge to and diverge from that place. It was a French village and the first French bridge over the Cornwallis River was built here near the present one and not far from the old ford. And there was a French mill here also on the river.”

Cogswell notes that the Acadians built the first bridge over the Cornwallis at the future site of Kentville. According to Eaton’s Kings County history, the first bridge across the Cornwallis at Port Williams was built around 1780. This bridge and perhaps a second and third were washed out, “piers and all”, by the tide. A more stalwart structure was erected in the early 1830s. Officially opened in 1835, this was for many years a toll bridge.

When the railroad crept into Kings County shortly after Confederation, the Cornwallis River played a huge role in the establishment of Kentville as a major commercial center. But for its treacherous tides, the railroad would have crossed the river near Port Williams and proceeded up the Valley in a more northerly route, bypassing Kentville. Boats traversed the Cornwallis carrying rails, other railroad supplies and an engine, the “Sir Gaspard le Marchant,” to Kentville. Source: Woodworth’s History of the Dominion Atlantic Railway.

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