When Cathy Margeson stops digging into old records and archive files – in the past year alone she’s made 14 trips to the [Maritime] Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax – she will have compiled a list of over 600 sailing ships that were built in Kings County, some dating back to the 1700s.
However, that research may never be completed. “There’s no deadline. It’s one of those projects that are ongoing and we’ll probably leave the file open,” Ms. Margeson said. “There will likely be other additions to the list in the future.”
As chairperson of the Kings Historical Society history committee, Ms. Margeson has been involved in many similar community projects. None have taken quite as much time as the sailing ship compilation, however. Ms. Margeson told me recently that she has been working on the project for at least a year. The file folder containing the results of her research is a good two inches thick and its size confirms what I’ve long heard about Kings County – that shipbuilding was once the area’s main industry.
Just over a century ago, in fact, Nova Scotia was the leading shipbuilding province in Canada and every seaside nook and cranny in Kings County literally hummed with the shipwright’s saw. “At Scots Bay, Hall’s Harbor, Baxter’s Harbor, Black Rock and French Cross (Morden) many vessels have been built, while at Canning and Kingsport there have been a great many more,” Eaton writes in the History of Kings County, giving 1790 as the date when the first sailing vessel was built.
Later historians would confirm Eaton’s estimate of Canning and Kingsport as important shipbuilding centers. At one time Kingsport was the site of one of the largest shipbuilding operations in Nova Scotia. In a 30-year-period Ebenezer Cox – touted as one of the “Maritime’s great master builder” – turned out at least 30 schooners and other sailing vessels averaging 1,000 tons each from his Kingsport yard.
In Canning, a monument marks the site of Ebenezer Bigelow’s shipyard. Eaton calls Ebenezer Bigelow the “first shipbuilder of importance… who began to build vessels in 1800.” The Bigelow yards were productive until the second decade of the 20th century, turning out many fine vessels that put Canning on the map.
To the Cox shipyard in Kingsport goes the honor of producing some of the largest sailing vessels in Canada, however. In 1890 a four-masted bark of 2,061 tons, the Kings County, was built in the Cox yard. The Kings County was one of only two four-masted schooners built in Canada. In 1891 Cox built the 2,137 ton Canada, one of the country’s largest square-rigged vessels.
During the era of sail, ships from Nova Scotia carried cargo around the world. Foremost among these merchant ships were vessels built in Kings County, not only in the Cox and Bigelow yards but in obscure byways such as Town Plot, Horton Landing and the upper reaches of the Cornwallis River. The names of those vessels, their builders, tonnage and other details are now known, thanks to the Old Kings Courthouse Museum assistant curator, Cathy Margeson.
Unfortunately, Margeson doesn’t believe there would be enough interest in the sailing ship compilation to make it viable as a book. However, her work will be on file in the Kentville museum for anyone interested in looking at it. The file may also be available later on computer disk.