“It is necessary, in order to raise grains, to drain the marshes which the sea at high tide overflows,” the Sieur de Diereville wrote of his travels in Acadia in 1699. “It is not easy to stay the course of the sea,” de Diereville continued, “(but) the Acadians nevertheless accomplish the task by means of strong dykes which they call aboteaux.”
As we know from history books, the Acadians did accomplish this task well; the evidence is all around us in Kings, Hants and Annapolis County. Much of the prime farm land in these areas was first dyked off by the Acadians. A number of dykes and aboiteaux stand today where they were originally conceived and laid out by the Acadians.
Locally the Acadians placed dykes and aboiteaux on the Pereau, Canard and Habitant (Canning) River. There are running dykes on the Cornwallis River, some of which are of Acadian origin. However, there is no evidence that the Acadians attempted to place a cross dyke and aboiteau on any part of the Cornwallis.
This seems puzzling at first since the Acadians dyked other major waterways in this area – in some cases feeder streams were dyked as well. When we take a second look, however, we can see that the Acadians would have been gained little by placing an aboiteau on the Cornwallis. Dykes and aboiteaux were built with one purpose in mind: to hold back the sea and create farm land.
What agricultural land would have been reclaimed by dykeing the Cornwallis and placing an aboiteau on it? Running dykes along the lower Cornwallis salvage meadows that were being flooded daily, but there were no great upland meadows to be claimed from the sea such as are found on the Canard and Habitant.
Beside lack of reclaimable uplands, the Acadians may have ignored the Cornwallis because of its nature. Compared to the Pereau, Canard and Habitant River, the Cornwallis is swift, treacherous and deep; its tidal force is concentrated in a narrow, muddy channel that may have been too powerful to contain. In other words, the dykeing techniques used by the Acadians may have been inadequate for the Cornwallis.
But if not the Acadians, what about the Planters? Did they consider dykeing the mighty tidal waters of the Cornwallis?
The answer is a tentative “maybe.” In his History of Kings County, Arthur W. H. Eaton quotes an earlier historian, Dr. Benjamin Rand, who says that an aboiteau is “now proposed at the old French ford at Starr’s Point.” Eaton gives no year for the proposed aboiteau but the date may have been 1865. The Statutes of Nova Scotia for that year record an “Act to provide for building an Aboiteau across the Cornwallis River.” The site of the aboiteau was to be at Port Williams.
The historical records don’t tell us why this plan to build an aboiteau on the Cornwallis was never carried out. Like the Acadians perhaps, 19th century engineers found that blocking the Cornwallis and putting is a sea gate was not only difficult but impractical. If the aboiteau was placed at Port Williams, for example, wouldn’t the farmlands on the seaward side in this area be flooded on every tide?
While the loss of farmlands already reclaimed from the sea may have resulted from a Cornwallis River aboiteau, this didn’t stop people from considering it again. In 1912 an act was passed to incorporate the Cornwallis River Aboiteau Company. The plan was to build an aboiteau on the river “west of the present bridge at Port Williams.” Once again the plan was dropped, perhaps because of the downstream flooding that would have resulted.