DYKEING MINAS – A GRAND 1878 SCHEME (March 24/00)

Envision a dyke almost nine miles long running zigzag north from Boot Island into the heart of the Minas Basin, crossing the estuaries of four rivers and reclaiming thousands of acres of fertile sea bottom.

In 1878 this was the dream of Christopher Graham, an Irishman from Dublin who proposed building a great dyke from Boot Island to a point just north of the Pereau River. Starting at the northeast corner of the Boot, Graham’s proposed dyke would run north into the Minas Basin about three miles, turn west towards Kingsport for a mile and a half and north again for close to four miles before reaching landfall at Newcomb’s Point. Graham also proposed to build a smaller dyke that would lie inside the nine-mile sea wall; this dyke was to be constructed first and would run from Kingsport to Long island.

Looking back from our vantage point today, we know that Graham’s great dream was just that, a dream. There is no evidence that the proposed dykes got beyond the planning stage but they did receive much publicity, most of it negative. In an earlier column, I quoted an 1889 newspaper editorial that scoffed at the idea of dykeing the Minas Basin, a project that on completion would reclaim an estimated 6,000 acres of land.

In the Registry of Deeds in Kentville are two documents pertaining to this grand scheme (one dated 1878, the other 1895) and thanks to Geoff Muttart I have copies before me. These documents, which are land grants, indicate there were two proposals to run a giant dyke out into the Minas Basin on the scale outlined above. The earlier one was proposed, as mentioned, by Graham; the second proposal was made by a Hants County engineer, William Robert Butler of Windsor.

I had difficulty reading the Butler grant but from what I could decipher and from the diagrams accompanying the documents, the proposals appear to be almost identical. For the sum of one dollar, Graham and Butler were granted sole rights to the land that would be reclaimed by the proposed dykes. There were conditions, of course. In the Graham grant, it was stipulated that work on the inside dyke was to commence within three years and completed within six; work on the nine-mile dyke was to commence within six years of the grant date and completed in 12.

The grants stipulated that the proposed dykes had to be finished in an “effectual and efficient manner to the satisfaction of the Provincial Government of Nova Scotia.” Failure to do so, or to meet the time limitations would void the grant and “the said premises (would) revert to the Crown.”

I find it amusing that the document granted land that is swept by the treacherous tides of Minas Basin. It isn’t upland or marshland and twice daily when the tide is in, it isn’t land at all. So how do you grant land that isn’t land in the normal sense of the word. The document gets around this conundrum by stating that the grant conveys “a lot of land and land covered by water, situate, lying and being in the County of Kings and bounded as follows.” One of the boundaries is the high tide mark along the shore from Pereau back to Boot Island.

A newspaper of the time stated that the cost of building the proposed dykes was $600,000. We can only speculate that this enormous amount of capital (by 19th century standards) and the difficulty of running a dyke into the heart of the Minas Basin, using men, horses and oxen as the labour force, killed the project.

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