Leon Barron’s lifelong love affair with Minas Basin ships of sail probably began when he discovered the wreck of the Hattie McKay on the beach at Medford. Caught by an August gale in 1927 when she was moored at Medford, the Hattie McKay was driven up a creek and split in two.
Leon was four or five when he first saw the remains of the Hattie McKay while walking on the beach with his mother. Over the years the turbulent tides and shifting sands of Minas Basin covered and uncovered the wreck many times. When the tides uncovered the Hattie McKay a few years ago, Leon moved to have it recorded as the first registered shipwreck site in Kings County. Little remained of the Hattie McKay by this time but a few pieces of the ship were salvaged, some of which can be found at the Courthouse Museum in Kentville.
If he had the inclination, Leon Barron could write an interesting book or two on Minas Basin sailing ships. After a lifetime of researching, collecting and poking around the Minas Basin and Fundy shore, his knowledge of sailing ships and the marine landscape is considerable. Amazingly, he carries much lore in his head and can recall it instantly and accurately. He has astounded me on many occasions with his recall of obscure ship lore and statistics, which I found to be accurate when I went to his sources for additional research.
A conversation with Mr. Minas Basin Know-It-All on sailing ships, and his second love, the railway, is akin to a walk through local history. When I talked with him about the Clipper Brig Belle while preparing last week’s column, Leon came up with information that filled in some blanks and provided an overview of shipbuilding on the Minas Basin.
Shipbuilding began in the Minas Basin region in the late 18th century, Leon said. He referred me to Eaton’s Kings County history where it is noted that in or around 1790 a “schooner rigged craft of about 40 tons register” was built at “Cornwallis Town Plot.” Much later, Leon said, Canning became a major shipbuilding area but ships were being turned out in other Cornwallis Township ports, such as Kingsport and Lower Horton.
It may be difficult to think of Kentville as a shipbuilding port (the word “port” is used loosely here) but Leon tells me the shiretown once could claim this honor. Again, he referred me to Eaton’s history where it is recorded that in 1813 Handley Chipman built a 200-ton brig on the banks of the Cornwallis River near the bridge at Kentville. Some 33 years later James Edward DeWolf built a barque in the same location.
Leon said this shipbuilding site must have been on the south banks on the Cornwallis, perhaps behind the current municipal building or lower down near the Klondyke residential area; Leon’s research has centred on these areas since in the 19th century the town limits apparently ran only as far as the south bank of the Cornwallis.
Besides its little shipyard, which perhaps should be marked as a historical site, Leon told me about another bit of trivia regarding ships, the railway and the Cornwallis River. The first railway engine to reach Kentville came up the Cornwallis River by scow in bits and pieces. The scow ran up Elderkin Creek on Kentville’s eastern boundary, where the engine parts were off loaded and assembled beside the railway track.
Since it contains elements of his interest in ships and railways, this is Mr. Minas Basin Know-It-All’s most treasured piece of trivia.