AN 18th CENTURY SUPER HIGHWAY (September 17/04)

“We’re all history nuts,” a friend said when we were chatting at a historical society get together. “We like reading about it, talking about it, and looking at it,” he said, pointing towards a display case holding various artefacts.

This was an opening for me to tell the friend about a historical document I had just read, a proposal by a military engineer to build roads in Nova Scotia, which included a description of the province as it was around 1760. The engineer was the then Lieutenant Joseph DesBarres of the Corps of Engineers, who had been posted to the province with the 60th Foot Royal Americans to assist with work on the Halifax dockyards and building a citadel.

DesBarres was later to become famous as a marine cartographer. But around 1760 he was a minor military engineer with little prospect of employment until he conceived a scheme “whereby a road-building regiment would construct a circumprovincial system,” two great roads connecting Halifax with Annapolis Royal and with the South Shore. Desbarres apparently had spent the better part of a year surveying the province and preparing a paper he called a proposal for “the effectual settlement of the valuable colony of Nova Scotia.”

Hoping to gain employment as the engineer in charge, DesBarres paper submitted his proposal to the government; the proposal was filed, apparently never read and never acted on. A copy, dated circa 1763, is on file in the provincial archives.

In his paper DesBarres described Nova Scotia as it was around the time the Planters arrived. At the time the province was sparsely settled. DesBarres mentioned connecting the townships of Kings, Hants and Annapolis County with his great road and building an additional highway connecting Halifax with the settlements around Chester and Lunenburg. The roads were to be all-weather highways some 21 feet wide with “the trees for one hundred feet at least (cleared) on either side.” Desbarres estimated that the road from Halifax to Annapolis Royal “may easily be compleated (sic) … in two years.”

In his proposal, DesBarres has a detailed list of the costs, plus the manpower, materials and horses that would be required to construct his 18th century super highways. But more interesting than this proposal is his description of former Acadian lands in this region.

Of the Kings County townships of Horton and Cornwallis, for example, DesBarres mentions tracts of land “lattely (sic) settled and formerly inhabited by the Acadians” which are “very extensive marshes and great quantities of cleared upland.” These lands, DesBarres says, will produce all sorts of grain, hemp and flax.

The motive in praising the potential of land cultivated by the Acadians was obvious. The more settlements there were, the more likely good roads would be necessary. After submitting his proposal to the government, DesBarres had a number of influential friends go to bat for him as the right man to build his proposed highways. One of them wrote that “we are… of the opinion that Lieutenant DesBarres is a very proper person for conducting the necessary operations, should his plan be approved of.”

It never was.

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