THE DYKES – CHAOS WILL COME AGAIN (July 1/08)

“The sea is not weary. Its vast impersonal force moves tirelessly to destroy the work of men’s hands; and if the dykes are neglected, chaos will come again,” Dr. Watson Kirkconnell said in 1948, on the occasion of his installation as President of Acadia University.

Dr. Kirkconnell was referring to the ongoing, never ceasing struggle against the sea to maintain the “humble barricades of sod and earth” that are the dykes of Kings County. In 1944, a few years before Dr. Kirkconnell made these remarks, he was reminded of how relentless the sea is when the aboiteau on the Habitant (Canning) River collapsed and hundreds of acres of dykeland were flooded.

Kirkconnell undoubtedly had this disaster in mind when he commented about the never ending struggle against the sea. But being a historian as well as a man of letters, Kirkconnell was well aware that since the Acadians began dykeing in Kings County, one disaster after another plagued them and the Planters that followed. In most cases, an unusual combination of tides in Dr. Kirkconnell’s sea that “is not weary” and great windstorms caused the disasters.

The serious breaks in the dykes plaguing the Acadians were rarely recorded. This wasn’t the case after the planters arrived and the dyke disasters after the expulsion are for the most part on record. One of the worst disaster occurred a few years after the expulsion. Between 1755 and a few years after arrival of the Planters in 1760 the dykes were largely left unattended and deteriorated rapidly. Thus when a great gale, combined with high tides, struck the Kings County dykes in 1759 the result was catastrophic.

Several years ago, historian Regis Brun of the Universite de Moncton sent me a quote from the diary of Colonel Fry regarding the gale. Dated November 4, 1759, it read: “Tremendous gales of wind & Surprising Sea that in the course of Providence happened this day.” Brun wrote that this was a storm that “marked its (Nova Scotia’s) history.”

In Kings County, Brun said, the great storm damaged the “aboiteaux and levees constructed by the Acadians, some going back to the 1680s.” Storm damage was widespread elsewhere in the province, but the greatest damage occurred wherever there were dykes.

The sea again proved that it was relentless and far from being weary when the Saxby Gale struck in 1869. Besides the 1759 storm and the Saxby Gale, Brun writes that disaster struck the Acadian dykes on the Minas Basin in 1711. He mentions as well the “1775 gale that killed 2,000 people.”

The great tide that removed some 1,500 tons of rock from the Canning River aboiteau in 1944 is proof that despite centuries of experience in dyke building, there’s still much to be learned. And with global warming and the possibility that sea levels will rise, Dr. Kirkconnell’s observation that chaos will come again sounds prophetic.

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