When the French made a coasting craft in Louisburg in 1604, they didn’t realise it would one day be hailed as a Canadian first.
“Reliable sources” record that this pioneering event took place in Cape Breton, writes Gordon Hansford* in the introduction to his 1953 Master’s thesis on shipbuilding. Based on this, Nova Scotia can “technically claim the first shipbuilding in Canada and New England,” Hansford concludes.
From this starting point Hansford takes an in depth look at shipbuilding. He conjectures that Nova Scotia’s early prominence in shipbuilding was partly due to its long, greatly indented coastline, which induced people to look to the sea for a living. There were other factors that led to this prominence, of course, but the marine environment was a key element.
For a long time Kings County, which included present day Hants County, was one of the most productive shipbuilding areas in Canada. Reading the thesis courtesy of Hansford, I was amazed by how many prominent shipbuilders once thrived in Kings/Hants and the great number of superbly crafted sailing ships that came out of their yards.
For a time, the coastline in and around Canning, Kingsport, Wolfville Hantsport and Windsor were the chief shipbuilding areas and its shipbuilders were known all over eastern Canada and beyond. While there were shipyards of various sizes all along the Bay of Fundy, Minas Basin coastline, these were the most productive areas.
Some of the noted shipbuilders early on were the Bigelows, Coxes and the Churchills. Hansford says that the two Ebenezers – Ebenezer Bigelow and Ebenezer Cox – operated in Kingsport and Canning and their names for a long time were synonymous with local shipbuilding. In Canning and in Kingsport ships were being built as early as 1790.
One of the most prominent builders was Ezra Churchill of Hantsport. As Hansford notes, Churchill was known as one of the largest ship builders and ship owners on the eastern coast of Canada. Another prominent ship builder and owner was Shubael Dimock of Windsor. Hansford says Dimock began building ships in 1867, noting that while he made Windsor a shipbuilding centre, there was activity all along the coast in places like Noel, Cheverie, Walton and other small Hants communities.
So there you have it. In the golden age of sail, in Kings and Hants County, shipbuilders turned out countless hundreds of ships, making this area renowned in Canada, the United States and well beyond. Hansford admirably chronicles that era in his thesis and I hope this short review of his work will stir readers into looking up the likes of Ebenezer Cox, Ebenezer Bigelow, Ezra Churchill and Shubael Dimock.
*A Wolfville native. Gordon Hansford taught in Kings County schools for 30 years. Retired, he lives in Kentville. Hansford is the creator of the Annapolis Valley tartan for which he was recently honoured. His thesis, quoted here, was a requirement for a Master of Arts degree, which he received at Acadia University in 1953.
** “Ships,” as used here, is a generalization. Actually, when it comes to sailing vessels, ships refers to three-masted vessels, while other two and three masted vessels, depending on how their sails are rigged, are known as barques, brigs, brigantines, schooners, etc.