Early in 1851, Joseph Howe boasted before the British Parliament that Nova Scotia owned more sailing vessels than all of the British North America colonies put together.
Howe was quoted in the Halifax newspaper, the Nova Scotian. According to Howe, the colonies owned 2536 vessels and Nova Scotians 2583.
The difference doesn’t seem to be that great isn’t until you consider that the colonies included Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, P.E.I., Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. With this comparison, you can see that in the era of wind-driven wooden vessels, Nova Scotia was a shipbuilding superpower.
Joseph Howe might have been surprised to know that two areas in Nova Scotia – Hants and Kings Counties – likely produced more sailing vessels than the remainder of the province put together. And in their day, when ships of sail ruled the waves, some of the vessels built in Kings and Hants were recognized as among the best in Canada, and possibly the best in North America.
Bound by the sea, it was natural that at one time shipyards were found everywhere along the coast of the province. Ships were even built well up tidal rivers, such as at Kentville on the Cornwallis River. There are records of at least two ships being built in Kentville “by the bridge” – in 1813 by Handley Chipman (a 200-ton brig) and in 1846 J. E. DeWolfe built a barque he called the Kent.
Of all the shipbuilding areas in Kings and Hants County, Windsor and the area immediately around it, Hantsport for example, lead the way. Prominent also as shipbuilding areas were Canning and Kingsport. Even Wolfville’s tiny harbour had a shipyard or two. As the late Gordon Hansford pointed out in a paper on shipbuilding, “before the railway was built (Wolfville’s) harbour was much larger and several ships were built around its shore.” A Wolfville resident, C. R. Burgess, was a prominent shipbuilder, but the work he financed was mainly done in Kingsport and Canning.
Another local shipbuilding historian, the late Leon Barron, spent decades pinpointing areas where vessels were built in obscure places on the Minas Basin and the Bay of Fundy. While there were no major shipyards in these areas, Barron found that many smaller harbours turned out a vessel or two – at Medford and Blomidon, for example, and on the Bay of Fundy at Hall’s Harbour and Baxter’s Harbour.
Between Kings and Hants Counties, Windsor undoubtedly was the capital of shipbuilding in the era of sail, with the area in and near Hantsport also turning out a fair amount of vessels. Of the prominent builders in Windsor, Shubael Dimock and Bennett Smith were in the first rank. Ezra Churchill was a prominent Hantsport builder. In Kings County two names stand out as shipbuilding leaders – Ebenezer Bigelow and Ebenezer Cox.
While we’re saluting the actual hands-on builders, the men who financed everything should also be remembered. C. R. Burgess of Wolfville financed the building of nearly a dozen vessels in the mid-19th century and he became one of the largest ship owners in Nova Scotia. While located in Hantsport, Ezra Churchill financed many of the vessels that came off the ways in Kings County. Like Churchill, Peter R. Crichton was another mid-19th century financier who had ships built in Kings and in Hants County. Some of the builders, such as Windsor’s Bennett Smith, financed their own ships. Between 1852 and 1877, Bennett financed and turned out 10 vessels in his Windsor yard.