When Heather Davidson wrote a short history of Kentville for the Board of Trade in 1979, She asked why the town prospered after the railway arrived in the Annapolis Valley.
“Why Kentville? Why Here?” Davidson asked in the eight-page booklet on the town’s rise to prominence. This was a good question, but what also could have been asked is why Windsor and Wolfville were eliminated when a site for the railway’s headquarters was being considered.
At the time tracks were laid, compared to Kentville and Wolfville, Windsor was already an advanced mercantile and industrial centre with a substantial residential area. Kentville looked to Windsor, for example, on how to set up a water system for the fledgling town. For a short period, Wolfville was the railway’s headquarters, but only because a temporary office for the supervisor was set up there. In the Dominion Atlantic Railway history, Marguerite Woodworth suggests that Wolfville didn’t have land available to hold the station, roundhouse, machines shops, freight sheds and other sprawling facilities the railway required to operate.
Anyway, the answer to Ms. Davidson asking why Kentville prospered, to the detriment perhaps of Windsor and Wolfville, is obvious: the town had the space the railway required to set up shop. But there were other factors, one being historical precedence.
In 1828, with roads vastly improved, the province introduced coach travel. Kentville’s location some 70 miles from Halifax and sixty from Annapolis (for a time the provincial capital) made it the logical place for passenger and mail coaches to meet and lay over for the night. A Heritage Nova Scotia paper on Kentville’s railway connections suggests that “for the same reason the stage companies had chosen the town 40 years earlier, the Windsor and Annapolis Railway picked it for their headquarters.”
You could say then that with the railway laying tracks through the Vally, Kentville prospered due to its location, and its relatively wide open spaces. This almost wasn’t a factor, however. The original plan was to have the railway turn north in Greenwich and cross the Cornwallis River at Port Williams, most likely skirting around Kentville on its westward run. Someone, perhaps the then general manager Vernon Smith, took a hard look at the plans and saw that it was less costly and quicker to run the line straight west through Kentville.
As for Kentville prospering, records show that when the various rail lines consolidated as the Dominion Atlantic Railway, 320 of its 800 employees eventually worked out of Kentville. In 1921, the DAR total payroll in Nova Scotia was $1,600,000. In the same year, the payroll for Kentville was $400,000, or about 25 percent of the annual payroll. While the numbers are difficult to confirm, it has been estimated that by the 1930s, two of every five Kentville residents worked on the railway.
Kentville began to prosper within a few years of the railway’s completion. Heritage Nova Scotia neatly sums up why when equating Kentville with the railway: “There was an almost immediate shift of focus in the town’s commercial interests from the area around the Kentville Hotel to the railway station and its environs. New industries, impossible to operate without rail facilities, grew up on either side of the tracks, and support industries flourished as the full potential of the valley as a market and Kentville as its hub was finally realized.”