Take a 35 minute drive from Sydney, Nova Scotia, and arrive in 18th century French colonial life. We Explore Canada contributor Hans Tammemagi takes us back in time, and lets us know why this is his single favourite National Historic Site in the Great White North.
The Fortress of Louisbourg sprawls on Cape Breton’s rocky shoreline east of Sydney, Nova Scotia, a formidable stone guardian at the entrance to the mighty St. Lawrence River.
Today, it’s fighting days are over and, operated by Parks Canada, it is my favourite National Historic Site in Canada. That’s not a trivial statement, for our country is blessed with many great national parks and historic places. As I discovered recently, the Fortress is also a showcase for friendly Maritime hospitality.
How the Fortress of Louisbourg Came to Be
The Fortress is old, very old. The original settlement was founded by the French in 1713 and was strategically located to block the British from easy entry to the heart of the country and, at the same time, defend Quebec City.
For this reason, Louisbourg has been given the nicknames ‘Gibraltar of the North’ or the ‘Dunkirk of America.’ The fort was also built to protect France’s hold on one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, the Grand Banks.
Subsequently, the fishing village grew to become a major commercial port — the third busiest seaport in North America — and the fortified town flourished and grew to 4,000 residents.
Building a Masterpiece
Four kilometres of wall surrounded the entire fort. On the western side, the walls were 30 feet (9.1 m) high, and 36 feet (11 m) across, protected by a wide ditch and ramparts. Four gates led into the city. The Dauphin Gate was the busiest, leading to the main road leading inland. In true French style, the gates were decorated with fancy stone work, especially the Maurepas Gate as it was visible to arriving ships.
Louisbourg had about 100 embrasures mounted with cannons. A small island was also fortified with thirty-one 24-pound guns. An even larger fortified battery, the Royal Battery, was located across from the town with 40 guns to protect the harbour entrance.
The History of the Fort
In its early history, Fortress Louisbourg witnessed much violence and bloodshed. Louisbourg was captured by the British in 1745; it was given back to the French in 1749; and captured again by the British in 1758, who have retained it since.
Worried about re-capture by the French, the British blew up the fortifications in 1761. Its two sieges, especially that of 1758, were turning points in the Anglo-French struggle for what is Canada today.
In 1961, two hundred years after it was destroyed, North America’s largest historical reconstruction and archaeological program was initiated with the goal of recreating Louisbourg as it was at its height in the 1740s. The work was massive and required an interdisciplinary effort by a large team of archeologists, historians, engineers, and architects.
The Louisbourg that emerged is huge, covering 12 acres with 60 buildings (yet only about 25% of the original). Today, the Fortress looks much like it did more than two centuries ago.
Best of all, numerous costumed interpreters — from soldiers and merchants to fishermen, musicians, bakers, servants, and street vendors — walk the streets acting just like the original inhabitants, interacting with you as though you were in that era.
Experiencing This National Historic Site Today
I approached the Dauphin Gate under a cloudless sky. Three French soldiers in royal blue uniforms and tricorn hats stood on the solid stone ramparts, drumming and welcoming us to the Fortress. It was an impressive introduction.
I wandered along the Quay among costumed actors who carried on their daily business as though we tourists weren’t there. It seemed like multitudes of boats still crammed the harbour, their sails flapping noisily in the breeze. I stepped into period houses and historic gardens; for a fortress, unlike a fort, contains a town as well as military structures.
That the main occupation at Louisbourg was fishing for cod, which was shipped to France, was evident.
I chatted with several “locals”, learning about life in the 18th century. They had to work hard with none of the modern time-saving equipment we have today. And there was petty crime. I noted the stocks and a wooden horse that were used for punishment and public shaming. The horse featured a sharp wooden ridge on which the miscreants had to sit.
In one building, paintings showed how busy the fortress had been in its hey-day with ships unloading goods, soldiers marching in groups and shops conducting vigorous business. Cannons, long silent, were arrayed on stone ramparts.
Stepping Back in Time
Delicious odours drew me to the King’s Bakery, where steam rose as the baker withdrew a loaf from the large wood-fired stone oven. Ah, nothing tastes better than fresh, warm bread slathered with butter just churned that morning.
At the Grandchamp Inn I lined up to sample Fortress Rum, the most popular drink at the 28 taverns that once were present. Made from sugar cane, my drink had matured in oak barrels in the King’s storehouse and released aromas of oak, vanilla and tropical fruit. Yumm! Sipping happily, I promised to take a bottle or two home.
Slightly woozy, I took a lesson in firing a flintlock musket. Struggling somewhat, I finally tamped a metal ball and gunpowder into the barrel. I lined up with others against a thick stone wall and squeezed the trigger. A flash of flame erupted from the muzzle and my shoulder jerked with the recoil.
I’m sure the imaginary bullet was far off the imaginary target.
An Experience Like No Other
As the sun sank low, our group entered the King’s Bastion, a fort within the fortress, the largest building on site, and in its day, one of the largest buildings in North America. It was friendly chaos.
A ceilidh band stomped and played fiddles, rum punch flowed, and period soldiers and townsfolk mingled with the crowd. The blasts from three cannons echoed through the bastion, signalling we should sit down for, what else, a sumptuous lobster dinner.
Wiping butter from my chin, I gazed at soldiers silhouetted on the battlements with stars twinkling behind them. I was glad that England and France were now friends, and Fortress Louisbourg had transformed into such a fascinating, friendly place.
Hans’ writing is eclectic including travel, environment, Indigenous culture and things quirky. He has penned 10 books including one national best seller. Hans writes for Canadian Geographic, Westworld, Ensemble, Zoomer, British Columbia magazine, Explore, Northwest Travel, Canada’s History, the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and former adjunct professor, he has a strong affinity for the environment around us. He lives in the Gulf Islands where he enjoys kayaking and photography.