The Museums of Victoria County

Published in The Victoria Standard – Vol. 3, No. 3 – July 22 to August 4, 2013

Victoria County is fortunate to be home to four wonderful museums. You should take them all in if you can because each one is worth the time and each one has a unique wisdom to share.

Dingwall Cape North 031The St. Paul Island Museum in Dingwall is the smallest of the four, but it might be said to have the biggest heart. This tiny museum stands as a lasting tribute to all lighthouse keepers and their families. As lighthouses world-wide are being decommissioned or replaced by automated systems, the legacy of the lighthouse keeper is under threat of passing into obscurity. The St. Paul Island Light, Canada’s first heritage lighthouse, now stands on the shores of Aspy Bay.

The first lighthouse on St. Paul Island was built in 1839. It was replaced in 1917 with the first- ever cast iron lighthouse when the original structure burned. Light keepers tended the beacon until 1962 then were replaced by automation. The old St. Paul Light was then removed from the island and shipped to Dartmouth where it remained for nearly thirty years. The St. Paul Island Historical Society was finally granted ownership of the light in 2010 and it was brought home to Dingwall where it now stands next to the museum building.

St. Paul Island is branded the “Graveyard of the Gulf” (Gulf of St. Lawrence) as it is fog bound throughout much of the navigation season and posed a significant hazard during the age of sail. Some 350 vessels were wrecked upon its rocky coastline. There are hundreds of graves on the island for the unfortunate travellers who died in these shipwrecks. Many of the graves are unmarked for often there was no way to identify the bodies that washed ashore.

St. Paul Island is an extension of the Cape Breton Highlands and lies 15 miles off the tip of Cape North. It is predominantly rock surrounded by deep waters. All goods and transport had to come by ship and later by helicopter. The lives of the lighthouse keepers on this barren island were lonely and difficult. The Museum’s artifacts include letters, charts, photos, and a fine library that document the lives of these solitary guardians. From the top of the lighthouse you can see the formidable St. Paul Island, a sight both beautiful and stirring to the heart.

Dingwall Cape North 037The North Highlands Community Museum & Culture Centre is in the Village of Cape North near Aspy Bay. First opened in 1979, the museum’s primary goal is to promote local history and to preserve the essence of life of the first settlers in Cape Breton. School desks, books, maps, ink pots and pens, a fireplace mantel complete with clock and bellows, a rustic table set for tea, powder horns, muskets and shot bags, are artfully displayed in the newly renovated building.

Also in the new section of the museum, which is now over double its original size, are giant story boards with pictorial history documenting places and events like the steamers that carried goods and passengers along the coast of Cape Breton prior to the opening of the Cabot Trail in the early 1930’s. There’s a War Memorial for the veterans that came from north of Smokey, and details of the welcome refuge of the Halfway House that was operated between 1871 and 1912, a place where travellers could rest along the hard road between Ingonish and Cape North.

The museum offers a video display area where documentary films are played. Currently running is a feature on the Village of Neil’s Harbour. The archive room has computer stations that guests may use to search a genealogy database containing over 60,000 names. A dynamic gallery changes each season featuring attractions like the 100th anniversary in 2012 of the sinking of the Titanic. This year’s special feature is the art of a local rock carver who will be on site all summer.

Highland Village Iona 031The Highland Village Museum offers up island history in an interactive exploration of farm fields and village buildings animated by story tellers in period costume. The village sits atop the mountain above Iona at Grand Narrows watching over the Bras d’Or Lakes both to the north and south. All four counties that comprise municipal Cape Breton; Victoria, Inverness, Richmond, and Cape Breton Counties are visible from the top of the mountain.

A trail winds up the hillside leading you through the trees to the fields above. You’ll come first to the black house built of stone with a sod roof that represents Scotland around 1770-1830. The lady of the house tells of the troubles in Scotland and why tens of thousands of Gaelic speaking Scots left for the new world (Nova Scotia). As you proceed along the road time passes and you arrive in Nova Scotia at the log house of the earliest settlers. The buildings are progressively more modern as you make your way to the church at the top, and down again through the village on the other side where you are now in the 1920s. At each place you stop there are story tellers who speak both Gaelic and English taking you through the advancing history of Cape Breton in the early days.

The settlement is built on 43 acres, with eleven buildings in all, including a working forge, a general store, the great church from Malagawatch, and a schoolhouse. Most of the buildings are authentic structures that were moved to the village site. The surrounding fields are planted and harvested. There are kitchen gardens outside each door, farmhands at work, and traditional livestock, like Soay sheep, in the pens.

The Highland Village Museum is part of the Nova Scotia Family of Provincial Museums. The decision to locate the Museum in Iona was the result of a competition in the 1950s as many communities across the province were vying for the honour. The Board of Trade for Grand Narrows presented the most convincing claim. Central to their presentation was that 99% of the current resident population were of Scottish descent, that land was available having the Highland ambience with a spectacular view of the Bras d’Or Lakes, and that the Gaelic language and Scottish customs were very much alive in the area. The clincher was probably that the entire presentation was spoken in Gaelic.

The Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada is in the Village of Baddeck where Alexander and Mabel Bell lived and worked for a greater portion of their lives. This beautiful facility is a monument to one of the greatest minds of modern times and bears out the profound effect that Bell had on the people of Cape Breton.

Bell Museum 037

Bell was born in Scotland, and came with his family to Cape Breton to live what he called “a free and unconventional life”. A scientist, inventor, engineer, and innovator, he explored nearly every avenue of human endeavour. His work in aeronautics resulted in the first aircraft flight in Canada in 1909. A replica of the Silver Dart, purpose built to celebrate the centennial of Canadian flight in 2009, now hangs in the museum. It flew above the same bay below Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic for beautiful mountain) where the original plane flew 100 years ago.

His HD-4 hydrofoil set world marine speed records in 1919. A replica and part of the original hull of the HD-4 are also housed at the museum in Baddeck. There are over 10,000 artifacts from Bell’s home, workshops and laboratories, many of them still being catalogued. The telephone, probably the most famous of Bell’s inventions, is just one part of his prodigious body of work. The telephone sprang from his studies in voice and elocution in which he had a great interest because both of his parents were deaf, as was his wife Mabel. He developed a pictorial writing method, Visible Speech, by which deaf people could learn to speak.

Bell’s extensive research led to the development of the iron lung, the phonograph, ideas for solar panels, and metal detectors, and ways to separate salt from seawater. He was interested in absolutely everything. Throughout his career he received many commendations including honorary degrees from Harvard, Queen’s and Edinburgh Universities.

The Bell Museum offers a “white glove” tour that takes visitors back stage to see some of the more fragile items that are in environmentally controlled storage. There is also a kite program honouring Bell’s lifelong interest in kite making. He built hundreds of tetrahedron box kites as part of his studies in aeronautics. Children can build their own kites in the activity centre, fly them outside on the hill that looks across the bay to Bell’s family home on Beinn Bhreagh. And they can take their kites with them when they leave.

The rich and varied history of the island of Cape Breton is showcased by this special group of institutions with a host of staff and volunteers waiting to share the stories with you.

1 thought on “The Museums of Victoria County

  1. Hello, I am doing research on a family member who may have been a crew member on the British Transport “Sovereign” which was ship wrecked on St Paul’s Island in October 1814, I believe. Do you know if there is any record of the names of survivors in the region?

    Thank you in anticipation of your assistance.

    Dr Les Kilmartin

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