At dawn in Louisbourg, the sun is a diffused circle, barely cutting through the fog stealing in from the Atlantic Ocean. Intermittent rains add to the dreary aspect as they spatter across the glassy bay. A few gulls wheel overhead or stalk through the tide-thrown wrack littering the black sand beach.
The continent ends here at the outboard end of Nova Scotia, on easternmost Cape Breton Island. Beyond Louisbourg harbor’s mouth, the North Atlantic rolls away, unimpeded, to Europe. In the early 1700s, France built a massive fortified port within Louisbourg Harbor, designed to dominate the Canadian Maritime and New England coasts.
Fortress Louisbourg was positioned to protect the fabulously lucrative cod fishery, a European staple since the 1400s. The bastion also served to guard the ocean approaches to the St. Lawrence River and Quebec. In its heyday, it was the fourth largest city in North America.
By the 1740s, the fortress and the ice-free harbor had become the administrative capital of the French holdings in Atlantic Canada and the home of 700 soldiers and 2,500 civilians, a mix of French Bretons, Normans, and Basques, and Germans, Swiss, Irish, and Africans. Despite the often petulant weather, over 100 trading vessels each year called, bringing goods from France, the French West Indies, the Canadian interior, and New England.
In 1744, the French and British declared war on each other and Louisbourg posed a direct threat to England’s northern Atlantic colonies. Over the next 13 years, the British staged two spectacular sieges, twice captured the fortified city, and eventually leveled it.
History Begins Again
The ruins lay silent for the next two centuries, disturbed only by the squalling sea gulls and fierce Atlantic storms. In 1961, the Canadian government decided to reconstruct a portion of the city as a project to employ out of work miners and craftspeople, and as a venue to present life in the first half of the 18th Century. Fifty-five of the original buildings rose from the ruins and Parks Canada staffed them with costumed animators to give life to the period homes, fortifications, and exhibits.
Today, Fortress Louisbourg is the largest historical reconstruction in North America and offers an unequaled opportunity to touch and viscerally understand a seminal part of the American colonial experience. Modern time travelers can mingle with housewives, servants, musicians, and nobles on Rue Toulouse and Rue Royale. Fishermen stroll down to the busy waterfront and cod fillets, drying on wooden racks, mingle their perfume with the smell of the sea. At the Dauphin Gates, in the King’s Bastion, and on the towering walls, soldiers patrol and demonstrate their martial crafts. At the L’Epee Royale and the Grandchamps Inn, visitors can dine in period splendor, or rub shoulders with the working class at the Hotel de la Marine.