No trip to Cape Breton Island will be complete without taking in two sites that are close to the city of Sydney. They are easily accessible from Sydney’s airport and harbour and are well worth the drive over from the island’s famed Cabot Trail.
Just a 30 minute drive from Sydney, Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada, is a reconstructed, fortified French colonial town that provides a day-long living historical experience.
Louisbourg played a very important role in the evolution of French settlement in North America. It was the site of two sieges in wars between the English and French who fought to control of the lucrative cod fishery and dominate European colonial expansion in North America. The English captured Louisbourg first in 1745 but the town was given back to the French in the peace treaty ending the war. If the French inhabitants were expecting to pursue their lives in peace they were disappointed for the town was again besieged in the Seven Years War, or, as Americans call it the French and Indian War. A British naval flotilla of 150 ships arrived at Lousibourg in 1758. Some 13,000 troops laid siege to the fortress and captured it in seven weeks. The conquering forces destroyed the fort.
In 1966 the Canadian government began to reconstruct Louisbourg using historical documents and archaeological evidence to guide the rebuilding. The process of recreating the appearance and life within the fortified town continues to this day.
In the summer months Fortress Louisbourg becomes the home of costumed adults and children who act as the inhabitants in the year 1744. They represent all levels of French society at the time – some living quite grandly and others suffering under the burden of hard work. While soldiers do the onerous military duties the civilians pursue their trades such as baking, fishing, nailmaking, gardening and farming. When they are not involved in the daily toils the residents of Louisbourg entertain the visitors with music, dance and storytelling all appropriate to society in a colonial town in the mid-eighteenth century.
If life was hard in New France at Fortress Louisbourg, it was equally tough in the following centuries in Cape Breton. One occupation, mining, was particularly precarious and depended upon hardy and fearless men to go into the deeps daily in pursuit of wages that were certainly not generous. In 1873 eight coal companies operated mines in Cape Breton and they paid their adult miners on average about a dollar a day. Boys earned 65 cents. The life of a coal miner and the working conditions of a mine are the subject of the Miners’ Museum, located in Glace Bay not far from Sydney.
The Miners’ Museum is no run-of-the-mill museum because along with displays explaining the geology of the region and the life of miners it offers a unique underground tour of the Ocean Deeps Colliery, a mine located beneath the museum. You descend into the dark tunnels led by a retired miner who will answer all you questions about working in the dark, cramped and definitely unpleasant environment.
The second memorable experience offered by the Miners’ Museum is a spectacular concert by the world renowned choir “Men of the Deeps”. You should plan your visit to the museum around the concert program of this stirring vocal group of retired miners. The concert dates are listed on the museum website. Be sure to pick up a CD of their music.