Fortress Louisbourg Celebrates A Tricentennial

Louisbourg Composite

Anyone know the difference between a “fort” and a “fortress”?  I always thought the difference was a “fortress” had “breastworks”, but, as Chari loves to point out, I’m wrong again! 

Actually, as it was explained to us at Fortress Louisbourg, a “fort” is a military installation, sometimes a single building, generally protected by a wall of some sort, built to defend an area against attack.  A “fortress” is more in line of a walled city, with a strong civilian presence, and a military garrison whose purpose is to protect that city.

OK, now on with the story.

Glace Bay, not far from Sydney, Nova Scotia, was for many years a thriving coal producing town.  But by the 1950s and 60s, the coal was mostly played out, and after some tragic disasters, many of the mines began closing down.  The economy of the area began a steep decline.In an effort to restore the economy of the area and put unemployed miners to work, as well as promote its proud and rich history, the Canadian government began a restoration project of the old fortified town of Louisbourg.  Today, Fortress Louisbourg is operated by Parks Canada (the Canadian equivalent of our National Parks Service) as a Living History Museum. This year, 2013, marks the 300th anniversary of Fortress Louisbourg with many special events scheduled.

Any student of history knows that England and France were involved in several wars during the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, and one of the primary goals of these wars was control of the North American Continent.  In 1713, with the Treaty of Utrecht, Britain gained control of the French territories in parts of present day Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, but the French retained control of Quebec City, Île Royale and what is now Prince Edward Island.  As a base for their very lucrative cod fishing industry, the French began building Port Dauphin on the former site of Fort Ste-Anne, but winter icing conditions led them to move to the ice-free harbor at the extreme southeastern part of Île Royale.  This became a winter port for French naval forces on the Atlantic seaboard and they named it Havre (Harbor) Louisbourg after King Louis XIV.  The location provided excellent defense from an enemy (British) attack by sea, since an island and a reef forced an approach to the town through a five-hundred foot channel, easy to protect with artillery.  In spite of an excellent defense from the sea, a series of hills to landward were very good locations for siege batteries, and, in 1745, British New Englanders took full advantage.   After forty-six days of seige, Fortress Louisbourg surrendered.

Politics being politics, the end of that particular war between Britain and France, three years later, saw the town restored to the French by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, much to the chagrin of the New Englanders who captured it.  During the next war, known in Europe as the Seven Years War, and here in North America as the French and Indian War, the fortress came under siege again.  It fell in seven weeks in 1758, and the British, determined that it would never again become a fortified French base, demolished the walls.  They maintained a garrison there until 1768.  Many of the stones removed from the walls were shipped to and used for the building of Halifax.

In 1920, it was declared by the Canadian government to be a National Historic Site, and as mentioned, after the decline of the coal industry in the area, restoration began in 1961.  The fortress as it stands today represents 25% of the original buildings. The unemployed miners were taught 18th century French masonry techniques to create an accurate replica of the town in 1744.  Parks Canada does an excellent job.  Docents in period dress play the part of both townsfolk and soldiers.  They all speak both English and French and are extremely knowledgeable of the town’s history.  Spending a day or two wandering the streets, talking with the local 1744 inhabitants, and exploring the buildings and surrounding area, is both educational and entertaining.  Anyone visiting Nova Scotia should set aside some time for Fortress Louisbourg. Technically the site is open all year but the Living History is only there from June through September. In the winter months all artifacts are stored away and you cannot see the exquisite interiors or museums.

We’ve created a short video with some of our photos from Louisbourg.  If some of them don’t look quite like photographs, it because we’ve used an editing technique to make them appear more like illustrations.  Let us know if you like the effect.  Turn on your sound, and as always, click on the diagonal double-arrow icon to view full screen.

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