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Articles Blog

Sydney, Canada

Karyn Planett

Former Steel Town 

“I have traveled the globe. I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes and the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland: but for simple beauty Cape Breton outrivals them all.” 

So wrote inventor Alexander Graham Bell who loved this island. His warm praise is an apt tribute to its dramatic landscape.

Cape Breton Island 

Sydney, a once bustling steel town, is found on Cape Breton Island, a mere stone’s throw from the Nova Scotia mainland. The Strait of Canso separates the two. This province, along with Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, is part of the Canadian Maritime Provinces, which count fewer than two million Maritimers in total population. Most of them choose to live along the coast. 

Islanders speak of a long and interesting history and the folks here are fiercely independent, somewhat out of necessity. They live where the Atlantic Ocean never allows them to drop their guard. This was a lesson learned long ago by the Malecites and Micmacs who cultivated some crops though were a bit nomadic, following the wild game and good fishing. 

Europeans eventually heard tell of this bounty and struggled to get a foothold to snare their share. Some historians believe the Norsemen were here in approximately 1000 AD. John Cabot is credited with having slogged ashore on the island in 1497 and it is for this Venetian explorer sailing for the British in search of the Northwest Passage that the glorious Cabot Trail is named. The 200-mile-long Cabot Trail laces through the rugged interior, across the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. 

Cape Breton Island is a jagged puzzle of inlets and bays and Nova Scotia’s largest island. 

Hints From The Past 

Something quite unique for the early colonists of this Maritime Province is their nickname. “Bluenoses” they were called because these hearty folks could withstand the most brutal cold Mother Nature could throw at them. Rest assured, however, that even though you may be braced for crisp breezes announcing the coming autumn along the Atlantic seaboard, there’s little chance you’ll endure anything remotely resembling the harsh conditions that hammered the earliest settlers of this land. In fact, when rampaging wintertime ice flows in the Bay of Fundy literally strangled locals off from their food supply on the mainland, many actually starved… starved to death! This is something unlikely ever to happen on this ship.           

Nova Scotia, as you’ll soon discover, has been aptly described as “a bit of this and a bit of that”, referring to the hardened seafarers and fishermen of the eastern coast, the farmers of the central valley, the French descendants in Acadia, and the Scots who settled the highlands of Cape Breton Island. Nova Scotia is all of that, and to experience it you must simply get out and explore. 

Sydney Sights       

Some compare Sydney rather unfavorably to the province’s other major city, Halifax some 250 miles away. Sydney was once a humming steel town until the 1950s even claiming to have the largest steel mill in all of North America. Early coalmines date back to the 1700s and shafts once jutted some three miles out into the sea. For more than 50 years, her mills combined Nova Scotian coke with Newfoundland iron ore and produced steel. Tons of it. Then the death knell rang with gas and oil production, which made Sydney’s industry no longer economically viable. Furnaces grew cold, men no longer worked the mill, and unemployment ran rampant—twice that of the rest of the country. Today, Sydney is the province’s third largest city with approximately 30,000 residents. 

The city, draped along the east bank of the Sydney Rivers, itself is home to an inviting historic district fronting the Esplanade. Here one finds among its historic homes the Jost House, dating back to 1786, which was purchased by Halifax merchant Thomas Jost in 1836. His descendants lived there until 1971. Today, it has on display for visitors a sampling of Victorian artifacts as well as a cooking fireplace, beehive bake oven, and 20th century medicinals. The Cossit House Museum, dating back to 1787, was home to Reverend Ranna Cossit, Sydney’s first permanent Anglican minister. Town fathers claim it is Sydney’s oldest surviving house and features early New England colonial architecture as well as personal furnishings. Charlotte Street is the main thoroughfare.           

An interesting side bar—Alexander Graham Bell moved to Canada from Scotland in 1870 when he was 23 years old. Seven years later he married Mabel Hubbard, a deaf student of his (Bell’s mother was also deaf). In 1885, the pair built their home on Cape Breton Island where he spent his summers until 1922, when he passed away. A museum in Baddeck captures this story.