McNabs Island has had a lot of friends over the last 29 years, and they are trying to get the province to study the many shipwrecks that pepper the Halifax Harbour island's shores.
McNabs Island is the largest island in the harbour, which you can see directly across from Point Pleasant Park. The 400-hectare landmass is a mix of provincial park and national historic site, thanks to the settlements surrounding Fort McNab.
“There are several forts, actually,” says Cathy McCarthy, president of the Friends of McNabs Island Society, which was founded back in 1990.
“The British built five different fortifications on the island; because the island is at the entrance to Halifax harbour, it's very strategically important. It actually protected the port of Halifax during both the first and second World Wars, and earlier during other skirmishes – It was the lynchpin that held together the Halifax defence complex.”
The unsettled parts of the island make up most of the provincial park status, but while its care technically falls under Communities, Culture & Heritage under the Special Places Act, it's the island's friends who have largely tended it the last several decades.
“They don't seem to have much of a parks budget. Any work that's done on this island is pretty much thanks to the Friends of McNabs,” says McCarthy, who points out how the society's annual beach clean-up keeps the island free of washed-up city-side litter and looking presentable.
“We've picked up 13,500 bags of garbage since we started doing these cleanups back in the '90s. If there wasn't a group like Friends of McNabs, the place would just look like a garbage dump.”
Beneath the surface
The Friends of McNabs recently held its annual general meeting at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Besides the usual drudgery of electing members to the board, the highlight was a special talk by historian and curator, Dan Conlin, who spoke about the shipwrecks surrounding McNabs — and there's quite a few of them.
“Back in the day when there was pretty lax regulations, McNabs was just outside the city limits, and people who wanted to get rid of an old schooner, they'd just scuttle it out there," says McCarthy. "There's also shipwrecks that went aground due to accidents and storms.”
Conlin — currently curating exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, but before that curating at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic — took attendees through a guided tour of the shores of McNabs Island, pointing out all the noteworthy wrecks along the way, from nets that guarded Halifax Harbour during the world wars to the ship that capsized, flooding the city's shores with thousands of onions.
“Those wrecks have stories, big stories and little stories, to tell us,” says Conlin. “Some of those wrecks around McNabs are really historically significant. Like the Havana - one of the biggest shipyards in the province trying to break into the steamship world, at a pivotal time in Nova Scotia history. That wreck is intact, at the bottom of Halifax harbour, and should be preserved and documented.”
These, and other wrecks along McNabs' shores, are an especially tactile link to Nova Scotia's history, Conlin contends.
“You can actually walk up and touch a shipwreck, and there's not a lot of places in the world where you can do that – on McNabs, you can walk up and touch six or seven,” says Conlin.
“The shipwrecks are one of the things that deserve more support and exploration ... I would just love to see the government of Nova Scotia hire an underwater archeologist to professionally look at those shipwrecks, as well as the other 10,000 in the province.”
He and the Friends of McNabs want to see a professional survey of these historic treasures before they literally wash away.
“Most of the ships that are out there are historical, archeological sites,” adds McCarthy. “They should be documented.”
Until that happens, the Friends of McNabs will continue their stewardship of the island and its culture. The group is currently working to restore an old teahouse into an outdoor learning centre and its next beach cleanup is scheduled for June 2.
Learn more at mcnabsisland.ca