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Cape Breton villagers aim to resurrect an historic road to somewhere

It was once a vital artery, in an era when Europeans were new to North America and Cape Breton had strategic importance.
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It was once a vital artery, in an era when Europeans were new to North America and Cape Breton had strategic importance.

The coastal road connecting Louisbourg and Gabarus dates back to the early 1700s — it's believed to be one of the oldest European constructions in the province and possibly Canada, according to research by local residents.

The roughly 25-kilometre stretch is now overgrown with evergreen trees, but a group of Cape Bretoners hopes to resurrect it.

They say it would create an enticing route to the Fortress of Louisbourg historic site, and breathe new life into their corner of Cape Breton.

"You can't get a cup of coffee in Louisbourg after October. You can't get a tank of gas. Nobody drives through the town — it's a dead end," said Nova Scotia Senator Michael MacDonald, who grew up in Louisbourg and whose family has lived there for more than 150 years.

He said tourists often arrive at the fortress "mentally exhausted" because of the condition of the existing inland route between tiny Gabarus and Louisbourg.

"It's an economic detriment to the whole area. There's no question about that. And it's so easily fixable — just put the road back through."

In the early 1960s, the land it sits on was expropriated as part of the federal government's reconstruction of the fortress, which was founded by the French in 1713 and was for a time one of North America's busiest seaports.

Many people were forced to leave their homes along the old road as Louisbourg was developed into a tourist attraction that during the summer is inhabited by actors living as residents did centuries before.

The road was ultimately closed in 1967.

Several local groups, including the Friends of Gabarus Society and the Gateways to Opportunity Society, have come together to urge governments to work together to resurrect the roadway. A public forum to discuss the issue has been set for Feb. 17 at 2 p.m. at the Highland Arts Theatre in Sydney.

Tim Menk, with the Gabarus society, said the coastline from Gabarus to Louisbourg is the only section around the entire perimeter of an island known for its scenic drives that's lacking a coastal road.

"The closure of the road essentially stopped economic contacts between two villages that have existed beside and traded with one another for more than 300 years," said Menk, part of a small group of residents that have been researching the road link for two years.

"A number of villages along the coast have been suffering hard times and any additional traffic and additional businesses that can be founded will benefit the communities along the route and will give people visiting the island the chance to have another tourist route and the ability to completely circumnavigate the island."

Menk said travellers coming up the eastern coast of Cape Breton do not have a direct route to the Fortress of Louisbourg, and are forced to take an unpleasant 57-kilometre inland detour to travel between two communities that are only 25 kilometres apart.

The plan is to restore the historic coastal route as part of the island's Fleur-de-lis Trail, perhaps first as a gravel road connecting Oceanview Road in Gabarus and Kennington Cove Road in Louisbourg.

He said restoring the route is an economic opportunity for all communities in eastern Cape Breton, and for Nova Scotia's tourism industry.

"If there was a developed Fleur-de-lis Trail that enabled you to the entire south coast all the way up... it would increase business all along the trail from Port Hawkesbury to Glace Bay," said Menk.

He pointed to a 2008 study by Halifax's Gardner Pinfold Consulting that determined linking Gabarus and Louisbourg — via a newly constructed $20-million road, not the reconstruction of the shuttered road — would generate considerable economic impact along the trail, with direct spending at $1.3 million by year 10.

Menk argued the findings of the study would apply even more so today, given Cape Breton's raised profile as a tourist destination.

Gabarus resident Nancy Dickie, who used to bike along the route as a young girl, says it offered picturesque vistas of the North Atlantic.

"Campbell's Hill — it was a killer to get up. You had to push the bikes up that long hill," said Dickie, 72, who lived in Gabarus until she was 18 years old and moved back to the village five years ago.

"At the end of the road in Louisbourg, there was restaurant called the Fleur-de-lis and they served ice cream in a cone. So we'd always buy an ice cream. It was a lovely route with views of the ocean the entire way."

Advocates have been trying to reopen the road ever since it was closed, said MacDonald, who has been a vocal proponent of resurrecting the route and said the issue has come up many times over the last 50 years as businesses and schools in Louisbourg shuttered.

A Change.org petition created by Bill Fiander of Louisbourg has garnered more than 2,100 signatures from across the province, Canada and the U.S.

In an email statement, Parks Canada said the road — which sits almost entirely on federal land — was closed "to protect in-situ cultural resources."

"It should be noted that these cultural resources are still present at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site," said spokesman Coady Slaunwhite. "Parks Canada is open to discussing proposals to more directly link the two communities, keeping in mind that the protection of cultural resources remains our top priority."

Slaunwhite said Parks Canada would not pay for such a project.

"In addition, an environmental assessment and cultural resources impact assessment would have to be completed," he said. "Costs for all assessments, protection measures, construction, maintenance, and operating costs would need to be borne by another organization."

Nova Scotia Transportation Department spokeswoman Marla MacInnis said there have been no recent discussions about the project. She said the province is focused on maintaining and enhancing existing infrastructure.

"When prioritizing projects and resources, we typically look at factors related to the safety of drivers and their passengers," said MacInnis in an email statement.

Follow (at)AlyThomson on Twitter.

Aly Thomson, The Canadian Press




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