Our History

Baddeck’s history spans a considerable amount of time with its first inhabitants being the Mi’kmaq. Baddeck owes its namesake from this connection, the name coming from the Mi’kmaq term Ebedeck which has several English translations, two of which include “place with an island nearby” and “river running parallel to a lake”. The Mi’kmaq were nomadic peoples, moving from place to place, hunting, fishing, gathering, and living in wigwams built of wooden poles and birch bark. Unfortunately not much is known of their life patterns until after contact with Europeans, the first of whom were French Catholic missionaries who arrived in the early part of the 17th century in the Bay of St. Ann’s area. It was the actions of these missionaries, in particular the actions of Abbe Maillard in the 18th century, which had a significant impact on their way of life and introduced the Mi’kmaq to the Catholic faith.

In the early 19th century the Mi’kmaq were said to have had a thriving summer encampment in what would become the modern village of Baddeck and chose a small point of land located just opposite the western extremes of what would later be called Kidston Island as a place to bury their dead. This point was given the name “Graveyard Point” and was also to be the final resting place of the children of the Village of Baddeck’s first permanent settler, James Duffus. Later, many of the Mi’kmaq in the area were to move to the reservation at Nyanza creating Wagmatacook First Nation.

Originally the name “Baddeck” referred to the area along the Baddeck River where in the late 18th century a significant number of American Empire Loyalists settled following the hostilities of the American Revolution of Independence. Chief among these loyalists was Jonathan Jones, who with the help of Abraham Cuyler, the former mayor of Albany in New York, brought one hundred forty individuals to Cape Breton in 1784. Jones, like most other Loyalists, first settled in the ruins of Louisbourg before obtaining a sizeable land grant along the Baddeck River. Here he enjoyed a comfortable life with his wife Sarah and their five children. He operated a gristmill and sawmill and was made magistrate for Louisbourg, Sydney, and Baddeck before dying around the year 1810.

At the beginning of the 19th century there was still no permanent settlement in what would become the modern Village of Baddeck, however, following the influx of Loyalists a significant number of Scots settled in the surrounding areas. In 1819 this would change with the arrival of James Duffus.

James, in partnership with his brother William, arrived in Cape Breton from Halifax on the advice of his brother-in-law Samuel Cunard. Cunard, who would later be well know for his shipbuilding empire, informed the brothers of potential fortuitous business opportunities on the island. Shortly after arriving in Cape Breton, James along with his wife, Margaret Ann, settled upon what would later become known as Kidston Island, then known as Mutton Island and later renamed Duke of Kent Island by Duffus himself.

James Duffus. Photo courtesy of Victoria County Archives.
James Duffus. Photo courtesy of Victoria County Archives.

Though both James and William received title to the island in a land grant dated February 2,1824 along with 564 acres on the mainland, William engaged himself in a shipbuilding industry at Boulardarie  while James established a mercantile business on the island.

Life and business would appear to have been successful for James and his wife in the Baddeck area in the 1820’s with customers coming to the island from nearby communities and with the couple having at least two if not three children. This, however, would change and misfortune would soon strike the Duffus family. In 1827 the first of James’ and Margaret Ann’s children died at age 5 with the rest following soon after. In 1830 James’ brother William died at age 31 and shortly thereafter James himself died in 1833 at age 47 in Halifax having gone there to seek medical treatment.

For two years Margaret Ann and James’ business associates kept the island business operating but in 1835 one of Baddeck’s most influential residents arrived, William Kidston. Kidston who was sent to take care of the business was apparently immediately smitten with the widow Duffus and married her in 1836. Such a marriage secured William’s title not only to the island business, with the island itself taking his name, but also to the sizeable land grant on the shore opposite. This large parcel of land would later develop into the Village of Baddeck with William playing an important role in that development selling and donating parcels of land for both commercial and private use. In 1851, as an active politician, he successfully lobbied for the creation of Victoria County and in so doing made Baddeck the seat of municipal government. Kidston’s successful life would not end until 1882 by which time Baddeck had become a thriving community.

Up until just after William Kidston first arrived in 1835, the only person to live on the mainland where would eventually develop the Village of Baddeck was a man by the name of Joseph Campbell. Campbell arrived in 1829 and became Baddeck’s first postmaster, keeping letters under his tablecloth until they could be delivered to their recipients. Next to arrive was Robert Elmsley in 1840 and Charles J. Campbell in 1841. Both men found work with William Kidston and helped operate the mercantile business on Kidston Island. Elsmley would later go on to assume the role of Baddeck’s postmaster and amateur local historian, writing on daily happenings in his diary while Campbell went on first to establish a mercantile business of his own and later a successful shipbuilding enterprise which saw the building of many large vessels. This shipbuilding industry helped jump-start the economy of a growing community and made Baddeck a port of trade from which goods from the surrounding areas could be transported elsewhere. Such an industry thus attracted numerous businessmen to Baddeck, which resulted in a dramatic population increase so that by the 1870’s the village became home to around 1800 individuals.

Robert Elmsley whose diary provides valuable information on daily life in Baddeck in the mid to late 19th century. Photo courtesy of Victoria County Archives.
Robert Elmsley whose diary provides valuable information on daily life in Baddeck in the mid to late 19th century. Photo courtesy of Victoria County Archives.

Charles J. Campbell was not only a prominent businessman but also a politician, first serving in the provincial legislature and then as Member of Parliament in the federal government. He used his influence to have a stately post office and customs building constructed in 1885 on the main street designed by no less than the architect of the first parliament buildings in Ottawa, Thomas Fuller. A stone effigy of Campbell’s face can still be observed in the keystone of the doorway of the building’s main entrance to this day.

Baddeck post office and customs building. Photo courtesy of Victoria County Archives.
Baddeck post office and customs building. Photo courtesy of Victoria County Archives.

Attracted to the business opportunities in the growing village, David and Catherine Dunlop arrived in Baddeck in 1858. David, superintendent of an ambitious engineering project to link Newfoundland with Cape Breton via telegraph cable, erected a substantial hotel on the main street upon the insistence of his wife who saw the need for such an establishment in the community. This hotel became known as the Telegraph House which also served as the headquarters for David’s telegraph office.

David Dunlop with unidentified ladies at Baddeck Bridge. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Bethune.
David Dunlop with unidentified ladies at Baddeck Bridge. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Bethune.

The hotel would later be well complemented in the publication “Baddeck and that Sort of Thing” by the American author Charles Dudley Warner who visited Baddeck in the early 1870s and who made particular note of David and Catherine’s charming daughter, Maud. Warner would not be the only noteworthy man inspired by Maud’s character. George W. Rice, originally a resident of Baddeck, was a photographer in the doomed Greely Expedition of 1881-1884 to the Arctic and died as a hero trying to retrieve food supplies for his starving comrades whom all had been stranded in the inhospitable land. Upon his death he left orders to have a diamond ring delivered to Maud. Later Alexander Graham Bell himself would encounter this woman when he and his family arrived in Baddeck for the first time in 1885 and stayed at the Telegraph House.

The Telegraph House. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Bethune.
The Telegraph House. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Bethune.

In 1885 Alexander, already financially independent due to the successes of his invention of the telephone in 1876, was on the hunt for a peaceful summer retreat for himself and his wife Mabel and their children. The family arrived in Baddeck in the summer of that year, lured by Warner’s “Baddeck and that Sort of Thing” and fell in love with the area. After several summer visits to the village, the Bell’s, captivated by the beauty of the headland, Red Head, purchased a large portion of the area and chose the point as the site of their home, Beinn Bhreagh Hall, which was completed in 1893. The Beinn Bhreagh estate soon developed into a small community of its own providing homes for workers on the estate and became the headquarters for Alexander’s scientific experiments.

Alexander and Mabel. Photo courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada.
Alexander and Mabel. Photo courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada.

Mabel took it in her charge to manage the affairs of the estate and became heavily involved in community affairs in the village often providing financial assistance to local organizations. In 1891 she helped form the Young Ladies Club of Baddeck, which allowed women of the community to gather and discuss local and worldwide events. She took an active role in the education of children helping form the first Home and School Association in Canada in 1895 and also set up a Montessori school in 1912 upon the Beinn Bhreagh estate for her grandchildren. Mabel also provided funds to refurbish the old Congregationalist church on the main street to house Baddeck’s first library, the second to exist in all of Nova Scotia. She even contributed to the war effort of World War I through her involvement in local community projects and with Alexander, saw to the hiring of local women to build lifeboats for the Canadian Navy, something revolutionary for the time.

Life boats constructed by local women, Beinn Bhreagh, 1917. Photo courtesy of Victoria County Archives.
Life boats constructed by local women, Beinn Bhreagh, 1917. Photo courtesy of Victoria County Archives.

While Mabel occupied herself with community affairs and matters of the Beinn Bhreagh estate Alexander was busy putting his inventive mind to work. From childhood, Alexander was fascinated by flight, often watching the patterns by which birds performed the task. At Beinn Bhreagh his first experiments with flight involved the use of kites of various designs with the most effective design utilizing the tetrahedron, a four-sided equilateral triangular cell.

Experimentation with flight utilizing a tetrahedral kite. Photo courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada.
Experimentation with flight utilizing a tetrahedral kite. Photo courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada.

Such experiments would eventually lead to his fascination with the possibilities of manned flight and following the successful flight of the Wright brothers in 1903, Alexander, along with five young scientists and engineers, formed the Aerial Experimental Association in 1907. Over the next two years and while in the United States, the group made several successful flights with various aerodrome designs. It wasn’t until late in the year of 1908 that work began on the Silver Dart, which became the first controlled manned fight in Canada when it flew on the ice of Baddeck Bay on February 23, 1909. The flight was piloted by Baddeck native and Aerial Experimental Association member, Douglas McCurdy, whose name was forever memorialized by the historical event.

The Silver Dart, piloted by Douglas A. McCurdy, with skaters on Baddeck Bay, February 23, 1909. Photo courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada.
The Silver Dart, piloted by Douglas  McCurdy, with skaters on Baddeck Bay, February 23, 1909. Photo courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada.

While the Silver Dart was Bell’s most significant achievement at Baddeck, Alexander also experimented with high-speed boats called hydrofoils, the fastest of which could achieve speeds of up to seventy miles per hour.

The HD-4, the fastest of Alexander's hydrofoil designs which achieved a speed of over 70 miles per hour. The vessel is now housed in the Bell Museum. Photo courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada.
The HD-4, the fastest of Alexander’s hydrofoil designs which achieved a speed of over 70 miles per hour. The vessel is now housed in the Bell Museum. Photo courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada.

He further experimented with x-rays, genetics, and artificial respiration devices. He also played an important role in the National Geographic Society, serving as its second president, and brought several prominent members of the scientific community to his home at Beinn Bhreagh to give lectures to Baddeck residents. By 1922 Alexander’s health began to deteriorate significantly and on August 2 he passed away due to complications associated with diabetes. According to his wishes he was buried on top of Beinn Bhreagh Mountain, a resting place where Mable would soon join him when she too passed away the following year in January.

The deaths of both Alexander and Mabel brought about an end to an exciting era for Baddeck. Another tragedy would, however, strike the village shortly thereafter when on September 6, 1926 a fire started at the McKay, McAskill and Company department store on Chebucto Street. The fire quickly went out of control and even with the help of firefighters from North Sydney the town lost twenty-six buildings that night including Baddeck’s first Catholic Church, Saint Michael’s, which was built in 1858. The town would slowly recover and Saint Michael’s was rebuilt at the same location in 1928.

Baddeck in the 20th century would continue to change to become the world-renowned tourist destination that is today. In 1932 the Cabot Trail was constructed with its beginning and end in Baddeck and which would later cut through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, formed in 1936. In 1938 the Gaelic Collage was founded in the nearby Bay of St. Ann’s becoming the first and only institution of its kind in North America geared towards the teaching and preservation of Gaelic culture and language. In 1956 the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site was officially opened at Baddeck to house numerous artifacts and to tell the story of the life of the extraordinary inventor. Recently, this museum has become the home of the replica of the Silver Dart flown by former astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason on the ice of Baddeck Bay in February 2009 to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the historic flight. Such attractions along with the natural beauty of the area and its hospitable residents bring thousands of tourists each year to Baddeck. What was once a town built on ship building, mercantilism, agriculture and even scientific invention is now a more tranquil place with an economy largely dependant upon tourism. Its residents are staunchly proud of a coloured past and all who visit are left with an enduring impression.

 

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