Built for Going Away – Mike R. Hunter and Carol Corbin
The Canso Causeway Epic, in Three Acts
In general, while industrialists lauded construction of the Causeway as an efficient means of transportation—for moving manufactured goods to markets—and politicians prized it as an efficient means of getting tourists to Cape Breton, environmentalists and fishers recognized its ecological damage and effects on declining resources. The masculine control of nature, expressed and implied, lent a heroic quality to the engineering feat of linking mainland and Island, supporting a concept that the Cape Breton economy—which still resembled its turn-of-the-(20th) century industrial might—and its Scots culture were something that could be concomitantly commodified through modernization of infrastructure.
The Causeway was one of many factors of change for Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia, linking them to the great web of highways constructed in North America as the same decade saw the automobile become a mass commodity. Wider use of the automobile facilitated bourgeois expeditions to the still wild island of Cape Breton, where modernity was slow to gain a foothold. But when post-war federal nation building saw fit to unify the country with the trans-Canada highway, the floodgates were opened, matching the new found mobility of information through television. Both innovations proved to be bidirectional. The Causeway allowed “freer” flow of goods and caused an exponential growth in tourism and at the same time allowed more people to leave. Visitors came to Cape Breton claiming links with an imagined pastoral past, while Islanders escaped the Spartan lifestyle of their forebears to seek modernity elsewhere.
The need for a fixed link, a way to streamline the flow of traffic on and off the island, is perhaps irrefutable. In 1922, the ferries were carrying nearly 45,000 vehicles annually; by 1949 that had increased to more than 100,000. In 1956, one year after the Causeway opened, 700 vehicles used it each day; by 2002, that figure had climbed to about 8,000. The Strait of Canso had become a gap “in the long arm of unity for more than half a million people living in Newfoundland and Cape Breton”.
The completion of the Causeway pushed Cape Breton into a new industrial era. The new ice-free, deep-water port status brought an oil refinery, a world-class pulp and paper mill and a (later moth-balled) heavy water plant. Where once the communities of Point Tupper and Mulgrave thrived as the terminuses for the ferry services (separate services for rail and vehicular traffic), the Strait area’s centre of commerce moved to the town of Port Hawkesbury, which increased in population by 45%, from 1955 to 1975. Four-hundred-fifty people lost their employment on the ferry services. The full impact was more like 1,000 jobs—Point Tupper “got wiped out … Mulgrave was really decimated” notes Mayor of Port Hawkesbury, Billy Joe MacLean.