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Sunday, October 23, 2011

McNab's Island: Then and Now

The island saw seasonal Mi'kmaq and Acadian use and was surveyed by the French Navy as a possible site for a fortified seaport prior to the selection of Louisbourg. After the founding of Halifax in 1749, it was first known as Cornwallis Island. Halifax merchant Joshua Maugher used the long beach which still bears his name as a base for a fishing operation in the 1750s and '60s. The island was purchased by Peter McNab in the 1780s beginning a long settlement by generations of the McNab family on the island.

McNabs Island contains many forts belonging to the "Halifax Defence Complex" including Fort Ives, Fort Hugonins, Sherbrooke Tower, and Fort McNab. Important historic features on McNabs Island which are still visible include the foundations of several houses built by early settlers, an aboriginal shell midden, a cemetery containing some of the island's earliest residents, remains of a turn of the century picnic ground and soda pop factory, and remnants of a once extensive Victorian garden. Numerous military fortifications can be found, including Fort McNab National Historic Site, Fort Ives, Fort Hugonin and Strawberry Battery. Other features include the original McNab house, Martello Tower, and the main burial site of cholera victims from the S.S. England.

An anti-submarine net running between McNab Island and York RedoubtMaugher Beach, where a lighthouse stands, is also known as "Hangman's Beach" because of its use by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars to hang the bodies of executed mutineers as a warning to crews of ships entering the harbour that this was a port where they had best behave themselves. The light at Maughers Beach was used in 1851 by Abraham Gesner to test out the new fuel he had invented, kerosene, to replace whale oil. Although lighthouse officials were skeptical, the careful recording of the efficiency of kerosene by Maughers Beach keeper David George helped establish the fuel for standard use.

During World War II new gun batteries, search lights and a steel anti-submarine net were installed between the island and York Redoubt to prevent German U boats from entering the harbour. In 1944 and 1945 the Canadian Army used McNab's Island as an isolated prison/detention centre for soldiers convicted of crimes.

Today, of McNabs Island's total area of approximately 975 acres (395 ha), the Province owns 62 percent, the Federal Government 35 percent, and 3 percent is privately owned. Most Federal lands on McNabs are administered as park reserve by the Department of Heritage, under the responsibility of Parks Canada who manage the "Fort McNab National Historic Site of Canada". The Province of Nova Scotia manages a Provincial Park. A group called "Friends of McNabs Island Society" a volunteer, non-profit, registered charity, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, that is dedicated to the preservation of McNabs, Lawlor and Devils Islands, promote McNabs Island as a Nature Park and Outdoor Classroom.