A visit to the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site
in Cape Breton is literally like taking a step back into a bygone era – back to a time when the French and English crowns fought for control of the New World and all of Nova Scotia was a battleground. 2013 marks the 300th anniversary
of the founding of Île Royale -- known today as Cape Breton Island -- and its capital, Louisbourg. There has never been a better time to visit North America’s largest historical reconstruction.
The Fortress of Louisbourg and its significance to Canada
Nova Scotia’s colonial history was largely shaped by decisions far across the Atlantic. When the War of Spanish Succession was settled with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain was given control of mainland Nova Scotia and France was given Ile Royale, what is today known as Cape Breton Island. On the eastern side of Cape Breton, the French found an ice-free, sheltered harbour to act as a base for France’s interests in the cod fishery and to serve as an important trading outpost because of its proximity to Europe and colonies in both New England and the West Indies. They named it Louisbourg, in honour of King Louis XIV.
Over the course of almost three decades, engineers surrounded the town and garrison with massive stone walls that would make it one of the most extensive fortifications in North America. In fact, the 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) of walls – measuring 30 feet high and 36 feet thick in some places – cost so much to build that the French king joked how he expected to be able to see them from his palace in France.
Despite the towering walls, the Fortress of Louisbourg had one major weakness that had been overlooked by its architects. While the fortress was well defended against attacks from the sea, it was vulnerable to land-based assaults, and when France and Britain went to war in 1745, this weakness was exploited. The attackers – New England militia who saw Louisbourg as a direct threat to their colonies and the nearby fishing grounds – erected siege batteries on the hills overlooking the fortress and, through a series of bombardments and assaults, forced the defenders to surrender.
Even with its proud naval heritage, the Fortress of Louisbourg was about more than just the military. At its core, Louisbourg was a thriving civilian community made prosperous by a profitable cod-fishery and strong trade ties reaching across the Atlantic. During its peak it was the third busiest port in North America and was considered the jewel of France’s holdings in the new world. Louisbourg represented hope, and its prosperity convinced many of France’s poor and impoverished to leave their homes behind and seek a chance at a better life.
1758 Battle of Louisbourg
The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 returned Louisbourg to the French. It also prompted the British to establish a new fortress at Halifax to counter the French presence in Cape Breton. Over the next decade, French and English forces battled for control of Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War and the Seven Years War. The Fortress of Louisbourg held off a British assault in 1757 but fell again in 1758. This time, British engineers destroyed the town and dismantled its fortifications, shipping some of the stone off to Boston to construct Louisbourg Square and other buildings in that city.
The Fortress of Louisbourg might have been lost to history had it not been designated a National Historic Site and partially reconstructed in the 1960s. It has become the largest reconstructed 18th-century French fortified town in North America, with archaeologists, and engineers and historians working together to recreate the town as it was in the 1740s.era.
Louisbourg Attractions and Accommodations
Today, the modern town of Louisbourg welcomes travellers from around the world with a number of inns, campgrounds and bed and breakfasts. At the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, peak season visitors can watch French colonial soldiers fire muskets and cannons, smell fresh bread as it comes from the brick oven or try their own hand and upper-class dancing and pastimes like quill writing or lace making. Visitors in the shoulder and off-seasons can stroll of the scenic hiking trails near the site and admire the exterior architecture of the fortress’ reconstructed buildings. Everything has been faithfully recreated in exacting detail.
Whether you’re strolling through the town’s streets or simply sitting in front of a crackling fire, you’ll truly experience life as it was in the eighteenth century.