Will the Past Meet the Present in Port Elgin? Part II

Two weeks ago this column considered the industrial heritage of Port Elgin. Today we return to the question: Is it possible for Port Elgin to recapture its former place as a port of call?

For centuries, the Gaspereau River has been the focal point of Port Elgin. Originally the community was called just that — Gaspereau. The famous French explorer and author Nicolas Denys (1598–1688) was one of the first to recognize the potential of the local fishery. Later, the French constructed Fort Gaspereau at the mouth of the river, testifying to its strategic value, for it gave ready access to what is today the Northumberland Strait. On June 21, 1755 Fort Gaspereau was captured by the British, only to be demolished a year later.

By the 1830’s a wave of settlement took place when the Ogden, Silliker and Monro families, among others, took up land grants. In 1847, the community was renamed Elgin in honor of the then governor general, James Bruce, Lord Elgin (1811- 67). As the export of lumber and shipbuilding became significant the word Port was to be added to the place name.

Gradually Port Elgin achieved prominence as a local service centre and home for a number of small industries. In 1922 it became the first incorporated village in New Brunswick. Unfortunately, following the Depression and the Second World War the community’s era of prosperity was over.

Provincially, over the past decade, tourism has gone forward by leaps and bounds. There was a time when visitors regarded New Brunswick as the province to drive through enroute to Green Gables or Peggys Cove or perhaps the Cabot Trail. Not any longer. Statistics show that more and more tourists regard this province as a favorable destination.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the firm, Totten Sims Hubicki Associates, hired to investigate renewal in Port Elgin, focused on tourism. Their report entitled: Village of Port Elgin — Port of Call Master Plan, visualizes a series of creative image enhancement and tourist destination projects that would improve the community’s appearance and make it attractive for visitors.

These individual projects, too numerous to list here, are based on Port Elgin’s history, cultural heritage and ecology. The report also envisions three mega-projects: a comprehensive trail system to make accessible the ecology of the area, a museum to showcase Port Elgin’s industrial past and a Port of Call centre.

To avoid any possible confusion, the latter project is not one of the well known call centres. It’s something much more interesting and creative. The proposed new complex would be located on Main Street, backing onto the Gaspereau River. Combining a cafe and theatre plaza plus facilities for sea kayaks and yachts it would reclaim the historic Gaspereau as a community focal point.

In addition to new parking facilities the report suggests that there be a variety of food concessions and craft boutiques, along with a rallying point for adventure activities, plays and concerts. Would such a concept work? By itself possibly not; but combined with other aspects of the master plan it looks promising. All one has to do is visit waterfront developments in Pictou, Charlottetown and elsewhere to see similar facilities flourishing.

Already a good start has been made on the proposed system of trails in the Baie Verte — Port Elgin area. Statistics confirm that a growing number of eco-tourists are looking for natural beauty and opportunities for bird watching and related activities. More trails would complement other regional facilities such as the Sackville Waterfowl Park and the proposed Cape Jourmain Nature Preserve.

Southeastern New Brunswick thus has an opportunity to become a first class eco-tourist destination. A recent Parks Canada survey indicates that Canada’s National Park system is becoming dangerously overcrowded. As people demand more and more environmentally friendly activities, the untapped opportunities in Baie Verte and Port Elgin assume added importance.

1999 witnessed the completion of a project that has added greatly to the quality of life in Port Elgin — the opening of the Monro Heritage Centre. Located on Spring Street, the Gothic revival style building was once the home of surveyor, author and journalist Alexander Monro (1813–96). His fascinating career has already been earmarked for a future Flashback. The Monro home was rescued from demolition and purchased by the village in 1997. The building has since been transformed into a multi-purpose facility to highlight the community’s history. In operation, for less than a year, the Centre has proven its worth many times over.

Another example of local initiative was the subject of a Tantramar Flashback on August 12, 1998. It told the story of the revival of one of New Brunswick’s oldest exhibitions, first established in 1852 by the Botsford and Westmorland Agricultural Society. The fair had closed in 1957 and remained dormant until 1994 when the society was reorganized. Along with the Exhibition the famous Port Elgin Raceway was re-established.

In the case of both the Monro Heritage Centre and the revival of the Port Elgin Exhibition and Raceway there was external funding from government and other sources. However, neither project would have succeeded without many hours of volunteer time and labour, both from within and without the community. Furthermore, all of the abovementioned projects illustrate the point that answers to the quest for economic renewal are most frequently found close to home.

The challenge facing Port Elgin in the 21st century is to make certain that the village becomes a destination or port of call for the thousands of tourists entering and exiting southeastern New Brunswick. The three points of the triangle of economic renewal: history, culture and ecology point the way.