The Disappearing Harbour: Navigating the Environmental History of St. Peters Harbour, Prince Edward Island

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So … Where is the Harbour?

This question struck me when we set down stakes in 2017 in the community of St. Peters Harbour on the north-eastern shore of Prince Edward Island. Little did I realize that finding the answer to my question would be a story in human-environmental relations that has implications for the future coastal adaptations of the Island. Human intervention shaped the landscape in inadvertent ways and ultimately made human activity more vulnerable to continuing coastal change, especially in an era of global warming and sea-level rise.

On present day maps, St. Peters Harbour encompasses the area of land from St. Peters Lake to St. Peters Bay, and from St. Peters Road (there’s a theme here) to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The landmark lighthouse sits in a sand dune with the remains of a wharf extending into a shallow pond, and the only Harbour to speak of is Red Head Harbour, much further within the bay. Josh MacFadyen’s 2013 NiCHE article about the St. Peters Harbour Lighthouse, Swallowed by the Sea/shore, set me on a path to examining the environmental history of one tiny community, that in turn represents the ongoing relationship between settlers, the land, and the sea for Prince Edward Island as a whole.

An overlay of aerial photos St. Peters Harbour at the western entrance St. Peters Bay, 1935 and 2010
What was a busy fishing harbour in 1935 is a shallow pond surrounded by sand, 75 years later.
Image Capture: ARCGis, georeferenced by UPEI GeoREACH Lab. Air Photos courtesy National Air Photo Library, Natural Resources Canada (1935), and Prince Edward Island Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action (2010).

Havre Saint-Pierre

Since what we know as Prince Edward Island is the unceded Mi’kmaq land of Epekwitk, I do need to acknowledge the first 10,000 years or so of human presence.1 But the Mi’kmaq moved with their food sources, and knew St. Peters Bay as being “at the place where there are plenty of clams in the sand.”2 The documented story of St. Peters Harbour starts with the Acadians, and navigating this story left me with a few course corrections of my own along the way.  

Names give clues to the meaning and sense of place felt by inhabitants that have since been otherwise lost: my first course correction was that the original Acadian name for the area, Havre Saint-Pierre, had little to do with either a saint or a harbour. The first settlers of 1720 named the area in honour of their financier, the Comte Saint-Pierre,3 while Havre referenced the sheltered bay,4 like several others along the north shore of the island. 

Extract from “Acadie, Isle Saint Jean and part of Isle Royale with the Baye Francoise”, c1740. Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library.

Due to its location, providing optimal access to Louisbourg on Île Royale (Cape Breton) along with both farming and fishing opportunities, Havre Saint-Pierre became the largest settled area on the island. A Roman Catholic church was built on the high point at the north-west entrance, surrounded by the community of Saint-Pierre.5 Ultimately, though, Havre Saint-Pierre would also be significant as the departure point for thousands of Island Acadians in 1758, most of whom would perish at sea.6

Page from “Recensement de l’Isle St. Jean”, 1734. The area of Havre St. Pierre, likely along the whole bay, has the largest population on the island. Library and Archives Canada.

Second correction: in less than 40 years of year-round settlement, the Acadians modified the landscape more than I assumed. In establishing farms, towns and businesses, they had cleared hundreds of acres and had accidentally burned thousands more.7 They left remainders of their presence buried in the sand,8 along with a name for the area that would endure in various forms for more than 300 years. 

Changing Names, Changing Priorities

Next course correction: “St. Peters Harbour” was not a translation of “Havre Saint-Pierre”, and the name did not appear in the first hundred years of British occupation. Samuel Holland labelled the community at the mouth of the bay “St. Peters” on his 1765 survey; however, his subsequent 1775 survey identified the community instead as “Stukely Town.”9 This naming reflected the symbolic value of land-based settlement as a means of claiming colonial space, with an emphasis on clearing the land for farming.10 

I finally found the Harbour name restored on Meacham’s detailed 1880 maps of Lots 39 and 40, along with first mention of a “Light House.” By this time, the fishing industry had been invigorated by the introduction of canning technology,11 thoughts were turning back to the sea, and the need for sheltered harbours and navigational aids were becoming more apparent. With the ship-building town of St. Peters established earlier at the head of the bay, the fishing community at the mouth of the bay became St. Peters Harbour; the name likely was a reflection of its location and current use, rather than a direct and literal inheritance.

Extract from Meacham, J.H. & Co. and C.R. Allen. “Plan of Lot Thirty-Nine, Kings Co., P.E.I.”, 1880, p.98. A “Light House” is now marked at the western entrance to St. Peters Bay, and the enclosed channel labelled “Britains Pond” on Holland’s maps is now “Sandy Beach”.  UPEI Island Imagined.

Changing the Landscape and a Changing Landscape

Investigating the lighthouse’s history provided another course correction and more evidence of environmental impacts: there were actually two lighthouse towers erected in 1878 by the new Dominion government to replace the existing temporary navigation lights.12 As opposed to the solitary lighthouses erected at North Cape and East Point to warn sailors of rocky shoals, aligned range light pairs indicated the safest passage to harbour. But these structures would need to be relocated every few years as the channel changed, and the iconic towers would operate as range lights for less than 50 years.13

The shifting sands continued to frustrate fishers and ship-builders alike: in an attempt to deepen and stabilize the channel, the Canadian government authorized construction of a breakwater and beach reinforcement in 1878 on the western side of the bay.14 But this information was confusing to me, as the breakwater remnants at the mouth of the bay today would have been several hundred feet away across the open water that is shown in the 1917 photo.

As it turns out, this was another significant course correction: there were two breakwaters constructed, or at least attempted. The front range light stood on the end of the 1878 breakwater, now long-buried, while the pilings at the current entrance to St. Peters Bay are the remains of a second breakwater, initiated in 1883.15 After being partially washed away by storms the following winter, the project was abandoned16; in the long run, this may have been for the best. 

Shifting Sands

With the aerial photography of the twentieth century, I could finally see both these human constructions and the ongoing changes to the coast. In particular, the first comprehensive aerial survey of Prince Edward Island in 1935 showed that there was indeed a harbour at St. Peters Harbour 85 years ago. But although the channel in the photo is clearly bounded and the harbour is full of boats, this photo also illustrates the sand already collecting around the western edges of both breakwaters.

One more minor course correction: the rear light had been moved over a space of a dozen years. With ArcGIS georeferencing and the “List of Lights”, I could determine the location of the lighthouses in 1922,17 but those positions would not provide alignment for the channel pictured in 1935. The road had been extended and the rear light had been moved 400’ westward from its 1922 position.  More evidence of shifting sands. 

1935 Aerial Photo Survey of Prince Edward Island, Flightline 5331, Photo 57. 
1. First breakwater and reinforcement, 1878, extended 1904. 2. Abandoned 1883 breakwater remains. 3. Front/Outer (remaining) Lighthouse. 4. Location of Rear/Inner Lighthouse, 1922. 5. Likely location of Rear/Inner Range Light, 1935. Note also the farmstead at bottom right-centre, marking the high point of land where the Acadian Church once stood and later Stukely Farm.  Greenwich at top right is mostly sandy beach.  Image courtesy National Air Photo Library, Natural Resources Canada, image capture: ArcGIS, georeferenced by the UPEI GeoREACH Lab.

The 1958 and 1968 aerial photo surveys complete the story: the western channel into St. Peters Bay had silted over and a new harbour had been created for fishing boats further into the Bay. Pyramid truss range lights marked the eastern channel,18 the front lighthouse stood alone on a sand flat, and somewhere along the way, the rear lighthouse disappeared. St. Peters Harbour was no longer a harbour. 

Lighthouse on sand bar
St. Peters Harbour Lighthouse, photo undated. 
With a sandbar to the rear (east) of the lighthouse, this would appear to be circa 1950. 
Photo: https://www.peipostcards.ca/collection/

The Disappearing Harbour

One island environmental history mystery solved, and a number of assumptions corrected:  St. Peters Harbour was not a (mis)translation of Havre Saint-Pierre, which in turn was not named for a saint. The fishing harbour that existed at this location from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s was supported by construction of two lighthouse towers that operated briefly as navigation lights, and the construction of two breakwaters, one abandoned before completion. This abandoned breakwater trapped the sand, rendering the first breakwater obsolete, and shifting channels required shifting lights.

The great irony is that the wish to create a safe harbour for fishing boats ultimately resulted in the relinquishment of that same harbour to sand and sea. Today through climate change we are creating conditions of increased volatility in our oceans and along our coasts, while simultaneously introducing adaptations of built construction such as sea walls; maybe we should be looking instead to the results of past human activity at the shore to inform future decisions on coastal modification.

Feature Image: The St. Peters Harbour Lighthouse, as viewed from St. Peters Bay. Personal photo, May 2021.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Joshua MacFadyen, UPEI professors, and classmates for their encouragement and contributions to this piece.

Notes

[1] David Keenleyside and Helen Kristmanson, “The Palaeo-Environment and the Peopling of Prince Edward Island: An Archaelogical Perspective” in Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island, eds. Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen and Irené Novaczek (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 66-73.

[2] Stephanie Inglis, “Transliteration and Morphological Analysis of Mi’kmaq PEI Place Names,” L’nuey, 2019. https://mcpei.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Mikmaq-Place-Names-Updated-5-March-2019-1.pdf

[3] Edward MacDonald and Boyde Beck, “Lines in the Water: Time and Place in a Fishery” in Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island, eds. Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen and Irené Novaczek (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 219.

[4] Georges Arsenault, “The Settlement of Havre Saint Pierre.” Island Magazine, no. 53 (March 2003): 26. Spellings and punctuation vary by source, so I have used the convention of hyphenating the “Saint-Pierre”.

[5] Juanita Rossiter, Gone to the Bay: A History of the St. Peters Fire District Area, 2000, 8-9.

[6] Douglas Baldwin, Prince Edward Island: An Illustrated History (Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing, 2009): 33.

[7] Andrew Hill Clark, Three Centuries and the Island. a Historical Geography of Settlement and Agriculture in Prince Edward Island, Canada. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959): 41.

[8] Rossiter, Gone to the Bay, 11-12.  The Acadian church bell was unearthed 100 years later by farmer Barry, and recast for St. Alexis Church in Rollo Bay.  It is now the namesake for the school L’Ecole La Belle Cloche.

[9] Juanita Rossiter, in her article “Stukely Farm:1767-2002,” notes that former Captain George Burns, who now owned Lot 39, had named his new home “Stukely Farm” after his wife’s family.  It was built on the highest point of land in the area, where the Acadian Church once stood.  http://www.islandregister.com/stukelyfarm.html.

[10] MacDonald and Beck, 222; Rossiter, “Stukely Farm”.  Burns would sell Stukely Farm and other properties, partially to offset his debts from his fishing rights on St. Peters Bay.

[11] MacDonald and Beck, 224-230.

[12] Lighthousefriends.com, “St. Peters Harbour Lighthouse.” https://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=943

[13] Lighthousefriends.com indicates that the lights were originally placed on the breakwater, but were relocated in 1896, with the rear light standing SW of the front. United States Hydrographic Office; “List of Lights, The West Indies and Pacific Islands and Coasts of North and South America Excepting the United States.” Issue 30, Volume 1, 1922. University of Illinois. 150-151. https://www.google.ca/books/edition/_/kzM5AQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0  indicates the rear light at a position SSE of the front, and that temporary lights were established near the positions of the towers in 1921.

[14] Canadian Parliament, “Sessional Papers Volume 7 Fourth Session of the Ninth Parliament of the Dominion of Canada Session 1904,” (C. H. Parmelee, held by The University of Michigan, n.d.). These records indicate that a 226’ breakwater was built in 1878 on the western side of the entrance, connected to a further 1420’ of beach protection. https://www.google.ca/books/edition/Sessional_Papers/eCdOAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

[15] Canada, Department of Public Works, “Annual Report of the Minister of Public Works for the Fiscal Year 1890-91” (Ottawa, ON: S. E. Dawson, 1892, held by Harvard University).  “After the construction of the western breakwater, it was proposed to further contract the width of the entrance and thus by increasing the current improve the depth of water over the bar … a contract was entered into 10th February, 1883 for the construction of a breakwater, 1,900 feet long, on the eastern side of the harbor, but the contractor abandoned the work when less than half built” https://www.google.ca/books/edition/Annual_Report/CRQUAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

[16] Dominion of Canada, “Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons”, (Ottawa, ON: Maclean, Roger & Co., 1884), 1220-1221. An exchange between the Minister for Public Works, Hector Langevin, and the Member of Parliament for Kings County, eferences the contractor Sinnot (sp.), or John Sinnott, who now owned the land where the Acadian church and Stukely Farm previously stood. https://www.google.ca/books/edition/House_of_Commons_Debates_Official_Report/y_o9AQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

[17] US Hydrographic Office List of Lights, 1922 locates the rear light as 483 yards 154° from front light, which puts it at the end of the original Lighthouse Road.  A slight shadow indicates a new structure at the end of a road extension westward.  Lighthouse Road was not extended to the current (front) lighthouse for several more decades, so the name likely reflected original access to the rear light.

[18] Lighthousefriends.com.

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Graduate student in the Master of Arts in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, following completion of the Bachelor of Integrated Studies, concentration in Environmental Studies, in May 2022. Prior to moving to Prince Edward Island in 2022, I worked in software project management and quality assurance in the Ottawa area.

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