Ice Walls of Yesteryear

As of Saturday, the Great Ice Wall of Irish Vale (and the Lesser Ice Wall of Irish Cove) were still attracting visitors (although no one has yet had the sense to start selling hot chocolate and popcorn, a great entrepreneurial opportunity lost in my opinion).

I had thought the media attention might have shifted by now to other striking landmarks in the area, like a certain historic driveway gate that has defied all the odds this winter. Constructed from shutters taken off a house in Sydney in the mid-’70s, mounted on hinges dating to the early 1800s, held together by re-purposed roofing nails and distinguished by gaps large enough to allow passage of a herd of white-tailed deer or a Volkswagen Beetle, it nevertheless remained standing through the very gales that produced the Ice Wall. Sadly, the world seems to care far more for natural wonders than the man-made variety.

Great Ice Wall of Irish Vale, 2019. Spectator photo.

Great Ice Wall of Irish Vale, 2019. Spectator photo.

You probably think the Ice Wall story has been reported to death — that there is nothing more to say about a great pile of ice clampers along the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes — but you’d be wrong. A relative has pointed me to a recent publication that provides historical context for the icy phenomenon.

The publication in question is From the Cove to the Glen: A Conversation with Joe Neil MacNeila book described by its author Jack MacNeil as:

…a heavily edited version of a lengthy conversation I had with the late Joe Neil MacNeil of Middle Cape, Cape Breton, focusing for the most part on pioneer families along the stretch of Route 4 between the Richmond-Cape Breton County line and Ben Eoin Beach, with some reference to the back lands, including Glengarry.

The pertinent paragraph is found on page 99 in a discussion of a one-time resident of Big Pond, John W. Hudson:

John W. Hudson was a maintenance man with the Western Union, travelling back and forth all over the area, doing repairs — replacing broken insulators and what have you. One day when some of us were talking about ice drifting in and piling up on the shore in Irish Vale, Johnny Phillip MacDonald said he remembered Hudson coming up to make repairs on the line. Ice had piled up on the shore in big cakes or clampers so high they cut the lines on the poles. Of course in those days poles weren’t as high as they are now. Johnny Philip told us that story around 1920.

It was surprisingly difficult to find out how tall the original telegraph poles were, but I did find this photo — from MacNeil’s book — that shows you how tall they were in the 1920s:


Photo of roadwork in Richmond County, NS, 1922. Source: From the Cove to the Glen: A Conversation with Joe Neil MacNeil

Source: From the Cove to the Glen: A Conversation with Joe Neil MacNeil (Click to enlarge)

The book does not mention whether the early 20th century ice wall attracted crowds, or if it made the newspapers, or if visitors clambering around on it lost cell phones. (Or whatever the early 1900s equivalent of a cell phone was — a pen and paper? A pocket carrier pigeon?) Nor does it seemed to have inspired any poetry, which is odd, because you’d think an ice wall would have been an even bigger attraction to people living in rural Nova Scotia in the early 1900s than it was to people living in urban Nova Scotia in 2019.

Still, my research is strictly preliminary — who knows what odes to ice may be out there, gathering dust in bureau drawers, even as I type?



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