Once a North Ender, Always a North Ender

Believe it or not, summer is officially here and tourists, as well as former residents of our fair city, will be coming to Cape Breton.

The latter group, especially if they grew up in the North End of Sydney, will definitely drive or walk around their old neighborhood during their stay. Every once in a while, I run into a fellow North Ender and I often ask, “Do you check out the North End when you’re driving around Sydney?” One gentleman, whose wife was with him, didn’t get the chance to answer the question: “Every time he’s driving.” she said. And not being from the North End, she probably couldn’t figure out why in the name of heaven he did this.

I do it all the time, and while growing up in the North End was pretty much the same as growing up in any of the other well-known areas of the city, we seem like a club, those of us who grew up in the neighborhood generally accepted to stretch from Victoria Park to Dorchester Street. (Although another gentlemen recently told me the cut-off was the Melrose, now Compu-Clone, on George Street, which would mean not-quite-Dorchester Street!) Even when we no longer live in the North End, we find it necessary to check out any changes that might have occurred since last we were there (even if that was yesterday).

Of course, if you weren’t so fortunate as to be a North Ender, you could proudly lay claim to being an Ashby, Shipyard, Pier or Southend resident — and being a Whitney Pier resident meant you had what could be rightly called your own village!


The history of Sydney as Sydney began in the North End, where Joseph Frederick Wallet desBarres, named lieutenant-governor of the colony of Cape Breton in 1785, first established a settlement. As Robert Morgan wrote:

In May, when the drift ice was likely just out of the harbor, a permanent settlement was established on the peninsula on the south side of the harbor, to be called “Sydney” in honor of Lord Sydney, the home secretary.

Whatever Dorchester Street was like in the 1780s, by the 1950s, it was quite a hub, home to the Grand Hotel on the corner of Dorchester and Dodd with AB Green’s store directly across the street. Heading toward the harbor, you’d pass Aboud’s Dairy, Fillmore’s Funeral Home, The Post Record, the Post Office and the Bank of Nova Scotia (at the corner of Dorchester and Charlotte) before reaching the Isle Royale Hotel on the corner of Dorchester and the Esplanade.

Charlotte Street circa 1955 photo: caperpics

As North Enders, of course, we had to trek up the main street, Charlotte Street, to go to a movie at the Strand or the Capitol (which later became the Paramount) or the Vogue Theatre. For 10 cents, you could go in and watch two viewings of the same show on a Saturday afternoon and come out just as it was getting dark! If I’m not mistaken, it was quite common to arrive in the middle of a show and stay until you saw the first half (a practice that was also popular with some mass-going Catholics!)

There were various sub-sections of the North End and ours, Armstrong Court, (okay, Tin Can Alley) would never have been mistaken for one of the poshest. But we had great neighbors, many of whom had roots in St. Pierre et Miquelon and whose first language was French. Gaelic was the first language, not only of my grandparents, who had been raised in Iona and Ben Eoin, but of so many others who had moved to the “big city” from other spots in Cape Breton to find work.


I still marvel at the fact that within the area bounded to the east by Walker Street and to the west by George Street there were so many convenience stores: Lavoisierre’s, Cameron’s, Mendelbaum’s, Risk’s, Walker’s and Harry’s Lunch on the corner of Ferry and George. We had O’Neill’s bike and repair store that also sold items that would make any kid happy at Christmas time. Oh yes, and the afore-mentioned Melrose where we often hung out having a pop and listening to the hit parade tunes on the jukebox. Hasiuk’s was where we bought our strawberry licorice while visiting with some of our school friends. Armstrong Court actually had its own store, Burts’, located on a hill we used for winter coasting.

School for us was about a five-minute walk from home, and often Constable Mike Black would be our crosswalk guard at George and Ferry. He was a well-known policeman who, according to my grandmother, arrived at their home one day looking for one of my uncles who had adopted a lifestyle that included refusing to get out of bed on quite a few mornings. My grandmother told Mr. Black and down he went to the front hall and hollered up to the hooky player to get out of his bed and hit the floor running, which he did. You bet he did!

Sacred Heart Church, the Lyceum and in the foreground what used to be the Melrose — now Compu-Clone. (Source: Google Street View)

In summer, we could swim at the “old gov” and often walked down past the freight shed where my father and uncle worked — and who both had warned us no end of times not to walk the tracks. On the way home, when the shed was closed, we often did walk the tracks, convinced that we would have to be deaf or just stupid not to hear a train coming. We were making our way down for a swim one afternoon when my older brother spotted a man walking towards us. “Everybody pick up a rock” he said, and we did until the man came close enough for us to identify him as our grandparents’ neighbor, “Papa Rod,” one of the nicest men in the neighborhood. We sheepishly dropped our ammunition and he continued on his way home to Walker Street.

As kids, summer evenings were spent playing “Hide and Seek” or “Hoist Your Sail” which were two forms of the same game. The boys played “peacock,” which involved hitting a small piece of wood, tapered at both ends (the peacock) as far as you could with a larger piece of wood that was used as a bat. I don’t remember much about it except that it often involved the peacock landing on the roof of the Coca-Cola plant which faced onto Ferry Street. I do recall the night the plant burned though, and how and we all managed to “save” at least a few bottles from the flames! One of our neighbors had a wonderful garden swing and we girls would be allowed to swing and sing on warm summer evenings. Kamp Beaver offered us city kids a chance to spend two weeks in Beaver Cove with lots of activities – swimming, baseball, camp fires, singing, canteen, and, for a few, trying to walk the tracks back to Sydney!

Girls heading to Kamp Beaver photo: Beaton Insitute Archives


In winter, we could skate or play hockey on the Louisa Gardens at the foot of, you guessed it, Louisa Street. We also had Sacred Heart Rink, down behind Sacred Heart Church, which was very popular and where many of us learned the basics of skating. I recall walking home from mid-term exams at Holy Angels Convent and hearing the music being played for the morning skate at Sacred Heart. I often walked the short distance from Ferry Street over to watch the skaters, mainly seniors, and generally couples, who skated effortlessly and in time to the music blasting from speakers outside the small building that also served as a place to remove street boots for skates (often racers, which many of the best skaters seemed to prefer).

We were lucky — there was a group of dedicated parishioners who kept the ice flooded and, of course, kept an eye out for those who might jump the fence if they didn’t have the price of admission. (I recall one of the priests who could see the rink from an upstairs window in the glebe house saying that he watched more jumping the fence one evening than had actually paid to get in.) You could also skate at the old Sydney Forum, of course, or if you had a quarter, you could stand in the bullpen behind the goalie and watch a hockey game between the Sydney Millionaires and their rivals, the Glace Bay Miners. This was mostly something the boys did, and as fun as it was, I remember that if any of them had the full price of admission, they thought it was much more fun to sit among the Glace Bay fans and root for the Millionaires!

Skating on the harbor was another possibility but not one that was encouraged by our mother. I did it once, joining my brothers in skating across to Westmount. At least skating was much less dangerous than jumping ice clampers, another popular winter sport among the most daring. The harbor skate was fine until we had to make our way back and realized we had not skated in a straight line. We had started near the Robin Hood Wharf but found ourselves up closer to the Yacht Club on our return skate and that meant one heck of a walk home!


The railroad, mentioned earlier, figured largely in our lives, especially since so many North Enders worked for CN or at the steel plant, and especially since my grandparents lived on Walker Street (I assume on the right side of the tracks), across from the flour shed. The house is still standing and occupied, while any and all evidence that we had actually occupied what now seems so small an area, has vanished as if into thin air.

Freight rain leaving Sydney yards photo via Caperpics

My grandfather manned the CN tower at Ferry St. and Muggah’s Creek (ok, the Tar Ponds) where he raised or lowered the gate when the train was making its way through the crossing. Sleeping at my grandparents’ home was not easy, given the noise of railway cars shunting back and forth. But eventually, one hardly noticed the loud sound of the engine as it roared toward Prince Street with whistles blowing. Ferry Street traffic was busiest at shift times at the plant, and I do remember certain young locals who would drag huge empty cardboard boxes from railroad cars and use them to block or at least slow down traffic, especially at 4:00 PM. Great fun until one of the drivers decided to leave his vehicle and attempt to catch one of the offenders who took to their scrapers, leaving the blockade behind.

Coal cars were especially popular among many of the neighborhood boys as a place to gather coal, which they would sell to make enough money for a movie, or at least a few loose cigarettes. On guard for CNR policemen, any such activity had to be done as far down the tracks as possible and the booty dragged on carts or sleds back for a quick sale to a needy neighbor. Although some might have a different name for them, they were entrepreneurs for sure!

All in all, a pretty interesting place in which to grow up, although the neighborhood — which was our world as kids — looks much smaller seen through adult eyes. Nevertheless, it’s always worth a drive-by.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.