Rooted in Whitney Pier

The year before I started school in 1960, there was a field at the bottom of Matilda Street in Sydney with a path that led to the back door of an old house on the next street over, Dominion. One of my earliest memories is of escaping the backyard of our family’s new home, where I was playing alone, going all the way down our street and then, like a child in a fairy tale, walking down the path through the high grass to “Papa’s and Mama’s house”, the home of my Jessome grandparents.

Cover of "Our Roots Run Deep: One Family's Story" by Jim MacCormackIt was a large home with two kitchens, two staircases and a fine verandah across the front, though now all I can remember are two rooms: the huge front kitchen with a linoleum floor, a coal stove with a big warming oven over it and a clock on the wall, which my Aunt Delores used to teach me to tell the time; and then the living room, which seemed so grand to me, though now I can barely recall its flowered sofa and chairs.

Their home had a magic that drew me, a vivid sense of Whitney Pier past when my father and his nine siblings were growing up there in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. The old house was redolent of the era of the Great Depression and World War II—black and white movies with actors like Bogart and Bacall, the Katzenjammer Kids in the Saturday comics—a high-spirited world of intense activity before plastic and television and other horrors of technology.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the next house up from my grandparents belonged to the MacCormacks, another family of 10 children and two parents, with an added live-in Papa. The second-oldest of the siblings, Jim MacCormack, has now written the excellent and high-spirited Our Roots Run Deep, “a compilation of two small books into one,” the first about his ancestors, the second (and longer) recounting his childhood growing up on Dominion Street, in Whitney Pier—the Old Whitney Pier of “two heavy industries, steel and coal, that sustained their working-class community” during the first 70 years of the 20th century.

Our Roots Run Deep is wide-ranging, covering everything from MacCormack’s recent travels in the Scottish Highlands and the backwoods of Cape Breton researching his family’s genealogy to watching from the family verandah in 1951, as Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were driven down Dominion Street to Number 6 Gate for a tour of the Sydney Steel Plant. Readers’ experiences of such a rich book will vary, but I especially enjoyed the stories of the author’s childhood. MacCormack’s gripping narrative captures a great deal of what made Old Whitney Pier, though on the wrong side of the Sydney tracks and in the backyard of a steel factory, such a special community and, for those who grew up there, the place where we are always from.


Born in 1938, Jim MacCormack was attending university when I made that quarter-mile journey to the Jessome house, but he had played as a child with the two youngest boys of the family, Roddy and Aubrey, and central to his story are childhood play and adventure, recalled with both wonder at bygone freedom and worry for today’s over-supervised and screen-addicted children.

The activities MacCormack recounts include snowball fights and mud fights; sledding; pick-up games of street hockey, ice hockey, and baseball; and swimming in Sydney Harbour, next to the Coal Piers and a sewage pipe (dirt was cleaner in those days and kids had stronger immune systems). Play was constant, unsupervised, mostly outdoor and not without risk—the author gives his version of the time my Uncle Roddie, while sledding down Dominion Street, swerved left instead of right, disappeared under the front end of a fast-moving three-ton coal truck, and then somehow emerged from between the wheels at the back end with just a slightly bruised head.

1942 photo of children with baseball equipment.

“Playing ball in front of 64 Dominion Street, Whitney Pier, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (1942). From left to right: Herbie Rossiter, Unknown, Unknown, Ashie Neville, Unknown, Bill Jessome, Jimmy LeBlanc, Bernadette MacMillan, Charlie MacMillan, Mike Jessome.” (Source: “Our Roots Run Deep”)

It was an exciting and busy life for everyone in Old Whitney Pier, and an especially rich world for children to take in as they played outside. Traffic on Dominion Street—now so quiet and sparsely populated— included peddlers and salespeople, the iceman with his horse and wagon, the milkman, the mailman (twice-a-day and mail on Saturday, too), doctors making house calls and those fast-moving coal haulers going “up and down the hill as often as they could” to deliver coal to Whitney Pier residents. At the bottom of the street was Number 6 Gate, entrance to the Coal Piers, S&L Railway and the Steel Plant, with workers coming and going for the three daily shifts—at eight in the morning, four in the afternoon and midnight—which began and ended with a “loud whistle that could be heard throughout the city [that] heralded the changing of the shifts.”

Across the street from the MacCormacks’ was a large field, above that the Navy League (or “Sailors’ Home”), then a soccer field and then the community bandstand, the latter two popular “especially with visiting sailors,” always on the look-out for a game of “football” or a concert with local girls in attendance. At the top of the street, on the corner of Victoria Road, was Mr. MacKinnon’s barbershop. At the bottom was a taxi stand with “at least four taxis there at all times.” The street also “had its own tram line with tram cars running up and down the hill daily, carrying the respective workforces, as well as the local residents, to the top of the hill and connecting with the Victoria Road tramline that carried passengers to Sydney proper.”

Photo showing a large group of children in a sandbox

“How many kids can you fit in a sandbox? Matilda Street (circa early 1950s.” (Source: “Our Roots Run Deep”)

Sydney proper!—that brings back a memory: my mother, as many of her generation still do, would speak not of going “over town” but of “going to Sydney,” and when a friend phoned once looking for me, she confused him totally by insisting, “Ken went to Sydney.” But it was natural for its residents to think of Whitney Pier not as another neighborhood of Sydney, like the North End or Ashby, but as a separate place. Whitney Pier, MacCormack points out, was nearly self-sufficient and, except for hospital care, most people rarely needed to leave (by way of the one exit to “Sydney,” the often-flooded subway).

The main street, Victoria Road, boasted “shops and outlets that provided for every need of its residents.” Besides fondly remembered landmarks like Newman’s grocery, Archie Nathanson’s shoe and clothing store and Victoria Lunch, there were laundries and grocery stores, two movie theaters (the Casino and the Star), restaurants, taverns and church halls. Above all, there was life, lots of it and multicultural. There were Polish, Italian, Ukrainian, Jewish and Irish people from the ethnic neighborhoods, as well as a large black community. There were children playing, teens flirting, young couples on dates, mothers pushing baby carriages. Victoria Road was alive with pedestrians going to see movies or attend dances, to play ball or watch a game, to shop for clothes, pick up groceries, or just hang-out telling stories.

Drawing of a backyard skating rink

Cartoon of the MacCormack family’s backyard rink by Jack McCann. (Source: “Our Roots Run Deep”)

These were people who mostly had to entertain themselves. Back before television turned us all into zombies, Whitney Pier residents were always doing something: visiting one another’s homes, playing board games and sports, putting on plays, church socials and a thousand other activities. Not all of them were innocent or acceptable by today’s standards, as some stories from my older relatives attest (jumping ice clampers? backyard target practice with live ammo?), but people lived, and for them Whitney Pier seemed, accurately enough, as lively a place as any in the world.


As always, people had to learn to live with insoluble problems, personal demons and tragedy. For the mothers—in most homes destined to be memorialized as always the last to bed and the first to rise—the only sedation generally available was more work. The author’s mother, Alice, saw to the feeding of two men, 10 children and whatever guests happened to drop by, and was usually too occupied to join her family at the kitchen table; she occasionally ate sitting on the staircase, ready when needed to serve those at the table.

Many of the men (unlike the author’s father, moderate Mr. MacCormack) would self-medicate with alcohol. In my extended family, as was not uncommon in those days, people were either alcoholics or teetotalers, with most of the alcoholics, at any given time, recovering ones who aided, as best they could, those who had fallen off the wagon once again. (The old house on Dominion was also redolent of AA pamphlets.)

Photo of skaters and cars on frozen Sydney Harbour circa late 1940s

“Skaters and cars on the frozen Sydney Harbour (circa late 1940s)” (Source: “Our Roots Run Deep”)

Young Jim, as I mentioned, was friends with Aubrey, my father’s youngest brother. Late one winter afternoon, after a game of hockey on Sydney Harbour with Jim and some other children, Aubrey and his third-grade classmate Tommy O’Neil decided to skate to town. They didn’t return home for supper. Late that evening, writes MacCormack, his mother went “next door to the Jessomes’ house, where she found Mrs. Jessome sitting at the front door with her rosary beads in one hand and Aubrey’s cap in the other.” A search party, which included Jim’s father, had been sent out to find the boys:

As Dad told the story much later, they came across a hole in the ice . . . At the edge of the broken ice they found a pair of frozen mittens, along with a boy’s cap. Hours later, with their grappling hooks, they brought up one body and the second the next day.

Powerfully and effectively recounted by MacCormack, the tragedy would stay with many for the rest of their lives, the full impact taking years to settle in. As I learned from a recent conversation with my Aunt Delores, Aubrey’s brothers and sisters could never forget—or ever really understand— the presence of a small white coffin in their living-room.


The boys’ deaths happened three years after World War II, in which millions of children had died. MacCormack, himself a small child during the war years, remembers “a troubling time, filled with uncertainty and fear, particularly for our neighbourhood.” (My parents, on the other hand, were teenagers who would remember the war years in the Pier as the best of their lives. It seemed like there was more life in the universe with a war on my father once said of what was, for him, a sad but indisputable paradox.)

Sydney Harbour was an important port during the war, and, MacCormack reports, “over 7,500 ships assembled in convoys before departing Sydney Harbour for Britain,” carrying supplies such as food, lumber and coal. “All my memories of that era,” he writes, “include an unending line of navy personnel and merchant seamen going up and down Dominion Street” on shore leave, and “the harbour black with ships.”

Photo of two young men.

“The last photo of Roddie Cameron (left) taken before leaving for overseas (circa 1944)” (Source: “Our Roots Run Deep”)

The Great Depression was finally over and the Pier was booming, the mood high spirited and buoyant, with more to do and more people than ever before (or since). The football field, as the children came to call the soccer field in imitation of the English sailors, and the bandstand on Dominion Street, where my mother would meet and date a sailor from London, were especially busy. More than ever, life was exciting and had purpose. Not for a moment did anyone believe the virtuous Allies could be defeated by the—true for once—deeply evil enemy.

My father joined up to help defeat the Nazis as soon as he was of age and he loved the army, thoroughly enjoying basic training (though, he once told me, not finding the courage, unlike his older cousin, to visit the brothel that serviced the training camp). To his real disappointment, my father never got to fight, the war ending shortly before he was to be shipped overseas.

Roddy Cameron, a cousin of the MacCormacks from Castle Bay, did get to see action in Europe. Young Jim met him “in our kitchen in full uniform, and I remember being so impressed.” One of the book’s excellent photos shows a striking image of a young soldier, reclining casually in the grass, flashing an amiable smile at the camera and looking as handsome and dashing as the hero of a Hollywood war movie. It was the last picture taken of Roddy Cameron before he went overseas. Fighting in the Rhine, Cameron was wounded by enemy tank fire in a mopping-up operation and died a few days later, on 5 March 1945, two months before German surrender.


It is remarkable how often tragedy strikes in this memoir of a happy family. I have been focusing on Part II of the book, about life in Whitney Pier, and it is a reminder that even the happiest childhood is surrounded by violence and death. Part 1, an account of the author and his son Brian’s travels in Scotland, tracking down their ancestral roots, intersperses entertaining tourist stories with a grim Highlands’ history of famine, war, religious persecution and economic exploitation, told in some of MacCormack’s most moving and powerful prose.

Even before the English subjugation of Scotland, the Scots, being human, had their own ways of turning paradise into hell, clan rivalries being the most prominent. At one point in their journey, MacCormack and his son visit Massacre Cave where, in the 16th century, an entire community of about 400 people was wiped out, suffocated by smoke from a driftwood fire at the mouth of the cave where they were hiding. In an escalating game of tit-for-tat, the blaze was set by the MacLeods of Skye who had a bone to pick with the Clanranalds of Eigg.

Deserted croft in the town of Arichonan, Argyll

Deserted croft in the town of Arichonan, Argyll, which was emptied by the Highland Clearances (Source: The Scotsman)

“Repression, tyranny and cruelty became the order of the day,” however, when the English defeated the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden.” After that battle in 1746, there was “almost a century-long purge of the Catholic Highlander’s way of life.” The purge was successful: the clan system was crushed and economic exploitation reigned, most notoriously during the long process of the Highland Clearances, the mass eviction (or ethnic cleansing) of the Highlanders from their land. It was one small chapter in capitalism’s ongoing history, with all traditional ways of life across the globe being destroyed to make way for the “free market” and its exploitation of that destruction’s subsequent cheap labor. Visiting the island of South Uist, MacCormack reflects that those who ended up doing backbreaking work in the 19th century’s “lucrative kelp industry (lucrative, that is, for the absentee owners)” quickly became slaves, often hungry, with “little capacity to improve their lot.”

All this miserable history led to hundreds of thousands of desperate Scots emigrating in the 19th century, many to Eastern Canada, including the Glenaladale Settlers, with “our MacCormacks,” aboard The Jane. The crossing themselves were, as a rule, horrific. Passengers on the Hector, destined for Pictou, Nova Scotia, ate rotten food and drank green water; typhus, cholera and dysentery spread through the ship; 18 died, mostly children. On the Nancy, over a hundred passengers died, again mostly children. Many who made it to their destination found that the provisions, shelter and prime land they’d paid for failed to materialize. Ironically, “British Law was omnipresent in Canada,” so religious prejudice against Catholics remained a reality; often the dream of owning a piece of one’s own land kept being disappointed, generation after generation.


In 1915, Angus and Lizzie MacIsaac, Jim MacCormack’s maternal grandparents, were living on their own property in Big Pond with their three children. At the age of 38, Angus suffered what turned out to be a ruptured appendix. When the nearest doctor arrived, after a long journey from Sydney on the “muddy, deeply rutted, slippery dirt road” of springtime, he saw that an emergency operation was required:

Angus was placed on the kitchen table where, without anaesthetic and with only a kitchen knife . . . the operation was performed. Miraculously, Angus survived the operation, only to pass away several days later, leaving his six-month pregnant wife, Lizzie, and her three young children, all under the age of five, with no means of support.

Lizzie MacIsaac

Lizzie MacIsaac, the author’s grandmother, “in her finest (circa 1935)” (Source: “Our Roots Run Deep”)

Lizzie buried her husband and 10 days later, in mourning and anxious about the future, she “gave premature birth to a two-pound baby girl,” the author’s mother. The baby, christened Alice, was not expected to survive and a priest performed last rites. The traumatized mother struggled to keep Alice alive, even “plac[ing] her in the warming oven above the kitchen stove,” while lawyers were preparing a challenge to the widow’s right to her home and property—a challenge they would win.

I’m tempted to recount all Lizzie’s story, including the “voyage across the choppy waters of the Bras d’Or” in search of a magic cure for the baby from a priest who, Lizzie was told, “had the powers.” But that voyage and the MacIsaac’s journey to Sydney and then to Whitney Pier, along with many other adventures, must await your reading of Our Roots Run Deep—though I can’t help adding what a great novel Lizzie’s story would make! Perhaps some day a member from the younger generation of MacCormacks will take up Jim’s baton.

Our Roots Run Deep has generated enthusiastic discussion within my extended family and among friends from the Pier and is destined to be passed down through family libraries for generations, but it deserves the widest possible audience. The book is filled with great stories and anecdotes from MacCormack’s life and from history, portraits of memorable characters and ways of life lost forever, and insights and food for thought about both what we have gained and what we have lost to time and “progress.”

The narrative meanders and charms; digresses only to suddenly become devastatingly precise; is always on the lookout for the positive and good, but gives the dark side its due—gives it so well, in fact, that a relative of mine, now a young mother herself, was moved to tears reading of family suffering and loss. In addition to the fine text, there’s a treasure trove of illustrations, with maps of the UK and of Whitney Pier; documents, deeds, and genealogies; photos of town and country, blue city skies and polluted skies; paintings by local artists and an excellent cartoon of a backyard rink by a friend of the author; and, my favorite, photos of figures from the past, especially the children I would never get to meet, like my Uncle Aubrey, or would know only as adults. It’s a wonderful book! I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Our Roots Run Deep is available at the Cape Breton Curiosity Shop on Charlotte Street in Sydney or from the author.


Ken Jessome


Ken Jessome is a writer who was born and raised in Whitney Pier. He can be reached here