By Delbé L. Comeau
When considering the origins of shipbuilding in Clare, one should perhaps start with the arrival of the first French settlers at Port Royal at the beginning of the 17th century. These pioneers, the Acadian colonists, felt the need for ships almost as soon as they set foot on the new continent. Sailing vessels brought them to the new world and ships were the sole means of transportation for many years prior to the building of roads. The first shipyard to be established on the continent was started at Port Royal in 1606. Pierre Champdoré, a ship’s captain in Champlain’s new settlement, constructed a barque and a shallop in order to convey some of the colonists to Isle Royale (Cape Breton) when a French provision ship failed to appear.
Before the Acadians arrived in Clare, some of them had already possessed their own vessels. A census document of the Annapolis district, preserved in the public archives and dated 1768, lists Jean Belliveau as owning two fishing boats and one schooner. It also lists Jean Bastarache, Joseph Gaudet and Charles LeBlanc as owning fishing boats.
This was the same year that Clare’s first settler, Joseph Dugas, arrived with his family to settle on a lot granted to him at Anse-des-LeBlanc in St. Bernard. A few years later Captain Pierre Doucet established himself at Pointe à Major. According to 19th century historian Isaiah Wilson’s History of Digby County, this pioneer holds the honour of being the first Acadian to build and own a vessel in Clare Township. Wilson also states that Captain Doucet built and owned the first store along St. Mary’s Bay and that his vessel traded with the West Indies and New England, exporting wood and importing merchandise for his store.
Many followed in his footsteps. With an ample supply of wood and a capable workforce, the lumber industry, as well as shipbuilding and ship owning, soon dominated the regional economy. Shipyards sprouted along the many coves and villages of St. Mary’s Bay. By the 1860s Digby County dominated the region’s shipbuilding trade, while Yarmouth owned one of the largest merchant fleets in Canada, a large portion of which was built in Clare.
As early as 1812, commercial vessels were documented as having been built in New Edinburg. These early vessels tended to be relatively small and there are no photographs or paintings depicting them. Nevertheless, archived ship registries list at least twenty-five ships of various rigs and sizes having been built in New Edinburg during the first part of the nineteenth century.