The Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site is quite unique. It is often pointed out in the guidebooks that Louisbourg is the largest colonial restoration in North America - - bigger even than the well-known Colonial Williamsburg recreation in Virginia. However, until you actually arrive, it is difficult to grasp the full extent of this site. It is a good-sized town with everything you would expect to see in a town - - albeit one in the 18th century.
Also adding to its uniqueness is the location. The site is not near any modern city. Without the background noise and visual distractions, it is much easier to imagine what it must have been like for the French settlers to have lived there, far from France and the other French colonial settlements. This is especially so if you go to Louisbourg later in the season when there are fewer 21st century people about.
Louisbourg had a relatively brief existence. In the Treaty of Utrecht ending the War of the Spanish Succession, France agreed to give up Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Accordingly, in 1713, a group of 150 French refugees from Newfoundland sailed to Cape Breton Island and began a new settlement that would become Louisbourg.
The new community was strategically located on the Atlantic coast near the entrance to Gulf of Saint Lawrence. From here, France could counter the nearby British colonies and protect the means of access to the French colonies in Quebec and interior Canada. Therefore, in 1717, Louisbourg became the French seat of government on the island and a military stronghold. In 1719, the French began to fortify the settlement. It became one of the most extensive fortifications in North America with two and a half miles of wall surrounding the settlement.
The settlement began to thrive. Of course, the large military establishment attracted merchants and traders. However, the settlement's location on the Atlantic not far from the Grand Banks also attracted fishermen. Moreover, inasmuch as the settlement was located on the route between France and Quebec, it was a convenient stopping off point for ships crossing the Atlantic. Eventually, Louisbourg became the third busiest port in North America behind only Boston and Philadelphia.
In the 1740s, war again broke out between Britain and France. British warships blockaded Louisbourg causing the troops there to mutiny in 1744. The next year, a combined force of British and New Englanders captured the settlement and deported almost all of the inhabitants to France.
But in the peace treaty ending the War of the Austrian Succession, Britain agreed to return control of Cape Breton Island to France. The French re-occupied Louisbourg in 1749. By 1752, the population had grown to more than 4,000 people.
By the mid-1750s, however, Britain and France were again coming to blows. Although the French reinforced Louisbourg, a British force was able to besiege the fortress successfully in 1758. Once again, the French inhabitants were sent back to France. In addition, to make sure that Louisbourg never again posed a threat, the British demolished the fortifications in 1760.
Any hope of reviving a French settlement at Louisbourg ended in 1763. In the Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War), France gave up almost all of her North American holdings including Cape Breton Island. Thus, French Louisbourg lasted less than half a century.
Above: Even though Louisbourg was on the edge of the civilized world in the 18th century, some inhabitants lived in elegant surroundings.
Below: A re-enactor dressed as a French soldier prepares to give a demonstration of how to fire a musket.
Above and below: The main street of Louisbourg. The neighborhood leading towards the quay was dominated by inns and taverns including the prosperous Epee Royale (the half-timber building) and the more working class Hotel du Marine (the stone building at the end of the street). The small white house next to the Epee Royale was the home of a military officer.
The site of the Louisbourg fortress lay untouched until the 20th century. Unlike other major colonial settlements in North America, no modern city was built on top of the former settlement. As a result, the area is rich with historical artifacts. In 1928, the Canadian government declared it a national historic site. Then, in 1961, the government began a multimillion dollar project to reconstruct a quarter of the French settlement.
The project provided much needed work for the unemployed coal miners of Cape Breton Island. However, it was also a dream come true for historians and archaelogists. The object was to create an authentic version of the settlement. Therefore, much study, research and scientific excavation was done and continues to be done at the site.
Some 50 buildings have been reconstructed on the site covering 12 acres. These include homes, taverns, fortifications, harbor facilities, gardens and streets. A dozen or so of the buildings are open to the public including three authentic 18th-century restaurants.
The buildings that are open to view cover a wide range of 18th century life. You can see where the well-to-do lived and where the working class labored and made their homes.
To add life to the restoration, each summer hundreds of re-enactors populate Louisbourg. They are dressed as soldiers, merchants, laborers and government officials. These include men, women and children. Their purpose is to show visitors how life was lived in Louisbourg in 1744. And they do indeed add to a visit as hearing people tell the stories of the real life inhabitants and seeing demonstrations of how weapons were fired, bread baked and how other things were done back then makes for a much more vivid experience than merely reading an exhibit plaque.
Shore excursions to Louisbourg typically begin with a guided tour of the site and some of the properties that are open to view. You are then given some time to explore on your own.
Louisbourg is located 36 km from Sydney and it takes about 45 minutes to get there. The countryside you pass through is rural, pretty but not spectacular.
Once you arrive, the air is clear and clean. But chilly winds can sweep in from the North Atlantic so it is best to dress warmly.
The Fortress of Louisbourg is open from May 5 to October 31. However, it is fully animated with re-enactors only from June 15 to October 15.
Cruise destination - - Sydney Nova Scotia Canada - Visiting Louisbourg