Glace Bay (Nova Scotia) Place Names

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Last week I was browsing in a book and print shop on Ottawa’s Sparks Street mall. I thumbed through stacks of antique posters, old prints and lovely coloured pictures of Canada from long ago.  There, suddenly, were a series of three lovely old prints, mounted on a card, with the notation “Caledonia Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.”

It didn’t look anything like the Caledonia Colliery I remember. These pictures were really old. The main hoist had been replaced at least once since these sketches were made and the very substantial concrete buildings for the checkhouse and washhouse were yet to be built. But there were other, less obvious differences.

Those differences were in the name that appeared on the card. First, the facility was called a “colliery.” Now “colliery” is an interesting term. It is one that was hardly ever, in my memory, used by Cape Bretoners. It was a term used by the Halifax Herald from time to time, but only for headlines, and always for bad news. Like “Cape Breton Collieries Shut Down.” Or “Two Die in Colliery.” In Glace Bay, and I expect in New Waterford and North Sydney, these places were simply, “the pits.”

The other term of interest was “Caledonia.” Now anyone who has lived in Glace Bay at any time over the last 50 years knows that Caledonia is where the people live, not where they work. Like for example: “I live in Caledonia, and I work in Number 4.” “Number 4”?, says our friend from away. “Yes,” one says, “I work in number 4. What you would call Caledonia.”

Place names in Glace Bay then, and now were more numbers than names. Someone from Steel’s Hill might walk from Number 3 Hill through number 11 to meet his brother getting off work at Number 4 to go to the softball game at Number 2 where the IB All-Stars were playing the 26 Legionnaires.  And nobody would think that strange at all. These names are so much part of the geography today that many folks have actually forgotten that they are mine numbers.

Interestingly placenames are used interchangeably with numbers with no apparent rules: it just seems right to do it. Like New Aberdeen, and Passchendale for example. I think people might well say they are from Passchendale, but if they ever had to spell it they would say “Well actually I’m from Number ‘leven.”

I was always impressed that everyone in Glace Bay knew intuitively, instinctively and instantly exactly where the neighbourhood boundaries were. Like there was never any confusion whether you were from the Hub, or Number 2. Or confusion between Table Head and the Sterling. Or between McKay’s Corner and Bridgeport. Or between Chapel Hill and Official Row.

One other very interesting aspect of the neighbourhoods of Glace Bay was the uniqueness of its streets:  each had a definite personality.  Almost towns onto themselves, they had their own leaders, styles, sounds and economic levels.  Lower Main, South, Maple Avenue, Catherine, 3rd Street, Mechanic. All bring back distinctive, and pleasant, memories.

And too, there were the important sites in our town. Foremost of course would have to be Senator’s Corner. Known everywhere, the busiest corner in the world: the Times Square of Cape Breton. I warrant more cars still pass that corner on a Friday evening than do any downtown corner in Canada’s capital city. This is a place that never, until the more enlightened times of recent years, required a traffic signal of any sort. Does anyone remember there ever being a traffic accident at the old Senator’s Corner? Not me. One other memorable site: St. Paul’s Fence. Only in Cape Breton would a fence have historic significance. But there is nary a Bay By that has not rested on that lovely wall of concrete on a summer’s evening, watching it all pass by on Commercial Street. (And being booted off by the ogres from St. Paul’s – like we were gonna wear down the concrete or something).

More famous to many of us than the Miner’s Museum would have to be the South Street air shaft: a source of the dankest air ever encountered by anyone, anywhere. A place into which me and my friends must have thrown tons of rocks over the years to hear the “thud” after a fall which seemed to last forever. I hope to this day there was no one at the bottom of that shaft when we were flinging rocks down it. (I found out recently that there was never anyone at the bottom of that shaft. Phew!)

The Commercial Street bridge is an icon to me. Nothing so pretty as what one finds in the great cities of the world. No architectural merit at all in fact. But a feature of Glace Bay that remains very much a part of my memories. And on the subject of memories one must mention other icons: the Russel and Savoy theatres, the Miner’s Forum, the Hub A.C., Black Diamond Track (named after coal?), (the real) Mike’s Lunch and Iggy’s Tavern. Oh. And Campbell’s Corner – another engineering achievement of brilliance that worked like a charm until some doughhead decided to put traffic control signs in.

There are. of course, dozens of other famous sites. Many of them have now been knocked down, and replaced with buildings that range from the great to the grotesque. But whatever is built at the corner of Main and Commercial, the architects, engineers and town planners will never be able to eradicate the name Senator’s Corner.

And newcomers and visitors will, I expect, be forever mystified by the fact that one could have worked at IB and lived next door at Number 2. Except when he or she got a letter in the mail, usually addressed to New Aberdeen, a “community” which as far as the post office was concerned, has never existed.

Author’s Note: This essay was written a long, long time ago and just discovered in an old file repository. I must add – just for memories sake – the demise of the “new” and “great” Glace Bay Post Office – now a counter in a tiny shop on Commercial Street; the demolition of Markadonis – which should have never been approved. Having lived now in Ontario for 25 years I visit small – to mid-sized towns and cities all the time, and I am continually dazzled by how well they have maintained their architecture, culture and flavour over the years. Many of their brick and stone buildings are well over a hundred years old, and maintained with care. Shame on the “planners” of Glace Bay – and now Cape Breton  – who allowed this to happen to Glace Bay.

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