What Might Have Been Is Not (Yet) What Is*

Bring back the age of exclusive inns and hotels, writes Bruce Bishop, and start selling fog again.

About 115 years ago, Yarmouth was the envy of the Maritimes. Not only had it become prosperous through shipbuilding, but fast and modern steamships began to ply the waters among here and Boston and New York, loaded with fish from our waters, blueberries from our fields – and a new crop sailing north: American tourists.

Loran Ellis Baker, a prominent Yarmouth businessman and principal shareholder of the Yarmouth Steamship Company at the time, saw that tourism to Maine and New Hampshire was booming, thanks to heavy promotion by the Boston and Maine Railroad and the International Steamship Company. From 1892 to 1901, Baker’s ‘travelling agents’ took trips southbound along the eastern US coast as far as Florida, and deluged wealthy Americans who wintered there with Nova Scotia and Yarmouth-based guide books, newsletters, and “Beautiful Nova Scotia” illustrated booklets.  These marketing materials advertised Nova Scotia as a place of historical note and natural beauty.

And the Americans came by steamship (and later by Dominion Atlantic Railway) -- and many stayed for extended periods. Our cool, breezy summers were in stark contrast to the stifling heat and humidity of urban American cities and the southern states. Baker, with a couple of other local investors, opened the Grand Hotel in 1894 on Main Street in Yarmouth, which was an instant hit. (It ceased operation in 1966 and was subsequently demolished, years before town fathers understood and appreciated the need of protecting our heritage buildings.) This Grand Hotel set the standard for fine accommodation in the province during the Victorian era.  Five years later, the Yarmouth Steamship Company’s “Beautiful Nova Scotia” book had a print run of 50,000 and Baker himself said that "demand... throughout New England has been enormous".

In the August 1911 issue of Saint John’s The Busy East of Canada magazine, the writer of a story about the Grand Hotel positively gushed. His article, “The best hotel in the Maritime Provinces” said that “…During the summer months, the Grand is patronized by many visitors from the United States, who find in Yarmouth a summer climate rare and delightful (persons subject to hay fever elsewhere are absolutely immune in Yarmouth).”  Bring on that fog, baby. Even the town’s water supply was up for praise: “The water for drinking purposes comes from Lake George, eighteen miles from Yarmouth, and flows in by gravitation. The water is particularly choice being absolutely free from typhoid germs.”

Loran Baker had hired a Boston writer, Thomas F. Anderson, who geared the Yarmouth and Nova Scotia travel information to a select audience: the professional and educated classes who could afford to skip the crowded resorts of home, and travel to the foreign, but relatively familiar, eastern Canada.  These upper to middle class visitors continued to come, and Baker opened a second hotel across the Yarmouth Harbour two years later -- the Bay View Lodge and Hotel. The Lodge was burnt in a fire sometime around the turn of the century, and the re-built hotel was also consumed by fire in 1912. Bay View Park, the area that surrounded, never regained popularity as a summer playground, and private homes are now the norm on that land across the harbour from town.

The Markland Hotel on Cape Forchu opened in 1904, and bragged about its 360 degree views, as it was perched at the top of the hill, 180 feet above sea level. An advertisement for the six-storey hotel at the time referred to “the climate … ideal; surf bathing invigorating; hotel accommodations good, and terms very moderate – ranging from $7 to $10 per week – American Plan.” The Markland was financially hurt following World War I and was demolished for its lumber in 1934.

The last grand accommodation, Lakeside Inn, was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway on 50 acres around the shores of Lake Milo, and opened to great fanfare in June 1931. (It is currently the Villa St-Joseph-du-lac nursing home, which took over the property in 1960.) The Inn had 68 rooms and five cottages and was (and is) a jewel of a property and location. Its full colour brochures heralded local activities:  “Outdoor fun at Lakeside Inn includes swimming in lower Lake Milo…yachting…tennis…shuffleboard…golf [in Yarmouth]…[nearby] deep sea swimming…fishing expeditions…” and continued with information on Yarmouth churches and activities.

This guidebook account about Yarmouth County was written in 1915 and published in New York by Ruth Kedzie Wood (1880-1950) in The Tourist’s Maritime Provinces:

The drives through outlying country, as well as in Yarmouth town, are especially delightful because of the superior roads and the changing views of marsh, river, bay and crags, fishing hamlets, farms, lakes, hills and the open sea. ‘The Churn’ on the far side of Bay View Park is a fascinating demonstration of the rage of waves when trapped in a rocky trough. The drive consumes about half an hour from the centre of the town. Markland, across the Bar on Cape Fourchu (sic), is surrounded by the swirl of Fundy, the ocean and the harbor, and is therefore a desirable place for a summer sojourn. The Milton lakes are reached by carriage or tram. The road passes through pleasant villages overlooked by the Highlands. Further north, rocky Port Maitland faces both the Bay and the Atlantic from its position on the wind-beaten coast. When the hotel at this point is open, there is daily communication with Yarmouth by stage, a distance of 12 miles.

Wood’s take on the county is decidedly poetic – almost exotic, but not unfamiliar. It is noteworthy that the writer muses on our natural attractions – the Churn, Markland’s mystique and pretty Port Maitland. Today’s marketers could learn a few things from her, as well as Thomas Anderson’s technique in attracting the US tourist to Nova Scotia: tell them that what we have here is similar, but better. No surprises for these folks. He wrote that Halifax's Northwest Arm would remind "one of the banks of the Hudson, just above New York”; the town of Digby was the next Bar Harbor of Canada; and Yarmouth was a town where you could be "in the woods after moose or caribou" in one moment, and "buy or sell stocks in Boston or New York" via telegraph the next.

Nowadays big game hunting is not exactly an activity that could be promoted – but the idea of naturalist activities (e.g. bird and whale watching), easy-on-the-environment sports and learning vacations are all gaining strength and focus around the world. There are few destinations in the USA and the rest of Canada that can compete with what western Nova Scotia and particularly Yarmouth County, already has:  a pleasant three-season climate, an unparalled coastline, abundant seafood, and buried treasures (our museums, architecture, and English/Acadian/Mi’kmaq mix). These are all attributes we can easily promote to the same people who once arrived here for weeks on end, contributing much to the economy and the social makeup of our communities.

In another life, I’ve reviewed hotels and resorts for guidebook publishers in places as far away as Bintan, Indonesia and Cape Town, South Africa…and I still contend that what we have here is a natural goldmine waiting for proper and sustainable tourism use. The state of New Hampshire has taken a keen interest in its old grand hotels and inns, many of which have been refurbished by private enterprise. And similar to the volume of visitors to that state over 100 years ago, Canadians alone made more than 359,400 visits to New Hampshire in 2006, spending $78 million.

For goodness sake, encourage those fellow Canadians come here instead – and Americans, too – and make Loran Ellis Baker proud of what he began in 1892: a strong, self-reliant tourism industry in western Nova Scotia. We have it all here, and need to renew what we started over a century ago.

*Originally published in Commerce Magazine, 2008. Used with permission from the author. (http://www.brucebishop.com) 
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