A century ago, if you had happened to find yourself on the sloping streets of downtown Lunenburg, you might have caught a tinge of excitement in the air.
Down at the end of Montague Street that January 1921, in the yards of shipbuilder Smith & Rhuland, a highly anticipated new fishing vessel was being built — at a breakneck pace — by expert hands, following blueprints from Halifax naval architect William James Roué.
Yes, 100 years ago to the day, the fabled Bluenose was taking shape in this bustling Shore Shore fishing port.
Three weeks earlier, on Dec. 19, 1920, her keel had been laid. The ceremony had not gone smoothly.
Canada’s then governor-general, Sir Victor Christian William Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire, had been invited to drive the golden spike marking the occasion. Legend has it the duke turned up, after another local event, more or less drunk. Swinging a big iron hammer at the spike several times, Sir Victor completely failed to make contact. Someone else had to drive it in for him.
No matter. By this date a century ago, Bluenose’s framing (ribs) was likely complete. Her masts, spars, blocks and other gear, along with plans for her sails, were being all worked on simultaneously by different teams at Smith & Rhuland.
Bluenose, being built for speed, also had to be built fast. Construction of a fishing schooner could take half a year; Bluenose had to be ready in four months.
That’s because, to be eligible to challenge for the International Fishermen’s Cup, she had to take part in 1921’s spring fishing season on the Grand Banks.
OK, let’s rewind a bit here.
That previous year — 1920 — the world was still trying to recover something akin to normalcy. The flu pandemic that killed an estimated half-billion people worldwide had only finally ended that spring. The Versailles Treaty ending the First World War had been signed in June just a year before.
In July 1920, the America’s Cup — not contested since 1903 due to the war — was held just outside New York’s harbour.
The event attracted interest globally, but a fair amount of scorn in this region. According to the Nova Scotia Archives, many mariners in both Atlantic Canada and New England found the fancy racing yachts, unable to handle heavier winds, laughable. Fishermen here had long sailed all out in much tougher conditions.
“The folks who worked in sailing in marine industries, the fishery in particular, there were some plaintive pundits saying, ‘Well, we do that every day. We’re not in yachts and we don’t do this for fun,’” says Emma Lang, assistant curator and registrar for the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg. “‘We regularly sail incredibly quickly, whether it’s because of weather, to race to the fishing grounds or race back from the fishing grounds.’”
That understandable pride led to a grand idea — why not a race between real Canadian and American working schooners?
Things moved quickly.
The owner of the Halifax Herald Ltd., Senator William H. Dennis, put up a trophy, the International Fishermen’s Cup, and $4,000 prize money (worth close to $50,000 today) to go to the fastest working fishing schooner on the North Atlantic coast.
That fall, selection races determined finalists from Nova Scotia and New England.
Then, in early November 1920, much to the chagrin of locals, the American vessel Esperanto licked this province’s fastest fishing schooner, Delawana, in two straight races.
That wouldn’t do, at all. A faster ship was needed. A month and a half later, the keel for Bluenose — intended to salve Nova Scotians’ wounded pride — was laid.
So, if you had been in Luneburg on this crisp January day a century ago, you might have joined the crowds of kids who loved to watch new ships coming together along the waterfront. Bluenose would have been a special attraction, Lang says. Everyone knew why she was being built.
“They would have been able to tell that the shape was slightly different,” says Lang. “And there would have been a lot of town gossip about, you know, is she going to be effective as a fishing boat versus a racer, is she going to be able to do both?
“And she was. She was a highliner.”
Bluenose would be launched March 26, 1921. Cost of construction: $35,000, which in today’s money equates to just over half a million dollars. Later that year, she kicked off her legendary career by reclaiming the trophy from the Americans.
Races for the International Fishermen’s Cup were followed around the world, Lang says. The age of sail was ending, but many people everywhere could still remember, in their lifetimes, ports crowded with sailing fishing vessels.
“So there’s an element at the time of nostalgia, to what people saw as the transition in transportation, you know, for the days of sail,” she says. “The races would have hooked onto that moment of nostalgia and the idea of prolonging the age of sail.”
That feeling exists to this day, she says.
“It’s why the Bounty was saved after the movie. It’s why, if you go to the U.K., you can see all these sailing shops. It’s why we built the Matthew and the Hector. And, you know, the last whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, was preserved and continues to be sort of able to sail. And the Mayflower.”
The Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic began a year-long commemoration of the Bluenose’s centennial on Jan. 2. Every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., you’ll find new material reflecting what was happening with the famed schooner 100 years ago, along with other historical information, on the museum’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
“There was still an extreme amount of pride in sailing” and building these vessels, says Lang. “And there was a desire to capitalize on that, and to say, ‘We still have these skills.’”