9.0 RECREATIONAL USE OF MCNABS ISLAND
The earliest known use of McNabs Island for recreation is in 1762 when gentlemen from Halifax and Dartmouth journeyed to the island to play quoits in the area cleared for a fortification earlier that year. A Quoit Club was a fixture at this site for 100 years, until the property was acquired by the Imperial government for the construction of Ives Point Battery.
On August 11, 1787, Dyott recorded how he and several others went fishing in Halifax Harbour and later stopped for a chowder party on Cornwallis (McNabs) Island:
When we had tired ourselves with fishing, we sailed to an island two miles lower down, where we landed; and as the principal thing in these parts is to eat chowder, we set the cooks to work to prepare dinner .... The island we were upon is called Cornwallis Island, and was sold by the Bishop of Lichfield, Dr. Cornwallis, to a shoemaker of Halifax a few years ago. It contains about six hundred acres. There is but a small proportion of it cultivated at present .... The island formed a small bay in this place. The surrounding wood, which covered the hills on every side of the bay, and a most beautiful small island ... about a league distance from the bay, formed altogether a most beautiful prospect .... I never spent a more pleasant day. There are frequent parties of this kind.
In 1789 there was an Inn, or "House of Entertainment," operating on the island. The Royal Gazette of June 22, 1790, carries a notice from Mary Roubalet who gives thanks to her friends and the public in general for patronizing her establishment, the Mansion House, on Mr. McNab's Island. The notice proclaims that the House will soon open for the 1790 season. Those "intending to make a party on the island" were asked to leave word at Mr. McNab's house, in town, the day before. The House was in all likelihood that of Thomas Culliton.
In July, 1825, The Nova Scotian published a letter from "A Wanderer," describing a picnic on McNabs Island.
Martin notes that one of the most outstanding events in the social life of Dartmouth was the "monster picnic" and bazaar held in July, 1845, on McNabs Island for the purpose of raising funds to erect a Mechanic's Institute building in Dartmouth. This event, the first public picnic ever organized on McNabs Island, was a huge success, raising over 500 in fares and donations. The large crowd, estimated at 3-4,000, prompted the Halifax Times to write:
... a larger portion of the population left the city for the scene of enjoyment, then ever before since its existence, or for any object beyond its limit.
The Times also noted that
There can be little doubt that the trip to McNabs Island on Thursday, of so great a number of our citizens, will create a desire for future excursions to the same lovely spot, and that the hospitable owners of that noble domain will be often solicited for the use of their grounds for similar purposes, a favour which we feel certain will never be abused.
An interesting sidelight of the picnic was the failure of several prominent people to secure passage to McNabs Island.
The Viscountess of Falkland, under whose patronage the Bazaar was held, and his excellency the Lieutenant Governor, were at the Queen's Wharf about 4 o'clock for the purpose of embarking on board the Steamer for the island, but were prevented by the rush from the Market Wharf of a large number of persons who were waiting there for a passage, and returned to Government House.
The Dartmouth Patriot of July 6, 1901, relates an amusing story about this large picnic. In the special brew of lemonade that was mixed for the managers of the enterprise, a bottle of spirits was "sumptuously infused," producing a reasonably strong mixture. Among the managers were a number of church members and officers, superintendents of Sunday Schools, deacons, class leaders and similar folk who were unfamiliar with the taste of spirits. They drank freely of the lemonade and it is said that it was quite interesting to notice the marvellous extent to which they "unbent" as a result of the refreshments.
The Mechanics Institute Picnic of 1846 was even more successful, although by 1847 the crowds had thinned considerably, despite numerous posters advertising the event. Jenkins attributes the decline, in part, to the unexpectedly large crowds in 1846 and the resulting shortage of food and refreshment.
These early picnics were held at the northwestern end of the island on land belonging to Peter McNab III. By granting permission to various groups to hold picnics and outings there, Peter McNab III began to establish McNabs Island as a popular location for such events. Another event that made it possible to hold large picnics on McNabs Island was the decision by the Halifax Steamboat Company in 1844 to rent vessels for privately organized activities. With the launching of the steamer Mic Mac that year, access to McNabs and elsewhere was made much easier. The Mic Mac,
a single deck ferry with small paddle wheels, narrow cabins on either side, fore and aft of the paddle boxes, and narrow stairways in the centre which led to the wheel house above and the engine room and refreshment cabin below, soon became a fixture in the harbour, ferrying party-goers to their favorite destinations.
In 1853, the Cadets of Temperance advertised for an excursion to McNabs Island.
Following the death of Peter McNab III in 1856, Charles Woolnough recognized the potential for a permanent Pleasure Ground on the island. As a result, he acquired from Mrs. McNab land at the northern end of the island where he established Woolnough's Pleasure Ground.
A native of England, Woolnough had settled in Halifax following military service during the Crimean War. Over a number of years he owned or worked in several restaurants in Halifax. At this time Woolnough was the head waiter of the newly opened Halifax Club, "a dining room for exclusive Haligonians." From 1871 to 1895 he also owned and managed the Pictou House restaurant, a popular oyster bar on Salter Street.
Woolnough built a summer residence on McNabs Island, near where the Conrad house now stands. On Sunday night, November 19, 1905, the house burned to the ground, "giving now a beautiful view from the [Peter III] McNab Cottage."
Jenkins believes several factors may have influenced Woolnough's decision to enter the business on a large scale. The closing of Down's Zoological Gardens in 1867, the increasing prosperity, confidence and quest for leisure experiences in the "Golden Age" and the visit of Prince Arthur, later Duke of Connaught, in August of 1869 all played a role in convincing him to proceed.
On August 25, 1869, Prince Arthur - later Governor-General of Canada - was entertained at Woolnough's Pleasure Grounds by the Highland Society of Canada. Early that morning large numbers of men and women found their way to the scene of "manly exercises and gay festivities" on board the steamer Mic Mac with the Regimental band of the 78th Highlands playing gay tunes for the festive crowd.
On July 8, 1873, Charles Woolnough officially opened his pleasure grounds on McNabs Island. Situated on a beautifully wooded highland and half a mile from shore, Woolnough's grounds were complete with two large pavilions for dancing and dining, grounds for quoits and football, and charming walks where excursionists could enjoy the natural beauty that surrounded them.
On August 9, 1873, Lord Dufferin, Governor-General of Canada, and Lady Dufferin were entertained at a huge party held in their honour at Woolnough's Pleasure Grounds. Several thousand people made the pleasant journey to McNabs Island to partake in the festivities.
Nearly everyone remained till dark listening to the band concert, playing baseball, football and quoits, strolling in the woods or dancing quadrilles, reels, polkas and waltzes to the music of Addimore's string band.
The Canadian Illustrated News of August 30, 1873, carried a full-page illustration of the gala event (Figure 19).
The success of Woolnough's Pleasure Ground quickly made McNabs Island the most popular location for outings of all sorts.
McNab's Island was a favourite spot for picnickers from the humble family expeditions which came by rowboat to the monster civic picnic in honour of Lord Dufferin.
Jenkins notes that following the party held for Lord Dufferin, the local papers were full of advertisements for picnics at Woolnough's. The Halifax Steamship Company soon announced that it was cancelling its trips to Bedford in order to provide
regular trips to McNabs Island on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays for the remainder of the season.
In 1878, over 1,000 children and adults attended a St. Peter's Sunday School Picnic on McNabs Island . Through the summer months of 1880, over 4000 people visited the island.
The Acadian Recorder of August 31, 1882, carried an advertisement for a promenade concert on the "Hugonin House Grounds" on McNabs Island. The event included a fine band from the 1st Garrison Artillery, quoits, croquet and swings. On the previous day the Princess Louis Fusiliers had enjoyed dancing in the pavilion, games and athletic sports.
The Princess Louise Fusiliers enjoyed a most beautiful day for their picnic at McNabs Island yesterday. The whole regiment went down, with hundreds of friends, and with games, dancing in the pavilion and athletic sports ... a very pleasant time was spent. The shades of evening increased the hilarity, and as the "sentinel stars eat their watch in the sky" fresh reinforcements arrived and Woolnough's grounds were a scene of enthusiastic enjoyment until 11 o'clock, when the last boat sailed for home with a crowd of passengers who will remember pleasantly the 66th picnic of 1882.
The Acadian Recorder of June 23, 1891, contains an account of the Young Men's Literary Association picnic held the previous day at McNabs Island which attracted 1,500 people for sports and races. The popularity of McNabs Island for picnics and outings had become so immense that in 1891 the Acadian Recorder noted that:
... of late years, McNabs Island has monopolized nearly all our large picnics. Woodside, which was formally the favoured resort, is now almost forgotten as a picnic ground.
The popularity of McNabs Island as a destination for recreational outing, began to decline in the 1890's. Jenkins notes that shortly after 1891, Woolnough's operation experienced a dramatic decline:
There are no references indicating that the island operation continued with much success past 1895, although Woolnough is listed as owning the property wholly until 1904, and the remainder until 1908, at which time his taxes were unpaid and his address given as "London."
There are a number of reasons why the popularity of Woolnough's Pleasure Grounds specifically, and that of McNabs Island in general, began to decline. Part of Woolnough's problems appear to result from the emergence of a competing attraction on McNabs Island, James Findlay's Pleasure Ground. Findlay, who was apparently retired from the Royal Navy, purchased part of the Hugonin estate, and began to provide picnic facilities as early as 1882. By the early 1890's he offered much the same facilities as Woolnough, but soon added carnival games and, later, a steam-powered merry-go-round. The opening of Garrison Pier about 1895 also gave Findlay's Pleasure Ground an added advantage. Situated close to Findlay's operations, the Pier helped to boost Findlay's business at the expense of Woolnough's Pleasure Ground.
The late Bill Lynch, who was raised on the island, got his start as a fair operator here.
A.J. Davis, a Halifax meat packer, set up a distillery and bottling plant for soda pop near the Findlay house from where he made a special concoction called "Pure McNab." The Conrad house was originally built by Davis as a spacious summer residence.
Another reason for the decline of Woolnough's Pleasure Ground was perhaps more personal. Woolnough once served in the British Military and, when the British garrison in Halifax was withdrawn in 1906, he sold his business interests and returned to England. Woolnough's Pleasure Grounds were operated for several years afterwards as Redmonds Pleasure Grounds. Findlay later acquired Woolnough's interests on the island.
Despite the decline of Woolnough's, McNabs Island continued to be a popular outing for people from Halifax and Dartmouth, with Findlay's Pleasure Grounds picking up Woolnough's business in the 1890's and early 1900's.
McNab's Island was another Sunday mecca for bathers and for beer-drinkers. There were plenty of suitable spots for private picnics and beaching of row-boats, and plenty of ale for five cents a pint at the forts in the years up to 1905 when the Imperial regiments were garrisoned at Halifax. The annual Sunday School picnic to Findlay's Grounds "on the island" was the one event in the lives of most youngsters to which they looked forward from one summer to the next. The march from the church, the band, the boat-trip, the Maughers Beach lighthouse, the rural surroundings, the smell of spruce, the creaking of swings, the welcome odour of dinner cooking, the cramming of food, the foot-races, the whir of the wheel of fortune, the staccato tones of the agile young man calling figures through strains of Buchanan's orchestra on the dance floor.
The Findlay Pleasure Grounds continued to operate until about 1915, when war time restrictions greatly reduced attendance. A.J. Davis also continued to manufacture his soda pop on the island until about 1915. Following the war, the Pleasure Ground experienced a resurgence in attendance but this proved to be short-lived.
The Findlay Pleasure Grounds was later purchased by Bill Lynch. Due to declining business, Lynch took the rides and games off McNabs Island in 1925 and established the touring Bill Lynch Carnival Company. This company, which originated on McNabs Island, remains today as one of the largest carnival attractions in Atlantic Canada.
In 1928, the Dartmouth Ferry Commission cancelled further runs to the island due to declining traffic and the high cost of insurance, effectively ending large-scale public use of McNabs Island for recreation.