Georges Island National Historic Park is a hot ticket
By Dale Dunlop
For more years than I care to remember, I would stroll the Halifax waterfront and stare out at Georges Island and wonder what it would be like to actually set foot on this historic and mystery-shrouded place. Up until the summer of 2020, that’s all one could do other than take a photo from the closest point of land on the Halifax boardwalk. Off limits to civilians for literally centuries, Parks Canada finally opened Georges Island National Historic Park to the public, and it is now one of the hottest tickets in Atlantic Canada. It turns out that pretty well everyone in the metro area had the same longings as I did to visit. Georges Island is the perfect outdoor getaway. Here’s why you need to visit Georges Island and how to do it.
As landforms go, Georges Island (note there is no apostrophe) is a relative baby, dating back only to the last Ice Age which ended more than 10,000 years ago. As the glaciers receded, they left behind teardrop shaped deposits of boulders, clay, gravel and earth called drumlins, of which Georges Island is one. Its much larger big brother is the drumlin we now call Citadel Hill.
Very soon after the ice was gone, the first Indigenous peoples arrived and took advantage of the natural resources that abounded in one of the largest ice-free harbours in the Western Hemisphere, naming it K’jipuktuk or in English, “The Great Harbour”. The first name for Georges Island was Elpaqkwitk meaning “Water splashed on it by waves” and archaeological evidence of human occupation dates back millennia.
When Lord Cornwallis arrived in 1749, the strategic importance of the little island in the harbour was recognized. Now named Georges Island after King George II, the first of many fortifications was constructed. These continued in one form or another right up until the end of WWII with the result that today the island is honeycombed with tunnels, underground batteries, storehouses and other manmade structures that were never open to the public during the time they were in active use.
In the past there were occasional events held on the island, but plans to restore and open Georges Island to the general public date back to 2009, when money was allocated for a new wharf and modernization of sewage, electrical and water systems. Although there were multiple delays, Georges Island finally opened on August 6, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the opening was quite limited: the open hours were on weekends only from 11:20 to 5:00 until the season ended on October 11.
While you may take your own boat to the island when it is open, the vast majority of visitors will arrive by taking passage on one of the boats owned by Murphy’s on the Water. Subject to the pandemic, the 2021 season will open on June 19 and run through every weekend until mid-October.
Upon boarding you will be provided with a map with 22 points of interest that you can explore at your leisure. There are also a number of interpretive panels throughout the island, but you will get the most out a trip to Georges Island by taking a guided tour of the tunnels.
For such a small place there are a myriad of things to see, explore and learn about including the island’s history as a prison for Acadians and original burial place of the French admiral Duc D’Anville. You can get great photos of the Halifax waterfront and the Georges Island lighthouse, which has been guiding ships safely into the harbour for more than a century. However, the star attraction is undoubtedly Fort Charlotte, constructed under the orders of Edward, Duke of Kent; who also gave us the Town Clock and St. George’s Church.
Named for Edward’s mother, the fort has an actual moat and drawbridge to its only entrance. Inside you will find a prison where American privateers were held during the War of 1812, and battery placements on all four sides of the fort. These are great places from which to get photos of the harbour and waterfront. The fort also has some permanent residents you are very likely to come across during your visit: meadow voles and perfectly harmless garter snakes.
The primary attraction inside Fort Charlotte are the tunnels to which Parks Canada provides free guided tours. They are quite capacious and well-lit so claustrophobia should not be an issue. The tunnels lead to numerous munitions storerooms and defensive positions called caponiers from which defenders could fire upon potential attackers in complete safety. Fortunately, they were never put to use. There is also the Lower Battery embedded within the bowels of the fort that features four massive 10-inch cannons that guarded the harbour entrance. The view looking out from this battery is worth the price of admission alone.
For more information visit pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/ns/georges