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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada



Microfiche Report Series 83


Margaret Fortier


Fortress of Louisbourg

Part One - Louisbourg - The Land and its Utilization

Louisbourg Topography

Fortress Site and Immediate Environs

There were three things about which all early commentators on Louisbourg seem to have been almost unanimous - the excellence of its harbour, its advantages as a fishing base, and the poor quality of its terrain. The sentiments of those who reported on the site to the minister of the Marine during the first few years after the arrival of the French on the island may be summed up by one who declared that the land around the harbour was "completely unproductive".' [1] Gratien D'Arrigrand, in describing his concession in 1754, reported that to the south toward Louisbourg it was covered with "Sapinage abattu", the land was "frightful, and is good for nothing". [2] In 1758 Chevalier Johnstone stated that the "climate, like the soil, is abominable at Louisbourg ..." The "poor, miserable soil", he continued, "was incapable of any production. The land was nothing but a series of "hills, rocks, swamps, lakes and morasses". [3]

Holland, in his 1767 survey of Cape Breton, reported that Louisbourg was situated "on one of the worst Spots of the Island for Soil & Climate ..." Noting the difference between the weather at Louisbourg and on the Mira, Holland declared that the lands were equally different. For, he stated, within a certain distance from Louisbourg, "instead of fine soil, lofty Trees, with many Rivulets, Lakes, &c. fit for settlements, & proper for Sawmills, &c., on each side of the Road, you enter upon a barren, rocky, Swampy Tract, with low Brush of Spruce & Pine". [4] Thirty-eight years later, Judge A.C. Dodd remarked that he had found about seven families living at Louisbourg, "all farmers although the soil is the very worst in the Island". [5]

Not only was the land at Louisbourg unsuited to agriculture, it also presented difficulties in the construction of the fortifications. In 1725 the contractor in charge of construction, Ganet, wrote that there was not enough earth from the excavation of the ditch to finish the King's Bastion and its glacis. Instead of earth, he said, the ditches were full of debris or even solid rock. [6] Verrier, the chief engineer,, complained in 1731 that progress on the works was slowed down by the difficulties presented by the rocky ground. [7]

In 1751 Louis Franquet classified the land with which he would have to deal in repairing and altering the fortifications into four types:

Pichon,, in 1758, declared that the land between Gabarus Point and the town was very rough, marshy and full of brush. There was everywhere, he claimed, 10 to 12 pieds of turf which would be impossible to dry. Nor was it practical to build a ditch to drain off the water since the bog was ribboned with ridges which made this impossible. The underside of the turf was a mixture of clayey soil and round stones which formed a cement that was extremely difficult to move. [9]

The bog described by Franquet and Pichon covers much of the area between the landward front of the fortress and Kennington Cove. Bogs such as these result from an accumulation of dead sphagnum (peat moss) which form a layer of half-decayed material. This layer draws ground water upward allowing more moss to grow on top. Where "sphagnum grows in large masses [sic], it actually raises the water table." The peat becomes thoroughly saturated, "as impervious to more water as dry rock." Additional water from rainfall can neither perculate downward nor run off horizontally. As the water reaches the thinner edges of the sphagnum, the bog grows "upward and outward, and can even grow uphill". Other plants grow on the surface, and their remains add to the peat. [10]

The uneven topography of the bog comes about as the various species of sphagnum grow at different rates. Mounds form causing a corresponding rise in the water table. Some mounds "coalesce and form ridges enclosing shallow depressions". These fill with water and become bog ponds. The bog surface continues to rise as the sphagnum mounds grow until it reaches the point where the mounds are above the water level of the pond and are no longer influenced by their seepage. When this stage is reached, drier surface conditions prevail. The different varieties of sphagnum are then replaced by lichens such as reindeer moss. [11]

An investigation of the bogs in front of the fortifications was conducted in 1977. It revealed that this bog and one closer to Kennington Cove have both achieved stability. They have reached the point where the surfaces of the bog mounds are relatively dry and covered with reindeer moss. Both bogs have been repeatedly disturbed by man over the last 250 years, since the arrival of the French. It is impossible to assess how much this interference affected the growth and character of the bogs. For example, the area west of Black Rock which was used during the 1960s and 70s for stockpiling and washing stones for the masonry buildings and walls of the reconstructed fortress has been greatly altered in character. However, it is possible that the bog was at a less advanced state during the 18th century with a much wetter surface than is found today. [12]

The French had hoped that the bog located before the landward front would discourage the enemy from attempting to transport their cannon into firing position on nearby hills. That the nature of the terrain, both bog and rocky ground, did make the work of the besiegers more difficult is apparent from their comments:

Besides the numerous bog ponds shown in the plans, the French had to contend with two sizeable bodies of water within the walls. The largest, the grand étang, was located on the northern shore of the peninsula chosen by the French. It was separated from the harbour by a strip of beach large enough, according to a 1714 plan, for drying the catch of 22 shallops. [17] Because of the suitability of the beach for drying fish, several of the first settlers in Louisbourg chose to live near the edge of the grand étang. Bridges were built across the western end of the pond connecting the properties on what would become known as the presqu'ûle du quay with the beach. In 1721 the holders of these properties objected strongly to the division of Louisbourg into town blocks claiming that they would be forced to move too far from the waterfront. 18

Those fishermen who were forced to move away from the shore due to this division of the town or due to construction of king's buildings such as the magasin des vivres were to be granted twice as much land as they had originally held. However, they did not feel that this was enough to compensate them for their losses. As fishermen they required easy access to the water more than large quantities of land. A mémoire from the minister had ordered that fishermen be given preference in the granting of waterfront land. Instead, it was charged, cabarets occupied all the best locations along the harbour. [19]

The beach continued to be used for fishing until the construction of the seaward front in the 1740s. The Pièce de la Grave and quay wall were erected along the outer or northern rim of the pond, while the Maurepas Bastion was built on its southern edge. In 1744 a bridge over the pond, which occupied virtually the entire gorge of the Maurepas Bastion, was constructed of palisades to connect the Pièce de la Grave with the bastion. A 1744 plan shows the bridge from the Pièce de la Grave was extended to connect the bastions' left and right flanks. [20] Plans from the 1750s, however, indicate that a narrow causeway was formed across the gorge of the bastion. [21

Although it would seem that the quay wall built by the French would have served the purposes of the British during their occupation of Louisbourg after the 1758 siege, it appears that they chose to dismantle the wall and thus expose the quay front to erosion and flooding. No mention was made of this destruction by Gibson Clough or the author of another journal kept during the demolition of the fortifications .[22] However, a 1760 plan of the demolition indicates the quay wall was one of the areas to be taken down without the use of explosives. [23] Two other plans indicate that the wall was dismantled. One, from 1767, includes the notation that the quay was a "ruined Front almost washed away by the sea which if not prevented will in time overflow this Street." [24]

The other pond with which the French engineers had to cope, the petit étang, lay between the King's Bastion and the Dauphin Demi-Bastion. Part of the curtain wall and the demi-bastion were built through the pond. The section of the pond which remained inside the walls when these works were constructed appears to have dried up or been filled in since it disappears from the plans by 1737. [25] A batardeau with a sluice gate that could be closed to hold the water, thus creating a totally wet ditch in front of the Dauphin Demi-Bastion, was constructed at the northern end of the ditch. This made it possible to flood a larger area than was normally covered by the pond. [26]

Because the wet area would have been difficult to fill in and was a deterrent to a direct infantry assault, the French did not continue the covered way and glacis across the pond. Only a palisaded stockade, erected in 1742, crossed the pond connecting the two sections of covered way. [27] While sufficient to prevent the approach of enemy troops, this arrangement offered no protection to the curtain wall should an artillery attack be launched. It was indicative of the reliance of the French on the bog before the walls; since cannon could not be moved through the bog into position before the walls, they felt it was not necessary to worry about the effects of artillery fire.

The folly of this reasoning was proved during the 1745 siege, and in 1752 the king ordered construction of a demi-lune before the curtain wall. Louis Franquet believed this project too ambitious in view of the problems inherent in draining the area. In keeping with his instructions, however, he drew up plans for building a dike which would divert water from the pond toward the harbour. Earth for filling in the area to be occupied by the demi-lune was to come from the lowering of nearby hills. When it became apparent in 1755 that the demi-lune would involve too much time and money, the scheme was abandoned in favor of construction of a much simpler work. [28]

The new plan called for the erection of a tenaille across the pond which would connect with the two sections of covered way. At the end closest to the Dauphin Gate there would be an aqueduct which would permit the raising of the water level before the outer works in the event of an attack. The water in the ditch could not be allowed to rise above the threshold of the postern tunnel at the Dauphin end of the curtain wall. with the aqueduct, more extensive flooding in front of the outer works could be arranged, effectively limiting the area in which an attack might be made. Work on this tenaille and aqueduct were completed in 1756. [29] The mound which can be seen today between the two sections of reconstructed outer works is the remains of this tenaille. Since the tenaille was not there in 1744, the pond, which it holds back, would have flowed freely into the ditch through the palisades creating a much wetter ditch than is the case today.

The waters which formed the petit étang flow from a bog pond a short distance away and from the surrounding bog in general, The grand  étang is primarily the result of flooding at high tide. Early plans also show the pond receiving drainage from a stream which originated in another bog pond. This stream flowed between the hills on which the King's and Queen's Bastions would be built. Somewhere in the area of Block 21 or 22, the stream branched off and entered the pond in two or three places. Construction of the outer works before the King's-Queen's curtain seem to have stopped this flow of water. Within the walls the stream bed either dried up or was filled in. [30]

Three other ponds formed within the walls following construction of the fortifications:

Besides the bog, the outstanding feature of Louisbourg's terrain was the hills which encircled the harbour. Denys noted in 1672, "All the lands [around Havre à L'Anglois] am nothing but banks of rather high rocks." [35] The presence of these hills severely restricted the area where the French might establish themselves on Louisbourg harbour. The point of land where the lighthouse was later established would have been the best site from a strategic point of view, though it too is characterized by irregular terrain. The craggy coastline on this side of the harbour was not suitable for the drying of fish, an activity which could be carried on with much more ease on the opposite peninsula. The chosen site, however, presented many difficulties to the engineers. Good fortification practice called for all high ground which might offer a vantage point to the enemy to be included within the defenses. To do this Louisbourg's engineers would have had to design a very elaborate system of fortifications. In a remote location far from needed building materials and supplies, with an inhospitable climate and terrain, such fortifications were unthinkable.

The engineers decided on a plan which included two of the highest hills within the defenses and trusted in the bog to deter would-be attackers from establishing on the remaining hills. Profiles taken through the spots where the two bastions and demi-bastions were to be built and from bastion to bastion, show the great variation in elevation in the terrain. The summit of the hill on which the King's Bastion would be placed was indicated as being 27 pieds 9 pouces above the Dauphin Demi-Bastion ground to its right, and 10 pieds 9 pouces higher than the Queen's Bastion hill to its left. The lowest point along the front was the site of the Princess Demi-Bastion, 45 pieds 6 pouces lower than the King's Bastion hill. Cap Noir commanded the area to the right of the Princess Demi-Bastion by 35 pieds 4 pouces. Since the land east of this point lowered in elevation, the demi-bastion itself would have been even more disadvantageously placed in relation to Cap Noir, which stood only 700-800 feet from its right face. [36]

The proximity of the fortifications to Cap Noir on one end and to two commanding hills on the other, prompted Jean-Pierre Roma, concessionaire in Ile St. Jean, to call Louisbourg an amphitheatre in which there was no place safe from enemy fire. [37] Until 1743 the French rarely expressed much concern over the threat posed by Cap Noir. In that year Governor Duquesnel and commissaire-ordonnateur Bigot reported that Cap Noir entirely dominated the city, particularly in the area of the Princess Demi-Bastion. The engineers, they charged, minimized the danger posed by this hill because they did not wish to admit they had made a serious error by not including it in the fortifications. [38]

Verrier, the chief engineer, replied that the danger from Cap Noir was small. Its uneven summit, he claimed, could not hold a battery of six cannon. However, if the hill were lowered and flattened, it would be able to receive such a battery. Moreover, he continued, the difficulty involved in getting cannon to Cap Noir and on its summit would be greater than the advantage gained since only small calibre cannon could be so deployed, while much heavier armament could be placed on the face of the demi-bastion to beat against the enemy guns.[39] Sous-ingénieur Boucher did conduct experiments into the composition of the hill in the event orders were received to proceed with the lowering of Cap Noir. He found that while its surface was very hard, the interior was no harder than the earth which had been taken from the ditch before the walls. [40]

Cap Noir was not lowered prior to the first siege and the English did succeed in placing a battery there during the fighting. Though this battery inflicted little, if any, damage to the fortifications, the danger presented by the hill caused the French to consider it more seriously when they returned in 1749. Franquet proposed building a redoubt on Cap Noir to take advantage of its command of the area before the landward front. This suggestion was rejected however, and in 1752 Franquet was ordered to lower Cap Noir. The materials gained through its destruction were to be used to strengthen existing defences. Little was accomplished before Governor Raymond stopped work on the project soon after it was begun in 1753. The men taken from this work were sent to search for a gold mine reported to be in the area. [41]

The minister's decision to proceed with the destruction of Cap Noir was reaffirmed the next year and work was begun anew. This was an expensive project, costing over 1,1,000 livres for tools and materials alone. Stone and earth from Cap Noir was used by the French in building the tenaille and demi-lune before the Princess Demi-Bastion and the Queen's Gate. When the ditch around these works was found to be producing more rocks than earth it was decided to remove earth from a ridge to the right of Cap Noir. During the siege of 1758 the French, alarmed by the advance of the enemy toward Cap Noir, constructed a zig-zag retrenchmnt to the right of the hill which extended almost to the tail of the glacis opposite the demi-bastion.[42] The remains of this work can still be seen today.

Prior to 1745 the French seem to have worried very little about the two hills, Lime-Kiln Hill and the Hill of Justice, which commanded the Dauphin Demi-Bastion. Lime-Kiln Hill lay just over 500 pieds from the salient of the demi-bastion's covered way. Close by, the Hill of Justice stood some 13 pieds 6 pouces higher. [43] During the first siege batteries were placed on both these hills which inflicted terrible damage not only to the demi-bastion and the immediate vicinity, but as far away as the Pièce de la Gmve. [44]

Numerous projects for neutralizing the danger from the hills were put forth during the 1750s. Franquet proposed a redoubt on Lime-Kiln Hill similar to the one suggested for Cap Noir. Instead a demi-lune before the King's-Dauphin curtain was ordered along with the lowering of the two hills. Initial plans called for the Hill of Justice to be reduced by 12 to 15 pieds. [45] However, a plan dated 1757 contains the note that this hill had been reduced 9 pieds, while 7 pieds had been taken off Lime-Kiln Hill. [46] The tree line in front of the fortress had been pushed by the French in their quest for wood to White Point, thus making all the hills much more visible than they are today. [47] In 1758 batteries were erected by the British troops on the two closest hills, as well as on almost every other eminence within firing range of the fortifications. [48]

In 1754 Franquet had noted that the destruction of Cap Noir was furnishing good material for the construction of the demi-lune before the Queen's Gate. [49] Indeed, this was the only type of building materials Louisbourg was able to provide. Such things as lime stone, slate or cut stone had to be imported from other parts of the island or from France. In discussing the subject of building materials, Franquet stated that Louisbourg was composed mostly of "rochers" (craggy rocks) imbedded in the peat one to 6 pieds or more. Under this was "roc" or hard earth mixed with blocks of "roche". Experiments were conducted with these blocks, the results showing that when broken they produced a quarry stone which was not as "brutte" as the center of the "rochers". The surface of the "rochers", however, could be chipped away more easily.[50]

A persistent problem for Louisbourg's builders was the poor quality of the mortar used to cement the masonry. While good quality limestone was available on the island (at Port Dauphin, Mira and Baie des Espagnols), the French were never able to achieve success with their mortar. The result was continually crumbling masonry walls. Franquet placed the blame for this lack of success on the available sand. The grains of sand found at Louisbourg, he said, were too large. As a result, a fine screen could not be used in sifting, thus permitting small stones to remain mixed with the sand. The mortar could not dry properly, particularly in a climate as humid as Louisbourg's because the stones prevented total evaporation of the water used in mixing the mortar and adhesion among the granules of sand. [51]