We spent most of yesterday imagining ourselves into life in the Fortress of Louisbourg, circa 1744, when the French colony on Isle Royale, now Cape Breton, was thriving. What amazed me was how big that colony was and how unlikely its location. (The reconstructed site is roughly 1/4 the size of the original town and fortifications.) So far from France — yet that was the idea, to claim the area for France and to take advantage of the cod resource. The Fortress was besieged twice since its founding in 1713 and the second time, in 1758, resulted in its destruction at the hands of the British.
Parks Canada began a massive reconstruction in 1961, basing its work on foundations and so forth at the site itself but also on the massive documentary archive in France and Quebec. Everything — maps, building plans, records, etc. — was filed in triplicate and although the records at the Fortress itself were destroyed, the other copies were extant. So I think the reconstruction is very accurate.
Visitors can use maps to take a self-guided tour or they can arrange to be guided through some of the wonderful buildings by costumed animators. We did both and were delighted to be taken into houses, guard buildings, and storerooms by a soldier, several servants, a captain’s wife, and others. We had lunch in a period restaurant and were provided with a single pewter spoon for our meal as well as a huge napkin to tuck into our collars to keep our clothing clean.
Perched on its headland on the edge of the Atlantic, Fortress Louisbourg has the magic of a place that has known significant history and which continues on, redolent with the past — the geese in the little fenced areas behind a house, some sheep, chickens of a breed I’ve never seen before but imagine must be authentic to the period, the bobbin lace worked on by a woman in a fire-lit corner of a stone house, wind carrying the sea’s iodine into the streets, rough blankets on lumpy mattresses, the smell of musket powder… so far away in time yet close enough to touch, to almost recall later as a moment in one’s own life.