Shelburne's Historic Waterfront
United Empire Loyalists declared allegiance to the British Crown during the American Revolution and sailed in huge numbers to what was then Port Roseway to clear a settlement in the wilderness.
Imagine arriving on these shores in 1783 with a few thousand other refugees from the United States. Clearing the land, struggling to survive and thrive, and establishing lasting roots in this Loyalist town as it flourished to become a major commercial hub in the 1780s.
Admire the 18th century architecture of the stately homes and historic buildings along Dock Street. Envision the waterfront during the bustle of its shipbuilding heyday in the 19th century, and later, as the burgeoning fishing industry grew in the mid-1900s, to the era that would change the face of Shelburne’s historic waterfront in the latter part of the 20th century.
Hooking a rag rug reused precious scraps of fabric and worn out clothing. Quilting grew out of the same need to be frugal with valuable resources while supplying the family with functional household items. Both became art forms.
In the heritage property of Coyle House at 24 Dock Street, local volunteers put their skills and extensive know-how to work, creating usable and beautiful works of art.
Some of the proceeds from "Tottie's Store" go back into preserving and interpreting Shelburne's historic waterfront.
Cox Warehouse and Muir-Cox Shipyard
From the 1820's to 1984, dozens of workshops, stores and wharves lined the bustling Shelburne waterfront. Hundreds worked here, building wooden ships by hand, as well as schooners such as the Haligonian, sister ship to the famous Bluenose.
Walk along the waterfront and see the building that housed the sawmill that cut the lumber, the sheds where the ships were assembled, and the prominent Cox Warehouse that supplied the shipbuilding boom.
These days, the Dorothy and Gail Building, the Muir-Cox Shipyard and the Cox Warehouse have new lives as the Osprey Arts Centre, the Shelburne Harbour Yacht Club, the Shelburne Sailing Academy and the Shelburne Physiotherapy Clinic. There's even a gym where the Cox General Store once sold goods!
At the other end of Dock Street is the Shelburne Barrel Factory, the last working privately-owned cooperage in Canada in operation since 1917. For 41 years, it was also run by the only female cooper in the world.
The evolution of a heritage district
Ten blocks wide and centuries deep in heritage, architecture and legends.
From the Mi’kmaq First Nations people to European settlers, the arrival of the Loyalists in 1783 and through a two-century shipbuilding boom to the arrival of Hollywood in the 1990s, the Shelburne Heritage District is a unique destination with a rich and remarkable history.
Shelburne has many claims to fame. By 1784, the population of the Town grew to over 10,000, making it more than twice the size of Halifax and the fourth largest community in British North America. Today, it has the only intersection in North America that features four circa-1785 wood-framed buildings still in use, and it boasts the third largest natural harbour in the world. And, of course, just down the road is Birchtown, which had a population of 2,500 by 1784, making it the site of Canada’s largest settlement of free Blacks in North America.
In early 1792, many of the Black Loyalists left to establish Freetown, now Sierra Leone, the first British colony in Africa. And within a decade or so, Shelburne’s population dwindled to a few hundred as many of the Loyalists returned to the United States when the individual states slowly began restoring their lost voting and property rights.
Over the next 200 years, Shelburne grew to become a major shipbuilding town, the waterfront lined with shipyards, wharves, stores and stately homes. From schooners to trawlers to dories, Shelburne shipwrights were among the most accomplished anywhere, with Master Dory Builder Sidney Mahaney building 10,000 unique Shelburne dories himself.
As the shipbuilding industry declined, the groundfish and lobster industries grew and prospered, altering the waterfront yet again.
Then in the late 20th century, Hollywood came to Town. It started with the filming of Mary Silliman’s War in 1993, starring Nancy Palk and Richard Donat. The 1994 production of The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore, Robert Duvall and Gary Oldman, significantly altered the look of Shelburne’s waterfront permanently when electrical cables were buried and buildings were either refurbished or rebuilt in the Puritan style. A steeple, still in place today, was added to the Cox Warehouse, the Barrel Factory was entirely rebuilt, and the Guild Hall with its giant wooden columns was constructed at the site of the Town’s old bowling green.
Two contemporary movies were subsequently filmed in Shelburne – Virginia’s Run in 2001 starring Gabriel Byrne and Joanne Whalley, and Wilby Wonderful in 2003 starring Paul Gross and Sandra Oh.
The Guild Hall has since undergone renovation and is now home to the weekly Shelburne Farmers’ Market and site of a series of evening concerts during the summer months.
Today, views of the waterfront continue to be unobstructed by electrical wires and poles, making Shelburne a unique destination and a continued attraction to the film industry for period productions like Moby Dick in 2009 starring Donald Sutherland, Gillian Anderson, William Hurt and Ethan Hawke, and the filming of The Book of Negroes in 2014 starring Aunjanue Ellis, Lyriq Bent, Louis Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding Jr.