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Hantsport gravestones at risk of being disturbed as Halfway River aboiteau issue lags on

Tom Thompson is worried about the fate of a Stevens family plot located in the Riverbank Cemetery in Hantsport. The land is located near the bank, which is eroding due to saltwater tides now entering the Halfway River twice a day.
Tom Thompson is worried about the fate of a Stevens family plot located in the Riverbank Cemetery in Hantsport. The land is located near the bank, which is eroding due to saltwater tides now entering the Halfway River twice a day. - Carole Morris-Underhill

‘There’s nobody that can fight this’

HANTSPORT, N.S. — As another high tide twists and turns its way back out into the Minas Basin, Tom Thompson surveys the damage left behind.

The Hantsport resident is doubly affected by the failed aboiteau at the Halfway River, and deeply concerned for the future.

From his back deck, the swirling, churning tidal waters can be seen receding, after flooding an area that was once a fertile farmer’s field. The eroding riverbank below threatens his homestead, which is situated near the top of the cliff. Multiple trees are dying due to the exposure to saltwater, and as they do, the shoreline is eroding, making the ground unstable and weakened. The fear is when the trees and root systems go, eventually, so too will his home.

“Right now, if nothing else happens, they have cost me the value of my property. I couldn’t sell my house now,” said Thompson.

But nearby, something a little more precious is at risk. The family burial plot in the Riverbank Cemetery is situated close to the edge of the cliff.

“By the time spring comes, a lot of those trees will be in the river and then it’s just a matter of time until the bigger ones go. Without the slope underneath it holding them back, they’ll go,” said Thompson, motioning to the treeline and how close the tombstones are to the edge.

“The next thing you know, graves will be unearthed. Who is going to do what with them, and at what cost?”

The Riverbank Cemetery, located in Hantsport, is about 9.6 acres in size and has tombstones dating back to the mid-1800s.
The Riverbank Cemetery, located in Hantsport, is about 9.6 acres in size and has tombstones dating back to the mid-1800s.

Nearly a dozen members of his wife’s side of the family are buried there next to their son, Michael, who died in 2015. Due to the layout of the cemetery, Thompson fears these graves may be the first to succumb to the weakened cliffs.

“The whole Stevens clan will end up in the river.”

The Riverbank Cemetery, cared for by the Municipality of West Hants, was established in 1835 but didn’t become an official burying ground until 1840. The first recorded burial in the cemetery was for Ezra Mitchner, son of Capt. Michael Mitchner, on March 2, 1835. Ten days later, two-year-old Lockhart Jones was buried.

The 9.6-acre cemetery currently contains the remains of about 2,100 people, including Senator Ezra Churchill, the founder of the Churchill Shipyards; Dr. F. Burgess and Thomas Patten, two civil war veterans; artist Frances De Silva; and Rev. Silas Tertius Rand, a missionary and linguist who compiled a dictionary of Mi’kmaq words.

According to a report compiled by the Hantsport and Area Historical Society, some 77 impoverished citizens were also granted free plots in the cemetery prior to the introduction of social assistance programs in Canada. These unmarked graves are thought to be located “on the bank below the Stevens lot and extending along that edge of the cemetery to the southern end,” the report notes.

If the location is accurate, those skeletal remains may be the first to be discovered.

Since the cemetery is steeped in such history, Thompson said he can’t understand why more isn’t being done to preserve the sacred grounds.

“I don’t understand why somebody hasn’t raised the concerns about the cemetery — somebody that’s got more authority than I have. But there’s nobody. There’s nobody that can fight this,” said Thompson, who is frustrated by the government’s inaction when it comes to getting the aboiteau replaced.

Bill Preston and Tom Thompson discuss the altered Halfway River in Hantsport from the deck of Thompson’s homestead. With the aboiteau no longer preventing saltwater from crossing into the river, the freshwater habitat has been destroyed and trees are dying, which is causing the riverbank to erode. - Carole Morris-Underhill
Bill Preston and Tom Thompson discuss the altered Halfway River in Hantsport from the deck of Thompson’s homestead. With the aboiteau no longer preventing saltwater from crossing into the river, the freshwater habitat has been destroyed and trees are dying, which is causing the riverbank to erode. - Carole Morris-Underhill


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Beyond repair

Thompson is adding his voice to the growing number of Hantsport residents concerned with the situation.

The provincial government and the owner of the Windsor and Hantsport Railway Company Ltd. have been at odds over which entity should fix the issue at the mouth of the Halfway River for quite some time. They are currently embroiled in a legal battle.

The aboiteau (a dyke sluice gate which restricted tidal flow) collapsed in the fall of 2017.

Like others in Hantsport, Thompson said he doesn’t understand why the government didn’t fix the aboiteau when it first showed signs of deterioration. Now, a new aboiteau will need to be built and installed, or another solution found.

Ruth Ross, armed with correspondence that she’s written and received about the Hantsport aboiteau situation, is frustrated by the lack of answers. - Carole Morris-Underhill
Ruth Ross, armed with correspondence that she’s written and received about the Hantsport aboiteau situation, is frustrated by the lack of answers. - Carole Morris-Underhill

Thompson said residents were advised by government officials at a community meeting earlier this year to find a lawyer if they are concerned. That suggestion doesn’t sit well.

“It’s going to be extremely time consuming and expensive to fight this — so money I don’t have and time we don’t have to fight — and they know that,” said Thompson.

“That’s why they’re so flippant about telling you to get a lawyer because they know that there’s not a soul involved in this that’s got the money it would take to get a lawyer and by the time a lawyer comes, that bridge will be washed out down there and they’ll have replaced it with three kilometres of highway and a bridge. That’s their goal.”

Ruth Ross, who grew up in Hantsport and returned to the Haven of Hospitality when she retired 15 years ago, has attended both community meetings on the topic, and is not impressed with how residents’ concerns are being addressed.

“They better lawyer up... is that an appropriate way to address citizens that are losing their homes from a government official? I felt it was very crass; very, very crass,” said Ross.

She has been diligently writing letters to various levels of government trying to get her questions answered.

“The government is inactive on this; they’re not progressing. They’re sitting and waiting, for what, we don’t know,” said Ross. “It’s very frustrating for us citizens to watch nothing being done and (they’re) not keeping us informed.”

Ross said it’s been a frustrating experience trying to get answers, and fears what may happen if a plan isn’t put into place soon.

“They’re letting it happen before our eyes,” said Ross. “I am so concerned for the people who are going to lose their homes.”

At least two property owners on the Schurman Road, which is adjacent to the failed Halfway River aboiteau system, have lost their wells due to saltwater contamination.

Bill Preston, a long-time Hantsport resident, shares similar concerns. He has been advocating for the aboiteau to be fixed since the issue first came to light. He’s also writing letters, attending council meetings and calling elected officials and government employees to try to get the situation addressed.

He agrees that if something isn’t done soon, the tides will wreak havoc on Hantsport.

“Once that ice starts coming down this spring, it’ll take a lot of soil with it,” said Preston, noting it’s just a matter of time before the banks holding up the cemetery and Hantsport’s historic Churchill House property, give way.

He said it appears the government is “more concerned with the dollar amount than the way it’s affecting the residents.”

The Hantsport aboiteau used to prevent the saltwater from the Avon River from entering the Halfway River. Now, the tide is free-flowing, causing flooding, altering the landscape and destroying trees and habitat. - Carole Morris-Underhill
The Hantsport aboiteau used to prevent the saltwater from the Avon River from entering the Halfway River. Now, the tide is free-flowing, causing flooding, altering the landscape and destroying trees and habitat. - Carole Morris-Underhill

Trying to get answers

Paul Morton, the deputy warden of West Hants and a Hantsport resident, said the process of trying to get answers has been frustrating. He said he’s actively encouraging residents to reach out to Hants West MLA Chuck Porter.

“My message to the constituents (is) there’s not a whole lot I can do personally or our municipal government (can do). Go to our MLAs office, voice your concerns because they can get you answers,” said Morton, who has helped host two community meetings on the subject.

“We get no information, so I have no information to give people,” he said.

Morton said the municipality makes weekly calls to check in on the situation, and he’s been in touch with Porter regularly. He said the last update he received was that an environmental assessment is underway and nearing completion.

Like many residents who approach him to discuss the topic, Morton said he is frustrated with how slow it’s progressing and said he’s concerned with what could happen come wintertime.

“My personal concern, plus I’m hearing it, is that when the ice builds up in the river, come December and January, when the tide comes in, it’s going to push the ice towards the bridge. My thoughts are the bridge won’t last too many times with ice hitting it. That could mean access to Hantsport would be cut off that way into town for a period of time,” said Morton.

“My concern becomes how do I get a fire truck to Mount Denson if it goes out? Or how do I get an ambulance into Hantsport? It’s six or seven minutes if you have to go up to Exit 8a or go through the Bog Road, which is very much full of potholes and you can’t travel too fast.”

When asked what will happen if nothing is done soon, Morton says, “It’s going to be a mess.”

Tom Thompson said even if he wanted to, he couldn’t sell his house due to damage the failed aboiteau at the Halfway River is causing to the cliffs that are located mere feet from his back deck. - Carole Morris-Underhill
Tom Thompson said even if he wanted to, he couldn’t sell his house due to damage the failed aboiteau at the Halfway River is causing to the cliffs that are located mere feet from his back deck. - Carole Morris-Underhill

Moving forward

Thompson said he hopes politicians will realize how dire the situation is, and citizens will help pressure the government to get the situation fixed.

“All we want to do is replace what was there. We’re not trying to build something different or something new. We just want it replaced,” said Thompson.

“If they had of grabbed a hold of it when it first started to leak and repaired it, then it would’ve been done.”

When he was 19, Thompson spent the summer working alongside employees of the Department of Forestry and Rural Development to repair aboiteaus in Cumberland County, so he’s well aware of how the systems operate.

“The Acadians did it 250 years ago with horses, and in 1968, I spent a whole summer in Cumberland County rebuilding aboiteaus. I’ve probably seen more aboiteaus than these guys have seen — and it’s not a big deal (to fix one),” said Thompson, who owns and operates an electrical contracting company.

He said it would be far more affordable for the government to rebuild the aboiteau than to raise the road and install a new bridge — an option that was mentioned at a previous community meeting. Plus, it would solve the issue of eroding riverbanks, meaning the cemetery and historic Churchill House properties could be saved.

Ross said since the province prides itself in its historic properties the government should step up to the plate to preserve Hantsport’s landmarks.

“I’d like to see the government stop stalling and take some action to prevent further destruction of personal property and public property,” said Ross. “The Churchill House and property is a historical site for this area and I think the government must have an obligation... in maintaining historical properties — and the cemetery. How dire is that? It’s chewing at the edges of the cemetery right now. That would be extremely traumatic to see that cemetery being washed in.”

Ross said she can’t fathom what the hold-up is.

“Ultimately, if your roof is leaking, you repair it. You don’t wait.”

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