You would never guess the historical and commercial importance of the site as you walk along the arcing pebble ridge of this quiet beach. The beach leads to Partridge Island on the north shore of the Minas Basin in Nova Scotia – that’s part of the Bay of Fundy in Canada. Its location and geological treasures have marked it out as a very special place and once made it a hub of activity. Partridge Island is made of Jurassic North Mountain Basalt overlying Triassic red sandstone of the Blomidon Formation. The basalt rock formation extends 50 kilometres along the shore from Cape d’Or in the west to Economy Mountain in the east. Continental drift 200 million years ago caused cracks or faults in the Earth’s crust through which molten lava surged and solidified as basalt as it spread out over the sedimentary sandstone around it.
It was probably the Mi’kmaq people who first discovered the site as they travelled by canoe through lakes and rivers from Amherst, pausing at Partridge Island before continuing across the Minas Basin to Blomidon on the further shore and beyond. The island was a traditional collecting place for red ochre that was used in burial ceremonies. The lava stones were used in the sweat lodges. They found rocks, semi-precious stones, and minerals on the beach (such as agate, jasper, quartz, and basalt) from which they crafted axes, chisels, knives, arrowheads, spears, stone wedges, and drills for stone and leather work. In the Mi’kmaq legends, Glooscap presented an amethyst necklace to his Grandmother. Amethysts are still found here along with calcite, chabezite and stillbite. Gas bubbles and openings that had formed in the basalt while it was still molten later provided ideal spaces for mineral crystallisation. The powerful tides rushing through the narrow Minas Channel into the Minas Basin break off pieces of rock each year to reveal new sources of minerals.
From the early 17th to the mid 18th centuries, Acadian boatmen ferried goods from a station at Partridge Island across the Basin to Blomidon. Following the British expulsion of the Acadians, this became a permanent ferry service linking north to south Nova Scotia and connecting with an overland route as far as Halifax. Partridge Island was captured by Rebels from the American Revolution in 1776 and later retaken by the British who then built a fort there. This saw the setting up of a commercial outlet for essential provisions (tools, broadcloth, rum, and molasses) and the development of an important community with its own ferry link, militia outpost, postal and legal services.
Sadly, by the 1850’s the community began to decline in importance as the nearby Mill Village took advantage of the sheltered harbour and grew into the town now called Parrsboro. Very little remains to remind people of the former importance of Partridge Island but visitors still flock there to collect semi-precious stones on the beach. Geologists can admire the basalt columns stretching up from the shore on the east side of the island, and observe how the basalt sits on the red sandstones on the west of the island. The cliff strata on the mainland opposite the island, at the eastern end of West Bay, are older and highly fossiliferous Carboniferous limestones belong to the Windsor Group, Mabou Group, and Parrsboro Formation – out of chronological sequence due to major faults running from east to west.
Pebbles, salt marsh, and areas prone to flooding separate the island from the mainland. This piece of land was known as Wasoqun by the Mi’kmaq, meaning heaven or “the place where the spirits of the people and the animals live in harmony”.
N.B. The notice boards located on the beach at Partridge Island have been the only source of the historical information used in this post. The “Geological Highway Map of Nova Scotia” also proved invaluable additional facts for understanding the geology.