What the Flint is this? | Part III

This third blog in our series about flint ballast on the shores of the Bathurst Harbour really stems from wanting more concrete proof that this flint was in fact ship’s ballast. At this point in my research process, I wasn’t ready to commit to this topic as a book or larger project just yet, but I also wanted to find out more. So, I began considering how I could prove that my hypothesis was actually worth considering, in a tangible way. I decided that it was time to take this research on the road! Up until this point, the idea that this was flint ballast, was an educated guess, without concrete, comparable evidence. So, to see if these assumptions were something worth seriously considering, we decided to investigate other locations in the Maritimes with either a well-known shipping history of a similar period and/or known flint concentrations. This began with a scouring of the other beaches within the Bathurst Harbour and then took us to Miramichi, New Brunswick, as well as Pictou and Pugwash, Nova Scotia. We figured that this quest for flint ballast would be a good way to find physical evidence, without hunting down the flint’s origins across the Ocean or doing serious and expensive mineral analysis. This would satisfy my curiosity…for now. So, off we went…

The Road Trip Route

New Brunswick

Bathurst Harbour. I began this exploration by examining the other beaches around the Bathurst Harbour to see if any flint could be found nearby. I knew that this could be a good indication as to whether the dredging of the channel was really a key factor in the huge amount of flint found at the original beach. After a thorough searching, we only came up with 2 pieces of flint (these pieces found directly across from the beach of interest), while the original location has thousands. So, that encouraged my suspicion that this quantity was due to the dredging and deposition of material from the channel and marina onto a particular spot to prevent erosion. These new pieces mainly proved to me that there was more of this material in the Harbour.

My curiosity was peaked and now I wanted to do a broader investigation. So, in our own way, we did. I was curious if I could find similar flint elsewhere in Atlantic Canada and what quantities they might be found in. So, we set out to another location in New Brunswick to see what we might find. And just to be clear, these are not the only locations in the Maritimes that we found references to a significant shipping histories, flint or ballast, these were just an assortment that we chose based on what worked best for us, in this particular season of research. Beyond the scope of this article, as we continue our travels, we will continue to look for flint ballast at other locations throughout Atlantic Canada and beyond.

Miramichi. Miramichi is a small town in eastern New Brunswick. It is perhaps best known for the suitably named Miramichi River, which runs through it, recognized most notably for its salmon and shipping history. This history including early trading, Acadian refugees, shipbuilding and immigration, among others. The Miramichi has a number of islands along its length, which are testaments to this history. Middle Island is probably the most famous of them, it has seen various occupations, including as a quarantine island for new immigrants fleeing the poverty brought on by the potato famine in Ireland and Scotland. But Ballast Island held most of our interest, just for its name. It being a physical example of the sheer quantity of shipping that happened here, including why rules had to be put into place about where ballast could be dumped – an example of how significant a navigational hazard ballast could pose, even today.

Once arrived in Miramichi, our first stop was the shore opposite Ballast Island to see if any flint could be found. Upon our arrival, we noted a few things – the Island was very close to shore, activity was ongoing (we actually watched as work was underway across the River, where large machines were hauling material from the bottom of the River) and the nature of the shoreline (we had read that dredging was extensive in the Miramichi and material is regularly moved about). We kept our expectations in check, but within a moment of setting foot on the beach, we found ourselves surrounded by flint, all of similar colour, size and quality as those found in the Bathurst Harbour. These shores were also littered with pottery and bricks, evidence of the sheer amount of shipping that had gone on here. We knew now that the flint in the Bathurst Harbour could not be a coincidence. We were on to something.

Nova Scotia

Before heading to Nova Scotia, we did background research on flint as ballast in this province to better prepare ourselves for what we might find. We found that ballast flint can actually be found in most historically used harbours in Nova Scotia, showing the degree of influence this material has had. Much like the material we found in the Bathurst Harbour, we were prepared to find flint ranging in colour from course yellow to fine, black gun flint. Nova Scotia’s history with ballast was extensive, so we knew that we had a very good chance of finding flint, so off we went to Pictou Harbour and Pugwash, both small towns along the Northumberland Strait.

 

Pictou Harbour. Our first stop in Nova Scotia was Pictou Harbour. It has had a significant shipping history, lending itself nicely to our cause. This was such a busy hub historically that sources suggest that you might have step from one boat to another to cross the harbour. This history demonstrated physically by Ballast Island within this harbour. So, this was our order of business – find Ballast Island and search for flint.

We searched high and low around Ballast Island to see if we might find any flint associated with this discard heap, but in the end we didn’t. We left the beaches and decided to head to a local museum to see if they might have any insight. This museum is to commemorate perhaps one of the most notable ships to grace Pictou’s shores – Hector. In 1773, Hector brough the very first wave of emigrants from Scotland to Nova Scotia, remaining an emblem of this town and its shipping history. The locals who work at the Museum knew a lot about this town’s shipping history and assured us that ballast was a prominent feature in this town’s history, including acting as foundations and building material in many historical houses and buildings that still stand today.

We considered why this lack of flint might be. The beaches we explored looked natural, as though little or no dredged material had been used to shore them up. We also wondered if this had to do with what was being shipped. Perhaps this port was receiving a different variety of goods, so the flint was not their best option as ballast. Despite not finding flint in Pictou, we had no fear coming up empty handed. We knew that it would be an education, whether we found flint or not. So, we decided to move on and explore our next harbour to see whether a pattern would emerge…

Pugwash. After our unsuccessful hunt for flint ballast around Pictou Harbour, we landed in Pugwash, where we had read that people had stumbled on flint on a local public beach. Pugwash was said to be a beautiful harbour with a great anchorage for large ships (it is still very beautiful today). And it was so well known that it is said that THE Captain Kidd, as well as other pirates of similar repute made their way to Pugwash in its heyday. Between ship building and the fishing industry, Pugwash was a boomtown, so busy that stores were built along the wharves to receive goods directly from the ships. This harbour too, said to be so packed at times, that you could cross the harbour, walking across the decks of ships.

Upon arrival, our first stop was at a natural beach, which didn’t produce any flint. We decided to keep on looking though and headed to another beach that we had read about. This beach had ongoing shipping activities and had obviously had some of its shores reinforced and possibly even built into the Harbour to create a small park area. And, sure enough. We stepped on the beach and one particular spit of shoreline set my radar off the second I saw it. I’m not sure whether its from years of picking up rocks on beaches or years of archaeology, but something inside told me that we were going to find flint right there. Within seconds a beautiful piece of dark grey flint was sitting at my feet. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And as I looked up, piece after piece of flint was catching my eye all ahead of me. Tellingly, these flint nodules were of similar sizes, colour and quality as the material we found in the Bathurst harbour and Miramichi.

So, we were now left with a consideration – why hadn’t we found flint on the beaches of Pictou when we were right beside a ballast island, but we had found so much in Pugwash? They are quite near to each other, with such similar histories. Pugwash did seem to have more current shipping activities going on around it, maybe it had even had its channel improved to facilitate these activities. And, it had obviously had some of its shores reinforced and possibly even built up to create a small park area. It just generally seemed to have more current hubbub around its harbour than Pictou had.

Conclusions

So, after our little adventure to some notable harbours with significant shipping histories in the Maritime region, it is undeniable that the flint we found in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, is all similar flint ballast. Which indicates to us that the flint found on these beaches are from similar sources and that a huge amount was transported to these locations in the past. Based on the sites and material found, we decided that there does seem to be a correlation between quantity of flint found on a beach and dredging/fill efforts. This leaves us dreaming of what might be found below the surface. For us, and particularly, me, this research does not stop here. We will continue looking for flint as we explore and maybe one day, we could do mineral analysis or a thorough sourcing of this material to determine where exactly it came from. In the meantime, if we find anything of interest, don’t worry, you’ll be hearing from us…

Leave a Reply