The history of the dykelands of the Maritime Provinces
of Canada is as rich and deep as the fertile red soil
that sustains them.
First came tremendous tides, surging up the Bay
of Fundy, spreading layer upon layer of silt over
the shores of its sprawling estuaries and along the
river banks. Over thousands of years, the tides built
sediment to depths of more than 40 metres. On the
surface, vast rippling mudflats stretched from low-tide
line toward the upland, turning to saltmarsh where
the high tides reached.
Then came the dykeland culture of the Acadians.
In the 1630s a small band of French settlers dyked
and drained a few acres of saltmarsh at Port Royal
(present-day Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia) and discovered
that the new dykeland could produce abundant crops
year after year without help of fertilizer. Farmland
that could produce two tons of hay or 50 bushels of
wheat in a season soon became the means of providing
most of the colonists' food and clothing and allowed
a distinct Acadian society to prosper and grow.
To harvest the wealth of the tidal soil, the Acadians
learned to work between the tides in the slippery
marsh mud. They built earthen, sod covered dykes just
tall enough (about 1.5 m) to keep out high water.
To drain the dyked marsh, they invented the aboiteau,
a log sluice with a hinged gate inside it. The gate
would open to let the fresh water out when the tide
was low but close against the tide coming in. An aboiteau
would be placed in a creek bed and covered with layers
of brush and earth until the channel was blocked to
an elevation above the level of the highest tides.
Beginning close to the upland, the Acadians created
a few acres of farmland at a time, extending the dyked
land slowly toward the outer edge of the saltmarsh.
The dykelands supplied the basic needs of the Acadians
so well that they largely avoided clearing the upland.
In fact, when all available marsh had been dyked along
the Annapolis River, the colony expanded to other
marsh areas around the Bay rather than using available
The New Englanders who settled on the vacant Acadian
homesteads after the Expulsion were upland farmers
unfamiliar with dykeland agriculture. They arrived
to find dykelands flooded with saltwater by a severe
storm in 1759 which had badly damaged dykes and aboiteaux.
To survive the first years, the new immigrants had
to rely on the dykeland skills of Acadians who had
been confined to English forts. yet they soon learned
how to use a dyking spade and patch a sea wall.
Although they turned to clearing the upland for
many of their crops, the New Englanders always valued
dykeland for hay and pasture, and used marsh mud as
an upland fertilizer. In fact dykeland would sell
for the highest per acre prices.
Over the next two decades came Germans, Yorkshiremen
and a huge influx of Loyalists. By the early 1800s
these immigrants and their descendants had not only
recovered most of the tidal land once protected by
the Acadians but had begun to create new dykeland,
sometimes on a large scale.
Marsh owners in the Canard, Nova Scotia area, reclaimed
214 hectares (528 acres) of new farmland in one piece
when they completed the Wellington Dyke in 1825 after
eight years' work. The Etter Aboiteau, finished in
1840, protected hundreds of hectares of tidal land
along the Aulac River from the tides of the Cumberland
Basin. All owners of a marsh body, a unit of land
naturally covered by saltmarsh, shared the costs of
dyke-building and maintenance by contributing labour,
money or materials.
During the nineteenth centruy, as horses became
the main source of power for the region's prosperous
mining and logging operations and for most land transportation,
hay became an increasingly lucrative cash crop. By
the early 1900s, there were markets for Fundy hay
as far away as Boston. In 1921, prices had reached
more than $25.00/ton. Where large tracts of dykeland
could be devoted to hay, as in the Tantramar Marshes
or at Minudie, some owners made small fortunes.
But the bubble burst during the 1920s as fossil-fuel
engines replaced horsepower as North America's main
source of energy. The price of hay fell to $6.00/ton
by 1938 and the value of dykeland slid to $65.00/hectare
by the 1940s. Many hay fields brought into production
for the boom were abandoned, leaving the burden of
maintaining dykes and aboiteaux to the dykeland owners
on each marsh body who wanted to continue working
the land. Sometimes the job was beyond their resources.
By the late 1930s all dykeland areas - even those
where the owners had not concentrated on exporting
hay - were suffering from the effects of the world-wide
depression. Drainage ditches clogged up, dykes leaked
and aboiteaux sagged. On some marsh bodies the protective
works failed completely, sending acres of long-dyked
soil out to sea'. Thousands more hectares of the region's
best farmland threatened to disappear.
The crisis was too serious for dykeland owners to
handle alone. In 1943, the Experimental Farms branch
of the Federal Department of Agriculture set up an
emergency program to meet the situation. The cost
of dykeland repairs in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia
would be shared equally by the owners, their provincial
governments and the Federal Government. A two-man
staff would arrange and oversee all the work in both
With this three-way program "came the first wide
use of modern machinery in dykeland construction."
Although long thought too heavy for slippery marsh
mud, bull-dozers and draglines did the bulk of the
work on several major projects. Even with the help
of this break-through, however, it became obvious
that the scope of the emergency program was too small.
Dykes and aboiteaux were failing faster than the owners
and the program's tiny staff could patch them up,
and only a massive reconstruction effort would save
In 1948 the Federal Government created the Maritime
Marshland Rehabilitation Act to mount a comprehensive
long-term program for preserving the region's dykelands.
Under the Act the Federal Government would build and
maintain dykes and aboiteaux, and the three Maritime
provinces would provide liaison with landowners to
look after the main drains and promote land-use programs.
Based in Amherst, Nova Scotia, the 70-member staff
of the Maritime Marshland Rehabilitation Administration
(MMRA), began applying modern engineering techniques
to the traditional problems of dykeland construction
and maintenance. Draglines and steam shovels replaced
dyking spade and draft animals altogether. Over the
next 20 years, the MMRA ensured the protection of
18,000 hectares (44,500 acres) of tidal farmland in
Nova Scotia and 15,000 hectares (37,300 acres) in
New Brunswick, building 373 kilometers (232 miles)
of dyke in the process.
A major accomplishment of the Administration was
the construction of large tidal dams near the mouths
of the Shepody, Annapolis, Avon, Tantramar, Petitcodiac
and Memramcook rivers, all bounded by saltmarsh and
dykeland. These giant concrete and steel aboiteaux
now keep the tides off all lands upstream and eliminate
the need for many kilometers of dyke and many smaller
In 1970 the individual provinces took over all government
responsibilities for the dykelands. Since then one
of the major aims of the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick
governments has been to increase the amount of dykeland
that can be farmed with modern machinery. Small holds
have been assembled into larger, more efficient units
and through a drainage technique known as landforming',
networks of deep, narrow ditches have been replaced
by wide, grassy waterways.
Today the total area of 33,000 hectares (82,000
acres) of tidal land protected from saltwater supports
the production of hay, dairy products, beef, hogs,
some grain and a small but growing amount of vegetables.
Surprisingly, much dykeland soil now lies out of
production. The market for many of its products is
already saturated. However, the situation may be temporary.
An increase in transportation costs (making imported
foods more expensive), and an increase in the region's
population due to offshore oil development - or other
factors - could bring all the available dykeland into
Some dykeland owners are not waiting for change,
but are testing the market for such produce as canning
peas, beans and corn as well as other specialty crops.
Dykeland has been called a reserve of energy in
the form of fertility. As the cost of fertilizers
needed for upland farming continues to rise, the value
of the same nutrients in dykeland soil increases as
well. In the future, some farm operators may increase
their efficiency by moving the site of some of their
production from upland to dykeland.
The advantages of the tidal lands around the Bay
of Fundy are certainly no secret to the agricultural
community. Recent sales of dykeland for as much as
$2,500/hectares ($1,000/acre) indicate a growing appreciation
of the region's most fertile soil.
This excerpt is from the book "Maritime Dykelands
- The 350 Year Struggle".