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Atlantic Canada

Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site and the Bras d'Or Lakes

View of Baddeck Bay, Bras d'Or Lakes, from the village of Baddeck looking across the bay Red Head Peninsula where the Bell's purchased property and built their 37-room home, Beinn Bhreagh Hall, on the point in 1893. To the right is the tip of Kidston Island and the lighthouse which still stands today.
View of Baddeck Bay, Bras d'Or Lakes, from the village of Baddeck looking across the bay Red Head Peninsula where the Bell's purchased property and built their 37-room home, Beinn Bhreagh Hall, on the point in 1893. To the right is the tip of Kidston Island and the lighthouse which still stands today.
© Parks Canada
Bras d'Or Lakes are saltwater fed by a freshwater watershed that includes five of the major rivers on Cape Breton Island. The Lakes connect with the Atlantic Ocean in two places, which is the source of salinity. The Lakes are considered brackish. The combination of freshwater and ocean water flows has created a system with slightly lower salt than ocean water.

Alexander Graham Bell had many homes during his lifetime, from Edinburgh, Scotland to Brantford, Ontario and Washington D.C., but the one that was most beloved by Dr. Bell and his wife Mabel was Beinn Bhreagh, their home in Baddeck, Nova Scotia.

Dr. and Mrs. Bell enjoy a moment together on the shores of Beinn Bhreagh at Baddeck Bay
Dr. and Mrs. Bell enjoy a moment together on the shores of Beinn Bhreagh at Baddeck Bay
© Parks Canada
The Bells discovered Baddeck while on vacation from their home in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1885, just 9 years after the telephone was patented and 8 years after their marriage. They travelled by steamship around the Bras d'Or Lakes exploring the area and found that Baddeck appealed to them most as the place to purchase land and build a summer home. As it turned out, they spent much of the latter 37 years of their lives in Baddeck and, many of the things Dr. Bell worked on experimentally after the telephone, he worked on in Baddeck.

Mabel Bell was very taken with the area and was compelled to write, “Baddeck is certainly possessed of a gentle beauty, and I think we could be content to stay here many weeks just enjoying the lights and shades on all the hills and lakes.”

When they returned to Baddeck in 1886, they began purchasing land and, by 1893, had built their 37-room home on their property located on Red Head Peninsula overlooking Baddeck Bay on the Bras d'Or Lakes.

Dr. Bell (right) watches from tow 
              boat as kite leaves raft and becomes airborne over Baddeck Bay.
Dr. Bell (right) watches from tow boat as kite leaves raft and becomes airborne over Baddeck Bay.
© Parks Canada
The Lakes were important to Dr. Bell's experimental work. In the early 1900's, during his aviation experiments, kites, some large enough to carry a person, were launched from rafts towed behind boats and even a steamship. Utilizing the frozen surface of Baddeck Bay as a runway in February of 1909, his Aerial Experiment Association made the first controlled, powered flight in Canada and the British Empire with their fourth airplane 'Silver Dart'. It was also from the icy surface of the Bay that attempts were made to launch their man-carrying tetrahedral kite, Cygnet II, that same year. In September 1919, Bell's hydrofoil boat, HD4, set a world marine speed record of 114 kph (70.86 mph) on Baddeck Bay, a record it held for ten years.

Travelling around the Lakes in their houseboat and, in later years, on the yacht “Elsie”, a gift to their daughter Elsie, was a source of enjoyment for the Bell family and their friends. The Lakes were also a main route to their Baddeck property as they made the journey by train and steamship from Washington D.C. to Baddeck.

Upon their deaths, Alexander Graham Bell in August 1922 (1847-1922) and Mabel Hubbard Bell in January 1923 (1857-1923), their remains were buried on the mountain top at Beinn Bhreagh.

View of Beinn Bhreagh Hall from the waters 
              of the Bras d'Or Lakes.
View of Beinn Bhreagh Hall from the waters of the Bras d'Or Lakes.
© Parks Canada
Today, Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell's home belongs to their descendants and Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada is located on the Baddeck side of the Bay with a fine view of Red Head Peninsula and Beinn Bhreagh. The village is also home to the Bras d'Or Lakes and Watershed Interpretive Centre. The Bras d'Or Preservation Foundation and Bras d'Or Stewardship Society are among community organizations around the Lakes that are working to ensure the ecological integrity of the Lakes and watershed.

Bras d'Or Lakes Fact Sheet

  • Cape Breton Island's inland sea is a 1,165 sq. km. (450 sq. mi.) fog free basin and one of the finest sailing and boating venues in the world

  • the lakes separate the Island into highlands and lowlands

  • tides swirl in from the Atlantic Ocean through two narrow passages: Great Bras d'Or Channel and St. Andrew's Channel

  • on the southern shore, small boats can enter through St. Peter's Canal National Historic Site of Canada

  • Mi'kmaq people have been long time residents of the Bras d'Or Lakes area and today there are four Mi'kmaq communities along its shores: Waycobah, Eskasoni, Wagmatcook and Chapel Island

  • fish found in the lakes include mackerel, cod, lobster trout, salmon, smelt, sculpin and oysters

  • the lakes are fed by four major rivers: Baddeck River, Middle River, Washabuck River and River Denys with several other small rivers and brooks

  • there are 31 coves, 14 harbours and 12 ponds

  • the largest island in the lakes is Boularderie Island, a 465 sq. km. (180 sq. mi.) finger of land which separates St. Andrews Channel and the Great Bras d'Or. The deepest water this side of the continental shelf (275 m. or 900 ft.) is found near Long Island in St. Andrew's Channel

  • freshwater input into the lakes is low relative to its area

  • the lakes have been defined as a brackish water system

  • the salt content fluctuates with the seasons but overall, the lakes contain plus/minus 2.5% salt as opposed to plus/minus 3.5% salt in open oceans

  • The Mi'kmaq name was Petoobook meaning a long dish of salt water

  • on the maps of 1872 and earlier, the lake is named "Le Lac de Labrador." This is more likely a derivation of the present name. The literal meaning of Labrador is Labourer

  • the tide in the lakes system is reduced to a fraction of its range as it progresses into the lake

Tetrahedral kite “Cignet” on raft under tow with Dr. Bell's associate F.W. Casey Baldwin in the passenger cell.
Tetrahedral kite “Cignet” on raft under tow with Dr. Bell's associate F.W. Casey Baldwin in the passenger cell.
© Parks Canada

Tetrahedral kit “Cygnet II” with runners, engine, propellor and passenger on board on the ice of Baddeck Bay, March 15, 1909
Tetrahedral kit “Cygnet II” with runners, engine, propellor and passenger on board on the ice of Baddeck Bay, March 15, 1909
© Parks Canada

Hydrofoil HD4 in water next to dock
Hydrofoil HD4
© Parks Canada

Aerial view of hydrofoil HD4 in water
Hydrofoil HD4
© Parks Canada

Silver Dart airplane landing on frozen Baddeck Bay
Silver Dart
© Parks Canada

Horse pulling the Silver Dart on frozen Baddeck Bay
Silver Dart
© Parks Canada

Side view of Silver Dart airplane in flight
Silver Dart
© Parks Canada

Side view of Silver Dart airplane in flight
Silver Dart
© Parks Canada

Last Updated: 2004-01-21 To the top
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