This Week in History


The Sands of Time

For the week of Monday, January 19, 2015

On January 20, 2014, a message in a bottle was found on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, nearly 60 years after a scientist first cast it into the ocean to study currents. The message asked the finder to send an information card to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts for a reward of 50 cents. Its discovery added yet another chapter to the legends of Sable Island.

Sable Island horses in the dunes.
©Parks Canada / P. Illsley

Sable Island was named after the French word for sand, the dominant feature of its landscape. Located almost 300 km southeast of Halifax, it has long beaches and a large dune system dotted with freshwater ponds that is home to more than 190 species of grasses, berries, and wildflowers. On average, the crescent-shaped island has fog for 127 days of the year, and ocean currents, strong winds, and storms have been shaping it for thousands of years.

Poor weather conditions explain why Sable Island is the final resting place of more than 350 recorded shipwrecks. Since the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1500s, these waters have been a hazard for vessels in surrounding fishing grounds and nearby shipping routes. In 1801, public concern led to the creation of lifesaving stations run by permanent staff who rescued survivors until 1959, when advances in navigational technology averted further disasters.

When inventor Alexander Graham Bell visited the island with his wife Mabel, she described it as one of the most fascinating places she had ever seen.
© Parks Canada

Over the centuries the island also hosted adventurous settlers, abandoned lunatics and convicts, shipwreck scavengers, and even a hermit Franciscan monk. Their constant companions were grey seals, birds, and Sable Island horses. The stocky horses, presumably introduced by settlers in the 18th century, were sold as workhorses until federal legislation forbade human interference. Today, they share Sable Island year-round with researchers from government departments such as Parks Canada.

Sable Island is a National Park Reserve. Some of its prominent visitors are national historic persons, including Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who explored Newfoundland and lost several ships at the island, and Joseph Howe, who achieved responsible government in Nova Scotia and was inspired to write a poem about Sable Island’s dramatic history.

To learn more about this unique place, visit the Sable Island National Park Reserve website. Read about Canada’s national parks in the This Week in History archives: Canada Creates World's First National Parks Service, Saving Gwaii Haanas, the "Islands of Beauty", and The Creation of Quttinirpaaq National Park – The Top of the World, or on the National Parks of Canada webpage.

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