The Early History
North Sydney was settled around 1785 by European and Loyalist settlers. It emerged as a major shipbuilding centre in the early 19th century, building many brigs and brigantines for the English market, later moving on to larger barques, and in 1851 to the full-rigged Lord Clarendon, the largest wooden ship ever built in Cape Breton. Wooden shipbuilding declined in the 1860s, but the same decade saw the arrival of increasing numbers of steamships, drawn to North Sydney for bunker coal. By 1870 it was the fourth largest port in Canada dealing in ocean-going vessels, also due to the fact that The Western Union cable office had been established here in 1875. The community was incorporated as a town on April 24, 1885. The railroad came to Cape Breton Island in 1891. At this time there were 2,513 people in North Sydney, as compared to 2,417 in Sydney.
In 1898 North Sydney was chosen by the Reid-Newfoundland Company as the Canadian mainland terminal for a ferry service to Newfoundland; in June of that year the SS Bruce sailed from Port Aux Basques as the first ship to make that run.
During the First and Second World Wars, North Sydney played an important role in the relay of information from Europe to both Ottawa and Washington, D.C. Its Western Union Cable office was where coded messages arrived from overseas, and were then relayed on to the rest of North America.
On the morning of November 10, 1918, the office received a top-secret coded message from Europe stating that effective at 11 am on the next day (November 11, 1918), all fighting would cease on land, sea and in the air. This meant that the people of North Sydney, in particular Mrs. Annie Butler Smith, were the first to know of the end of the Great War. It is reported that on the night on November 10, 1918, over 200 servicemen marched through the streets of the town to celebrate the end of the war, one day before the rest of the world knew.
During the Great War, the United States Navy operated an air base in North Sydney. The base was primarily used as a landing/launching area for seaplanes. Known as NAS North Sydney the base was originally located at Indian Beach while more permanent facilities were built at nearby Kelly’s Beach (now called Munro Park). The base was given the Naval postal address of “139 FPO New York” and the signal code “ALML”. In command was Lt. Robert Donahue of the U.S. Coast Guard who operated under the direction of U.S. Navy Lt. Richard E. Byrd who was based in Halifax. The Kelly’s Beach base closed in early 1919 but was reactivated by the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.
During the Second World War, on the night of October 13, 1942, the SS Caribou (a passenger ferry) left North Sydney harbor for Port aux Basques with 237 on board. At 3:40 am on the morning of October 14, the Caribou was hit by a single torpedo on her starboard side; 136 people perished.