Since 1900 it has been noted for its huge steel mill, the largest and most modern in Canada at its construction. The industrial core around the mill has been in decline since the end of WWII as the coal mines of the surrounding communities became less productive and the obsolete steel mill less competitive with central Canadian producers. LOYALISTS, Sydney was chosen as its capital. A townsite was developed under the direction of Governor J.F.W. DESBARRES and named for Lord Sydney, then colonial secretary. Less successful as a separate colony than New Brunswick, Cape Breton was rejoined to Nova Scotia in 1820 after nearly 4 decades of maladministration, political intrigue and general underdevelopment. Sydney, still a tiny outpost of a few hundred residents, but with the pretensions of a colonial capital, was reduced to being shire town to Cape Breton County, which then included the entire island. It was generally underdeveloped throughout the 19th century, but remained the administrative centre of the island.
Sydney's fate has been inextricably linked to the mining of coal. Sea coal had been taken by the French during the occupation of LOUISBOURG in the 18th century, but it only came under intensive development towards the middle of the 19th century, responding to increased demand first in the US and later in central Canada. Sydney provided services and shipping facilities for surrounding coal towns. The location of steelmaking there in 1899 transformed Sydney. The Dominion Iron and Steel Company (later Dominion Steel Corporation) occupied prime waterfront property and invested several hundred million dollars in plant and land.
The town's population doubled and redoubled several times over the next decade, drawing migrants from the exhausted farms of the island and large numbers of Europeans as well, giving the city the most polyglot population in the region. Thereafter the steel mill, based on local coal resources, limestone from nearby quarries and iron ore from BELL ISLAND, Nfld, formed the city's core. Hospitals, government services, cultural and educational institutions all centered here. The island's commercial life radiated from the core of merchants along Sydney's waterfront. Connection to central Canada by rail in the 1880s solidified its commercial dominance. In 1900, it was incorporated as a city. Yet, like most similar communities in Canada, it has risen and fallen with the development of its hinterland region. Sydney's has been in decline for some time.
Sydney's oldest portions were established along the waterfront, much like all seaport towns in the Atlantic provinces. Bisected by the steel mill, which occupies most of the south side of the outer harbour, it spread out to encroach on a series of hills behind. The mill is surrounded by rings of drab company-built frame houses in which reside one of the most militant work forces in Canada. The steelworkers of Sydney struggled from the beginning to establish their right to collective bargaining. They did not succeed until WWII when the United Steelworkers of America finally gained recognition as bargainers for the steelworkers. Sydney has a fine central park and several large institutional buildings, including UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF CAPE BRETON, located on the outskirts of the city.
Author D.A. MUISE
Links to Other Sites
A History of Mining in Cape Breton
A great information source about the history of coal mining in the Cape Breton region of Nova Scotia. From Library and Archives Canada.
Cape Breton Regional Municipality
The website for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia.
Destination Cape Breton
This tourism website for Cape Breton Island features news and information about local historic sites, cultural events, outdoor adventures, and more.
Bras d'Or Lakes Scenic Drive
Explore the many historic communities along the Bras d'Or Lakes Scenic Drive in Nova Scotia.
Cape Breton Fossil Centre
The website for the Cape Breton Fossil Centre, where visitors can examine 300-million-year-old plant fossils from the rich deposits of the Sydney coal field. Sydney Mines is one of eight important fossil sites in Nova Scotia, and is known internationally for excellent examples of plant fossils.
Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce
The website for the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce (APCC), formerly the Maritime Board of Trade. Formed in 1896, this organization promotes and supports business and economic development in Atlantic Canada. Click on "Chambers" for links to local Chambers of Commerce.
Nova Scotia: Community Profiles
Search for statistical profiles of communities in the Province of Nova Scotia.
The website for Jane’s Walk, a network of free walking tours that explore the quality and livability of local neighbourhoods based on ideas espoused by Jane Jacobs. Click on "The Community" to access the latest news and photos on their blog and more. Also, check out "Find Your Walk" for maps and descriptions of local walks throughout the country.