Bear River History


Native Mi’kmaq people inhabited this scenic glacial valley many thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. The tidal river that they called “L’sitkuk Elsetuk”, provided easy travel to the coast where they harvested various fish and clams. Inland they hunted abundant wild game, including caribou.

During a severe winter storm (around 1605-9) one of Champlain’s supply ships in command of Simon Imbert took refuge here and thereafter the river bore his name. Following the French Expulsion of 1755 the English settled the land and then call the river Bear – a corruption of Imbert.

The 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries

Among the first European settlers (1783) were German mercenaries known as Waldecians and Hessians.  Other settlers that followed included the names Chute, Rice, Miller, Clarke, Troop, and Harris.  The land lots purchased by many of those families are still in evidence in the community.  Due to the shortage of suitable level land, the downtown area was largely built on piers and stilts or on artificially created land supported by retaining walls.

The high river tides (7m) combined with an abundance of easily accessible mature oak and various softwood trees made shipbuilding and lumbering two important and profitable industries.  Markets were readily found in the West Indies, England, and North America.

In its hey day (1890’s) Bear River had six shipyards and six lumber mills even though its population was only 1200.  With the affluence so generated, many shops, supply stores, and service centres were established.  Many large, elaborate homes were constructed along the steep hillsides on both sides of the river.  Later, visitors would refer to the area as “The Switzerland of Nova Scotia”: a name by which it is often described to this day.

Various wood articles were produced at Bear River in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.  These include hogshead staves for the local and export market, barrels for the sugar refineries at Moncton and Halifax, and barrels for the apples and  other fruits locally produced. Block making and wool carding as well as specialized sawing made to order were other occupations of these industrious people.

The Clark Bros., among their many enterprises, catered to hunting and fishing parties but their biggest single endeavor was their sawmill and woodworking plant at Lake Jolly, about 14km South East of Bear River.  Here they  produced spruce and pine lumber as well as shingles and box material. The mill was later converted to handle hardwood and produced dowels, clothes pins, window sashes, door frames and toy furniture.

By the turn of the century steam engines and steel hulls signaled an end to the age of sailing ships and the people turned to logging as their primary source of income.  The influential Clarke family even promoted a pulp mill for the area (1919-1920).

Present day Bear River

Since then much has been done to cater to the tourist trade which  is now the main industry  of the region.  One of its primary undertakings has been a waterfront development project  including a peace park complete  with picnic tables overlooking the river and a tourist information centre.

Another unique endeavor has been the construction and operation of a solar aquatic sewage facility. Village sewage is treated using aquatic plants, bacteria, in a greenhouse enclosure.

An increased awareness of the environment and ecology has resulted in a large increase in the number of striped bass and salmon returning to the river each year.

Source/credit information:
SAWPOWER:  Making Lumber in the Sawmills of Nova Scotia by Barbara R. Robertson.  A co-publication of Nimbus Publishing Ltd. and the Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1986. Crown copyright, Province of Nova Scotia, the Department of Education & Nova Scotia.


7 thoughts on “Bear River History

  1. Anne Sanderson

    I am coming to Nova Scotia from Manchester, NH October 1 – 11 and visiting a 3rd cousin in Barss Corner whom I have never met except on My great grandmother, Catherine West DeLong married a James Mathewson Blair from Bear River at time he married 5 Nov 1866. Her parents were John Cooper DeLong 1800 – 1846 and Jerusha Ann West 1807 – 1871. I would love to know if there might be records to look thru at Bear River. James’ parents were: Robert Blair B. 1796 in Ireland and died 12 July 1850 in Nova Scotia and Rebecca Mathewson Blair B. 1808 in Ireland and died 1/26/1882 in Aylesford, Nova Scotia. Some children born in Ireland and some in NS. Would love to locate some family burial sites. Anybody to help?
    Anne Sanderson
    PS My grandmother was born in Kentville and came here with her parents abt 1897. Also, could never find record of family’s immigration to NS.

    1. Sharron Lee Gardner

      If you are looking on information on immigration to Nova Scotia, try Pier 21 in Halifax.

  2. Jenny in Bear River

    Hi Anne,
    From the number of links and resources on The Nova Scotia Genealogy Network Association page, a person ought to be able to find what they need. . Looks like they have links to passenger manifests, & Ireland has been subject to a lot of study work on this end of the journey.
    I also believe there are sites/groups that have indexed cemeteries, sometimes including row & stone numbers for easily finding the right spot. I’m not sure if that link is on the page, but someone there should be able to direct you to it.
    Deborah Trask of the Mahone Bay Settler’s Museum, in Lunenburg Co, where Barss Corner is located, is the absolute Queen – nay, Empress of NS Cemetery info, I dare say. Certainly someone there could point you to available resources.
    In the Kentville area, I’d point you to Maynard—- and or the Kings Co. Courthouse Museum. I think they have a genealogy centre, as does the O’Dell Museum inAnnapolis Royal, 25 min from Bear River. Keep in mind that Bear River straddles the county line, and is thus in both Digby and Annapolis counties..
    The Admiral Digby Museum, in Digby has a link on the NSGA page, and they also have a genealogy libraby & resource study room,with people there to help, and someone there will be a cemetery geek, for sure. I’d drop them an email to make sure you can connect when yo are here, maybe do some footwork beforehand, but you probably know that.
    You might also like to know about Terry Punch’s radios call-in shows & books, & his links. may also lead to other links, some of the call-ins might be archived and available.
    Hope you have a safe trip & a good time while here. Happy hunting, but enjoy the process & the journey regardless of results. We have a lot of great little museums in the province & the area, and a lot of interest in genealogy. I’m not into it myself, I just know the museums.
    Hope this helps!
    Jenny in Bear River (Historic Shoe Geek)

  3. Angela

    Are there any old maps of the area that may show streets and roads that are no longer used, for example, Spring Street that apparently ran between Tupper St and Middlesex Rd near the powerline?

    Just looking through some old deeds and air photos and wondered if it existed at one time.

  4. James Gledhill

    If I might suggest, many of the European immigrants to Canada came through Ellis Island in the USA. They have very extensive archive on line that is really user friendly. Cheers Jim

  5. Ian Robbins

    I’ve only been to Bear RIver once and I loved it! Can’t wait to go back, maybe permanently. My Dad’s side came from there; David Robbins(murdered wife Emeline Chute; great grandfather Valentine, killed in WWI) Bring my guitars, drone and metal detector for some snooping..Beautiful area!!!

  6. Cathy Volpe-Paul

    My husband’s great grandfather was Henry Stewart Harris who married Henrietta Johnston. He was from Bear River; she was from Halifax. Does anyone know about this family and perhaps some offspring who are still in Bear River?


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