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.
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.