August 13, 1955: with thousands of spectators watching and participating, one hundred bagpipers led a parade across the Canso Causeway, officially opening the road connection between Cape Breton Island and mainland Nova Scotia. Ninety-nine of those bagpipers were playing "Road to the Isles," but, the story goes, the one hundredth piper refused to play. While the dignitaries of the day hailed the causeway as an economic boon to the Island, Roderick MacPherson - Big Rod the Piper - was less optimistic. What would the causeway really mean for Cape Breton? Would this link with the mainland make it too easy for Islanders to leave? Would it dilute something essential about Island life? Big Rod's silence was symbolic of a certain degree of apprehension about this long-awaited and much-debated project.
It is said that the vision of one hundred pipers playing "Road the Isles" came from Angus L. Macdonald, Premier of Nova Scotia from 1933-1940 and again from 1945-1954. Macdonald died the year before the causeway opened, but he had been its most fervent champion. Macdonald and others considered a mainland link to be essential for shoring up the Cape Breton economy. For years, Islanders had relied on a ferry system that was slow and inefficient. Trains that arrived at the western edge of the Strait of Canso, for example, were disconnected and the cars individually ferried across before continuing their journey to the coal mines and steel plant of industrial Cape Breton. The Second World War intensified the urgency to connect the Island's industries to bigger markets.
Over the years, various plans for mainland connections had been proposed, including a failed campaign for a bridge in 1901. The horrible economic conditions through the 1920s and 1930s, though, put the idea of a bridge on the back burner. By the 1940s and 1950s, the idea was once again on the table thanks in part to a changing political and economic landscape. Perhaps most importantly, Ottawa was interested: public investment in major infrastructure projects was an ideal way to create jobs for war veterans, help revive a struggling Atlantic Canadian economy, and ensure a stable and prosperous post-war society. A short-lived plan to build a low-level bridge in 1949/50 was abandoned for safety reasons, and in early 1951 Ottawa and Nova Scotia reached a deal on the causeway. Construction began later that year. After 27 months of continuous work, 10 million tons of granite, and at a cost of $23 million, the causeway opened to rail and road traffic in May 1955.
It was not only coal and steel, though, that relied on the causeway. The other commodity that could now easily move back and forth across the Canso Strait was tourists. Indeed, this was an essential part of Angus L. Macdonald's vision. A native Cape Bretoner who was deeply connected to his Scottish roots, Macdonald had driven the so-called "tartanization" of Nova Scotia in the interwar years as part of a strategy to boost tourism. Though he was not alive to see it, Angus L.'s vision was in full display at the grand opening of the causeway. The pipers, the tartan, the performance of "Road to the Isles" - all were meant to convey Cape Breton's quaint, peaceful, authentic, and, above all, easily-accessible Scottish charm.
Whether they were as optimistic as Angus L. or as apprehensive as Big Rod the Piper, Cape Bretoners could not have fully predicted the impact the Canso Causeway would have on the Island. The fate of the causeway, and what it ultimately meant for Cape Breton, was caught up in the broader currents of post-war change. Its economic impact was less dramatic than many had hoped, especially since the coal and steel industries were waning. Moreover, when construction wrapped up so did many jobs, and communities on either side of the Strait felt the loss of workers and people. On the other hand, the remarkable rise in automobile travel in the 1950s and 1960s meant that the causeway did indeed fuel the growth of Cape Breton tourism, an industry that continues to thrive in large part because of the Island's world-renowned diverse culture, natural beauty, and music scene. How ever Cape Breton's future unfolds, it is clear that the Canso Causeway was a crucial turning point in the Island's history.