Nova Scotia

McNabs Island's crumbling historic houses deserve to be saved, guide says

A private shuttle operator in Eastern Passage, N.S., is calling on the province to repair three historic houses which sit within the boundaries of McNabs Island Provincial Park before they are completely ruined and devoid of historic value.

Senior parks planner with province says they can't afford to do repairs

A private shuttle operator in Eastern Passage, N.S., is calling on the province to repair three historic houses which sit within the boundaries of McNabs Island Provincial Park before they are completely ruined and devoid of historic value.

The Conrad house, the Matthew Lynch house and the Jack Lynch house are the last three historic houses remaining on the north end of the island in Halifax Harbour.

Two of them have particular historic significance:

  • The Conrad house was built as a summer home by A.J. Davis, who operated the A.J. Davis Soda Pop Factory on the island.
  • The Matthew Lynch house was the childhood home of businessman Bill Lynch, who got his start in the fairground business on McNabs.

Mike Tilley, owner of the nature tour company McNabs Island Ferry, always includes the houses on his tours when he brings visitors over from the mainland. He told CBC's Information Morning they get a bit more run down every year.

"What is the rationale for letting these beautiful historic houses literally fall to the ground?" Tilley asked. These are "three beautiful pieces of our built heritage that are not going to be replaced."

Poor condition

Tilley said the foundations are crumbling, the shingles are coming off in patches, and the inside walls are mouldy. He said he's been pleading with the province to board up the windows — including some stained glass ones — to prevent vandals from entering the buildings and doing more damage.

Ringing the doorbell on the Matthew Lynch house as proof, Tilley said power is still going through wiring that could be 100 years old, and there are no lightning rods on the houses. Every time there's a thunderstorm he worries one of the houses will burn down.

The province is "wasting hundreds of thousands of my tax dollars on stupid stuff they don't need," he said. "Boats and wharves and service sheds, when they don't do any service."

Can't justify repairs

Brian Kinsman, senior parks planner with Nova Scotia's Department of Natural Resources, said the houses are assets which are worth preserving, but the province doesn't have the money to do it. 

"We haven't been doing enough, in that regard, to maintain those properties," he said. "There's just been of a lack of resources to stabilize and maintain them to extent that they should be."

Part of the challenge, Kinsman said, is that it's difficult to justify expensive repairs when the province hasn't decided what to do with the properties in the long term.

But he said it's going to become more expensive as time goes by to bring them back. "It would be better to put money into them now, at least to stabilize them," Kinsman said. "And then we can sort out down the road what use they're going to be put to."

Too expensive

Kinsman said there are 130 provincial parks in Nova Scotia, all vying for money from the same small pot. As a result, his department can only afford to do basic maintenance on McNabs Island.

"In fairness, McNabs is competing with schools and hospitals and all those other social programs we all ask for and expect out of government," he said. "It just hasn't risen to the top, I guess, in [the] long list of priorities for government."

Kinsman estimates it would cost between $300,000 and $500,000 to fix up all three historic houses on the island.

Great potential

Tilley said the province shouldn't have bought the properties if it wasn't prepared to take care of them.

McNabs and all of its treasures hold a special place in his heart. "I've been hiking, biking, camping, building treehouses, salvaging wood, apples, berries on the island for over 50 years now."

Tilley is one of only three remaining private landowners on the island and he plans to retire there. He said it's good to have a civilian presence on the island to keep an eye on things and hopefully ward off vandals.

He said he wants to see the historic houses turned into a bed and breakfast, tea room and museum. He also proposes a nature study centre for students.

"Any other city in North America would kill to have a situation like this, and what do we do? Just let it fall or burn down," Tilley said. "It's ridiculous."

The CBC's Nina Corfu visited the island as part of our summer series on provincial and national parks in the region. 7:30

With files from Information Morning

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