Nova Scotia

Military fort under Nova Scotia oil facility should be excavated, archeologist says

Fort Clarence, a military fort built more than 250 years ago, could be a "beautiful destination" for visitors to Dartmouth, a local archeologist says, except for one hitch — it's completely buried underground.

Imperial Oil says excavation is not part of the plan right now

A view of Fort Clarence overlooking Halifax harbour in 1927. The fortification was covered with dirt in the 1940s, but a local archeologist believes it's time to dig it up again. (Glenbow Archives)

Fort Clarence, a military fort built more than 250 years ago, could be a "beautiful destination" for visitors to Dartmouth, N.S., a local archeologist says, except for one hitch — it's completely buried underground.

The "very large" fortification, established by the British in 1754 and rebuilt with stone in the 1860s, was covered with dirt and capped in the 1940s, David Jones told the CBC's Information Morning, in order for an oil refinery to be built on top. 

The west ditch is seen at Fort Clarence in 1870. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Jones wants the fort to be excavated.

But the company that owns the land and runs the facility on the site says that's not part of the plan. At least, not yet.

'Open to dialogue'

Exxon Mobil Corporation announced the closure of the Imperial Oil refinery on the site in 2013, saying it was converting the facility into an oil storage depot. 

Jones said that's a missed opportunity.

The entrance and drawbridge are seen over over the north ditch at Fort Clarence. (Nova Scotia Archives)

"There's a very good chance that most of Fort Clarence is intact underneath the oil refinery today," he said, especially given that the structure wasn't dismantled before the area was infilled.

Jon Harding, spokesperson for Imperial Oil, said the company has no plan at this point to excavate Fort Clarence, but he said the company is "open to dialogue" on the subject.

Potential tourist draw

In the meantime, he said, it's important to remember that the site is still in use, as a means to supply the market with refined oil products.

This photo from 1878 shows the Martello Tower, which was used as a barrack room for 18 soldiers. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Jones said he wants the province to honour the Special Places Protection Act and plan an excavation at the site. 

He said the fort could become a tourist draw for Dartmouth. "I think it would make a really nice, complementary feature to Citadel Hill," Jones said.

Archeologist David Jones, shown here with former councillor and mayor of Dartmouth Gloria McCluskey, says a restored Fort Clarence could become a tourist draw for Dartmouth. (David Jones)

This is a "unique opportunity" to "make something really cool," he added.

More research needed

Gary Andrea, spokesperson for the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, said they would need more details to speak about the feasibility of the idea. 

"The decommissioning of the Imperial Oil refinery does present an opportunity to further explore what archeological resources still remain at the site," Andrea said.

This photo from 1877 shows a wooden building on the road leading to the fort. (Nova Scotia Archives)

"The first step in this process would be for an archeologist to carry out desktop archival research on the history of the refinery property and then initiate the first stages in field reconnaissance," he said.

Parks Canada spokesperson Jeffrey Lansing said his department is already in charge of five national historic sites in the Halifax area, which are known collectively as the Halifax Defence Complex.

Only a plaque

They include the Halifax Citadel, Georges Island, York Redoubt, Fort McNab and the Prince of Wales Tower in Point Pleasant Park.

"These sites reflect Halifax's rich history," Lansing said, "and any further opportunities to raise interest in our heritage or help Canadians learn about our nation's history would be welcome news."

People construct a gun pit at Fort Clarence in 1880. (Nova Scotia Archives)

There is a plaque on the site that marks the location of the old fort, Jones said, but a lot of people miss it. The news that a whole fort is buried underground "does surprise a lot of people," he said.

Jones, whose father and great uncle worked at the refinery, said he has heard stories over the years of employees finding pieces of the fort as they worked at the site.

The Imperial Oil refinery in Dartmouth as it looked in 2012. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
One can still see the fort in this image of the Imperial Oil plant from 1931. (Nova Scotia Archives)


Nina Corfu

Associate Producer

Nina Corfu has worked with CBC Nova Scotia since 2006, primarily as a reporter and producer for local radio programs. In 2018, she helped launch and build a national website for preteens called CBC Kids News. Get in touch by email:

With files from the CBC's Information Morning.