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Railway Cut Natural History: Introduction

Walkers along the cutting today, wherever they can circumvent thefencing which federal railway legislation requires the CNR to maintain(and, incidentally, us to respect) can be grateful to the railway plannersof 70 years ago who Inadvertently preserved for us a slim slice of anearlier, almost rural Halifax. If it were not for the cutting, the areawould be entirely private residential property, every trace of nativevegetation and earlier ways of life vanished.

Thanks to the railway we can still walk through a little of MarlboroughWoods. Around the turn of the century groups of children roared theselovely woods playing at Robin Hood, signalling each other with secret birdcalls which later, on First World War battlefields, enabled Haligonians tolocate each other.

Progressing wherever the railway's steel fencing has been breached, wecan follow a narrow footpath and find occasionally some flower or shrub toremind us of the stately gardens of yesteryear. Could the Manitoba Maplebetween Oakland and South Street be a survivor from the magnificent gardensmaintained at "Oaklands" by Samuel Cunard, second son of Sir William Cunard?

Nearing Coburg Road, where summer guests used to stroll in the groundsof Birchdale on the Arm, we can perhaps see with our imagination, if notwith our eyes, the handsome grove of Acacia trees once surrounding AcaciaCottage, which was moved to South Street at the foot of Henry Street in the1950's .

Here and there we will notice the thin, stony soil with its cropof poverty grass and rosy lichen give way to a stretch of rich, deep gardensoil and know that here a good gardener. once worked. According to theseason we may meet in these stretches the delightful surprise of such'garden escapes' as crocuses, grape hyacinth, daffodils, lily-of-the-valley, sweet cecily, day lilies, or pansies. Here and there a lilac shrubor horse-chestnut tree appears among the prevailing Indian pear. NearJubilee Road we cross the old Pryor estate where visitors enjoyed the sunnyblue of forget-me-nots stretching for hundreds of yards along the path, andperhaps it is their descendants we now see in patches of bright blue alongthe way in high summer.

Above Quinpool Road we find English Oak and further along, aresurprised by typical bog plants growing in the marsh area caused bydiversions of drainage from the railway.

Among the raspberry and blackberry bushes which rim both sides ofthe cutting for long stretches, we may here and there find a bush withunusually large berries and wonder if its ancestors were once a gardener'spride and joy. However that may be, the berries provide many a jar of jamor jelly in Halifax homes every year. In how many major cities may onehave the pleasure of going berry-picking in the fall ?

Time has softened the outlines of the scar made by dynamite andsteam shovel across Halifax's loveliest neighbourhood. And the railroad haspreserved for us the chance to step back in time and wander throughsurviving traces of wilderness, interspersed with evidences of the work ofpeople devoted to the creation of their personal vision of beauty.


The railway runs through the south end of Halifax in a cutting in slate ofthe Halifax Formation This is an ancient, metamorphosed sedimentary rock ofCambrian-Ordovician age (c.500 million years ago) and owes Its origin tosilt and clay eroded from a long-vanished mountain chain which must havebeen situated somewhere around where present-day Morocco now lies. This isnot as may initially seem since the Atlantic Ocean did not exist in thosetimes. The suspended matter from rivers settled out on the seabed in neathorizontal layers, but during Devonian times (400 m.y.ago)there was a veryactive period of mountain building and the layers were folded and heated.This event almost obliterated the original bedding planes (they can just bedetected), superimposing a completely different set of fracture planes andconsiderably toughening the rock by recrystallisation. Some of the heat andpressure for this probably came from the intrusion which formed the graniteon the other side of the Northwest Arm. If you examine this granite youwill see occasional lumps of Halifax slate which were mixed into it whileit was still in a mushy state. Thus the granite came after the slate.

Turning now to relatively recent happenings, the Ice Age, which beganmaybe as much as two million years ago, is the event which literallyshaped modern Nova Scotia. The Ice Age consisted of several glacialepisodes interrupted by warm periods. The latest cold spell ended about9000 years ago with the last ice melting from Nova Scotia on theCumberland Mountains and Cape Breton Highlands. As everyone now shouldknow, it is only a matter of time until the next cold spell starts.

During glacial events the ice sheets moved out from their centres offormation carrying rocks and clay picked up as they formed. The effect ofthese sheets moving across the landscape was to act as a gigantic rasp,smoothing off the landscape and wearing away the rock. Maybe 500 m. ofrock was removed in places.

The ice sheets eroded away soft and broken rocks more easily thanharder unbroken rock. Halifax Harbour and the Northwest Arm were groundout by the ice sheets, probably along fault lines. Thus HalifaxPeninsula, as a suitable deepwater port for military and commercial use,is the result of the Ice Age. When the ice cap melted, the smoothed-offrock surface, the so-called glacial pavement, was left exposed or coveredwith clay and broken rock. Where the latter was the case, the scratcheson the rock surface were preserved from weathering and can be seen whenthe glacial till is removed. This can be seen along a section of thecutting between Oakland Road and Regina Terrace.


The habitats which existed along the route before the railway wasbuilt can be deduced from a study of historic records and the existingvegetation. Basically the species composition of the vegetation isconservative, changes occur in a predictable way, and by knowing what isthere at present, a backward extrapolation in time can be made toreconstruct the former vegetation.

Some plants, for example Indian Pear and Pin Cherry, are pioneerspecies and will establish in fields. Thus a strong growth of theseimplies a former state of rough ground or pasture. Other plants areconservative and are unable to move much from their aboriginal sites.Examples of the latter are the grass Oryzopsis asperifolia , indian pipe,the moccasin-flower and the spotted coral root. Where the 1atter arefound you can be pretty sure that the vegetation has had only relativelygentle modification from its original state. With this type of knowledgewe can walk along the margin of the railway and put together a picture ofhow the human use of the land has varied from place to place.

Extracted from "South End Railway Cutting: Report No. 2 of the Area Studies Groups", Pierre Taschereau, Halifax Field Naturalists News, No. 27, Spring 1982.

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