The Origins of Tidal Power Discovered in our Bathroom

Have you ever hiked Cape Split? My memory of the experience is walking through the woods for two hours to arrive at a panoramic cliff-top view of the point where the Bay of Fundy meets the Minas Basin. Below are jagged rocks, shaped by the highest tides in the world that churn past twice a day. Then you turn around and trudge back through the woods for two hours.

In our bathroom hangs a little framed photograph of four carefully posed men perched on a rocky shore. The legend on the back reads “A chilly morning at Cape Split.” It is dated September 10, 1916.


The photo is hilarious (which is why it hangs in the bathroom) because today the Cape Split trail-head sign warns you to wear “appropriate clothing and sturdy footwear.” Several of these gents are clearly wearing suits and ties and city shoes.

We have the photo because the man second from the right was my great uncle Ernest Armstrong. I always assumed that, like we do today, uncle Ernest had visited the Split to admire the view, and imagined that in 1916 there was a road or that the group had travelled by boat for their little sightseeing adventure.

Then a few years ago, the meaning of the photo changed in an instant. We were attending a lecture by Dr Graham Daborn from Acadia University about the natural history of the Bay of Fundy. While recounting Acadia’s long tradition of studying the Fundy he mentioned a scheme to generate power using the tides at Cape Split. An engineering professor at Acadia, Ralph Clarkson, had founded in 1916 the Cape Split Development Corp, and had designed and patented the Clarkson Hydraulic Current Motor to generate the electricity. Here is a concept drawing for his project.

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Cape Split Development Company fonds 2009 Esther Clark Wright Archives, Acadia University

Also on the back of my photo is a list of the people and at the far right is Professor Clarkson. Uncle Ernest was a provincial politician so I realized that group was not there as tourists but to do business while standing at the exact site of the proposed power project. Ernest was a cabinet minister, maybe of Public Works at this moment, so his support or endorsement was perhaps being sought.

The framed photo was “Compliments of Ralph P. Bell.” Ralph Pickard Bell played an enduring role in the business life of Nova Scotia and Canada, creating, among other things, National Sea Products.


So the framed photo was perhaps a subtle reminder to a politician that he should remember, and think kindly of, a project that could use some government support.

The tidal power scheme, of course, did not happen. There were some encouraging engineering studies but financing did not materialize. If you are interested in the story it is told through documents from the Ester Clark Wright Archives at Acadia University available online. Also write-ups  here and here.

In the Acadia collection is a reprint from the August 1918 issue of Industrial Canada. On the first page of an article entitled “Harnessing the Tides of the Bay of Fundy” is our bathroom photo with a caption “A close-up view of the tide racing through the gap at Cape Split.”  What about poor uncle Ernest? Is he just chopped sturgeon?

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Cape Split Development Company fonds 2009 Esther Clark Wright Archives, Acadia University



  • Of course what has brought my little memento to mind is the latest instalment of the Fundy power adventure which is unfolding. Slowly.
  • The man to the far left in the photo was a lawyer named George Fredrick Pearson. Both he and Ralph Bell were involved at this time with the Nova Scotia Good Roads Association. This was a continent-wide movement to improve the road system for the benefit of the automobile (it had been started by bicycle enthusiasts but you know, CARS). So maybe uncle Ernest was being lobbied to build a road to the end of Cape Split.
  • The fourth man is J.L. Porter. He is still a mystery. Track him down.
  • Also on the back of my photo is a partial sticker from the company that Ralph had frame the picture. You can see that the business was at 171 Granville Street.  Junior sleuth award if you find the name of the company. By the way, Ralph’s father’s business was in the early concrete Bell Building on the Granville Street Mall.


  •  On the cover of a prospectus trying to get investors for the Cape Split Development Corp was a quote from Julius Caesar:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”


About the author

Stephen Archibald

It’s Stephen Archibald doing the noticing. I’m a huge fan of Nova Scotia’s material culture and cultural landscapes. Twitter (@Cove17 ) made me realize I could share what attracted my attention (perfect for my very short attention) and I’m gratified when folks enjoy my content. Pleased to meet you on the internet.