Seeing Daylight at the end of Sawmill River

Recently we joined about 100 other people on a Jane’s Walk in Dartmouth to look at the ongoing project to rehouse Sawmill River. The “river” has been flowing through a large diameter pipe since the early 1970s, taking the outflow from Sullivan’s Pond down to Dartmouth Cove. After 45 years, the pipe was collapsing and needed to be replaced.

The river was put underground after severe flooding caused by Hurricane Beth in August 1971. These pictures show the flood waters pouring out of Sullivan’s Pond compared to a recent image from Street View.

Halifax Water is responsible for the current project and their estimates are that, because of climate change, they need to plan for rain events that produce about twice the amount of water as Beth.

A big reason so many people showed up for the walk was to see a recently finished section of the river that was daylighted and built with landings where fish could rest on their way upstream.

Other sections of the river are covered with metal grills that allow in light. Turns out that fish don’t like to swim up long, dark, pipes.

A representative from Fisheries and Oceans told us that gaspereau were the most likely fish to use the re-engineered river to reach the Dartmouth lakes to spawn. Then maybe eels. Eventually these fish could help clean up the lakes that are now too nutrient rich for their own good.

In the next weeks, this first phase of the project will be completed, and pathways and the new landscape will be ready for all to enjoy.

Another interested party in this development is the Shubenacadie Canal Commission, because a marine railway once ran parallel to the river and was powered by water from Sullivan’s Pond. They have reconstructed the turbine house and a section of the flume and penstock. A sweet little animated film explains these terms, and how canal boats were pulled up and down between the harbour and the Pond end of the canal system.

Several years ago Sheila and I participated in an Ecology Action Centre-organized event, when a large group of people made paper gaspereau and “swam” them up the path of the buried river, symbolizing what could be if the river was daylighted and made fish-friendly. At that time there were several conflicting points of view about what should happen. It’s nice to see a resolution that feels like it has moved in the appropriate direction.

My colourful gaspereau symbolically swims above the buried river.



  • Engineers from Halifax Water spoke at the walk and were clearly excited by what has been accomplished in a very complex project. Like many people I was saddened to see the new section of open water was obtrusively fenced. The grassy slope is engineered to handle water during an extreme flooding event but maybe not so much people on a summer afternoon. I could be wrong.

In Seoul, Korea a couple of years ago we were enchanted by the beautifully designed edges to the river they daylighted through the middle of their city. A little of this would go a long way in Dartmouth.


  • Hurricane Beth was quite a thing. David Jones, on his Dartmouth History Blog, has posted some dramatic video from the event.


  • “Daylighting” often makes me start humming The Kinks 1973 song “Daylight”, from an album that,  back in the day, was often on lists of the 10 best albums of all time.

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.