The settlement of Halifax was established by Britain in 1749 to counter French influence in the region now known as Atlantic Canada. With its large harbour, Halifax would serve as a springboard for subsequent British attacks on the French strongholds of Louisburg, Quebec, and Montreal. While the harbour of Halifax served as an anchorage for Britain’s Royal Navy from that beginning, its importance would increase significantly a decade later with the establishment, in 1759 of a naval yard – the first royal dockyard in North America – as a base for provisioning, maintaining, and repairing vessels of the Royal Navy. Halifax would rank as one of Britain’s most important overseas naval bases for the next century and a half, and afterwards as a key naval facility, ship repair base, and convoy staging point during the two World Wars of the 20th century. As such, the harbour needed to be protected from enemy attack.
The initial Halifax Harbour defences consisted of earthwork gun batteries built around the inner harbour anchorage: on Georges Island (1750), on the Dartmouth shore opposite (Eastern Battery 1754) and along the Halifax town’s waterfront (1755 and 1761). However, during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), while the British captured Louisburg (1758), Quebec (1759) and Montreal (1760), the French succeeded in taking St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1762. This spurred an expansion and reinforcement of Halifax’s defences that year, with the threat of a French attack in mind.
It was decided at this time to push the defence of Halifax Harbour more to seaward than they had been to that point, to prevent enemy vessels from reaching the anchorage north of Georges Island. The area where the main channel narrowed between the Halifax peninsula and McNab’s Island was deemed an ideal location to construct fortifications for this purpose. Accordingly, Major-General John Bastide, the chief engineer responsible for Halifax’s defences, erected Point Pleasant Battery (initially referred to as Breastwork Battery and later Fielding’s Battery) at the southeast tip of that point. It consisted of a main earthwork redan mounting eight 24-pounders facing the shipping channel, with a subsidiary redan on its left flank of two 9-pounders to defend the battery against a landward attack.
The 24-pounders were essentially naval pieces, smooth-bore cannons the same as the main armament of British men-of-war of that period. Their maximum range was around 1,200 to 1,500 yards however, the width of the channel at that point is over 1,800 yards. Therefore, a second battery was planned for the northwestern tip of McNab’s Island at Ives Point which, in concert with Point Pleasant Battery would be able to cover the entire width of the channel, however the Seven Years’ War had ended before any substantial progress was made on it.
Point Pleasant Battery was rebuilt during American Revolution (1775 to 1783) now with five 24-pounders and the accompanying two 9-pounders, and again for the French Revolutionary Wars (1793 to 1802), the Napoleonic Wars (1803 to 1815) and the War of 1812 (1812 to 1815). It retained its form as a sod-faced earthwork redan throughout this period, and a Royal Engineers inspection report from 1812 indicated the battery to be in good repair, consisting of six 24-pounders on traversing platforms and a single 12-pounder on an iron carriage, with a furnace for heating shot, a barracks and guard room and its rear section enclosed by a picket fence.
In the peace that followed the Napoleonic conflict, much of Halifax’s defenses were allowed to fall into disrepair and ruin. The batteries at Point Pleasant were the hardest hit by the negligence, with most of the funding and construction effort in Halifax from 1828 to 1856 being devoted to the rebuilding of the Citadel. Point Pleasant Battery received little attention over these four decades and, from mounting ten 24-pounders in 1825, by 1834 had only a single 12-pounder cannon remaining.
In the 1850s and 1860s new rifled muzzle loading (RML) guns were developed that were much larger and more powerful than smooth bore cannons. These new guns were incorporated in the defences of Halifax Harbour and installed at Fort Ogilvie and Cambridge Battery in Point Pleasant, and across the channel at Fort Ives on McNab’s Island – the refit hastened by the American Civil War (1861 to 1865). As such, Point Pleasant Battery’s role as a main defensive fortification was diminished, but not superseded. Point Pleasant Battery’s guns numbered ten 24-pounders in 1852, which were upgraded to 32-pounders by 1861. There was some consideration given to mounting four of the new 9-inch RMLs at Point Pleasant Battery in the mid-1860s however this was never done, and a photograph from 1880 shows the old 32-pounders still mounted and pointed to seaward – they were gone by 1886. The new RMLs had made the older smooth-bore cannons largely obsolete by the 1860s, and Halifax’s defences became focused further to seaward in light of the greater range of the new guns.
Another development in naval technology was the torpedo boat, introduced in the 1870s – small, fast craft armed with powerful torpedoes. To counter these vessels, harbour defences were augmented with electrically controlled defensive minefields and searchlights. In 1886 Point Pleasant Battery was redesigned to incorporate two linked searchlight emplacements, located on the water’s edge some 80 yards west of the main battery, and an electric generating station was built close to the north side of the battery to power the lights. These formed elements of the Submarine Mining Establishment that was based on Georges Island from 1873 to 1904. The material used for these new structures was reinforced concrete, which had recently been perfected for use in military fortifications. The ruins of Point Pleasant Battery today show the remains of some of the earliest use of this material for that purpose. Power was generated initially by a coal-fuelled steam boiler, and the facility upgraded in about 1894 to use paraffin oil as fuel; the brick and stone building that housed these engines stands close to the gravel road running past Point Pleasant Battery today.
In the late 1890s, a quick-firing (QF) gun emplacement was constructed at Point Pleasant Battery, consisting of two 12-pounders, which was operational by 1900-1901. Able to fire six aimed rounds per minute, per gun, this smaller, lighter battery was intended to work in conjunction with the six other QF batteries and various searchlight emplacements ringing the harbour approaches as a defence against torpedo boat attacks.
In 1904, with the withdrawal of the Imperial Garrison from Canada, the defences of Halifax, including Point Pleasant Battery were handed over to Canada. Point Pleasant Battery continued to be a key element of the Halifax Fortress through the First World War (1914 to 1918), with the two 12-pounder QF guns and searchlights forming part of the anti-submarine and anti-torpedo boat harbour defences.
New concrete emplacements for modern searchlights were constructed in 1940 during the Second World War (1939 to 1945), with the central shelter of the gun emplacement converted to an engine room for the new lights. This extended the contribution of Point Pleasant Battery in its centuries-old role of defending Halifax, this final time against the scourge of Nazi U-boats in the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic. It is the ruined remains of this mid-20th century version of Point Pleasant Battery that can be seen today. A sharp-eyed visitor will however be able to spot the remains of a couple of 32-pounder gun pivots, granite blocks, and at least one of the racers from the old 1880s emplacement, scattered amongst the rocks on the foreshore.
Point Pleasant Battery guarded the entrance to Halifax Harbour for 183 years – the longest span of active defense of any other fortifications in the Halifax Fortress except for Georges Island, and thus one of the longest serving fortifications in all of Canada. Although British in origin and with long service under Imperial rule, from 1904 and during both World Wars it was a fully Canadian fortification, manned and maintained by Canadian personnel.
The Evolution of the Halifax Fortress 1749-1928 by Harry Piers (The Public Archives of Nova Scotia, 1947)
Defending Halifax: Ordnance, 1825-1906 by A.J.B. Johnston (Parks Canada, 1981)