When Port Royal fell to the English in 1701, it left the ocean entrance to New France along the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence river exposed. In the hope of retaining the Atlantic side of Acadia, in 1711 the French sent De Labat, the former engineer officer at Port Royal, to survey the harbour at Chebucto and to make a plan for a fortress there.
De Labat selected today’s McNab’s Island as the site for a new town and designated a high cliff on the western shore of the harbour, opposite today’s Maugers Beach, as the location for the main harbour fort. Nothing came of these plans, as all of mainland Nova Scotia became British in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht. But De Labat had a sound military eye and several years later his judgement came to fruition under the British.
York Redoubt, located on a bluff overlooking the entrance to Halifax Harbor played a key role in the defence of the harbor and city in the 19th and 20th centuries. The fortification evolved from a simple earthen battery in the 1790s to a powerful gun emplacement by the late 1800s and later a command post for harbour defence in the First and Second World Wars. Today the site, covering 75 hectares or 185 acres, is administered by Parks Canada and displays a large number of 19th century rifled muzzle-loading guns, many on their original carriages.
The first fortification on the site, on a granite cliff 150 feet (46 metres) above sea level on the western side of the harbour entrance, consisted of a small 230-foot long crescent-shaped earthen battery. It was built after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War in 1793 to defend the British settlement and naval anchorage that had been established in 1749 at Halifax. By 1795 the battery mounted eight 24-pounder smooth bore cannons on traversing platforms; many years later in the late 1850s these were upgraded to 32-pounders. Around 1798, under the direction of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, the British commander-in-chief at Halifax, a barracks for thirty men was added, along with a Martello tower to the rear of the battery. The tower was named the Duke of York’s Tower, after Prince Edward’s brother, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, and the fortification as a whole was named York Redoubt. About 40 to 50 feet in diameter, the tower stood 30 feet tall and incorporated a magazine and accommodations for 100 men, surmounted by a gun platform with six 12-pounder carronades and two 6-pounder cannons. It was intended to defend the rear of the battery from landward attack. Today the lower portion of the Duke of York’s Tower is all that remains of the 18th century fortification, a fire in the 1890s having destroyed the upper storey.
Shortly after the cannons were upgraded to 32-pounders in the 1850s, the fortification was completely rebuilt and greatly enlarged in the 1860s and 1870s, during a period of simmering hostility between Britain and the United States. The advent of new, rifled ordnance and ironclad warships at this time made it necessary to upgrade the defensive fortifications protecting Halifax. The new defence works at York Redoubt consisted of a long eastern face mounting three 10-inch (18-ton) and eight 9-inch (12-ton) rifled muzzle loading (RML) guns on dwarf traversing platforms, firing over embrasures in the parapet; these were all in place by 1873. A number of these guns can be seen today at the site. The rebuilt redoubt was intended to cover the harbour entrance in conjunction with the new Ives Point Battery on McNab’s Island, the guns having a maximum range of about 6,000 yards and an effective range of 2,000 yards. An escarp wall and ditch protected the front (east face) of the battery, with a concrete gorge (rear) wall guarding the west side from landward attack. Two attached loopholed caponiers were built on either side of the Duke of York’s Tower, and a powder magazine was located near the southern end of the redoubt, protected by a stockade. All of these upgrades were completed by 1877. The Duke of York’s Tower was used also as a relay station for signals sent by flag from Chebucto Head to the Citadel up to 1879, when a telegraph system was established.
In 1891 a pair of 6-pounder quick-firing (QF) guns and searchlights were added at the northern corner of York Redoubt to guard against infiltration of the harbour by fast torpedo boats. By 1892 a new battery of two 64-pounder RMLs was in place at the southwestern end of the redoubt to defend against overland attack from an enemy landing at Herring Cove. A fire command post was built during the First World War on the high ground about 600 metres southeast of the redoubt, to coordinate gunfire from the new long-range emplacements at Sandwich Point and Fort McNab.
During the Second World War York Redoubt served as a command position for Halifax Harbour defence, and a new Fire Command Post was built on Position Hill, the highest point of land near the southern tip of York Redoubt, with a clear unobstructed view of the harbour approaches. This bunker contained an observation room and the gas- and bomb-proof Fortress Plotting Room. To prevent German U-boats from entering the harbour a steel anti-submarine net was strung from the shoreline at York Redoubt to Maugher’s Beach on McNab’s Island. This was guarded by two modern twin 6-pounder QF gun mountings at the newly built York Shore Battery and nearby searchlights.
York Redoubt remained in military hands until 1956. It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1962 for its evolving role as part of the Halifax Defence System from the late 18th century to the Second World War, in protecting one of the principal naval stations of the British Empire and of Canada. The site has been open to the public for visiting since 1968, under the control of Parks Canada. Today York Redoubt displays five 9-inch and one 10-inch RML guns on carriages in the original embrasures, and an assortment of RML and smooth-bore cannon barrels lies beside the car park. An additional undetermined number of guns including 9- and 7-inch RMLs were unearthed in 2005 during excavations near the car park – they remain buried at the site today. While York Redoubt is generally well-maintained, sadly the York Shore Battery has been neglected and permitted to deteriorate; it has been fenced off to visitors and access to the interior of all structures at York Redoubt has been restricted.