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Island Overview

McNabs and Lawlor Islands Provincial Park, located at the mouth of Halifax Harbour, comprises all of Lawlor Island and most of McNabs Island. Fort McNab National Historic Site of Canada is operated by Parks Canada and is situated on McNabs Island.

McNabs Island is the larger and more diverse of the two islands. McNabs is about 5 km long and up to 1.5 km wide. Its 400 ha (1000 acres) present a combination of historical and natural features, and recreational and educational opportunities. The second island, Lawlor, is not open to the public.

McNabs Historical Perspective

A 5000 year-old shell midden (refuse heap) is evidence of pre-European contact Mi’kmaq use of McNabs Island.

In the 1690s, the French used the island as a fishing centre and planned to build a fortress similar to “Louisbourg” on McNabs. In 1713, mainland Nova Scotia was ceded to the British, and the French built Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island.

When Edward Cornwallis established a British settlement in Halifax in 1749, he granted most of McNabs Island to his nephews. Then in 1782, Peter McNab purchased the island for £1000 from the Cornwallis family. Under the McNab family, the island was cleared and tenant farms were established. The McNabs remained a presence on the island for over 150 years.

Beginning in the 1860s, the British Admiralty bought large parcels of land from the McNab family and established Ives Point Battery, Fort McNab and Hugonin Battery to better defend Halifax. Most of the northern end of the island remained in private hands. Since the early days of Halifax, McNabs Island has been a popular recreational destination. During the 19th century, thousands would leave the city to attend picnics and socials at the island’s picnic grounds. This trend continued until the 1920s when Bill Lynch, who had bought one of the island’s fair grounds, took the fair off the island and created the Bill Lynch Shows.

During WWI and WWII, the island was largely under military control. The island played a key role in controlling access to Halifax Harbour. Searchlights on McNabs Island patrolled the Harbour and submarine nets were laid between the island and mainland.

In the 1960s, the military transferred most of their holdings on McNabs to Parks Canada for use as parkland. Then in 1983, the Province assumed responsibility for assembling a park on the Halifax Harbour islands. In 2000, Parks Canada transferred all but Fort McNab National Historic Site of Canada to the Province for park purposes. Today, less than 1% of McNabs Island is privately owned.

For a more detailed history on the island see Discover McNabs Island by the Friends of McNabs Island Society.

McNabs Natural History

McNabs comprises nine large drumlins overlaid on slate and granite bedrock. Drumlins are glaciallyformed deposits of rocks and earth, and are generally well drained and suited to farming.

The island was originally covered in forest, which the founders of Halifax were quick to exploit. Over the years, most of the island was cultivated and the wood lots harvested.

Today, the island’s forests are of various ages. Older forests date to the 1800s and comprise red maple, beech and red spruce with an understory of hayscented fern. Old abandoned fields have become colonized by white spruce.

In the 1880s, Frederick Perrin, who was a keen gardener, introduced several hundred plant species to his Victorian estate on the island (near the site of the former teahouse). Many of the original trees and shrubs are still standing.

The island’s shoreline varies from cobbled stone to fine sand, with salt marshes in a few sheltered coves. McNabs Cove became McNabs Pond with the construction of the causeway to the Maugers Beach Lighthouse. The causeway also caused the formation of the dune system on Maugers Beach.

Deer, rabbits, coyotes and other animals inhabit the island. The island is known to birders, who have documented 206 species of birds on the McNabs Island.