The Development of Whitney Pier

Backgrounder

Whitney Pier, a neighbourhood in Sydney, Nova Scotia, was once one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the Maritimes. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of immigrants from Europe, the West Indies, the United States, and elsewhere were drawn to Cape Breton to work in iron and steel production. Many settled in Whitney Pier, and their labourers came to share a deep-seated working-class identity, despite ethnic, racial, and religious differences. The many religious, social, and cultural institutions still present in Whitney Pier illustrate the enduring world that working people built for themselves, in spite of economic hardship, in the neighbourhood overlooking the steel plant. 

Prior to the 20th century, this area was known as “Eastmount” or “South Sydney Harbour,” and had long been a fishing and farming district. In 1899, Henry Melville Whitney, a Boston businessman, created the Dominion Iron and Steel Company, which constructed a steel plant at the site. This plant would employ thousands, but the demand for labour could not be met by the local population. Instead, skilled and unskilled labourers from around the world found work at the plant. Many of these new immigrants settled in the neighbourhood that emerged beside the steel plant, which became known as Whitney Pier. The district was incorporated into the City of Sydney in 1904, and its population grew from around 500 in 1891 to 4,000 in 1903, and to 8,000 in 1913. 

Approximately 3 square miles (7.7 square kilometres) in size, Whitney Pier was geographically separated from the rest of Sydney by the steel plant, railway tracks, and Muggah’s Creek. The separation was also symbolic, as many Whitney Pier residents were excluded from Sydney because of their class and ethnicity. However, the residents of Whitney Pier turned separation to their advantage. They developed a local culture that revolved around the appreciation and nurturing of ethnic traditions and deep respect for the self-sufficiency of working-class people. Strong communal institutions were built by the immigrants themselves, including a strong union, benevolent societies, sports clubs, cultural groups, and businesses. Over the course of several generations, a strong sense of community emerged in Whitney Pier, defined by the diversity of its residents and their shared working-class identity. 

More than a century after steel production began in Sydney, the steel plant location was remediated and is now home to beautiful Open Hearth Park. The Park connects the Sydney Waterfront District to the communities of Whitney Pier, Ashby and the North End where the Tar Ponds, Coke Ovens and steel plant once stood.

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