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Fortress of Louisbourg blends modern and traditional techniques to rebuild after Fiona

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2022-12-04 Brittany Wentzell

Perched on the coast with little protection between it and the sea, the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site sustained damage to roofs, windows, and fences when raging winds from Fiona blew through in September.

Two months after the post-tropical storm hit, Parks Canada staff are still putting the pieces back together using both modern and traditional techniques. 

Fiona tore slate tiles from the roof of the King's Bastion, ripped cedar shingles off several buildings, tore lead flashing from a spire and broke windows. 

"The wind literally picked it up and peeled [the lead] back like a banana peel," said Ryan MacNeil, historical restoration craftsperson supervisor with the fortress.

The spire on the King's Bastion at the Fortress of Louisbourg. Lead flashing was damaged during post-tropical storm Fiona, but the spire has been deemed safe and will be repaired. © Brittany Wentzell/CBC The spire on the King's Bastion at the Fortress of Louisbourg. Lead flashing was damaged during post-tropical storm Fiona, but the spire has been deemed safe and will be repaired.

A quarter of the fortress and town was rebuilt in the 1960s and '70s and parts of it have now stood longer than the original French fortress did in the 1700s. MacNeil says its age and proximity to the North Atlantic means weather often takes its toll, particularly on the wooden buildings.

"It's holding up as one would expect and there's a lot of rot we end up having to deal with but that's par for the course."

Because the fortress is built to look and function like structures in the 18th century, repairing it can require creativity. 

Shortly after the storm, staff scrambled to find an expert to repair all of the slate tiles ripped off the roof of the King's Bastion — the largest building at the site — which is also home to some artifacts. They ended up finding an expert in Ontario. 

"That was kind of a major undertaking. It's still under way….  And now we are moving to piecing back together a few of the chimneys."

Glass for windows is imported from the same company in France that originally supplied all the rebuilt fortress's glass. MacNeil said it's hard to believe it's still available, but it does come with a high price tag.

Much of the roof of the King's Bastion has been repaired since Fiona. © Brittany Wentzell/CBC Much of the roof of the King's Bastion has been repaired since Fiona.

The carpenters working on the site use the expertise of historians and the blueprints from the original site to get the job done accurately. MacNeil says they also use existing pieces as templates. When they replace shutters, for instance, there are plenty of examples to copy.

"What we try to do is leave a finish on the wood that would be comparable to how it would have been presented initially so usually that means hand tools and tool marks as opposed to like a milling machine."

Some modern techniques are used, too. One of the homes — the Rodrigue property — lost many of its cedar shingles. MacNeil said the roof was already in disrepair so the storm gave the crew the opportunity to replace the whole roof. Although it will look historically accurate, it will have a synthetic membrane and a cedar breather to help it last.

Parks Canada didn't have a cost estimate or an exact timeline for when work will finish but MacNeil hopes to have it all completed before the site opens again in the spring. 

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