Bear River History

Bear River History


Native Mi’kmaq people inhabited this scenic glacial valley many thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans and continue to do so today. The tidal river that they called “L’sitkuk Elsetuk”, provided easy travel to the coast where they harvested various fish and clams. Inland they hunted abundant wild game, including caribou.

During a severe winter storm (around 1605-9) one of Champlain’s supply ships in command of Simon Imbert took refuge here and thereafter the river bore his name. Following the French Expulsion of 1755 the English settled the land and then call the river Bear – a corruption of Imbert.

The 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries

Among the first European settlers (1783) were German mercenaries known as Waldecians and Hessians.  Other settlers that followed included the names Chute, Rice, Miller, Clarke, Troop, and Harris.  The land lots purchased by many of those families are still in evidence in the community.  Due to the shortage of suitable level land, the downtown area was largely built on piers and stilts or on artificially created land supported by retaining walls.

The high river tides (7m) combined with an abundance of easily accessible mature oak and various softwood trees made shipbuilding and lumbering two important and profitable industries.  Markets were readily found in the West Indies, England, and North America.

In its hey day (1890’s) Bear River had six shipyards and six lumber mills even though its population was only 1200.  With the affluence so generated, many shops, supply stores, and service centres were established.  Many large, elaborate homes were constructed along the steep hillsides on both sides of the river.  Later, visitors would refer to the area as “The Switzerland of Nova Scotia”: a name by which it is often described to this day.

Various wood articles were produced at Bear River in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.  These include hogshead staves for the local and export market, barrels for the sugar refineries at Moncton and Halifax, and barrels for the apples and  other fruits locally produced. Block making and wool carding as well as specialized sawing made to order were other occupations of these industrious people.

The Clark Bros., among their many enterprises, catered to hunting and fishing parties but their biggest single endeavor was their sawmill and woodworking plant at Lake Jolly, about 14km South East of Bear River.  Here they  produced spruce and pine lumber as well as shingles and box material. The mill was later converted to handle hardwood and produced dowels, clothes pins, window sashes, door frames and toy furniture.

By the turn of the century steam engines and steel hulls signaled an end to the age of sailing ships and the people turned to logging as their primary source of income.  The influential Clarke family even promoted a pulp mill for the area (1919-1920).

Present day Bear River

Since then much has been done to cater to the tourist trade which  is now the main industry  of the region.  One of its primary undertakings has been a waterfront development project  including a peace park complete  with picnic tables overlooking the river and a tourist information centre.

Another unique endeavor has been the construction and operation of a solar aquatic sewage facility. Village sewage is treated using aquatic plants, bacteria, in a greenhouse enclosure.

An increased awareness of the environment and ecology has resulted in a large increase in the number of striped bass and salmon returning to the river each year.

For more Bear River history, visit the Bear River Historical Society website.

Source/credit information:
SAWPOWER:  Making Lumber in the Sawmills of Nova Scotia by Barbara R. Robertson.  A co-publication of Nimbus Publishing Ltd. and the Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1986. Crown copyright, Province of Nova Scotia, the Department of Education & Nova Scotia.


50 thoughts on “Bear River History

  1. Larry Smith

    Just dropping a note to congratulate you on a well-done web site. I like the concise and readable Bear River history. The pictures help make it real. Now I’m off to learn more at the Bear River Historical Society website.

  2. Lisa Smith

    Hi, and please let me first say- Flora, your responses to questions are just fantastic! I read through them and you make everyone feel so welcome.

    On that note, :-), I was hoping you could assist me as well. I tried the link for the Historical Society’s database but it doesn’t work.

    I am looking for information on Benjamin Bernard J. Rice, born 5 July 1864 in Bear River. He emigrated to Massachusetts sometime after 1885 when he married Jessie May Thomas (b. 12 Jan1869), also of Bear River. I have her parents as James Henry Thomas (b. 11 Jan 1825) and Sarah Ann Quigley (b. 28 Feb 1830)

    I have his parents (possibly erroneously) listed as Benjamin J Rice (b. 28 Feb 1823, d. 13 Oct 1902 in Bear River) and Elvira O’Dell (Odle) (b. 28 July 1826, d. 17 Apr 1867, also in Bear River).

    I’ve checked the Edmund Rice Association for their names and they do not come up. I am trying to find (check) a link between Bernard and William Rice (b. 24 Jun 1774, d. 27 Nov 1833); the current link is not checking out via ERA.

    Thanks in advance for any assistance.

    Lisa Smith

    1. Flora Doehler Post author

      Hi Lisa!
      Welcome to the site and thank you for your kind words.
      I found some information on the Edmund Rice Association site. They also have a facebook page. They seem to have the motherload of information about the people you are researching so I would connect with them. If you are having any difficulties with their site, I see that their contact email is:
      Susan Berger
      Good luck with your search!

      I found this reference to your Benjamin Rice here:

      Here is a reference to your William Rice:

      Benjamin Rice1
      To learn more about the early descendants of Edmund Rice visit the Edmund Rice (1638) Association,.

      Benjamin Rice was born on 5 July 1864 at Bear River, NS.2,3 He was the son of Benjamin Rice and Elvira Odle.2 Benjamin Rice married Jessie Thomas, daughter of James H. Thomas and Sarah Ann Quigley, on 2 April 1885 at Bridgetown, Annapolis Co, NS.3 Benjamin Rice died on 23 September 1951.4
      Children of Benjamin Rice and Jessie Thomas
      Harold Rice4
      Lena Rice4
      Priscilla Rice4
      [S1376] McCormick 1975, pp. 61, 90.
      [S1376] McCormick 1975, p. 61.
      [S1433] Annapolis County Marriages, 1864-1910, LDS film number 1298863: p. 164, no. 19.
      [S1376] McCormick 1975, p. 90.
      © Copyright 2002, 2011 by the Edmund Rice (1638) Association
      William Rice1,2
      To learn more about the early descendants of Edmund Rice visit the Edmund Rice (1638) Association,.

      William Rice was born in 1774 at Annapolis Royal, Annapolis Co, NS.1,2 He was the son of John Rice and Sarah Smith. William Rice married Anna Hardy, daughter of Aaron Hardy and Eunice Gaskill, on 25 October 1795 at All Saints Anglican Church, Granville, Annapolis Co, NS.3,4 William Rice died on 27 November 1833 at Bear River, Annapolis Co, NS; the Rice Gen’l Register says the family resided on the east side of Bear River, NS. The Chute genealogy says that they resided in Clements, on the east side of Bear River.5
      Children of William Rice and Anna Hardy
      Captain John Rice+
      James Rice
      Stephen Rice+
      Mary Rice+
      Ann Rice
      William Rice+
      [S1372] McCormick 1973, 589.
      [S3] Rice Gen’l Register, pp. 119, 206.
      [S3] Rice Gen’l Register, pp. 119, 205.
      [S1293] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, IGI.
      [S1397] Wayne W. Walker, Walker – Rice Notes, Chute genealogy.
      © Copyright 2002, 2011 by the Edmund Rice (1638) Association

      1. Lisa Smith

        You are fabulous! Thank you very much. Maybe one day I’ll get to Canada and see where they all came from. I wonder if there are still any descendants living there…..

        Have a wonderful weekend.


      2. Flora Doehler Post author

        I hope you do Lisa! There are many Rice families in the area. I’ll forward this thread to a couple who I know and see what they have to say about it.
        It’s kind of cool to hear from someone in Alaska.
        Take care,

    2. Derek Thurber

      I know Jessie Thomas’ brother was Henry Thomas as I am researching his home on Parker Road. Most of that family also moved to did many families after the golden age of sail when Bear River was booming.
      Henry’s wife was Ida Laura Rice (d/o Israel). It is my belief that Henry built 72 Parker Road in Bear River after acquiring the land from his father-in-law.
      Henry lost his shingle mill to fire in 1885 at the head of the tide and ran into financial difficulty where the home went to Melvin Omar Rice in 1893. Not sure where he went but at least 2.3 of his 10 children ended up in Somerville, Mass.

    3. Teresa

      My name is Teresa Rice. I was born in Digby Nova Scotia in 1957. My grandfather was Vernon Rice married to May Nichols I think that’s her maiden name. My grandfather had 4 sons, Bruce, Donald, Malcolm and Chester. Would love to know if you have any information on my grandparents. I know my dad used to tell us that Bear River was a community of black people and he was the only white person allowed in at the time.
      If you have any information that would be great.a

      1. Deborah Rice

        Hi Teresa. My name is Deborah Rice. My grandparents also were Vernon and May Nichols. My father was Donald. I have heard the story of Bear River as well with the twist that our grandmother “forbade” our parents to allow us to anywhere near Bear River.

  3. Shirley Gravel

    Looking for an email for Ray Riley. He mentions my family in his a nice way.
    Thank you

      1. Shirley Gravel

        Yes, thank you and we have been in touch several times. FYI my maiden name is Mayo.

        Sent from my iPad


  4. Barbara Harris

    Hi my husband family (Harris) came from Bear River. The last name I have been able to trace is George Canning Harris. A document I found on the internet said that he was part of Orangism and the meetings were held in his barn loft which still stands today. We will be in the Bear River area this summer for a day or two and I am hoping to be able to do some research, perhaps even locate the homestead. I believe there may be family still living in Bear River. Any advice would be appreciated.

    1. Wayne Harris

      Three families with the surname Harris settled in the Bear River/Annapolis/Digby area in the last half of the 18th century. Information on all three can be found in W.A.Calnek’s History of Annapolis County and the supplement by A.W.Savary. A PDF copy of these books can be downloaded here:

      Taunya Harris of Bear River or Brian Harris of Marshalltown have the family tree for the descendants of Samuel and Sarah Harris who arrived from Massachusetts between 1760 and 1765.

      Wayne Harris

      1. Barbara Harris

        Thank you for your response. Samuel & Sarah is the family that I am researching. I will be up there the 1st week if August. I would love to meet up with family!

  5. Amanda

    hello my name is Amanda Hanley, I am writing because i do not know much of my mother’s family history. My great grandfather’s name was Arthur James Johnson and it is rumoured he was born at Bear River in 1905. My cousin, Sister and I want to know more about our family and we are only going in the first step offered. Anything will help even if the answer is no he was not born here that will give us a step forward. Thank you
    Amanda Hanley
    Ryan Johnson
    Ashley Robinson

  6. Mary Sepich

    I am inquiring about my grandfather, Rutherford Smith. I don’t know how many siblings but I do know that he had a sister, Abigail. He was a descendant of the Catherine family – originally from Northern Ireland. In the late 1800’s he came to Rockport, Massachusetts and married my grandmother Lizzie Poole Smith. My father, Leland P. Smith was born in Rockport in 1904. Is there anyone that can tell me when the Catherine family came to Nova Scotia?

    Thank you.

    Mary Smith Sepich

  7. Mackenzie

    This is an excellent site for information on Historic Bear River. I was hoping someone could provide information on a a man named Herbert Elroy Rice. He is a distant relative but I have heard he is from the Bear River Area. I understand he was born in 1905 and died in 1974 married to Emily Hall and then Jessie Dunphy. He was an apple grower and was renowned for the cider he made from it. He was also rumored to have fathered 17 children! Any information would be helpful.

    1. Flora Doehler Post author

      I found this on the internet. Please check out the Bear River Museum web page. They have some great links to local genealogical sites there.

      Herbert Elroy Rice 1
      To learn more about the early descendants of Edmund Rice visit the Edmund Rice (1638) Association,.

      Herbert Elroy Rice was the son of Stanley Rice and Jennie Morine.2 Herbert Elroy Rice married 1st Emily Hall, daughter of Joseph Hall and Harriet Webber, on 20 May 1931 at Weymouth, Digby Co, NS.2,3 Herbert Elroy Rice married Jessie Dunphy before 1949; it is very likely that this couple was never married, although they were the parents of these children.4 Herbert Elroy Rice and Emily Hall were divorced on 29 October 1949 at Nova Scotia.3
      [S1376] McCormick 1975, pp. 92, 128.
      [S1376] McCormick 1975, p. 92.
      [S2344] Timothy L. Sanford, “Rice Divorce Records”, E1628/1948.
      [S1376] McCormick 1975, p. 128.
      © Copyright 2002, 2011 by the Edmund Rice (1638) Association

    2. val

      Herb Rice, Jesse Dunphy and their kids were neighbors of mine when I was growing up in Bear River. They lived down the Kniffens Hollow Road, just over the first bridge. One of their boys, Clarence, was a very good friend of ours. He and his brother Lawrence were killed in a car accident several years ago. One sister lives in the Bridgetown area, a brother lives in Labrador, another brother in the Annapolis Royal area. Not sure where the others are, and I do believe there were 17.

  8. Stephanie

    Hi….I am trying to locate some family history on a William Harris who resided in Bear River in the 1880’s, 90’s…. He had children in Yarmouth, and also in USA and traveled from Yarmouth to Boston for visits.

    1. Flora Doehler Post author

      Hi Stephanie, Birth dates or more info would be helpful as Harris is a very common local name. However, maybe this is the one:

      William Sears Harris1To learn more about the early descendants of Edmund Rice visit the Edmund Rice (1638) Association, . William Sears Harris was born on 19 December 1847 at Bear River, Annapolis Co, NS.2 He was the son of Benjamin James Harris and Susan AmandaPotter .1 William Sears Harris married Lauretta Henshaw, daughter of James Henshaw, on 15 October 1874 at Boston, MA.3 William Sears Harris died on 30 July 1929.3 He was buried after 30 July 1929 at Mount Hope Cemetery, Bear River, Annapolis Co, NS.4 He and Lauretta Henshaw appeared on the census of 1881 at Smith’s Cove District, Digby Co, NS; William L Harris, male, married, age 33, born Digby, Nova Scotia, Occ: Carpenter; Loretta A Harris, female, married, age 30, born Annapolis, **; Benjamin J Harris, male, age 4, born Digby, Nova Scotia; Mabel G Harris, female, age 6, born USA; Lorn W Harris, male, age 3, born Digby, Nova Scotia; Ze…H M Harris, female, age <1, born Digby, Nova Scotia; born: **; 4/12.5William Sears Harris was a carpenter in April 1891.6 He and Lauretta Henshaw resided on 18 April 1891 at Smith's Cove District, Digby Co, NS.6 Children of William Sears Harris and Lauretta Henshaw

      – Mabel Grant Harris 4 – Benjamin James Harris 4 – Loren Wilborn Harris 7 – Zerauh Amanda Harris 7

  9. Wanda MacEachern

    I am interested in finding any information on a Jones family who resided in Bear River–late 1800’s and /or early 1900’s.We believe they may have owned a hotel on the Annapolis side of Bear River.Love the site ,also Mr.Riley’s account of growing up there and also the “two artists site”.Wanda

    1. Flora Doehler Post author

      Hello Wanda. Thanks for writing. Have you visited our ‘sister’ site, the Bear River Historical Society? There was another query about a Bill Jones and you can read the thread here: Perhaps this is the same Jones?
      The Museum in Digby has a wonderful collection of materials from the area and they may be able to help you with your search. Check out their page about all the Geneological materials they hold:
      Good luck!

  10. Elizabeth

    Lovely to read all this information. Our family is thinking of moving to Bear River in 2 months but not sure about schools or commute time to Halifax. Any ideas?

    1. Flora Doehler

      Hi Elizabeth,
      It takes about 3 hours to drive to Halifax.
      There are schools for K-12 in Digby (15 min) and in Annapolis Royal (25 min) and school buses to get there.
      The closest Universities are St. Anne’s in Church Point (45 min) and Acadia in Wolfville (75 min). There is a community college in Middleton (40 min).
      Have a good drive here Elizabeth!

  11. Bill Metcalfe

    I am doing some research, trying to find good examples of abandoned rural schools that have been turned to community use. My organization ( assists rural communities with local economic self-reliance. We are based in Nelson, B.C.

    I have discovered Oakdene Centre, but I have not been able to find anything on the net about the history of it. If someone could direct me to something on the net or give me the name and phone number of someone I could call, I would appreciate it. You can reach me at


    1. Flora Doehler

      Hi Bill,
      I have forwarded your message to the current chair of the Oakdene, Linda Mae Findlay and Board member Robbie Bays with a cc to you.
      There is a little bit of Oakdene contact info under the ‘organizations’ tab on this website.
      Thanks for contacting us,

  12. David

    Hello, This is a great site. I am trying to track down information about my relatives Quigley from Bear River. I was actually on here trying to figure out where the Quigley House was located. I have a picture of it and a description of the location 50 meters south of Harris Brook Bridge.

  13. Diane

    Great site. I am researching my family and found they lived in Bear River in the 1920’s and was wondering where I may find records of their births and deaths. I was planning on visting Bear River this summer and was hoping to do some more reseach.
    Thank you,

  14. sally

    hello, i am researching my family tree and I have found that my great-grandfather and great grandmother were from bear river. his name was benjamin rice and his wife was jessie walking? rice, married 1895 and immigrated to cambridge mass in 1889. i wonder if there is a way i can contact the historical society for any information on these relatives. thank you, sally

    1. Bear River Board of Trade

      Hi Sally, I have forwarded your email to the Chair of the Historical Society and also to a local resident who is also a Rice. Rice and Harris are both commen names here. There seems to have been a lot of movement from here to the New England states and back again. I hope we can find some answers for you! Thanks for asking! Flora

    2. Donald Gordon George Rice

      Hello ,I too have ancestry from this lovely part of the Maritimes!!!Or line came north to Cape Breton around 1800.

    3. Tammy Sanford

      hello, I am a descendent of Edmund Rice as is Benjamin Rice who married Jessie Walking. My brother Timothy Sanford is a regular contributor to the Edmund Rice Geneology which can be found at They host an annual Rice reunion each year in September and have been doing so for nearly 100 years. Your ancestor is listed on this website and Tim would be happy to speak with you as well. Hope this helps, Tammy

  15. Ray Riley

    Good Folks:

    I just recently arrived back at the Bear River website site to finally download several years of “The Tributary” only to find the website changed (its excellent!!) but only the recent issue available. (OK, I should have downloaded them before but in our older years we procrastinate a bit more!!!).

    In any event, can I convince you/someone to put them back up?? – I’m sure the file is still sitting intact on someone’s computer. They are a real plus for those of us now ‘from away’ who try to keep some connection to the river and the valley and those two tides a day!



    1. Joan Young (Porter)

      Ray, read your story on Growing up in Bear River. Printed it off for my sister, Doris, and our Uncle Harold Porter, to read. Enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed following your excurtions in around the village. I worked at The Northern Miner as a receptionist in 1988.

      1. Flora Doehler Post author

        Hi Joan,
        I have forwarded your message to Ray. Thanks for sharing Ray’s wonderful memoir. We would love to publish more for this site or for the Bear River Historical site. Please pass the word! 😉 – Flora

  16. Flora

    Hi Mel,
    There are lots of old apple trees around Bear River; some of them quite ancient; some of them abandoned. We have a few trees on our land that I’d love to get identified. I know we have Gravenstein, which is a Nova Scotian variety. Delicious like a mac, but a good keeper over the winter and good for baking.
    I’m going to alert the Clark descendant here in Bear RIver. Perhaps he knows the answer. I’d love to know more about the reference that you found.
    Thanks for asking!

  17. Mel

    Hi Ginny Thanks

    I don’t think this ever made it into a commercial nursery. It is more likely to be in a private collection, locally. The gents name was Me Clarke, who from reading these pages seem to be a local family.


  18. Ginny

    Hi Mel,

    As a transplanted Brit, I am very interested in heritage fruit trees from the UK and also our adopted region’s apples, but have never come across such a variety.

    The main area for apple growing in Nova Scotia is further east along the Annapolis Valley.
    You could try contacting the following:
    Helen Arenburg at the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers Assn. (
    Or you could try speaking to Jim Inglis, an organic apple grower from Bridgetown, NS – (902) 6652427.

    I have a selection of heritage apples on order for this autumn from Siloam Orchards in Ontario, so that we can start our own Heritage Orchard right here.
    For more information from them you can e-mail

    Best of luck,
    Ginny Hurlock, Bear River

  19. Mel

    Hello all

    I’m an Heritage apple historian and grower in the UK. I recently came across an article that mention a very unusual apple in relation to your village. This apple was Goldren Russet on one end and Boston stripe on the other. The split was horizontal. I’m interested to know of this local apple still exsists or if anyone knows any more about it ?



    1. Teresa Templeton

      You live in London, ON. I was trying to find some family history on the Rice’s. My dad is Malcolm.
      Nice to hear from you.


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