Ed Coleman's history: A failed attempt to harvest Fundy tides

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An artist’s conception of how turbines would be installed at the foot of Cape Split to generate electricity from Fundy tides.  - Submitted

You may think it’s déjà vu all over again if you heard that a tidal power project is proposed for the Bay of Fundy near Cape Split.

It’s another attempt, since developing tidal energy by harnessing the awesome Fundy tides has been tried before, the last time about a century ago; in 1916, to be exact, and personnel at Acadia University were involved.  There are mysterious hints as well that plans to harness the Fundy tides, on paper at least, were developed even earlier, in 1908. 

In 1916, a group called the Cape Split Development Company announced its formation; its grand plan was to generate power using unique turbines invented by Acadia University engineering professor, Ralph C. Clarkson.  Partnering with Clarkson was Acadia president Dr. George B. Cutten, a man who, like Clarkson, was obsessed with harnessing the Fundy tides. Joining them from Acadia were Dr. William L. Archibald, Professor Alexander Sutherland and, from Wolfville, former mayor T. L. Harvey.

Clarkson’s invention, a unique tide-generated turbine he patented as the Clarkson Current Motor, was the key ingredient in harnessing Fundy’s tides. Once accomplished, the power generated was forecast to supply unlimited electric power for the entire province and, potentially, for all of the Maritimes. Clarkson’s motor was tested first by engineers in the States and then on the Gaspereau River and was found to be workable.  

The general plan, outlined in the company’s prospectus and expounded on in publicity releases, was to use a combination of four Clarkson motors on the sea bed to power generators, which, in turn, would pump seawater into 200-million-litre power generating holding tanks at the top of Cape Split. With the Clarkson motor apparently proving capable of the job, the Cape Split Development Company purchased land needed for the holding tanks and generating facilities.  

The next step was an application to the government for a charter; this was granted immediately to the newly-named Bay of Fundy Tide Power Company, authorizing it to proceed with its project at Cape Split.

Everything was now ready for the tidal power project to proceed and only financing stood in the way. Clarkson and Cutten determined that the project would need financing to the tune $2.2 million. A financial campaign was started shortly after the project was announced.

Initially, the company raised $31,000 by selling shares, but the financial campaign wagon faltered. Despite the project’s huge potential, no more than the $31,000 was raised and the company, forced to admit its failure, became inactive. Eventually, it wound up its affairs, paying shareholders $4.41 for each $50 share they had purchased.

Cutten and Clarkson’s attempt to harness the Fundy tides wasn’t the first. Documents discovered decades ago at Acadia University, dated 1908, indicated that a grand plan was made to span the Bay of Fundy from Cape Split to Spencers Island, a distance of about five kilometres. Sketches in the document showed a causeway with dynamos that would generate electricity, along with a highway and train tracks. This may have been a “paper plan” only, since no other documents have been found indicating the project proceeded beyond this stage.

Organizations: Acadia University, Cape Split Development Company

Geographic location: Bay of Fundy, Acadia, Wolfville Gaspereau River Spencers Island

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  • Natalie
    January 31, 2014 - 11:21

    Let's not forget Acadia University's failed turbine more recently. They placed one on the bottom and the tide was so powerful that they nearly immediately lost contact with the turbine and when they brought it up they found the blades ripped clean off...