Established as a nail factory in 1861, Dartmouth's Starr Manufacturing Limited
soon began making its famous Starr skates and selling millions of pairs around
the world from 1863 to 1939. The plant also played an important role in the sale
of the first hockey sticks and excelled in other areas such as the production of
the golden gates to Halifax's Point Pleasant Park.
Before any debate on hockey's
origins, Starr ads proudly proclaimed in 1907: "Probably every prominent hockey player
in Canada - for the past 40 years - has used Starr skates.
Sixteen different styles,
to suit all kinds of ice." Clearly, hockey players were using Starr skates in 1867 as
documented by newspaper reports at that time - eight years before Montreal supporters
claim the game originated there in 1875!
Soon after the invention of the Starr skate, newspapers began to report on the popularity
of the new product. Referring to the crowds of skaters on the local ponds, The Halifax Reporter
complained in 1867: "Could not the Common and City Prison Committees put their heads together
and keep the two ponds on the Common cleared. There are a lot of hulking vagabonds in the City
Prison who should be made to shovel the ponds and then confer a direct benefit on the citizens
who support them in idleness and luxury.
If the gentlemen on those committees wish they can thus
confer a great favor on hundreds of our young folks as well as many grown up people for who does
not love skating especially since Forbes and Bateman's Patent Skates have been so extensively
used." Detailed descriptions of any sporting activity were rare but the Starr skate warranted
a lengthy report in February of the same year: "The skating on the Arm last week for a few days
was tolerably good and well patronized, as such cheap entertainments generally are... But the
greatest of all good things is the ‘Acme Skate.' No half hour getting your gimlet into a
tough heel: no giving way of leather straps nor buckle-tongues breaking: no pinching of
toes nor cramping of instep: no cold fingers nor wet —: in fact, Forbes deserves to rank
with the Reformers of the 19th Century, for his reform saves what is commonly called the
‘pinching of the boot.'"
In February of that year, Starr sent "a remarkably handsome
collection of skates" to the Paris Exhibition and its business continued to expand..
In 1871, The Halifax Reporter noted: "The Starr Manufacturing Company's establishment
at Dartmouth, although working at its fullest capacity, is unable to supply the demand
for the new celebrated Forbes' Acme Skates. Orders are constantly received from all
parts of the world. To meet this great demand the Company are extending their establishment
by erecting a large three storey building."
Starr's influence on skating and hockey soon extended throughout the world, with millions of
skates being sold during the next seventy-six years. On a recent visit to the childhood home
of Captain Bob Bartlett in Brigus, Newfoundland, I found two pairs of the famous Starr skates
on display in this National Historic Site. Perhaps these skates accompanied Bartlett and Peary
on their famous expeditions to the North Pole which began in 1898.
Although the Starr plant was demolished in 2000, the lands present unlimited heritage
opportunities with the original Shubenacadie Canal locks and inclined plane on site together
with the underground water turbine which ran the factory. Significantly, Halifax Regional
Council voted unanimously in March, 2003 to apply for National Historic Site status for the
Starr property. It is hoped that a portion of the site will be used to construct a museum
to showcase our tremendous hockey history.
Summary with respect to the Starr property was presented by Martin Jones at a public meeting held in October, 2003 to discuss heritage opportunities for the site.
The Starr property represents the land link between Sullivan's Pond and Halifax Harbour - the final portion of an historic Mi'kmaq water route access Nova Scotia that was used for thousands of years and formed the route for the Shubenacadie Canal.
The Starr lands include the historic inclined plane that was the last portion of the Shubenacadie Canal which was one of the most significant engineering projects undertaken in Canada in the 19th century. The Starr site contains locks from the Shubenacadie Canal which were built between 1826 and 1831. The first canal project stopped before completion due to damage to the locks from a storm and financial problems encountered by the developers. Five completed locks are contained on this and the adjacent Esso Garage site.
The Starr Manufacturing Company was started in 1861 and used the water from the canal in a separate flume to power the plant's turbine which produced nuts, bolts and nails.
In 1863, John Forbes and Thomas Bateman from Starr, invented the modern-day skate which revolutionized skating and the game of ice hockey. With sales offices throughout the world, over 11 million skates were sold until the Great Depression. The skates were recognized as the best of any skate on the market and were used by most National Hockey League Players (including 6 of 7 of the world champion Montreal team of 1902) and amateurs throughout the country and around the world. In 1908, the Winnipeg Telegram proclaimed: "Canada has the greatest skate factory in the world, and that factory is the Starr Manufacturing company's works situated by the sea at Dartmouth in the province of Nova Scotia."
The Starr Acme Skate, which automatically adjusted to fit tightly to the skater's boot, replaced the previous skates which were strapped on with leather belts or were screwed to the boot. Reflecting the name on the blade, skates around the world became known as Halifax skates.
Although Starr Manufacturing stopped making skates in 1939, its influence on our history continued. During the Second World War, the plant made rivets for ships, shell casing and brackets for degaussing ships sailing out of Halifax Harbour. This process protected the naval ships and merchant convoys from magnetic mines which were placed at the mouth of the harbour by German vessels. With many of its employees fighting overseas, the company replaced over eighty percent of its workforce with female workers. In fact, because of the demands of the war years, the women workers worked an additional three night shifts a week and the plant enjoyed its greatest production ever.
The Starr factory produced other items of historical importance - the Golden Gates at the entrance to Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, the first iron bridge in Nova Scotia and parts for the new railways.
Attractive exhibits won gold medals at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and at the Paris Exhibition of 1911.
Starr Manufacturing played an important role in the production and sale of the first hockey sticks.
Halifax Regional Municipality is in the process of making an application for National Historic Site recognition for the Starr property.
The rebirth of historic sites is not uncommon and the Fortress of Louisbourg is an excellent example of the potential for restoration. On the Starr property, the inclined plane of the Canal remains together with the underground flume and turbine which powered the plant and were preserved for future restoration at the time of demolition. The early locks are located on the site. Large beams from the building which illustrated a unique maritime construction process in an industrial setting have apparently been preserved and numerous artifacts from the plant are available. The site is significant as well because it is only a few blocks from the first Shubenacadie canal lock which was previously restored and the holding pond known as Sullivan's pond. These lands represent the final section of the historic canal which allowed travel across the province by boat.
The preservation of this site for a park and the construction of an appropriate museum celebrating this history could potentially provide a permanent home for the Dartmouth Heritage Museum and its significant collection from the last 253 years including items relating to the Canal and the Starr Plant. The new Canadian 5 dollar bill and our recent gold medal Olympic hockey wins reflect Canada's pride for its great winter heritage. The Starr site represents a significant opportunity to showcase our history which could include Dartmouth's ice industry which provided ice for over a century and our extensive canoeing heritage. The role of the Mi'kmaq, women and Scottish and Irish immigrants in the important history of these lands could also be emphasized. The addition of a refrigerated outdoor skating rink would enhance the viability of a museum during the winter months and provide an important community recreational service.
The Starr property is uniquely situated as a link between Halifax Harbour and the Dartmouth lakes. It is easily accessible from the MacDonald bridge, the rotary and the ferries and is in close proximity to the heritage core of Dartmouth. Current plans for the site indicate that there is ample space for a large museum, skating rink and appropriate parking. If there is a desire within the community to proceed, further study of all available options including funding and potential commercial partners for the project will have to be explored. The Dartmouth Regional Heritage Foundation represents a potential organization to facilitate this process in conjunction with other interested parties.