Places – Devil’s Island

Devil’s Island is in the news today over the issue of its lighthouse – will it be saved, and by whom, and why it should be, and so on.

Anyone from Nova Scotia who reads this blog probably knows that Devil’s Island is the outermost island in Halifax Harbour. The island is maybe best known for being the place where Helen Creighton did some of her earliest folklore collecting, most of that from Ben Henneberry. I grew up hearing about stories of how the devil once showed up to a Sunday night card game on the island, and was identified by his cloven hooves.

Devil’s Island is low-lying, and you might assume from afar that it is a sandy barrier island, but it is not. Devil’s Island is actually bedrock, or slate, similar to the “ironstone” that makes up the old drystone walls and foundations in the oldest parts of Halifax (although it could be related to the bluestone found in parts of Lake Echo, I’m not sure – where’s a geologist when you need one?). The ocean side of the island is sharply corrugated by the rock striations, and littered with flat cobbles.

I visited Devil’s Island a few years ago, and these pictures I am sharing are from that trip. When I was there, the old house, the second-most prominent building on the island other than the lighthouse (pretty much the only other thing left standing), was empty inside save for a moudly old armchair and some makeshift kitchen counters. An old boyfriend of my mother’s once Went Hermit and spent a couple months squatting in the house. I don’t think my mother was impressed; she kept searching and found my father.

The island is mainly covered in grass and various weeds and wildflowers. There are lots of little hummocks on the east side of the island, old seagull nests. Little paths crisscross in and out and around the hillocks – they’re rat paths. But don’t worry, they’re little rats, nothing near the size of their waterfront cousins. Just don’t plan for a picnic on the island if you’re rodent-averse.

Despite the bald lighthouse and empty house, there’s nothing particularly menacing about Devil’s Island, no bad vibes or ghostly fingers on the spine. But standing on the island and looking back at the harbour still gave me an odd sort of feeling. The island seems abandoned and forgotten by the bustling inner harbour denizens, and yet it is so close that it is never beyond the glow of the city lights.

I’m not going to say that the lighthouse should be preserved for nostalgia alone. And yet, how wonderful is it crossing the harbour in the winter dusk and watching the navigation buoy lights blinking all the way out to the open sea? It’s true that lighthouses don’t guide the way for very many storm-tossed vessels in our day and age, but I think they serve a new purpose – reminding us to look out beyond ourselves and tell stories and even daydream, however inaccurately and nostalgically, about where we came from.

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48 Responses to “Places – Devil’s Island”


  1. 1 nancybond 05/01/2009 at 4:19 PM

    Nicely written — I’d give my eye teeth to live here…or in any other lighthouse or light-keeper’s house. It’s so SAD to see all our beautiful lighthouses abandoned.

  2. 2 Jonathan Eells 05/05/2009 at 1:23 PM

    I very much like your idea about preserving lighthouses as representatives of human ideals: looking outward, seeking the horizon, and if I might add a certain ethic of caring for one another. These are basic human cultural norms, I think, and if preserving a small coastal structure at little cost can communicate those norms for all time… well, we should do that.

  3. 3 The Garden Ms. S 05/21/2009 at 11:37 PM

    I spent the first dozen years of my life living a twenty minute walk from the Halifax harbour and somehow, lighthouses still have a profound effect on me. They do signify the connectedness between us all — a reaching out of safe arms to each other. I do hope this lighthouse is saved.

    Thanks for the reminder about the devil at the card game story. I used to thrill to that story when I was a child 🙂

  4. 4 Alice MacKinnon 08/18/2009 at 4:49 PM

    I lived on Devil’s Island until I was 5 years old. It is so sad to see the disrepair and know that in a few years, all that will be left will be rubble. I have some great memories of the island, as we went back every summer and fall for many years to picnic or pick cranberries. My father was also a fisherman in his spare time and we would go with him to pull his nets or set his traps and always passed by. Thank you for the pictures. Perhaps next summer on my annual holiday home we will try to get out for a last look.

    • 5 Walter Nicolai 12/08/2009 at 6:45 PM

      I would appreciate it if Alice MacKinnon would contact me regarding living on Devil’s Island, Nova Scotia. I believe she is one of the last people to live there.

      I am currenly doing an art project related to Devil’s Island and would like a chance to speak to her.

      Best Regards and Thank You,

      Walter Nicolai – Faculty in Art & Architecture – Keene State Col
      603-358-2191

      • 6 ALICE MACKINNON 10/22/2010 at 11:50 AM

        I apologize for not getting back to you. I have been very busy and have not gone back to check on this. My niece just sent me the note that you were looking for me. You can contact me at this e:mail address but I don’t know how much help I could be. My mother, on the other hand, is still living – she is 84 – and could probably give you more info. At any rate, feel free to contact me if you are still looking for some facts.

  5. 7 theresa pitts 09/08/2010 at 11:50 AM

    I spent several nights on devils island during my summer visits to NS in the 80’s. The house was liveable then, albeit our last visit to the island was so disapointing because all the windows in the house were broken, signs of vandalisim inside. We were so sad that anyone would destroy a part of history. Back then the coast guard cared for the lighthouse, keeping up with painting and maintenance. They would fly in on helicopter. They did once while we were there an allowed us to go inside the lighthouse. What a marvel that was for all of us. We are all decendants of the Henneberry clan. We ejoyed seeing where we originated. Such a piece of history needs to be preserved.

  6. 8 bill mont 12/21/2010 at 1:27 PM

    as owner of devils i welcome comments ph 8303732 902

  7. 9 bill mont 12/21/2010 at 1:29 PM

    as owner of devils i welcome comments at wmont@ns.sympatico.ca or ph 902 8303732

  8. 10 MARGARET LATTER 01/01/2011 at 5:17 PM

    I too lived on Devil’s Island for a short time. I loved going back there when I was a young child while my late father brought in his fiishing nets and traps. I would have so much fun going through the old school houses,and old houses families lived in. And often when my family went there to pick cranberries me and some of my sisters would go up to visit the MacDonald family that lived there.I have such fond memories of Devil’s Island and are forever ecthed in my mind. I miss the place very much.

  9. 11 Lynn 03/04/2011 at 10:18 AM

    I have hiked on McNab’s and am curious about the walking opportunities on Devil’s Island. Is hiking allowed? Are there trails? What are the beaches like?
    Thanks all

  10. 12 Hilda 07/22/2011 at 11:45 PM

    My parents were born and raise on Devil’s Island. Ben and Aletha Henneberry.

  11. 13 Tim 01/04/2012 at 4:09 AM

    Hello, I have a painting that originated from Devil’s Island in the late 70’s early 80’s. It was painted by an artist who lived there. The painting was one of two but unfortunately only one remains. It has been in the family ever since. I wounder if your mothers boyfriend who went hermit was an artist and if he painted it? I’d like to find out who the artist is to return it.

    Thanks,

    Tim

    • 14 bluenosegardener 01/29/2012 at 7:32 PM

      Hi Tim! Sorry for taking so long to approve your comment. From what I have heard of ‘the ex,’ he wasn’t much of a creative type, but I will definitely run your comment by my mother to find out for sure. In any case, this post still seems to get a fair amount of traffic, considering it’s on a sadly neglected blog, so hopefully someone else interested in the Island might drop by and be able to answer your question.
      Regards,
      Sarah

    • 15 bill mont 03/12/2012 at 11:39 PM

      i have pics of the painter he and his girlfriend lived there how did you get the painting bill mont ph 8303732

    • 16 bill mont 02/21/2014 at 11:31 AM

      what is the painting of there was an artist living on devils and his women around that time bill mont 8303732

  12. 17 mark 02/21/2012 at 7:07 PM

    We were caught in a hurricane that was passing by the island and caught us off guard and had to stay the night in the old house before being air lifted as our boat floated away with the dock tied to it..i love the island mark

  13. 18 joe 07/23/2012 at 9:09 AM

    I remember being out on Devils Island in 2005 or 2006. Not sure who I went out with..possibly the owner ( Bill). We boated out wit our lunck of bottled water and coctail weenies and spent the day repairing shingles on the house. Think there was 4 of us all told. Was a nice hot day …beautiful place “:)

  14. 19 Ina York 09/07/2012 at 1:47 PM

    Hi: I was born and raised on Devil’s Island.My parents were Edmund and Lizzie Henneberry. Ben Henneberry was my grandfather.There were eight of us children, six girls and two boys.

  15. 20 Kathy 10/19/2012 at 7:56 PM

    My family is also part of the Henneberry clan from Devil’s Island. My Great-Great Grandmother was Sarah Jane Henneberry (Naylor). She was Ben Henneberry’s sister. I lived in NS my whole life and have never stepped foot on Devil’s Island, but I’m hoping to do that very soon. Seems the island would be far too small to have a Henneberry family reunion! 🙂

  16. 21 Karl MacKeeman 03/09/2013 at 2:21 PM

    I lived on the Island for nearly four years in the early 1970’s. I hate to see it fall to decay. It is not an easy place to visit so I doubt that it will ever be a tourist attraction. As an artist retreat or place that writer’s might visit it might function. Lights will be a great loss to our shores when they are all gone. They served mankind faithfully and deserve a better fate.
    Karl MacKeeman

  17. 22 Karl MacKeeman 03/09/2013 at 2:39 PM

    Those arn’t rats. They’re marsh voles. We had a pair of snowy owls on the Island one winter, along with my dog and cats they were nearly wiped out.

  18. 23 lynn 07/12/2013 at 11:11 AM

    .Seems there is a connection to the Horne family regarding the Island-would anyone care to add a few comments. Lovely site, btw. lynn.

  19. 25 Marilyn Thompson 07/15/2013 at 5:49 PM

    My dad was born on Devil’s Island – Raymond Henneberry! I have one of the first editions of Helen Creighton’s book and treasure it dearly – I would so love to go over and visit my dad’s roots. Maybe we should have a huge family reunion of some sort!!

    • 26 lynn 07/16/2013 at 7:47 AM

      A grand reunion of some sort should be considered. It would be a great thing to do! I want my son to be able to say he too walked where his ancestors once walked. I wish someone would save the old lighthouse. And should not the light keeper’s home be saved somehow?

      • 27 Theresa Pitts 07/16/2013 at 8:09 AM

        The lighthouse keepers house is gone. It was destroyed by a hurricane around two years ago. It was a lovely house until vandals smashed all the windows thus allowing winds to completely destroy the house.

  20. 28 Kathy Fitzgerald 07/16/2013 at 1:57 AM

    My 6 times great grandfather, Andrew Phillip Henneberry was the first to settle on Devil’s Island and where most of the Henneberrys noted here began their Devil’s Island roots. I would love to see the Island restored to the time when about 20 families lived on the Island with the houses and school and, of course, the lighthouse! I’ve been working on my family tree for a few years now so if anyone is interested in having some information, I am more than happy to share what I have.

    • 29 lynn 07/17/2013 at 9:51 AM

      hello Kathy; are there any connections to the Horne family in your family tree?

      • 30 Kathy Fitzgerald 07/17/2013 at 7:18 PM

        Hi Lynn:

        Yes, there is. Andrew Phillip Henneberry’s parents are Michael Henneberry, born about 1756 in County Kilkenny, Ireland, died around 1820 in Halifax or Eastern Passage and Catherine Elizabeth Horne, born Sept. 5, 1757 and died about 1798 in Halifax or Eastern Passage. Catherine’s parents were: Jacob “Jacques” Horne, born around 1732 in Strasbourg, Germany and died April 16, 1821 in Eastern Passage and Francoise Anastasie Savary born around 1728 in Port Royal and died March 13, 1823 in Eastern Passage. Jacob’s father, Michael Horne was born in Strasbourg, Alsace, Germany, but I don’t have anything further about him other than he was married to Barbe Lobgerine, also born in Strasbourg, Alsace, Germany.

        Kathy

      • 31 Lynn 07/24/2013 at 8:17 AM

        Hi Kathy, Absolutely wonderful information- refutes the connectives! I truly support the idea of a pilgrimage to visit Devil’s Island to accompany a monstrous reunion of sorts. I am only across the harbour and would love to help out in some manor or form should this ever go into organizational volunteering. Do not hesitate to contact me. L. Verge

    • 32 donna cameron carter 05/20/2016 at 2:51 PM

      can you contact me at dcarter3@twcny.rr.com Henneberry is an ancestor from Devil’s Island I’d enjoy seeing the family tree. specifically we have Susan Johanna McDermott nee Hennebery thanks
      Donna Cameron

  21. 33 Kathy 07/24/2013 at 12:11 PM

    Hi Lynn: I would also love to have a reunion of sorts as well. Not sure the Island could hold us all. 🙂

    Kathy

    • 34 lynn 07/31/2013 at 12:51 PM

      Hi Kathy: My goodness, yes! It would be a record setting happenstance of the most people ever to stand on an island at one time….. :0)
      Lynn

  22. 35 Mark 10/13/2013 at 5:19 AM

    Has anyone been able to find out when the fire occurred?

  23. 36 Sandra Daly 10/30/2013 at 10:14 PM

    Hi All

    I, too, am a Henneberry, but from Dartmouth. My Henneberry relatives came from Sambro, and I am wondering if anyone knows of a connection between the Henneberrys from Devil’s Island and those from Sambro. One interesting thing about the two groups is that the Sambro Henneberrys all seem to have been Methodists/Protestants, whereas the Devil’s Island/Eastern Passage Henneberrys seem to have been Roman Catholics.

    Another thing I have been trying to figure out is which of Mary & Andrew Philip Henneberry’s sons perished with them in the gale in 1840. One account I read says it was James, but all the records indicate that James Thomas Henneberry died in 1876. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

    • 37 Kathy Fitzgerald 10/30/2013 at 10:36 PM

      Hi Sandra:

      Mary and Andrew Henneberry were my 3 times great grandparents and from the research I’ve done on my family tree, it has always been my understanding that it was their son, James, that perished on Dec. 9, 1940.

      I hope this helps. 🙂

      Kathy

      • 38 Kathy Fitzgerald 10/30/2013 at 10:55 PM

        Hi again, Sandra:

        A correction on the above, that should be Dec. 9, 1840 not 1940.

        Well, your question got me digging a bit further, and I’m thinking it may not have been James, but perhaps William. William was born in 1832 and I do believe the son that drowned was about 9 years old. James would have been about 18 at the time. So, I think I will go correct my information and dig a bit further to see if I can confirm it was actually William.

        Kathy

      • 39 daly1@rogers.com 10/30/2013 at 11:37 PM

        Thanks for your prompt replies, Kathy!  Yes, it was 1840…I didn’t even notice that typo, because I’ve had 1840 stuck in my head all day.  I’m thinking, like you, that it was William, (although Hewett History states it was James who died) because I think I remember reading the son was younger, 8 – 10 or so, but I can’t remember where I saw that.  I have James Thomas Henneberry married to Eliza Ann Osborne and they have a son James Richard born in 1869.  So that’s when I thought that it couldn’t have been James who died in 1840.  As well, almost all the family trees that I see have James Thomas as dying in 1876, but none of Andrew Philip’s children are shown as dying in 1840.  If you come up with anything else to confirm or deny that it was William who died, please let me know.

        Sandi

        ________________________________

      • 40 Kathy Fitzgerald 10/30/2013 at 11:54 PM

        HI Sandi:
        I vaguely remember my Great Grandmother telling me the story….sure wish I wrote all her stories down at the time! The only thing I remember is that the boy was about 9 and they were returning from Halifax after shopping. I wonder what possessed them to try to make it back to the Island, unless it was a completely unexpected storm?

        I’ve been asked a lot about the relations with the Sambro Henneberry’s and I’m sure there is a connection. Have you been able to research your family tree at all? (Mary was my 4 times great grandmother, not 3. omg, I have Freddie Flintstone fingers tonight!) I didn’t research a lot of brothers/sisters when I did my tree….I’d need a whole forest for that), but I might be able to pass on some of the information I did find that would be useful to you.

        Kathy

      • 41 daly1@rogers.com 10/31/2013 at 12:21 AM

        Hi Kathy

        What you are recalling from your Great Grandmother is what I was reading about.  Andrew Philip, Mary, and son were returning from a Christmas shopping trip in Halifax.  It sounds as if the route was via Eastern Passage, because they went down between Eastern Passage and Devil’s Island.  Yes, I agree, that it must have been a sudden storm, or over confidence that they could make it back home.  And the age of about 9 for the son also fits with something I think I read, but I haven’t found that source again.

        I have been researching my family, and can go back several generations to Sambro to my 3rd great grandfather John Martin Henebery born 1793, but I don’t know where he was born.  I have been hoping to find the connection to the first family member to come over from Ireland, but haven’t been successful so far.  I started working on the Henneberrys of Devil’s Island/Eastern Passage because I have always wondered about the connection between the two groups.  I remember asking my mother about that many years ago.  All she could say was that there was talk about a child/children being adopted into a family of Methodists and that is why we weren’t Catholic, but she couldn’t be sure that was true.  Presumably all Henneberrys originating from Ireland were Catholics back then.

        I don’t have any specific questions to ask about the Sambro group right now, but thanks for your offer of help.  I have only been at this for a short while but my tree keeps expanding like crazy…I know what you mean about needing a whole forest!  I’ll get back to you if another conundrum comes up.

        Sandi

        ________________________________

  24. 42 Nora Henneberry Gibson Hanzel 11/03/2013 at 7:00 PM

    I was born on Devil’s Island, I am the daughter of Edmund and Lizzie Henneberry. We moved off the island in 1943. I remember Helen Creighton coming to our home and taping folk songs that my father sang and also my grandfather, Ben Henneberry. I have several song books with my father’s folk songs in them as well as Helen Creighton’s book called: Bluenose Ghosts. I now live in Florida and 2 years ago we took a trip to Eastern Passage and a family member with a boat took us out to Devil’s Island. Not much left there anymore……lots of high grass……I think just one tree…..and some wood from fallen houses and the lighthouse. We packed a lunch and cold drinks and had a picnic. I would be in favor of being part of a family reunion on the Island, and I would definitely be there.

  25. 43 bill mont 02/21/2014 at 11:43 AM

    a reunion on devils island sounds good keep me posted bill mont

  26. 44 Kathy Fitzgerald 02/21/2014 at 10:26 PM

    Well, I think a reunion would be amazing and like Lynn, above, I would be more than willing to help with the organization of such an event.

  27. 45 sybil 04/08/2014 at 5:41 PM

    There was a discussion in the comments section here about a family of three who drowned at Christmas time on their way to Devil’s Island On page 98 in the book “Historic Eastern Passage” by John Boileau I found this: “… Sadly (Andrew) Henneberry, his wife, and their son James were drowned just before Christmas 1840 in the ocean off their island home. They were returning from Halifax one night in a small boat with several purchases for Christmas, when storm weather struck and capsized them.”

    My connection to Devil’s Island is emotional and not historical. Living in the Passage, I always get a thrill looking out at that island and it’s lighthouse.

    It’s very kind of Mr. Mont, to support a family reunion on the island. I am sure that “The Beacon” would love to do a story if you ever do make it over there.

    If you go, I’d love to see some pictures posted here.

    All the Best, Sybil

    • 46 lynn 04/09/2014 at 12:41 PM

      Yes I too still see the possibilities of a reunion on site -wish someone would put it all into motion before it is too late for the many who are aging and might still be able to make such a journey. All Best, Lynn.

  28. 47 bill mont 09/26/2014 at 9:52 PM

    call me if you want a reunion on devils bill mont 902 8303732

  29. 48 Trish 11/09/2014 at 8:05 PM

    Mr. Mont, I am overjoyed at your response and willingness to perhaps allow a family reunion on the island. I am the grand-daughter of Ben and Aletha Henneberry. I too remember visiting the island when I was young and there were still a few houses left. I went back years later and met the artist that lived in the last standing hojme, He was a kind, very old Norwegian, who kept all the windows covered with nets saying ‘no ghosts,,,,no ghosts’,,,believing the nets kept the ghosts out…he played his accordion for us,,,,I have not been back since, but I will never forget my experiences there, I recommend reading “Bluenose ghosts” by Helen Creighton, the chapter ‘There and not There’ for a bit of Devil’s Island” lore.


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