I describe natural history as the story our land tells about itself. PEI’s bogs tell many interesting stories, and at Black Banks the Island’s natural and human histories meet.
Black Banks is located on the shores of Cascumpec Bay in western PEI. While the Island’s coastline is famous for red sandstone cliffs, white sandy beaches, and green grassy marshes, Black Banks is unique. Here, an ancient peat bog meets salt water, creating a landmark distinctive enough for its own place name (Photo 1).
While Black Banks is on the coast today, this wasn’t always so. Roughly 9,500 years ago – not long after the end of the last Ice Age – sea level around PEI is estimated to have been as much as 70 metres (230 feet) lower than it is today. At this time, Black Banks would have been far from shore, and remnants of the site’s post-glacial forest can be found among the peat (Photo 2).
The lowest, oldest layers of peat at Black Banks are dominated by feather mosses and sedges, pointing to a mix of forest and freshwater wetland. Above this, the vegetation changes to mostly sphagnum mosses, the usual keystone species of peatlands. Analysis of the area has shown that this bog was once far larger, covering much of what is today Cascumpec Bay. As glaciers melted and sea levels rose, most of the original bog was flooded; what remained was brought to the edge of the sea, eroded by waves and tides.
Peat is not only a useful recorder of our natural history, it has also long been a valuable product to humans. As early as 1871, Island MLA Henry Beer promoted developing Black Banks for fuel. In the 1880s, letters to the editors of local papers would occasionally ask why the Island was importing coal rather than developing its peat. (You can read more about coal on PEI here: https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/_coal ).
The rising price of coal during World War I spurred additional research into the peat reserves of Eastern Canada, including PEI. In 1915, Canada’s Department of Mines reported that seven Island bogs it investigated held an estimated 1,200,000 tons of fuel. With a market price of at least $3.50 per ton at the time, peat was viewed as an undeveloped natural resource worth millions of dollars. It’s not surprising that the editors of The Guardian concluded “…the time should not be far distant when our peat bogs are compelled to give up their latent wealth for man’s necessities.”
Interest in Black Banks waxed and waned during the first half of the 20th century but grew again following World War II. Now, the focus was no longer on fuel but rather on peat’s usefulness in protecting fruit, meat, and fish during shipping, fertilizing soil, and soundproofing buildings in the post-war housing boom. Despite interest from many entrepreneurs during the 1950s – including some from Toronto who wanted to develop Black Banks and ship the peat to New York – the bog remained intact.
In 1963, the Provincial Government applied to the Atlantic Development Board for $1,750,000 to support 14 projects, including development of Black Banks. Aerial photos show the bog as intact in 1968, but under development by 1974 (Photo 3). More than a century after the first calls for it, Black Banks had indeed been compelled to give up its latent wealth. Today, the bottom layer of the bog is visible behind the remnant Black Banks themselves, along with ancient tree stumps and scattered glacial erratics (Photo 4).
Peat harvesting remains an active industry on PEI, with product shipped around the world from several sites in Prince County. Many of our best remaining bogs are now protected, ensuring we will always be able to explore these important parts of PEI untamed!