First called Nepisiguit, then St. Peters, Bathurst received its current name in 1826 after then-British colonial secretary, Henry Bathurst, third Earl of Bathurst.
The current site of Bathurst was once a summer encampment of the Mi’kmaq First Nation. Indeed, its original name, Nepisiguit, is derived from the Mi’kmaq word winpegijawik, meaning “rough water.” The first European to visit the area was Jacques Cartier in 1534. Cartier gave Chaleur Bay its name after its noticeably warm waters.
The first permanent settlers on Chaleur Bay were the Récollet missionaries who arrived from France in 1619. Bathurst was officially founded by then-governor of Acadia, Nicolas Denys in 1652. The site, home to Denys’ headquarters, was abandoned after his death in 1688. The next group to settle the area was dispossessed Acadians, who arrived from what is now Nova Scotia, in 1755. (See History of Acadia.)
By 1768 English merchant Commodore George Walker had established a successful fur trading, fishing and shipbuilding enterprise, and oversaw trade activity across the entire Chaleur Bay. During his time at what was then called Nepisiguit, George Walker served as justice of the peace for surrounding settlers. Walker performed such duties as marriages and burials, and brokered disputes amongst the Mi'kmaq, Acadians and British. Commodore Walker died suddenly in England in 1777. In 1778, during the American Revolution, American privateers destroyed his fortified Nepisiguit outpost.
The Bathurst area has thick woodland with multiple bodies of water. As a result, shipbuilding, logging and sawmills formed the basis of the local economy during the 19th century, when the community re-emerged as a regional trade hub. Farming and fishing remained the mainstay of outlying rural communities.
Bathurst Iron Mines was in operation from 1907 to 1913, but pulp and paper dominated the local economy during the opening decades of the 20th century. Bathurst Power and Paper Company opened the city’s first pulp mill in 1914. It quickly became Bathurst’s largest employer and brought prosperity to the entire region. The mill was expanded to make paper in 1923. In 1968, it was taken over by Consolidated-Bathurst Ltd. The mill operated under this name and ownership until Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. purchased it in 1989. The mill employed hundreds of people when it ceased operations in 2005.
By the 1960s, base metal mining had overtaken pulp and paper as the driving force of the local economy. Significant lead and zinc deposits discovered in 1953 in the surrounding region further spurred the city's development. The Brunswick Mine began production in 1964 and quickly became one of the largest, and most profitable, of its kind in the world. It was also northern New Brunswick’s largest private sector employer. When it closed 50 years later in 2013, it had employed over 7,000 people, including 700 during its final year.
In addition to dense boreal forest, Bathurst is completely surrounded by an abundance of both fresh and salt water. Four rivers empty into the Bathurst harbour: the Nepisiguit, Little River, Middle River and Tetagouche. In addition to the rivers within its boundaries, Bathurst is home to Youghall Beach on Chaleur Bay, a popular summer cottage and tourist destination.
The Chaleur Regional Hospital services a wide geographic area and is a major employer in the region. Along with both English and French elementary and high schools, there is a Bathurst campus of the Francophone Le Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick (CCNB).
Historically, the Chaleur region has been home to both French (Acadian) and English who remained for the most part separate from one another. The French communities were “upshore” on the Bay to the north of the city, and the English “downshore” to the east. As geographic and cultural barriers between the two linguistic groups continue to dissolve, bilingualism in the area continues to increase. According to the 2016 census, about 62 per cent of Bathurst residents are bilingual. English is the first language of 48.6 per cent of residents and French 51.3 per cent, while 2.5 per cent cited a non-official language as their mother tongue.
Economy and Labour Force
Traditionally an agricultural and resource-based economy, Bathurst has undergone the transition to a service-based economy as a result of deindustrialization. Over 190,000 residents of northern New Brunswick rely on Bathurst for shopping, healthcare, education and entertainment. Tourism is a driving economic force, thanks to world-class snowmobile trails in the winter, the mild waters of Chaleur Bay in the summer and proximity to the cultural attractions of the Acadian Peninsula.
Primary industry still plays a role in the contemporary Bathurst economy, with some mines still in operation, though on a smaller scale than in previous decades. The Port of Belledune, which began operations in 1968, was expanded in 1995, 1998 and 2010. It is a year-round modern marine transport facility linking North American and European trade markets.
The City of Bathurst is a transportation hub for northern New Brunswick. Located on the Trans-Canada Highway, Bathurst and the Chaleur Region are serviced by Bathurst Regional Airport, VIA and CN Rail, as well as Maritime Bus routes.
Bathurst is home to the English Northern Light, a regional weekly news publication owned by the Telegraph-Journal. Its French counterpart, L’Acadie Nouvelle, is based out of neighbouring Caraquet.
The K.C. Irving Regional Centre (1996) is a multipurpose recreational and entertainment centre for the Chaleur region. It is also home to a Canadian Hockey League franchise, the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. In 2018, the Titan won the Memorial Cup for the first time in franchise history. The Gowan Brae Golf and Country Club has been the site of several national championships. Along with Campbellton, Bathurst co-hosted the 2003 Canada Winter Games.
Sir James Dunn, industrialist and financier; Herman J. Good (1887–1969), Victoria Cross recipient (First World War); and Charlie Chamberlain, singer and songwriter for Don Messer and His Islanders, were all born in Bathurst, as were movie-pioneer brothers Sam and Joe De Grasse. Joe (1873–1940) became a successful Hollywood director; and Sam (1875–1953) acted in over 100 movies, including the controversial Birth of a Nation (1915).