History of the American Consular Service in Cape Breton

The story of the American Consulate in Sydney begins in 1837 when John J. D’Wolf of Rhode Island was appointed the U.S. Consul for the port of Sydney. In the 1830s, the United States Government established consular offices in the ports of British North America. The first office opened in Halifax in 1833, and by 1838, there were consulates in Halifax, Pictou, and Sydney in addition to several consular agencies scattered throughout the Maritime Provinces.

In 1838, James J. D’Wolf appointed local businessman and office holder, Thomas D. Archibald as a Consular Agent for the port of Sydney.  Archibald held the position until at least 1870. At that time, Sydney was far from the boom town it became in the early 1900s after the opening of the steel plant. However, situated at the head of the harbor, it was the largest town and focal point of the district. After the introduction of the railways in the late 19th century, Sydney became an important port for the shipping of coal.  

By 1869, Sydney became a Consular Agency, under the jurisdiction of the Consul at Pictou.  Within this consular district, the towns that were represented by Consular Agents often changed depending on their perceived economic importance.

In December 1913, Charles Freeman wrote an article that appeared in Sydney’s local paper. Within it, he detailed the history of the American Consulate in Sydney, which he believed commenced in 1872. At the time, Freeman did not have access to records produced by the Consulate in its early years. In February 1903, a massive fire swept through the business section of Sydney and destroyed the city’s Consular offices, along with many of the records.

Within a week after Freeman’s article was published, a local businessman provided the Consulate with evidence that there was a Consul appointed to the port of Sydney as early as 1837. Freeman shared this information with the local paper and invited anyone with additional information on the history of the Consulate to contact him.

In his article, Freeman states that, in the early 1900s, Sydney was a quiet village with a population of approximately 3,000 individuals. By 1913, the official population estimate was over 22,000. It was his belief that the American Government, “early realizing the opening market and growing importance of the place, located a Consulate at this port on July 1, 1897.”

While we know the Consular Agency was in Sydney since the 1830s, the change from an Agency to a Consulate happened at a significant time in Sydney’s history. In 1902, the Sydney Steel Plant was established which brought a period of great economic prosperity to Sydney and a dramatic increase in population.

Train yards were critical pieces of infrastructure for a port.

In 1897, imports from the United States to Sydney were a little over $100,000 and by 1912 they amounted to over $1,250,000. For the entire district, imports were over $2,000,000. According to Charles Freeman, it was the Dominion Iron & Steel Company that was responsible for the majority of imports, labeling them as one of the biggest importers in Canada. Freeman credited the rapid growth of imports from the United States to the establishments of greater industries. He stated, “In this growth, the different Consuls at this post have had no small part.” In other words, he believed the Consuls played a crucial role in increasing imports from the United States.

The Consular Agents to the port of Sydney from 1872 included John P. Ward, followed by Frederick Leaver (1872-1886) and John E. Burchell (1886-1897). Burchell became the Vice and Deputy Consul under Consul George N. West in 1897.

George N.  West was transferred to Sydney in 1897 from Pictou when the Consulate there became an Agency.  The following agencies were placed under the jurisdiction of the Sydney Office: Arichat, Canso, Pictou, Port Hawkesbury and Wallace, and while Consul West presided over the district, Arichat and Wallace were abolished as agencies. In 1908, Mr. West was promoted to be the Consul at Vancouver, British Columbia.

Mr. John K. Kehl transferred from Stettin, Germany and, after serving a little over three years at Sydney, earned a promotion as the Consul in Salonika, Turkey. During Consul Kehl’s stay, the agency at Pictou was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Consulate-General at Halifax. He was replaced by Charles Freeman in 1911.