All encompassing view of North Sydney

Hey do you remember old North Sydney back in the 30s, 40, 50 and 60s? North Sydney was a very busy spot with fishing fleets from Newfoundland, Portugal, and the United States often in the harbour. A very large fish plant and the ferry to/from Newfoundland. As well we had the Vooght Brothers department store when it was once a popular spot in North Sydney “Back in the 1870s and 80s North Sydney was the fourth largest port in Canada. Only Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal, exceeded it in total tonnage handled. It also had the largest department store east of Montreal, with the first elevator in Atlantic Canada.”

Turn Right Ahead – North Sydney

(Rannie Gillis local author, writer for the Cape Breton Post and noted Celtic Historian has permitted me to put this article in my Blog for the interest of you all. CAPER)

This statement, in last week’s column, led to several emails and telephone calls asking for more information on this particular department store, when it was in existence, and who owned it. But first, I must correct part of the above statement. In the 1870s and 80s North Sydney did not have the largest department store east of Montreal, that did not come until the early years of the 20th century, and it was known as the Vooght Brothers.

Vooght Brothers Department Store – North Sydney

However, in 1870 there was a Vooght store in North Sydney, which had opened in 1862. It was built by John Vooght, who had emigrated to Canada from England, while only a young man. It was only a small store, but when he was joined in 1873 by two brothers, Tom and James, the three decided to build a large general store on the corner of Commercial and Court streets. At that time it was the largest commercial building on Cape Breton Island.

Because of the town’s status as the fourth largest port in Canada, their business prospered and did very well. However, when it was destroyed by fire in 1902, the brothers decided to build a larger four-storey building on the same site, now the location of the Bank of Nova Scotia. Constructed of brick and stone it was not only the largest department store east of Montreal, it also had two elevators, the first in the Maritime provinces.

I vividly remember riding on those two elevators back when I was in high school, with Peter and David Miller, whose father had a business (Herald Stationers) in the former Vooght building. The passenger elevator was enclosed, but the freight elevator had open sides, and you could plainly see the walls of the elevator shaft as you made your way between the four floors.

I have several interesting photographs of the new store. One, from 1902, shows the massive building under construction, and you can just make out the scaffolding around the exterior of the building, as well as the large water tower on top of the building. This tower was required in order to provide enough water pressure for the bathrooms on the upper floors.

Piers – North Sydney

The Vooght brothers also operated a substantial wholesale business, with their own wharf and two warehouses located on the waterfront, directly across from their new super store. By 1914 they employed a total of 33 staff, made up of 19 women and 14 men.

Another photograph, from 1914, shows the entire staff lined up on the sidewalk in front of the huge store. You can see the name Vooght Brothers carved above the main door, and the brass hitching rail at waist level along the front of the building. This rail, which was at least six inches in diametre, was used to tie up your horse and wagon, when you came to town to shop. This rail remained in place until a few years before the building was demolished in 1982.

Newfoundland Ferry Loading

Would you believe there were 5,000 pairs of shoes in the Vooght Brothers shoe department?

I have a fascinating photograph that was taken in 1914 of the shoe department at the Vooght Brothers store in downtown North Sydney. Located at the far right of the ground floor, on the corner of Commercial and Court streets, this department usually contained at least 5,000 pairs of shoes. (In 1929 this section of the store became the town’s official outlet for the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission.)

The shoe department extended from the front windows to the back wall of this very large building. In this black and white picture, taken from the front of the store, shoe boxes are neatly stacked on wooden shelves that run the full length of the building. On both sides of the department the shelves were at least nine or 10 feet high, and contain hundreds of shoe boxes stacked in layers, one on top of the other.

On the left side of the picture, glass display cases showcase the latest styles in footwear, for both women and men, while the courteous staff made sure that the shoes or boots were properly fitted. This often involved accurate measurements of the contours of an individual’s foot, something which is rather hard to come by in today’s large and impersonal department stores.

In the centre of the photo a woman sits in a chair, modestly lifting her long skirt just above her ankles, while a saleswoman helps her try on a new pair of shoes.

The ground floor of the Vooght Brothers store was open in concept, with 16 massive doric-style pillars supporting the considerable weight of the three upper floors. A large number of tall windows on each floor provided most of the illumination, augmented by a few gas lamps. Electric lights were installed as soon as they were available, and the building was probably the first in the Maritime provinces to have a sprinkler system.

The five departments on the ground floor were separated from one another by eight-foot high wooden dividers. These included: shoe department; men’s and women’s clothing; groceries and chinaware; notions (hair ribbons, handkerchiefs, hat pins, etc.); and the quaintly named gentlemen’s furnishings, with socks, ties, and a wide selection of fancy umbrellas.

Back in 1914 there were no individual cash registers in the Vooght Brothers store. Instead, located above each sales counter, at a height of about seven feet, a system of wires ran off toward the back of the store. Bills of sale, and monetary payments, were placed in little metal boxes which were then carried along these wire tracks to the mezzanine located at the back of the first floor. Here, in this elevated gallery, cashiers made change and sent the transaction back to the customer.

Also located at the rear of the ground floor was the accounting department, where trained accountants kept track of all business transactions associated with the successful operation of the Vooght Brother’s store. This involved accounts receivable and payable, as well as salaries, taxes, and other legitimate company expenses. In the beginning, before the age of mechanical calculators, this involved largely handwritten entries. It was tiresome and mind-numbing work, usually at a salary not much greater than that of an ordinary clerk.

The second floor also contained a second lady’s clothing department, strictly off limits to men, which offered a wide selection of dresses, gowns, swimsuits, and female undergarments. There was also a millinery department, displaying women’s hats of every size and description, many of which were made on site.

Fishing Boats at Rest – North Sydney Harbour

On the third floor, frequented by working-class men, the glass display cases and racks of business suits found in the men’s first floor department were replaced with simple wooden tables piled high with durable and relatively inexpensive work clothes. Tradesmen, along with sailors, fishermen, coal miners and stevedores, came here to purchase what they needed for their various occupations. Large open boxes of work boots and shoes were also available.

The third floor also contained a large selection of carpets and rugs from Canada, the United States and Europe. Each year, in addition to North American jaunts, one of the Vooght brothers would travel to Europe to check on the latest clothing and furniture items available from European producers. At these trade shows they would place large orders for merchandise and clothing to ensure a steady supply of up-to-date items and fashions for the family business.

Indian Beach – North Sydney

The fourth floor of this massive building held furniture, baby carriages and cradles and appliances of all types, as well as pianos and other musical instruments. These often heavy items were transported to the ground floor by means of an open-sided freight elevator. The Vooght Brothers also had two warehouses on the waterfront, where schooners and other coastal vessels would pick up cargo for delivery to all parts of the Maritimes and Newfoundland.

I have on file a photo of the Vooght Brother’s building dated 1972, with signs displaying business names that many of us can easily remember: Grant’s Jewelers; Herald Stationers; Simpsons-Sears; and the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission. By this time the brickwork on the upper floors had started to deteriorate and a special gutter had been placed between the first and second floors to catch any falling bricks or debris.

By 1972 two of these firms had been in business for 100 years, although each started at a different location in the downtown area. Grant’s Jewelers first opened in 1871, while Herald Stationers started out in 1872 as the North Sydney Herald, a community newspaper. This paper was bought in 1935 by Charlie Miller, a graduate of Dalhousie Law School, and he moved it into the Vooght Building in 1947. Herald Stationers continued as a stationery store and print shop until the mid-1970s. Simpsons-Sears arrived in the 1960s, and the town’s liquor store had been located in the far right corner of the building since 1929.



Rannie Gillis – Author and Historian

Rannie Gillis is an author and avid Celtic historian whose column appears every week in the Cape Breton Post. He can by reached by email at


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Helen Odell Spiers on March 15, 2011 at 13:37

    Dear Mr. Gillis:
    I was delighted to read about my great-grandmother’s father and uncles. Sarah Vooght was married to my great grandfather Charles M. Odell who was President of the NovaScotia Mining Development back in the early 20’s. I have a photocopy only of the Department Store before it got demolished.

    Thanks again for enlightening me about my family history.
    regards to you
    Helen Odell Spiers


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