On almost every Island stream where the tide reached furthest inland there was once a mill and a millpond. Many have disappeared but on the West or Eliot River the site of Crosby’s Mill can still be found. The Green or Tryon Road which was cut through in the earliest years of the 19th century crossed the West River at the head of tide and in the early 1840s a mill site was developed just above the bridge. The steepness where the road dipped into the valley from the heights of Strathgartney was a difficult climb for heavily laden wagons and carts and in 1841 an alternate and more gradual route was developed just to the south at Bonshaw.
A new steel bridge was placed on the crossing in 1907 and the hill cut down but by then the road through Bonshaw was clearly the favoured route and there was little further improvement on the Green Road.
The steel span was in place until 1962 when it was washed away and floated down to Bonshaw. A temporary foot bridge using decking over two telephone poles provided access to the eastern bank of the river.
Bonshaw was effectively the head of navigation and a wharf was soon established there. Most pleasure boats, including early craft such as the Houseboat Doris and later those from the Charlottetown Yacht Club could go no further than the Bonshaw Bridge but smaller motorboats and canoes could, at high tide, go right up to Crosby’s. Mac Irwin took many photos in the area and it appears to have been a popular camping and excursion spot in the 1910s and 20s. One resident reported that in the 1920s upwards of 25 boats might come up the river on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It was also a popular fishing spot. At the turn of the 20th century Indian guides could still be hired to help anglers find the best spots on the upper West River. Possibly the largest fish caught in recent years was a 6 1/4 pound monster taken from the pool below the mill in 1942 by Lloyd Weeks of Charlottetown. In the late 1940s it was not uncommon for trout weights to be up to 3 1/2 pounds. Changes in the upper river arising from the partial blockage of the river by the West River Causeway in the early 1960s had a dramatic and damaging effect on siltation and flushing of the river which is only now beginning to change.
Charlottetown Architect Charles B. Chappell sketched the busy operation on a visit to the spot in 1907. A huge pile of slabs bark and sawdust from the mill spilled into the river and no doubt contributed to the silting up of the stream, a problem which persists to this day in spite of efforts by the local watershed group to improve the flow.
In 1937, after the death of Hugh Crosby the property was put up for sale. At the time the operation consisted of a grist mill with a four stand roller process flour mill, machinery for making oatmeal, and English wheat burrs for crushing grain; a sawmill with rotary bandsaw, planer and shingle mill; an electrical generator which provided power to nearby house; 100 acres of land, 12 of which were cultivated the remainder in wood; and a two-storey house with plumbing and electric lights. The mill itself was in operation into the mid-20th century but has since crumbled into the ground leaving only a few foundation stones. The dam has been altered and the spillway and mill race removed, replaced by a by-pass channel.
In 1936 the area was promoted by local residents as the site of the new national park proposed for the province. A public meeting in Bonshaw adopted a resolution “most earnestly and humbly craving their representatives in Parliament and all others interested in this matter to make an honest and earnest effort to secure to site of the proposed national park at Bonshaw.” The reasons were made clear at the meeting
The scenery is rugged, almost sublime; lofty hills, sheltered valleys, with nice stretches of level spaces, splendid forests comprising almost all the trees native to the province; a large and smooth mill dam well sheltered by hills and forest, which gives a perfect reflection; pure spring water flowing steadily from the rocks, insuring a perpetual supply of good water for all culinary and laundry purposes, a very strong water power that can be easily utilized for making electricity and for other purposes; an abundant supply of fuel consisting of good hardwood, even the good sugar maple; the moss in some parts of this locality is wonderful, reminding a person of rich, green carpet. This would be an ideal home for a few deer and pheasants. The mill dam above mentioned is navigable for quite a distance for motorboats, canoes etc.
The park was eventually located elsewhere. However, in the 1960s much of the Strathgartney estate and land on the east bank of the river above the Bonshaw bridge was acquired through the Cotton Trust and became two provincial parks although once-popular camping and picnic facilities and services are no longer provided at Strathgartney. Recent acquisition of additional land for a new highway alignment has meant that the park or wilderness area has been much expanded and much of the river frontage has been protected. A log footbridge on the site of the old road bridge is being replaced by a more permanent structure and a new network of hiking trails is planned for the area.
On the eastern side of the valley there was still a farmstead accessed by the Green Road into the 1960s. However, in 1962 the bridge was swept downstream in a storm-created flood and was not replaced. The road, which was steep and easily eroded, was abandoned and gradually became overgrown. Today it is all but impassable but its route can be easily found owing to the deep cutting through which it passed. The farm buildings were abandoned and torn down.
By the time of the 1976 aerial photographs the steep hillside was becoming overgrown and traces of the farms were disappearing. Forty years on the fields have become mature field spruce stands and in the steeper forested areas mature hardwoods stand over a hiking trail which goes up the eastern side of the valley to the old bridge site.
Today few boats make it up as far as Bonshaw, even at high tide, and it is rare indeed to see any craft above the Bonshaw Bridge. However the rationale for the siting of a national park in the area in 1937 still holds. The Green Road bridge and Crosby’s Mills are still worth a visit: The scenery is rugged, almost sublime; lofty hills, sheltered valleys, with nice stretches of level spaces, splendid forests comprising almost all the trees native to the province.
This entry started when I discovered the postcard view of the unidentified “Pastoral Scene” looked very much with the tide head of the West River. Bill and Elizabeth Glen’s 1993 book on the history of the area “Bonshaw: A Stroll through its Past” is most easily accessed at the UPEI Robertson Library’s Island Lives site. Many of the references are from to PEI newspapers. Air photos can be found at the Government of PEI map site