Dreaming of the Brighton Bridge

The Western part of Brighton Road in Charlottetown is a pleasant street bordered on the south by Victoria Park and to the north by a number of residential properties. It carries light traffic and pedestrians to the boardwalk and roadway around the park and serves the neighbourhood of Brighton. If highway planners and politicians of the early twentieth century had their way it would have been otherwise and this quiet street could have been the main gateway to Charlottetown.

Like the Hillsborough and Elliot Rivers to the east and west, the York or North River cut deep into the countryside and provided both water access and a land barrier to Charlottetown. The main land routes into the city were to the north and those coming from the west and south had to travel up to the river crossing at Milton before heading south to Charlottetown. In the early 19th century the North River was the first of the three rivers to be bridged with a timber structure across the river at Poplar Island.

Poplar Island Bridge ca. 1890. The view is from North River towards Upton Farm. Bridges often served as wharves for loading and unloading small schooners.

Poplar Island Bridge ca. 1890. The view is from North River towards Upton Farm. Bridges often served as wharves for loading and unloading small schooners.

Ferries, steamers and winter ice roads carried traffic to and from the city to York Point and Rocky Point but by  the end of the 19th century there was a desire for something more. Even before the completion of the Hillsborough Bridge in 1905 voices were being raised looking to bring improvements which would ease the traveling times for those coming into the city from the west and south of the province. In 1901 the Poplar Island Bridge was in terrible shape but as it would cost more than $20,000 to put it into shape the local MLA suggested that no action be taken until a serious look was taken with regard to a site further down the river and closer to Charlottetown.  Although the river at Brighton Road appeared wide the channel was relatively narrow and most of the bridge would be in shallow water. He stressed the inequality that existed “the District affected had no railway facilities and as a matter of justice should have the bridge.” The government requested that the contractor for the Hillsborough Bridge take a look and in 1903 a plan and estimates were tabled showing a cost of $150,000 for a bridge at a new location, $200,000 if it included a swing span to allow water traffic up the river. A more detailed estimate had been requested and the premier stated that if it was reasonable, “he had no doubt but the government would go ahead with the work.” It did not.

Poplar Island Bridge and North River Wharf 1936. The current highway follows the tree line south of the old road.

Poplar Island Bridge and North River Wharf 1936. The current highway follows the tree line south of the old road.

There was no immediate action on the file but in 1911 the plans and estimates were again tabled and this time the government responded that owing to the large cost the government were not prepared to undertake the bridge.  The next year the old wooden Poplar Island bridge was replaced with a 615 foot steel span bridge, five 90-foot spans and one of 165 feet. It was the largest steel road bridge in the province and its completion foreclosed talk of a new location for many years.  At the same time the Dominion Government built a wharf and dredged a channel near the west end of the bridge for shipping to and from the North River area. There would be no schooners tied up to the new bridge.

The depression returned the bridge question to the table. When it was realized that the Dominion Government would be willing to increase employment by providing resources tor what today would be called “infrastructure projects” a large number of shelved projects were dusted off.   Among these was what would henceforth be called the “Brighton Bridge.” By 1938 it was being discussed by politicians as one of a number of relief projects but the $750,000 cost estimate and that face that it would create little actual employment placed it low on the list.  The bridge was the subject of public meetings in Bonshaw and Victoria in June of that year and the Charlottetown City Council endorsed the project. Early the following year the Trades and Labour Council and the politicians of the Conservative party piled, on coupling the bridge project with harbour improvements and airport construction as priorities.   However, by April the Liberals were beginning to back away from any firm commitment. Although several local Liberal MLAs spoke in support of the bridge Premier Thane Campbell noted that the project now had a million dollar price tag and would address a distance savings of only three miles. Repairs to the existing bridge would cost a fifth of that amount.

Modern chart of the North River at Brighton. Although the river seems wide the channel is relatively narrow.

Modern chart of the North River at Brighton. Although the river seems wide the channel is relatively narrow.

The federal government put a stake through the heart of the project when estimates were tabled in Ottawa early in 1939. Even though the federal Minister of Finance, Charles Avery Dunning, sat for Charlottetown there was no money earmarked for either the bridge or the harbour improvements.  The outbreak of the war meant that project lay dormant through the next few years but it came to the fore again in 1945 with the announcement of a federal commitment to reconstruction funds. The PEI Reconstruction Advisory Committee placed the Brighton Bridge on their list of priorities and gave the latest cost estimates for alternatives: upgrading the North River Bridge – $200,000, new bridge at Lewis Point -$1,000,000, new bridge at Brighton – $1,350,000.  By comparison the paving of a new highway between Charlottetown and Borden via Bonshaw would cost only $600,000.

Guardian 3 December 1947

Conservative Party Advertisement. Charlottetown Guardian 3 December 1947

Federal Conservative party leader John Bracken had supported the bridge along with projects such as a grain elevator and a marine slip but with Liberal governments in both Charlottetown and Ottawa this carried little weight.  The provincial legislature saw MLAs exchange views on the bridge and there was a surge in the number of letters to the editor in local papers but the government in power cited other public works priorities and the need to spend more on education.

1949 saw the beginning of development of the Trans-Canada highway network with 50-50 cost sharing. The route chosen was from Borden to Charlottetown via Crapaud and Bonshaw  and this commitment gave brief hope for the Brighton Bridge proponents. However by early 1950 it was clear that the highway would be using existing roads as much as possible. Premier Jones made no formal announcements but the Brighton Bridge option was quietly discarded.  When the river crossing was improved, it was at Poplar Island where the old steel truss bridge was replaced by a causeway and tidal barrier which created B. Graham Rogers Lake, an ecological mistake that took more than 40 years to correct.

Brighton Road was saved from becoming a major thoroughfare by the cost of the project but also by changes in transportation over the period. While a few extra miles of travel could mean extra hours for a farmer with a horse-drawn cart the added distance was only a few minutes for a truck or car. The residents of Brighton were no doubt relieved that status quo would have to do.



3 thoughts on “Dreaming of the Brighton Bridge

  1. Pingback: The last opening of the Hillsborough bridge | Sailstrait

  2. Pingback: A Wide River and a Short Bridge: The Poplar Island Bridge Fiasco | Sailstrait

  3. Pingback: Sailstrait: A Decade in Review, 400,000 words and counting | Sailstrait

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