The East or Hillsborough River gets short shrift in the collected writings on Charlottetown Harbour and its rivers. While it perhaps exceeded the West or Eliott River in commercial importance it lacked the picturesque character of the latter. Well into the 1930s the West river was the site of many excursions to picnic sites at Westville and Shaw’s Wharf but the several small wharves on the East River were without interest for pleasure purposes. For the most part the Hillsborough passed through low-lying land and farms in the area seemed to have turned their back on the river. As one approached Mount Stewart there was a busy shipbuilding industry but as that faded in importance after the 1860s so too did interest in the River.
The building of the Prince Edward Island Railway had a major impact on the Hillsborough River usage. Because the rails ran parallel to the river, passenger and freight traffic gradually shifted from the sea to the land. At the turn of the twentieth century there was still enough activity to require that the new Hillsborough Bridge on the Murray Harbour Branch of the railway needed a swing span but throughout the century it was opened fewer and fewer times each year. The removal of the rail bridge and its replacement by the present auto crossing meant that even the pleasure sailors who might venture up the river were stopped.
Owing to these factors it was not a destination for visitors to the Island and descriptions of the river are few. One of the exceptions is an account written by an anonymous writer from the St. John Morning Telegraph and published in the 9 July 1863 edition. The item was republished in The Islander on the 17th of the same month. The part of the account referring to the East River is excerpted below. This is one of the earliest mentions of “the tourist” in connection with Prince Edward Island.
Editorial notes of a tour in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Scenery, Farming & c.
The tourist will find a trip by water to Mount Stewart, on the East River, about twenty miles from Charlottetown, and from which he may derive much pleasure, especially if he travels by the “Heather Belle” and surrender himself unconditionally to Captain Bourke, one of the proprietors of the steamer. Between the Capital and Mount Stewart the country on both sides of the river appears to be in a high state of cultivation. The scenery along the river banks is grateful to the eye, the only drawback being the general flatness of the land, except in the vicinity of the Mount. The river is very crooked for a portion of the distance, consulting its own pleasure on all occasions.
There are several small vessels building on the right bank, and on a small river which empties into East River from the left bank near Mount Stewart some half-dozen ship yards are in operation. The vessels are nearly all small crafts; at least they would be considered so in New Brunswick, where men’s ideas and the growth of timber are somewhat larger than in this Island. The Mount Stewart property is under lease to Mr. William Swabey, who farms on a very extensive scale. This farm is considered very valuable, and ought to yield the proprietor a handsome revenue. The wild duck rears her offspring on this river and its margin and cranes are abundant. The steamboat traffic on the river is sufficient to secure semi-weekly trips between town and Mount Stewart Bridge, calling at various wharves bearing extraordinary names. On market days in town there is generally a rush of farmers and produce. The popularity of Captain Bourke no doubt has a great deal to do with the patronage extended to his boat.
The Heather Belle had been launched from the James Duncan Shipyard in Charlottetown only a year before this account. The 108 foot boat was built of wood with engines from Todd and McGregor of Glasgow. She became one of the vessels owned by the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company. After more than twenty years of service she was completely re-built in 1883 and was wrecked after a collision in fog near the mouth of Charlottetown Harbour in 1891.