Psst – Wanna buy a used bridge?

The dream of a bridge over the Hillsborough River at Charlottetown replacing the ferries was around for a long time but the cost of the nearly one mile crossing was almost as big a barrier as was the river itself.  However, when the bridge project was coupled with the desire for a branch railway linking Charlottetown with southern Queens County and the port of Murray Harbour the dream became a reality. The new branch railway, sometimes called the Southern Railway and later the Murray Harbour Branch, had to skirt the high ground at Caledonia and connect with Charlottetown.  It might have been cheaper to build a branch line connecting with the PEI Railway somewhere between Mount Stewart and Cardigan (as indeed was done in the 1920s when the bridge was deemed too weak to take the heavier standard gauge trains) but that would have done little to address the need for a river crossing near Charlottetown.

The solution to the problem was through the fortuitous availability of a slightly used bridge not too far from Charlottetown.  The fact that the bridge had already seen twenty-five years of hard use seemed to bother no one.


Location of the Miramichi bridges at Derby Junction, New Brunswick

When the Intercolonial Railway was built to fulfil a Confederation promise to link New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to Quebec and Ontario the chief engineer was Sir Sandford Fleming who justly earned a reputation for quality construction. While other railway builders of the day often opted for wooden bridges because of the cost Fleming held out for iron construction.  One of the biggest of the bridges on the route was across the two branches of the Miramichi River at Derby Junction, near what was then called Newcastle.  There were twelve spans, six on each of the two branches. The bridge stood as a mighty symbol of the Intercolonial. Over the next quarter century, as traffic increased and the weight of trains became larger it was clear that a stronger bridge was needed.


View of one section of the Miramichi Bridge. Those familiar with the Hillsborough Bridge will recognize the spans.

The iron bridge was comprised of twelve identical spans that for the most part had been bolted together.  Although it might have been convenient to try to ferry the spans to their new site it was not really feasible.  The result was that the bridge had to be taken apart and shipped in pieces. The spans were lifted off the abutments and transported by barges to a work yard where the spans were disassembled, the pieces numbered and then shipped to Charlottetown.

Span of the Miramichi Bridge after removal from abutments.

Span of the Miramichi Bridge after removal from abutments.

In Charlottetown an assembly yard had been erected on a temporary staging built on pilings east of the railway Wharf.  The bridge parts were taken directly there by ships and barges and the parts unloaded. In an assembly line process the spans were re built and floated into place in the Hillsborough River to be lowered onto the abutments which had been constructed across the river.

Temporaty work yard east of the railway Wharf

Work yard east of the railway Wharf. Two of the harbour ferries can be seen in the background.


Work yard showing span being re-constructed. The bridge piers can be seen in the background.


Reconstructed span ready to be dropped into position

The railroad itself was largely completed by the time the bridge spans were put in position. The first sod had been turned for the Branch Line in May 1900 and the first train ran from Murray Harbour to Mutch’s Point in Bunbury in November of 1903 although many of the bridges on the line were still temporary wooden trestles.  By early 1905 the safety of some of these trestles was in doubt and no through trains ran in the spring of 1905 in anticipation of final bridgework being completed. At the Hillsborough river crossing placing of the spans began in September 1904 and after a winter break recommenced in earnest early in 1905.  By June the last spans were ready to be put in place.


Hillsborough Bridge ca. 1905, photo taken from the Charlottetown end looking south.

Unlike the Miramichi Bridge the Hillsborough Bridge included a swing span to allow river traffic to go up the Hillsborough.  This section was custom-built and rested on two protective wooden piers when the bridge was open.  The swing span was operated by a gasoline engine mounted on the span itself. In later years a small building housing the machinery and the operator was built into the top of the span.   In addition two houses were built at the ends of the bridge to regulate traffic when the bridge was being used by trains or then the span was to be opened.

Even with the use of a re-cycled bridge the cost was enormous for the time. In response to a question in the House of Commons in 1908 Sir Wilfrid Laurier tabled a figure of $1,365,085.57 (to the penny). Based solely on inflation that would represent more than $35 million in 2016 dollars.

There was one small matter to be resolved.  The Miramichi Bridge had twelve spans. So did the Hillsborough Bridge.  However, one of the spans of the latter was the custom swing span. What happened to the rest of the bridge?  I had posed the question on-line and not only did I receive an answer from Steven Hunter, one of the Prince Edward Island Railway’s biggest enthusiasts, but he also located a copy of a photo showing the span in place. The missing span was also the missing link in the Murray Harbour Branch Railway. At Glencoe Brook, near Vernon, there is a deep ravine. In early May of 1905 a train of four flat cars slowly made its way from Mutch’s Point to Glencoe carrying the final assembled span of the Miramichi Bridge to replace the temporary trestle at that location.  One can imagine the difficulties involved with loading a fully assembled bridge span aboard a narrow-gauge train, transporting it along the still-uneven roadbed with twists and curves  and then putting it into position.


Glencoe Bridge, Murray Harbour Branch railway ca. 1920. Photo from Canadian Science and Technology Museum collection.

The Hillsborough Bridge lasted for more than a half-century in its new location finally being superseded by a road-only bridge in 1963.  The Glencoe span did not last as long.  Surveyed in preparation for conversion to standard gauge in the 1920s it was found that the abutments were crumbling and the bridge was replaced with the earth embankment which is still an impressive feature of the Confederation Trail which runs on the railway roadbed.

15 thoughts on “Psst – Wanna buy a used bridge?

  1. Norah Henry

    Thanks for the history of the Hillsborough bridge .I remember it well. What year was the new bridge – causeway built?

  2. sailstrait Post author

    The new bridge was opened in 1963 and the dismantling of the old structure began the same year. It was then more than 90 years old.

  3. larrymuffin

    This is so interesting I often wondered when the old bridge had been dismantled. Unfortunately the new bridge does not open and blocks the river for any tall or larger boats to sail under. Please continue the good work.

  4. Pingback: The Man Inside the Hillsborough Bridge | Sailstrait

  5. Pingback: Tugging and Towing – The Story of the William Aitken | Sailstrait

  6. Pingback: An Early Leporello from Prince Edward Island – STRAITPOST

  7. Pingback: Beneath the bottom of the harbour | Sailstrait

  8. Charles Scott

    Normally the span didn’t open very often in my times (the 50’s & 60’s) but I remember something about the span being opened before the new bridge was build. Was it built to move a piece of construction upstream?

    1. sailstrait Post author

      The span was opened at least twice when the new bridge was under construction. Once to bring in barges involved in the sinking of the two piers and once when the work was completed and the barge was taken down the river. I remember the last opening as a “big deal” with crowds gathering on the embankment of the new bridge and I have pictures of a number of motor boats anchored waiting for the sight of the bridge opening. The new Bridge was officially opened in 1962 so I expect that the last opening of the span was probably 1960 or 1961 but I don’t have an exact date.

  9. Pingback: Walter Jones and the Chinese Bridge | Sailstrait

  10. Pingback: Fulfilling a Confederation promise – Ferry service began 100 years ago this week | Sailstrait

  11. Travis Cummiskey

    Great article,

    My Great Great Grandfather, James H. Cummiskey was the man who orchestrated the deal to buy the bridge from Maramachi. He was the transportation minister at the turn of the century.

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

  13. Pingback: Putting the “Port” in Southport | Sailstrait

  14. Pingback: A fixed link to Southport: The Hillsborough River Subway | Sailstrait

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.