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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.