The Man Inside the Hillsborough Bridge

There is an enduring Charlottetown story about the man encased in a Hillsborough Bridge pier.

A Missing Man

As the story goes he was a night watchmen who was watching over the works when the concrete was being poured for the bridge piers. When the workers returned to the work site the next morning he had disappeared and as the years passed the belief grew that he had fallen into the still-wet cement and was entombed there forever. I first heard the story as a child when we were passing over the bridge on the very narrow roadway that often forced drivers to stop for wide trucks and inch to the very edge of the roadway as the planks beneath the vehicles clunk- clunked. Ever after that I hardly passed over the old bridge without a shiver of terror thinking of the man in his concrete prison beneath us.

Myth or reality? Here is what we know for sure and it is very little.

On 6 December 1901 the Charlottetown Guardian carried a front-page story under the headline “Another Sad Affair.”  It told of the disappearance of Ambrose Atkins (spelled Aitkins in the first report) the previous Wednesday night.  He had  been on the derrick scow working on one of the piers on the Southport end of the bridge and had temporarily replaced the usual night watchman but was not aboard when the crew returned on Thursday morning. They did find a lighted lantern and Atkins’ lunch bucket on the scow. It was initially thought that Atkins had gone ashore but the boat was found to be in order and a search was started. The Batt Brothers tug went to the scene and dragged the area with grappling hooks but the body had not been discovered by the time the paper went to press. The following day there was no change but Atkins’ hat had been found on the Southport beach. The search was still being carried out on the 9th of December but by then it was thought that the tide had carried the body some distance. And with that brief note the coverage of the “sad affair” came to an end. Atkins’ body was never found.

The link with the cement pouring was not noted at the time and the first reference to it that I have been able to find was a reminiscence by J.E. Cameron of his years on the P.E.I. Railway  published in the Guardian in 1964. Cameron recalled “A man named Amby Atkins was the night watchman and one morning he was missing. His body was never found and to this day no one knows what really happened. At the time it was believed he had fallen into the mould around the pillar into which cement was being poured.”

Atkins was 24 years old when he disappeared. He was living in Charlottetown with his brother Simon and his widowed mother next door to another brother Frederick who was a tobacconist.  At the time of the accident work on the bridge would have been winding down for the winter. The dredge itself was hauled out of the water by the end of October of 1901.  It is not clear when other work came to a halt but there certainly would have been reduced activity in the first week of December and it seems unlikely that cement pouring would have continued into cold weather. There is no mention of cement in the press reports. It is possible but rather doubtful that he would have been on the cofferdam structure at all rather than on the work barge.


Dredge excavating the river bottom prior to the driving of piles to support the piers

Building the Bridge Piers

The building of the Hillsborough Bridge was a major engineering event for Prince Edward Island. The story of the bridge superstructure has been told in an earlier posting found here but the construction of the piers on which the bridge rested also involved a major effort.  The Hillsborough was almost a mile wide and with the tide running twice a day there could be considerable current. Although shallow near the shores, the channel was still over 60 feet at river’s midpoint. Moreover much of the bottom was not solid rock but sandstone overlain with sand and muck to a significant depth. To reduce the length of the bridge earth fill brought from quarries on both sides of the river created long roadways across the shallower parts of the river. Most of the earth on the Charlottetown side was brought from a borrow pit at Long’s field near St. Dunstan’s College. There were twelve piers between the ends of the earth embankments and most were built over pilings driven through the sediment. For the seven piers outside the channel the riverbed had to be dredged to a depth of ten feet beneath the normal bottom. Then piles were driven from 30 to 65 feet into the bottom to at least four feet below the lowest tide.


Derrick barge with stone work being lifted onto bridge pier.

Dredging started in mid-September 1901. In the meantime an activity reminiscent of shipbuilding was taking place on the west end of the waterfront. Large wooden boxes built from huge pieces of timber were built on shore. With some weighing over 500 tons they were built on a slipway and launched when completed.

The large wooden cofferdams were built in a work area on Connolly’s (later Paoli’s) Wharf and served as caissons for the piers themselves. Three were launched before the end of 1901. Construction of the caissons continued through to July of 1903 when the last one was launched. Floated into place, they were weighted with concrete to drop them onto the piles under the water and then the actual piers, built with Wallace sandstone brought on barges from Arisaig Nova Scotia, were erected by stone masons. Construction of the last piers was not completed until July of 1905 by which time many of the spans had already been placed.

Bridge Pier Construction Photos

The photos below show details of the building of the cofferdams and the piers. A future blog will describe the dangerous process for building the deepest piers which required “sand hogs” compression chambers and specialized equipment.


Work yard at Connolly’s wharf showing two cofferdams under construction. Note the timber pond with large timbers just west of the slipway.


Caisson nearing completion. The structures were double or triple planked and caulked to make them waterproof. The walls of the structures were three feet thick.


Launch of one of the caissons. The first few launchings were well attended by spectators but soon became commonplace. This photo probably dates from 1901.


View of the piers under construction seen from the Charlottetown side. The pier in the foreground appears completed but still has the cofferdam in place. This photo is probably from 1903 or later.


Completed pier. A second one still in its cofferdam is behind. Several of the many barges and construction vessels can be seen in the background.


All photographs from the Public Archives and Records Office. Most information from the on-line Charlottetown Guardian. An earlier article by J.P. McClosky with his experiences working on the construction of the Hillsborough Bridge can be found in The Island Magazine fall/winter 2004.

 Updates to earlier columns:

Pan Am Clipper – The entry on the Pan Am Clippers at Shediac has been supplemented by a some additional photographs of the flying boats from the Bentley family collection, courtesy of Eric Bentley. The revised blog can be seen here.

Rocky Point – An additional postcard showing children playing at Warren Cove with the Warren Front Range Light in the background has been added to the gallery. The photo is one of the many taken by W.S. Louson before the Great War and was published by the Toronto firm of Warwick Bros. & Rutter. Louson and his postcards are the subjects of an article in the forthcoming issue of The Island Magazine.  The revised Rocky Point blog can be found here.

Prettiest Boat on the Straits – I came across a tourism brochure from 1940 which featured the photo of the Goldfinch on the cover. It has been added to the article here.



13 thoughts on “The Man Inside the Hillsborough Bridge

  1. Fred Mullen

    My great-grandfather commissioned the construction of this bridge-J H Cummiskey

    1. sailstrait Post author

      James Cummiskey of Fort Augustus was a long time Commissioner of Public Works in provincial Liberal administrations and may have been a supporter of the bridge project . However, the Hillsborough Bridge was an initiative of the Dominion Government not the P.E.I. government so it is unlikely Cummiskey had any official role to play in the decision to build the bridge.

  2. Rishiray

    I had a long comment here but it disappeared… thanks for this post. As a newcomer to Stratford, this definitely helps add some color to the bridge story.

  3. John Bruce

    I grew up in Bunbury and travelled this bridge on a regular basis with my parents and later as a pedestrian. I am quite sure this was a single lane bridge with a walkway on each side. The east walkway had holes in the planks and so everyone, in the 50’s would walk on the west side. I am not sure what the reference to passing larger trucks is, as the bridge wS clearly one-way with a light keeper at each end to allow vehicles to access it one-way.

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  5. Sue

    It sure woud be nice to have a secure walkway for all pedestrians. People in vehichles….need to show Much more respect for pedestrians on bridge!!! Now that Stratford is hooking up to Charlottetown treatment plantnt. No reason now for Mayor David Dumphy to get on this….show more action and less talk Mr Mayor.

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  7. Clive Cudmore

    Always great stories Harry. How about Capt. Staley and the York Point Ferry and other services to the Ferry Road landing.

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