By 1950 the Hillsborough Bridge was, depending on who was counting, either approaching the end of its useful or was well past it. When the used bridge opened in 1905 it could easily accommodate the weight of the small narrow-gauge engines and rail cars of the Prince Edward island Railway. When the system was switched to standard gauge with larger and heavier rail stock it was no longer up to the task and a new line between Mount Stewart and Lake Verde was constructed in the 1920s to take the heavier traffic. Passenger trains and smaller mixed freight trains still crossed the Hillsborough from Bunbury. As his farm was not far from the bridge Premier Walter Jones would have watched bridge activities with great interest.
Walter Jones was one of the Island’s most dynamic premiers. He was a man of what today seems to have been impulsive action and although those decisions didn’t always pan out they were always decisive. I have previously written of his mixed success in attempts to get the P.E.I. Government into the shipping business.
Changes on the other side of the world were to have an impact on the Hillsborough Bridge and in a strange way Walter Jones became the man in the middle. In the early 1950s the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists under General Chiang Kai Shek and the Communists under Mao Tse Tung was grinding to a conclusion with the latter taking over mainland China and the former retreating to Formosa. Canada had assisted Chiang and among the undelivered material in support of the war effort was a China-destined bridge which was still sitting in the yards of the Dominion Bridge Company in Montreal after the Nationalists fled the mainland. A challenge for Canada’s Crown Assets Disposal Corporation became an opportunity for Walter Jones.
With post-war reconstruction, steel prices had shot up making a replacement for the Hillsborough Bridge somewhat of an expensive problem. Jones hastily took out a $130 per ton option on the surplus bridge (which had cost $300 per ton to build and would cost $400 per ton at 1950 prices) before anyone else could act and his cabinet approved the action retroactively. To make the action a little more appealing to Islanders Jones promised to use two of the spans at North River where the Trans-Canada Highway would cross the river. By incorporating the bridges into the Highway a significant contribution could be expected from the Dominion Government. By the end of February 1950 an option on the 11 spans had been acquired by the province. The sale was concluded in June 1951. The government had become the proud owner of 3600 tons of steel at a cost of $469,000.
There was, however, one tiny problem. The spans of the Chinese bridge didn’t quite fit between the existing piers. They were a little shorter than those of the iron bridge. It was no problem according to Jones who suggested that steel piles protected by sheet steel casings could easily be constructed to enlarge the existing piers. Not everyone was convinced as the stone piers had deteriorated to a serious extent. There was also the little matter that the province didn’t own the Hillsborough Bridge, it belonged to the C.N.R.
The project was dealt a fatal blow only a year later when the Board of Transport Commissioners, which had the responsibility for closure of railway lines ruled that the structure was unsafe for rail traffic. They ruled that the bridge could be closed to trains. The last train to run across the bridge was the Murray Harbour train on 10 March 1951. For a period the railway transported train passengers from Southport stop to the Charlottetown Railway Station using taxis. Later the Commissioners agreed that a portion of the Murray Harbour line west of Hazelbrook could be closed. This delighted the C.N.R. which had been trying for years to close the money-losing line.
Suddenly the Chinese Bridge, which was designed primarily as a rail bridge with provision for highway traffic on the outside of the trusses, was no longer needed. In the legislature the Conservative opposition repeatedly attacked the Jones government for acting precipitously, leaving the government with 11 bridge spans with 3600 tons of steel on their hands – or rather on the hands of the Dominion Bridge Company to whom the government was paying storage costs while a buyer was found.
In the meantime, since carrying the rail line was no longer a requirement for the bridge, the Government turned to other options. One of the experts consulted was the engineer for the Canso causeway planned to link Cape Breton with mainland Nova Scotia and for which tenders had been called in April of 1952. Suddenly the Island’s public works engineers and politicians fell in love with causeways and this was seen as the solution to the Hillsborough River problem. But they didn’t stop there and soon almost every tidal estuary in the province saw bridges replaced with causeways with short bridge spans. In some cases these had tidal gates which created brackish water lakes above the barrier. Included in this number was the B. Graham Rogers Lake above the North River Causeway. Built without environmental assessments these causeways with narrow spillways would create huge problems which half a century on still plague our rivers.
In the interim the government was trying to deal with the now doubly surplus bridge. Jones announced in February 1952 that an offer had been received for the bridge but he provided no details. In March it was rumoured that the steel would be traded back to the Dominion government for a new federal building in the city. By the end of the year the rails were removed from the Hillsborough Bridge turning it in to a purely highway bridge, albeit one with a single lane. Four of the spans of the Chinese bridge had been sold by early March 1953 and by the end of the month Premier Jones announced that all the steel had been sold with a slight profit for the province. A 1954 question in the Legislature from R.R. Bell, Conservative leader, revealed that this was not exactly the case. While most of the steel had been sold some was retained for bridge work in the province. The steel sold brought in $441,000, about $27,000 less than it cost and an extra $26,000 had been charged to the province in storage fees. The saga of the Chinese bridge had come to an end.
Jones was not in the House to defend his impulsive purchase. On 19 May 1953 he had been appointed to the Senate, and he died in Ottawa a year later.