A Public Boon and a Private Success? The Richibucto to West Cape Ferry

On the map it seems pretty straightforward.  If you are coming from Canada by rail the shortest route to Prince Edward Island would be from New Brunswick across the Strait to West Cape. It would save having to come all the way down the shore to Moncton or Sackville. Its not a long stretch across the water and then you could catch a train at O’Leary and get to Charlottetown in relative comfort. At least that was the theory.

Historic Railway lines in New Brunswick. Map from New Brunswick Railway Museum, Salem and Hillsborough Railroad

Unlike Prince Edward Island with its single railway company there have been no shortage of railways in New Brunswick. Over two hundred railway companies have been proposed and more than a score of lines were actually built, almost all in the late 19th century.  Most of these were built as feeder lines for the Intercolonial Railway (ICR) which crossed the province from south to north. One of these was the Kent Northern Railway.  Originally proposed in 1873 the line would run from the ICR mainline at Kent Junction to tide water at Richibucto, a distance of about 25 miles.  The promotors hoped to develop Richibucto as a major port shipping coal and ore from mines along the ICR route. It was an easily built and inexpensive line running mostly through uninhabited woods without the need of expensive grades and bridges. Never the less it took about nine years before construction was completed. The line was  finally laid with used iron rails which became available when the Prince Edward Island Railway switched to steel rails in 1882.  The Kent Northern Railway was opened in November of 1883.

Even before the rail line was operational there were reports that it would be part of a new link between Canada and Prince Edward Island. in October 1879 The Saint John Telegraph newspaper carried a story from Buctouche stating that local politicians and  merchants, several of whom ware also involved with the railway, were interested in starting a new steamship line operating out of Richibucto and connecting with Prince Edward Island.  Part of the impetus was the difficulty that had been experienced with the winter connection to the Island and the failure of the specially-built steamer Northern Light to maintain the connection in heavy ice.  Local observers claimed that the seas between Richibucto and the Island were “open and free from ice, or nearly so” all winter.  Again the map told the story, as the ice jams between the Capes at Tormentine and Traverse would be avoided as the Strait was wider west of that point and the ice did not build up there, at least in theory.

The opening of the Kent Northern Railway revived interest in the proposal.  From Richibucto to West Cape, about 20 miles,  was considerably shorter than the Pointe de Chene to Summerside route which provided the only other mainland rail connection with Northumberland Strait. This would provide a definite advantage in the summer. In the winter the route was also preferred. The Moncton Transcript noted that “On any winter day, except when strong northeasters blow you can stand on Richibucto Cape and see a clear path of water from the Mainland to the Island Shore.”  The author assured readers that the venture would be “a public boon and a private success.”

Map showing Richibucto to West C ape and Shediac to Summerside steamer routes. Google Earth.

Although shorter, it might not have been the easiest trip. At Kent Junction the passengers would have to change from the ICR to the Kent Northern to Richibucto, then by carriage or sleighs to Richibucto Cape, across the Strait by steamer to West Cape, change to carriages or sleighs to O’Leary and board the narrow gauge PEI Railway to Charlottetown.  With the completion of lines to Cape Tormentine and Cape Traverse, by 1885 there was an all-rail route on the competing Shediac Route or by the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island Railway crossing at the Capes in winter.

On the Prince Edward Island side there was less enthusiasm.  A nine mile branch line from the P.E.I. Railway at O’Leary to West Cape was placed on a wish list for branch lines soon after the Island line was opened in 1874 and was raised as a possible expansion of rail services for the next fifty years but was never a priority as it competed with other projects such as the Cape Traverse line, the Hillsborough Bridge and the Murray Harbour line.  Summerside had a vested interest in keeping the connection with Shediac as the primary link and there were few capitalists or politicians backing the development of West Cape beyond its role as a local fishing harbour.

The new steamer route was not even attempted. The Kent Northern never went much beyond Richibucto although for a time the line extended to St. Louis de Kent. In 1904 it was rumored that the line would be purchased by American capitalists and extended 18 miles to the shore. A 1908 report showed the line had two locomotives, two passenger cars and one freight car. The harbour at Richibucto was unsuitable for steamers in winter and the crossing would have required major wharf construction at Richibucto Cape which failed to gain support from government. In the end the Kent Northern Railway was neither the promised public boon nor a private success. The Kent Northern never served as the ore and coal shipping line but it appears to have been modestly profitable for much of its existence through shipments of pulp logs and other wood products from the surrounding area . To that extent it was not a complete failure. It was purchased by the Dominion Government in 1918 and was and folded into the Canadian National Railway in 1929 as part of the rationalization of rail services. The purchase price for the entire line, right of way, rails, rolling stock, stations and locomotives was $60,000 – about the same as the scrap value for the operation.  The line was finally abandoned by the CNR in 1984 and the rails lifted in 1986.

Although the Richibucto – West Cape ferry has never been seriously been entertained, and with the construction of a fixed link is unlikely to be so, it is an idea that refuses to go away completely. There was a resurgence of discussion after the Second World War and at other times when development plans are to the fore. It is periodically dusted off and presented anew as a brilliant idea to increase tourism and trade. As to why the idea refuses to die  – one has only to look at the map. It just seems so obvious – until reality intervenes. :{)


6 thoughts on “A Public Boon and a Private Success? The Richibucto to West Cape Ferry

  1. Paula (Vautour) Kenny

    I read your posts faithfully but this Richibucto story was particularly interesting as my dad was from that community. I spent lots of time there as a kid and there were often deep water vessels or lakers all loading pulp wood at the wharf. More interesting to you perhaps was a regular schooner service operated (and owned?) by Capt. Long that my dad (1918-1993] and his siblings took to visit their maternal grandparents in Charlottetown…unaccompanied by adults. Such adventures for little kids!

  2. Chris Mears

    Reading this and seeing mention of a branch to West Cape reminds me that it would be neat, sometime, to catalogue or even map the various proposed branchlines of the PEIR (such as Victoria, North Rustico, or even the connection from Murray River to Montague).

    1. sailstrait Post author

      The paint was hardly dry on the paint on the stations before new branches were suggested. Here is a list prepared by Charles C. Gregory C.E. and published in the Examiner on 2 August 1875 p.2
      Belfast and Murray Harbour
      East Point Extension
      Cavendish Branch
      New London Branch
      Cape Traverse Branch
      Kensington and Malpeque
      West Cape

      Interestingly enough four of these were actually built but others were added to the wish list over the years and supported by various communities, boards of trade and political Parties. It seems to me that the only one built (aside from the Short Line) that was not on this initial list was the Vernon River line. A map of what might have been done would be interesting as some of these were actually surveyed but not built. .

      1. Chris Mears

        I always liked the idea of a line to Victoria. Seated with topographic maps I traced routes and had the most luck leaving from the Cape Traverse branch, through Tryon, along the coast. Crapaud remains challenging to access. The lesson learned was a confirmation of how wise the railway’s surveyors were in their efficient tracing the land for their railway.

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