A Wide River and a Short Bridge: The Poplar Island Bridge Fiasco

Most people crossing the bridge over the York River (or North River as it is more commonly known)  barely give it a second thought. Today’s sailors seldom venture up the York River even though it carries a good depth of water in its narrow but twisting channel, upstream travel ends at what is known as the North River Causeway at Poplar Island.  The building of the bridge here in the 1830s is an interesting tale of bungling and incompetency.

York River bridge about 1890 with Upton Farm in the background. Like many Island bridges the crossing was also used occasionally for loading coastal schooners with produce from surrounding farms. Note that the vessel’s gaff is being used to hoist loads from the farm cart on the bridge. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office.

In some ways Charlotte-Town was ideally placed to take advantage of the rivers which cut deep into the Island from the town’s placement at the point formed by the York and Hillsborough Rivers.  At the same time the rivers were barriers to land travel. From Charlotte-Town roads went east along the Hillsborough River and north towards the settlements on the northern coast with the Princetown Road being among the earliest constructed.  However the settlements to the south-west were cut off from the town by the York River. Although the York does not penetrate as far into the hinterland as the Hillsborough and Elliot its width and depth were obstacles. There seems to have been an irregular early ferry at York Point (hence the Ferry Road) but it seems to have been a private venture and it was put out of operation by the Poplar Island Bridge if not before. For details on the later ferry from York Point see here.

The Anderson Road which cut across the middle of the Island towards Bedeque, provided an easier route to the capital but it still had to cross the York River somewhere.  By the early 1820s a bridge had been established connecting this route with the roads leading north out of Charlotte-Town including the Lower Malpeque Road. This bridge, the first to cross the York River, crossed near what is now known as Sleepy Hollow, about 2 nautical miles or 3.7 km north from the present bridge. No trace of that bridge or the roads leading towards it exist today.

York River area in 1852. Although the upper bridge is not shown the roads leading to it are on the map. Note that the road leading from the crossing to the head of tide at Milton Station (where a mill is depicted with an asterisk)  has not yet been constructed.

This route, while shortening the distance to Bedeque, did little to serve the growing population of communities along Northumberland Strait from Tryon to Pye’s Tavern, now Cornwall, and in 1825 a petition with over 300 names was tabled in the House of Assembly calling for a bridge at Poplar Island. Although £300 had been spent the previous year on improvements to the North River Bridge further up-river the legislators recommended to the Lieutenant Governor that an inquiry be made as to the expediency of a bridge at Poplar Island.  Nothing appears to have been done as five years later another petition from the inhabitants of Elliot River and the west side of York River seeking a bridge at Poplar Island.  This petition appears to have pledged  that at least a portion of the funds would be raised by public subscription. Although the House found that “the erection would be of great public utility” the lack of available public funds meant that they could not recommend it. They did ask the Governor to obtain a estimate of the expense and specifications to be brought back the following year.

Approximate location of first York (North) River Bridge and approaches superimposed on the present Google Earth view. Route plotted from an early cadastral map at the PEI Public Archives and Records Office.

In 1831 specifications, plans, and estimates were provided to the Legislature. A Mr. Crerar of Pictou had been engaged to plan the intended bridge and over £500, an enormous sum for the time, was set aside for construction.  That summer a contract was entered into with William Crosby and he began work immediately. In February of the following year a report on progress was tabled. The 194 foot western abutment for the bridge had been completed and the whole bridge was expected to be finished by August of 1832. In addition to the wood and stone abutment the bridge across the 404 foot channel was carried on piles. However one tiny problem had been noted. Mr. Crerar appears not to have noticed that Poplar Island was indeed an island and that the planned bridge would link the island with the western bank of the York River.  However it seems that no provision had been made to link the little island with the eastern shore and the resulting construction would be a bridge to nowhere.  A small sum would be needed to provide for a bridge from Poplar Island with the end of the Royalty Road. Perhaps somewhat sheepishly the  House of Assembly agreed that, yes, another contract would have to be funded.

The House was informed at its 1833 sitting that the bridge(s) were now complete with a contract granted to pay John Scott £250 for the eastern Poplar Island bridge and the link with Royalty Road.  There was, however, one tiny problem.  William Crosby’s contract had specified a bridge of 848 feet, which was generous when one considered that Mr. Crerar had measured the crossing of the river at 810 feet. Unfortunately the bridge was actually 900 feet and so there was a scramble to find the money to compensate Crosby for the additional cost of £61 to build a bridge that actually crossed the whole width of the river. And oh, there was actually another tiny problem.  Although the petitioners had pledged to raise public funds from the area to cover about £100 of the total cost that money had not yet been secured. The neat solution was to authorize Crosby to take his additional payment for completing the project from the money to be publicly subscribed but not yet collected. The impossibility of this proposal was later raised and it was finally agreed to pay Crosby an additional £80 for the work he had done. The public enthusiasm for the bridge was not matched by a willingness of individuals in the area to pay and it seems that most, if not all, of the cost of the new bridge had to be borne by the taxpayers across the colony.

Regardless of the financial arrangements, the bridge, which had been one of the largest construction projects in the colony to that date was finally in place. It shortened the distance to Charlotte-Town for those to the south and west of the town by more than 7 kilometers, a not inconsiderable distance on foot or a cart or driving herd of slow-moving cattle or sheep to market.  It was so successful that the upper bridge ceased to be maintained and by the early 1850s was no longer in use.

In 1912 the old wooden structure was replaced with a modern 6-span steel truss bridge crossing 600 feet of open water. The later story of the Poplar Island Bridge is coupled with the drive for yet another bridge across the river. The story of the never-built Brighton Bridge can be found here.



2 thoughts on “A Wide River and a Short Bridge: The Poplar Island Bridge Fiasco

  1. Gary Carroll

    Is there a mistake in the article where 1883 is written when it should be 1833? Was there a ferry from Charlottetown to York Point before the North River Bridge was built; Isn’t there a ferry road at York Point? Seems to me I remember a mention in the newspaper in 1825 of a North River Bridge?

    1. sailstrait Post author

      Thanks to you and other proof readers for spotting this. There was a North River Bridge by 1825 but it was at Sleepy Hollow, not at Poplar Island and by 1852 it seems to have disappeared. And yes, there was a an early ferry at York (or more properly Francklyn) Point but it seems to have been a private venture and it was put out of business by the Poplar Island Bridge, it not before. The government wharf for the York Point Ferry was not built until 1912. See https://sailstrait.wordpress.com/2015/12/29/the-forgotten-york-point-ferry/


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