A fixed link to Southport: The Hillsborough River Subway

Tired of waiting for the ferry across the Hillsborough to Southport? Take the tunnel instead.


The enthusiasm for the interprovincial tunnel can be seen in this artifact of the campaign. The Hillsborough Subway failed to generate the same kind of widespread support and was primarily a debate between the Government and Opposition.

The 1870s gave Prince Edward Islanders a great belief in the benefits of technology and the promise of prosperity was tied to new advances in transportation and communication. The Prince Edward Island Railway had linked the province’s towns and villages from end to end (excepting only the soft underbelly of Queens and Kings County) Along with the railway, the telegraph system formed a web linked to the mainland by the undersea cable. The annual winter isolation remained a problem although the advances proposed with improved vessels (see the Northern Light)  suggested that the solution was within reach.

By the mid-1880s it appeared to many that the solution to the Island’s isolation in the winter would be quickly solved by going under, rather than over, the Strait and in the midst of the mania for a fixed link in the guise tunnel, the forward thinkers of the province also saw a solution to the vexing question of linking Charlottetown and Southport. The same questions writ small held true for the Hillsborough as they did for Northumberland Strait.  Summer crossings were on unsatisfactory craft that were too small and too infrequent and the ice of winter meant that the southern parts of the province were cut off from the capital for long stretches.

1885 saw the beginning of a decade-long tunnel mania. All over the world tunnels were being proposed and built: under the Thames at London, under the Hudson at New York and even, it was daringly suggested, under the English Channel. Many of these were more properly “subways” – cast iron tubes dropped to the bottom of the river, bolted together and pumped dry – an apparently simple and cheap way to  connect the two sides of a river.

The tunnel was quickly adopted as the best way to link P.E.I., with the mainland and Senator George Howlan of Cascumpec was an early proponent, forming the Northumberland Straits Tunnel Railway Company in 1886 and ceaselessly lobbying for construction. The story of his obsession can be found in Boyde Beck’s article titled “Tunnel Vision” in the Spring/Summer 1986 issue of the The Island Magazine  found here.

Howlan had enlisted P.E.I. Premier W.W. Sullivan in his campaign to have the Dominion Government support (and pay for) the project and as part of his effort suggested that the Island government might consider a subway under the Hillsborough River while waiting for the Straits tunnel to get approval.  Sullivan and the Island government moved decisively. While the Legislature was sitting plans for the project were displayed in the legislative library and on 6 April Sullivan presented a bill calling for the construction of the Hillsborough Subway.

The link would run from one of the streets of Charlottetown to a point to be determined in Southport.  Sullivan outlined the advantages  and the financing.  Like so many projects (including many Public-Private Partnerships of more recent memory) it would cost the taxpayers nothing.  The cost and risk would be borne by a private company which would build it. The Province would allocate up to $300,000 for the project to be paid for by the company accepting 4% bonds payable in 30 years. The bond payments would be met by the province through the savings in not operating the Southport ferry and by avoiding the inevitable cost associated with replacing the ferries worn out in the crossing.  Another savings would in not having to build a bridge across the Hillsborough and replacing it on a regular basis as a bridge would only last for about five years on the swiftly flowing river.

The advantages would be obvious and would open up the southern part of the province to prosperity. Growth and benefits would accrue to the province’s capital. It might even serve as stimulus for the development of a long-desired branch railway to Murray Harbour. Although the subway would be built only for horses and carts and for foot traffic it would be designed so that trains could transit the route when the branch railway was finally built. A final point may have been the reason why Howlan and Sullivan were so supportive. The Premier noted “The successful construction of the work would show to the people of Canada that the proposed subway across the straits is not, as many think, impractical. In fact it would clearly demonstrate the practicality of the more important work in which the whole province is so deeply concerned. “

The opposition quickly waded in, challenging what they termed “an electioneering dodgem.” They argued that they had not been given promised details about the proposal and charged that the government had overstated the cost of the bridge alternative in order to make look like an unfavourable option and suggested that the cost of a bridge would shrink if it was built a little upstream from Charlottetown. Moreover the cost of the ferries could not be eliminated as they would still be needed serve Rocky Point, West River and Mr. Stewart. For them, the proposition was much too vague and lacked any kind of study on which to make a decision.  They estimated that the cost would be as much as double the figure suggested by the government. Operational costs had not been factored in. (Still a failing in many public initiatives)  In addition to servicing the debenture payments there would be a need for ventilation of the tunnel and items such as gas lighting – 20 lamps at $300 each would add $6000 to the annual cost!   

In addition to the political split on the question support seemed to depend on the issue of direct benefit. The most ardent supporters came from constituencies across the Hillsborough who saw it as a way to leverage a long-requested branch railway to Murray Harbour.  Those opposed, such as Prince County member James Yeo, were from parts of the province which would have little to gain from the new link. 

After several periods of debate in the House of Assembly spread over several weeks the final attempt to defeat the bill took the form of an opposition amendment requiring competent engineers to look at issues such as a full examination of the bed of the Hillsborough to see if it was suitable for the subway tubes, a specific proposal for the costing  of construction and operation, and a true comparison of the bridge and subway options. The amendment also required that a company willing to take on the project be identified.  In the rush of tunnel enthusiasm the amendment was defeated 14 votes to 11 and the decision to proceed with the subway seemed to have been made.

There was, however, one small stumbling block to be overcome. In 1887 Prince Edward Island still had an upper house termed the Legislative Council. Although this was by now an elected body the Councilors still retained the right to refuse legislation and maintained the appearance of “sober second thought. “

There was a large attendance at the Council debate on the Hillsborough Subway Bill and press reports suggest that the discussion took the form of  charges as to which party would do more for the good people of Southport, Belfast and Murray Harbour district rather than the substance of the proposal. When the talking was done only three members favoured moving the bill to committee for consideration and it was thrown out.  While the Examiner termed it a “capital opportunity lost” that seems to have ended the matter. While the Northumberland Straits Tunnel continued to have its vocal advocated until the beginning of the Carferry service in 1917 there was hardly a peep about the Hillsborough subway again. The fixed link across the Hillsborough came with the Hillsborough Bridge in 1904 – and with it the Murray Harbour Branch Railway.                  



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.