Driving into a watery grave: The fate of Henry Finnegan, Brickmaker

One of the persistent myths about early Charlottetown is that the brick in many of the 19th century buildings was brought as ballast in sailing ships from Great Britain. While that may be true in a few cases, the vast majority of 19th century brick buildings were made from locally-fired Prince Edward Island brick.


Gainsford House, Water Street Charlottetown. One of the City’s oldest brick strictures.

The Island had a brickworks as early as the 1820s and although the small production at the time may have been used in chimneys and foundations, by the time that brick buildings were becoming more common in the 1830’s production had increased and by 1847 brick was being exported from Charlottetown to Sydney and Pictou and later as far as the West Indies. On the streets of Charlottetown the new brick buildings served as landmarks and many commercial addresses were described as “across from Mr. Gainsford’s brick house” or “near Duncan’s new brick building.” As the town grew with more and more commercial buildings and brick homes the brick kilns flourished. One was located at three mile creek on the Princetown Road, near what was later known as Slick Rhyneses’ between the Towers mall and the bypass highway, later to be the site of the City Water Works.  In 1855, the year Charlottetown was incorporated, John Picton Beete, who envisioned a great future for what became Southport was advertising brick at the site of the kiln near Battery Point or delivered by lighter barge to the city wharves. By 1858 he was advertising that he had from 70 to 80,000 bricks on hand.

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Haszard’s Gazette 4 July 1855

By 1861 some nine brick kilns were in operation across the Island although five of them were in Lot 48 across the harbour from Charlottetown. The cluster of kilns resulted in the area being known as Brickmakers Point.  In 1871 the number of brick establishments in the colony had grown to twenty, producing 2.3 million bricks. Of these almost all were in Queen’s County with 7 of these in Lot 48. Others were built wherever a deposit of brick clay could be found.  Finished brick was carried to market in lighter barges across the harbour in summer and across the ice by sled in winter.  Closer to town was the Charlottetown Brick Company located on what is now the Experimental Farm Property on Mount Edward Road near the Farmers’ Market. ln 1879  their agent Fred. W. Hyndman was advertising a million bricks for sale. The P.E.I. brick boom was in full swing. A series of fires and preferential pricing by insurance companies made brick buildings more attractive. For example, after the 1883 fire which destroyed Richmond Street’s wooden stores on Queen Square the whole row was rebuilt in brick.

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Charlottetown Examiner 2 December 1879

It is in the context of this thriving industry that the sad story of Henry Finnegan is told. Finnegan had a brick kiln located in the Rocky Point district just west of the current National Historic Site at Skmaqn – Port la Joye – Fort Amherst.  In the early evening of 4 March 1880, Finnegan, accompanied by Thomas Murphy, each with a horse and truck sleigh loaded with brick, set off for Charlottetown.

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Location of Finnegan Brick Kiln, Lot 65. Meacham’s Atlas 1880

The darkness and a thick fog made it difficult to follow the bushed track across the harbour ice although Finnegan assured Murphy that the horse would know the way and take them safely to town.  Hardly were the words out of his mouth when one of the runners of his sleigh broke through the ice  and the whole load slid off the sleigh taking Finnegan with them.  At the same time Murphy’s sleigh and horse also broke through. His sleigh, however, had been equipped with side boards which prevented the load from shifting and the whole sleigh and horse were dragged down by the load. Murphy found himself in the water but was unable to get purchase on the crumbling edges of the ice. At the point of near exhaustion he finally was able to get up on the ice but it was some time before he recovered enough energy to move. His cries in the darkness for help eventually brought assistance. The rescuers were able to free Finnegan’s horse  which was only partly through the ice, and his sleigh which did not go through after dumping its load of bricks and the driver.  No trace of Finnigan’s body was found that night nor in the days following the accident.  The sleigh and bricks could be seen on the bottom in about ten feet of water. It was at first believed that the body was beneath the load of bricks but this found not to be the case.  There was a strong current at the location of the accident and although Finnegan’s coat was found during the search it was not until the following July that Henry Finnegan’s body was found, not far from  where he had been lost.

Where this happened is not exactly clear from the newspaper report. It says that it was near Murphy’s Point which was another name for Minchin’s Point, the site of the Southport ferry service across the Hillsborough. But elsewhere it says 3/4 of a mile from the blockhouse.  Given that there would be a well-established winter road  across the harbour at Southport the three-quarters may be a mis-interpretation for “three or four” miles from the Blockhouse.

However promising the brick industry might have looked in 1880 it did not last long. Brick clay deposits were small and most were soon dug out, and the prices for fuel to fire the kilns steadily rose. The economics of  P. E. I. brick production meant that competition with mainland producers was futile and the industry had disappeared by the early years of the 20th century.  However the period left a handsome legacy of Victorian commercial and residential structures which grace the city to this day.


2 thoughts on “Driving into a watery grave: The fate of Henry Finnegan, Brickmaker

  1. Reg Porter

    This was a fascinating post, especially as it appeared at the time when i was starting to collect material for a post on brick houses in my blog 🙂
    I did not know this story and the location of that brick quarry. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Sailstrait: A Decade in Review, 400,000 words and counting | Sailstrait

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