Category Archives: History

The West River Draw-bridge

For those living beside them, rivers can be both a blessing and a curse.  The river itself is a highway providing access for ships and boats to the communities and farms along their course. In winter it became a different sort of highway with ice providing a smooth passage both up and down and across its route. On P.E.I. river estuaries reached deep into the landscape and while giving communities access to the sea it also separated them. One area where this was a special problem was along the West or Elliott River.  In early years those living south of the river faced a long trip inland to Bonshaw on their way to Charlottetown.  The unbroken shoreline meant that for those in Cumberland or Rocky Point a trip to town, which they could easily see across the water, was a twenty-mile trip – barely doable in a day. Moreover the route went into the Bonshaw Hills with steep horsepower-destroying grades.

Mac Irwin’s Roamer coming down river ready to pass through the draw of the West River bridge. The raising of the draw may have been something of a local attraction.  All effort was manual, using hand-cranked winches to lift the draw leaves – two can be seen to the left of the photo. This picture originally appeared in the excellent Clyde River community web-site at https://clyderiverpei.com/2010/03/04/original-bridge-at-dunedin/ 

Until 1881 there was no bridge across the Eliott although there were a number of wharves and a steamer service went up and down the river. There was a rope-ferry across the river at Westville but the service seems to have sporadic.  A bridge was needed and according to Walter Shaw’s in his local history, Tell Me The Tales, there was a local battle for the site. Was it to be Westville, not far from the present causeway, or farther inland?

Detail of Lot 31 showing site of Westville ferry and the site which would be chosen for the West River Bridge. Meacham’s Atlas 1880.

Wherever it was to be built it would function as a terminal for the river steamers because they would simply be too large to pass under or through a bridge.  The higher up the river the more local residents could reach the steamers. The St. Catherine’s proponents of a site near Shaw’s wharf were successful and a 1250 foot pile structure was thrown across the tidal waters.  However access to the upper reaches of the River was still needed, albeit for smaller vessels, and the bridge contained an 18 foot draw section.  The same arrangement was made for a number of other Island bridges.  At Morell for example, a swing bridge on the railway and a draw-bridge at the village allowed small boats to go 8 miles into the hinterland.   With the creation of the West River crossing a small community developed at the north end of the bridge with a general store and a few houses. The community was called Dunedin. There was a post office there from 1892 to 1913. It was here that the steamers such as the Southport,  City of London and the Harland ended their trips up river and in summer Dunedin was one of several picnic and excursion destinations on the West River. With the development of gasoline engines a number of smaller boats provided subsidized packet service above the bridge as far as Bonshaw.

Another group benefiting from the drawbridge was the increasing number of pleasure boaters who made the Strathgartney and Bonshaw areas as an excursion, fishing  and camping destination. Passing through the bridge was a brief but interesting interruption in the trip.

Air photo of the Dunedin bridge about 1937. While the wharf at the bridge is clearly visible there is no sign of a draw section.

The bridge was completely rebuilt in 1919 but the draw was retained. A warehouse was built on the east side of the bridge where goods could be transshipped to the steamers.  In 1929, following a jurisdictional dispute and not a little politicking, the Dominion Government built a warehouse at  Bonshaw and dredged shallow sections of the river above the Dunedin Bridge.

However, by the mid-1930s the traffic on the river had fallen off considerably, The subsidy for the gasoline boats was discontinued. While there were only a few wharves above the Dunedin bridge; McArthur’s and Bonshaw, they were little used and fell into disrepair. Roads had improved and cars and trucks became the favoured mode of transport.  In 1936 the bridge was replaced but this time there was no draw section.  Although the Conservative Charlottetown Guardian editorialized that the people of Bonshaw had received scant consideration by the Liberal Government the only concession made was that the Dunedin Bridge had a bit of a “hump” to give additional headroom so that small boats could more easily pass under the barrier.

For many years the remains of the wharf were visible at the bridge site but a recent rebuilding has removed even these modest reminders that the Elliott was once a water highway to the Bonshaw Hills.

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P.E.I. Ferry Terminal was a Major Infrastructure Project

Ferry Terminal Pier at Carleton Head. Note the third rail on the pier. There was no need of a roadway as everything went back and forth by rail. Several temporary buildings of the construction camp can be seen on the point.

In 1912 Carleton Point was little more than the sea-side edge of a farm located a mile or so to the north and west of Cape Traverse. The latter community was the jumping off point for New Brunswick. The undersea cable of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company landed at Cape Traverse and the community was also the Island end of the winter ice-boat route. It boasted a pier that extended into the Strait and in 1885 a branch line had been added to the Prince Edward Island railway to join the pier to the Island’s rail system.

Pier-head during storm conditions. At least one of the pier cribs can be seen through the spray.

A year later the farm at Carleton Point had been converted to the site of a work camp for the building of the ferry pier. After years of agitation and delay the Dominion Government had committed to the development of an ice-breaking rail ferry service to the Island. Even before the issuing of a contract for construction of the vessel government engineers had been examining options for the route. On the New Brunswick side the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway ran from Sackville to Cape Tormentine and as this was the narrowest part of the strait the choice of the Cape was a foregone conclusion.

Winter scene at Cape Tormentine with barges and tugs. The existing rail line and wharf made construction here easier than on the Island side

On the P.E.I. side it was not as clear. Although Cape Traverse had a pier and rail connection the waters of Traverse Cove were shallow and unprotected. In fact, there was little protection on the Island side at all and the decision was made to create a new port where deep water could be reached fairly easily.  However the prevailing south-west winds and strong currents meant that the exposed shore would have to be well-protected by artificial means.

Strom waves at Carleton Head. The inner tower of the tramway can be seen on the still-wooded point.

Carleton Point (Carleton Head on some maps) had been named in 1765 by Samuel Holland for Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester and for the next 150 years appears to have escaped notice. It was here however that in 1913 work began on what was to be a massive project. The contract for the Island side construction was awarded to the Roger Miller Company of Toronto.  At a time when there were no services in the area everything, telephone lines, roads, wells, housing for workers and the building of construction  equipment had to be undertaken at the site. The nearest rail access was three miles away and no wharf or breakwater stood on the exposed shore. Transport of goods and equipment was hampered by the ban on automobiles and trucks on the roads from the main port at Summerside.

Outer tower of the tramway. It had its own steam power station with two boilers and an engine as well as generators to provide lighting. The stone blocks were positioned using the cable and then dropped into place.

One of the first tasks was the building of a powerhouse to supply electrical services and the electric generators and the steam machinery were continuous consumers of coal. On of the most evident pieces of equipment was a cableway carrying the huge stone blocks making up the pier and breakwater.  An island was created 1800 feet from shore and one end of the cableway built there with a 110 foot tower, the other end was on shore. At the peak of operations eighty railcar loads were put in place each 24 hour period.  The stone was brought on scows shuttling between Carleton Head and a quarry on the Scoudouc River near Shediac.  Work continued day and night lit by 43,000 candlepower searchlight on the top of the high cable tower. At a time when the brightest light was an oil lamp the light from the towers could be seen for miles around.

Derrick placing stones on the breakwater at Carleton Head.

The Carleton terminal structure was just over 1/2 mile long; a 2,000 foot pier and the landing slip of 740 feet.  The slip consisted on nine concrete cribs 100 x 30 feet joined together on site.  The cribs were built in Shediac and towed to Carleton where they were put in place and filled with quarry stone.  By the time the terminal was completed over 250,000 tons of quarry stone, some weighing as much as 10 tons,  had been put in place.  The transfer platform linking the rails on shore to the rails on the ferry itself was built by the Dominion Bridge Company  of Montreal and erected on-site. The mechanism raising and lowering it to adjust to the tide was powered by another steam powerhouse located on the wharf.

Tugs hauling cribs from Shediac where they were built. Once positioned they were filled with rock to form the actual terminal structure.

By the close of operations in December of 1914 the breakwater had been constructed up to low water and the pier had reached some 1500 feet from shore.  The new branch line connecting with existing Cape Traverse subdivision, a distance of 2 1/2 miles had been constructed but grading had been almost completed and the rails had been laid. In September 1915 tenders were called for the building of the rail facilities at the shore end of the terminal. A station, water tank, engine house, transfer platform, standpipe, ash-pit and turntable foundations were built to accommodate rail operations. Initially all tracks had a third rail to carry both narrow-gauge PEI Railway cars and the standard gauge Intercolonial Railway cars which would come across on the ferry.  A transfer station allowed goods to be moved between one type of car to the other.

Carleton terminal structure as it neared completion. Dredges and derricks are still at work but the apron for loading cars onto the boat is in place along with the steam powerhouse which controlled its movement.

The turning basins at both piers had been dredged to a depth of twenty feet at low tide but as the S.S. Prince Edward Island drew that much there was little margin for error and continuous dredging became an almost permanent part of the operation of the port for the next few years.

Completed pier as seen from the breakwater.

In August 1916 a Guardian writer foresaw a fine future for the town. Beautifully situated in the midst of a prosperous farming district, possessing natural attributes as a summer resort with a broad sandy beach, excellent sites for a golf course and summer cottages, having the potential to be a warehousing and distribution centre for the province. By November a decision had been made by the Dominion Government about the name for the town to be built on the cliff overlooking the ferry terminal and rail yard. It was to become Port Borden, named after Robert Laird Borden, the country’s Prime Minister.  Carleton Point became Borden Point at the same time.

When the regular ferry service began in October of 1917 the outlook was bright but town failed to fulfil its earliest expectations.  Rather than stopping at Borden travellers lost little time passing through to Charlottetown, Summerside and tourist destinations. Although planned using modern design principles, possibly by leading town planner Thomas Adams of the Canadian Conservation Commission it did not develop its potential as a regional centre and was primarily a dormitory town for the ferry workers. The busy work of being a distribution centre and transfer point disappeared when the standard gauge rails were extended across the province.

NOTE – Photographs used in this posting are from the Robinson Collection at the P.E.I,. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 3466/74.91