Walter Jones and the Chinese Bridge

Planking the Hillsborough Bridge for road traffic 1905. The mixed use of the bridge was to prove a problem until the end of its days. Warwick & Rutter postcard.

By 1950 the Hillsborough Bridge was, depending on who was counting, either approaching the end of its useful or was well past it.  When the used bridge opened in 1905 it could easily accommodate the weight of the small narrow-gauge engines and rail cars of the Prince Edward island Railway. When the system was switched to standard gauge with larger and heavier rail stock it was no longer up to the task and a new line between Mount Stewart and Lake Verde was constructed in the 1920s to take the heavier traffic.  Passenger trains and smaller mixed freight trains still crossed the Hillsborough from Bunbury.  As his farm was not far from the bridge Premier Walter Jones would have watched bridge activities with great interest.

Walter Jones was one of the Island’s most dynamic premiers. He was a man of what today seems to have been impulsive action and although those decisions didn’t always pan out they were always decisive. I have previously written of his mixed success in attempts to get the P.E.I. Government into the shipping business.

Chiang Kai Shek in 1945. Time magazine cover.

Changes on the other side of the world were to have an impact on the Hillsborough Bridge and in a strange way Walter Jones became the man in the middle.  In the early 1950s the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists under General Chiang Kai Shek and the Communists under Mao Tse Tung was grinding to a conclusion with the latter taking over mainland China and the former retreating to Formosa.  Canada had assisted Chiang and among the undelivered material in support of the war effort was a China-destined bridge which was still sitting in the yards of the Dominion Bridge Company in Montreal after the Nationalists fled the mainland. A challenge for Canada’s Crown Assets Disposal Corporation became an opportunity for Walter Jones.

With post-war reconstruction, steel prices had shot up making a replacement for the Hillsborough Bridge somewhat of an expensive  problem.  Jones hastily took out a $130 per ton option on the surplus bridge (which had cost $300 per ton to build and would cost $400 per ton at 1950 prices) before anyone else could act and his cabinet approved the action retroactively. To make the action a little more appealing to Islanders Jones promised to use two of the spans at North River where the Trans-Canada Highway would cross the river.  By incorporating the bridges into the Highway a significant contribution could be expected from the Dominion Government.  By the end of February 1950 an option on the 11 spans had been acquired by the province. The sale was concluded in June 1951. The government had become the proud owner of 3600 tons of steel at a cost of $469,000.

Walter Jones, 20th Premier of P.E.I. He believed he had found an easy solution to the bridge problem.

There was, however, one tiny problem.  The spans of the Chinese bridge didn’t quite fit between the existing piers. They were a little shorter than those of the iron bridge. It was no problem according to Jones who suggested that steel piles protected by sheet steel casings could easily be constructed to enlarge the existing piers. Not everyone was convinced as the stone piers had deteriorated to a serious extent. There was also the little matter that the province didn’t own the Hillsborough Bridge, it belonged to the C.N.R.

The project was dealt a fatal blow only a year later when the Board of Transport Commissioners, which had the responsibility for closure of railway lines ruled that the structure was unsafe for rail traffic. They ruled that the bridge could be closed to trains.  The last train to run across the bridge was the Murray Harbour train on 10 March 1951. For a period the railway transported train passengers from Southport stop to the Charlottetown Railway Station using taxis. Later the Commissioners agreed that a portion of the Murray Harbour line west of Hazelbrook could be closed. This delighted the C.N.R. which had been trying for years to close the money-losing line.

Suddenly the Chinese Bridge, which was designed primarily as a rail bridge with provision for highway traffic on the outside of the trusses, was no longer needed. In the legislature the Conservative opposition repeatedly attacked the Jones government for acting precipitously, leaving the government with 11 bridge spans with 3600 tons of steel on their hands – or rather on the hands of the Dominion Bridge Company to whom the government was paying storage costs while a buyer was found.

In the meantime, since carrying the rail line was no longer a requirement for the bridge, the Government turned to other options. One of the experts consulted was the engineer for the Canso causeway planned to link Cape Breton with mainland Nova Scotia and for which tenders had been called in April of 1952.  Suddenly the Island’s public works engineers and politicians fell in love with causeways and this was seen as the solution to the Hillsborough River problem. But they didn’t stop there and soon almost every tidal estuary in the province saw bridges replaced with causeways with short bridge spans. In some cases these had tidal gates which created brackish water lakes above the barrier. Included in this number was the B. Graham Rogers Lake above the North River Causeway. Built without environmental assessments these causeways with narrow spillways would create huge problems which half a century on still plague our rivers.

In the interim the government was trying to deal with the now doubly surplus bridge. Jones announced in February 1952 that an offer had been received for the bridge but he provided no details. In March it was rumoured that the steel would be traded back to the Dominion government for a new federal building in the city. By the end of the year the rails were removed from the Hillsborough Bridge turning it in to a purely highway bridge, albeit one with a single lane.  Four of the spans of the Chinese bridge had been sold by early March 1953 and by the end of the month Premier Jones announced that all the steel had been sold with a slight profit for the province.  A 1954 question in the Legislature from R.R. Bell, Conservative leader, revealed that this was not exactly the case. While most of the steel had been sold some was retained for bridge work in the province. The steel sold brought in $441,000, about $27,000 less than it cost and an extra $26,000 had been charged to the province in storage fees.  The saga of the Chinese bridge had come to an end.

Jones was not in the House to defend his impulsive purchase. On 19 May 1953 he had been appointed to the Senate, and he died in Ottawa a year later.

 

 

 

 

No Room at the Inn when Cunard Steamer Came to Call

The first visit was quite unexpected. On 19 June 1840 a large paddle steamer appeared a the entrance to the harbour and made its way to the wharf. As she approached, her decks could be seen to be crowded with British troops in their bright red uniforms. It was a changing of the guard as a detachment from the 8th Regiment sent from Halifax to replace the men of the 37th Regiment who had spent most of the past year in Charlottetown.

Advertisement for Atlantic steamship service for which the Unicorn served as a feeder. Colonial Herald and Prince Edward Island Advertiser 4 July 1840

Even more interesting than the new troops was the vessel on which they had arrived. The Unicorn was the first of the line of Cunard steamers to cross from Liverpool to Boston, via Halifax. The ship, which was slightly smaller than the purpose-built fleet of four vessels which later took on the trans-Atlantic packet service which led to the Cunard fame, had been built on the Clyde in 1836 for the Liverpool to Glasgow service. When the plan for the Atlantic packet service was developed the Unicorn was leased by the Cunard partners from the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.  Leaving Liverpool on 16 May 1840 with 27 passengers, the Royal Mail and 450 tons of coal the Unicorn, after battling heavy weather, entered Halifax  on the first of June and arrived in Boston on 3 June to be greeted at the wharf by thousands of spectators and by  banquet at which poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the vessels – “Steamships! The pillars of fire by night and cloud by day, which guide the wanderer over the sea.”   The regular four-vessel “Atlantic railway” began about a month later.

The 163 foot Unicorn, the largest paddle steamer to visit Charlottetown to that date, was powered by a 2 cylinder engine producing 260 horsepower. The Colonial Herald, at a loss for its own words, copied a description of her interior from one of the English papers;

Her salon is spacious and finished in the style of the days of “Good  Queen Bess,” in solid rosewood, with panels or centre pieced in each compartment, formed by richly gilded antique foliated frame-work, within each of which is a Chinese view on a bright green ground, in the finest japan. The furniture corresponds, and the smaller cabins and sleeping-rooms are finished in corresponding style, and fitted with every possible convenience.

The Unicorn returned to Halifax with the departing troops – or at least some of them as their numbers had been reduced at a quarter through death and desertion.  Another unexpected visit from the steamer in July brought the Governor-General for a quick visit on his way to Halifax.

Sir Samuel Cunard

After her initial Atlantic voyage the route was handed off to Cunard’s newer and larger vessels. The Unicorn was assigned to a contract which served as a feeder, carrying mails and passengers from Pictou to Quebec. Hopes on the Island that they were to be a stop on that route were dashed by the news that the vessel would sail from Pictou around East Point and across the Gulf to Quebec.  The slightly longer route avoided the danger of sailing Northumberland Strait at night, at that time without any lighthouses.

Another impediment  to regular visits may have been revealed at what was possibly the Unicorn’s last visit in September of 1840.  The steamer had come from Halifax in a record time of 27 hours. In an earlier visit Cunard told the editor of the Colonial Herald that there were other problems facing steamer passengers to Charlottetown:

[Cunard] was struck at the want of accommodation in Charlottetown for travellers. A number of those who had previously arrived in the Pocahontas were in town, and when the Unicorn arrived with upwards of forty more, although some were accommodated in private homes, many were unable to procure beds, and during the two nights the vessel remained here were under the necessity of sleeping on board. From the influx of strangers who visit the island in pursuit of business or amusement  and which may be expected greatly to increase, as additional facilities for travelling are afforded, it must be apparent to everyone  that something ought to be done to remove us from the reproach of suitable accommodation being provided when they arrive.

Cunard offered to help in the establishment of a hotel, pledging a subscription of £100 towards the project. Although endorsed the Colonial Herald the suggestion does not appear to have been acted on. The newspaper’s editor noted another deficiency in the harbour facilities;

We may also add that the want of a separate wharf at which steam boats can load at all times and take on board passengers, with their luggage &c. without interruption is much complained of.  On Wednesday evening the passengers by the Unicorn had to scramble in the dark over the decks of two square-rigged vessels before they could reach the wharf, and when they did effect a landing, they had then, at the risk of their limbs, to pick their steps over huge heaps of limestone ballast, which had been previously thrown on the wharf.  If we are really desirous of getting a-head, something must be done to remedy this inconvenience also.   

Although there was a gradual improvement in the wharf situation over the next twenty years the want of proper hotel accommodation in Charlottetown was to be a constant complaint for almost a century and was frequently cited as a barrier to the development of tourism on the Island.

The Pictou to Quebec Royal Mail subsidy was ended in 1845 as the mails were routed through Boston to Montreal. Although the Unicorn had seldom stopped in Charlottetown after 1840 the change had an impact on the island mails  as they were no longer given the express treatment in the coach from Halifax to Pictou and had to wait an extra day or so for the regular stage.

The Unicorn was purchased from its British owners in 1845 by James Whitney of Saint John and by Samuel Cunard in 1849 She appears to have been used in connection with trade to Newfoundland. Purchased by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in 1849, probably to take advantage of the California gold rush traffic, she sailed between San Francisco and Panama City.  In 1853 she was sent to Australia. A year later she sailed for Canton and Shanghai and there the trail seems to run out.

Although the Cunard family had ties with Prince Edward Island – he was associated with the General Mining Association which had operated the steam packet service to the Island, his land company owned over 100,000 acres, and his daughter married James Horsfield Peters, lawyer and later judge, the Island never featured highly in the Cunard steamship story. Perhaps they should have built that hotel!