Tag Archives: Bonshaw

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.

Up the creek or variations on a stream – More photos from the Irwin albums

In the late 1930s the West or Eliot River was the playground of the Charlottetown Yacht Club’s motor boaters.  The sailboats had the harbour and the bay with their races and regattas.  Powerboat racing had come and gone in the first decade of the century (and would come again with the advent of powerful outboards in the 1950s and 60s) and motorboaters were for the most part more interested in comfort than speed.

On the river itself there was little traffic and still less commerce. The regular trips of the Harland to Westville had ended in 1936 and the motor boat packet service of sorts which extended as far as Bonshaw with boats such as the Derry, Dolphin and the Hazel Ruth came to a halt about the same time because road travel had become more popular.   The wharves along the river at Shaws, Westville and further west were seldom used.

Above Dunedin the Bonshaw hills pinched the river  which had carved out large “S” bends as it wore its way through the soft sandstone. As the crow flies from Dunedin Bridge to Bonshaw is just over four kilometers but as the river flows it is about double the distance. With banks too steep for cultivation the upper part of the West River retained (and still retains) the appearance of a virgin forest, although the woods have been logged continuously since the early 1800s. A few massive pines and hemlocks on the steepest slopes give a taste of what the shoreline might have looked like in earlier years.


Upper reaches of the West river 2005. While the serpentine course of the river can plainly be seen the steepness of the banks is less obvious.  Image from Google Earth.


Green Road Bridge at Crosby’s Mills

There were a few spots on the inside of the meanders where the ground was flat enough for fields and these had been used by the adventurous from Charlottetown as camping and fishing spots since the time of confederation.  While large power cruisers such as Mac Irwin’s Roamer were stopped by the bridge at Bonshaw the head of navigation was a mile or so up-stream at Crosby’s Mill.  Just before reaching the mill the steel girder bridge over the river at Green Road made another barrier for larger boats.   At high tide this could easily be reached by rowboats or by the outboard powered runabouts.


Bentley’s Mae West emerging from under the Green Road Bridge.

The Irwin album has a large number of photos featuring one of these runabouts in particular. The Mae West was owned by Charlie and Eileen Bentley, a couple who were among the early members of the Charlottetown Yacht Club.  They appear to have been particular friends of Mac Irwin and often accompanied him on his excursions up the West River.  Charlie kept the Mae West in immaculate condition.  The Irwin albums attest to the fact that within the group there was at least one avid photographer. Although the quality of the photos is not always studio standard there is no mistaking the level of interest.  The photos were widely shared and copies of some of them appear in the Fred Small Collection and in the photos which once were displayed in the old Yacht Club building. Some of the latter have been transferred to the Yacht Club collection at the Public Archives and Records Office.

The Bentley family have a large number of photos of the West River activities and I am indebted to Eric Bentley for giving me access to his collection and for supplying identification for a number of the vessels and people.

The selection below represents some of the West River activities documented in the Irwin albums.  Click on any image to see the photos as a slide show.


Crosby’s Mills was popular boating destination

On almost every Island stream where the tide reached furthest inland there was once a mill and a millpond. Many have disappeared but on the West or Eliot River the site of Crosby’s Mill can still be found.  The Green or Tryon Road which was cut through in the earliest years of the 19th century crossed the West River at the head of tide and in the early 1840s a mill site was developed just above the bridge. The steepness where the road dipped into the valley from the heights of Strathgartney was a difficult climb for heavily laden wagons and carts and in 1841 an alternate and more gradual route was developed just to the south at Bonshaw.

Green Road Bridge

Green Road Bridge at Crosby’s Mills before 1907

A new steel bridge was placed on the crossing in 1907 and the hill cut down but by then the road through Bonshaw was clearly the favoured route and there was little further improvement on the Green Road.

Green Road Bridge after 1907. PARO Accession 3466.

Green Road Bridge after 1907. PARO Accession 3466.

The steel span was in place until 1962 when it was washed away and floated down to Bonshaw. A temporary foot bridge using decking over two telephone poles provided access to the eastern bank of the river.


New footbridge under construction November 2014

Bonshaw was effectively the head of navigation and a wharf was soon established there. Most pleasure boats, including early craft such as the Houseboat Doris and later those from the Charlottetown Yacht Club could go no further than the Bonshaw Bridge but smaller motorboats and canoes could, at high tide, go right up to Crosby’s.  Mac Irwin took many photos in the area and it appears to have been a popular camping and excursion spot in the 1910s and 20s. One resident reported that in the 1920s upwards of 25 boats might come up the river on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  It was also a popular fishing spot. At the turn of the 20th century Indian guides could still be hired to help anglers find the best spots on the upper West River.  Possibly the largest fish caught in recent years was a 6 1/4 pound monster taken from the pool below the mill  in 1942 by Lloyd Weeks of Charlottetown. In the late 1940s it was not uncommon for trout weights to be up to 3 1/2 pounds.  Changes in the upper river arising from the partial blockage of the river by the West River Causeway in the early 1960s had a dramatic and damaging effect on siltation and flushing of the river which is only now beginning to change.

SCH2Charlottetown Architect Charles B. Chappell sketched the busy operation on a visit to the spot in 1907. A huge pile of slabs bark and sawdust from the mill spilled into the river and no doubt contributed to the silting up of the stream, a problem which persists to this day in spite of efforts by the local watershed group to improve the flow.

Bonshaw millIn 1937, after the death of Hugh Crosby the property was put up for sale. At the time the operation consisted of a grist mill with a four stand roller process flour mill, machinery for making oatmeal, and English wheat burrs for crushing grain; a sawmill with rotary bandsaw, planer and  shingle mill; an electrical generator which provided power to nearby house; 100 acres of land, 12 of which were cultivated the remainder in wood; and a two-storey house with plumbing and electric lights. The mill itself was in operation into the mid-20th century but has since crumbled into the ground leaving only a few foundation stones. The dam has been altered and the spillway and mill race removed, replaced by a by-pass channel.

In 1936 the area was promoted by local residents as the site of the new national park proposed for the province. A public meeting in Bonshaw adopted a resolution  “most earnestly and humbly craving their representatives in Parliament and all others interested in this matter to make an honest and earnest effort to secure to site of the proposed national park at Bonshaw.”  The reasons were made clear at the meeting

The scenery is rugged, almost sublime; lofty hills, sheltered valleys, with nice stretches of level spaces, splendid forests comprising almost all the trees native to the province; a large and smooth mill dam well sheltered by hills and forest, which gives a perfect reflection; pure spring water flowing steadily from the rocks, insuring a perpetual supply of good water for all culinary and laundry purposes, a very strong water power that can be easily utilized for making electricity and for other purposes; an abundant supply of fuel consisting of good hardwood, even the good sugar maple; the moss in some parts of this locality is wonderful, reminding a person of rich, green carpet. This would be an ideal home for a few deer and pheasants. The mill dam above mentioned is navigable for quite a distance for motorboats, canoes etc.   

The park was eventually located elsewhere. However, in the 1960s much of the Strathgartney estate and land on the east bank of the river above the Bonshaw bridge was acquired through the Cotton Trust and became two provincial parks although once-popular camping and picnic facilities and services are no longer provided at Strathgartney. Recent acquisition of additional land for a new highway alignment has meant that the park or wilderness area has been much expanded and much of the river frontage has been protected.  A log footbridge on the site of the old road bridge is being replaced by a more permanent structure and a new network of  hiking trails is planned for the area.

CrosbysOn the eastern side of the valley there was still a farmstead accessed by the Green Road into the 1960s. However, in 1962  the bridge was swept downstream in a storm-created flood  and was not replaced. The road, which was steep and easily eroded, was abandoned and gradually became overgrown. Today it is all but impassable but its route can be easily found owing to the deep cutting through which it passed. The farm buildings were abandoned and torn down.

By the time of the 1976 aerial photographs the steep hillside was becoming overgrown and traces of the farms were disappearing. Forty years on the fields have become mature field spruce stands and in the steeper forested areas mature hardwoods stand over a hiking trail which goes up the eastern side of the valley to the old bridge site.

Crosbys Mill 1958

Today few boats make it up as far as Bonshaw, even at high tide, and it is rare indeed to see any craft above the Bonshaw Bridge.  However the rationale for the siting of a national park in the area in 1937 still holds. The Green Road bridge and Crosby’s Mills are still worth a  visit:  The scenery is rugged, almost sublime; lofty hills, sheltered valleys, with nice stretches of level spaces, splendid forests comprising almost all the trees native to the province.


This entry started when I discovered the postcard view of the unidentified “Pastoral Scene” looked very much with the tide head of the West River.  Bill and Elizabeth Glen’s 1993 book on the history of the area “Bonshaw: A Stroll through its Past” is most easily accessed at the UPEI Robertson Library’s Island Lives site.  Many of the references are from to PEI newspapers.  Air photos can be found at the Government of PEI map site