In the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas of Prince Edward Island there are two planned towns. One was Victoria which continues to be a viable community albeit a little empty of residents in the winter owing to the high percentage of summer landowners. The other is Port Selkirk in lot 57, just down the road from Orwell Cove.
Neatly laid out with 76 lots on five blocks, carved up by five streets, only some of which carried names, Port Selkirk was never to fulfill the landowner’s expectations.
What it shared with Victoria was an easy point of access to the sea. Orwell Brush Wharf was the best quay serving the farmers and merchants of the Orwell and Belfast districts. The port was on the Orwell River just below where the Vernon River flowed into it. The deep channel, which still shows depths of more than thirty feet, was well sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds. There was a tee-shaped government wharf at the end of the road which linked the port to communities such as Orwell Corner, Kinross, Uigg, Vernon and Newton. There was an established ferry crossing to China Point and in winter it was a good point to cross the ice on the way to town. But being at the end of the road was a bit of a problem because only a mile or so to the East was another community which was already established as a service centre for the area. Orwell Cove was never more than a rural cross-roads but it had all that Port Selkirk would like to provide.
While Orwell Cove was not actually on the water – the cove itself is shallow and some distance from the cross-roads – the community was already recognized as the commercial centre of the area and it had the district school. Merchants and tradesmen were already living there and if someone was to build on the small village lots of Port Selkirk it would be have to be these folks – farmers didn’t live in towns.
Port Selkirk simply failed to develop. Although it was visited by the ships of the steamboat fleet such as the City of London and the Jacques Cartier in the late 19th and early 20th century the shore-side potential of the site was not realized. The period after 1880 was a bad one for the Island with economic reversals and in the following decades many left the Island to the Boston States or the West . Population had dropped by almost 20% by the Great War and the greatest loss was in farming areas where lower quality soils and steep slopes made agriculture un-economic. One of the areas hardest hit was in the southern part of Kings and Queens Counties. In addition the building of the Murray Harbour Branch of the PEI Railway and the building of a station at Uigg gave farmers and travelers an alternative to Brush Wharf for getting their goods to market.
By 1935 it was clear that Port Selkirk had ceased to be anything but a dream. Although the field pattern which can be seen in the aerial photograph mirrors the 1880 plan, the streets, lots and busy businesses were conspicuously absent. What few houses and buildings that had been there earlier had been mostly abandoned and it is doubtful if any of the streets were actually laid out.
Brush Wharf, however, continued to be used. It was a port of call for the Harland into the 1930s but after the end of the regular steamer service and the improvement of the road network little shipping activity was seen. Even the occasional schooner loading potatoes or grain became a rare event. However, between steamer visits it was likely a lonely place.
The development of the mussel industry meant that the wharf was saved unlike so many others such as the one across the river at China Point which is now nothing but a rock pile at the edge of the channel. Thanks to a large and thriving mussel operation using the Orwell River and Bay Brush wharf is today a very busy spot even if it stands alone at the end of the road. There are no steamers or schooners but the oddly shaped specialized craft designed to service the cultivation of the blue mussel shuttle back and forth from to the beds to the pier and the large processing facility on the shore is a major employer in the area.
I visited China Point and the Orwell River on one of my sailing excursions and found it to be an exceptional anchorage. With the sun rising the next morning over what would have been Port Selkirk it was easy to imagine what might have been.
Time has not been kind to many of our small Island communities. Compare this photo taken today of Orwell Cove with the postcard image seen above:
I am indebted to Dave Hunter, one of the few residents of Port Selkirk, and to followers of his several facebook and web pages for information in identifying the exact site of the 1907 postcard image. He was able to provide background historical information for every one of the structures seen in that photograph.