Tag Archives: Harland

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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Mr. Warburton’s obsession

When Alexander Bannerman Warburton, the member for Queens County Prince Edward Island rose in the House of Commons on 20 February 1911 his speech began with the ominous words “It may be wearisome to hon. members of this House to hear this matter brought up periodically…”

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Detail, from Bayfield’s chart of Amet Sound and Tatamagouche harbour showing the anchorage at Brule. Although protected there is an absence of any wharves or dockages.

Warburton was speaking of the issue of the “continuous steam communication” which had been part of the Confederation agreement but the member from Queens had his own hobby-horse to ride. For him the issue of dependable transportation could be most simply dealt with by changing to port to which the steamers travelled. At the time there were several routes in use: Summerside to Shediac, Charlottetown to Pictou,  Cape Traverse to Cape Tormentine, and Georgetown to Pictou. The summer steamers of the Steam Navigation Company used the first two to link the train services of the Island with those of the mainland. In winter the Dominion Government ice-breaking steamers used all the ports and shifted between them as ice conditions allowed. Usually the ice thickened and became impassable west to east so that the Georgetown to Pictou route was the last one to be used each winter.

The map makes it clear. Proposed steamer route (green) and railway branch (orange)

The map makes it clear. Proposed steamer route (green) and railway branch (orange)

For Warburton the map told the story. Directly across Northumberland Strait from Charlottetown lay Amet Sound or Tatamagouche Bay with communities of Cape John, Brule and Tatamagouche. Any fool could see that the twenty-four miles across the Strait was shorter  than making the dog-leg to Pictou.  And from any one of the communities on the shores  of Tatamagouche Bay it was a much shorter direct route to Truro and the Intercolonial Railway junction making a short route to Halifax and from there to the wide world.

It was not pre-ordained that the gateway to Prince Edward Island should lead through Pictou. Although the harbour was a good one it was not the only one with favourable conditions for sailing ships and the early steamers. The Brule shore developed a trade with Prince Edward Island that lasted for many years with schooners hauling agricultural goods and limestone back and forth across the strait into the 20th century. It was the discovery of coal that made Pictou an important port and with increased trade and settlement as well as industry, mail and coach routes with Halifax developed.

The shorter distance from Charlottetown to Halifax by travelling as the crow flies was attractive to some of the early steamboat operators. Heard’s Rosebud, the first steamer to be built on the Island, ran between Charlottetown and Tatamagouche in the 1850s in an effort to take trade away from the government-subsidized government steamers.  The route had been studied by the P.E.I. Colonial government in 1856 and Admiral Bayfield’s observation that Brule harbour was “the safest and best for direct intercourse with Nova Scotia…” was quoted.  In 1864 the Halifax Chronicle carried an advertisement for the “Short and Cheap route between Halifax and P.E.Island” meeting the steamer Heather Belle at Brule and when the Nova Scotia delegates came to what would become known as the confederation conference in 1864 it was from Brule on the steamer Heather Belle, rather from Pictou. The port was used as an occasional excursion destination from as the trip there and back could be made in one day.

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Advertisement for excursion to the proposed winter port. Guardian 24 July 1909 p.2

However Pictou’s dominance on the strait was greatly strengthened with the construction of the Nova Scotia Railway from Truro to Pictou Landing in 1867 and its incorporation into the Intercolonial Railway after Confederation but it was not until 1887 that the railway actually ran into Pictou town.  The same year what came to be known as “the short line” (The Montreal and European Railway) was built from Oxford Junction to Pictou along the north shore passing through Tatamagouche. However this was far from the direct link between Northumberland Strait and Truro.  Proponents of the route were excited by the construction of the Midland Railway between the Annapolis Valley and Truro and its acquisition by the Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR) in 1905.  Extension of the line straight through the 28 miles to Brule could only be a matter of time and the vision of fast steamers across the Strait and a DAR express to Yarmouth and waiting Boston steamers was fodder for editorial comment and political postures.  The Halifax Herald wrote of trips from Charlottetown “To Halifax and return in a day” and “a new route to Boston.”  In the summer of 1909 things had progressed to the point where the owners of the Harland laid on an excursion to allow everyone to view the proposed port.

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Alexander Bannerman Warburton, a champion of the Brule route.

Alexander Warburton had been a M.L.A. from 1891 to 1898 and served as premier for a brief period before accepting an appointment as county court judge. Resigning in 1904 to run for politics he was not successful until the 1908 general election and he served only until 1911 when he was defeated.

He may have been infected by the Brule bug when running for Dominion office in 1904. By May 1909 he was in full support of the Charlottetown – Brule route. He first raised the matter in the House that year speaking for almost an hour in a discourse which recounted the history of the colony, his experiences waiting in Pictou for ice-trapped vessels, “a severe and lengthy condemnation of the suitability of Pictou as a winter port” and again and again referring to the shortened distance. The same year his stance was adopted by the Maritime Board of Trade which passed a resolution supporting a trial of the route by the icebreaker Earl Grey.

Emerging like a groundhog seeking his shadow every February  for the next two years Warburton rose to his feet to repeat his lengthy but impassioned plea which would introduce an equally lengthy and impassioned rebuttal from the member from Pictou and then the House would return to its normal business for another year.

The route question was rendered moot by the creation of the car ferry service between Cape Tormentine and Port Borden which introduced a dependable winter crossing using the S.S. Prince Edward Island but it refused to die away completely. Even after Warburton went to his reward in 1920 (as Judge of the Probate Court) there were outbreaks of interest in the Brule route.  Charlottetown businessman J.O. Hyndman was a proponent suggesting a seven-month steamer service to replace the Hochelaga coupled with the long-sought Truro-Brule direct rail line. A fast steamer could make two round trips per day compared with only one on the Pictou route. The plan was endorsed by the Truro Board of Trade in 1929. However the branch line to Brule was never built and the steamers continued to go to Pictou.

The Brule route was only one of a number of map-induced proposals in the region. There were costly failures such as the Chignecto Ship Railway and those like the Brule route and the PEI rail tunnel which never quite got off the ground.  Often what was missing was an appreciation of the demand. In the case of the Brule route the market was simply not there. Even before the car ferry, Pictou was quite adequate. The line on-the-map may have been perfect, but the good was good enough.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.