Tag Archives: Hillsboro Bridge

The last opening of the Hillsborough bridge

Open span of the Hillsborough Bridge 1960. The shafts from the engine house to the cog track on the pier can be seen as can the wheels bearing the weight of the bridge structure. Thes photo is taken from the Budbury side looking toward Charlottetown.

The building of the second (and present) Hillsborough Bridge was hardly the major engineering project that the first had been in the first decade of the century.  The 1903-1905 bridge project  had been part of a larger project; the building of the Murray Harbour Branch of the P.E.I. Railway. The second bridge was also part of a larger accomplishment. It was the last link in the building of the Trans-Canada Highway across the province. Planning and construction for the highway had begun in the early 1950s and was nearing completion by the end of the decade.

At the same time the Hillsborough Bridge was reaching the end of its useful life – or had already passed it. Although the provincial government pressed for the replacement of the bridge, and even purchased war-surplus steel for a new bridge in 1951, the decision to build a new bridge was not made until the final planning for the Trans-Canada highway in the province was completed. Construction of the new bridge took place to the east of the existing structure using the original earth-filled abutments for much of the crossing but extending them and narrowing the river flow to a very large degree.

The original bridge had a swing span so that the bridge could open to allow vessels to go up the Hillsborough River.  At the time there were still regular steamers such as the City of London and the Harland which made stops at several river-front wharves and even, when tide allowed, to go as far as Mt. Stewart. Freight steamers had delivered coal directly to a now-vanished wharf at Falconwood Asylum.  However with improved rail and road connections traffic shifted away from the river and after the 1930s openings of the bridge were rare or non-existent.

The swing span was operated from an engine house high above the bridge floor. The building housed either a small steam boiler or a gasoline engine (more likely the latter but perhaps a reader could clarify this for me) turning a series of gears and two drive shafts which ran from the house to below the floor of the bridge where they connected to toothed gears which ran around a track on the bridge pier. The bridge span itself sat on wheels running in a track on the pier. The entire weight of the span was borne by these wheels. These element of the mechanism can be seen in the photo above.  The opening of the span was a time consuming operation and of course halted any rail or road traffic and a decision to open the bridge was not taken lightly.

However, the construction of the new bridge created an engineering problem. In order to erect the steel of the new single span it was necessary to bring a barge with cranes and other heavy equipment into location east of the old bridge. And for that to happen the span had to be opened for the first time in many years.  There were a few technical problems and concerns. Telephone and electrical power lines had been carried by the bridge but when it was opened these links would be severed. New poles had to be erected to carry the lines over the gap.  There were also concerns that the engine in the bridge house might not be in a condition to operate. Another issue was that the fill from the new bridge was exerting pressure on the piers. The wooden ice shield east of the bridge had already shifted and if the swing span pier had moved even a slight amount the bridge might not open.  It was one thing if the bridge failed to open. It was quite another if it opened and then could not be closed.

The opening of the bridge, once a common occurrence, had become so rare that there was a huge amount of public interest in the last two openings. Once to let the barge come upstream and the final one when the steel work was completed and the barge had to exit the worksite. Roads had be closed and crowds gathered to watch the events.

Although the openings and closings were accompanied by a great deal of anxiety on the part of the engineers and were slow and deliberate they took place without incident. It was an event with much public curiosity both on shore an in the water. Members of the Charlottetown boating community, especially those from the Charlottetown Yacht Club, took advantage of the event to turn it into a spectacle.   Families and friends gathered to watch and the huge steel span slowly turned, the barges moved through the gap and then the engine was re-started and the bridge slowly closed, never to be open again.

Although the new Hillsborough Bridge opened for traffic late in 1961 it was not until the summer of 1962 that there was an official opening ceremony marking the completion of the Trans Canada Highway in the province .

Yacht Club member Art Love with family members Peter and Don and a friend waiting for the bridge to open. Mac Irwin’s launch can be seen over the stern of the Love boat. Art’s runabout and the highspeed Mercury outboard were famous for their appearances in harbour motor boat races. Photo: Ron Atkinson collection

Hillsborough Bridge partially open. Displaced eastern ice shield can be seen below the crane boom. Photo: Ron Atkinson Collection

Hillsborough Bridge partially open. The telephone and electric poles carrying the wires across the gap can be seen. Note the cars and spectators on the new roadway behind the open span. Photo: Ron Atkinson Collection.


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.





Psst – Wanna buy a used bridge?

The dream of a bridge over the Hillsborough River at Charlottetown replacing the ferries was around for a long time but the cost of the nearly one mile crossing was almost as big a barrier as was the river itself.  However, when the bridge project was coupled with the desire for a branch railway linking Charlottetown with southern Queens County and the port of Murray Harbour the dream became a reality. The new branch railway, sometimes called the Southern Railway and later the Murray Harbour Branch, had to skirt the high ground at Caledonia and connect with Charlottetown.  It might have been cheaper to build a branch line connecting with the PEI Railway somewhere between Mount Stewart and Cardigan (as indeed was done in the 1920s when the bridge was deemed too weak to take the heavier standard gauge trains) but that would have done little to address the need for a river crossing near Charlottetown.

The solution to the problem was through the fortuitous availability of a slightly used bridge not too far from Charlottetown.  The fact that the bridge had already seen twenty-five years of hard use seemed to bother no one.


Location of the Miramichi bridges at Derby Junction, New Brunswick

When the Intercolonial Railway was built to fulfil a Confederation promise to link New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to Quebec and Ontario the chief engineer was Sir Sandford Fleming who justly earned a reputation for quality construction. While other railway builders of the day often opted for wooden bridges because of the cost Fleming held out for iron construction.  One of the biggest of the bridges on the route was across the two branches of the Miramichi River at Derby Junction, near what was then called Newcastle.  There were twelve spans, six on each of the two branches. The bridge stood as a mighty symbol of the Intercolonial. Over the next quarter century, as traffic increased and the weight of trains became larger it was clear that a stronger bridge was needed.


View of one section of the Miramichi Bridge. Those familiar with the Hillsborough Bridge will recognize the spans.

The iron bridge was comprised of twelve identical spans that for the most part had been bolted together.  Although it might have been convenient to try to ferry the spans to their new site it was not really feasible.  The result was that the bridge had to be taken apart and shipped in pieces. The spans were lifted off the abutments and transported by barges to a work yard where the spans were disassembled, the pieces numbered and then shipped to Charlottetown.

Span of the Miramichi Bridge after removal from abutments.

Span of the Miramichi Bridge after removal from abutments.

In Charlottetown an assembly yard had been erected on a temporary staging built on pilings east of the railway Wharf.  The bridge parts were taken directly there by ships and barges and the parts unloaded. In an assembly line process the spans were re built and floated into place in the Hillsborough River to be lowered onto the abutments which had been constructed across the river.

Temporaty work yard east of the railway Wharf

Work yard east of the railway Wharf. Two of the harbour ferries can be seen in the background.


Work yard showing span being re-constructed. The bridge piers can be seen in the background.


Reconstructed span ready to be dropped into position

The railroad itself was largely completed by the time the bridge spans were put in position. The first sod had been turned for the Branch Line in May 1900 and the first train ran from Murray Harbour to Mutch’s Point in Bunbury in November of 1903 although many of the bridges on the line were still temporary wooden trestles.  By early 1905 the safety of some of these trestles was in doubt and no through trains ran in the spring of 1905 in anticipation of final bridgework being completed. At the Hillsborough river crossing placing of the spans began in September 1904 and after a winter break recommenced in earnest early in 1905.  By June the last spans were ready to be put in place.


Hillsborough Bridge ca. 1905, photo taken from the Charlottetown end looking south.

Unlike the Miramichi Bridge the Hillsborough Bridge included a swing span to allow river traffic to go up the Hillsborough.  This section was custom-built and rested on two protective wooden piers when the bridge was open.  The swing span was operated by a gasoline engine mounted on the span itself. In later years a small building housing the machinery and the operator was built into the top of the span.   In addition two houses were built at the ends of the bridge to regulate traffic when the bridge was being used by trains or then the span was to be opened.

Even with the use of a re-cycled bridge the cost was enormous for the time. In response to a question in the House of Commons in 1908 Sir Wilfrid Laurier tabled a figure of $1,365,085.57 (to the penny). Based solely on inflation that would represent more than $35 million in 2016 dollars.

There was one small matter to be resolved.  The Miramichi Bridge had twelve spans. So did the Hillsborough Bridge.  However, one of the spans of the latter was the custom swing span. What happened to the rest of the bridge?  I had posed the question on-line and not only did I receive an answer from Steven Hunter, one of the Prince Edward Island Railway’s biggest enthusiasts, but he also located a copy of a photo showing the span in place. The missing span was also the missing link in the Murray Harbour Branch Railway. At Glencoe Brook, near Vernon, there is a deep ravine. In early May of 1905 a train of four flat cars slowly made its way from Mutch’s Point to Glencoe carrying the final assembled span of the Miramichi Bridge to replace the temporary trestle at that location.  One can imagine the difficulties involved with loading a fully assembled bridge span aboard a narrow-gauge train, transporting it along the still-uneven roadbed with twists and curves  and then putting it into position.


Glencoe Bridge, Murray Harbour Branch railway ca. 1920. Photo from Canadian Science and Technology Museum collection.

The Hillsborough Bridge lasted for more than a half-century in its new location finally being superseded by a road-only bridge in 1963.  The Glencoe span did not last as long.  Surveyed in preparation for conversion to standard gauge in the 1920s it was found that the abutments were crumbling and the bridge was replaced with the earth embankment which is still an impressive feature of the Confederation Trail which runs on the railway roadbed.