Tag Archives: Hillsborough 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.





The Man Inside the Hillsborough Bridge

There is an enduring Charlottetown story about the man encased in a Hillsborough Bridge pier.

A Missing Man

As the story goes he was a night watchmen who was watching over the works when the concrete was being poured for the bridge piers. When the workers returned to the work site the next morning he had disappeared and as the years passed the belief grew that he had fallen into the still-wet cement and was entombed there forever. I first heard the story as a child when we were passing over the bridge on the very narrow roadway that often forced drivers to stop for wide trucks and inch to the very edge of the roadway as the planks beneath the vehicles clunk- clunked. Ever after that I hardly passed over the old bridge without a shiver of terror thinking of the man in his concrete prison beneath us.

Myth or reality? Here is what we know for sure and it is very little.

On 6 December 1901 the Charlottetown Guardian carried a front-page story under the headline “Another Sad Affair.”  It told of the disappearance of Ambrose Atkins (spelled Aitkins in the first report) the previous Wednesday night.  He had  been on the derrick scow working on one of the piers on the Southport end of the bridge and had temporarily replaced the usual night watchman but was not aboard when the crew returned on Thursday morning. They did find a lighted lantern and Atkins’ lunch bucket on the scow. It was initially thought that Atkins had gone ashore but the boat was found to be in order and a search was started. The Batt Brothers tug went to the scene and dragged the area with grappling hooks but the body had not been discovered by the time the paper went to press. The following day there was no change but Atkins’ hat had been found on the Southport beach. The search was still being carried out on the 9th of December but by then it was thought that the tide had carried the body some distance. And with that brief note the coverage of the “sad affair” came to an end. Atkins’ body was never found.

The link with the cement pouring was not noted at the time and the first reference to it that I have been able to find was a reminiscence by J.E. Cameron of his years on the P.E.I. Railway  published in the Guardian in 1964. Cameron recalled “A man named Amby Atkins was the night watchman and one morning he was missing. His body was never found and to this day no one knows what really happened. At the time it was believed he had fallen into the mould around the pillar into which cement was being poured.”

Atkins was 24 years old when he disappeared. He was living in Charlottetown with his brother Simon and his widowed mother next door to another brother Frederick who was a tobacconist.  At the time of the accident work on the bridge would have been winding down for the winter. The dredge itself was hauled out of the water by the end of October of 1901.  It is not clear when other work came to a halt but there certainly would have been reduced activity in the first week of December and it seems unlikely that cement pouring would have continued into cold weather. There is no mention of cement in the press reports. It is possible but rather doubtful that he would have been on the cofferdam structure at all rather than on the work barge.


Dredge excavating the river bottom prior to the driving of piles to support the piers

Building the Bridge Piers

The building of the Hillsborough Bridge was a major engineering event for Prince Edward Island. The story of the bridge superstructure has been told in an earlier posting found here but the construction of the piers on which the bridge rested also involved a major effort.  The Hillsborough was almost a mile wide and with the tide running twice a day there could be considerable current. Although shallow near the shores, the channel was still over 60 feet at river’s midpoint. Moreover much of the bottom was not solid rock but sandstone overlain with sand and muck to a significant depth. To reduce the length of the bridge earth fill brought from quarries on both sides of the river created long roadways across the shallower parts of the river. Most of the earth on the Charlottetown side was brought from a borrow pit at Long’s field near St. Dunstan’s College. There were twelve piers between the ends of the earth embankments and most were built over pilings driven through the sediment. For the seven piers outside the channel the riverbed had to be dredged to a depth of ten feet beneath the normal bottom. Then piles were driven from 30 to 65 feet into the bottom to at least four feet below the lowest tide.


Derrick barge with stone work being lifted onto bridge pier.

Dredging started in mid-September 1901. In the meantime an activity reminiscent of shipbuilding was taking place on the west end of the waterfront. Large wooden boxes built from huge pieces of timber were built on shore. With some weighing over 500 tons they were built on a slipway and launched when completed.

The large wooden cofferdams were built in a work area on Connolly’s (later Paoli’s) Wharf and served as caissons for the piers themselves. Three were launched before the end of 1901. Construction of the caissons continued through to July of 1903 when the last one was launched. Floated into place, they were weighted with concrete to drop them onto the piles under the water and then the actual piers, built with Wallace sandstone brought on barges from Arisaig Nova Scotia, were erected by stone masons. Construction of the last piers was not completed until July of 1905 by which time many of the spans had already been placed.

Bridge Pier Construction Photos

The photos below show details of the building of the cofferdams and the piers. A future blog will describe the dangerous process for building the deepest piers which required “sand hogs” compression chambers and specialized equipment.


Work yard at Connolly’s wharf showing two cofferdams under construction. Note the timber pond with large timbers just west of the slipway.


Caisson nearing completion. The structures were double or triple planked and caulked to make them waterproof. The walls of the structures were three feet thick.


Launch of one of the caissons. The first few launchings were well attended by spectators but soon became commonplace. This photo probably dates from 1901.


View of the piers under construction seen from the Charlottetown side. The pier in the foreground appears completed but still has the cofferdam in place. This photo is probably from 1903 or later.


Completed pier. A second one still in its cofferdam is behind. Several of the many barges and construction vessels can be seen in the background.


All photographs from the Public Archives and Records Office. Most information from the on-line Charlottetown Guardian. An earlier article by J.P. McClosky with his experiences working on the construction of the Hillsborough Bridge can be found in The Island Magazine fall/winter 2004.

 Updates to earlier columns:

Pan Am Clipper – The entry on the Pan Am Clippers at Shediac has been supplemented by a some additional photographs of the flying boats from the Bentley family collection, courtesy of Eric Bentley. The revised blog can be seen here.

Rocky Point – An additional postcard showing children playing at Warren Cove with the Warren Front Range Light in the background has been added to the gallery. The photo is one of the many taken by W.S. Louson before the Great War and was published by the Toronto firm of Warwick Bros. & Rutter. Louson and his postcards are the subjects of an article in the forthcoming issue of The Island Magazine.  The revised Rocky Point blog can be found here.

Prettiest Boat on the Straits – I came across a tourism brochure from 1940 which featured the photo of the Goldfinch on the cover. It has been added to the article here.