Tag Archives: Hillsborough River

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.


Heather Belle Goes East

Heather Belle 3466-73-102-53-1

Captain Bourke’s Heather Belle tied up at the Steam Navigation Wharf.

The East or Hillsborough River gets short shrift in the collected writings on Charlottetown Harbour and its rivers.  While it perhaps exceeded the West or Eliott River in commercial importance it lacked the picturesque character of the latter.  Well into the 1930s the West river was the site of many excursions to picnic sites at Westville and Shaw’s Wharf but the several small wharves on the East River were without interest for pleasure purposes.  For the most part the Hillsborough passed through low-lying land and farms in the area seemed to have turned their back on the river.  As one approached Mount Stewart there was a busy shipbuilding industry but as that faded in importance after the 1860s so too did interest in the River.

The building of the Prince Edward Island Railway had a major impact on the Hillsborough River usage. Because the rails ran parallel to the river, passenger and freight traffic gradually shifted from the sea to the land. At the turn of the twentieth century there was still enough activity to require that the new Hillsborough Bridge on the Murray Harbour Branch of the railway needed a swing span but throughout the century it was opened fewer and fewer times each year.  The removal of the rail bridge and its replacement by the present auto crossing meant that even the pleasure sailors who might venture up the river were stopped.

Owing to these factors it was not a destination for visitors to the Island and descriptions of the river are few. One of the exceptions is an account written by an anonymous writer from the St. John Morning Telegraph and published in the 9 July 1863 edition. The item was republished in The Islander on the 17th of the same month. The part of the account referring to the East River is excerpted below.  This is one of the earliest mentions of “the tourist” in connection with Prince Edward Island.

Editorial notes of a tour in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Scenery, Farming & c.

The tourist will find a trip by water to Mount Stewart, on the East River, about twenty miles from Charlottetown, and from which he may derive much pleasure, especially if he travels by the “Heather Belle” and surrender himself unconditionally to Captain Bourke, one of the proprietors of the steamer. Between the Capital and Mount Stewart the country on both sides of the river appears to be in a high state of cultivation. The scenery along the river banks is grateful to the eye, the only drawback being the general flatness of the land, except in the vicinity of the Mount.  The river is very crooked for a portion of the distance, consulting its own pleasure on all occasions.

There are several small vessels building on the right bank, and on a small river which empties into East River from the left bank near Mount Stewart some half-dozen ship yards are in operation.  The vessels are nearly all small crafts; at least they would be considered so in New Brunswick, where men’s ideas and the growth of timber are somewhat larger than in this Island. The Mount Stewart property is under lease to Mr. William Swabey, who farms on a very extensive scale. This farm is considered very valuable, and ought to yield the proprietor a handsome revenue. The wild duck rears her offspring on this river and its margin and cranes are abundant. The steamboat traffic on the river is sufficient to secure semi-weekly trips between town and Mount Stewart Bridge, calling at various wharves bearing extraordinary names. On market days in town there is generally a rush of farmers and produce. The popularity of Captain Bourke no doubt has a great deal to do with the patronage extended to his boat.  

The Heather Belle had been launched from the James Duncan Shipyard in Charlottetown only a year before this account. The 108 foot boat was built of wood with engines from Todd and McGregor of Glasgow. She became one of the vessels owned by the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company. After more than twenty years of service she was completely re-built in 1883 and was wrecked after a collision in fog near the mouth of Charlottetown Harbour in 1891.

“Interest in the Race was Practically Lost Sight of”

Headlines for Yacht Race story  - Charlottetown Guardian - 9 August 1900

Headlines for Yacht Race story – Charlottetown Guardian – 9 August 1900

The style of Journalistic reportage has changed a good deal since the end of 19th century. Today  for example, one would never start a front-page story with “Yesterday was an ideal summer day and considerable interest was taken in the yacht race.”  This is especially so when in the reader learns halfway through the story that the events of the day included the tragic drowning of a member of the crew of one of the yachts!

The 8th of August 1900 was a fine day with strong winds – an excellent day for a yacht race. The Guardian detailed the position of the eleven yachts as they crossed the start line; Flirt, followed across the line by Freda, the Rescue, the Report and the Stranger with the remaining boats close behind. The course lead up the East River (the Hillsborough Bridge had not yet been constructed) to the Asylum Buoy off Falcon Point which was about a mile from the Railway Wharf. The wind was strong and suddenly one of the boats, called the Gentlemen, which was apparently carrying too much sail, overturned and sent the five members of the crew into the water. The yacht Jubilee which was sailing nearby picked up two of the crew members; Freeland Wood and J. Morrisey.  The steamer Southport with about 100 spectators raced to the scene of the accident and lowered a boat which recovered two others; William Brown and Theo. Brehaut.  These two had been hanging on to the spar along with a third man, Mark Riley. Riley was not a good swimmer and he panicked owing to the current and tried to hang on to Breahut taking them both down. At some point he let go and was not seen alive again. Men in another boat  had tried to grab him but in the strong wind their boat collided with the Southport, broke its jibboom, drifted away, and the opportunity was lost, although Riley’s hat was secured. Another man dived for Riley but could not find the body.The Jubilee and the Southport brought the four saved men to shore. Several attempts were made to take the overturned Gentlemen in tow but they were not successful owing  to the strong current.

The Guardian coverage then becomes somewhat absurd. It was reported that Brehault had lost his clothes and books (hardly significant in view of the fact that Riley had lost his life). Then the story provided a few lines identifying the deceased as the 25 year old son of Edward Riley of Miminigash, employed at James Judson’s lobster factory at St. Peters Island.

Having dispatched the unfortunate Riley the Guardian then returns to the coverage of the race.  While a few of the boats rounded up following the accident the race went on.  As the fleet passed Connolly’s wharf on the first circuit of the course Onward led with Flirt second and Freda third. At the end of the leg Freda had overtaken Onward and Flirt, Rescue and Report followed.  That order was maintained through the second circuit of the course  and the race finished with Flirt first in 2 hours and 43 minutes.

The story then gives details of the Freda (a new boat built by James Griffin) which took about as much space as the biographical details of the late (but apparently not too lamented) Mark Riley. Although boats dragged for Riley’s body that afternoon and the next day it was not found until five days after the accident when his corpse was discovered washed up on Rosebank Beach.