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 .