Tag Archives: Mac Irwin

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.

 

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.

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.