When Captain Henry Wolsey Bayfield moved his Hydrographic surveys from Quebec to Charlottetown in 1843 the first order of business was to ensure that the nearby areas were accurately surveyed. Although a chart of Hillsborough Bay had been prepared in 1839 by Surveyor General George Wright at the request of the Colonial Legislature, a more detailed survey of the Harbour was made in 1843. As part of this survey the Hillsborough River was charted from Charlottetown to its head by Bayfield and his assistants John Orlebar and George Bedford.
At the time the Hillsborough River was the most important on the Island. In the French period its banks had been lined with farms taking advantage of the rich salt marshes and it was a highway linking the government at Fort La Joye with the main settlements at St. Peter’s and Fortune. One of the earliest roads on the Island followed the French route along the northern side of the river. The river basin was also the site of early English settlement but the potential was limited, especially on the upper reaches where the soil was not of the highest quality and the land low-lying.
Although the survey of the River was completed in 1844 it was not until 1866 that the chart was published and sold to the public. In the twenty years between survey and sale there had been few changes. The construction of a bridge at Mount Stewart effectively made that settlement the head of navigation but there were still fifteen miles of river between the bridge and Charlottetown. Perhaps the incentive for publishing the chart was the increase of steamer traffic but more likely it was the increasing number of shipyards on the river. The area thrived with shipbuilding. In 1871, for example, there were six vessels on the stocks at Mount Stewart in the fall of the year but there limitations of depth in the river and most vessels had to be towed to Charlottetown for completion after launch. After the end of shipbuilding boom the river became quieter still.
Because of the perceived potential of the River it was one of the earliest surveys completed in the area. The chart shows the thousands of soundings taken by men of the survey crew, travelling in small boats, crossing and re-crossing from one bank to the other all the way up the river to its source. The resulting chart is rich in detail but it is remarkable for the absence of evidence of settlement along the river itself. A few houses are shown, especially near Charlottetown but there is little other detail beyond the river banks. Although there were later to be wharves and stopping places for the steamers, in the 1843-44 chart information there is scarcely a single place on either the north or south bank between the ferry wharf at Southport and Mount Stewart where a road touched the shore. Already by the 1840s the Island was beginning to turn its back to the Hillsborough. H.J. Cundall’s map of the colony in 1851 tells a similar story with only a single road leading to the river. Even today road access to the Hillsborough is very limited.
The Bayfield Chart has a number of place names which have disappeared from present-day maps. Just east of Charlottetown, for instance, is Spring Garden Creek rising on the grounds of what is now the Belvedere Golf Club. Further along is Falcon Point which gave its name to Falconwood, the estate of John Grubb, later the site of the Government Stock Farm and the Lunatic Asylum. Closer to Mt. Stewart is Cranberry Point. On the south side of the river we find Mid Meadow Point, now Red Point, Five Houses on the site of what is now Fort Augustus, and across from Little Frenchfort, a Ferry Point where no ferry seems to have operated. There is a high level of detail in the Chart with a number of “Muscle” beds being shown. Although there are many references to “mud and weeds” there is no mention of oysters anywhere on the river.
Although in early years the river was used as a highway, with the passage of time it was used less and less. The construction of the railroad which bordered the river between Charlottetown and Mount Stewart meant a large reduction in activity on the river itself. Although in the 1870s and 1880s the ferries and river streamers made regular trips calling along the route at Hickey’s, Hayden’s, Appletree, and Cranberry wharves, for passengers it was far easier and quicker to take the train. The construction of the bridge across the Hillsborough just east of Charlottetown (even though it had a swing span) was a further disincentive to transportation. In addition, the Hillsborough lacked the scenery of the Elloitt River where the Bonshaw Hills added height and interest to the horizon so that a pleasure cruise up the Hillsborough did not have the drama of a trip to the west.
Up-dated editions of the Hillsborough River Chart were few and far between. By 1900 the chart had become a small inset in the chart of Charlottetown Harbour and even that soon disappeared. Today there is no chart of the river at all. The Hillsborough is marked by buoys for the first mile or so up from Charlottetown but then marking disappears completely and it becomes a river into the heart of darkness. Sailboats and large powerboats are blocked by the Hillsborough Bridge and even small runabouts seem to shun the river. Although the main channel still traces the route in the 1843 chart the river is much silted and the “muscle” beds have increased. There are still no settlements along the route and in contrast to the West River, few houses or cottages line the river which in most places looks much as it did when Bayfield’s survey crew charted their way to the river’s source. Notwithstanding the successful campaign to have it named one of Canada’s Heritage Rivers it has become the Island’s forgotten river.