Tag Archives: Poplar Island

A Wide River and a Short Bridge: The Poplar Island Bridge Fiasco

Most people crossing the bridge over the York River (or North River as it is more commonly known)  barely give it a second thought. Today’s sailors seldom venture up the York River even though it carries a good depth of water in its narrow but twisting channel, upstream travel ends at what is known as the North River Causeway at Poplar Island.  The building of the bridge here in the 1830s is an interesting tale of bungling and incompetency.

York River bridge about 1890 with Upton Farm in the background. Like many Island bridges the crossing was also used occasionally for loading coastal schooners with produce from surrounding farms. Note that the vessel’s gaff is being used to hoist loads from the farm cart on the bridge. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office.

In some ways Charlotte-Town was ideally placed to take advantage of the rivers which cut deep into the Island from the town’s placement at the point formed by the York and Hillsborough Rivers.  At the same time the rivers were barriers to land travel. From Charlotte-Town roads went east along the Hillsborough River and north towards the settlements on the northern coast with the Princetown Road being among the earliest constructed.  However the settlements to the south-west were cut off from the town by the York River. Although the York does not penetrate as far into the hinterland as the Hillsborough and Elliot its width and depth were obstacles. There seems to have been an irregular early ferry at York Point (hence the Ferry Road) but it seems to have been a private venture and it was put out of operation by the Poplar Island Bridge if not before. For details on the later ferry from York Point see here.

The Anderson Road which cut across the middle of the Island towards Bedeque, provided an easier route to the capital but it still had to cross the York River somewhere.  By the early 1820s a bridge had been established connecting this route with the roads leading north out of Charlotte-Town including the Lower Malpeque Road. This bridge, the first to cross the York River, crossed near what is now known as Sleepy Hollow, about 2 nautical miles or 3.7 km north from the present bridge. No trace of that bridge or the roads leading towards it exist today.

York River area in 1852. Although the upper bridge is not shown the roads leading to it are on the map. Note that the road leading from the crossing to the head of tide at Milton Station (where a mill is depicted with an asterisk)  has not yet been constructed.

This route, while shortening the distance to Bedeque, did little to serve the growing population of communities along Northumberland Strait from Tryon to Pye’s Tavern, now Cornwall, and in 1825 a petition with over 300 names was tabled in the House of Assembly calling for a bridge at Poplar Island. Although £300 had been spent the previous year on improvements to the North River Bridge further up-river the legislators recommended to the Lieutenant Governor that an inquiry be made as to the expediency of a bridge at Poplar Island.  Nothing appears to have been done as five years later another petition from the inhabitants of Elliot River and the west side of York River seeking a bridge at Poplar Island.  This petition appears to have pledged  that at least a portion of the funds would be raised by public subscription. Although the House found that “the erection would be of great public utility” the lack of available public funds meant that they could not recommend it. They did ask the Governor to obtain a estimate of the expense and specifications to be brought back the following year.

Approximate location of first York (North) River Bridge and approaches superimposed on the present Google Earth view. Route plotted from an early cadastral map at the PEI Public Archives and Records Office.

In 1831 specifications, plans, and estimates were provided to the Legislature. A Mr. Crerar of Pictou had been engaged to plan the intended bridge and over £500, an enormous sum for the time, was set aside for construction.  That summer a contract was entered into with William Crosby and he began work immediately. In February of the following year a report on progress was tabled. The 194 foot western abutment for the bridge had been completed and the whole bridge was expected to be finished by August of 1832. In addition to the wood and stone abutment the bridge across the 404 foot channel was carried on piles. However one tiny problem had been noted. Mr. Crerar appears not to have noticed that Poplar Island was indeed an island and that the planned bridge would link the island with the western bank of the York River.  However it seems that no provision had been made to link the little island with the eastern shore and the resulting construction would be a bridge to nowhere.  A small sum would be needed to provide for a bridge from Poplar Island with the end of the Royalty Road. Perhaps somewhat sheepishly the  House of Assembly agreed that, yes, another contract would have to be funded.

The House was informed at its 1833 sitting that the bridge(s) were now complete with a contract granted to pay John Scott £250 for the eastern Poplar Island bridge and the link with Royalty Road.  There was, however, one tiny problem.  William Crosby’s contract had specified a bridge of 848 feet, which was generous when one considered that Mr. Crerar had measured the crossing of the river at 810 feet. Unfortunately the bridge was actually 900 feet and so there was a scramble to find the money to compensate Crosby for the additional cost of £61 to build a bridge that actually crossed the whole width of the river. And oh, there was actually another tiny problem.  Although the petitioners had pledged to raise public funds from the area to cover about £100 of the total cost that money had not yet been secured. The neat solution was to authorize Crosby to take his additional payment for completing the project from the money to be publicly subscribed but not yet collected. The impossibility of this proposal was later raised and it was finally agreed to pay Crosby an additional £80 for the work he had done. The public enthusiasm for the bridge was not matched by a willingness of individuals in the area to pay and it seems that most, if not all, of the cost of the new bridge had to be borne by the taxpayers across the colony.

Regardless of the financial arrangements, the bridge, which had been one of the largest construction projects in the colony to that date was finally in place. It shortened the distance to Charlotte-Town for those to the south and west of the town by more than 7 kilometers, a not inconsiderable distance on foot or a cart or driving herd of slow-moving cattle or sheep to market.  It was so successful that the upper bridge ceased to be maintained and by the early 1850s was no longer in use.

In 1912 the old wooden structure was replaced with a modern 6-span steel truss bridge crossing 600 feet of open water. The later story of the Poplar Island Bridge is coupled with the drive for yet another bridge across the river. The story of the never-built Brighton Bridge can be found here.


Dreaming of the Brighton Bridge

The Western part of Brighton Road in Charlottetown is a pleasant street bordered on the south by Victoria Park and to the north by a number of residential properties. It carries light traffic and pedestrians to the boardwalk and roadway around the park and serves the neighbourhood of Brighton. If highway planners and politicians of the early twentieth century had their way it would have been otherwise and this quiet street could have been the main gateway to Charlottetown.

Like the Hillsborough and Elliot Rivers to the east and west, the York or North River cut deep into the countryside and provided both water access and a land barrier to Charlottetown. The main land routes into the city were to the north and those coming from the west and south had to travel up to the river crossing at Milton before heading south to Charlottetown. In the early 19th century the North River was the first of the three rivers to be bridged with a timber structure across the river at Poplar Island.

Poplar Island Bridge ca. 1890. The view is from North River towards Upton Farm. Bridges often served as wharves for loading and unloading small schooners.

Poplar Island Bridge ca. 1890. The view is from North River towards Upton Farm. Bridges often served as wharves for loading and unloading small schooners.

Ferries, steamers and winter ice roads carried traffic to and from the city to York Point and Rocky Point but by  the end of the 19th century there was a desire for something more. Even before the completion of the Hillsborough Bridge in 1905 voices were being raised looking to bring improvements which would ease the traveling times for those coming into the city from the west and south of the province. In 1901 the Poplar Island Bridge was in terrible shape but as it would cost more than $20,000 to put it into shape the local MLA suggested that no action be taken until a serious look was taken with regard to a site further down the river and closer to Charlottetown.  Although the river at Brighton Road appeared wide the channel was relatively narrow and most of the bridge would be in shallow water. He stressed the inequality that existed “the District affected had no railway facilities and as a matter of justice should have the bridge.” The government requested that the contractor for the Hillsborough Bridge take a look and in 1903 a plan and estimates were tabled showing a cost of $150,000 for a bridge at a new location, $200,000 if it included a swing span to allow water traffic up the river. A more detailed estimate had been requested and the premier stated that if it was reasonable, “he had no doubt but the government would go ahead with the work.” It did not.

Poplar Island Bridge and North River Wharf 1936. The current highway follows the tree line south of the old road.

Poplar Island Bridge and North River Wharf 1936. The current highway follows the tree line south of the old road.

There was no immediate action on the file but in 1911 the plans and estimates were again tabled and this time the government responded that owing to the large cost the government were not prepared to undertake the bridge.  The next year the old wooden Poplar Island bridge was replaced with a 615 foot steel span bridge, five 90-foot spans and one of 165 feet. It was the largest steel road bridge in the province and its completion foreclosed talk of a new location for many years.  At the same time the Dominion Government built a wharf and dredged a channel near the west end of the bridge for shipping to and from the North River area. There would be no schooners tied up to the new bridge.

The depression returned the bridge question to the table. When it was realized that the Dominion Government would be willing to increase employment by providing resources tor what today would be called “infrastructure projects” a large number of shelved projects were dusted off.   Among these was what would henceforth be called the “Brighton Bridge.” By 1938 it was being discussed by politicians as one of a number of relief projects but the $750,000 cost estimate and that face that it would create little actual employment placed it low on the list.  The bridge was the subject of public meetings in Bonshaw and Victoria in June of that year and the Charlottetown City Council endorsed the project. Early the following year the Trades and Labour Council and the politicians of the Conservative party piled, on coupling the bridge project with harbour improvements and airport construction as priorities.   However, by April the Liberals were beginning to back away from any firm commitment. Although several local Liberal MLAs spoke in support of the bridge Premier Thane Campbell noted that the project now had a million dollar price tag and would address a distance savings of only three miles. Repairs to the existing bridge would cost a fifth of that amount.

Modern chart of the North River at Brighton. Although the river seems wide the channel is relatively narrow.

Modern chart of the North River at Brighton. Although the river seems wide the channel is relatively narrow.

The federal government put a stake through the heart of the project when estimates were tabled in Ottawa early in 1939. Even though the federal Minister of Finance, Charles Avery Dunning, sat for Charlottetown there was no money earmarked for either the bridge or the harbour improvements.  The outbreak of the war meant that project lay dormant through the next few years but it came to the fore again in 1945 with the announcement of a federal commitment to reconstruction funds. The PEI Reconstruction Advisory Committee placed the Brighton Bridge on their list of priorities and gave the latest cost estimates for alternatives: upgrading the North River Bridge – $200,000, new bridge at Lewis Point -$1,000,000, new bridge at Brighton – $1,350,000.  By comparison the paving of a new highway between Charlottetown and Borden via Bonshaw would cost only $600,000.

Guardian 3 December 1947

Conservative Party Advertisement. Charlottetown Guardian 3 December 1947

Federal Conservative party leader John Bracken had supported the bridge along with projects such as a grain elevator and a marine slip but with Liberal governments in both Charlottetown and Ottawa this carried little weight.  The provincial legislature saw MLAs exchange views on the bridge and there was a surge in the number of letters to the editor in local papers but the government in power cited other public works priorities and the need to spend more on education.

1949 saw the beginning of development of the Trans-Canada highway network with 50-50 cost sharing. The route chosen was from Borden to Charlottetown via Crapaud and Bonshaw  and this commitment gave brief hope for the Brighton Bridge proponents. However by early 1950 it was clear that the highway would be using existing roads as much as possible. Premier Jones made no formal announcements but the Brighton Bridge option was quietly discarded.  When the river crossing was improved, it was at Poplar Island where the old steel truss bridge was replaced by a causeway and tidal barrier which created B. Graham Rogers Lake, an ecological mistake that took more than 40 years to correct.

Brighton Road was saved from becoming a major thoroughfare by the cost of the project but also by changes in transportation over the period. While a few extra miles of travel could mean extra hours for a farmer with a horse-drawn cart the added distance was only a few minutes for a truck or car. The residents of Brighton were no doubt relieved that status quo would have to do.