Tag Archives: Prince Edward Island Railway

P.E.I. Ferry Terminal was a Major Infrastructure Project

Ferry Terminal Pier at Carleton Head. Note the third rail on the pier. There was no need of a roadway as everything went back and forth by rail. Several temporary buildings of the construction camp can be seen on the point.

In 1912 Carleton Point was little more than the sea-side edge of a farm located a mile or so to the north and west of Cape Traverse. The latter community was the jumping off point for New Brunswick. The undersea cable of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company landed at Cape Traverse and the community was also the Island end of the winter ice-boat route. It boasted a pier that extended into the Strait and in 1885 a branch line had been added to the Prince Edward Island railway to join the pier to the Island’s rail system.

Pier-head during storm conditions. At least one of the pier cribs can be seen through the spray.

A year later the farm at Carleton Point had been converted to the site of a work camp for the building of the ferry pier. After years of agitation and delay the Dominion Government had committed to the development of an ice-breaking rail ferry service to the Island. Even before the issuing of a contract for construction of the vessel government engineers had been examining options for the route. On the New Brunswick side the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway ran from Sackville to Cape Tormentine and as this was the narrowest part of the strait the choice of the Cape was a foregone conclusion.

Winter scene at Cape Tormentine with barges and tugs. The existing rail line and wharf made construction here easier than on the Island side

On the P.E.I. side it was not as clear. Although Cape Traverse had a pier and rail connection the waters of Traverse Cove were shallow and unprotected. In fact, there was little protection on the Island side at all and the decision was made to create a new port where deep water could be reached fairly easily.  However the prevailing south-west winds and strong currents meant that the exposed shore would have to be well-protected by artificial means.

Strom waves at Carleton Head. The inner tower of the tramway can be seen on the still-wooded point.

Carleton Point (Carleton Head on some maps) had been named in 1765 by Samuel Holland for Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester and for the next 150 years appears to have escaped notice. It was here however that in 1913 work began on what was to be a massive project. The contract for the Island side construction was awarded to the Roger Miller Company of Toronto.  At a time when there were no services in the area everything, telephone lines, roads, wells, housing for workers and the building of construction  equipment had to be undertaken at the site. The nearest rail access was three miles away and no wharf or breakwater stood on the exposed shore. Transport of goods and equipment was hampered by the ban on automobiles and trucks on the roads from the main port at Summerside.

Outer tower of the tramway. It had its own steam power station with two boilers and an engine as well as generators to provide lighting. The stone blocks were positioned using the cable and then dropped into place.

One of the first tasks was the building of a powerhouse to supply electrical services and the electric generators and the steam machinery were continuous consumers of coal. On of the most evident pieces of equipment was a cableway carrying the huge stone blocks making up the pier and breakwater.  An island was created 1800 feet from shore and one end of the cableway built there with a 110 foot tower, the other end was on shore. At the peak of operations eighty railcar loads were put in place each 24 hour period.  The stone was brought on scows shuttling between Carleton Head and a quarry on the Scoudouc River near Shediac.  Work continued day and night lit by 43,000 candlepower searchlight on the top of the high cable tower. At a time when the brightest light was an oil lamp the light from the towers could be seen for miles around.

Derrick placing stones on the breakwater at Carleton Head.

The Carleton terminal structure was just over 1/2 mile long; a 2,000 foot pier and the landing slip of 740 feet.  The slip consisted on nine concrete cribs 100 x 30 feet joined together on site.  The cribs were built in Shediac and towed to Carleton where they were put in place and filled with quarry stone.  By the time the terminal was completed over 250,000 tons of quarry stone, some weighing as much as 10 tons,  had been put in place.  The transfer platform linking the rails on shore to the rails on the ferry itself was built by the Dominion Bridge Company  of Montreal and erected on-site. The mechanism raising and lowering it to adjust to the tide was powered by another steam powerhouse located on the wharf.

Tugs hauling cribs from Shediac where they were built. Once positioned they were filled with rock to form the actual terminal structure.

By the close of operations in December of 1914 the breakwater had been constructed up to low water and the pier had reached some 1500 feet from shore.  The new branch line connecting with existing Cape Traverse subdivision, a distance of 2 1/2 miles had been constructed but grading had been almost completed and the rails had been laid. In September 1915 tenders were called for the building of the rail facilities at the shore end of the terminal. A station, water tank, engine house, transfer platform, standpipe, ash-pit and turntable foundations were built to accommodate rail operations. Initially all tracks had a third rail to carry both narrow-gauge PEI Railway cars and the standard gauge Intercolonial Railway cars which would come across on the ferry.  A transfer station allowed goods to be moved between one type of car to the other.

Carleton terminal structure as it neared completion. Dredges and derricks are still at work but the apron for loading cars onto the boat is in place along with the steam powerhouse which controlled its movement.

The turning basins at both piers had been dredged to a depth of twenty feet at low tide but as the S.S. Prince Edward Island drew that much there was little margin for error and continuous dredging became an almost permanent part of the operation of the port for the next few years.

Completed pier as seen from the breakwater.

In August 1916 a Guardian writer foresaw a fine future for the town. Beautifully situated in the midst of a prosperous farming district, possessing natural attributes as a summer resort with a broad sandy beach, excellent sites for a golf course and summer cottages, having the potential to be a warehousing and distribution centre for the province. By November a decision had been made by the Dominion Government about the name for the town to be built on the cliff overlooking the ferry terminal and rail yard. It was to become Port Borden, named after Robert Laird Borden, the country’s Prime Minister.  Carleton Point became Borden Point at the same time.

When the regular ferry service began in October of 1917 the outlook was bright but town failed to fulfil its earliest expectations.  Rather than stopping at Borden travellers lost little time passing through to Charlottetown, Summerside and tourist destinations. Although planned using modern design principles, possibly by leading town planner Thomas Adams of the Canadian Conservation Commission it did not develop its potential as a regional centre and was primarily a dormitory town for the ferry workers. The busy work of being a distribution centre and transfer point disappeared when the standard gauge rails were extended across the province.

NOTE – Photographs used in this posting are from the Robinson Collection at the P.E.I,. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 3466/74.91




Psst – Wanna buy a used bridge?

The dream of a bridge over the Hillsborough River at Charlottetown replacing the ferries was around for a long time but the cost of the nearly one mile crossing was almost as big a barrier as was the river itself.  However, when the bridge project was coupled with the desire for a branch railway linking Charlottetown with southern Queens County and the port of Murray Harbour the dream became a reality. The new branch railway, sometimes called the Southern Railway and later the Murray Harbour Branch, had to skirt the high ground at Caledonia and connect with Charlottetown.  It might have been cheaper to build a branch line connecting with the PEI Railway somewhere between Mount Stewart and Cardigan (as indeed was done in the 1920s when the bridge was deemed too weak to take the heavier standard gauge trains) but that would have done little to address the need for a river crossing near Charlottetown.

The solution to the problem was through the fortuitous availability of a slightly used bridge not too far from Charlottetown.  The fact that the bridge had already seen twenty-five years of hard use seemed to bother no one.


Location of the Miramichi bridges at Derby Junction, New Brunswick

When the Intercolonial Railway was built to fulfil a Confederation promise to link New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to Quebec and Ontario the chief engineer was Sir Sandford Fleming who justly earned a reputation for quality construction. While other railway builders of the day often opted for wooden bridges because of the cost Fleming held out for iron construction.  One of the biggest of the bridges on the route was across the two branches of the Miramichi River at Derby Junction, near what was then called Newcastle.  There were twelve spans, six on each of the two branches. The bridge stood as a mighty symbol of the Intercolonial. Over the next quarter century, as traffic increased and the weight of trains became larger it was clear that a stronger bridge was needed.


View of one section of the Miramichi Bridge. Those familiar with the Hillsborough Bridge will recognize the spans.

The iron bridge was comprised of twelve identical spans that for the most part had been bolted together.  Although it might have been convenient to try to ferry the spans to their new site it was not really feasible.  The result was that the bridge had to be taken apart and shipped in pieces. The spans were lifted off the abutments and transported by barges to a work yard where the spans were disassembled, the pieces numbered and then shipped to Charlottetown.

Span of the Miramichi Bridge after removal from abutments.

Span of the Miramichi Bridge after removal from abutments.

In Charlottetown an assembly yard had been erected on a temporary staging built on pilings east of the railway Wharf.  The bridge parts were taken directly there by ships and barges and the parts unloaded. In an assembly line process the spans were re built and floated into place in the Hillsborough River to be lowered onto the abutments which had been constructed across the river.

Temporaty work yard east of the railway Wharf

Work yard east of the railway Wharf. Two of the harbour ferries can be seen in the background.


Work yard showing span being re-constructed. The bridge piers can be seen in the background.


Reconstructed span ready to be dropped into position

The railroad itself was largely completed by the time the bridge spans were put in position. The first sod had been turned for the Branch Line in May 1900 and the first train ran from Murray Harbour to Mutch’s Point in Bunbury in November of 1903 although many of the bridges on the line were still temporary wooden trestles.  By early 1905 the safety of some of these trestles was in doubt and no through trains ran in the spring of 1905 in anticipation of final bridgework being completed. At the Hillsborough river crossing placing of the spans began in September 1904 and after a winter break recommenced in earnest early in 1905.  By June the last spans were ready to be put in place.


Hillsborough Bridge ca. 1905, photo taken from the Charlottetown end looking south.

Unlike the Miramichi Bridge the Hillsborough Bridge included a swing span to allow river traffic to go up the Hillsborough.  This section was custom-built and rested on two protective wooden piers when the bridge was open.  The swing span was operated by a gasoline engine mounted on the span itself. In later years a small building housing the machinery and the operator was built into the top of the span.   In addition two houses were built at the ends of the bridge to regulate traffic when the bridge was being used by trains or then the span was to be opened.

Even with the use of a re-cycled bridge the cost was enormous for the time. In response to a question in the House of Commons in 1908 Sir Wilfrid Laurier tabled a figure of $1,365,085.57 (to the penny). Based solely on inflation that would represent more than $35 million in 2016 dollars.

There was one small matter to be resolved.  The Miramichi Bridge had twelve spans. So did the Hillsborough Bridge.  However, one of the spans of the latter was the custom swing span. What happened to the rest of the bridge?  I had posed the question on-line and not only did I receive an answer from Steven Hunter, one of the Prince Edward Island Railway’s biggest enthusiasts, but he also located a copy of a photo showing the span in place. The missing span was also the missing link in the Murray Harbour Branch Railway. At Glencoe Brook, near Vernon, there is a deep ravine. In early May of 1905 a train of four flat cars slowly made its way from Mutch’s Point to Glencoe carrying the final assembled span of the Miramichi Bridge to replace the temporary trestle at that location.  One can imagine the difficulties involved with loading a fully assembled bridge span aboard a narrow-gauge train, transporting it along the still-uneven roadbed with twists and curves  and then putting it into position.


Glencoe Bridge, Murray Harbour Branch railway ca. 1920. Photo from Canadian Science and Technology Museum collection.

The Hillsborough Bridge lasted for more than a half-century in its new location finally being superseded by a road-only bridge in 1963.  The Glencoe span did not last as long.  Surveyed in preparation for conversion to standard gauge in the 1920s it was found that the abutments were crumbling and the bridge was replaced with the earth embankment which is still an impressive feature of the Confederation Trail which runs on the railway roadbed.