Tag Archives: Richibucto

A Public Boon and a Private Success? The Richibucto to West Cape Ferry

On the map it seems pretty straightforward.  If you are coming from Canada by rail the shortest route to Prince Edward Island would be from New Brunswick across the Strait to West Cape. It would save having to come all the way down the shore to Moncton or Sackville. Its not a long stretch across the water and then you could catch a train at O’Leary and get to Charlottetown in relative comfort. At least that was the theory.

Historic Railway lines in New Brunswick. Map from New Brunswick Railway Museum, Salem and Hillsborough Railroad

Unlike Prince Edward Island with its single railway company there have been no shortage of railways in New Brunswick. Over two hundred railway companies have been proposed and more than a score of lines were actually built, almost all in the late 19th century.  Most of these were built as feeder lines for the Intercolonial Railway (ICR) which crossed the province from south to north. One of these was the Kent Northern Railway.  Originally proposed in 1873 the line would run from the ICR mainline at Kent Junction to tide water at Richibucto, a distance of about 25 miles.  The promotors hoped to develop Richibucto as a major port shipping coal and ore from mines along the ICR route. It was an easily built and inexpensive line running mostly through uninhabited woods without the need of expensive grades and bridges. Never the less it took about nine years before construction was completed. The line was  finally laid with used iron rails which became available when the Prince Edward Island Railway switched to steel rails in 1882.  The Kent Northern Railway was opened in November of 1883.

Even before the rail line was operational there were reports that it would be part of a new link between Canada and Prince Edward Island. in October 1879 The Saint John Telegraph newspaper carried a story from Buctouche stating that local politicians and  merchants, several of whom ware also involved with the railway, were interested in starting a new steamship line operating out of Richibucto and connecting with Prince Edward Island.  Part of the impetus was the difficulty that had been experienced with the winter connection to the Island and the failure of the specially-built steamer Northern Light to maintain the connection in heavy ice.  Local observers claimed that the seas between Richibucto and the Island were “open and free from ice, or nearly so” all winter.  Again the map told the story, as the ice jams between the Capes at Tormentine and Traverse would be avoided as the Strait was wider west of that point and the ice did not build up there, at least in theory.

The opening of the Kent Northern Railway revived interest in the proposal.  From Richibucto to West Cape, about 20 miles,  was considerably shorter than the Pointe de Chene to Summerside route which provided the only other mainland rail connection with Northumberland Strait. This would provide a definite advantage in the summer. In the winter the route was also preferred. The Moncton Transcript noted that “On any winter day, except when strong northeasters blow you can stand on Richibucto Cape and see a clear path of water from the Mainland to the Island Shore.”  The author assured readers that the venture would be “a public boon and a private success.”

Map showing Richibucto to West C ape and Shediac to Summerside steamer routes. Google Earth.

Although shorter, it might not have been the easiest trip. At Kent Junction the passengers would have to change from the ICR to the Kent Northern to Richibucto, then by carriage or sleighs to Richibucto Cape, across the Strait by steamer to West Cape, change to carriages or sleighs to O’Leary and board the narrow gauge PEI Railway to Charlottetown.  With the completion of lines to Cape Tormentine and Cape Traverse, by 1885 there was an all-rail route on the competing Shediac Route or by the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island Railway crossing at the Capes in winter.

On the Prince Edward Island side there was less enthusiasm.  A nine mile branch line from the P.E.I. Railway at O’Leary to West Cape was placed on a wish list for branch lines soon after the Island line was opened in 1874 and was raised as a possible expansion of rail services for the next fifty years but was never a priority as it competed with other projects such as the Cape Traverse line, the Hillsborough Bridge and the Murray Harbour line.  Summerside had a vested interest in keeping the connection with Shediac as the primary link and there were few capitalists or politicians backing the development of West Cape beyond its role as a local fishing harbour.

The new steamer route was not even attempted. The Kent Northern never went much beyond Richibucto although for a time the line extended to St. Louis de Kent. In 1904 it was rumored that the line would be purchased by American capitalists and extended 18 miles to the shore. A 1908 report showed the line had two locomotives, two passenger cars and one freight car. The harbour at Richibucto was unsuitable for steamers in winter and the crossing would have required major wharf construction at Richibucto Cape which failed to gain support from government. In the end the Kent Northern Railway was neither the promised public boon nor a private success. The Kent Northern never served as the ore and coal shipping line but it appears to have been modestly profitable for much of its existence through shipments of pulp logs and other wood products from the surrounding area . To that extent it was not a complete failure. It was purchased by the Dominion Government in 1918 and was and folded into the Canadian National Railway in 1929 as part of the rationalization of rail services. The purchase price for the entire line, right of way, rails, rolling stock, stations and locomotives was $60,000 – about the same as the scrap value for the operation.  The line was finally abandoned by the CNR in 1984 and the rails lifted in 1986.

Although the Richibucto – West Cape ferry has never been seriously been entertained, and with the construction of a fixed link is unlikely to be so, it is an idea that refuses to go away completely. There was a resurgence of discussion after the Second World War and at other times when development plans are to the fore. It is periodically dusted off and presented anew as a brilliant idea to increase tourism and trade. As to why the idea refuses to die  – one has only to look at the map. It just seems so obvious – until reality intervenes. :{)

The Island City: yet another Civil War blockade runner comes to P.E.I.

On 21 June 1865 a “very neat little paddle-wheel boat” arrived in Charlottetown Harbour from Boston. It was to become the flagship of the North Shore Steamship Line, a new service which included Charlottetown in its list of ports of call. It is another in a long list of steamers calling at Charlottetown which had seen service in the U.S. Civil War which had ended a little more than a month earlier.

Daily Examiner 11 September 1865

The Civil War had seen as many as two hundred Islanders involved on both sides of the conflict. Greg Marquis in his article “Soldiers of Liberty: Islanders and Civil War” which appeared in The Island Magazine No. 36 Fall-Winter 1994 pp.2-8 tells the story of many of these men but the legacy of the war had several other impacts on the Colony.  During the war there was a good market for shipping as both sides rushed to meet transportation and defence needs but at the war’s end there was suddenly a glut of ships on the market, especially for steamships.

The South had engaged hundreds of ships to bring in supplies and to export cotton to pay for them after the Union set up a blockade of the southern ports only weeks after the beginning of the war in 1861. About 400 of the blockade runners were sunk and 1,100 of them were captured, many of which were added to the Union naval forces or sold on the market. At war’s end most of the blockade runners used by the Union were also put on the market. Whether this surfeit of ships had an impact on the Island’s already weakening ship-building industry has yet to be studied.

One of these blockade runners was the Caledonia, an iron paddle steamer built on the Clyde by Tod & MacGregor of Glasgow in 1856. Unlike later vessels the Caledonia was not built for use as a blockade runner and was operated in British waters by the Glasgow and Stranraer Steam Packet Company.  By 1862 however a series of sales to mask her changes of ownership and operations had begun and she was pressed into service running through the Union blockade into the Southern States. She made at least one successful voyage but her luck ran out on the second.

USS Keystone State

She was captured on 30 May 1864 south of Cape Fear after a two hour chase by the USS Keystone State, herself a previously captured blockade runner. The Caledonia was taken to Boston and was taken over by the US Quartermaster-General for transport duties. The following year she was sold, apparently to the Boston firm of Franklin Snow & Co. They had interests in the Boston and Colonial Steamship line which ran from Boston to Charlottetown via Halifax. The company was soon in negotiations with the Government of New Brunswick for a subsidy which would establish a feeder line serving northern New Brunswick and meeting with the company’s Boston steamers at Charlottetown.

The Protestant newspaper in Charlottetown waxed eloquent as to what this would mean for the Island’s capital:

Her ample accommodations, her carrying capacity, her steady and even tread upon the heavy sea the gentlemanly courtesy of her officers, excited the warmest admiration of our New Brunswick brethren, for whose benefit, and under the liberal policy of whose Government she is specially engaged to run. It is to be hoped that her proprietors will be able to continue her route as proposed, to this place, and so open for our business and trade direct and speedy communication with the New Brunswick Bays; and thus furnish not only stimulus to our enterprise, but facilities for recreation, health and travel.

It is not clear exactly when the service started, but by mid-September the ship had been re-named the Island City and weekly return trips from Charlottetown to Shediac, Richibucto, Chatham, Newcastle, Caraquet and Dalhousie were advertised under the banner of the North Shore Steamship Line. The Northumberland Strait service connected at Charlottetown with Snow’s Boston and Colonial steamers the Commerce and the Greyhound giving a single transfer access to the “Boston Boats”  for those from northern New Brunswick.  However the line does not appear to have been a success because the Island City was on a coastal route from Halifax to Yarmouth the following year and the ship also made voyages to Boston. There were additional changes of ownership and by 1870 registration had been transferred to Boston.

But in 1867 there was still unfinished business with the Island City left over from the 1865 service. In that year the Government of New Brunswick had also been in discussion with the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company for a $3000 subsidy to provide service to the northern Northumberland Strait ports using their steamer the Princess of Wales. There was disagreement as to whether an agreement had been concluded with the Island company who had provided the service for most of the season but the New Brunswick government declined to pay indicating that the official who had negotiated did not have full authority to bind the province and the subsidy had gone instead to the Island City.  It seems as if the Steam Navigation Company was out of luck although they did get the contract for trips between Shediac and the Island in 1865.

Unfortunately I have been unable to locate any images of the Caledonia.