Tag Archives: Roamer

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.

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Launch and Retrive

At the Charlottetown Yacht Club today there is a 10 tonne crane and a concrete launch slip. These together with commercial crane services for some of the heavier boats are enough to easily launch and retrieve yachts from the harbour.

It was not always so. In the 19th century it was possible to haul large boats at one or more of the waterfront ship yards but many commercial vessels were simply left in the water over the winter, hauled into the shallows to rest on the bottom or frozen into the ice.

Wooden sail boats with deep keels were more of a problem.  In the 1920s and 30s there were still a few hand powered cranes on some of the commercial wharves and it was possible to hoist a boat .

Bottom painting, probably on the Plant Wharf. Note the hand-powered winch and wooden derrick.  Photo from the Irwin Albums.

Once out of the water the boats could be loaded onto cradles or even loaded onto waggons and moved from the wharf for storage or simply left on the wharf over the winter. This method could only be used for lighter vessels which did not exceed the modest load limits for the dock-based cranes.

Getting a small sloop ready for launch on the Pownal Wharf. The boat is leaning up against the salt shed which was removed in the late 1940s. Another sloop can be seen in its cradle in the background. Photo from the Irwin Albums

More commonly boats were launched and retrieved on their cradles using the tides. Several large boats, including Hal Bourke’s Restless and Mac Irwin’s Roamer used the beach below the Bourke house on Water Street as their storage yard. Both were on heavy wooden cradles that could be skidded or levered onto rollers to get them up on the beach above the tide line using what ever power was available.  Later, other large power cruisers were able to use the launch slip on the west side of Pownal wharf.  Initially most of the work was done with horse teams and block and tackle but in later years truck power was applied to the problem.

Getting ready to haul ca. 1930

The staff of the City Garage behind the Yacht Club could sometimes be persuaded to turn a blind eye to the use of the equipment and a close relationship developed between the club and its neighbours – especially after the city acquired a small bulldozer. In the spring the cradles bearing the yachts would simply be pushed out on the beach at low tide and when the tide rose the boats would be hauled off and at next low tide the cradles would be pulled to shore. An essential element in the operation was the presence of a number of heavy rails surplus to requirements of the Prince Edward Island Railway.  Without the weight on the wooden cradles they would simply float up as the tide rose and it could be difficult to extract the boats. In the fall the process would be reversed. The empty, weighted cradles would be placed at low tide. At high tide the boat would be maneuvered into position until the water level dropped placing it on the cradle. The cradle would then be dragged to the beach.

Hauling a small sloop at Bourkes shore. This could be a cold wet exercise especially, as may be the case here, weather is threatening. Photo from the Irwin Albums.

If this seems time-consuming it certainly was. Placing a cradle, positioning a boat and retrieving it took an entire tide cycle. Hauling a boat for minor repairs or painting could be a major operation.  It was far easier to let the tide work for you and instead of hauling the boat out you could let the boat go aground and dry out at the wharf. Timing was more critical in the case of bad weather. With less sophisticated forecasting hauling at the last-minute was a real problem.  Boats that drew less were often sent up river to more sheltered areas such as Red Gap but deep keel boats had little choice but to either try to shelter between the wharves or ride it out on a mooring.

Like so many other things getting a boat in and out of the water at the Charlottetown Yacht Club was not included in the category of things that were always “better in the good old days.”

 

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.