Tag Archives: Rocky Point

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.

 

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Fairview was the Rocky Point Ferry until 1958

Diesel Ferry Fairview

Diesel Ferry Fairview

Early in January 1936, before the harbour iced over, the paddle steamer Hillsborough made its last trip. Replacing it was a boat that was new in many ways.  True, it retained the double ended configuration which enabled vehicles to drive on and off without having to turn around but in many ways it was a new design.

This boat on the ways at Fitzgerald's shipyard in Georgetown has been mis-identified as the Fairview. It is more likely the Montague or the Newport.

This boat on the ways at Fitzgerald’s shipyard in Georgetown has been mis-identified as the Fairview. It is more likely the Montague or the Newport.

The Fairview (named for a community near Rocky Point) was built in Georgetown at the shipyard of Captain Charles Fitzgerald. There were few ship yards left on Prince Edward Island in the mid-1930s and Fitzgerald had also built the ferry Newport (1928) which crossed the Cardigan River and the Montague (1930) which ran to Lower Montague. These two boats linked Georgetown with the communities in Eastern Kings County and enabled the county capital to continue as a commercial centre. The building of the new ferry provided work for about twenty men, many of whom had worked in the disappearing shipbuilding trade for years.

The new steamer was launched in December 1935  and was 115 feet long, 28 ferret wide and drew 7 feet.  The ferry had a gross tonnage of 227 tons. The main difference between it and its predecessor, the Hillsborough,  was in the means of propulsion. The Fairview was powered by a five-cylinder Canadian Fairbanks diesel engine which produced 175 horsepower which could drive the boat at 8 1/2 knots. The engine was supplied and installed by Bruce Stewart and Co. of Charlottetown  The ferry was wood throughout; the frame being American oak and pine and the planking was 3 inch hard  pine fastened to the frame using the traditional “trenails”, wooden pegs about 20 inches long and an inch in diameter driven through the planks and frame and wedged at both ends. The vehicle deck, which could carry up to eighteen automobiles, was spruce covered with asphalt plank. Unlike the Hillsborough, the Fairview had a deck covering most of the vehicle area from the elements. The passenger cabins, one of which was identified as the ladies cabin,  were finished in Douglas Fir. An additional line of inch and quarter hardwood planking along the waterline protected the hull from ice. Noteworthy equipment included 2 lifeboats and forty life belts.

The vessel was towed to Charlottetown for final fitting out at the Bruce Stewart wharf. By the 26th of March 1936 it had completed its test runs and was put into service.  Running from the period when the ship could be navigated through the spring ice until the winter closure of the harbour which could be as late as January the vessel continued on the route for twenty-two years. Service was interrupted when the Fairview went to Pictou for its annual overhaul. The boat was replaced on the run by a gasoline-powered launch.  In the winter a bushed road was marked for crossing the harbour.

For the most part the crossings were uneventful. An exception took place in August of 1944. As the ferry approached the Prince Street Wharf the horses hauling a truck wagon with potatoes and turnips were startled and backed up. Unfortunately the chain closing the gap at the stern snapped and the wagon slipped off the end of the Fairview dragging the horses, cart,  and a seven-year old boy, Delbert Muirhead of Canoe Cove, into the water. His father managed to jump clear as the wagon went off the stern of the boat into the water.  A passenger on the ferry dove into the water and saved the boy but the team, wagon and produce was lost. Howard Muirhead valued the team at $300, the wagon at $540 and the load of potatoes and turnips at $20.

In the days before automobile ownership was common the Fairview, like the other ferries before it, provided an easy and pleasant way for residents of Charlottetown to escape the city. Some times, on summer weekends two or three hundred people would cross the harbour on the boat to Rocky Point to use the beaches, visit the Indian encampment or the “Fort Lot” where the ruins of Fort Amherst were visible. Some even went farther to Holland Cove.

I have a recollection from about 1957 of being delivered by my family to the Ferry Wharf where the campers at the Holland Cove YMCA camp were assembled. After crossing the harbour on the Fairview we loaded our camping gear onto a waiting jeep and walked the dusty road from the Rocky Point wharf to Holland Cove where the cabins awaited us.

The Fairview after conversion to barge. Tied to Buntain & Bell wharf about 1960. Photo - Ron Atkinson

The Fairview after conversion to barge. Tied to Buntain & Bell wharf about 1960. Photo – Ron Atkinson

With improved roads and pavement gradually being extended into the countryside there was agitation for a permanent link between the communities of the South Shore and the City.  Various bridge proposals and routes were advanced and in 1958 a causeway was constructed across the West River between Meadowbank and New Dominion, just east of the steamer wharf at Westville.  Although a passenger service was continued into the early 1970s using the Fairview II and MacDonald’s 3, the converted fishing boats carried no cargo or automobiles.  The Fairview itself was sold off and used as a construction barge. Noted as “unseaworthy” the registry for the ship was canceled in 1963.

In spite of the fact that the Fairview was a fixture in the harbour for more than two decades photos of the ship are scarce. I would be pleased to learn of any that are available.

Ferry Hillsborough was last paddle-wheel steamer in harbour

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Ferry Wharf in the 1930s

Ferry Wharf in the 1930s

When the ferry steamer Hillsborough (often spelled the Hillsboro) was launched in 1894 there was still a variety of steamer services in Charlottetown. Besides the subsidized service up the east and west rivers there were ferries linking the capital with Southport and with Rocky point and even some service to York Point. The ferry wharf at Prince Street could be a busy place, especially on market days when the ferry would be crowded by teams and wagons and even flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. 

Hillsborough ferry tender. Guardian 4 April 1902

Hillsborough ferry tender. Guardian 4 April 1902

The Hillsborough Ferry had a long history. Originally passage to the south side of the river was served by sail and oar. In the 1830s the development of horsepower on a turntable or treadmill (a teamboat) gave more reliable and regular service. By the 1850s small steam-powered vessels became the norm. Initially the route was tendered out or assigned by legislation and contract but eventually the unreliable service and the poor quality of craft offered led the government to purchase the ferry and contract out the operation. Later ferries were built for government and leased out for the season or a term of years.  Ferries under government ownership in Charlottetown Harbour included the Ora, the Elfin, the Southport, the Hillsborough  which were all steam vessels, and the Fairview which had a diesel engine. The season was set for the period as long as the harbour was clear of ice and so the annual start and end dates varied considerably. One of the first long-term contracts called for the ferry to cross to Southport every half hour except for the times it ran to Canso Point which it was required to do twice a day.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

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Hillsborough Launch Tea Party  Daily Examiner 16 July 1894

Tenders were called for a new ferry in May of 1893 and the government obviously knew what they wanted for the builders could examine both a model and specifications. The tenders were for the hull only so either there was an engine in hand or the government wanted to tender that separately.

The Hillsborough was launched in Mount Stewart in July 1894 by Pisquid shipbuilder Angus MacDonald. The event was celebrated by a public tea with transportation provided by the Southport and the P.E.I. Railway. The boilers and engine were later installed in Charlottetown by MacKinnon and MacLean. The 225 ton steamer was 105 feet long and had a beam of 25 feet. The steam engine provided thirty and a half horsepower. Like both the Elfin and the Southport she was propelled by paddle wheels on either side of the hull.  She was double-ended with helm positions at either end of the vessel.  The Hillsborough was later reported to have cost the Province $17,800.

The Elfin (left) and Hillsborough heading for the Prince Street wharf ca. 1903. Photo is taken from the fabrication yard for the Hillsborough Bridge east of the Railway Wharf.

The Elfin (left) and Hillsborough heading for the Prince Street wharf ca. 1903. Photo is taken from the fabrication yard for the Hillsborough Bridge east of the Railway Wharf.

In 1895 the Southport, which had formerly been running across that harbour to …(as might be expected) …Southport, was moved to provide service to the East and West Rivers. The ferry to Rocky Pont at the time was the Elfin and the new  ferry steamer Hillsborough took over the cross-river route. She left Charlottetown first at 6:30 a.m. and then at half hour intervals until 9:00 p.m. She left the Southport wharf at quarter to and quarter past the hour. However there were several alterations or exceptions over the years to allow the Hillsborough to undertake excursions and to visit other ports. In 1901, for example, the Hillsborough visited Victoria where she went aground and a year later she was used to provide passenger service to Fort Augustus for the St. Patrick’s Church Tea Party.

Abandoned Ferry wharf at Southport ca. 1915

Abandoned Ferry wharf at Southport ca. 1915

In 1906 when the Murray Harbour railway line opened with service across the recycled Hillsborough Bridge a chapter in the harbour history closed. The bridge (which carried both rail and road traffic) was originally scheduled to be taken over by the provincial government on the first of July but the ferry ran for some time after that. A notice from the Secretary of Public Works simply stated “On and after Saturday, September 29th, the Ferry Steamer, Hillsborough will cease to run on the Southport Ferry.” With only one ferry route to service the ferry Southport was redundant and was disposed of. A week later the Elfin was destroyed by fire and the Hillsborough was transferred to the Rocky Point crossing and continued to operate on that route for almost thirty more years.

In the 1930s the deterioration of the ferry meant that it spend several lengthy periods on the marine slip in Pictou being re-planked and sheathed to extend its life. With the ice-up of the harbour in January 1936 it was clear that the Hillsborough had made her last trip. The new ferry, the Fairview,was nearing completion at Capt. Charles Fitzgerald’s boatyard in Georgetown and it was hoped she would be in place when the ice went out in the spring.

In early May 1936, when the old Hillsborough left the harbour of Charlottetown for the last time the fires in the boiler had long gone cold. The ferry made its last trip towed by the government tug Bally. She was en route to Pictou where the discarded Hillsborough was dismantled and sold for scrap. She had been on the ferry route longer than any other vessel in the history of the harbour and was the last paddle wheel vessel seen in the harbour.