Tag Archives: Southport

A fixed link to Southport: The Hillsborough River Subway

Tired of waiting for the ferry across the Hillsborough to Southport? Take the tunnel instead.


The enthusiasm for the interprovincial tunnel can be seen in this artifact of the campaign. The Hillsborough Subway failed to generate the same kind of widespread support and was primarily a debate between the Government and Opposition.

The 1870s gave Prince Edward Islanders a great belief in the benefits of technology and the promise of prosperity was tied to new advances in transportation and communication. The Prince Edward Island Railway had linked the province’s towns and villages from end to end (excepting only the soft underbelly of Queens and Kings County) Along with the railway, the telegraph system formed a web linked to the mainland by the undersea cable. The annual winter isolation remained a problem although the advances proposed with improved vessels (see the Northern Light)  suggested that the solution was within reach.

By the mid-1880s it appeared to many that the solution to the Island’s isolation in the winter would be quickly solved by going under, rather than over, the Strait and in the midst of the mania for a fixed link in the guise tunnel, the forward thinkers of the province also saw a solution to the vexing question of linking Charlottetown and Southport. The same questions writ small held true for the Hillsborough as they did for Northumberland Strait.  Summer crossings were on unsatisfactory craft that were too small and too infrequent and the ice of winter meant that the southern parts of the province were cut off from the capital for long stretches.

1885 saw the beginning of a decade-long tunnel mania. All over the world tunnels were being proposed and built: under the Thames at London, under the Hudson at New York and even, it was daringly suggested, under the English Channel. Many of these were more properly “subways” – cast iron tubes dropped to the bottom of the river, bolted together and pumped dry – an apparently simple and cheap way to  connect the two sides of a river.

The tunnel was quickly adopted as the best way to link P.E.I., with the mainland and Senator George Howlan of Cascumpec was an early proponent, forming the Northumberland Straits Tunnel Railway Company in 1886 and ceaselessly lobbying for construction. The story of his obsession can be found in Boyde Beck’s article titled “Tunnel Vision” in the Spring/Summer 1986 issue of the The Island Magazine  found here.

Howlan had enlisted P.E.I. Premier W.W. Sullivan in his campaign to have the Dominion Government support (and pay for) the project and as part of his effort suggested that the Island government might consider a subway under the Hillsborough River while waiting for the Straits tunnel to get approval.  Sullivan and the Island government moved decisively. While the Legislature was sitting plans for the project were displayed in the legislative library and on 6 April Sullivan presented a bill calling for the construction of the Hillsborough Subway.

The link would run from one of the streets of Charlottetown to a point to be determined in Southport.  Sullivan outlined the advantages  and the financing.  Like so many projects (including many Public-Private Partnerships of more recent memory) it would cost the taxpayers nothing.  The cost and risk would be borne by a private company which would build it. The Province would allocate up to $300,000 for the project to be paid for by the company accepting 4% bonds payable in 30 years. The bond payments would be met by the province through the savings in not operating the Southport ferry and by avoiding the inevitable cost associated with replacing the ferries worn out in the crossing.  Another savings would in not having to build a bridge across the Hillsborough and replacing it on a regular basis as a bridge would only last for about five years on the swiftly flowing river.

The advantages would be obvious and would open up the southern part of the province to prosperity. Growth and benefits would accrue to the province’s capital. It might even serve as stimulus for the development of a long-desired branch railway to Murray Harbour. Although the subway would be built only for horses and carts and for foot traffic it would be designed so that trains could transit the route when the branch railway was finally built. A final point may have been the reason why Howlan and Sullivan were so supportive. The Premier noted “The successful construction of the work would show to the people of Canada that the proposed subway across the straits is not, as many think, impractical. In fact it would clearly demonstrate the practicality of the more important work in which the whole province is so deeply concerned. “

The opposition quickly waded in, challenging what they termed “an electioneering dodgem.” They argued that they had not been given promised details about the proposal and charged that the government had overstated the cost of the bridge alternative in order to make look like an unfavourable option and suggested that the cost of a bridge would shrink if it was built a little upstream from Charlottetown. Moreover the cost of the ferries could not be eliminated as they would still be needed serve Rocky Point, West River and Mr. Stewart. For them, the proposition was much too vague and lacked any kind of study on which to make a decision.  They estimated that the cost would be as much as double the figure suggested by the government. Operational costs had not been factored in. (Still a failing in many public initiatives)  In addition to servicing the debenture payments there would be a need for ventilation of the tunnel and items such as gas lighting – 20 lamps at $300 each would add $6000 to the annual cost!   

In addition to the political split on the question support seemed to depend on the issue of direct benefit. The most ardent supporters came from constituencies across the Hillsborough who saw it as a way to leverage a long-requested branch railway to Murray Harbour.  Those opposed, such as Prince County member James Yeo, were from parts of the province which would have little to gain from the new link. 

After several periods of debate in the House of Assembly spread over several weeks the final attempt to defeat the bill took the form of an opposition amendment requiring competent engineers to look at issues such as a full examination of the bed of the Hillsborough to see if it was suitable for the subway tubes, a specific proposal for the costing  of construction and operation, and a true comparison of the bridge and subway options. The amendment also required that a company willing to take on the project be identified.  In the rush of tunnel enthusiasm the amendment was defeated 14 votes to 11 and the decision to proceed with the subway seemed to have been made.

There was, however, one small stumbling block to be overcome. In 1887 Prince Edward Island still had an upper house termed the Legislative Council. Although this was by now an elected body the Councilors still retained the right to refuse legislation and maintained the appearance of “sober second thought. “

There was a large attendance at the Council debate on the Hillsborough Subway Bill and press reports suggest that the discussion took the form of  charges as to which party would do more for the good people of Southport, Belfast and Murray Harbour district rather than the substance of the proposal. When the talking was done only three members favoured moving the bill to committee for consideration and it was thrown out.  While the Examiner termed it a “capital opportunity lost” that seems to have ended the matter. While the Northumberland Straits Tunnel continued to have its vocal advocated until the beginning of the Carferry service in 1917 there was hardly a peep about the Hillsborough subway again. The fixed link across the Hillsborough came with the Hillsborough Bridge in 1904 – and with it the Murray Harbour Branch Railway.                  


Putting the “Port” in Southport

The photo below  shows that Southport Ferry Wharf at Minchin’s Point. Dating from about 1912 it shows the wharf in poor repair. The ferry service had stopped in 1905 and deterioration was rapid. The ferry service and its wharf had been the primary reason for the establishment of a community and the fortunes of the community to great measure mirrored those of the wharf itself.   

Southport Notman

Photograph | Charlottetown from Southport, PE, 1910 | VIEW-4820


1839 Wright 2

Detail from George Wright’s chart of Hillsborough Bay and Charlottetown Harbour 1842.

Yes. there really was a port at Southport – well, at least there was a wharf. Best known as the ferry landing for the Hillsborough Ferry, the wharf eventually was responsible for the creation of a village on the southern shore of the Hillsborough River opposite Charlottetown.  As it was on the route between Charlotte Town and  Georgetown the ferry was likely a feature from the earliest days of the colony.  The wharf, and the beginnings of the tiny settlement, first appear in George Wright’s 1842 chart of Hillsborough Bay and Charlottetown Harbour. 

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Detail from Capt. Bayfield’s chart of Charlottetown Harbour 1847

However the wharf was not at the high bluff, known as Minchin’s Point or Murphy’s Point but a little to the west avoiding the steep climb up the bank.  The wharf at Minchin’s Point was built following a call for tenders in 1842 and appears on Capt. Bayfield’s chart of Charlottetown Harbour which appeared in 1852.  In early years the wharf had a floating jetty to make it easier to access the ferry in spite of changing tides.  Thereafter there are a long series of extensions and re-buildings of the wharf to accommodate the succession of ferries which were used on the route. Steam powered vessels such as the Ora, the Ino, the Arethusa the Elfin, the Hillsborough and the Southport were familiar and regular visitors to the wharf at Minchin’s Point.  

The ferry traffic gave rise to the need to hotels and taverns as well as businesses serving the travellers. It also became a service centre for communities such as Keppoch Kinloch, and Cross Roads for those wishing to avoid having to cross the Hillsborough in order to meet their needs. By 1863 the community was well-established and the alternate names “Southport” and Stratford” appeared to both have been in use. 

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Stratford or Southport. D.J. Lake’s Topographical Map of P.E.I. 1863

An article in the 20 November 1878  Semi-Weekly Patriot documents further growth of the community.

Passing by the Church, Smithy and Schoolhouse at Alexandria, and the Church at the cross roads, we reach Southport, destined to be one of the fashionable and health-bearing adjuncts of Charlottetown. It is now quite a business centre , and when the new road is opened it will become still more important. The day is coming when the seaside from Farquharson’s point to the Harbour’s mouth will be studded with villas. Charles Haszard Esq., by the ferry facilities which he so obligingly affords, is doing much for Southport as well as for the health and pleasure seekers from the city. The Honourable the Speaker of the Assembly is a citizen of this place  – where he and H. Bovyer, W.H. Farquharson, and John Kennedy carry on mercantile business. An Episcopal Church, a school-house, a Tannery, two line kilns, a Post Office, three forges, two Houses of Entertainment, seven Brick Kilns, a Tailor’s Shop, one Harness and Saddlery establishment and two weigh scales are among our Southport notes. Beer, McIntosh, McKenzie, Alex. and Neil Stewart, Flood and Son, and the two Cardiffs manufacture Brick extensively; the blacksmiths are Allan Stewart, Allan Ham and Charles Walker; and the Carpenters and Carriage Builders are Angus and John McInnis, John Godfrey, James Wood, Isaac Turner, and James Costello. 

Notwithstanding the glowing 1878 report that the community was destined to be a “fashionable and healthy adjunct” it was clear that growth of the village had slowed if not stopped. There are scarcely more houses shown in the area in the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas than there had been 17 years earlier.  Although landowner John Picton Beete had ambitiously subdivided the property and laid out a street network the anticipated growth failed to arrive.  The area did, however had become the centre for brick making with a large number of brick yards and as the newspaper account above notes a large number of brickmakers had establishments near Southport. While most of the brick manufactured  would have been carried by ferry or across the winter ice to Charlottetown it is probable that some export of brick took place at the ferry wharf.    

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Detail from manuscript map of Lot 48 by C.R. Allen, prepared for Meacham’s Atlas 1880. Public Archives and Records Office.

The short-lived brick boom came to an early end as supplies of brick-clay were exhausted  and the community once again lapsed into a quiet stagnation. Comparing the plan above with the 1935 air photo below it is clear that Southport in the 1930s  was still stuck in the 1870s. Over the years the ferry wharf had been extended and re-built but the construction of the Hillsborough Bridge, which was completed in 1905, and the opening of new roads to the east, meant that traffic no longer stopped at Southport. The railway by-passed the hamlet and what services that were provided by merchants were for locals only.  There was a frisson of excitement in 1913 when construction of a marine railway large enough to carry the S.S. Prince Edward Island was begun close to the ferry wharf but work ceased in 1915 and was never completed. 

There were occasional reports of other vessels using the Southport wharf to load cargo. For example, in 1886  the steamer M.A. Starr crossed the harbour to Southport after unloading at Charlottetown in order to load potatoes for Halifax. Small schooners continued to load produce at the Southport Wharf into the 1930s, and the wharf was dredged n 1937.  The Dominion Department of Public Works used the wharf as a place to tie up scows used in dredging and construction but by the end of the Second War even this seems to have ended. With the end of activity the wharf soon eroded. A caution buoy marked a spot where a sunken scow rested on the bottom but even that marker was removed in the last few years. 

Southport 1935

Today few, if any, traces remain of the ferry wharf and it is no longer even buoyed as a hazard to navigation as no boats except those of oyster fishers have a reason to visit the Southport shore. However one part of the Patriot’s 1878 forecast has become true. The shores all along the edge of the Hillsborough, right to the harbour’s mouth and beyond are today “studded with villas.”   


“most suitable for an afternoon’s enjoyment” Excursions in the Bay – 1877

On hot summer days it is refreshing to think that for many of us getting to the beach is only a matter of jumping into a car and heading out. This ease of access to the sea shore is a relatively recent phenomena for Charlottetown. In spite of being a port the shoreline is remarkably inaccessible as there is not a really good beach within the city limits. There was bathing at Victoria Park and Kensington Beach and for the uninhibited there was always the attraction of swimming off the wharves. But this was hardly a family or social activity. Accessing a real beach meant a train ride to Hunter River or Bedford and then by wagon to Rustico or Tracadie where there were summer hotels, a round trip that could easily take all day.  Or one could take the Southport ferry and then go by carriage to Keppoch or Langly Beach.

What was accessible however, was a mini-ocean voyage or cruise to the mysterious Islands in Hillsborough Bay.  There was no regular steamer service but vessels were available and for a moderate expense a party could charter one of several boats to go beyond Charlottetown’s Pillars of Hercules (Blockhouse Point and Seatrout Point) to the Bay beyond, an area marked in the townsfolk’s mental map with the warning “here be dragons.”

The exotic realm beyond the Harbour’s Mouth was popular with groups of all sizes. Pooling of resources for a sports club, fraternal lodge, or Sunday school put the cost of a charter within almost everyone’s grasp and these sorts of excursions were a popular fund-raiser.

An article in the 25 August 1877 Semi-Weekly Patriot details the attractions of the islands of the bay. Of the two islands St. Peters was the more hospitable with four farmsteads and a fish stage (later a lobster factory). It would soon have  schoolhouse and a lighthouse.  Today it is uninhabited and slowly reverting to forest and marsh and the extensive reefs make landing difficult for all but shallow draft boats. The lighthouse had been decommissioned by 2020, but it still has an attraction. Venturing to the interior will expose you to significant danger from the champion mosquitos raised on the island.

St. Peter’s Island 1880. Meacham’s Atlas

Very few of our people  have ever been on either Governor’s or St. Peter’s Island, or know that the latter is well cultivated and contains over 400 acres of land, divided into four farms, has good water, diversity of scenery, sheltering trees, good beach, fine lookout on the strait, and is in every way most suitable for an afternoon’s enjoyment. If you wish to take a party over forty, get the Southport, with her fine deck for dancing; leave the city about 2 p.m.: Capt. Mutch will land you on the Island dry-footed, and unharmed in an hour and a half. Spread the cloths. “do” the Island; there are obliging residents who will boil the water for tea or coffee, and whose horse and cart you can get to haul the heavier baskets &c. to land from the boat.

St. Peter’s Island 2020. Google Earth.

Three hours can be pleasantly spent on the Island and should you have chose a moonlit night the steam home will be most enjoyable, the music on the water, fast flitting feet, happy faces and voices, and the perfect safety, thanks to the obliging captain and crew, will make one think that the landing at the pier at 9 p.m.is too early. Should you desire to go in a smaller party, say eight, fourteen or 25, then Batt’s Tub [sic] Boat will run down and back for about $10, or the Daisy, if not occupied by her owners, will do it for half the money but carries fewer people than the Tug. The Southport will cost you about $25, which is certainly very little for a boat capable of carrying 1,200 people.

More isolated and without a resident population Governor’s Island is even less visited although seal watching draws quite a few to the shores but few brave the rocks land on the beaches. The downwind stench of an extensive cormorant rookery which is gradually killing off any of the trees of the Island is a further deterrent to visits. The moaning of the hundreds of seals on the island’s eastern sand spit and reefs at low tide is  a bizarre accompaniment to the visual desolation.

Governor’s Island about 1970.

Governor’s Island is a little farther outside the harbour’s mouth, is unsettled, but cuts a good deal of hay. Along its shore is good snipe shooting and mackerel fishing. On the reef looms the fog alarm while over all rests a deep calm and hush unbroken by passing steamers that pass too far “on the other side” and everything tends to rest the eyes and ears, and soothe the weary mind.

Even more accessible and cheaper,  but still carrying the hint of an ocean adventure was the ferry to Rocky Point with its several attractions for the day visitor.

Perhaps you choose rather to take a basket of picnic varieties step on board the Rocky Point Ferry Boat, enjoy the ten minutes run across, spread and appreciate the lunch on the bluff overlooking the Elliott or West River, and return to town in the cool of the evening, having some hours study of the everchanging scenes upon our harbour, with spirits greatly lightened for city work and life, and purse almost untouched.