Tag Archives: Walter Jones

The last opening of the Hillsborough bridge

Open span of the Hillsborough Bridge 1960. The shafts from the engine house to the cog track on the pier can be seen as can the wheels bearing the weight of the bridge structure. Thes photo is taken from the Budbury side looking toward Charlottetown.

The building of the second (and present) Hillsborough Bridge was hardly the major engineering project that the first had been in the first decade of the century.  The 1903-1905 bridge project  had been part of a larger project; the building of the Murray Harbour Branch of the P.E.I. Railway. The second bridge was also part of a larger accomplishment. It was the last link in the building of the Trans-Canada Highway across the province. Planning and construction for the highway had begun in the early 1950s and was nearing completion by the end of the decade.

At the same time the Hillsborough Bridge was reaching the end of its useful life – or had already passed it. Although the provincial government pressed for the replacement of the bridge, and even purchased war-surplus steel for a new bridge in 1951, the decision to build a new bridge was not made until the final planning for the Trans-Canada highway in the province was completed. Construction of the new bridge took place to the east of the existing structure using the original earth-filled abutments for much of the crossing but extending them and narrowing the river flow to a very large degree.

The original bridge had a swing span so that the bridge could open to allow vessels to go up the Hillsborough River.  At the time there were still regular steamers such as the City of London and the Harland which made stops at several river-front wharves and even, when tide allowed, to go as far as Mt. Stewart. Freight steamers had delivered coal directly to a now-vanished wharf at Falconwood Asylum.  However with improved rail and road connections traffic shifted away from the river and after the 1930s openings of the bridge were rare or non-existent.

The swing span was operated from an engine house high above the bridge floor. The building housed either a small steam boiler or a gasoline engine (more likely the latter but perhaps a reader could clarify this for me) turning a series of gears and two drive shafts which ran from the house to below the floor of the bridge where they connected to toothed gears which ran around a track on the bridge pier. The bridge span itself sat on wheels running in a track on the pier. The entire weight of the span was borne by these wheels. These element of the mechanism can be seen in the photo above.  The opening of the span was a time consuming operation and of course halted any rail or road traffic and a decision to open the bridge was not taken lightly.

However, the construction of the new bridge created an engineering problem. In order to erect the steel of the new single span it was necessary to bring a barge with cranes and other heavy equipment into location east of the old bridge. And for that to happen the span had to be opened for the first time in many years.  There were a few technical problems and concerns. Telephone and electrical power lines had been carried by the bridge but when it was opened these links would be severed. New poles had to be erected to carry the lines over the gap.  There were also concerns that the engine in the bridge house might not be in a condition to operate. Another issue was that the fill from the new bridge was exerting pressure on the piers. The wooden ice shield east of the bridge had already shifted and if the swing span pier had moved even a slight amount the bridge might not open.  It was one thing if the bridge failed to open. It was quite another if it opened and then could not be closed.

The opening of the bridge, once a common occurrence, had become so rare that there was a huge amount of public interest in the last two openings. Once to let the barge come upstream and the final one when the steel work was completed and the barge had to exit the worksite. Roads had be closed and crowds gathered to watch the events.

Although the openings and closings were accompanied by a great deal of anxiety on the part of the engineers and were slow and deliberate they took place without incident. It was an event with much public curiosity both on shore an in the water. Members of the Charlottetown boating community, especially those from the Charlottetown Yacht Club, took advantage of the event to turn it into a spectacle.   Families and friends gathered to watch and the huge steel span slowly turned, the barges moved through the gap and then the engine was re-started and the bridge slowly closed, never to be open again.

Although the new Hillsborough Bridge opened for traffic late in 1961 it was not until the summer of 1962 that there was an official opening ceremony marking the completion of the Trans Canada Highway in the province .

Yacht Club member Art Love with family members Peter and Don and a friend waiting for the bridge to open. Mac Irwin’s launch can be seen over the stern of the Love boat. Art’s runabout and the highspeed Mercury outboard were famous for their appearances in harbour motor boat races. Photo: Ron Atkinson collection

Hillsborough Bridge partially open. Displaced eastern ice shield can be seen below the crane boom. Photo: Ron Atkinson Collection

Hillsborough Bridge partially open. The telephone and electric poles carrying the wires across the gap can be seen. Note the cars and spectators on the new roadway behind the open span. Photo: Ron Atkinson Collection.

 

Walter Jones and the Chinese Bridge

Planking the Hillsborough Bridge for road traffic 1905. The mixed use of the bridge was to prove a problem until the end of its days. Warwick & Rutter postcard.

By 1950 the Hillsborough Bridge was, depending on who was counting, either approaching the end of its useful or was well past it.  When the used bridge opened in 1905 it could easily accommodate the weight of the small narrow-gauge engines and rail cars of the Prince Edward island Railway. When the system was switched to standard gauge with larger and heavier rail stock it was no longer up to the task and a new line between Mount Stewart and Lake Verde was constructed in the 1920s to take the heavier traffic.  Passenger trains and smaller mixed freight trains still crossed the Hillsborough from Bunbury.  As his farm was not far from the bridge Premier Walter Jones would have watched bridge activities with great interest.

Walter Jones was one of the Island’s most dynamic premiers. He was a man of what today seems to have been impulsive action and although those decisions didn’t always pan out they were always decisive. I have previously written of his mixed success in attempts to get the P.E.I. Government into the shipping business.

Chiang Kai Shek in 1945. Time magazine cover.

Changes on the other side of the world were to have an impact on the Hillsborough Bridge and in a strange way Walter Jones became the man in the middle.  In the early 1950s the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists under General Chiang Kai Shek and the Communists under Mao Tse Tung was grinding to a conclusion with the latter taking over mainland China and the former retreating to Formosa.  Canada had assisted Chiang and among the undelivered material in support of the war effort was a China-destined bridge which was still sitting in the yards of the Dominion Bridge Company in Montreal after the Nationalists fled the mainland. A challenge for Canada’s Crown Assets Disposal Corporation became an opportunity for Walter Jones.

With post-war reconstruction, steel prices had shot up making a replacement for the Hillsborough Bridge somewhat of an expensive  problem.  Jones hastily took out a $130 per ton option on the surplus bridge (which had cost $300 per ton to build and would cost $400 per ton at 1950 prices) before anyone else could act and his cabinet approved the action retroactively. To make the action a little more appealing to Islanders Jones promised to use two of the spans at North River where the Trans-Canada Highway would cross the river.  By incorporating the bridges into the Highway a significant contribution could be expected from the Dominion Government.  By the end of February 1950 an option on the 11 spans had been acquired by the province. The sale was concluded in June 1951. The government had become the proud owner of 3600 tons of steel at a cost of $469,000.

Walter Jones, 20th Premier of P.E.I. He believed he had found an easy solution to the bridge problem.

There was, however, one tiny problem.  The spans of the Chinese bridge didn’t quite fit between the existing piers. They were a little shorter than those of the iron bridge. It was no problem according to Jones who suggested that steel piles protected by sheet steel casings could easily be constructed to enlarge the existing piers. Not everyone was convinced as the stone piers had deteriorated to a serious extent. There was also the little matter that the province didn’t own the Hillsborough Bridge, it belonged to the C.N.R.

The project was dealt a fatal blow only a year later when the Board of Transport Commissioners, which had the responsibility for closure of railway lines ruled that the structure was unsafe for rail traffic. They ruled that the bridge could be closed to trains.  The last train to run across the bridge was the Murray Harbour train on 10 March 1951. For a period the railway transported train passengers from Southport stop to the Charlottetown Railway Station using taxis. Later the Commissioners agreed that a portion of the Murray Harbour line west of Hazelbrook could be closed. This delighted the C.N.R. which had been trying for years to close the money-losing line.

Suddenly the Chinese Bridge, which was designed primarily as a rail bridge with provision for highway traffic on the outside of the trusses, was no longer needed. In the legislature the Conservative opposition repeatedly attacked the Jones government for acting precipitously, leaving the government with 11 bridge spans with 3600 tons of steel on their hands – or rather on the hands of the Dominion Bridge Company to whom the government was paying storage costs while a buyer was found.

In the meantime, since carrying the rail line was no longer a requirement for the bridge, the Government turned to other options. One of the experts consulted was the engineer for the Canso causeway planned to link Cape Breton with mainland Nova Scotia and for which tenders had been called in April of 1952.  Suddenly the Island’s public works engineers and politicians fell in love with causeways and this was seen as the solution to the Hillsborough River problem. But they didn’t stop there and soon almost every tidal estuary in the province saw bridges replaced with causeways with short bridge spans. In some cases these had tidal gates which created brackish water lakes above the barrier. Included in this number was the B. Graham Rogers Lake above the North River Causeway. Built without environmental assessments these causeways with narrow spillways would create huge problems which half a century on still plague our rivers.

In the interim the government was trying to deal with the now doubly surplus bridge. Jones announced in February 1952 that an offer had been received for the bridge but he provided no details. In March it was rumoured that the steel would be traded back to the Dominion government for a new federal building in the city. By the end of the year the rails were removed from the Hillsborough Bridge turning it in to a purely highway bridge, albeit one with a single lane.  Four of the spans of the Chinese bridge had been sold by early March 1953 and by the end of the month Premier Jones announced that all the steel had been sold with a slight profit for the province.  A 1954 question in the Legislature from R.R. Bell, Conservative leader, revealed that this was not exactly the case. While most of the steel had been sold some was retained for bridge work in the province. The steel sold brought in $441,000, about $27,000 less than it cost and an extra $26,000 had been charged to the province in storage fees.  The saga of the Chinese bridge had come to an end.

Jones was not in the House to defend his impulsive purchase. On 19 May 1953 he had been appointed to the Senate, and he died in Ottawa a year later.

 

 

 

 

M.V. Eskimo – Walter Jones’ one-ship merchant marine

With the exception of ferries which were an essential part of the colonial and later provincial transportation system the Government of Prince Edward Island was generally content to let ownership of shipping reside with the private sector. There were handsome colonial subsidies for some of the coastal routes but after Confederation interprovincial traffic was more the responsibility of the Dominion government and the province was to great extent off the hook. Traditional trade with Newfoundland dated back to the end of eighteenth century.  In the late 1940s the service was being provided by a number of small and irregular shippers and by the Inter-Island Steamship Company’s vessel Island Connector.  However the Island Connector was taken off the route at the end of 1949.

M.V. Eskimo in Montreal with a deck load of lumber. Photo: Mac MacKay collection - Shipfax.blogspot.ca

M.V. Eskimo in Montreal with a deck load of lumber. Photo: Mac MacKay collection – Shipfax.blogspot.ca

With the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation all that changed.  Farmer-premier J. Walter Jones was an advocate of increased trade for the Island, especially for the province’s agricultural products.  He had some success in the Newfoundland trade which up until 1949 was with a separate country and vessels were eligible for international trade subsidies from Ottawa.  However these ended when Newfoundland became part of Canada.  During the war P.E.I. had developed the export market –  the American bases in Newfoundland had become consumers of Island beef, chicken, milk, potatoes and vegetables and sales had increased elsewhere across the colony as well. Premier Jones had ambitious plans to displace British sources which had supplied the colony before the war.

Although a number of small private companies were shipping to Newfoundland this was not enough for Jones vision. In 1949 his government created the Prince Edward Island Industrial Corporation and one of the first activities of the crown corporation was to purchase a ship for the Newfoundland trade. Jones had hoped to obtain a cheap war surplus vessel from the Dominion government but was not successful and they had to search elsewhere on the open market.  Thus the province came to be the owners of the M.V. Eskimo.

The Eskimo was built in the Smith and Rhuland yard in Lunenburg in 1942.  She was part of a war-time drive to produce more wooden vessels to preserve steel for strategic purposes. The spruce and birch vessel was 168 feet long with a beam of 30 feet and drew almost 14 feet. She was powered by a 540 hp Fairbanks-Morse diesel and could accommodate twenty on board – a dozen or so crew and room for 8 passengers in double staterooms.  She was built for W.L. Sweeny of Yarmouth and was originally called the Laurence K. Sweeney (sometimes noted as Lawrence K. Sweeney). By the end of 1942 she appears to have become the property of the Royal Canadian Air Force who used her as a supply vessel for installations in the region including RDF bases used for marine and air navigation.  Under military control she was armed and her name was changed to the Eskimo, possibly because Lawrence Sweeny was an engineer on another RCAF vessel but more likely to conform with RCAF naming conventions. She made several northern voyages and in 1944 she travelled to Iceland.

RCAF Eskimo ca. 1945

RCAF Eskimo ca. 1945

In 1947 the Hudson Bay Company bought the ship for $65,000 and operated it supplying northern posts for two years. The company obtained a good return on its investment in 1949 when the Prince Edward Island Industrial Corporation paid almost $75,000 to purchase the Eskimo. One of the selling features was that the ship had a cargo refrigerator compartment of 900 cubic feet and her two cargo holds had a capacity of 13,000 cubic feet.

The ship went into the P.E. I. – Newfoundland service in June 1949 and a 10 day schedule of trips to Canada’s new province was planned. The Industrial Corporation had a novel approach to the trade. Normally goods had been shipped to wholesalers in St. John’s and distributed to the outport communities by them. The M.V. Eskimo would call at smaller communities along the southern coast between Port-aux-Basques and Argentia and at St. Pierre and promised more direct delivery.  She was the only vessel serving the south coast that had refrigeration facilities.  On her inaugural trip she visited 12 different ports. During the winter it was planned that the Eskimo would sail between Halifax and St. Pierre.

Initial response was encouraging. Potatoes, produce and hay were much in demand and the capacity for refrigerated perishable cargo was welcomed by the smaller communities. However, even in the first year the problem was one of return cargo.  The smaller Newfoundland communities had little to offer that was not already available in the Island.  Bulk cargos such as limestone and newsprint would require visits to other ports on Newfoundland’s west coast and the coat of shipping to P.E.I. and then transferring cargo to ships bound for Halifax or Montreal made the operation uneconomic.

J. Walter Jones the Premier who backed an aggressive shipping policy

J. Walter Jones the Premier who backed an aggressive shipping policy

Early in 1950 the Eskimo became the subject of political disagreement with acrimonious debates in the legislature. The opposition seized on the fact that the ship had operated at a loss and demanded answers. Both the Liberals in the legislature and the staff of the Industrial Corporation defended the operation and promised that business would increase and that P.E.I. would soon get a bigger share of the $12 million that Newfoundland was spending on imports from the rest of Canada. They claimed that the ship represented a half million dollar benefit to the Island. In 1950 the ship began loading at Summerside as well as Charlottetown and began to stop at Corner Brook as well as the south coast. That year it made eighteen trips to Newfoundland.  Late in 1950 the Premier floated the suggestion that the Eskimo could become involved in the three-cornered trade between the Island, Newfoundland and the West Indies but this was not followed up.

During the legislative session in the spring of 1951 the operation of the Eskimo was again subject to heavy criticism. The opposition charged that the money-losing provincial operation had meant that private shippers could not compete and that services to Newfoundland had actually decreased. The outport visits stopped and most of the voyages were to St. John’s and St. Pierre. After defending the decision to purchase the ship the Premier un-expectantly announced that the government intended to sell the Eskimo to “private capital” and that the ship would be used for trading between the Island and the North Shore of the St. Lawrence, competing with Quebec shippers.  He blamed some of the financial losses of the previous year on the fact that as a crown corporation the Eskimo was not eligible for Dominion government subsidies.

However it was not until the end of March of the following year that the government, in response to questions in the legislature, admitted that it had exited the ship-owning business by selling the vessel some weeks earlier to Alphonse Beauchemin of Matane Quebec. He used the ship for cargos up and down the St. Lawrence, Newfoundland and into Hudson Bay where the ship was lost near Moosonee Ontario in the spring of 1958. The Newfoundland trade was continued by the Newfoundland-owned Blue Peter Steamships which put their American-built Blue Prince on the route.

An extremely useful source for this article is Mac MacKay’s blog Shipfax which details current and historical shipping activities in Halifax.  For more on the background of shipping between Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland see Corey Slumkowski’s article titled “Let them Eat Beef” in Acadiensis 2006