Tag Archives: West River

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.

An Afternoon on the Elliott

Island newspapers took particular delight in publishing accounts penned by visitors to the Province.  The Island was sufficiently distant and yet accessible from New England that the area was frequently profiled by American periodicals. Armchair travellers could access Harper’s Monthly Magazine or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and see the Island through a tourist eye. In September 1877 the Patriot published the following anonymous account of a summer trip up the West River written by an American visitor.


Charlottetown from the Southport Ferry Wharf. Detail from illustration for “The Garden of British North America” Frank Leslie’s Weekly 1887

Perhaps you are ignorance of that river generally called the West. Well, should you ever be in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, owning allegiance to our neighbouring Dominion, step aboard the Government Ferry Steamer Southport on Tuesday and Friday, they being market days, and, for twelve cents “good and lawful money of Her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria,” you will be taken through twelve miles of the most charming scenery in the Lower Canadian Provinces.

Leaving the Queen’s Wharf and the City, resounding with business, for some time the eyes are charmed with the harbor out-look, a little ferry-boat, aptly named the Elfin, putting across to Southport on the opposite shore,  fishing schooners making in and out, and small boats of all shapes and sizes running across the steamer’s bows, then racing alongside, etc. Right down the harbor we go viewing Government House embowered in trees, looking like many a southern plantation residence. Battery Point with a few ancient guns, and a small red brick arsenal flanking it, then across the mouth of the North or York River, on the right hand, and a view of the harbor’s mouth and Light House on the other hand, shut out immediately by entering the river of our story.

Gov house

Government House from the harbour. Illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine – September 1877

Just as the harbor is left for the river is passed Rocky Point, to and from which and the city a fine, large sail boat, ably manned, plies hourly every day, affording a splendid chance for luxurious coolness through sweltering days; and in the evening we heard that the same boat carries large parties of young people about the harbor for a few hours, one of the many pleasant ways in which Islanders thoroughly enjoy life.  Just above the Point is an old fort dating from the French occupation, the earthworks overgrown with large evergreen trees.   …  Although none of the Rivers in this Gem of the Gulf are very long, yet the alluvial soil causes deep cuttings, many  bends, and attendant “points”  opening up variety at every half mile. Passing along we disturb families of crane, standing solemnly on one leg fishing, and now and then a flock of ducks who rise from the water and sail away in “Indian file,” each one with its head on one side looking at the intruders with that inquiring gaze that hens bestow upon a hawk hovering around in chicken time.

There is a clearness in the atmosphere here that makes everything beautifully distinct, outlining the landscape on the sky and making an Indian Summer day just delightful, while beneath is flowing the river of water, silently, steadily onward to the sea.  Having asked the Captain the names of one or two Points, we were agreeably surprised to receive a civil answer, but we found afterwards it was one of the boat’s universal belongings.   We had always imagined that captains of steamers  had such a load of responsibility resting upon them, in the way of mint juleps and gin cocktails &c, that poor, common, travelling humanity must travel in silence but here was one almost ready to go to the other extreme, in fact, it gave rise to the thought that he was trying to gain the same end by means of an overpowering flow if descriptive language. “That’s Ferguson’s Point on the Port Side and McNeill’s just above , with White’s and Hyde’s  on the big bend just opposite, and there’s Patterson’s, Crosby’s and Wilson’s Points.” 


Chart of Elliott River from the harbour to Dog [now Clyde] River from George Wrights 1839 Chart of Hillsborough Bay

We next stepped forward to interview the Engineer just as the steamer crossed Dog River mouth, every stream from that turning a mile. The engineer and Pilot said it was ” not much fun going up river now,” but when the geese and other wild fowl were in season, and good trout fishing could be had  and he was just warming to the subject, and introducing us (in imagination) to the landed proprietors along the river bank, when the Gong sounded for a landing, and, in a few minutes we were tied up to Farquharson’s Wharf, one of these peculiar structures made by piling fir trees (or Var) on the ice in the winter time allowing it to sink, and then building up with timber and ballast in summer, and they are said never to rot. A large Saw and Grist Mill is at the head of the wharf. A family is migrating up river to fresh fields and pastures new … the party consisting of a man and wife, an overgrown lump of a boy, a little golden-haired, dirty-faced girl, and a baby in arms, neutral gender, but of undoubted lung power. Their household effects were limited, yet occupied the whole of the attention of the owner and two deck hands to remove them from the wharf to the steamer’s deck. There was a cradle with a rocker and a half, a cooking stove with three legs and a brick, four chairs, two of which were backless and the other two minus several rungs, two bundles of sundries done up in patchwork quilts, the makings of a bedstead, one iron pot and a tea kettle. About three miles further up the whole interesting family was landed and went on their way rejoicing.

Just above the wharf two men were raking oysters from a bed uncovered at low tide, as are others in the same river, and some of the crew shouted themselves hoarse endeavouring to induce them to come down and let the strangers stand treat, but they would not come, and we are in doubt to this day as to the true merits of an Elloitt river bivalve, though able to endorse fully all encomiums , past or present upon Island oysters generally …

But the shades of night are coming down swift, it is time to be up and steaming, so the captain thinks and orders it so, that in a minute or two the boat, swing from a hawser as upon a pivot, heads downstream, and stopping only once to pick up a small boat passenger who had put out to intercept us, we were soon going up the harbor again, a soft mist falling. We could see the lights of the city gleam through the mist and rain, and were anon in the Hotel well satisfied with our afternoon’s enjoyment while outside.

River cruising in the 1870s

River cruising on the Rhine, Danube and other European rivers is an increasingly popular pastime but it is hardly new. Rivers have been exploited for their commercial potential for millennia and aside from their contribution to transportation their recreational potential has long since been recognized.

Heather Belle2

Early photo of the Heather Belle. P.E.I. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 2103/216

This is true even on the limited river systems of Prince Edward Island. Steamers such as the Heather Belle, the Jacques Cartier, and later the Harland, as well as the ferry steamers provided a working freight and passenger service up the rivers to head of tide.  In a two-part  article titled “Pleasant Ways and Days” which appeared in the 1877 Semi-Weekly Patriot a correspondent writes about the excursions available to those from the city. Besides the coastal trips to Crapaud and Orwell and visits to the islands of Hillsborough Bay the writer enthuses about the trips on the river steamers as if employed as a hack publicist for the steamship companies:

All who have taken the trip up the East and West (or Hillsboro and York [sic]) Rivers, but especially the latter, agree that it can hardly be surpassed for varied beauty, winding in and out as it does, through intervale and upland, here a “bank” and there a “brae,” clothed, now to the waters edge with varied forest  shades, anon, carpetted to the bank, with every tint of grass green of the splendid farms. Flocks of cranes and solitary specimens stand along the bank and sail slowly away as the boat draws near, snipe, flit, dicks and geese, in season, hover around and everything is beautiful.

This trip is performed on the government steam-ferry Southport, a large and substantial boat under the command of Capt. Henry Mutch. On Tuesday and Friday at morning and evening 5 a.m. and 3;30 p.m., the trips are made, touching at Farquharson’s wharf and going in sight of Bonshaw wharf, 12 cents each way, reduction in favour of large parties, and one has the advantage of the interesting study of mankind, to be had in the varied specimens of human nature of the one thousand, or fifteen hundred the boat will hold.

This is probably the most acceptable [trip] of the list as no fatigue is felt, the time occupied being about 1 1/2 hours each way. The view of the opening up of the North (or York) River and of the Straits, through the Harbours mouth, is very beautiful. In returning you pass Rocky Point, when the whole harbour, the city, Stratford shore, and the long reach of the “Hillsboro’s sparkling tide”  are seen at once , and well repay the pleasure seekers and fully assure them that “this little isle that gems the sea, is isle as fair as isle can be.”   

Heather Belle

Semi-Weekly Patriot 1879

The trip to Mount Stewart in the Heather Belle Hughes Bros. owners and agents on Wednesday and Friday either at 4 a.m. or 3 p.m., are most enjoyable touching at Apple Tree wharf if desired, but always calling at Fort Augustus, Cranberry, and Hicky’s wharf, and, if arranged for, a couple of hours can be had at the Bridge to see the enterprising little place, and its great industry – shipbuilding. As many as 25 vessels have been on the stocks there at one time.

Choosing a moonlight night the down trip is just perfection, Falconwood, the Stock Farm and New Insane Asylum are in sight from the River, Fort August Chapel looms up, and mayhap nearing Mount Stewart passengers may experience the excitement of a race with the Railway train that approaches the bank  near there, and returning to the city at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m., will readily acknowledge that 30 cents could not have been more profitably expended, but of course our readers will remember when we speak of these very cheap rates that they are for parties not less than twenty, but might even be lessened for larger parties.

Service and excursions up the West River were to continue almost to the middle of the 20th century. However the parallel routes of the railroad and steamship lines up the Hillsborough River mean that there was a duplication and the river business fell off dramatically. Today it is rare for even pleasure boats to pass upstream of the Hillsborough Bridge.