GRAND SCHEMES FOR THE CORNWALLIS RIVER (May 4/01)

In or around the year 1813 a two-ton brig is said to have been built on the banks of the Cornwallis River in Kentville and sailed downstream to the Minas Basin. A. W. H. Eaton (History of Kings County) records the builder as Handley Chipman, adding that a barque was built at the same place – “near the bridge at Kentville” – in 1846.

Earlier in his history, Eaton writes that the first bridge across the Cornwallis River at Port Williams was “built at least as early as 1780.” Eaton then mentions that in 1818 the legislature approved funds for rebuilding and repairing this bridge. Noting that one or two bridges had been destroyed by the tides, Eaton says that a new bridge was opened in 1835.

It seems contradictory and puzzling that sea-going vessels were built at Kentville when an obstacle such as a bridge existed at Port Williams. Eaton is undoubtedly correct with his bridge dates, however, since provincial government records indicate there was a bridge at Port Williams around the time he says the first one was built.

In the acts of the General Assembly of the province of Nova Scotia, the sessional papers, it is recorded that on the 18th day of May, 1865, authorisation was given to the Cornwallis Bridge Company “to sell and convey to the public the Cornwallis toll bridge,” the price not to exceed 1,800 pounds. An earlier act, dated in 1857, gives approval for the loan of a thousand pounds for bridge repairs. These records indicate that at least one early bridge was privately built. As for how early this toll bridge was in place, we have to take Eaton’s 1780 date as a guide.

Perhaps future researchers can tell us why sea-going vessels were built at Kentville when a bridge existed at Port Williams. If anyone is interested in the early ferry across the Cornwallis and the various charges for the toll bridge, I recommend reading the history of Port Williams, The Port Remembers.

Since the days of the Planters there have been many grand schemes for bridging and/or harnessing the Cornwallis River. The sessional papers of the provincial legislature contain a number of revealing acts that were passed regarding plans for the Cornwallis River at or near the present bridge site in Port Williams. As you will see from the following excerpts from 19th century General Assembly papers, there were at least two proposals for aboiteaus and one for a draw bridge on the river.

On May 7, 1858, an act was passed authorising the placing of a “Draw” in the lower Cornwallis River. “The Sessions of Kings County, upon the presentment of the grand jury,” reads the excerpt, “are authorized to cause a Draw to be placed in the lower bridge over the Cornwallis River….”

This scheme was abandoned and an aboiteau, in place of the bridge, was next considered. In the Assembly papers we find that on the 2nd day of May, 1865, an Act was passed “to provide for building an Aboiteau across the Cornwallis River.” The excerpt read that the “Commissioner of Sewers for the County of Kings may build and erect an aboiteau over and across the Cornwallis River at Port Williams.”

Obviously, no aboiteau was built at this time or it would exist today. The sessional papers gave no details on the 1865 proposal. In Assembly records for 1912, however, there are details galore on another proposal to build an aboiteau on the Cornwallis River at Port Williams. The 1912 proposal to build an aboiteau that would replace the bridge at Port Williams will be covered in detail next week.

(My thanks to Kentville researcher Leon Barron, who provided the sessional paper excerpts used in this column.)

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