From a historical viewpoint, the Cornwallis River wasn’t much of a factor in the early settlement of Kings County. Early on, for example, the Acadians realized that dykeing the Cornwallis and building aboiteaux wasn’t worthwhile since relatively little land could be reclaimed from the sea. The Canard River, on the other hand, was ideal for dykeing, and soon after settling here the Acadians concentrated their efforts on it.
The Cornwallis River, from just above Kentville down to the Minas Basin is muddy, treacherous, turbulent at high tide, and unfriendly at low tide. As far as early settlers were concerned, the river’s only saving grace was its huge shad runs. For generations, the lower area of the river offered a productive, much needed fishery, a sort of kitchen industry providing food and fertilizer.
Reading the archives at Acadia University, I discovered that Esther Clark Wright once considered writing a book on the Cornwallis River. Apparently she started to put together some of the river’s history. We can only surmise that she dropped the project when she found there was little of interest historically to write about the river.
However, while the Cornwallis was for the most part ignored by the Acadians, the Planters quickly found that the river had an annoying featuring. Literally, the river split apart their major settlements in Kings County and was an impediment when it came to agricultural and social intercourse. Ferries became a necessity early on; several sources claim that the Acadians and later the Planters operated a ferry on the river just below Port Williams.
Arthur W. H. Eaton in his Kings County history writes that the first bridge on the Cornwallis River was “built at least as early as 1780” at Port Williams. The editors of the Port Williams history (The Port Remembers) state that the date of the bridge is “controversial;” meaning, I assume, that no one knows for sure when the first bridge at Port Williams was constructed.
In 1769, a petition signed by 25 inhabitants of Kings County (Cornwallis Township) requested that the price of “ferriage” on the Cornwallis River be reduced. We can assume this document, which is in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, indicates there was no bridge on the river at that time.
Another document in the Archives makes Eaton’s 1780 bridge date questionable since a ferry was running much later than this. Dated 1792, this document is an application to raise ferry prices on the Cornwallis River to 15 pence for a man and a horse. It’s amusing to note that the rate increase was requested because the ferryman was required to transport jury members free of charge.
Of course, a ferry could have operated on the Cornwallis River after a bridge was constructed. Arthur W. H. Eaton indicates that a bridge definitely was in place at Port Williams by 1818; he mentions legislative records relating to rebuilding and repairing said bridge. On the ferries, I’ve been unable to determine when they stopped operating on the Cornwallis River.