Occasionally readers will pose questions about local history that are difficult to answer without a lot of research. Recently, for example, Kentville reader John Cochrane asked me if we knew much about the history of the Cornwallis River, if it had Acadian, Planter or Mi’kmaq links, and so on.
Right off I can state that a comprehensive history of the river has never been penned. The late Esther Clark Wright, the author of Blomidon Rose, contemplated writing this history. I suggested in my column that while the Cornwallis isn’t historically significant, its story deserves to be written. To this end, about a decade ago I started a file on the river and occasionally I find things to add to it. Eventually, I might write this history but don’t take any bets on it happening.
In the meanwhile, spurred by John Cochrane’s query and the move afoot to remove Cornwallis from the river’s name, I took a look at my file. For starters, I found several proposals in the file (some of them bizarre) that would have altered the course of the river and changed several communities. Twice in the past, in 1865 and 1912, the government passed acts permitting private companies to place aboiteaus on the river at Port Williams. Nothing came of these schemes. And nothing came of a scheme, proposed circa 1818 to build a canal connecting the Cornwallis River with the Annapolis River.
The Cornwallis River is named after Edward Cornwallis who became governor of Nova Scotia in 1749. In the 17th century, the Acadians called the river the Riviere St. Antoine and in the 18th century the Riviere Des Habitation. For a short period, until Cornwallis was honoured by having it named after him, the Planters referred to the stream as the Horton River.
On what date was the name “Cornwallis” bestowed on the river? The best I can come up with is that it had to be between 1749 and 1761 since a map drawn in 1761 shows the Cornwallis River. Oddly, another map drawn by DesBarres in 1779 shows the Cornwallis River running almost side by side with the Horton River; yet historians tell us Horton was the Planter name for river before it became known as the Cornwallis.
When was the first bridge built on the Cornwallis River? A 19th century Kentville historian, Edmond J. Cogswell, claims the Acadians built the first bridge, about where the current bridge spans the river in Kentville. In the history of Kings County Arthur W. H. Eaton writes that the first bridge on the Cornwallis was built “at least as early as 1780” at Port Williams but this is disputed. The Acadians apparently ran a ferry on the river just below Port Williams and the Planters followed suit. For a time there was a ferry as well as a bridge on the river.
Oddly, the Cornwallis River played a role in Kentville becoming a major commercial centre. Originally it was planned to run the railway north from Greenwich and across the river to Port Williams – and then head due west and northwest, bypassing Kentville. The tremendous cost of spanning the river at Port Williams, where the tides are treacherous, changed the railway’s mind. A more direct route up the Valley through Kentville was chosen and the town became a retail mecca.