CORNWALLIS RIVER – SOME HISTORICAL GLIMPSES (December 19/17)

“I will now take up the Cornwallis River and its bridge at Kentville,” magistrate Edmond J. Cogswell wrote in the April 4, 1892 edition of The Western Chronicle. This was one of numerous mentions of the Cornwallis River in this newspaper during the 60 plus years it was published in Kentville (from 1873 to the early 1930s).

In 1865, the provincial House of Assembly passed an Act to “provide for building an Aboiteau across the Cornwallis River.” Even earlier, in 1846, in the proceedings of the House of Assembly, it is recorded that one John Parsons was given a grant towards building a bridge over the Cornwallis River. Going even farther back, in 1761 Thomas Louder petitioned the provincial government for a grant to operate a ferry on the Cornwallis River (as recorded in a 1933 thesis on pre-Loyalist settlements on the Minas Basin). A few years later the government received a petition from settlers along the Cornwallis River protesting Louder’s high ferry rates.

These are only a few of the recorded glimpses of the Cornwallis River, establishing that at least since 1761 this has been the accepted name of the river. In other words, the river has been known as the Cornwallis, officially and unofficially, for over 250 years. There apparently never was any official provincial government Act officially establishing the river’s name. Common usage, simply calling the stream the “Cornwallis River” year after year, decade after decade, established its name.

And also – another by the way – the stream almost became known as the Horton River and is shown as such on some early maps. As Haliburton noted in his history of Nova Scotia, the river took its name from Cornwallis Township. At times the residents of Horton Township referred to the stream, which is on its northern border, as the Horton River.

Besides being mentioned in historical essays, such as in Cogswell’s 19th-century newspaper articles, and the subject of various colonial period petitions and grievances, the river played a role in the origin of the town of Kentville. In his Kings County history, Arthur W. H. Eaton notes that the Cornwallis River owes its existence to a ford on the Cornwallis River. Eaton was quoting Edmond J. Cogswell, who likely was the first in stating how a shallow crossing place on the river spurred the establishment of a village in the vicinity, a village that became a town.

There was yet another effect the Cornwallis River had on Kentville, an effect that influenced its prosperity and led to it becoming the shiretown of Kings County and the leading town in the Valley. Kentville boomed when in the mid 19th century the railway decided it wouldn’t head north by crossing the hazardous Cornwallis River at Port Williams, (which was the original plan) and instead run its line directly into Kentville. Crossing the Cornwallis at Port Williams would have meant bypassing Kentville entirely, which also was originally planned.

Esther Clark Wright, the author of Blomidon Rose and other historical books, believed the Cornwallis River was important enough to have its history recorded. “The Cornwallis should have a book of its own,” she wrote in Blomidon Rose. Apparently, she contemplated writing this history but never did. Wright mentions the Cornwallis River at least 25 times in Blomidon Rose, a book containing many historical facts about the stream.

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