Roads and bridges have always been a cause for concern in rural Prince Edward Island, and as winter winds and spring thaws continue to vex us even to this day, it is all the more understandable that in the days long before internet, cell phones and radio that a sturdy bridge was often the lifeline of a community, and that to go without it could quite often spell disaster. So much of what we do is dependent upon our roadway infrastructure, and it only takes a slight closure or detour for us to begin to understand how our ancestors must have felt in days gone by when luxuries such as a paved road or sturdy bridge could only be dreamed of.
The beauty of Fortune River has long drawn people to the area, and the bounty that the river provides has helped to sustain and grow the local area since time immemorial. But just as the river can be seen as a blessing, so too is it a curse, for it provides a treacherous and ever-present obstacle to be traversed, and it lies in the very center of the community. To make matters more challenging, the Fortune River is one of the longest and widest rivers in Kings County, and as a result, it makes it all the more difficult to cross, a fact which was certainly not lost upon our earliest of settlers.
So too does the Fortune River present a problem of geography, for while the best fishing and farming is arguably at the mouth of the river, where it spills out into the Northumberland Strait, the nearest available land crossing to circumvent the river is at its head in Dingwells Mills, at the farthest extremity from the harbour. Now, one can only imagine even now the headache of going the long way around the river from Eglington to Souris by way of Dingwells Mills; but to do so with a horse and wagon, on unpaved (or at times non-existent roads) would be unimaginable. In times of crisis or emergency, it would simply be impossible.
From the very beginning, the residents of the Fortune area have understood that their future successes or failures would ultimately be dependent on a bridge, and so, they began what has come to be a never ending pursuit to establish, build, and maintain the lifeline of the community, the Fortune bridge.
Early Methods and Petition
Winter is so often an immobilizer on Prince Edward Island, but in Fortune’s earliest of days the wintertime provided an option for crossing the river, for one could simply walk across on the ice. This did provide some hazards, as there was always the risk of falling through the thin shell ice if it was not sufficiently frozen. So too was there the issue of freshwater springs which flowed year round and could weaken the ice or prevent freezing entirely. But such was the benefit of crossing on the ice that crews of men would voluntarily set out to ‘bush’ or mark the best path across the river, placing small bushes or trees to mark where safe crossings could be had. Ice crossings provided only a temporary solution, and a risky one as well. For as the spring thaw came and the ice broke up, people were once more left without a method to cross.
In the summertime, when conditions were more favorable, passage could be found across Rollo Bay flats near Abel’s Cape, where one could cross over the extensive sandbars and flats and come up in Rollo Bay, near the present day Rollo Bay Loop, and carry on to Souris that way. This too proved to be risky, for the tides there return quickly, and fill in in a reverse manner, growing deeper from the shoreline outward and leaving small sand islands which can result in people becoming trapped out on the sand. Furthermore, the tide waits for no man, and if people did not time their trips to Souris exactly right, they would find themselves stranded and without passage until the low tide returned again in eleven hours, meaning they would have to sit and wait, or make the long and lonesome journey back around through Dingwells Mills.
With such temporary means people weren’t satisfied, and as the records show, as early as 1806, local residents began to petition the government for a more permanent solution. One letter, sent to Governor Joseph MacEacharn, made clear the desperate situation of the families in the Fortune area, and plead their case for government intervention in the form of a permanent solution. The letter, signed by eighteen local families and authored by Angus MacEacharn, argued that “as Petitioners have no other communications with the Road that leads from Fortune towards St. Peter’s Bay but by crossing Rollo and Fortune Bays, a task at times impracticable, at times dangerous, and at times inconvenient and tedious… your Petitioners pray that… a road heading Rollo and Fortune Bays be laid out”. To bridge the heads of these waters would prove to be a life-changer for the peoples of the areas, and for the community as well.
Since the time of the petitions, there have been a number of bridges built to span Fortune River, all of them being located in almost exactly the same spot, where the present bridge is today. According to Townshend, one of the first bridges built was a floating bridge which could be removed as needed in order to permit ship traffic to pass through (1). Other details about this bridge is sparse, however, and what is thought to be the first permanent bridge in the area was constructed in 1834 (1). This was a wooden bridge, and was made of simple materials. On these early bridges it is interesting to note that the planks had to be removed and replaced as often as every two years, due to the deterioration in them caused by the force of the horse’s shoes that traveled over them (1). Eventually the planks would become worn down and without replacement the bridge would become unsafe.
The Steel Bridge
A wooden bridge was maintained in the area until 1913, when that summer construction was begun on a steel framed bridge. The bridge had originally been designed for use as a span in Quebec, but due to some error it was found to be unsuitable for its initial purpose. The planners of Fortune bridge learned of this situation, and opted to purchase this bridge from Quebec and install it across Fortune river (1). It was shipped by rail from Quebec and put into place over the river (1). The bridge was completed that year, and it is interesting to note that this bridge had telephone lines running across it as well (1). The name of the contractor for this steel bridge was a Mr. William Morrow of Annandale, and Townshend indicates that George Harold Jackson worked on the bridge, and two workers, Enmore and Noyes, stayed with him during the construction. During the winter of 1930 this bridge saw repairs, and in the meantime travelers were once more forced to cross the river on the ice, this time below the residence of Harvey and Daisy Aitken (1).
A Narrow Escape
We would be remiss if we were to omit the tale of a narrow escape which occurred during the construction of the steel bridge in September of 1913, and we relate it to you verbatim as it appeared in The Guardian of 11 September 1913:
“An act of bravery was performed by Mr. Austin McDonald, Fortune Bridge, when without a moment‘s notice be became a participant in an incident; that narrowly escaped being chronicled as a drowning accident. About 8 o’clock on the evening of Monday, September 1st the two young sons of Mr. Ernest Johnson, were crossing the new bridge at Fortune. Mr. Austin McDonald was walking a few paces in front, and, perceiving that several dangerous holes had, for some reason been left open, he turned and cautioned the boys saying “Boys be careful or you’ll go down through the bridge.” Scarcely had the words escaped his lips when Sam, the younger of the two, went down, carrying with him a lighted lantern, ,which he had his hand. The elder boy shouted “jump and save my brother.”
Mr. McDonald, encumbered as he was with boots and clothing, did not hesitate a moment. Leaping over he began to search for the drowning boy. A very strong tide was running in the bay and he was carried a considerable distance above the bridge. He shrewdly guessed that the boy would be carried in the same direction and seeing a dark object, which at first he thought to be a piece of wood, he swam toward it. It fortunately proved to be the boy, who completely exhausted with struggling, clung desperately to him when he came within reach.
The shore was about twenty yards distant which was a long hard swim under such circumstances. Nevertheless Mr. McDonald struck out bravely, and was still some distance from the shore, when he found that the boy was pulling him down. After calling for aid, he redoubled his effort and, before a boat could be launched, he reached the shore in safety and laid the unconscious boy on the ground.
Mr.McDonald deserves the highest praise for his noble deed. Were it not for him there would be a sad story to tell and it must be a pleasure for him to know, that at the risk of his own life, he was instrumental in saving that of a fellow creature. Such acts should not be passed over unnoticed and it is sincerely hoped that this one will meet with recognition and that Mr. McDonald will be suitably rewarded for his brave and noble deed.”
Bigger and Better
Work began on a more modern bridge around 1959. During the time that this bridge was being built the steel bridge remained in place, located immediately to the southeast side of this newer 1959 bridge. Even into the 1960s photographs show that the steel bridge remained in place, despite the installation of the newer bridge, and it is unclear when the steel bridge was removed entirely. The pilings and some of the wharfage from the steel bridge remained in place until 2017, and was often a popular spot for young people to jump and dive off of.
A newer, much larger bridge was installed throughout the fall of 2017, and now stands as the present day bridge. It is by far taller than any other bridge which has ever spanned the river, and provides a much greater clearance between the bridge deck and the river. Much controversy was raised at the time of this construction because it meant that the road across the river would be closed for several months, and people would be forced to detour around the river through Dingwells Mills. Complaints were made to government that the trip around the river was far too long, and that it was difficult for emergency vehicles to make the trip in a timely manner, as was it difficult for school buses to make timely runs when picking up young children. And while all of these concerns were legitimate, it was fascinating to see them raised some 200 years after the initial petition to government was made for the construction of Fortune Bridge, and it just goes to show that while times and technologies may change over the years, the most crucial needs of the community remain unwavering.
- Townshend, Bonnie. The Road to Fortune. 2012. Print
- The Guardian. 12 August 1913. Page 7. Print.
- The Guardian. 11 September 1913. Page 7. Print.