New Brunswick·Roadside History

'Engineering masterpiece' to shuttle ships between N.B. and N.S. lost to time

James Upham understands that the words 'ship' and 'railway' don't sound like they go together, but standing on an old stone bridge near Amherst, N.S., he says it's clear that in the 1880's many thought otherwise.

James Upham shares the story behind an old stone bridge built as part of the Chignecto Ship Railway

close up photo of man with glasses
Historian and educator James Upham says the site of an old stone bridge that was part of the Chignecto Ship Railway is evidence of some of the 'amazing things' our ancestors tried to accomplish, and should be remembered. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

James Upham understands that the words ship and railway don't sound like they go together, but standing on an old stone bridge near Amherst, N.S., he says it's clear that in the 1880s many thought otherwise.

"I'd happily argue this is one of the most interesting spots in eastern Canada," the Moncton historian and educator said. "This is one of the most interesting engineering projects that has taken place in this vicinity in modern history. And for some reason people just drive right past."

The Chignecto Ship Railway was a plan to transport ships by rail from the Northumberland Strait across the Isthmus of Chignecto, which connects Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to the Bay of Fundy. Construction began in October 1888, according to the UNB Archives.

Developed by Henry Ketchum, the idea was to lift wooden ships out of the water and place them on rail cars using what's been described as a hoist and lock system. This would prevent the need for vessels to sail around Nova Scotia — saving hours of travel time and potentially saving lives. 

The Chignecto Ship Railway would have lifted fully rigged sailing ships from Baie Verte, which is part of the Northumberland Strait, onto rail cars and then lowered the ships into the Bay of Fundy. (Canadian Society of Civil Engineers/Canadian Society for Civil Engineering)

"Nova Scotia is a lovely place, but it's also mostly made out of rock. And so if I've got a sailing vessel and I'm trying to get around Nova Scotia, there's a pretty good chance I'm going to bonk into Nova Scotia and potentially die," he said, pointing to Sable Island, which is the site of many shipwrecks.

"We have an engineering masterpiece here that flabbergasted people around the planet. And then we just forgot about it."

'It is gigantic'

Upham says more than 125 years later there is still a lot of evidence of the attempt to build the ship railway, including a stone bridge in the northern Nova Scotia community of Tidnish Bridge.

"It is gigantic," Upham said of the bridge. "The stones are enormous. The stones themselves were quarried in England and then shipped over here for construction."

The stone bridge in Tidnish Bridge, N.S., is now part of a larger parcel of land owned by the Nova Scotia government and preserved as a hiking trail and historic site. (Khalil Akhtar/CBC)

To him it is a work of art, and a statement by the Victorian-era people who built it.

"They looked at these things as almost statements to the future to say, 'Look how we built, look what we intended, look what we were doing,'" Upham said. 

The Chignecto Ship Railway was never finished because the project ran out of money, which "ruined Henry Ketchum," who had successfully built railways around the world.

"While they were building, it cost more money than anticipated and it took longer … this was basically the end of his career."

According to the UNB Archives site, by the time the project went bust, 75 per cent of the work was completed, "including the docks at Fort Lawrence and Tidnish Bridge, 16 of the 17 miles of rail-bed, and 13 miles of track."

Ketchum died in Amherst in 1896 and "was buried at Tidnish within view of the ship railway terminus," according to the UNB site.

The large stones used in the construction of the stone bridge were quarried in England and shipped to Nova Scotia, says Upham. (University of New Brunswick Archives/Canadian Society for Civil Engineering)

Upham believes the Chignecto Ship Railway was one of the most exciting projects happening in all of Canada at the time. It pitted Canada against the United States and other countries trying to build similar projects during an era of hyper-industrialism and hyper-nationalism.

"We were building a thing here that the world was paying attention to," he said. "They were trying to build a similar railway where they've now built the Panama Canal."

History remembers successes, not failures

When asked why the Chignecto Ship Railway has been mostly forgotten, and why a museum was never set up around it, Upham suggests that failures don't get recorded in the same way as successes.

"There is national identity wrapped up in this," he explained. "This place fascinates the heck out of me — and I think it is very interesting the stories that get passed on [and] the stories that don't."

No ship ever crossed the Chignecto Ship Railway. The engineering feat was never completed because Henry Ketchum ran out of money. (www.novascotia.ca)

He believes the old bridge and what remains of the railway is a testament to a time when people tried to tackle problems head on. And just because this idea didn't work, it doesn't mean it isn't worthy of recognition.

"This is a moment when people around here said, 'Sure, let's give that a shot.' And they really, really tried and very, very, very nearly succeeded."

While a ship never crossed the bridge by rail, the engine houses built at either end of the rail line to house the pumps that would have lifted the ships did get a second life.

"The stones from those engine houses were then carted out to Cape Tormentine where they became the breakwater for the ferry terminal. So if you ever took the ferry to P.E.I., you were actually sheltered by the stones from this railway."

The Chignecto Ship Railway lands were purchased by the government of Nova Scotia in 2012 to preserve the area as a hiking trail and historic site.

The property is 27 kilometres long and, according to the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, includes old granite locks on the Bay of Fundy end which were part of the engineering system that would have lifted and lowered ships.

"You can just wander into the woods basically anywhere you want and find something shocking, fascinating and amazing that leads you to stories that lead you to stories that lead you to stories," Upham said.

"A calm, beautiful, relaxing area that also happens to have connections to global stories that would flabbergast anyone."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for more than 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

with files from Khalil Akhtar

now