New Brunswick·Roadside History

'What happened?' Long forgotten Dorchester wharf was once heart of shire town

On the shore of the Memramcook River, all that remains of the Dorchester wharf are stacks of logs and stones slowly being eroded by the wind and waves.

Wood and stone wharf was a vital hub for people who travelled by ferry to Hopewell Cape and beyond

remains of old wood crib work wharf
The Dorchester wharf was a hub of transportation in the 1800s before the railway was built, but the crib wharf is now a very quiet, isolated spot in southeastern New Brunswick. (Khalil Akhtar/CBC)

On the shore of the Memramcook River, all that remains of the Dorchester wharf are stacks of logs and stones slowly being eroded by wind and waves.

"For generations and generations and generations this quiet little windy spot here on the shore of the Memramcook River, just off from Dorchester, was one of the most important centres in town," said James Upham, a Moncton historian and educator.

"There was a hotel here, there were houses. From here it's just a hop, skip and a jump to one of the most important communities in the entire vicinity, which for a very long time is the shire town of Dorchester."

According to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Dorchester became the shire town of Westmorland County, and an important seat of government and justice, in 1801.

archival photo in black and white of community with many wooden buildings and people on the dirt road in 1863
Dorchester was the shire town of Westmorland County in the 1800s and a busy hub. (P46\104) (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick/P46\104)

In the 1800s, when the country of Canada was being built, there were no railways or buses, Upham explained, so this wharf was the heart of a bustling community.

"Roads are horrible," he said. "In the 1850s, '60s and '70s and prior to that — if you were getting anywhere around here, you were going by boat."

He described the large wharf in Dorchester as "an acme of civilization" that likely holds many secrets about life in the 19th century.

black and white photo showing ferry with three passengers, including two women wearing hats
This photo labelled 'Ferry at Dorchester,' is from the photo album of Grace Cole Marney and was provided to the Historic Dorchester NB Facebook group by Florence and Creighton Marney. (Historic Dorchester NB/Facebook)

Known as a crib wharf, it was built from a wooden frame, or crib, that was filled with stone and other material to secure it.

"Every stone had to be gathered basically by hand," Upham said. "Backhoes don't exist. This entire thing is built load by load of stone and rubble and also garbage, which is one of the neat things about it. We're standing on a huge archaeological site too, because people chucked their stuff into these things."

A testament to communities that have disappeared

Upham is fascinated by the Dorchester wharf and said you can see similar structures up and down the Bay of Fundy and along rivers.

"They're fascinating in and of themselves because they are these still-remaining testaments, in many cases, to communities that no longer exist," he said.

"Just across from here we have Hopewell Cape. There's a gigantic similar wharf at Hopewell Cape because Hopewell Cape was the shire town of Albert County and Dorchester was the shire town of Westmorland County."

Upham explains there was a regular ferry service between the two communities. He loves to think about the people who would have passed through what is now a very quiet spot.

He imagines Joseph Salter, Moncton's first mayor, boarding the ferry when the mine he managed in Albert County had failed and he was on the way to Waverly, Nova Scotia, to take over a gold mine.

black and white photo of man with white beard and bow tie
Historian James Upham imagines politicians of the day, including Moncton's first mayor, Joseph Salter, taking the ferry between the Dorchester wharf and Hopewell Cape in the 1800s before the railroad was even built. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick/P61\292)

"That's what's fascinating about a spot like this — most of the major politicians, lawyers, judges, doctors, their entourages, their families, these people all used this exact spot on a very regular basis to get around for the same reason that we use highways."

Upham likes to think of the wharf as being "like an airport."

"Everyone travelling that way waits at the same spot, whether they want to or not. The high and mighty wait and get rained on just like everyone else — plus you can laugh when they get seasick."

Upham said even the first prisoners at Dorchester Penitentiary got off the boat at the wharf when they were brought over from a jail in Saint John.

archival photo of large old stone building that is a penitentiary
The first prisoners at the Dorchester Penitentiary, seen here in 1899, came to the community by boat from Saint John. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick/P13\51)

"For a very substantial period of time this was the way that you got from Dorchester to anywhere else," he said. "Even in the middle of February when it was cold and there's cakes of ice floating down this river, that was the normal way you got from place to place."

What was a vital hub now 'moulders'

Standing at the wharf today, Upham said, you can almost see the railway. Even though the advent of the train overtook boat travel, Upham pointed out that you can still tell when buildings were built based on their orientation.

"You can tell the old homes around here because they face bodies of water. The water was the highway, same as houses now tend to face the nearest road. You can tell around here because the house itself will be oriented toward the body of water, not the street."

a train engine moving through a green pasture
When trains arrived, rail quickly became the preferred way to travel and wharfs like Dorchester wharf were no longer a transportation hub. In this photo, a Canadian National train passes through Dorchester in 1957. (Don Ball Jr./Classic Railway Photography/Facebook)

Upham also has personal connections to Dorchester and the Dorchester wharf. He says his great, great, great grandfather, R.A. Chapman, used to commute from Dorchester wharf to Hopewell Cape, where he had a shipyard.

"This is where he waited for his boat. He could stand here and watch and see if anything was going on at the shipyard," he said, laughing. "He could holler and say, 'Hey Dave, what are you doing?'"

He also remembers visiting the community when he was very young with his grandparents. His grandmother grew up in Dorchester because his great grandfather was a guard at the penitentiary.

"It was quite a spot, once." 

If a New Brunswick politician from 1865 could be brought back to the Dorchester wharf "through a portal in space and time," Upham imagines they would be flabbergasted that what was once a busy community is now an isolated and deserted spot.

"They'd say, 'What happened?'"

"Thousands of people have been through this exact spot over a very long period of time and now it just sits here and moulders." 

James Upham is our roadside history columnist.


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:

with files from Khalil Akhtar

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