History

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The history of the West (Eliot) River watershed is rich with rural life in all its drama, drudgery, small comforts and joys. The Mi’kmaq knew the West River as ‘Jekaoketic’ which may be loosely translated as ‘bass place’. Presumably, this is in reference to the river being a good location for fishing striped bass, and may even suggest that this fish once spawned in the West River at the head-of-tide. This is no longer the case and today the entire maritime population of striped bass spawn in just one river system in New Brunswick.

In 1767, when the Island was divided into lots and awarded to British Loyalists, the area covered by the West River watershed was encompassed mostly within lot numbers 30 (now Bonshaw, Brookvale, Argyle Shore), 31 (now Emyvale, Kingston, Clyde River) and 65 (now New Dominion, St. Catherine’s, Afton, Nine Mile Creek, Cumberland, Fairview, Rocky Point).

Early settlers in the watershed farmed the fertile lands around the estuary and shore, using mussel mud harvested from the estuary in the winter to fertilize their fields of potatoes, turnips, carrots and other market crops. Ship building was a big industry, with shipyards at Bonshaw, Fairview and Shaw’s Wharf (St. Catherine’s). Mills were scattered all up and down the river: sawmills at Long Creek, New Dominion and Bonshaw, flour mills in Clyde River and Bonshaw, steam, grist and shingle mills in New Dominion and a lime kiln in St. Catherine’s. The remnants of these mills still affect how the river flows today, even though there are very few mill ponds left intact. Logging occurred in the upper watershed for ‘ton timber’ (large hardwoods), which was then floated down river to Charlottetown and shipped to England.

Life was hard, but the West River was also a sanctuary; its peace and beauty was appreciated not only by the residents but also by ‘city folk’. The West River and Bonshaw Hills were a popular day boating and picnicking destination for people from Charlottetown and there are a number of old postcards showing a flurry of parasols, long skirts and picnic blankets spread out on the grassy shores of the West Eliot River.

The joys and sorrows of those early days in the watershed are a real education and a reminder of what we have won and lost in the interim. The history of these places, and their people whose feet were very firmly planted on the ground, are encompassed in a number of great, highly entertaining books. Here is a list of a few of those:

BOOKS:

  • Bonshaw. A Stroll Through Its Past by William and Elizabeth Glen (available at www.islandlives.ca)
  • Journal of the Months at Strathaven. Observations, Thoughts and Sounds Experienced in Retirement Years at New Haven, Prince Edward Island by Rena Wood Johnstone (available at UPEI library)
  • The Banks of the Elliott by Arlene MacDougall and Violet MacEachern (available at UPEI library)
  • Tell Me the Tales by Walter Shaw (available at UPEI library)
  • The History of Argyle Shore, Prince Edward Island by the Argyle Shore Women’s Institute (available at www.islandlives.ca)
  • The History and Stories of Clyde River by Clyde River History Committee (www.clyderiverpei.com)

MAPS:

  • Topographical Map (circa 1939-1944)
    Here is a topographical map of the area from the 1939-1944 period, University of Toronto Map and Data Library. Click here to view.

STORIES AND POEMS:

Do you have a story about growing up in the watershed? Or perhaps a family story handed down from the times of early settlement? Please pass it on… contact us and we’ll post it here.

Here is a poem (taken from The Banks of the Elliott) that appeared in The Guardian newspaper around the time of the Second World War, when the people of the West River were transitioning from an old ferry service to Charlottetown and struggling with unpaved and apparently poorly maintained roads. It speaks to some of the hardships faced by residents at that time, with a good dose of old-fashioned rural caustic humour!

Neglected West River
Signed ‘Fair Play’

I am a true Canadian
And I am proud to be,
I live on P.E. Island
That Garden of the Sea

We grow the best potatoes,
Our oysters won a name,
Our silver foxes also
Have helped to make our fame.

Some districts they have railroads,
Paved roads and busses too;
But over in West River,
Conveniences are few.

We have an antique ferry,
To take us into town,
A road not fit to travel on,
A wharf that’s falling down.

And when the Harbour freezes
We travel on the ice,
To finish hauling produce;
It’s really not too nice.

Especially this winter
With slush nine inches deep,
How can we ship our turnips?
‘Till spring they’ll never keep.

Our Premier never thinks of us
Until Election Day,
But every time the tax comes due
Of course we have to pay.

We pay for paving highways,
For clearing off the snow.
We must break our roads without pay,
But why? I want to know.

Now all we want is Justice:
At least we’d like fair play.
When others drive on pavements,
Why should we drive on clay?

Now when the war is over
The tourist trade will soar,
And the shortest route to Borden
Is the road along the shore.

We want a bridge at Borden
To make our burdens light,
This lumbering mess at Rocky Point
To tourists is a sight.

It matters not what governments
The people may elect,
The district of West River
Is still left in neglect.

So why not get together,
The Grits and Tories too;
And demand that they give Justice
To all and not a few.

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