The Isthmus of Chignecto, a seventeen mile wide portion of land connecting Nova Scotia to New Brunswick, is the site of one of the most ambitious engineering failures in North American history.

In 1875 a Fredericton engineer, Henry G.C. Ketchum, conceived the idea of transporting ships by rail over the Isthmus as opposed to floating them through a canal between the Northumberland Strait and the Bay of Fundy. The name of the project was the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway, locally known as the Ship's Railway.  In 1892 the railway was seventy five percent completed when a lack of funds, coupled with government opposition, brought all work on the project to a halt. Ketchum died four years later, in Amherst in 1896, his dream of the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway unrealized.

A high point in the project was the building of a new stone bridge, near the exisiting Tidnish River bridge, which was directed by engineers from Scotland. The keystone for the bridge's arch came ready-cut from Scotland. As told to the writer, by a man who witnessed it, so exact was the design of the bridge, and the workmanship in its construction, that when the keystone was dropped into place no further adjustment was necessary - it fit perfectly. The bridge had been designed to divert the river and allow the natural channel to fill in so it might become part of the railroad bed.

The culvert was finished, the filling in of the river channel was in progress. two-thirds of the fill had already been placed between banks of the river's old course, the site was swarming with Italian navies and men from Quebec with their horses and carts, when suddenly all - men, horses, and equipment - began to settle into the river. Heavy tides had undermined the earth fill. Instant pandemonium reigned - horses, carts, and men plunged into, and wallowed together, in the river accompanied by shrieking and cursing in several languages! Fortunately neither man nor horse was seriously injured. After the collapse of the fill the intent had been to re-fill the channel when suddenly all work on the project was stopped - no further work was ever done. 

Had the The Chignecto Marine Transport Railway been completed rails would have been laid the remaining few kilometers to the Tidnish dock. But the river gradually washed out the obstructing earth fill and slowly reverted to its normal channel, where it runs today. Today the big stone culvert stands stolidly in the marsh, a monument to futility and a favorite subject of artists and photographers.            

For more information on the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway visit The Old Ship Railway website.

Watercolour by Cathy Thurston

The Ship Marine Railway Bridge 

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