Steampunk Canada

Tie up Your Dirigible and Visit for a Spell


The Chignecto Ship Railway

Posted by PM on January 22, 2015 at 12:05 AM

The Chignecto Ship Railway

There are many conflicting ideas of what Steampunk is: aesthetic? counter-cultural? gonzo-historical? a marketing conspiracy of the goggle industry? Regardless of these divergences of opinion, I think most of us can agree that "steampunk" is not a bad label to apply when we're confronted with some big, crazy, steam-powered thing that seems totally improbable. And amongst the annals of Canadian technological debacles, there are few engineering marvels that are bigger, crazier, and more steam-powered than the failed Chignecto Ship Railway.

The Isthmus of Chignecto (click for a Google map of the area) is the thin, boggy neck of land that prevents Nova Scotia from being an island province. In its time, it has seen both settlement by the Acadians and their deportation (or "ethnic cleansing" to use our quaint modern term), influxes of Yorkshire and Loyalist immigration, battles between fortresses, grisly little massacres, and rebellions by Yankee sympathizers. Later, it became the route of the Intercolonial Railway linking Nova Scotia to the rest of Canada. Its greatest man-made sight is certainly the system of dykes that was created for keeping the extreme tides of the Bay of Fundy from inundating the marshes. Merely picturesque pastures and hay fields today, if there'd been an OPEC for hay in the 19th century, probably the area would have been a member, since it supplied mineral-rich hay for the horses of cities like Boston until the advent of the motor car. But the dykes date back to the 18th century, a bit beyond the age that inspired steampunk, so let us consider the other great marvel of the region, the CSR.

If you cast your mind back to school tales of intrepid aboriginal and Voyageur travellers navigating Canada's rivers like highways, and switching rivers by lugging their canoes overland in portages, the CSR will suddenly appear a more familiar concept: to get from one branch of the ocean to another, in spite of an annoying strip of province in the way, railway engineer Henry Ketchum conceived of a great, steam-powered portage to take sailing and steam ships overland from the Bay of Fundy to the Northumberland Strait, or vice versa. If there had only been some way to blast a route though Prince Edward Island as well, it would have been clear sailing as far as Newfoundland at least, but the technology of the age was not up to that Herculean task, so they had to settle for the ship railway as a first step in improving navigation.

This grand project was inspired by one salient fact: that for all the manifold virtues the province has offered over the centuries (pipers piping, fishers fishing, miners mining, privateers privateering, Bluenoses… er… bluenosing, Haligonians boozing all night at harbourside gastropubs, and so on), Nova Scotia nevertheless has a major flaw. That flaw is that if you’re trying to sail from Saint John to PEI, Newfoundland, Montreal, or Europe, Nova Scotia is in the way. And being a stubborn people heavily influenced by Scots, they refused to move. The only solution was to avoid them altogether somehow.

Therefore, in somewhat the same spirit that the Emperor Hadrian built his famous wall to keep Scots out after the Scots proved disinclined to be part of Roman multiculturalism, a plan was set afoot in the late 19th century to build a facility across the Chignecto Isthmus to prevent Nova Scotia’s existence from getting in the way of progress, progress being the ability to send New Brunswick’s products to the world – fish, wood, and apples – and bring back the supplies essential for civilized life, such as tea and china cups, without always running into Cape Breton or Sable Island, or the crew running aground for weeks in a Halifax tavern.

 Ketchum was an experienced railway builder, having not only received the first engineering diploma from the newly-formed University of New Brunswick (formerly King's College), but having also gained practical knowledge of building railways in Brazil and Canada. While working on a line for the European and North American Railway, he recognized the potential for a ship railway across the Chignecto isthmus.

It was a challenging idea. The plan called for ships to be raised from the sea in locks like dry docks, onto steel cradles hoisted by steam-powered hydraulics. The cradled ships would then ride, slung between two parallel railway lines and pulled by twin locomotive engines, to the other end of the isthmus where the process would be reversed and the ship returned to the sea.

(Railway carriage cross section from UNB archives)

From the first, Ketchum’s project was dogged by problems. The plans were all lost in Saint John's great fire of 1877, and in 1886 an essential contract was lost in a shipwreck, though later recovered by divers. Finally, in 1887, the docks at either end of the route began to be excavated with steam shovels, followed by laying the rail beds that would carry the ships and locomotives. (A couple of the characters from my novel Knights of the Sea caught a glimpse of the early construction from their train.)

Another disaster awaited the CSR, though. You might recall the infamous Barings Bank collapse of 1995; that was not the first catastrophe suffered by the bank. Barings financed the CSR, and came close to collapse in "The Panic of 1890", when the bank's investments in South America went pear-shaped. Result? Ketchum had to appeal to the Dominion government in Ottawa for funds to finish the almost-completed project. However, Parliament refused. A few months later, at the age of 57, Ketchum's heart gave out, and the project never recovered.

The remains of the ship railway were cannibalized, with the rails being scrapped for their steel, the stone dock hauled away piecemeal to build a terminal for the ferry to PEI, and other buildings carried off or left to decay. Today, the old rail beds are a hiking trail, and the silted-up western dock is in a pasture (which you can visit if you aren't worried about bulls or electric fences). One of the few complete remains is emblematic of the whole project: a stone arch at Tidnish Bridge that leads nowhere, and never carried a locomotive.

(Tidnish bridge - photo by Michael Copp)

Even had it been finished and used, the CSR would have grown obsolete eventually and been abandoned. One can imagine, though, it surviving to be the Maritimes' premiere tourist attraction, an historic railway running antique trains with a unique difference: who wouldn't pay to ride overland in a ship pulled by steam engines, while enjoying spectacular views of two provinces from the deck? Alas, that so much effort and gold went into it without anything but blueprints and scattered ruins resulting. And yet, there's a romance to ruins. For those in the 19th century, it was often the great works of Egypt, Greece, and Rome that inspired romantic imaginations. As their century matured, many turned their imaginations from the past to the scientific and technological marvels of their own time. How appropriate, then, that we -- their cultural descendents -- should feel the romantic magnetism of an industrial Ozymandias, whose ruins conjure up in the mind's eye Hephaestian feats of fire and steel. Even today, it would be astonishing to see a ship lifted from the sea and carried overland for kilometres as Ketchum envisioned, and nearly achieved.

Gazing across those wind-blasted marshes at what little remains of Ketchum's dream one is, like the Victorian traveller, reminded of the ancient fear of hubris, and the gods' revenges upon any mortals who aspire to divine power. One can almost hear the dry voice of Ketchum's thwarted wraith, rasping out his counsel to us upon the perpetual winds: Do not, as I did, aspire to greatness... not unless you have some good lobbyists, and a friend in cabinet...

(Ship railway ruins at Amherst dock, Missaguash River in background, Fort Beausejour on the ridge on the horizon. Photo by the author.)


The university of New Brunswick maintains an archive about the CSR.

For an interesting aerial photo of the ship railway ruins, taken 1931 by Richard Thorne McCully, see this archival picture. The dock, already silted up by the tides, is the thing at the bottom of the frame, slightly right of centre, that looks like a slice of bread. An engine house still stands beside it, and the path of the railway can be seen extending away to the horizon. To the left of the dock is the winding Missaguash River – the border between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Just across the river was once, in the 1600s, the home of Michel Leneuf de la Vallière de Beaubassin, Seigneur of Beaubassin (a nearby village), and governor of Acadia. A short way down the road from the dock is the site of the British Fort Lawrence, which opposed the French Fort Beausejour across the river in what is now New Brunswick.


-Paul Marlowe (Steampunk Canada member PM)

 Paul Marlowe’s steampunk tendencies began to manifest themselves a couple of years before the word was coined, when he got his first pocket watch. From there, things whirled out of control with sealing wax, fountain pens, curious pipes, and top hats, until at last he ended up fashioning whole steampunk people in fiction. Some of them can be found in his short story collection Ether Frolics, which was short-listed for the 16th annual Danuta Gleed Literary Award, recognizing the best début collection of short fiction by a Canadian author. He also wrote a couple of YA steampunk novels, Sporeville and Knights of the Sea. His website is at

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Reply Della
12:44 PM on November 28, 2016 
I'm looking to talk with someone who know who the artist is of the photo of the ship being pulled by the steam engines. Who can I talk to, in order to find this out? I can be reached at 902-667-7447 or from the email I supplied.
Reply PM
10:20 AM on November 29, 2016 
Hi Della,

You could try contacting the UNB Library archivists:
They might have a record of the artist who painted the picture.