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New Brunswick's roads and bridges of the past


The trail system that once meandered through the territory predated many of today's roads in New Brunswick. This becomes clear upon looking at a map of the roads skirting the province's rivers and streams. The roads improved in response to needs and technology. Along with the use of automobiles and trucks starting early in the 20th century came a pressing need to build roads and bridges in the province.

The early roads

The outer regions of the province and the areas along its inland waters were the first to be inhabited and the first to open roads, which were often former trails and beaten tracks. Scheduled stagecoach services were in operation prior to 1850: from the north of the province to Nova Scotia, going through Bathurst and Miramichi, in the south from Sackville to Saint John and St. Andrews, then from Saint John to Fredericton. That route coincides with today's highways more or less.

A modern road system was established in New Brunswick in the 1920s with the advent of the automobile, which took to the roads in summer only. In winter, everyone went back to the horse-drawn sled, the only vehicle capable of negotiating snowbanks. The road system was a sign of progress for the province. The minister of public works, at the time, Pierre Veniot, was instrumental in road development and was nicknamed P.J. Bonnes Routes (good roads) Veniot. When he became premier in 1924, his government enacted a law calling for roads throughout the province, including the frontier areas. Five years later, 20,000 people had been involved in building roads.

There were three main types of roads in the early 20th century:

  1. King's highways, measuring 3.66 metres wide with 60-centimetre shoulders;
  2. 2.5-metre roads;
  3. roads 1.2 metres wide reserved for pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles.
Motorists first drove on the left side of the road, then switched to the right in the 1920s, imitating the practice in the United States. People who were accustomed to the British practice had trouble adjusting. Adaptability was also needed for negotiating curves in the road since the early autos could not take 90 degree turns as easily as horse-drawn carriages could.

Starting at the turn of the 20th century, buses were used for public transportation and trucks for hauling goods. The use of stagecoaches declined, but they had served their time on the province's very first roads.

Stagecoach travel

In the 1830s, the stagecoach was already part of New Brunswick's roadscape, including the Westmorland highway. The comfortless four-horse vehicle of the St. John Stage Coach Company made a scheduled weekly run from Saint John to Amherst in two days. It left on Tuesday and returned on Friday, laying over for the night in Petitcodiac, the halfway point, and stopping at the crossroads of Norton, Sussex, and Memramcook. Another stagecoach departed Saint John for Fredericton on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and travelled from Fredericton to Saint John on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

At the relays, travellers were provided with a meal, a room for the night, a pipe smoke, and a glass of rum. The stagecoach horses rested up for the next leg of the journey. Other relay services included a court of law, a post office, religious services, and a trading post. The relays became hotels as time went by. The stagecoach was soon replaced by the train and later the bus, both of them faster and more comfortable conveyances.

The early road builders

Few roads were fit for travel in the early 1880s despite the money spent on them. Settlers and at times militiamen had to work building roads under a surveyor's supervision. Roads were usually laid through statute labour, meaning that a settler had to put in a number of unpaid work days. Those days were deducted from the amount of taxes he had to pay.

Given New Brunswick's small population, statute labour could not supply the huge amount of labour that road construction required. There was insufficient know-how and no provincial planning in those days. Furthermore, the settlers were busy clearing their land and lacked the time for such labour. The ideal time for them to work on the roads was between seeding and harvesting hay on the farm.

Road building and maintenance

Road construction in the early 19th century consisted first in felling trees and digging up the stumps and roots. Then, the surface was levelled before adding gravel to replace the black soil or mud that had been removed. Drainage techniques were not in common use, and harsh weather conditions soon damaged the roads. Each settler was responsible for maintaining a given section of road with the means at hand, often an ox rather than a horse.

More time passed before the arrival of the "giant road making machine" drawn by four or five horses. That machine was supplied by the provincial government.

New Brunswick's bridges

In days of old, it was common to cross water via a ford or a tree laid across the water. Floating platforms were an efficient means of ferrying horse-drawn carriages across. The last such ferry was decommissioned at Tracadie in 1877. Bridge building was already well under way by then.

Private firms began building toll bridges in the 1830s, e.g. on the St. Croix and Kennebecasis rivers and on the river at Saint John and Fredericton in 1868. The last toll bridge was decommissioned in 1904. The government built numerous bridges and then took over all bridges in the province. In the mid-19th century, New Brunswick reportedly had 415 large bridges and 10 ferries.

Suspension bridges were in fashion for a while, examples being the one built across Saint John's Reversing Falls in 1853 and the one built at Grand Falls in 1861. They were wooden structures supported by cables. The toll was four cents for a person and 13 cents for a horse and carriage.

Bridge building materials

The spruce and eastern hemlock used most often for building the early bridges were later replaced by cedar and pine. About 1885, steel was recommended as a building material despite its high cost, and indeed it proved more economical than wood for long spans. Starting then, a hundred steel bridges were built in the province, at Bathurst, Newcastle, Moncton, Saint John, and St. Stephen, for instance. The first ones spanned the Dennis River in Charlotte County and the Missisiquash River at the Nova Scotia border.

Construction challenges

After stagecoaches had long gone through the water to get from one side of the river to the other, a wooden bridge was built over the Petitcodiac River in Salisbury. Bridge building was a tremendous challenge. In addition to being sturdy enough to support the traffic, the bridges had to be high enough to withstand possible flooding and avoid ice damage. They also had to withstand heavy snowfall and torrential rains. The Salisbury bridge was rebuilt four times before a steel bridge was constructed in 1892.

The automobile created the need for structural reinforcement of the bridges. Bridge safety was boosted by the use of stone, wooden, and steel structures of varied shapes patterned on American models and by foundations dug in the riverbeds. A pedestrian walkway was sometimes provided. Automobiles and horse-drawn carriages used the bridges at the same time. Warnings at the bridge entrances informed users to cross at walking speed, subject to a $20 fine. That law was intended to prevent the bridges from collapsing from resonance vibration.

Covered bridges

Numerous covered bridges were built in New Brunswick and are now part of our proud provincial heritage. They were wooden bridges for the most part. The most famous of all is unquestionably the Hartland Covered Bridge, built in 1901 across the Saint John River. At 391 metres, it is the world's longest covered bridge. Set solidly on cement pillars, it defies the ice masses that come with spring. The lane for automobiles has a series of small windows on one side for ventilation purposes and a pedestrian walkway on the other.

Covered bridges are better protection against bad weather and thus extend the lifespan of the structures. On the other hand, they are highly susceptible to fire.


As concerns road building, the advent of the automobile and truck marked the close of one era and the beginning of another, against a backdrop of evolving technology; however, the early trails opened for travel by foot or horse long influenced development of the roadway system, both old and new.


BOURQUE, Gilles. " La construction routière au New Brunswick ", SHA, vol. 21, no 6, January-March 1990, p. 22-36.

DAIGLE, Euclide. Une paroisse centenaire se raconte, 1883-1983, Comité historique du centenaire de Saint-Paul, 1983.

FORBES, E.R. and D.A. MUISE (Eds.). The Atlantic Provinces in Confederation, Toronto, Buffalo, London, Fredericton, University of Toronto Press/Acadiensis Press, 1997.

SOUCOUP, Dan. Looking Back, Halifax, Maritime Lives, 2002.