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Hillsborough River: Timeless Timber

The original forest of Prince Edward Island

More on the Hillsborough River:

Hillsborough River:
Splendid isolation

From Away:
Charlottetown relies on world tourism

Country Cradle:
Birthplace of Canadian Confederation

Timeless Timber:
The original forest of Prince Edward Island

Tranquility Base:
How Islanders see themselves

To its first European settlers, Prince Edward Island was a land of interminable virgin forest with a fringe of beaches and salt marshes.

It was a mature forest with immense trees over 200 years old. By the time Europeans arrived, this forest was decreasing only slightly due to disease, advanced age, and wind damage.

Today, a small vestige of Prince Edward Island's original forest remains at Royalty Oaks, on the outskirts of Charlottetown on the Hillsborough River.

During the 17th century, the Mi'kmaq living near the Hillsborough River valley gathered dead wood to heat their wigwam homes. They collected white spruce rootlets for sewing and stitching, notched sugar maples for sap collection, and used cedar and ash to manufacture weapons and tools. The Mi'kmaq also used medicinal herbs and consumed forest foods. No matter how diverse was their use of trees, the Native impact on the forest was slight since they were hunters and gatherers who did not use metal tools.

The Hillsborough River is Prince Edward Island's only waterway big enough for large ships. This feature has made the Hillsborough River an important place for shipping timber to Great Britain. Shipwrights who immigrated from Britain to Prince Edward Island made wooden sailing ships on the riverbanks.

The shipbuilding industry depended on the great forests that once covered Prince Edward Island. At the industry's peak in the 1860s, island shipyards, most of them along the Hillsborough, were producing 90 wooden sailing ships a year.

Historians still argue over the causes of the destruction of the island forests. Some believe the shipbuilders were most responsible. Others consider the cutting of trees for construction lumber was more devastating than shipbuilding. These historians believe that only modest amounts of wood were used to make the ships. Most wood was shipped away for the construction of buildings. On their maiden voyages, the new ships sailed away with their cargo holds packed with freshly-sawn lumber.

The sudden technological change from sail to steam killed Prince Edward Island's shipbuilding industry. This tiny isle did not have the resources or financial capital to make ships of iron and steel. The use of wood for fuel was also important. Wood was used to heat homes, cook meals, boil maple sap to sugar, make charcoal, and can lobster.

Once stripped of trees, the land was converted to agriculture. By the start of the 20th century, the great island forests were gone. Gradually, as the less fertile land was retired from farming, tree growth returned. Today, nearly half the island is forested with young, fast-growing trees that will likely be able to sustain reasonable harvests.

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