Hillsborough River: Timeless Timber
The original forest of Prince Edward Island
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
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.
Hillsborough River (Adobe PDF document)
of Canada (All pages in a zipped file)