First Level Assessment- Land use History of the main stem of the Petitcodiac River

Agricultural Practices

As noted in the timber section, before crops could be planted, settlers were faced with cutting and clearing the forest. Stumps were often left a few years to rot, and crops were sown amongst them (DeMerchant, 1983). In Perley’s (1857) Handbook of Information for Emigrants to New Brunswick, he suggests that “No emigrant should undertake to clear land and make a farm, unless he has the means of supporting his family for 12 months.” However, it was not just a matter of the financial resources of individuals. Since in the early 1800’s the province as a whole was not self-sufficient agriculturally, it is unlikely the communities along the main stem were either. Given the initial logistical challenges of transporting food to remote homesteads, it is doubtful that importation of food was as practical as in urban centres. More likely for the early English settlers, subsistence agriculture was supplemented with food available from the forest and river. Even as late as 1876 fishing regulators noted that farmers devoted a significant portion of their time to fishing salmon, with most of the entire catch being used for home consumption (Commissioner of Fisheries 1877). In 1783 while Robert Colpitts first crop at his farm near Salisbury was ripening, his family’s main source of food was salmon (Moncton Daily Times, Thursday August 26th, 1920). Consequently, as early as 1852, concerns were being expressed about noticeable declines in the once abundant salmon population on the Petitcodiac (Elson 1962). At first this was presumed to be a consequence of overfishing, though by the 1870s it was recognized to be a result of issues with fish passage at dams on the Pollett, which accounts for the lion’s share of the salmon spawning habitat on the Petitcodiac (Pettigrew 1977).

Baillie (1832) indicated that a “tolerably good” road went up the Coverdale (Little) River. However, his idea of that likely differed from modern sensibilities as he went on to qualify the statement by noting that “generally speaking it is not fit for carriages”, suggesting that foot, horse, and perhaps limited cart traffic may have been more the norm on it. Along the main stem of the Petitcodiac however, getting around was easier. The mail road that David Blakeney petitioned for in 1786 had been built by the 1830s – graveled and smooth enough to run a stagecoach at a full trot when the weather was fine (Goodrich 2010). Known as the Westmorland Great Road (Route 106 today), it connected Saint John and “The Bend” (Moncton) via something resembling the Anagance valley portage route and had been already surveyed and well-traveled on foot and by horseback as early as the 1790s. By 1836 the Saint John Stagecoach Company began operating a weekly service between Saint John and Amherst that could make the trip in two days, staying overnight in Petitcodiac (Goodrich 2010), speed that was testament to the relative quality of the road for the time. The first bridge over the Petitcodiac was built in 1839, where the current bridge in the Village is located (Village of Petitcodiac 2019).

By 1850 over 25% of the land in coastal Parishes such as Hopewell, Dorchester, and Westmoreland had been cleared for agriculture, and Sackville Parish had 16,000 of its 100,000 acres fit for cultivation (Wynn 1981b). Only in Elgin and Salisbury Parish did the population density remain less than 5 people per square mile. Salisbury Parish includes all of the main stem and most of the watershed draining immediately into it between the Village of Petitcodiac and Salisbury, with the southerly portions not part of it, belonging to Elgin Parish. Monro (1855) praised the quality of both the land immediately along the Petitcodiac, as well as that further upstream in the North River watershed, but not the upland plateau between them stating, “With the exception of the intervale along the valley of the Petitcodiac the land in the front (southeast) of this parish is generally of an inferior quality; that in its northwest portion (along the North River immediately above the Village of Petitcodiac) is much better but additional roads are required to render it available for settlement. In consequence of there being so much bad land along the line of railway and the mail road, agricultural operations in this parish are much retarded.” Basically, much of the early transport infrastructure had been built with a focus on reaching points beyond the watershed, rather than providing access within it, such that where access was good, farming wasn’t, while perversely there was insufficient access to places where farming was good (such as on North River).

Intervale is a term local to the region referring to fertile bottomlands, and was felt so apt, that one community a short distance above the Village of Petitcodiac on the North River adopted Intervale as its name. Traveling along the mail road from the “Bend” (Moncton) to Saint John, Johnston (1851) described what he saw around the Village of Petitcodiac, “We found some good farms along this part of the River and good land derived from the mixed calcareous and sandstone debris The limestone was hard, destitute of apparent fossils, and as subsequent analyses showed very pure and admirably fitted for agricultural purposes. It had been quarried for building but the application of lime to the land was in this district scarcely known.”

Despite much of the line being routed through agriculturally poor terrain, it is reasonable to conclude that the arrival of the European and North American Railway (E&NA) in 1860 reduced logistical constraints on bringing in supplies and moving surpluses out to trade. Unlike the forest products (which, given the abundance of forests locally, would likely have been a one-way flow out to market), at least initially, a portion of the total agricultural freight carried may have been inbound for local consumption rather than an outbound surplus being sold elsewhere. That said the E&NA struggled financially and eventually in 1872 was merged into the Intercolonial Railway (Canadian Rail 2001), becoming essentially a branch line connecting Saint John (via Moncton) to the main line from Halifax to Montreal. The Intercolonial Railway (1874) rail schedule indicates that at this point there were three trains a day, and one could leave Saint John at 8:00 am and be in Amherst 6 ½ hours later, a dramatic improvement in mobility of people and freight compared to the 2 days required for such a trip by coach in 1836.

The General Map of the Intercolonial Railway (Fleming 1876) lists stops within the Petitcodiac watershed prior to reaching Moncton as Anagance, Petitcodiac, Pollett River, and Salisbury. The stop at “Pollett River” was also referred to in 1876 to North River Platform, which highlights how this stop served communities in the lower portions of the Pollett River near the main stem as much as it did those across the plateau in the North River. The upper portions of the Pollett after all were being served more directly at that time with the opening of the Elgin, Petitcodiac, & Havelock Railway (Chignecto Post September 14th, 1876). After North River Platform changed its name to River Glade in 1903 (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick 2023) this change was reflected on subsequent railway maps, with the stop at Pollett River renamed River Glade (Intercolonial Railway 1906).
Dawson (2005) shows that by 1878 the road network along the main stem of the Petitcodiac had improved compared to the 1830s, branching out from the Westmoreland Great Road to provide access to much of the valley. Despite that, the limited scope of the 1878 road network along the main stem of the Petitcodiac compared to today’s roads suggests that though progress had been made in addressing constraints due to road access indicated by Monro (1855), development, and by extension agriculture, had progressed significantly, but was still less extensive than roads in the area are today. Interestingly, a similar comparison between the Little River in 1878 and today’s network shows almost no change in the extent of road coverage during the same period; while on the Pollett, the number of roads in the upper reaches of that river was actually greater in 1878 than it is today. So, while the main stem has continued to develop, the Little has not (comparatively speaking), and settlement on the Pollett actually appears to have contracted somewhat relative to 1878. None-the-less, in 1893 the lack of good roads serving the main stem was still described as one of the greatest constraints on agriculture in the area (The Daily Times, Saturday April 23rd, 1893).

In addition to being much more accessible than much of either the Little or the Pollett, the milder climate (due to the lower elevation), and soils in places (i.e. the intervale floodplain) along the main stem are better suited to agriculture than is the case in much of those two tributary watersheds. These facts may have made farms in Salisbury Parish along the main stem more resistant to economic downturns following the First World War that caused many people in Elgin Parish to leave the area during that time to search for more arable land out west (Department of Natural Resources 2007; Degraaf et al. 2007). For that matter, those from Elgin Parish not wishing to move so far away, may have simply added instead to population growth in Salisbury Parish along the North River and the main stem of the Petitcodiac. Crops reported being raised in the area by 1890 included: hay; grains (wheat, buckwheat, oats, and barley); vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and turnips); and fruits (apples, and plums) (New Brunswick House of Assembly 1890). Livestock included: cattle (Ayrshires, Jerseys, and short horns); sheep (Shropshire Downs); and pigs (Yorkshires and Berkshires). Dairy products were among those perishable products whose production and transport to market was made possible by the expanding road network and rail service. By 1891 a cheese factory was established just outside the watershed nearby at Corn Hill (New Brunswick Department of Agriculture 1892). Shortly thereafter, local farmers were supplying it with raw products (Burrows 1984).