Description of Historic Place
Tidnish Dock is located at Tidnish Dock Provincial Park, just north of Route 366 at Tidnish Cross Roads, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia. Remnants of Tidnish Dock, built between 1888 and 1891, on the Northumberland Strait, remain in the park. The remnants and property are included in the provincial designation as the remaining physical evidence of the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway and in conjunction with the related sites of the Fort Lawrence Terminus and the Tidnish Bridge Site. The site is also recognized by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering for its contribution to the history of the engineering discipline in Canada.
Tidnish Dock is valued as evidence of one of Nova Scotia's most ambitious engineering projects. The Chignecto Marine Transport Railway was the dream of H.C.G. Ketchum, the project's principle designer and supporter. Born in New Brunswick in 1839, Ketchum was a proven and able engineer well-known for his work. It was Ketchum's belief that "ship-railways" were the way of the future and the only truly reasonable solution to the problems of nineteenth-century transportation. As a result of his proposals, the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway Company was incorporated in 1882. However, it wasn't until 1888, when the company had found sufficient financial backing that the railroad construction began.
Ketchum's project was, simply put, designed to lift ships out of the water, place them on a specially designed railroad cradle and, by means of two huge locomotives, pull them across the Isthmus of Chignecto, returning them to the water on the opposite shore; thereby avoiding the extra cost and time involved in sailing around the mainland of Nova Scotia or in digging a canal through the isthmus.
The project called for a basin, approximately 150 meters wide and twelve meters deep to be excavated at the Fort Lawrence Terminus. It would be faced with heavy masonry and at one end a gate, approximately eighteen meters wide and ten meters high would open to admit shipping at high water. The success of the operation at this terminus depended on the great tides on the Bay of Fundy. At the Tidnish Shore, owing to the smaller tide factor, the project called for approximately a nine hundred and fifteen meter channel.
A vessel to be transported would be brought into the dock and floated over a large gridiron which, with the cradle on it, would be immersed at the bottom of the dock. The cradle was approximately seventy meters long, twelve meters wide and was carried on one hundred and ninety-two wheels. When the vessel was properly secured to the cradle, vessel and cradle would be lifted by hydraulic presses to the level of the railway where the gridiron would be securely locked. The cradle was then to be hauled off, the gridiron and locomotive power would be attached for the passage over land.
The construction of the railway was beset with engineering difficulties and challenges from the outset. The bogs along the line had to be dug out and refilled, the rails used were the heaviest ever used in a railway up to that time and the hydraulic lifts which were used at each terminus presented many new problems. As well, recurrent delays attributable to financier's wariness, inadequate engineering estimates and the constant political pressure brought to bear by shipping companies opposed to the ship-railway, combined to bring construction to an end in 1891.
When the work was stopped approximately three quarters of the railway had been completed. The basin at Fort Lawrence had been completed, approximately twenty kilometers of track had been laid and the specially designed cradles and locomotives were almost ready for delivery. It had been estimated that in July of 1891, the ship-railway was only one summer's work and $1,500,000 away from completion.
The Chignecto Marine Transport Railway was undoubtedly the most ambitious engineering project in Nova Scotia's history. While there is still a considerable amount of material remaining at the site of the railway, much of the stone work and rail has been removed. The property at Fort Lawrence Terminus and most of the track bed stretching approximately twenty-three kilometers across the isthmus is privately owned. The remaining property, at Tidnish, has been expropriated by the Department of Natural Resources for use as a provincial picnic park.
Remnants of Tidnish Dock can still be seen at low tide.
Source: Provincial Heritage Program property file, no. 36, 1747 Summer Street, Halifax, NS.
Character-defining elements of Tidnish Dock include:
- remnants of the dock including rock structures from the northern terminal of the ship railway (seen at low tide);
- remnants of the dock including wooden pilings and the slipway built to bring ships out of the water on the railcar cradle (seen at low tide);
- scenic view of the Northumberland Strait.