New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Henry Ketchum and the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway

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Henry Ketchum and the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway


Henry George Clopper Ketchum

From U.N.B. Archives and Special Collections

Henry George Clopper Ketchum was born in Fredericton in 1839, on the eve of the most active time in the history of the world as far as advancements in engineering technologies were concerned. The ‘great blessing of steam’ was upon us. Structural design was to be transformed from a matter of guesswork to one of science. The world would shrink with the introduction of the telegraph, and change was everywhere. We do not know whether Ketchum recognized the extent of the coming changes, but he certainly rode the wave.

King’s College (the University of New Brunswick) did not award its first diploma in Civil Engineering until 1862, but lectures were being given before that, and Ketchum started attending these in 1854 at the age of 14 or 15. Some people say that the program required practical experience in industry and, between 1856 and 1860, we find Ketchum working as a telegrapher, and then as a surveyor and finally as an assistant construction engineer on the European and North American Railway between Saint John and Shediac. Then, in 1860, he was off to Brazil working as an agent and district engineer for James Fox & Sons in railroad construction. The Brazil construction included a 12-span bridge with 180 foot long iron columns known as the Megy Viaduct, and his work was well enough done to earn him a £500 bonus, still aged only about 21 years. Finally, at the age of about 23, he received the first diploma ever awarded in Civil Engineering by King’s College.

Ketchum then went to London, where he met prominent British engineers, and returned to Canada in 1965. He worked as a Resident Engineer for a contractor building railway from Moncton to Truro, before becoming Chief Engineer for the New Brunswick Railway. He was elected an Associate of the prestigious British Institute of Civil Engineers in 1866, and went into private practice in Fredericton in 1875. He became a full member of the ICE in 1878.

Ketchum wrote several letters to newspapers in 1875, promoting the idea of a ‘ship railway’ across the Isthmus of Chignecto between Fort Lawrence on the Bay of Fundy and Tidnish Cross Roads on the Northumberland Strait. His drawings and designs were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1877 in Saint John, but these were replaced.

A ship railway would carry ships across the Isthmus of Chignecto without building a canal, which had already been determined to be too expensive. A masonry-lined basin would be built at each terminus, with gates. The high tides on the Bay of Fundy side required that that basin be especially large, while the lower tides on the Tidnish side would permit a long approach channel and a somewhat smaller basin. A ship would sail into one of the basins and be lowered onto a steel cradle which, in turn, was supported on a steel grid. The cradle and ship would then be raised to the level of the track using 20 hydraulic jacks. The ship and cradle would be hauled on two parallel tracks by two heavy and powerful locomotives to cross the isthmus, a distance of 17 miles in 2½ hours.

Some statistics: Ships of up to 2,000 tons could be accommodated. The basin on the Bay of Fundy side would be about 490 feet long and 40 feet deep. The approach channel on the Tidnish side would be almost 3,000 feet long. The cradle was over 200 feet long and 40 feet wide, supported on 192 wheels. The two tracks, each with a locomotive, were 18 feet on center.


The Amherst Lifting Dock

From U.N.B. Archives and Special Collections

There was an intention to build the ship railway. It was not just a dream or a proposal, and the route of the railway was surveyed at Ketchum’s expense in 1881. The Chignecto Marine Transport Railway Company was incorporated in 1882, with as Ketchum Managing Director, other Directors being in England. Land for the project was donated by the County of Cumberland, Nova Scotia, in 1883, and Parliament agreed in 1885 to a medium to long-term subsidy provided the project was in operation within a specified period.

Construction began on the docks in 1887, before the financing was complete, and continued in earnest beginning in 1888. Two-thousand tons was a heavy load, especially in those days, and unsound ground was excavated and replaced over a marshy area on the Tidnish side, increasing the costs.

The contractor, John G. Meiggs & Co. collapsed in 1890 due to a bank failure in England, and Parliament agreed to a one-year extension of the deadline, to 1892. It was indicated in a newspaper that construction was still underway in 1890, but it stopped by 1891. The project was close to complete by that time. Sixteen of the 17 miles of roadbed had been completed, and track installed over 13 miles. The docks at both ends were complete, though the cradle and the steel grid and the hydraulics may have been incomplete.

The government deadline for the completion of the project expired in 1892, and another extension was requested. This was refused, and the job was incomplete, with $3.5-million having been spent, and another $1.5-million required to finish. The money was raised and a new contractor was named. Finances were still tight when, in September of 1896, Henry Ketchum died. Work never resumed.

The Chignecto Marine Transport Railway was a real project, not a pipe-dream, and it was almost completed. It qualified as ‘heavy engineering’ and required many design disciplines in order to be built. It would have been a credit to Ketchum and to the Maritime Provinces although it would have become antiquated as ships became larger and larger. The railway and its promoter are well deserving of a place in our history books.


Vessel on its Cradle, Ready to be Attached to the Engines

From U.N.B. Archives and Special Collections


  1. Canada’s Historic Places, Tidnish Bridge, at
  2. Canadian Consulting Engineer online magazine, Ship Railways, at
  3. Bowes, Edward Chapman, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography online, Ketchum, Henry George Clopper, at
  4. Online archives of the University of New Brunswick, Chignecto Ship Railway, at
  5. Online archives of the University of New Brunswick, Chronology, at
  6. Province of Nova Scotia online site Historic Chignecto Ship Railway Lands Purchased, at
  7. Wikipedia, Chignecto Ship Railway, at

Written by johnwood1946

June 15, 2016 at 8:39 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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