The Confederation Bridge, connecting Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) to New Brunswick is an engineering marvel and an amazing sight to see. Stretching 12.9 kilometres (8 miles), the Confederation Bridge is Canada’s longest bridge. It is also the longest bridge over ice covered water in the world.

Confederation Bridge - PEI Side

A view of the Confederation Bridge from Borden, P.E.I.

The story behind the astounding Confederation Bridge is a long time coming and an interesting one. It all begins centuries ago with desire to get to and from the island.

Pre 1600’s – The Mi’kmaq

As a Mi’kmaq inhabitant, I live near Wuk’ta’mook (meaning “a crossing place”) where I can see the lands of Epekwitk (meaning “cradled on the waves” or “lying in the water”) across the plentiful waters. This is the closest point to the island (13 kilometres or 8 miles) known as the Abegweit Passage, so is my best route for canoeing across the wide waters, as my ancestors have done for many generations.

Travelling across the strait becomes much more difficult in winter with ice along the shores and a combination of open water and ice floes in the middle of the strait. A combination of paddling, pushing, and pulling is required to navigate this route. I finally make it to Pastue’kati (meaning “a place where sea crows are plentiful”). I am safely on Epekwitk island (now known as Prince Edward Island).

Showing the Abegweit Route between P.E.I. and New Brunswick.

Showing the Abegweit Route between P.E.I. and New Brunswick.

1775 – Mail Service

As a mailman in February 1775, I have been tasked by Governor Walter Patterson to cross the Northumberland Strait by canoe. My trip begins from Wood Islands at the southern tip of Saint John’s Island (now Prince Edward Island).

The route takes me to Pictou Island then on to Pictou, Nova Scotia. In total, the distance is 37 kilometres (23 miles).  It is a tough go navigating the ice floes and open water, but I do succeed. From what I hear, another attempt will be made next winter.

1827 – A Changed Route

After 50 years of sporadic winter mail delivery from Prince Edward Island (formally changed from St. John’s Island in 1799), myself, Neil Campbell, and my partner Donald McInnis set off to cross the Northumberland Straight by the shorter route popular with the Mi’kmaq.

We depart with our canoe from Cape Traverse (Pastue’kati in Mi’kmaq) and successfully traverse the ice and water. We’ are told our success will mean all the mail will travel this new route going forward.

Map of P.E.I. showing various routes across Strait over time

Map of P.E.I. showing various routes across Northumberland Strait over time

1834 – Ice Boats

Enough with using canoes over the treacherous Northumberland Strait in the winter. New ice boats now make the journey. These boats are a least 16 feet in length and carry no more than four passengers. Each passenger’s baggage can weigh no more than 20 pounds.

The ice boats become more optimized as time goes on. Heavy tin covers the hull to protecting the wood from damage. Iron clad runners on either side of the keel, allow for the ice boat to move more easily over flat ice.

Oars and a small sail propel the ice boats across the open water. Leather straps with harnesses assist my men in pulling the boat over difficult ice. The harnesses also save the men if they fall through the ice, which does happen on occasion.

Unfortunately, mother nature sometimes adds challenges to our winter crossings. On occasion, bad weather and difficult ice conditions prevent the ice boat from making the journey in one day. This is very dangerous for the crew and passengers due to risk of frostbite and hypothermia.

View of Confederation Bridge over the Northumberland Strait

View of Confederation Bridge across the Northumberland Strait from P.E.I.

1873 – Joining Canada

The Queen of England is petitioned by the Canadian Parliament for Prince Edward Island to be admitted into the Dominion of Canada. One of the conditions for this entry is for efficient steam service between P.E.I. and the mainland year round, allowing continuous communication with Canadian railway system. This becomes enshrined in the Canadian Constitution.

As is said often, easier said than done.

The Ships

Over the next 47 years, many attempts are made with newer and better steam ships to consistently travel across the Northumberland Strait through the winter. However, meeting the constitutional requirement of efficient steam service is elusive.

The first wooden-hauled steam ship tries to navigate the route between Georgetown and Pictou, but cannot withstand the Northumberland Strait ice.

A larger ship replaces the first, but also has its own challenges such as hull damage and occasionally getting stuck in the ice for days.

With pressure to achieve the promise of efficient steam service across the Strait, larger and larger ships are put into service over the years.

In 1917 the ferry route is changed to the shorter Borden to Cape Tormentine route. The ferry efficiency vastly increases with this new ferry route and a much more powerful ferry, capable of transporting 750 passengers along with 9 rail cars. Ice boats are no longer needed as backup for sporadic ferry service.

In 1947 the Abegweit ferry is added to the fleet. The Abegweit is twice as big as its predecessor and is the largest and most powerful icebreaker in the world for its day.

Retired in 1982, the Abegweit is now the clubhouse at Chicago’s Columbia Yacht Club on Lake Michigan.

The Abegweit Ferry at the Columbia Yacht Club, Chicago

The Abegweit Ferry at the Columbia Yacht Club, Chicago. (Photo credit Rickdrew Wikimedia Commons, cropped)

A Fixed Link – Beginnings of the Confederation Bridge

The constant pressure of attaining efficient service to Prince Edward Island pushes government to consider some form of fixed link to the mainland.

1885 – The Tube Proposal

One of the first proposals, made in 1885, consists of 5 miles of iron tubes, each 300 feet long and 15 feet in diameter. This 5 mile tube will sit on a thick slab of concrete in order to support a railway track.

Long earthen wharves will be built out into the Strait at both ends to meet the iron tube. Shorter tunnels of similar design are already in use in London, England in 1885.

The consideration of a bridge is ruled out as the low level of the bridge envisioned would interfere with ship traffic. Also, bridge building techniques in this time period would result in winter ice tearing away any summer progress.

Proposing the tunnel concept to the British Colonial Minister in 1886, the British government refuses involvement. Further appeal directly to Prime Minister Sir John A MacDonald is also unsuccessful.

1928 – The Causeway Concept

In 1928, two fixed link options are under study. The first, the tube or tunnel, has a price tag of $40 million. A very hefty sum in the day.

In a new option, a causeway will be built across the Northumberland Strait, with various sections allowing for boats and ships to pass. The big concern is how the causeway will withstand the ice forces in winter storms.

Also, the cost estimate of $46 million makes it even pricier than the tunnel option. Neither option gets support to move forward.

1962 – Another Causeway Proposal

In the early 1950’s, the island of Cape Breton is connects to mainland Nova Scotia with a 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) causeway and short bridge. This sparks renewed interest in connecting P.E.I. to the mainland of Canada.

In 1962, the Canadian Government agrees to pursue the design and construction of a fixed link. The winning design is a combination bridge, causeway, and tunnel. In 1965, the first awarding of contracts happens. Groundbreaking on P.E.I. for the highway approach commences.

In 1967, bids on the New Brunswick side are significantly higher. Reassessing cost estimates and considering alternative approaches drags on. This suspends further work at the time.

In 1968, a new federal government forms with Pierre Elliott Trudeau at the helm. Early 1969 brings the cancellation of the fixed link project. 

Offering a large Comprehensive Development Plan to P.E.I., discussion of a fixed link grows quiet.

With ever improving ferry service to and from Prince Edward Island, very little discussion regarding a fixed link is happening.

1982 – Private Investment Proposal

In 1982, a new study reviews a bridge proposal by Public Work Canada (PWC). By 1986, PWC has receives three proposals from private companies. Private financing is the major change from previous studies and proposals.

Now this piques the interest of the Government of Canada as they are dishing out big bucks to subsidize ferry service to and from Prince Edward Island.

Heck, a project that will help the government meet their constitutional obligations, not increase public debt, and eventually remove public ferry subsidies is well worth considering.

In 1987 Public Works Canada asks for expressions of interest for a fixed link which could either be a high level bridge, or a tunnel.

By mid-1987, private organizations submit 12 proposals. After careful review, a shorter list of seven proposals remains by late 1987. The Public Works Minister gives a green light for the project, conditional on P.E.I. public support.

1988 – The Plebiscite

Major discussions and debates arise across Prince Edward Island with a plebiscite scheduled for January 18, 1988. The question in the plebiscite reads:

“Are you in favour of a fixed link crossing between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick?” Yes or No.

Arguments against the fixed link:

  • Not enough information or time to discuss
  • A fixed link will ruin our “Islandness” (identifying life on the island separated from all others)
  • Love the ferry
  • Environmental concerns
  • Increased traffic
  • Loss of ferry industry jobs
  • Unsure of project economics
  • Wind and ice may bring down the bridge
  • Uncontrolled development
  • Increased absentee ownership
  • If you don’t know, vote “no”
Lupins at water Prince Edward island

Some feared the loss of their “Islandness”

Arguments for the fixed link:

  • Economic benefits with easier access to mainland
  • Increased convenience and getting off and on P.E.I.
  • Reliable, low cost power and communication corridor
  • Amount of fuel used by cars to cross the fixed link less than cost of fuel for ferry bringing cars over
  • Hate the ferry
  • If you vote ‘no’, you’ll never know

The result of the plebiscite is 59.4% YES and 40.6% NO, but with only a 65% voter turnout. Although the turnout is acceptable, it is nowhere the typical turnout of 85% to 90% for general elections. Perhaps the whole issue of having a fixed link or not isn’t a huge deal for many.

1992 – The Winning Bid

By late 1988, only three fixed link proposals remain. On May 27, 1992, the three private entities submit their final bids. On July 17, 1992 Straight Crossing Inc. (SCI)  is the winner of the long process

1993 – Litigation

Hope leads to disappointment as court cases delay construction. The cases involve potentially improper environmental procedures and a constitutional objection to the project.

With no further legal hurdles by mid 1993, the P.E.I. government agrees to the following wording:

“That a fixed crossing joining the Island to the mainland may be substituted for the steam service referred to in the Schedule.” This and related passages become part of the Canadian Constitution in 1994.  

1993 –  The Confederation Bridge Design

Although the motto for the construction workers is “It’s only a bridge,” it is one heck of a bridge.

The Confederation Bridge has an overall length of 12.9 kilometres (8 miles). This includes  1.3 kilometres (0.8 miles) New Brunswick side approach over shallow water, an 11.0 kilometres (6.9 miles) main bridge over deep water, and 0.6 kilometres (0.4 miles) P.E.I. side approach over shallow water.

There are a total of 21 approach bridge span sections, 43 main bridge span sections, and of course all the bases and pillars to support these spans.

View of the Confederation Bridge from Cape Jourimain, New Brunswick

View of the Confederation Bridge from Cape Jourimain, New Brunswick

The design criteria are daunting.

  • The bridge needs to be many times safer than a typical highway
  • Lifespan needs to be 2 to 3 times longer than a standard bridge (i.e. a 100 year lifespan).
  • Achieve these under the ice, wind, and Maritime environment presented at the Northumberland Strait
  • Assessment of multiple load conditions, including vehicles, wind, ice, ship collision, and seismic (earthquakes)

1993 – 1997 –The  Confederation Bridge Construction

The lighter approach bridge components are all built in the Bay Field, New Brunswick Staging Facility. Meanwhile, a Marine Atlantic ferry transports components destined for the P.E.I. side.

Then begins a search for a substantial, flat area for building and staging of the larger, main bridge components. Such an area is very close to the construction site however it is a functioning cattle farm. Negotiations ensue and the bridge builders buy the farm.

Confederation Bridge Components

Confederation Bridge Construction Components (Drawing credit Niabot, Wikimedia Commons, labels added)

The completion of the P.E.I. Staging Facility in April 1995 allows the manufacturing pace to accelerate. This new staging area accommodates storage of components.

By mid 1995 the first pier shaft, with its ice shield (part of the bridge column), is complete. This is the section that sits just below and above the water line.

HLV Svanen - double hulled bridge crane

HLV Svanen double hulled bridge crane. (Photo credit Edwin van de Brug Wikimedia Commons)


Moving the much larger main bridge components (up to 7500 tonnes), requires specialized equipment. Introducing the HLV Svanaan, a 102 metre (335 ft) high twin-hulled floating craned specifically designed for bridge building across large expanses. Its lifting capacity is 8500 tonnes.

1996 becomes the busiest year for construction. Optimization of fabrication and placement times allow for fast work. At one point,  42 marine vessels of all sizes, work on the project.

Confederation Bridge under construction

The Confederation Bridge under construction with massive crane at work. (Photo credit Peter Dutton Wikimedia Commons, cropped)

In 1996, after receiving 2200 submissions, the most popular name submitted becomes the official name for the bridge.

On September 27, 1996, the “Confederation Bridge” becomes the official name. Ferry workers who are losing their jobs receive compensation. Fisherman accepting compensation throughout the construction receive their final payments.

Fishermen receive approximately $5 million over the construction period.

The Bridge Opens

In May 1997, the Confederation Bridge opens. The inauguration of Canada’s engineering marvel is a long time coming.

View of Confederation Bridge from Borden, P.E.I.

View of Confederation Bridge from Borden, P.E.I.

The ingenuity and skill of the design and construction teams is amazing with a spectacular result to prove it. 

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