A changing Petitcodiac River reveals a piece of Moncton history

·3 min read
The stone piers that held up the fourth Gunningsville Bridge were supposed to be removed when it was demolished in 2006. But the widening Petitcodiac River has revealed one of the piers that remained hidden in the riverbank until recently.  (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
The stone piers that held up the fourth Gunningsville Bridge were supposed to be removed when it was demolished in 2006. But the widening Petitcodiac River has revealed one of the piers that remained hidden in the riverbank until recently. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)

For decades, it was buried in the muddy banks of the Petitcodiac River.

Its counterparts stood for 88 year before being removed in 2006, but it remained hidden under silt deposited in the choked river.

In 2017, a granite stone pier that once held up the fourth Gunningsville Bridge linking Moncton and Riverview started to emerge from the riverbank.

Now the bank has receded several metres, and the stones installed more than a century ago are once again surrounded by water.

WATCH | Part of an old bridge rises from muddy Petitcodiac

Its re-emergence is a highly visible sign of how the river is changing following the opening of the causeway.

"It tells you how powerful that river is when it's given room to flow," Lawren Campbell, the heritage and culture co-ordinator at Moncton's Resurgo Place museum.

The stone pier was one of several installed starting in 1915 that held up the steel bridge at a time when the tidal river was much wider than it is today.

Campbell said the pier would have been in the water when it was constructed. It's likely the pier required a special pressurized structure in the river so that work crews could dig in the mud to prepare its foundation, Campbell said.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

When the causeway linking Riverview and Moncton was finished upstream in 1968, it halted the regular tidal flow of the river. Silt quickly built up on the shore, narrowing the river channel and burying the pier.

After the provincial government replaced that bridge with a concrete one a few metres upstream in 2005, the steel bridge and its stone piers were removed. But most of at least one remained hidden in the silt.

A push by environmentalists to restore the river led to the causeway gates opening in 2010, then to a new bridge that replaced a portion of the causeway that restored tidal flow in 2021.

Resurgo Place/Submitted
Resurgo Place/Submitted

Those steps led to changes downstream, with the deposited silt eroding.

The pier isn't intact, though. Several of the stones on the upstream side are missing. It's unclear if they were removed during demolition of the bridge or because of ice and tidal forces.

Campbell believes those forces will make what's visible now a temporary reminder of the bridge.

"You may see the base for many years to come, but no, it's a dynamic, powerful, powerful river," he said. "I don't foresee it lasting very long."

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

Campbell said the bridge had another pier closer to Moncton than the one now visible and believes it's possible that one also remains in the riverbank.

The provincial government was required to carry out monitoring of the river following changes to the causeway. A February 2019 report noted the emerging pier which is considered an archeological site as it is more than 100 years old.

The report says if demolition of the structure is planned, further archeological investigations and documentation of the site should be conducted.

On Tuesday, CBC News requested interviews with officials in two provincial departments — Tourism, Heritage and Culture, and Transportation and Infrastructure — to ask questions about the monitoring of the river, whether the pier was intentionally left in place, and what it may do about the pier.

No interviews were provided. A statement provided by email Wednesday afternoon didn't address those questions.

The stone piers were an example of recycling building materials.

Campbell said the stone was originally part of a suspension bridge in Saint John that existed from 1853 to1915. As it was being replaced, the Gunningsville Bridge was being planned.

"It's an incredible story about early recycling," Campbell said.

The recycling continued after the Gunningsville Bridge was demolished in 2006.

Stone from the piers that were removed was distributed to Moncton and Riverview.

Riverview's were used for retaining walls along the new Gunningsville Bridge approaches, while Moncton's are part of a retaining wall along St. George Boulevard in Centennial Park.

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