Why Did “The Island” Wells Run Dry?

In the early 1800’s, if residents of this region mentioned that they were going to The Island they would not have PEI in mind. Regular travel across the Northumberland Strait was impossible for another century. Locally, The Island meant only one place; Botsford’s or Dorchester Island, as it later became known. Let’s step back in time and ask the question: Why did the wells run dry in this once prosperous community?

It’s location rising high above the tide waters and surrounding marshland was defined as: being approximately a mile from Dorchester; bounded on the west by the Memramcook River and about a mile from its mouth; on the east by Palmer’s Creek and on the north by reclaimed marshland. As far as is known, the area was not settled by either the Mi’kmaq or Acadian people. The first to recognize its potential were the Yorkshire settlers and Loyalists.

Early maps and documents use the name Botsford’s for the island, in honor of Amos Botsford (1744–1812). From 1782 until 1784, Botsford served as an agent of the British government helping re-settle Loyalist refugees. Following creation of New Brunswick as a separate province in 1784, he selected his own lands; including the island that later bore his name. A native of Connecticut and graduate of Yale, Botsford was to make his mark on the political life of the new province. Elected as one of Westmorland’s representatives in the first assembly election; he served from 1785 until his death in 1812. During this long period he was also Speaker of the House.

From 1784 until the 1790s Botsford lived on The Island in a magnificent stone mansion with a panoramic view. Later he moved to Westcock where he acquired a large acreage of marsh and upland. Here Botsford continued his interest in agriculture, combining it with the practice of law. About 1800 the community’s first name was being replaced locally by Dorchester Island. Also, by this time The Island began to capitalize on its strategic location.

Since Albert County was not established until 1845, the county of Westmorland was then larger than today. Because of its growing population and importance, Dorchester was the logical choice to become the second shire town of the county. The move, from the first capital at Westmorland Point, took place in 1803. In addition, regular ferry service between Hopewell Cape and The Island, made travel convenient for people living in the western section of the county. As a bonus all persons attending court or other legal business, were to be transported free of charge. There was also regular steamer service between The Island and Saint John.

In its heyday, The Island boasted important shipyards: Moran & McMaster’s and Hickman’s; while a short distance away, Gideon Palmer located a shipyard on the creek that still carries his name. The Island also had its own school, Wesleyan Chapel, cemetery, hotel, shops and a resident doctor. For years after the settlement declined, people travelled to The Island to gather medicinal herbs which flourished on the site of the doctor’s garden.

While some Dorchester Island enterprises continued to exist until the late 1800s, the community underwent a traumatic event sometime during the early years of the nineteenth century. The account quoted below (although written long after the event) summarizes what actually happened: The residents were aroused from their sleep by earth tremors, rattling of windows and falling of dishes. The earthquake was of short duration. In the morning the inhabitants were surprised to find that all their wells had gone dry and that they were without water.

Strenuous efforts were undertaken to find another supply. One of the most important was the building of a wooden pipeline from Palmer’s Pond to The Island. However, insufficient pressure and leakage doomed the experiment. During some marshland reclamation operations in the twentieth century, remnants of this water pipeline were unearthed. There can be little doubt that the lack of a certain water supply contributed to the transfer of many people to The Corner, site of the present village of Dorchester.

However, an important question remained unanswered: WHEN did the earthquake take place? Contemporary records from this period are few in number; and the phrase the early years of the nineteenth century was of little help. Fortunately modern seismic science came to the rescue through the assistance of Mount Allison’s Bob Hawkes; best known for his research on meteors and helping track the recent Leonid Meteor shower.

A computer print out from the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources in Ottawa revealed the answer to my question. Southern New Brunswick experienced an earthquake on May 22, 1817. Measuring 4.8 in magnitude on the Richter scale it was, in Bob’s words: not a violent earthquake… but one that certainly would be noticed. Armed with this specific date, a newspaper search was in order.

From the New Brunswick Royal Gazette May 24 1817: The shock of an earthquake was felt here [Saint John] on Thursday Morning last [22 May] at 31 minutes past 3’oclock. It was preceded by a few minutes of noise, as if a gale of wind had suddenly sprung up, after which the earth began to shake violently and there was a rumbling as if some heavy carriages were passing. The air was perfectly clear and there was not a breath of wind. About a minute after the shock, deep rumblings were heard for a short time which apparently came from the southwest. The earthquake was also felt as far away as Fredericton and St, Andrew’s. In the latter place the alarm was so great as to occasion the soldiers to leave their barracks and many inhabitants their dwelling. Further verification of the earthquake was found in the Halifax Journal of the same date.

Although some distance from the epicentre, it seems clear that this earthquake (or its aftershocks) accounted for the dry wells on Dorchester Island.

In addition to Bob Hawkes, I would like to thank Dorchester historian Helen Petchey for assistance in writing this Flashback. Readers are directed to her publications on the village and to Reg Bowser’s Dorchester Island And Related Areas. In more recent times, Mr. Bowser erected a house on the site of Amos Botsford’s stone mansion. Later Flashbacks will feature further tales of The Shiretown.