The largest watershed on Prince Edward Island, the Hillsborough has a deep tidal reach for 75% of its 45 km length, which almost divides the island in two. Although the river is not designated for its natural values, its fresh and saltwater marsh habitats support a wide variety of flora and fauna in a province where European immigrants and their land ownership system, agricultural and resource harvesting practices, and dams dramatically altered the once virgin forests.
The Hillsborough, known as “Elsitkuk” to Island Mi’kmaq and “La Grande Rivière” or “la rivière du Nord-Est” to early French settlers, has a rich human history. Little structural evidence remains of the Aboriginal residents or the French and Acadian settlers, who occupied the area from 1720 until they were expelled by the British in 1758 after the Siege of Louisbourg during the French and Indian War. Many Acadians and French were deported to France in 1758 but some 1,100 escaped deportation and took refuge on the mainland. A small group later returned to the Island and their descendants form the Acadian community on Prince Edward Island today.
Under British rule, the Island was split into ~20,000 acres lots and a lottery was held in 1767 for the pieces of land. John MacDonald, 8th Laird of Glenaladale and 7th Laird of Glenfinnan (later Captain John MacDonald) of Scotland purchased Lot 36 and brought two large groups of Catholic highlander settlers to the island. They settled on the north side of the river, in 1772, followed by the Monaghan Irish, who settled on the south side of the river in 1830.
Also known today as the East River, the Hillsborough served as a water highway and shipping route – very important for the shipyards on the river which produced over 500 sailing vessels (tall ships) used to transport farm produce, livestock, timber, other natural resources, and the ships themselves to foreign markets.
Charlottetown rests at the confluence of the North, Hillsborough, and West Rivers and the Northumberland Strait and it was there that the Fathers of Confederation first met in 1864, paving the way for the creation of Canada as a nation.
Canoeing and kayaking are popular activities on the Hillsborough, aided by easy access points. Paddlers, cyclists, hikers, birding enthusiasts and history buffs alike can enjoy the water and land trails throughout the watershed, including 56 km of the Confederation Trail. Bird species such as osprey, great blue heron, bald eagle, American black duck and willet are found in the marshes and flood plains.
Natural and human histories intertwine along the Hillsborough. Many festivals, museums and tours are available to entertain visitors, and fishing and hunting are also popular.
Who Manages the River?
The river is managed by its private landowners who own 90% of the watershed and the Hillsborough River Association encourages shared responsibility and good stewardship of the cultural, recreational and natural values of the watershed.
When the delegates arrived for the 1864 Charlottetown Conference in the city aboard the steamship Queen Victoria a circus was underway. Lacking accommodations, the delegates from the Province of Canada aboard the Queen Victoria, including Sir John A. Macdonald, who would later become the first Prime Minister of Canada, stayed on the steamship on the Hillsborough River just off Charlottetown each night throughout the eight-day-long discussion of Canadian Confederation, as accommodations were taken up by circus attendees and the conference delegates from the Maritimes.